Blame the ’90s, says Rory Olcayto
Today, architecture is a portfolio of Culture and Creative Industries Minister Ed Vaizey, in the department of Culture, Media and Sport. What a strange home it is for a construction industry profession, don’t you think? So strange, ministers no longer know what architecture is, or what it means, or what its value to society is.
So an inquiry headed by Terry Farrell, with philosopher Alain de Botton on board, has been launched to find out. Who knows what they will discover. But first, quoting architecture-loving Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and slapping ourselves on our foreheads just like Byrne does in the video for Once in a Lifetime, we must ask: ‘How did we get here?’
Blame the 1990s, when architecture began to be thought of as one of many ‘creative industries’. This placed the profession alongside computer game designers, publishers, film-makers and TV sorts. The aim - and it was government-backed - was simple: foster cultured entrepreneurs who can help build a national, competitive information economy. Synergies will emerge and the nation will reap the rewards.
This sideways move coincided with the recession of the early ’90s, from which architects emerged battered and bruised and considerably less powerful than their old-school colleagues in contracting, surveying and engineering. Perhaps realignment would do the profession good. Still, no one actually asked whether the quality of in-game graphics in the latest Lara Croft was in anyway related to the provision of good housing design, or indeed if much business existed between these new bedfellows beyond the use of 3D Max.
So, even while the Latham Report suggested building professionals work more closely together and the Egan Report proposed more efficient methods, quite a few architects, especially the younger ones, weren’t listening. No wonder. It was boring. (It still is: the most powerful legacy of these customer-focused reports is that cloying obsession some architects have of stating ‘the client’s needs were at the heart of every decision’.)
It was the age of Cool Britannia and Oasis in Number 10 shaking hands with the PM. After years of being ignored by Thatcher, being creative counted for something again. It must have been a huge ego-boost for architects, after being pushed aside by surveyors and project managers in the fight to run construction programmes, to be considered alongside performing artists and fashion designers and to be valued as an artist.
Architects seized the opportunity. There followed years of harping on about the value of design, as a thing in itself, distinct from the process of building and planning. This persuaded successive governments that architecture itself was a thing worth commodifying. Yet, despite it’s new look as a creative industry, which in retrospect now feels like a marketing ruse planned to create a new type of consumer, architects’ natural partners are still planners, contractors and engineers, not the fashion designers, musicians and coders of the so-called creative industries New Labour lumped them in with.
So that’s how we got here. That’s how architecture came to be part of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Vaizey, who at least seems enthusiastic about his review in a Don Quixote sort of way, will look at the ‘government’s role in promoting design quality [and] the economic benefits of architecture’. He means well. Perhaps we should be grateful that Terry Farrell is leading it, and there are some experts on his panel - Sunand Prasad, Hank Dittmar, Alison Brooks and Peter Bishop. Perhaps. At least they know what architecture is.