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The ARB has a duty to artistic autonomy

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In stating that architects have an overriding duty to 'meet customers' requirements' (aj People 1/8.1.1998) the new arb registrar has, perhaps unwittingly, stumbled into an age-old debate.

If only it was so easy for us to define and fulfil our obligations! Architecture, being both a tangible and durable representation of our culture, must always demand higher ambitions: blind obedience has never been, and will never be, enough. Indeed, the very use of the term 'customer' betrays a failure to appreciate the discrete and collaborative nature of the relationship that should exist between architect and client.

While the agenda is wider today, Andrew Finch's statement reminds us of the battles for artistic autonomy that raged in the early nineteenth century (when, no doubt, many of the precious 'historic' buildings that he so admires were constructed).

The principal sources of patronage were then in transition as the monarchy, aristocracy and, later, the church surrendered their control and the new capitalist ethic began to dominate market relationships. At the forefront of the challenge to artistic autonomy, Sir Edward Cust claimed that 'like a merchant or retail dealer' the architect must 'suit his article to the markets', and James Savage neatly summarised the new mood of commercial realism with the adage 'those who live to please, must please to live'. Things would never be the same again.

Although architects are perhaps more concerned today with a duty towards social, environmental and ecological issues than with artistic autonomy, one thing remains constant: if architects are merely the puppets of their paymasters, architecture's real potential will be sold well short! So perhaps Mr Finch, by now hopefully gaining some awareness of the complexity of this debate, will take time out during one of his stately-home visits to consider whether the interests that the broader community rightfully has in the product of architecture should, as he so clearly implies, be ever subservient to the demands of the individual 'customer'. If so, our society in effect delivers its wide and longer-term interests to the narrow and short-term aspirations of commerce. That would be a far cry from the new registrar's belief that the arb's primaryrole is as protector of the consumer.

For when he has got his feet properly under the table, Mr Finch will surely come to appreciate that the interests of the individual 'consumer' must inevitably be seen in the context of the interests of consumers in aggregate - that is, the public at large. Architects understand the conflicts inherent in this process.

Ill-conceived objectives, spartan construction budgets, inadequate fees, and inadequate design and construction programmes are common enemies of good architecture, yet these are the stock-in-trade of so many who have influence upon the building procurement process. They illustrate the gulf that can exist between the interests of the individual 'customer' and the public.

While the arb can and should have an important role in improving both the performance of architects and the product of their work, Andrew Finch needs to understand that all members of the development team, especially 'customers', have a responsibility to provide the conditions and objectives in which good work can be carried out. It will greatly assist the arb's success if he is able to do so.

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