What is an architecture centre? And, if this question can be answered, what is their future?
Centres have been set up throughout the country to 'promote good design'by engaging with a raft of activities that will carry this apparently formerly elitist subject to the masses. The 14 that either exist, or are going to exist, are spread across the UK as a response to the idea of regionalism and the desire to tackle London-centricity. This all sounds laudable, until you realise that their talk is big and their financial means small. The UK assumes that goodwill and natural talent will ensure success in much the same way it did with cricket. The mission is clear, but victories are thin on the ground. Many of these centres today have difficulty in paying their rent, let alone mount events and exhibitions. The sponsorship climate is rarefied since the world economy got nervous and, anyway, architecture has been low on the sponsors'agenda compared with sport and entertainment.
Why should we try to popularise architecture? It is important that people enjoy wonderful buildings. It is elevating and, ultimately, the lift in spirits is good for the health and mental well-being of the nation.
This is a connection that has not been made by civil servants. They seem to be blind to the difference between a decent piece of architecture and a mere building. They seem to be quite content to commit the public purse for 15,20 or 25 years to PFIs to produce second-rate facilities. Many of the new hospitals we now have ignore valuable research on good practice in favour of low budgets. The result over the period of deferred payment by central government is a further higher burden on the taxpayer by the sick occupying beds for longer than they need to and a lack of provision of healthcare within the community. This is just one of thousands of issues architecture culture can try to deal with but, for them to do them any justice, they need more support. Health and welfare are inseparable from the built environment, and yet our public builders are impervious to the obvious fact that people enjoy architecture when they find it, which is a rare experience.
There is apparently an obsession that people should understand architecture. I do not think that people should be expected to comprehend the subject, or indeed the propositions, when the very best of practitioners don't understand it themselves.
The notion of a need to familiarise oneself and be in a position to explain to others the nature of what we do, is a politically correct ambition and way beyond any feasibility or desire. Why should the work be explicable as long as it is good? The desire for accessibility by the general public is fast becoming a prerequisite for the success of any project in both the eyes of the local authority and the public client.
Why should the person at the Tesco check-out understand? Why should anyone consider that the idea of public consultation be usurped by public understanding? You do not have to understand Matisse or Picasso to enjoy it. Poetry can be reached in many different ways. Pluralism is a part of culture.
The best architecture centres are buildings themselves. We have precious few good new ones, but they are slowly becoming more accessible. The experience of space, form, colour, light and air transforms lives and it comes from the good architects'ability to indulge in magic. And architecture centres must be the venues for the magicians to show them to best effect. The Architecture Foundation will always indulge in alchemy in the name of public good.