Ex-CABE chairman and property magnate Stuart Lipton talks to the AJ about the start of ‘a new period of architecture’ and what developers now want from the profession
‘There has never been a better time for young practices, because suddenly the playing field is level,’ says Stuart Lipton, CABE founding chairman, current deputy chairman of Chelsfield Partners and probably the most important developer of his generation. His portfolio includes Broadgate, the City of London’s single largest development, and the Foster + Partners-designed HM Treasury (2002).
‘The current recession coincides with the end of one period of architecture and the beginning of another,’ says Lipton, for whom the quantity-over-quality approach of the last ten years is over. It is no longer economically viable; as property values have fallen by 45 per cent, there is little bank finance available and uncertainty remains about future values. Therefore architects need to rethink what developers and the public want.
Recalling previous recessions, Lipton believes this one is more of a challenge. ‘It’s much slower. In other recessions, bank finance was available, that’s not the case now.’ He adds that general consensus says it will last another two years: ‘At the moment there is no money, planning remains difficult and costs are too high. That’s why young architects have a chance now. They can bring costs down, that’s a good start.
‘If you look at the early 1970s, people like [Norman] Foster, [Richard] Rogers [and Michael] Hopkins were building very low-cost buildings that were inventive. They stretched the imagination and by being low cost, it allowed the architects to demonstrate their skills.’
The 66-year-old gives the IBM Advance Head Office at Cosham (by Foster and Hopkins) and the Renault Distribution Centre at Swindon (Foster) as examples of this period – and Chelsfield seeks similar ingenuity for its next phase of major projects.
One of the developer’s most high-profile current schemes is the contentious revamp of RMJM’s 1962 Commonwealth Institute in West London, which is being designed by Dutch practice OMA. Lipton hopes construction will start in 2010.
The next big job on the horizon is the refurbishment of Eero Saarinen’s newly Grade II-listed US embassy on Grosvenor Square in London. So far, no architect has been appointed to the flagship project, which will begin in 2016 at the earliest, which is when the US embassy hopes to relocate to Battersea.
So what is Lipton looking for when hiring architects for prestigious jobs like this? ‘Quality, context, social awareness. The last one for me is the one we most need, so we produce interesting buildings,’ he says. Of particular interest is real estate for the masses. ‘I’m looking for the successful reinvention of apartment buildings by developing a common chassis where all the benefits of mass production can be used to produce a fine piece of design that is flexible and can fit into context,’ explains Lipton, who lives in an exclusive North London enclave, has an office in Mayfair and who recently made his debut in the Sunday Times Rich List with an estimated wealth of £30 million.
‘With the background of social change, we are looking for inventiveness. We need composite design and construction.’ A world of modularly built blocks of flats would save money and time, but would it herald a return to the identikit council blocks churned out in the 1960s and 1970s?
‘Is [modular design] in the best interests of the architect?’ asks Lipton. ‘They would probably say no. But I’m confident they are capable of producing work that respects the needs of the young and poor and is civic in context.’ He adds: ‘Place is not expensive to create, for example you just need a wonderful lawn and trees.’
Taking tighter money belts and an increased social awareness into account, young practices are faced, he believes, with an exciting opportunity to make their mark with a return to simple, innovative design. Is it a good time for developers to look to younger architects? ‘That is a simple yet complicated question,’ he says. ‘It is a good time, if the new architects have a reputation for even modest innovation and skilled design. That is a necessity.’ Andrea Klettner
Stuart Lipton on CABE
Stuart Lipton believes CABE, which he chaired from 1999 and 2004, needs to redefine itself as a champion of quality architecture.
‘When we started, CABE belonged to no one. [Its employees] were free spirits with varying interests and specialisms. Like any organisation, as it matures it changes from being guerrilla to more bureaucratic. Now the government looks at it as being tamed and, I think, has used CABE as its mouthpiece.
‘I want CABE to return to [being] a guerrilla organisation and I believe [current chairman] Paul Finch will change it dramatically. It should be the people’s representative, not the government’s.
‘Whether it can continue to take on everything is doubtful.
At the moment it deals with housing, hospitals, schools etc, but there needs to be more focus on individual cases in depth, which might become possible now. With that, CABE needs to take on more policy and exemplars.
‘It also needs to look at public spaces more, but not be all things to all men.’