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Designs on best practice: opening doors in government

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editorial

So action plans have been published for most government departments, serving as pledges that design will be near the top of their agenda when they act as clients. Best practice, it is often called, and they will be kept to their word. But it is interesting to compare the way each has responded and the projects chosen as 'exemplars'.

The best, with an AJ rating of 9/10, is architecture's department, the DCMS, which uses images of popular schemes - Baltic, Magna, Tate Modern, City of Manchester stadium, British Museum, Eden - and credits the architect every time. It is slightly let down, however, by the centre spread - Stonehenge - presumably because the visitor centre to come will be a championed project.

The Foreign Office scores 8/10 - well designed, with schemes such as ABK's British Embassy and Farrell's British Consulate General in Hong Kong, and credits tucked away in the small print at the back. Health scores 7/10 and is not bad, with pictures credited to practices such as Nightingale Associates, Avanti, Anshen Dyer, Guy Greenfield. And a foreword by Prince Charles, the healthcare supremo who wants buildings with 'soul'.

The DTI's plan has a dreary layout, is rushed-looking, very low on pictures, and has nothing on the powerful Regional Development Agencies'own design aspirations. A disappointing 6/10 for a department which now has design quality indicators.The Home Office also scores 6/10 with images of some poor-quality schemes.And lastly, Work and Pensions (5/10) talks of 'delight' in buildings but has dreary images: a desk in a room surrounded by chairs still in cellophane; another of a dull interior, as seen in The Office; and a soulless job centre on the cover.

As one top-ranking official put it, the documents all have the feel of something departments have been forced to do.

But, as CABE points out, this is no beauty contest - utility is as important as aesthetics. CABE has itself produced an admirable 'Better Civic Buildings and Spaces'document, with another this week on streets, backed by deputy PM John Prescott's office. And when Messrs Windsor, Blair, Prescott and Falconer are all talking buildings, architecture is making headway. RIBA president Paul Hyett is right - government relations are on the up.

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