Chinese jade is hard, beautiful and has a fascinating inscrutability. If someone had suggested it as a metaphor for Francis Golding when I began this article, I might have found it convincing. The man who found himself at the centre of a storm when he was reject ed in summary fashion for the role of registrar of the arb at the end of 1999, was scarcely unknown at the time. As secretary of the Royal Fine Art Commission (rfac), he was an excellent communicator. But the man himself has remained a shadowy figure, always in the background.
As I found when I met him at his home, he collects Chinese pots, textiles and jades, one piece of which he proffered for me to hold. 'What is it?' I asked, enjoying the sensual slip of the small disc in my hand. 'A notched wheel', he replied, 'dating from about 3500 bc', but the tiny wheel's purpose remains mysterious.
Golding says, 'It's a problem [at work] to adopt a persona that doesn't relate to the rest of our lives - to put on a suit and stop being a human being'. So suggesting a relationship between his enthusiasm for jade and his career is not unfair. Other comments garnered about him include phrases such as, 'breadth of knowledge enormous', 'vastly intelligent', 'I'm a fan', from three different people.
Whether it is the enigma of Chinese pots - 'why should they look wonderful in an eighteenth century interior and just as wonderful on a shelf against a white wall?', or of urban regeneration - 'they haven't just discovered the problem, it's that they still haven't found the solution' - he tries not to answer insoluble questions, but to 'be as thorough as you can about the possible consequences, to work through them as thoroughly as possible and to act accordingly'. The core may remain an enigma, but his work sets it in a context. 'My whole career', he says, 'has been about writing things down in a clear way'.
His comments on leaving the rfac after five years reinforce this view. 'I have come to appreciate how difficult it is to get a good building, and I particularly admire those who have the skill', he recalls in the valedictory letter he wrote at the end of last year. The most positive aspect of his work there, he believes, 'is the realisation that someone from outside could come in and say things and that people working [in the project] would find it useful'. Those who have worked with him admire his 'nose for bad projects' and his 'fairmindedness'. He commanded respect for his thorough preparation. Several firms who presented to the rfac were so impressed that they have asked him to comment privately on their designs, and one goes as far as saying, 'we think of Francis as part of the team'.
Golding himself is more self-deprecating, but as always, precise. 'Experience', he corrects me when I talk of his knowledge. He certainly has accumulated a great deal. Interested in architecture 'all my life', as a youth he used to write 'awful, pretentious, snotty-nosed letters about the way my town was being messed around'; at Cambridge in the 1960s he switched from English to Fine Arts which was then run out of the architecture school. When he sat the civil service exams he put down the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works as his first choice, 'because I wanted to work with buildings and architects'. A steady rise through the ministry and its successor, the Department of the Environment, including work on the Rent Acts, with a spell in the 1970s at the Royal Commission on the Press, led him to draft the 'right to buy' legislation of the early 1980s. Once that went through, he joined the urban programme, 'in the aftermath of the Brixton Riots and the Scarman Report'. He volunteered to join English Heritage on its foundation in 1984, leaving after a few years for the International Council for Monuments and Sites. The rfac secretaryship came in 1994. 'If there's one theme in this long, rather peculiar and varied career, it's re-emphasising the organic growth and development in the life of places'.
His architectural tastes are eclectic. 'What I most like is what I've most recently seen and been impressed by', but 'I've a strong liking for the grotty place, the miserable little alleyway' which co-exist alongside the grandiose formal components of the built environment. 'Accidents govern the form of the city', he says, citing the survival of Broadway in the Manhattan grid, and the interaction which 'produces the Flatiron building'. Spotting the richness of scale and the advantages of the variety it brings is part of his working method; 'the developer's urge to profit and the architect's urge to make a statement can combine to be harmful'.
This is close to several personal enthusiasms. What he finds most moving about the Lake District is 'the co-existence between tiny scale and things that feel absolutely vast - you see a daffodil or lichen in the context of a stormy landscape'. Is that due to William and Dorothy Wordsworth, or is it something we respond to naturally? he asks. 'I think it's the latter - that's why the archway or alley are so marvellous and moving'. It's the implications of these accidents and emotions, rather than their inherent nature that interests him. This is true, too, of his interest in Chinese objects. 'I do have a book in me', he says. 'It's tremendously difficult; it's about collecting'. And one of his purposes in continuing to work, he jokes, is to put off the day when he has to write it.
His acumen and ability to criticise architecture constructively were, think many of his associates, just what arb needed if that body is to be taken seriously. One place where architectural proposals are subjected to such critical scrutiny is in education and, indeed, this affinity had attracted him to the job. 'I know little about schools', he confesses, 'one reason I was so keen on arb was to find out!' That is not to be. Several architects, however, have expressed an interest in using his critical faculties. Given his ability to bridge the worlds of architecture and policy, and the testimonials of his associates, his book is likely to be postponed for a while yet.