Paul Finch’s Letter from London: A frustrating reminder that architecture is forever falling through the political gaps
The welcome news that Ed Vaizey has reassumed the post of architecture minister was a reminder of the curious position of architecture in relation to the political and administrative infrastructure of our great nation.
For example, architecture can scarcely be separated from the construction industry since nothing is built without a design.
Yet the government department responsible for construction - the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) - has no responsibility for architecture. That partly explains why modernisation of the industry is frequently discussed as though architecture and architects scarcely exist, or if they do they are merely a subset of the building industry.
When it comes to planning and housing, the relevant department is Communities and Local Government (CLG). It has a good relationship with Design Council CABE, but its relationship with BIS is less clear, simply because the nature of the administrative machine is siloesque. Moreover, the relationship of BIS and CLG to other departments with respect to their role in procuring buildings is fragile even if it exists.
When you think that every major department is responsible for millions of pounds of construction spending, it remains a mystery why we abandoned the Property Services Agency, a compendium of expertise which guaranteed that somewhere in Whitehall you could get an answer to what buildings cost and how they are built.
I can only think of one architect in any position of influence in a government department. When I entered architectural journalism 40 years ago, departments that built things had chief architects. What happened to them? We are in a knowledge-free and experience-free zone in Whitehall and should be grateful that at least there is a chief planner at CLG, even if the Treasury thinks it knows more about the subject than he does.
Is architecture so difficult to get a grip on? One suspects that the old image of the bow-tied aesthete getting in the way of the horny-handed realist from the building world still persists in the minds of some politicians or alternatively, that building anything at rock-bottom prices, irrespective of design quality, is evidence of an appropriately frugal mind achieving value for money. In turn this reflects the embarrassment of politicians, planners, project managers and others that their understanding of architecture - a subject that is both art and science, precise and intuitive, aesthetic and practical - is so limited. When the subject of design quality is raised, their response is all too often one of hostility, distrust or simply dismissal.
They are not alone, however. Take the problem that schools of architecture have faced in relation to research assessment exercises, where the law department always excels because it is all-knowing about the past, whereas architecture is essentially about the future and therefore insufficiently academic. It all gets too difficult for the tidy-minded who wish to pigeonhole architecture and design into a box marked ‘Not important enough to merit serious funding’.
The problem of persuading education ministers that design is important is accentuated by their attitude to whether pupils should be taught in decent surroundings or depressing dumps. One of Vaizey’s challenges as architecture minister, therefore, will be to create a context for discussion, where prejudices about what architecture and design can contribute to the economy are challenged. That is an appropriate task for a department of culture.
Meanwhile, will the new chairman of the Arts Council be interested in appointing an architecture officer? Or will we continue with a gap into which the mother of the arts inevitably stumbles?