The biggest worry about the short term is uncertainty. But architects are pretty good at dealing with this, writes Paul Finch
‘All architecture is political,’ declared Richard Rogers. As an active parliamentarian, he has long been proof that it is indeed possible for architects to be active in political life. But what he was talking about was something rather different, that is to say the extent to which decisions about what to build and where cannot be seen merely in the context of money, materials and design.
Planning and other forms of regulation are always reflections of political as well as economic and social structures, quite apart from the critical matter of infrastructure provision, almost inevitably a highly political process.
So, as the biggest architectural practices in Britain met this week at the annual AJ100 dinner, it was inevitable that politics would be high on the agenda, and not politics in general but party politics in particular.
It would be interesting to know how people at the dinner voted, and whether this corresponded with some of the figures in the AJ’s recent surveys of architect voting intentions.
The short-term future has alarmed some housebuilders, always given to claiming poverty and hardship, whatever the circumstances
The result of the election in some constituencies has had unfortunate consequences for the sector. For example, Gavin Barwell, one of the brightest housing ministers of recent times, lost his highly marginal seat in Croydon, no doubt adding to uncertainty over future policy. And the fact that a hung parliament inevitably injects huge uncertainty into the short-term future has alarmed some housebuilders, always given to claiming poverty and hardship, whatever the circumstances.
Since the housing market is based on land (there is actually no shortage), finance (ditto) and demand (massive), one needn’t take the Cassandras too seriously.
The real question is whether the chances of a dirigiste public-sector housing delivery strategy are diminished, which I fear they are. We will continue with more propaganda about build-to-rent from people who all own their own homes. For the architectural profession, changes in government have rarely made much difference to the fortunes of the sector, at least in recent decades. We long ago abandoned the idea that a majority of the profession should be employed by the public sector, and there was no suggestion in any manifesto that this is a question worth discussing.
A more interesting question is about employment policies related to Brexit in the new political firmament. The Creative Industries Federation has repeated its demand that we remain in the Single Market. As this column has noted before, you can only be in the single market if you are a member of the EU, so they seem to be as ignorant about this as is the BBC.
Another demand from the federation, that we be free to employ whoever we like, is good internationalist stuff and is therefore the opposite of the Little Europe mentality, which believes that Europeans are superior to everyone else and should have special rights. Particularly in London, the name of the game is talent, not nationality. And, by definition, talent seeks employment – not free housing and social security benefits.
The biggest worry about the short term is uncertainty. But architects are pretty good at dealing with this. Every pitch for business, every competition undertaken, every commission started – all are fraught with dilemmas and potential for abandonment at almost any stage. Even for highly successful firms, the percentage of job numbers which end up as completed buildings is probably not much more than 20 to 25 per cent, for a variety of reasons, mostly bad.
Of course, the endless optimism of the profession, anxious to see the best in clients, planners, other design professionals, contractors and niche consultants, almost inevitably means that disappointment will be part of working life. But where would architects be without optimism? Would we have the Pompidou Centre, for example?