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If the government wants to promote UK architecture, it mustn't stifle it

Will Hurst
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The government’s MIPIM pavilion will focus on global trade, but it must also recognise that UK architecture’s success is built on international talent, says Will Hurst

Earlier this week, a story with a provocative headline about Britain’s post-Brexit future caused uproar when it was misinterpreted by members of the Twitterati, who hadn’t read past the headline.

The article in The Times described attempts by international trade secretary Liam Fox to strengthen trade links and was headlined ‘Ministers aim to build “Empire 2.0” with African commonwealth’. The term ‘Empire 2.0’ seemed to imply ministers look back fondly on this country’s imperial past and wished to see such loaded terminology somehow reclaimed by brand GB. Cue an avalanche of despair and ridicule on social media.

The truth was more complicated. While both Fox and foreign secretary Boris Johnson have defended British colonialism, the term – as the story admitted half-way through – had been uttered not by ministers but by sarcastic civil servants poking fun at the idea that the Commonwealth could replace trade with the EU. Whether the story (and the misinterpretation of it) damage trade negotiations with Africa is a moot point. 

The success of the firms showcased at MIPIM is built on the talents of both foreign and British architects

It’s worth reflecting on all of this, especially if you’re off to MIPIM next week, where the government’s preoccupation with boosting global trade will again be apparent. As our news feature reveals, the government’s Department for International Trade has firmly latched on to the success of British architects abroad and will trumpet the work of leading ‘exporters’, including Grimshaw, Benoy, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Broadway Malyan in a dedicated new pavilion.

While this is a very welcome development, it’s important that small practices are also assisted by the government in the coming months, especially given they are far less diversified than large practices and thus more vulnerable in any domestic downturn.

It is also vital that architects of all sizes can continue to thrive at home, a point made to culture secretary Karen Bradley by RIBA representatives at a creative industries roundtable she hosted last month.

As the firms showcased at MIPIM would no doubt acknowledge, their success is built on the talents of both foreign and British architects within their offices. If the government is serious about promoting them, it must ensure they can employ the very best whether they come from the EU or anywhere else in the world. It must also foster cross-border recognition of architectural qualifications to aid this vital movement of architectural talent now under threat because of Brexit. 

Scrupulously avoiding jingoism would also be a good idea, but that’s quite possibly too much to ask.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I applaud your article by acknowledging smaller practices trying to secure work abroad - you don't have to be a large player to have big ideas. Envelope Architects Ltd are a small practice representing the UK on the Green Planet Architecture stand P-1.J61. There will a total of 12 countries showcasing 12 pioneering practices including MVRDV. This stand is a selection of the World's Largest Network of Sustainable Architects - so please visit us there. Kind Regards Graham Brown

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