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‘Stop being defensive and build what British people want,’ Kit Malthouse tells architects

Malthouse classicism collage

Housing minister Kit Malthouse has called on architects to stop being ‘defensive’ and start designing buildings that fulfil the ‘natural aspiration of the British people’

In a speech at the Building More, Building Beautiful conference yesterday evening (19 November), Malthouse said local residents’ resistance to new housing developments was one of the barriers to the government’s target of delivering 300,000 new homes. 

‘Much of the problem about new housing comes down to design. If you get the design right, if you make something look beautiful, if it fits in, if it harmonises with its area then the resistance to it by local people starts to reduce,’ he said.

The minister sparked a row with architects earlier this month when he tweeted an image comparing two buildings – a classical courthouse in Alabama and an office scheme on Oxford Street, with the caption ‘one will last for centuries, one won’t’. 

However, speaking last night, Malthouse said he had not expressed a preference for either building and was merely seeking to ’test the air’ on the state of the debate in architecture. 

Hitting back over the ’vitriol’ he received, particularly from architects, he said: ’It illustrated to me that what we are dealing with is a really fractured and difficult argument where the architectural profession assumes it is under siege.’ 

Malthouse said the aim of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, far from ’poking the architectural community with a stick’, was to bring everyone together and ‘let architects rip’.

He continued: ’It’s totally critical to our mission of building 300,000 homes that we get this design conversation – this beauty conversation – correct. That we get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. That the architectural profession stops being so defensive about the preferences of the public.’

Talking about a ‘British vernacular’ of the mansion block, the mews house, the garden square and the terrace street, Malthouse said this was what the public seeks out and wants to live in ’even when it has a kind of Modernist interpretation’.

He said: ’Somewhere, because of this fractious debate, the profession has retreated from embracing this, and giving people what they want.’

‘It’s very often the case that the architectural profession, when it feels threatened, gathers together and awards each other prizes. What would be fantastic is if they started to build stuff that instilled and created an enthusiasm in the public for what they are producing.’

‘We hope this commission will start the work of healing the scar tissue that’s built up between the two in the hope we can fulfil the natural aspiration of the British people.

However in a riposte to Malthouse, Paul Finch, former chairman of CABE, said housing delivery had ’nothing to do with nimbies trying to stop schemes happening’.

’If anyone here thinks classicism, or indeed Modernism, or, in fact, any style or way of designing is the answer to our housing problem, I’m afraid they are awfully deluded.’

Pointing to the increased output of the country’s biggest housebuilders, Finch said: ’A cursory glance at the statistics would expose this fantasy that if only you could design things slightly more nicely then people are going to be queuing up and hammering on the door of their local planning committee.’ 

’The reason we have a housing crisis is that public authorities stopped commissioning housing.’

RIBA president Ben Derbyshire also spoke at the conference, arguing that until the profession can show people that ’better design is possible’, communities will ’understandably continue to resist new neighbours in new developments’.

He said there needed to be a system with more care and concern for design, adding that in the ’cost-driven’ and standardised process we have today, ’dwellings are actually laid out individually without meaningful relationship one to another’.

Other speakers on the panel included the ex mayor of Newham Robin Wales, British Land’s Roger Madelin, The Times’ journalist Anne Ashworth and Porphyrios Architects’ Demetri Porphyrios. 

Malthouse said the government was giving councils greater powers to ’instill notions of design’ in their neighbourhood plans, and that he was visiting local authorities encouraging them to be ‘assertive’ about their new powers.


Readers' comments (14)

  • The biggest issue IMHO is that housing is constructed by large companies who are there to make money and make money only. If we were to commission smaller, local house builders to build homes by smaller, local architects then we would be moving in the right direction. On top of this planning for shops and businesses needs relaxing to encourage variety and the possibility of people working from their own homes. Housing needs variation to be successful and vibrant.

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  • Wasn't it Stalin who said that 'the people demand their columns'?

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  • The large housebuilders who control the residential market are not interested in highly architectural homes they want standardisation of buildings, so they don't have think too much when it comes to constructing them and can build them quickly and sell them on. It is only commercial developments and smaller house builders who are more interested in architectural design as a way of offering something different to the market.

    I suggest the minister looks at the real issues surrounding the housing market such as lack of skilled workers due to decades of underinvestment in apprenticeships and a planning system designed to create hold ups rather than concerning himself about architectural merits of a building.

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  • When Henry Ford asked the people what they wanted they said: "faster horses"....

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  • Kit Malthouse is deluded and lacks understanding of how it works in the architectural and construction industry - Anon is right here the main issues is not the design it is the other elements.

    Housebuilders not architects have basically made every city/town like Toyland by producing standardised poor quality houses - it is buyers that are being ripped off by buying houses a lot more expensive that it actually cost to buy the land and build the house.

    No wonder why the CEO of a large well known house builder reaped the profits for themselves rather than use it to provide better homes for all.

    There needs to be an element of fairness and the key elements working together with one main aim to provide the necessary number of homes and ensure good quality is provided.

    Boy CABE was rather good when it lasted shame it got abolished rather than allow it to evolve.

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  • Mr Malthouse’s belief that architects have an all-powerful influence on building style is almost touching in its naivete. The biggest influences on those kind of decision are the people who procure buildings, such as developers and housebuilders, and planning authorities. The influence we have as architects is well down the list by comparison. If we didn’t design what these people want, we wouldn’t get paid. Hopefully he will take on board the feedback he is getting and learn a bit more about how the construction industry works in the UK before making any further pronouncements on this topic.

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  • We are all, Scruton, Morris, Finch, Malthouse, Me, You, in our own little mind sets, and unable to solve these problems on our own. Politicians, academics, journalists, and architects need to work together with an open mind, and not inebriated by the exuberance of their own verbosity. As we used to say in the 80s: Long life, Loose fit, Low energy.

    Mankind has always had a “housing problem”, and sometimes we have gone some way to solving it. The Georgians? The Victorians? Between the wars? Usually by builders working to an architect designed pattern book, for clients with just enough money. The aristocrats and industrialist’s of the 18th century? The middle classes in the 1930’s? Malthouse and Scruton’s attitude does remind me of the National Socialist’s reaction to the Bauhaus in the 1930’s “We need German houses for German people in the Fatherland.” And that didn’t end well.

    Hopefully the conversation started by the Housing Minister will help us build the beautiful 300,000 houses/annum he is talking about. We could start by admitting to the mistakes. The council housing of the 70s? The post war swathes of boxes made of ticky tacky? But there have been some successes. The suburbs of London like Chelsea or Chiswick? Darborne and Darke? Some of 60s Camden? Byker? Co Housing in Holland and Finland? The Grunt group in Milton Keynes? Look around you and read the AJ.

    So let’s get on with it. We all might learn something. See you at the topping out ceremony? Mine’s a pint!

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  • why cant we have some sensible and relevantly experienced architects, planners and sustainability consultants seconded to the relevant government departments? its baffling that there seems to be conveyor belt of ministers that are learning on the job - just imagine if there where no high ranking military officials in the Ministry of Defence, or no experienced doctors or medical specialist in the Department for Health and Social Care... How many architects work for the Housing Department or Transport Department - I would bet on zero.

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  • Zero is the word, Chris, Zero Carbon houses are what we need...

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  • Agreed Martin Cook - 100%
    I set up One World Design Architects to jump straight into delivery carbon neutral homes 7 years ago then within a year the government ditched the zero carbon homes policy, then the CfSH standard. Further, the Written Ministerial Statement (25 March, 2015) stated that:
    ‘Local Authorities would only be able to require energy performance standards higher than Building Regulations up to the equivalent of Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4’. This was implemented at a time when there were plans for Part L 2016 and an update to the Planning and Energy Act 2008. Either statute may have brought forward stronger regulations, but neither has happened as the Government’s sole focus at this time is Brexit. Because of this building standards in terms of energy use for new homes are appalling - please refer to my opinion piece in the AJ last month. Perhaps Mr Malthouse should focus on what's under the bonnet of the 300k homes a year rather than he decoration?

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