The honours system recognises that talented and driven individuals can make a huge architectural difference, says Paul Finch
Congratulations to David Adjaye on his knighthood – like Sir David Chipperfield, a nominee of the Foreign Office, no doubt in particular for his work in the US, where he is admired by Barack Obama.
The contribution of individuals to society is difficult to measure where obvious criteria (for example military valour) are not available. And given that any system of public recognition will inevitably have some flaws, there is a temptation to deny the usefulness of the system as a whole. Like many aspects of British governance, the honours system is a bit fuzzy but has proved resilient and relatively class and race blind. As usual, most honours this year went to people engaged in community work of some sort or another.
I was thinking about the importance of individuals over the holidays as I caught up with Boris Johnson’s book, The Churchill Factor. The great man (Winston not Boris) is a prime example of someone who made a critical difference to world history, and whose life might be adduced as evidences that it is ‘men who make history’, rather than history making men. Yes, women too.
One can only admire the way Serota has promoted contemporary architecture in the development of Tate Britain and Tate Modern
This set me thinking about the contribution to architecture and design made by a few individuals who have influenced London in recent years, starting with Sir Nicholas Serota, recently retired head of Tate and now chairing the Arts Council. Although Nick’s life has been primarily concerned with art, one can only sit back in admiration at the way he has also promoted contemporary architecture in the development of Tate Britain and Tate Modern into magnets for tourists, visitors and art-lovers.
Another major contributor over many years, Deyan Sudjic, saw his dream of a new Design Museum in Kensington High Street come to fruition in 2016, not least due to the financial support of the museum’s originator Sir Terence Conran, and a major contribution from the company headed by Sir Stuart Lipton, which commissioned OMA to design apartments round the museum.
A couple of miserabilist articles in the Sunday Times, criticising the new building and its programme, cannot disguise the fact that the move from Shad Thames has been a triumph, and will further cement London’s reputation as a global centre for both design and architecture. John Pawson’s conversion of RMJM’s former Commonwealth Institute is first-class – a superb riposte to all those who have tried to get the building demolished over the years (only the Queen’s support prevented it from demolition, apparently).
Another London champion of good architecture announced he was switching pastures in his role at Westminster Council. Robert Davis has for 17 years been the politician to go to for a steer on what would be likely to find support under his regime as the council’s political head of planning. For some he was too powerful, heading a sort of fiefdom where the views of the professional planners ended up being tailored to the views of the boss. However, the results speak for themselves: the standard of architecture promoted under his regime has increased and continues to do so, and Westminster now has a reputation for saying yes, rather than automatically rejecting anything that doesn’t resemble conservation heaven. Robert is now going to have a role in relation to heritage at the council, where we hope and trust his endorsement of the good new will continue.
Finally, seeing Peter Murray’s New Year programme announcement involving everything from a major NLA event around the draft London Plan to safe cycling initiatives and the MIPIM charity ride (£2.5 million raised to date), I commend him (again) to the honours committee. Let’s hope he doesn’t have to wait as long as Ken Dodd.