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Designers shouldn't dumb down

A weekend conference next month, 'Culture Wars', takes as its theme the dumbing-down of standards in the arts, education and media. One specific theme is what is happening in the world of architecture and design, or, as the organisers put it: 'Do the new imperatives of inclusivity restrict the potential for innovation?' and 'Are new concepts in design becoming obsessed with image at the expense of communication?' Another way of putting this question is: 'Is it possible to be highbrow and lowbrow at the same time?' with the unwritten subtext: 'Why cultural elites should get all the subsidies, or, why don't spotty-faced teenage rock bands get Arts Council grants?'

This subject has been discussed here before, so suffice it to repeat that the notion of divisible culture is a dubious one. No Shakespeare, no EastEnders - as it happens one notes with pleasure the success of the beautifully crafted and performed Oscar multiple-nominee, Shakespeare in Love. Architecture falls into a different category of appreciation, of course. How many people go to a theatre if there is nothing playing? But this does not mean that it is not admired as an art form even if the public is hazy about why a building is interesting or impressive. Look at the popular success of the National Trust, of Open House, of buildings such as Stirling's Stuttgart Gallery.

Does anyone suggest that Libeskind's v&a spiral, Sandy Wilson's British Library or Benson & Forsyth's Museum of Scotland are 'easy' buildings? Surely not. And do buildings consciously designed as visitor attractors, such as Foster's Duxford air museum, necessarily fall into a middle-of- the-road sub-category? Again no. It is true that there exists a group of architects more honoured internationally than at home (Alsop, Hadid, Chipperfield etc), but their time will surely come. Meanwhile we can enjoy the fact that high culture and popular culture - Radio 3 and Radio 1, as it were - are simply different wavelengths of a common culture. We all have the same radio.

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