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Peer pressure

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PEOPLE: Baroness Blackstone, the new and well-connected architecture minister, has been busy building bridges with CABE and plotting the government's approach to the built environment - with a little help from her friends

Baroness Blackstone is sitting erect at her desk, pen in hand, as I am ushered in for my one-hour slot.

She is younger looking than I imagined, more the 'Tessa' than the Baroness, and her desk is very neat, very ordered. There is no computer. Her walls are lined with colourful modern art - a good sign - and during the interview she tells me more: that she is a fan of modern architecture, with friends like 'Richard' (Rogers) and 'David' (Chipperfield); has had past dealings with Stanton Williams and the like on building projects; and has a heavily design-conscious son Ben - who she does not mention was connected to preparing the content for the Dome. Two out of three isn't bad.

Tessa Ann Vosper Blackstone, 59 last week, was appointed minister of state for the arts at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport on 11 June. Her remit - which covers several different areas - includes architecture, and she feels she is a refreshing choice, since she was one of the founding trustees of the Architecture Foundation and knows about the subject.

So many ministers, she says, are handed briefs they do not have a clue about.

What has she been doing at that ordered desk since she began? How has she got up to speed? The Baroness is honest enough to admit that she is nowhere near there yet, given that a universally sleepy August and a holiday (in Umbria, where she bumped into 'Richard', again, natch) have punctuated the period since she took over. And although her dealings with CABE have already been extensive, she appears a little airy about her precise role as 'design champion' for the department. Charlie Falconer's office can furnish details of when the champions will actually meet, she tells me.

Blackstone's first official engagement on the architecture beat was an eye-opener - with Lord St John of Fawsley at the RFAC Trust Building of the Year. She has yet to meet up with RIBA president Paul Hyett, although that is firmly in the diary (at his request).

'I'm really looking forward to that because I really do want to know from the professionals what their concerns are, where they think the government can be more helpful, and where we've done things in the last government which could be taken further, ' she says.

She will get out there and deal with issues through a quiet word with 'professionals', people like her friend Daniel Libeskind. She has just returned from the opening of his 'fantastic', 'brilliantly conceived', 'absolutely fit for purpose' Jewish Museum. She is also 'very positive' about the Spiral at the V&A, which she wants to see funded and built, and is looking forward to seeing Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North. 'I do have a long-standing interest in contemporary architecture', she says - although she admits she lives in a 19th-century house in Islington. 'And what I want to do is have lots of contact with great modern architects.'

But she confesses to not yet being abreast with matters such as the state of architectural education, despite her previous incarnation as a minister at the Department for Education and Employment. But if she sees that design students are not coming up to scratch, she hopes she'll be 'tipped off ' and will try and fix it.

What of the PFI? Is it here to stay?

'I would have thought so, yes, ' she says, 'although not every single building that's put up in the public domain will be PFI. I think a diverse approach about how you fund buildings is probably quite healthy anyway.' Besides, it is possible to do 'incredibly horrible buildings' whatever the procurement method, she reasons, 'because the client hasn't thought properly about what they want'. And value for money need not be in conflict with good design.

She utters a solemn oath towards her 'partnership' with CABE and responsibility to push design across government, seemingly from nowhere: 'I will, at the DCMS, as the guardian of the built environment and architecture and the promoter of better public buildings, get in there behind CABE if something's going wrong in some other area which a different government area is responsible for.'

She had a good relationship with Stanton Williams after its work on the Clore Management Centre building at Birkbeck College where she was a master. 'I wanted a modern building but one which would really work in that environment, ' she says, and she learnt that if you work closely with contractors, you can do it without huge overruns.

And Blackstone is adamant that Tony Blair's Better Public Buildings is for real:

architecture is something all departments are taking seriously. CABE is seemingly getting her full support, perhaps at the expense of other advisers on the built environment. I suggest that, because the government gives substantially more in grants to English Heritage than to CABE, it is more interested in preserving buildings than building good new ones. That perception is wrong, she says, it is a question of balance: 'I'm interested in both - we should preserve the best of our heritage, without any question, but not to the extent of preventing sensible regeneration and redevelopment and good modern buildings.'

Surprisingly, she may ask CABE to get involved with listing post-war buildings, and to work more closely with EH and the Arts Council. 'We have to get the balance between conservation and the need for sensible new development, ' she says. 'And occasionally there will be conflicts there. I want CABE to have a very constructive role.'

The coffee has gone cold and Blackstone's next meeting - about children's books - is beckoning. So there is only time for her to say that she is pro-high densities, pro-tall buildings, and to list Foster, Rogers, Grimshaw and Wilford among names she admires. She hopes the next generation of architects do not have to start abroad, as she points out that Chipperfield had to do, to get noticed. And she wants people - clients, essentially - to embrace risk and not just go for those larger, well-known names. 'My message is that we're with you. And we want to make British architecture the best in the world - it can be, and it's not far from it now.'

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