Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment chief Sir Stuart Lipton has set an ambitious goal of creating a network of 15 architecture centres across the country. And he also wants to instigate local design review committees to devolve decisions to the regions, in a bid to lift quality and act proactively before planning applications are made.
Sir Stuart, speaking to the AJ last week before a press briefing with culture minister Alan Howarth yesterday, said he wants to improve the way the commission looks at regional projects and 'pass decisions down the line'.
Potential conflicts of interest involved with appointing local architects to look at others' local schemes were 'always a worry', he admitted. But Lipton claimed CABE has not suffered from this so far and there were plenty of people with 'marvellous minds' - such as Sir Philip Dowson and Sir Philip Powell - who could help and for whom there were no obvious conflicts.
The moves towards achieving greater proactivity and a wider regional representation are sure to help in breaking down a little of the London-centric reputation some have ascribed to CABE and its precursor, the Royal Fine Art Commission. Bristol architect George Ferguson, for example, who proposed an alternative Bristol Venice scheme instead of Arup Associates' Canon's Marsh project, slammed CABE last November as 'the London architectural establishment looking after its own.' The regional moves will also strengthen Lipton's case in pressing his government paymasters to lift the paltry £1.5 million budget they provide for CABE's multifarious activities.
Staffing levels are at a minimum given the commission's activities across design review, enabling, education and the regions.However, Lipton told the AJ that staffing at CABE's new base in Waterloo has lifted over the last couple of months to seven, and the bid to increase the network of architecture centres into cities such as Leeds and Southampton will be part of the remit of one of those new recruits, Bridget Sawyer.
CABE has just appointed Sawyer to work on the regional aspects of the architecture centres idea through the regional development agencies. Lipton said of the network of 'cultural centres': 'We eventually hope to fund them ourselves.'
Currently the RIBA's list of centres includes three in London (RIBA headquarters, the Hackney Building Laboratory and the Architecture Foundation), the CUBE in Manchester and other centres in North Kent, Liverpool, Bristol and Plymouth as well as the Lighthouse in Scotland. There are also plans for another architecture centre in Birmingham.
Other new CABE appointments, this time as commissioners, not full-time staff, include Dickon Robinson of the Peabody Trust, appointed to bolster CABE's wo r k on housing, Ove Arup and Partners director John Miles and Gillian Wolfe from the Dulwich Picture Gallery.Wolfe will handle the commission's educational work, which Sir Stuart wants to transform by trying to communicate architecture without 'architecture speak' or 'planning speak' but in an 'interactive'manner.
The question of CABE's funding has long been a bugbear. Currently it operates with a budget of just £1.5 million awarded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, £220,000 of which goes on grants to bodies such as the RSA and the Architecture Foundation. It will hear if Howarth has assented to anything like Sir Stuart's request for £5 million at the end of the spending review in around a month's time.
'We're trying to put resources into personnel to go out there and do the job, ' Sir Stuart said.
In October CABE will also be strengthened with the arrival of Jon Rouse as chief executive, fresh from his MBA and work on the Urban Task Force. Another, as-yetunnamed figure is joining to work on government liaison.
The commission is working with the Office for Government Commerce, a new department of the Treasury which is charged with looking at best value on procurement matters. Sir Stuart said CABE has been busy providing 'proofs' of the impact good architecture makes to government in areas such as health, education, sport and housing. Ministers have been presented with data on things like the better health enjoyed by old people once they have been transferred from public housing to housing associations, through the effects, primarily, of a safer environment.
Another area of important work for the commission, said Sir Stuart, is its role in enabling, which is headed by Sunand Prasad. It is working with clients on formulating briefs 'on understanding what being a client is all about' and recommending appropriate architects for them to use. 'We're saying give us two hours on a project and we can map out the ingredients, ' he said. 'We're finding people are coming to us earlier.'
Howarth was expected to commend CABE for its first year in operation and for its growing influence across government departments.