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Size isn’t everything, but nor is it to be discounted

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A large practice is not a bigger version of a small one. This means that the basis for measuring quality is also different, writes Paul Finch

Attacks on freedom of expression continue to alarm those of a bourgeois liberal disposition (like me), who think that rational discussion is the best way to encourage a civilised world. We know where the opposite leads: ‘The sleep of reason produces monsters’.

Colin Stansfield Smith used this phrase (the title of a Goya painting) in an article about the state of architecture in 1990. In the course of a conversation about it, he recalled feeling guilty the first time he designed a building which did not have a flat roof. This had seemed like apostasy; orthodoxy was not to be lightly transgressed.

For critics of architecture, both professional and amateur, it is not flat roofs that now inspire enraged reaction, but issues including conservation, sustainability, size, materials, urban design and so on.
The tone of some criticism has a parallel with assaults on freedom of speech and of the press: ‘If I find a word or a statement offensive, then the person who uttered or published it must be punished.’ It is all too easy to transfer this attitude to architecture: ‘I don’t like the look of it, so it is an affront to society.’ Discuss in relation to Danny Libeskind’s proposal for the Victoria & Albert in 2003/4. One elevation on the front page of the Times - which misleadingly implied that the design was for the museum’s main frontage - and polite society was up in arms.

On that occasion the independent burghers on the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea planning committee ignored the chattering classes and approved the designs. But National Lottery groupthink killed the project, just as it had killed off proposals by Zaha Hadid Architects in Cardiff and Günter Behnisch in Bristol. The London Lottery elite just could not stomach ‘deconstruction’, but lacked the courage to say so, preferring to reject funding applications for specious bread-and-butter reasons, while continuing to hand out money to the dull-as-ditchwater.

In general, the bigger the building, the greater the chance of controversy, though ironically many buildings from the past that we admire and list are of impressive scale. It does not seem unreasonable to expect greater design quality in architecture, which has more impact on site, street, neighbourhood and sometimes city, but this raises the question of whether a big building is a scaled-up version of a small building, or something separate and different. I believe the latter to be the case, in the same way that a large practice is different to small one, not a bigger version of the same thing.

This means that the basis for measuring quality is also different. This is not much discussed, but it explains why smaller buildings seem to find so much favour in the RIBA Awards compared to bigger projects. These by definition have more to find fault with, but often represent a greater design challenge. One way of assessing big and small fairly is to do informally what applies in diving competitions, which is to use a ‘degree of difficulty’ test. This means that a perfect simple dive cannot beat one of greater complexity, even if the latter is not perfect.

As for the correlation between practice size and design quality, it would be silly to assume that a large firm will inevitably produce better architecture than a small and medium enterprise. But as the range of buildings produced by the AJ100 shows, you cannot assume the opposite either. Design integrity will, in part, stem from the financial stability of the practice, because it is this which gives individual designers the time to exercise creative talent, and to benefit from the architectural equivalent of freedom of speech.

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