Traditionalists are joining forces to try and break up the ‘cabal’ running design review panels and tackle what they see as council ‘bias’ in favour of Modernism
The Traditional Architecture Group (TAG) will help local authorities discuss new proposals and remove what the group sees as ideological or financial barriers to historic or traditional schemes getting a fair hearing.
The group was set up by Robert Adam and is chaired by American architect Scot Masker, a director of Pro Vision, which is a planning and architecture consultancy based in Winchester.
Masker said that people familiar with panel discussions would recognise a lack of ‘intelligent learned discussion’ of traditional design and a tendency for local authorities to show ‘bias’ towards Modernist design.
TAG would offer an alternative, he said. ‘This is to act as a balm against panels that are often a cabal of local design professionals that do not change and who may not be selected specifically for their expertise relative to the proposal before them.’
Local authority planning departments are ‘stretched to breaking point’ and the group wanted to help, he said. ‘We look to provide a high standard of discourse where expert and in-depth knowledge can be found, particularly regarding traditional design.’
TAG has 94 members plus 13 student members. So far, it has tested the model on a small scale with private clients and has been asked to form review panels for a range of projects in York, Norfolk, the West Country and Hampshire. ‘Many authorities have been very grateful of the service we can provide, Masker said. ‘We have found that once they understand our process they are generally very keen for our advice.’
Asked if the word ‘traditional’ might put architects off, he said: ‘This is about giving good and well-informed advice, it is that simple. It just happens that our members have an expertise in traditional design.’
If a scheme from a Modernist practice, such as Foster + Partners, were to come before a TAG panel, they would be ‘greatly honoured’, he said. ‘Is it set amongst say listed buildings or in a conservation area? Does it, like his wonderful Nimes project, propose a response deriving from the Classical, traditional context? It may be that the insight of one of our panels could positively influence such a design without the proposal needing to be specifically derivative.’
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There is no timeframe by which the initiative aims to roll out, he said. So far ‘authorities north of the home counties’ had been more willing to engage, with no interest yet shown by London boroughs.
Masker added that the RIBA ‘has looked to support TAG and what we are about and we have very much appreciated that support’.
Russell Curtis, founding director of RCKa and one of the London Mayor’s design advocates, backed some of Masker’s criticisms. ‘The quality of design review does indeed vary hugely from place to place,’ he said, ‘and [he] is correct that, too often, vested interests can quash objective discussions about design.’
But he questioned whether TAG was the right response. ‘Setting up an independent panel of traditional architects purely to assess traditional schemes would seem to lessen its objectivity,’ he said, ‘and what’s to prevent it exhibiting its own prejudices against contemporary design?’
And he warned that, with many independent panels already operating, TAG would find it hard to carve out an effective role. ‘The test of TAG’s proposals will be whether it is able to compete against these incumbents in a crowded market,’ he said.
Hackney Society chair Nick Perry agreed there was a problem with design review. ‘The make-up of these panels is sub-optimal,’ he said.
He added that the kind of people on design panels tended to be self-selecting: architects and design professionals ‘who are nosey in their own sphere, they’ve all got their own self-interest for doing this.’
Rather than getting an overall view, there was often a range of competing opinions resulting in the ‘crazy workshopping of an idea’.
But while sympathetic, he said the group’s name rang alarm bells. ‘I’m sceptical of the phrase “traditional architecture”,’ Perry said. ‘Is it pastiche or something else? We are forever weighing up between pastiche and a modern intervention in a historic context.’
The RIBA gave a cautious response. A spokesperson said: ‘The Traditional Architecture Group has links to the RIBA, but is run independently.
‘The RIBA has not been involved in the development of the TAG’s proposed design review panel. The RIBA promotes high-quality architecture irrespective of design idiom, and recognises the value that a diversity of design approaches can bring to the built environment.’
Image: A 877m² classically styled ‘country house’ clause home in rural Warwickshire by Robert Adam Architects