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Isn't it time for architects to lead a collective mission?

Paul Finch
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Strength in depth, not design icons, is what gives the profession its authority, says Paul Finch

A jolly round of anniversary parties has cheered the architectural scene this autumn, not least ADP’s 50th, celebrated last week in the Royal Festival Hall. Having been invited to say the proverbial few words, I turned to the AJ from 1965 and as ever found a mixture of content that partly seemed to come from another planet (the registration board suspending a practice for daring to contact London borough architects offering its services) and partly could have appeared this week (about housing, infrastructure, education and so on).

This was the year Kenzō Tange won the Gold Medal, Le Corbusier died and Denys Lasdun unveiled his designs for a pair of buildings in front of the Shell Centre – a National Theatre and Opera House, now rather forgotten. Leslie Martin produced his grand Whitehall office plan, which included demolition of the Foreign Office. In the wider world, the Kray twins were arrested for running a protection racket, Manchester United won the old First Division title, and the first series of Thunderbirds was launched.

Hugh Casson opened his Elephant House at London Zoo, a story that linked to the results of the RIBA Council election that year, since he was one of those chosen. The president, elected by council, was Lord Esher; the two deputy presidents were Donald Gibson and Robert Matthew. New councillors in addition to Casson were: Lewis Womersley, Hugh Wilson, Percy Johnson Marshall, George Grenfell-Baines, Hubert Bennett, Bill Allen, Dick Sheppard, Walter Bor, Fred Pooley, Alwyn Sheppard Fidler and John Eastman.

For young readers these names may not mean much, but these were giants of the profession, architects with whom you could associate at least one building or major organisation for which they were responsible. Half of them were subsequently knighted. One has to say that by comparison with today, the council of 1965 was magisterial in its authority.

What mattered was the focus on what contribution the profession could make

In those days there was no Stirling Prize, and the whole world of architectural awards was subdued by today’s standards. What mattered, and this shines out from the AJ pages, was a focus on what contribution the profession could make to helping solve the great social and environmental issues of the day rather than winning jobs. At that time, competition for work could not be carried out, at least in theory, by fee-bidding, though the AJ thundered about the ubiquity of ‘commercial practices’ working without fee for developers in the expectation of receiving commissions.

It is tempting to note the rise and rise of RIBA Awards as being a subconscious response to the loss of the fee scale, the imposition of compulsory competition for certain types of work, and the destruction of public-sector architectural offices, which 50 years ago employed more than half of the profession.

Architects may have abandoned planning, cost control, project management and automatic team leadership; they may be employed by contractors instead of approving their work; they may be endlessly exploited by unscrupulous clients, but by God we still have our awards.

I like the RIBA Awards, regarding them as far more important than the Stirling – that annual gamble that too often has unexpectedly perverse results. The awards, by contrast, show depth in strength, and should properly be the subject of a grand national celebration, if only the institute’s regions could get their parochial minds around the benefits.

It is of course through a wider range of work, at every scale, that the profession engages with the public at large, even if it is via individual client relationships rather than a mighty profession leading a collective mission.

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