If this is the age of the consultant, you would think that the quality of consultation should improve. As the fee burden has risen, the product that the 'team' produces might get better. And given that some collective fee packages rise to as much as a fifth of the cost of the building (rarely as a result of high architects' fees), you would demand a higher level of thinking. On all three counts, I am afraid, we are disappointed.
This morning I was at Coriander Press, where I met the artist Terry Frost. He was fiddling with a print edition, which he said was rich with new possibilities as he viewed the image on the screen, but found that the apparent perfection of the computer was trivial compared with the impact of his handheld attacks with brushand-acrylic paint.
He described his discovery as being on the edge, as being on the verge of disaster, where the work could be ruined with the next stab of the brush. Frost is 86 years old and as bright as any. The excitement that I suspect has sustained him for so many years is given by the vitality of the dangerous situation that he places himself in when making a work.
Does architecture have the same qualities as art in this respect? The whole process of knowing the future before you do anything is endemic in our age of consultants. This sin has proliferated because the attitude to risk has promoted a rigor mortis over the business population.The ability to mitigate risk has become a science, which is peddled by an increasing number of organisations who, of course, charge heavily for it. I have not noticed the effects of this care being particularly successful. Witness the Dome, Earth Centre, Sheffield Museum of Pop.All the projects were subjected to severe scrutiny by 'experts' and subsequently mothered by over-zealous guardians of public funds. Lost in all this is any notion of speculation, adventure, useful failure, love, passion and aesthetics.
The current attitude is not good for wealth creation or the ordinary person. People, in my experience, if properly engaged, are more creative than most architects. From the architect's perspective, the old form of consultation was, or still is, the process of presenting work to a wider client body, and seeking a response which results only in minor adaptions of the proposal. The presented work is often based on an idea about what the locals want. The community sees all the things it knows and, in some cases, has already endured. If you ask people what they want, they describe what they know, while admitting that what they know is often flawed. There is a terrible assumption that the familiar is reassuring, and reassurance is the prerequisite of cosiness, and cosiness is next to godliness.
When I am involved in public participation, I engage the public by encouraging them to describe a future experience - to paint, to draw, to discuss. So, in effect, I create a condition of participation which gives ownership to an emergent project - a process of 'discovering' the architecture, not preconceiving it. It is a process that focuses on possible experiences of the future. The emergent designs are always surprising and tend to be outside any idea of a particular type of architecture.
The work process should be about delight and joy - not doom and gloom. It should cultivate an architecture that celebrates the individuals involved and inspires a localized culture, which - in this age of globalization, universal values and scarcity of imagination due to risk aversion - is most vital for creating spiritual wealth.
Frost, meanwhile, is happy to live on the edge at the age of 86.