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Architecture is about optimism and possibility, not endless belly-aching

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Thinking about the future of Heathrow without planes is a welcome indication that orthodoxy can be challenged, writes Paul Finch

The sun is shining, summer holidays beckon, and sometimes it is worth taking stock of what is successful, positive and optimistic about the mother of the arts, rather than complaining about failed strategies and leadership (the columnist’s stock-in-trade).

Schools of architecture are nurturing some terrific students doing seriously interesting work, judging by the end-of-year shows I have attended. The Stirling Prize shortlist is a reminder of the strength of British architectural culture, demonstrating that it can produce breadth and depth. Even the decision by the RIBA to hold its awards dinner at Portland Place, rather than a larger venue, could be a good thing if it is well staged.

Actually the RIBA Awards in general were strong this year and, in a spirit of constructive criticism, I would suggest that the institute should think again about having one really big dinner (especially since Stirling will be a small one) to celebrate all the architects who have won national awards. In some ways that is the real indication of how design is faring.

On another matter entirely, the impact of the Farrell Review seems to be far greater than I rather cynically anticipated, not least because Ed Vaizey is pushing as much as he can from his new Department for Culture, Media & Sport offices in Parliament Street. It is a pity there will be no formal response from government to the review, but that does not mean action cannot be pursued. Certainly there is plenty of support for the principle of proactive planning to produce better places among a huge number of organisations, 80 of which met at the Bartlett last week to discuss the possibility of a new ‘Place Alliance’. Even though I keep thinking to myself that we were promoting all this at CABE for a decade, one has to accept that things move on, and it is better to have something than nothing. Who knows, some of the key Farrell recommendations, such as appointing a government chief architect, may yet come to pass if the right mechanism can be found to make it possible.

Something else which may soon be cause for celebration is the long-awaited next stage in rethinking the purpose and timescales for architectural education, so long a battleground based on rigid thinking or absent-minded position-taking. There seems to be agreement that it is time for change, not least because of the cost and social exclusion that current fee arrangements imply.

Likewise, fresh thinking seems to be breaking out in relation to the way we think about London and its future development. Whatever Howard Davies may say about the idea, there is substantial pressure building for consideration of an estuary airport, and the London Mayor’s initiative in getting architects to think about the future of Heathrow without planes is a welcome indication that orthodoxy can be challenged. The same is true about the possibility of well-designed densification of the London suburbs and provision of homes for an increasing ageing population, where architects like HTA and Pollard Thomas Edwards are leading the charge.

Research propositions have become much more common of late. Examples include: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris’s ‘white collar factory’ concept, now on site; Ken Shuttleworth’s Make research unit, which has produced smart analysis of the way forward for high streets; Richard Hyams and Astudio’s research looking at long-term city futures; and the Hawkins\Brown team, which operates as a creative research adjunct to general practice activity. I’m sure there are others.

All this suggests a profession brimming with confidence and ideas, rather than one beset by navel-gazing pessimism. Long may it last.



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