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switching on to design

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The BBC is embarking on a major initiative to build new premises and revitalise its whole culture through quality new architecture. Finance director John Smith is the man who is determined to make it happen by david taylor. photograph by guy jordan

The BBC is opening up at last, and getting, well, with it. And the man responsible for leading the charge through a property and architectural revolution at the Beeb is its finance director, John Smith.

Smith is a frighteningly bright, affable 44 year old who joined the corporation in 1989 after studying at Harvard and working at British Rail, Sealink and Seaspeed Hovercraft. But he is no dry money man, only concerned with the bottom line.

Effectively Greg Dyke's number two, Smith is masterminding the long process of bringing in a private-sector partner in what could be a ground-breaking deal to transform the BBC's £1 billion property portfolio into a wholly modern, welcoming environment.

Trillium and Land Securities is on the verge of signing a deal this summer to fund a complete overhaul of the BBC's culture and image through a series of new buildings by highly regarded architects. And, unlike ordinary PFIs, there is a twist. 'In all PPPs the vendor organisation does not keep equity interest, ' says Smith. 'We'll get the benefits of outsourcing but keep 50 per cent.It's the way forward - everyone wins.'

The arrangement will be necessary to cope with cost/revenue gaps during the next five years - by 2003 Dyke will have increased annual spending on programming by £450 million. And, because the Beeb is such a big player, the Treasury is sitting up and taking notice. Smith says the Treasury may even use the deal as a model for future PFI schools and hospitals, so long as the Culture department approves of it soon. (Smith was briefing Kim Howells on it only last week. ) So much for the money and the project partner. What will they fund? Well, firstly there is Broadcasting House. Smith is 'dead excited' to be working with Richard MacCormac, who, he says, was the worthy winner of the competition to rework the old building and environs - mainly for his appreciation of sensitive environments.

(Alsop's 'glass goblets' vision, Smith says, may well have encountered too many planning problems, and interfered with sight lines. ) Instead, MacCormac wants to build a 'Burlington Arcade-like' extension with a lively public courtyard, and Smith is eager to see 'Beatles-like' rooftop performances by bands. 'What a difference that could make.'

Inside, in the stuffy, old-fashioned entrance to the old Broadcasting House building, Smith dreams of bars and cafes and an end to the endless corridors, with news departments from across the corporation deliberately mixed up. Broadcasting House is, and has been, the wrong message to put out - or broadcast. A planning application will be submitted in November.

So mostly this appears to be an image thing. But it is also an attempt to bring the BBC out of its civil service-like, frightened atmosphere into the Dykian, open-plan, forward-thinking generation, where myriad threats such as digital television and the internet must be taken in, not ignored.

Smith talks at length of the need for the Corporation to draw a line under its recent history - and failed architecture - and try to reach out and 'touch' its audience, not present a stuffy and closed appearance.

He would like the BBC to take a leaf out of Capital Radio's book. The public is invited to drop in at its Leicester Square building to see Chris Tarrant at work, thus creating a 'brand' through a physical presence. By contrast, Broadcasting House has no such branding, and Smith recounts that it was not so long ago that newsreaders in the building, which was designed for analogue radio, were required to wear dickie bows in the studios.

So Smith has turned to the BBC's own local radio stations, with a view to replicating this feeling of ownership among 'heartland' audiences. He wants to create 'open stations' and is investigating deals whereby they will take cheap or rent-free space in shopping centres, to get listeners in to meet people and do 'learning online'. The shopping centre gets an 'anchor' to draw people in like a 'magnet', and the Beeb buffs up its image. Everyone wins. 'When you consider that every household in Britain pays for us, the least you'd expect us to do is invite them in once in a while, ' he says.

Smith also harbours a vision of inviting in every schoolkid in Britain for a day at the BBC, to rebuild the kind of strong links engendered in the past, by programmes such as Blue Peter and Bill and Ben. Today, Smith's own kids are 'bombarded with wall-to-wall US cartoon channels' at their home in Great Rissington, Gloucestershire. Smith, who has now bought a flat near Portland Place to cut midweek travelling pain, gushes about kids at the Beeb feeling excited and 'touched' by the website.

'Meet the people' is happening in Birmingham. The BBC has taken space in the Mailbox development, and is resolving to hold daily live outside broadcasts to hammer home the new image.

And over in Norwich, which Smith says did almost mirror the 'Alan Partridge' reputation the Steve Coogan show gave it, the station will move into Michael Hopkins' new, Lottery-funded Millennium Library scheme.

Back in London, Allies and Morrison now has outline permission to transform the White City site into a 'campus', with TV Centre becoming the home for all television production (its original purpose).Assuming the mayor does not intervene, this will result in a new 'piece of cityscape' with a series of buildings and streets, extensive landscaping, and space even for independent film-makers and production houses.

And in Glasgow, Smith et al chose David Chipperfield above practices such as Meccanoo to build a new BBC Scotland HQ, although the Beeb is playing hard-ball on this one. The site, Pacific Quay, is across from Foster's Armadillo building - but it will be built only if the local authority builds a road bridge. If not, the BBC will look elsewhere.

So Smith is behind a major new charge to revivify the BBC, get it switched on to the people, and help it join the 21st century.

In the process, there may be a groundbreaking property deal, which even central government may want to replicate for the good of the PFI. And the radio newsreaders will be able to wear what they want.

Everyone wins.

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