Peter Stewart, deputy chief executive of CABE and author of its recent design guide, is keen to point out that despite CABE's lack of statutory power, most architects do take note of its 'completely dispassionate' advice by sutherland lyall. photograph by charles glover the quality of its advice.' In the cut-throat world of property development, you are bound to take with a pinch of salt the idea that there is a compelling authority behind quality advice. But there you are, CABE's track record suggests that its authority is indeed either compelling or something else - that nobody knows about - is going on.
But wouldn't a bit more legal muscle help?
At present there is no compulsion for anybody to show CABE a new design.
Stewart is robust about this: 'I don't see any benefit in being given statutory powers. It's not something we seek.' But what if a local authority declined to submit a scheme of significant interest? He says: 'What we'd do is get on a train and go and look at the drawings in the planning department. And then make a public report. But it's never been a problem.'
Very occasionally his committee isn't listened to. Chapman Taylor has dug in its heels over its York Coppergate scheme.
Stewart says: 'We said explicitly that the scheme wasn't good enough to go to planning.' Amusingly (for us outsiders at least) it found itself pitted against English Heritage, which had given the scheme the nod. This is the same English Heritage which had poured taxpayers' money into bitterly opposing CABE's support for the building of the Heron Tower. Stewart points out carefully: 'On the whole, we have an extremely good relationship with English Heritage. A number of our design review committee members and several of our commissioners are on EH committees. Its representatives are always invited to our meetings along with the relevant local authorities and they say what they think. It would be odd if we were always to agree because we are coming from different positions.'
And as for rumbles in the trade about the possibility of CABE subsuming EH's functions into its own, Stewart says: 'I can see the development industry's difficulty with all the bodies they have to deal with.
But conflating CABE and EH wouldn't reduce the number much. We've not much appetite for the idea and it hasn't really been discussed here.'
Before it came out, CABE's most controversial activity looked like being the publication of Stewart's design guide. The fear was that it would attempt the impossible in prescribing what good design really meant. The published guide adroitly eschews all discussion of visual preferences.
No mention of High-Tech, Late-Tech, Retro-Classical, Neo-Vernacular or even Late-Post-Modernism. All of these and more, the report seems to say between the lines, are fine providing the choice seems 'compelling and inevitable'.
But the guide is primarily a clear enunciation of all the other criteria for design with which you would expect architects (though not necessarily their clients) to be conventionally familiar: order, clarity, appropriateness, integrity, commodity, firmness, delight. You perversely think approvingly of the equal architectural virtues of disorder, complexity, misleading, commodity, firmness and delight. And although you also worry about the review's assumption that a masterplan is the bedrock of good design, Stewart is not especially moved.
In any case, as he reiterates, the point is that Design Review has nothing to do with neat architecture, or even 'about how to do good buildings. It's about how we evaluate them.' And, since it is all there in black and white, clients now have no excuse for sending in architectural tosh. You hope.
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