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Despite all the year’s uncertainties, architects are producing great work

Paul Finch
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In the face of doom and gloom, architecture remains an essentially optimistic activity, writes Paul Finch

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios celebrated its 40th anniversary with a lively series of events and parties last week. Actually it was a double celebration because the practice opened its London office 20 years ago. 

Looking back over such a prolonged period is a reminder that predictions about the future are almost invariably wrong (despite what Radio 4’s Today programme – aka Psychic News – may think). Technologies change, forms of practice change, and inevitably so do political and economic contexts. What don’t change are the buildings we require to live, work and play. Architecture is thus an essentially optimistic activity since it is always concerned with the future. Moreover, I have never met an architect who sets out to make things worse; on the contrary, the desire to make life better is the general subtext of design activity. 

Weston street ts webbo

Weston street ts webbo

Source: Tim Soar

AHMM’s Weston Street, winner of an RIBA National Award in 2018

That is one reason why I don’t have a problem with architectural awards. Looking at the AJ’s coverage of the RIBA Awards, particularly the national winners, shows what extraordinary skills the UK profession has in depth. Despite worries about loss of status, pressure on fees and the nightmare of dealing with increasingly bureaucratic regulatory systems, practices are producing great work at every scale and across geographical boundaries.

Quality of architecture and urban design outlasts the temporary concerns reflected in news pages across the year, but it would be foolish to underestimate some key issues which have dominated the year. First and foremost has been the ongoing Brexit saga, which has certainly affected the confidence of some (not all) clients, particularly in the commercial sector. This has had a negative knock-on effect on practices, with whom one can only sympathise. However, it needs to be remembered that despite the Project Fear pre-referendum propaganda, the economy has not collapsed and indeed the employment rate is at a record high. 

The Establishment has shown itself in all its tarnished colours in the past year. Theresa May has been heroic under the circumstances

At the time of writing, everything about the outcome of Brexit negotiations is up in the air. The Establishment has shown itself in all its tarnished colours in the past year. The BBC has abandoned all pretence at even-handedness. Unelected peers have pledged to overturn a referendum supported by all main parties. The legal profession, the CBI, the Church of England and much of what used to be called Fleet Street have done all they can to undermine the UK negotiating position by the political equivalent of shooting people in the back. Theresa May has been heroic under the circumstances.

The other big story of the year has of course been the Grenfell Tower fire. It is encouraging that Paul Hyett has been appointed as an adviser on what happened in respect of design and construction, and what lessons we might learn as a result. With his expert witness experience and all-round understanding of the relationship between architecture, regulation and building, this was a good choice for a daunting task.

As usual we lost people who should have been with us longer; Peter Davey and Richard Horden were both adornments to the profession in their own ways. I will miss Will Alsop hugely – he still had much to offer, and from his earliest days as a student at the AA, showed a prodigious talent for producing great architecture and enjoying life, which made time in his company seem to pass all too quickly. The University of Westminster’s ‘supercrit’ this month, recalling and reviewing his Grand Bleu building in Marseille, was a reminder of who and what we have lost. 

But Will would never have ended one of his own AJ columns on anything other than a cheery note, and in that spirit, best wishes to all for the year to come, however uncertain prospects may seem. 

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