The Foster proposal is about far more than an airport and is based on serious research into the future of the UK economy, writes Paul Finch
Last week’s excellent British Council for Offices conference in Madrid, attended by a cheery group of architects, as well as the property brigade, was treated to a discussion on prospects for the economy by former chancellor Lord (Norman) Lamont, ex-Chief Secretary to the Treasury Lord (Paul) Myners and Sir Stuart Hampson, former chairman of John Lewis Partnership and now chairman of the Crown Estate.
While they were broadly in agreement on various aspects of the economy, there was a divergence of views on Europe, with Lord Lamont particularly sceptical about whether the EU could dig itself (and the Euro) out of the hole in which it now resides. No surprise there, nor over his warning that quantitative easing - ie printing money - would eventually land us with a significant problem in one form or another: probably a nasty dose of inflation and subsequent interest rate rises.
Quite unexpected was a comment by Lord Myners on the Bank of England. Having been a member of the BoE ‘Court’, he has had an insider view on its operations, so his suggestion that its 160 economists may be excessive and 10 really good ones might be preferable was worth pondering, even if slightly tongue-in-cheek.
Then came the interesting bit. Noting that the Bank operates from a Soane building substantially altered by Herbert Baker in the 1920s, Myners questioned whether its design was now appropriate, suggesting that it is ‘not suitable for collegiate decision-taking’.
Given the generally hierarchical nature of the Bank, with the Governor as God and his advisers as archangels, this comment was a critique of both structure and environment, but it was interesting that design was referred to at all. This may be because Lord Myners is a former chairman of Land Securities, and will have been familiar with the decisions about efficient workplaces taken by our biggest property developer.
‘By their buildings shall ye know them’; but that applies as much to interior design, layout and communal space as it does to external appearance, which in certain countries follows the ‘swivel-eyed loon’ school of design. This is where structures twist and shout for no discernible reason, other than to satisfy the craving for sexed-up CGI dossiers, generated to impress whichever imagineer is selling the idea to a client or funder uninterested in plan or section.
It is not fair to blame this on so-called starchitects, most of whom have achieved their status by being exceptionally talented. But it certainly takes place in a context of celebrity culture, which informed a conference session I chaired asking the question as to whether we wanted architects to be celebrity chefs, or just good cooks - a provocative distinction, which prompted a lively discussion, emphasising that the important thing is not the status of the designer but the quality of what is produced, that quality being dependent on far more than those CGI images.
It’s horses for courses: if every building is a prototype and innovation is an inevitable cult, then every architect is pushed towards the ‘chef’ end of the spectrum. But suppose you want a similar product produced to high standards time and time again? Isn’t that more about cookery than invention, as with the standardised approaches now being promoted for new schools? Some of the best designers around are responsible for cars and planes which run off the production lines in their thousands.
In the end, quality of thought is all - as important from the client as it is from the designer. Let’s see if the incoming governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, takes the Myners view.