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A week is a long time in architecture

Paul Finch
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In the run-up to Mipim, Paul Finch packs in visits to Manchester and Bournemouth

Last week began by pondering recommendations from a House of Lords select committee that the government should appoint a chief built environment adviser. The chances of this happening are extremely remote, given what happened to the role of the construction ‘czar’. When Peter Hansford’s extended tenure ended in November last year, he was not replaced. If construction (representing 10 per cent of UK GDP) doesn’t get a czar, why will the built environment?

The recommendations also suggested the creation of an organisation to undertake research, develop guidance and build networks to raise standards in the built environment. While it is flattering to all those who created Cabe to have its work and role acknowledged by implication, there is virtually no chance of any such organisation being re-created. How often do governments not only admit they made a mistake, but rectify it?

When Jeremy Hunt abolished Cabe as a by-product of political manoeuvering over a comprehensive spending review, he saved peanuts but sabotaged an organisation whose work was and is respected worldwide. If only Ed Vaizey had been architecture minister, we thought. As it turned out, when Ed took on that responsibility it didn’t last long. Architecture was sloughed off (obviously not a cultural activity) to the Department for Communities and Local Government, which regards design as a subset of housing and planning delivery.

It was refreshing to get away from the London hothouse and make one of my periodic visits to the great city of Manchester – on my birthday! Stephen Hodder generously hosted a celebration lunch in a first-class restaurant, Manchester House. The purpose of the visit was not lunch, however, but a look round the surreal world of the vacated Granada Studios, now the subject of a regeneration project by developer Allied London. Its boss, Mike Ingalls, will be taking part in a discussion with others about the scheme at Mipim next week, moderated by yours truly.

The studio estate includes historic warehouses, the Coronation Street set (now recreated elsewhere), some huge-volume interior studios plus more conventional office space. The project, to a masterplan by SimpsonHaugh and Partners, will open up the River Irwell to the city centre, provide a new cultural complex designed by OMA, and create a significant mixed-use scheme which will result in many thousands of residents and workers on the site. An impressive aspirational project, symbolic of the Northern Powerhouse spirit pervading the city.

By complete contrast, my travels continued the next day in the form of a trip to Bournemouth and its Arts University. The occasion was the opening of Professor Sir Peter Cook’s first completed UK building, a ‘drawing room’ for the teaching of drawing, of course. It looks faintly alien, boasting a magnificently lit interior, mainly courtesy of an enormous elliptical north-light.

A splendid opening included speeches from client and vice-chancellor Stuart Bartholomew, university chancellor Sir Christopher Frayling, Peter himself, and Zaha Hadid, who formally opened the building. We were treated to a specially commissioned piece of music for the building opening by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s composer in residence, Hywel Davies. As if that were not enough, there were excellent canapés and a proper tea, for a change.

Peter studied at the university’s predecessor, the School of Art, qualifying with an RIBA Part I in 1958. Much has changed, but the pines on the site are still there, nicely framed by that big window. A very pleasurable occasion and a reminder that spirited architecture and a good client can achieve what governments rarely can.

Sad news of Sir Andrew Derbyshire’s death concluded the week, but he lived a long, constructive and generous life. He would have made a good government chief architect.

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