Chris Smith's suave, but apparently knowledgeable, patter to the Art and Architecture group about the value of architecture and the importance of collaboration with artists, was only slightly ruffled towards its conclusion by the admission that the long-standing fine-artist members of the Royal Fine Art Commission had been dropped in its reformulation as cabe. He was quick to explain that 'more appointments are to be made', leaving the audience to assume that the position would be rectified forthwith.
Smith's talk constituted an official endorsement of the role of artists in the creation of buildings and in wider environmental projects - confirming the political correctness of the notion. He enunciated all the articles of faith: the need to bring in artists at the conception of a design, not just 'to spruce up an unsatisfactory building' at the end of the process, and the ability of artists to 'articulate local people's ideas', and 'enhance a sense of place'. But he conspicuously failed to define his terms - the artist comes in a multitude of forms - or to dwell on the knotty issue of forced collaborations designed to attract official funding.
Making reference to Rachel Whiteread's House, the Tibb Street project in Manchester, and the A13 Artscape project in Barking and Dagenham, Smith proclaimed the ability of artists to 'make a real difference to how people feel about the built environment,' and appeared to claim the credit for government funding of the rsa's Art for Architecture schemes over the last eight years - only three of which were the responsibility of Labour. There was little in the sentiments he voiced that could be challenged. Smith's definitions of architecture as 'an important expression of our culture - part of the means by which we shape the present and the future', and the 'most visible form of our artistic achievements', were encouraging, as were his 'three common misapprehensions' about architecture: that it is only about the design of a building, forgetting its impact on the space and people around, that it's only about appearance, or only about value calculated in pounds and pence.
Smith suggests that the government regards vision and creative thinking in architecture as useful tools in its policies of social inclusion, housing, sustainable development, education and health. 'We need the leverage of architectural imagination' he states, acknowledging, however, the problem posed by 'a planning system peppered with presumptions'. While he proposed that the first of those should be 'making time for design', he failed to identify any changes on the agenda for the future of planning. His further reliance on the planning system to control and modify the activities of the volume house-builders, because the government doesn't want to dictate, 'soviet-style', what private companies build, indicates, in the end, a hopeless failure of nerve in tackling the most fundamental obstacles to the advance of good design and environmental responsibility.
Chris Smith's lecture was part of the Art and Architecture series at The Gallery, 70 Cowcross Street, London EC1