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The AF has plenty of opportunities to help shape the world’s greatest city

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The Architecture Foundation’s new director, Simon Allford, is not someone who will have taken on this role with the intention of doing nothing, writes Paul Finch

Not for the first time, the future of the Architecture Foundation (AF) has been called into question on the grounds that it is out of money and out of time.

As a former trustee of the foundation in the mid-1990s when it was under the directorship of Ricky Burdett and, as a mainspring for public policy, played a significant part in promoting architecture, I can confidently assert that the foundation has almost invariably been on a financial knife-edge.

The question is not whether it is a well-run, safe-as-houses charity that does little of note, but whether it is making a difference. There is no reason why that cannot be achieved along with financial stability, but that should be taken as read: if the AF is simply well-managed, it may as well stop now.

However, the new chairman, Simon Allford, is not someone who will have taken on this role with the intention of doing nothing. He has already initiated essential financial discipline, announced a thematic programme strategy, and has secured a new home for the foundation with the help of trustee Robert Mull and the blessings of its previous host, Roger Zogolovitch.

So the question is not whether the foundation has a future, but what that future concerns. Former chairman Will Alsop has questioned whether it has any role at all. It is worth remembering that, under his stewardship and that of the former director, Rowan Moore, the purpose of the foundation appeared to lie in creating a new permanent home. This was via an architectural competition, apparently organised to ensure that Zaha Hadid won. This all ended in tears and is not a good context in which to discuss the foundation’s future.

A better context concerns the number of bodies now involved in thinking about the future of the capital, which is significantly greater than when the foundation was initiated. For one thing, New London Architecture has now taken on a big role in mounting exhibitions and initiatives. The Royal Academy runs significantly more events than two decades ago. The Victoria & Albert Museum is more active. We have the London Festival of Architecture. Devising a programme that is distinctive and clearly related to the AF will therefore be difficult, but certainly not impossible. For one thing, there is still a huge reluctance to mount monographic exhibitions about younger architects. Why? For another, there is a series of pressing issues concerning a major metropolis which could be viewed from an architectural perspective, providing a different starting point to the usual political or planning perspectives, which offer ‘solutions’ based on thinking which helped to create the problems in the first place. What sort of city do we predict, imagine, dream?

Where are the architectural propositions about the future of the capital which look beyond narrow single issues, or precise geographies? They appear to be missing because the current obsession is either with shortage (housing), aesthetics (height), energy (sustainability) or threat (flood). There is surely a place for intelligent discussion based around the design of that housing, the nature of those tall buildings, the implications of low-energy design, how we harvest water.

Moreover, there is a distinct absence of discussion about the overall nature of the city and what it might become, discussion which could very easily be prompted by a resurgent Architecture Foundation.

All this requires a feeling of confidence and a belief that there is a valuable role to undertake which is not being pursued by other organisations. At a time when the RIBA has abandoned its Building Futures programme, there is plenty of scope for action by others. All power to the foundation’s elbow.

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