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New body may be just the RFAC in disguise

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Fears are mounting that the new Architecture Commission will simply be a re-badged Royal Fine Art Commission, based in the rfac's old St James's premises and with rfac staff, but with no real powers. Names being linked to the 'champion' of architecture job, meanwhile, include Financial Times architecture critic Colin Amery, Glasgow 1999 chief Deyan Sudjic, Jane Priestman and riba past president Max Hutchinson.

The Department of Culture Media and Sport has had two meetings with its group of advisers on the form the new body should take. What has emerged thus far, in a dcms discussion document, is understood to be a body which asks the current commissioners to take their design review role into the regions as chairmen, unpaid. The implementation group - comprising Alicia Pivaro, Margaret Mackeith, Mike Gwilliam, Les Sparks, Barry Shaw, David Rock and Francis Golding - met for the second time on Monday.

The dcms said its timetable on the appointment of a new chairman or 'champion' for the new body had now slipped by about a week. Just over 50 candidates put themselves forward for the £30,000 per year, two to three days per week job, but some of them expressed a wish to be simply commissioners. Invitations to a 'small' shortlist for a second interview will be sent out in the next fortnight, rather than on 1 March as originally planned, and an announcement will be made around the first or second week of April.

Once the 'champion' is appointed, he/she will play a key role in the headhunting process for commissioners. The dcms said the new body will operate from the rfac's St James's headquarters initially, 'for practical reasons', but the chairman will be free to seek new headquarters elsewhere.

riba president David Rock has circulated to riba council members his first thoughts on the shape of the new body, before the planned discussion at Council on 17 March. He has also invited officials from the dcms - implementation group head Nigel Pittman and head of architecture Mike Keatinge - to attend council, which they have accepted. Rock comments that it is a 'great opportunity' for the dcms to raise the quality of architecture, take the 'high ground' in government on the discipline, co-ordinate research and issue directives on standards. He feels it should firstly audit all government-funded activities and initiatives affecting architecture and the built environment, work with the riba, spend strategically and avoid being simply a 'revamped version of the status quo'. Rock warns against the new body:

taking on the title but not the role, thereby hindering others who would carry out that role

concerning itself on the periphery of architecture (rfac and minor pump- priming awards)

being weak because of being only advisory, without top government support

lacking awareness of what is happening in architecture and how quality is achieved.

The draft paper from the dcms proposes expanding the design review role so it becomes its main work, taking up most of its budget. 'The error of such a proposal needs a special note,' wrote Rock. Any role for continuing the design review function should be greatly reduced, commenting on a small number of truly national schemes, of national significance, and concentrating on these as 'parables' or exemplars, he added.

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