Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (cabe) chief Stuart Lipton has moved swiftly to try and raise the architectural quality of Private Finance Initiative (pfi) schemes by winning over the Lord Chancellor's department to agree to a new two-stage process in all its building projects.
In an exchange of views with the press last week on cabe's role and future direction, Lipton revealed that he had managed to persuade the department to insist that pfi schemes feature a first round in which financiers and developers are shortlisted, and a second round in which an architecture champion comes in to focus the teams on delivering a clear and detailed view of the brief. The bidders only then choose an architect to carry out the brief and - hopefully - low-quality schemes, even with excellent financials, will then be rejected.
This will be tested with a pfi scheme for a court building in Exeter, where Ian Ritchie will act as the scheme's champion. Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine is an old acquaintance of Lipton's, having acted for him in the long-running Coin Street planning battle during the 1980s.
Lipton hopes that this is one method by which 'appropriate people' can be used, and to give better pfi projects results. 'We're not asking government to reinvent. What we're trying to do is show how architecture can play its part in the overall process,' he said.
Ian Ritchie delivered a lecture to the prospective bidders for the new court building on 21 September, emphasising the importance of architecture rather than architects, and the need for buildings to be sources of civic pride. He will follow with similar talks in Cambridge next month and in Bristol in November. In the lecture, Ritchie stressed that 'architecture now matters in government procurement', and that cabe would be proactive and supportive to all government departments procuring buildings through the pfi, identifying demonstration projects across government. 'To engage an architect is to engage an individual,' he said. 'It will involve emotion. Without wishing to offend anyone, the client and the consortia are not engaging a lawyer or an accountant or an architectural technician.' Ritchie added that a 'design-by-numbers solution', where the architect was simply allowed to add a 'few twirly bits on the outside to tart it up before it was submitted for planning', was too often the norm.
Instead the client had to allow the architect time and space to think conceptually, and had to show openness and commitment. 'If the same prejudices and preconceptions continue to exist, then we will not advance the architectural quality of our civic buildings or civic spaces. There is every reason to be optimistic.'