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It seems housing is the only bit of architecture of interest to Whitehall

Paul Finch
  • 1 Comment

Architecture is about much more than housing, says Paul Finch

The announcement that the new housing minister, Esther McVey, will attend Cabinet meetings is a welcome sign that housing is being given serious priority under the Johnson government. I can’t be the only person to wonder, however, if that is about as far as architecture interests the current generation of politicians.

Ever since former culture minister Ed Vaizey shuffled architecture off his ministerial plate and onto the Ministry for Housing and Local Government, it has begun to look as though housing design is the only bit of the mother of the arts of much interest to Whitehall.

Shutterstock esther mcvey

Shutterstock esther mcvey

Otherwise it is one curious decision after another, from the wrongly placed Holocaust memorial (why building on rare public open space?) to the decision to gut a Grade II*-listed building in order to insert a replica of the House of Commons debating chamber, complete with clubman lobbies (why a replica?)

Blame should not be attached to the architects of these projects: the brief and strategy were in place before their appointments. But in both instances, one might say: ‘If that is the answer, what exactly was the question?’

In other words, the full range of architectural thinking and analysis is not being applied to the brief or the desired outcome, but only to the design of an object.

In the case of housing, the situation is also odd, because the clumsily named Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission (shades of Bernard Matthews) has not been created as a broad cultural catalyst, but as part of a pragmatic housing programme. The commission, as noted here before, has been founded on a double falsehood, but let’s not go into that again.

The nature of that housing programme, according to the Book of Esther, will be turning back to Cameronian ownership, rather than Mother Teresa’s vision of homes for the struggling. None of this has much to do with architecture, except in the sense that, to quote Richard Rogers, ‘all architecture is politics’.

Let’s hope that Johnson will eschew Chancellor Osborne’s subsidy schemes, which enriched the directors of Persimmon without having any noticeable effect on the quality of their ‘product’.

Let’s hope Johnson puts a stop to the scandal of permitted development apartments

And let’s also hope that he puts a stop to the scandal of permitted development apartments, which are below the minimum dimensional standards he himself introduced in London.

Johnson and McVey should also avoid getting hung up on whether it is private or social or housing association homes which are most needed. We need the lot.

Would-be architects need to toughen up

Surveys about the life of architecture students tend to bring out the gloomster in respondents, and so it proved in the AJ’s nevertheless useful annual survey, not least because life in architecture can be so different to life in schools of architecture.

There are plenty of comfort factors in the survey, as well as some deserved brickbats aimed at the cynical end of the profession, which regards students as simply a source of cheap labour.

The message to those practices is: treat students as you would like to have been treated yourself.

The message to students is: toughen up, don’t moan; take what you can from the experience that comes your way and move on.

You have a long career ahead of you.

  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Could it be that Whitehall's limited interest in architecture is just another aspect of its increasingly limited interest in anything other than Brexit?
    It seems that the human resources of the civil service are being diverted, just as the government's financial resources seem to have been increasingly diverted away from anything the government could think of (notably local authority managed services) to maintain the rapid reduction in borrowing, and to hell with the consequences.
    Until Boris arrived with his new broom and started promising to rapidly throw (presumably borrowed) money around - but not so much to really address repairing the 'austerity' damage to the country as to boost his own popularity by saying what he thinks the 'people' want to hear.
    Likewise the Westminster view of architecture as not much more than housing supply, which is becoming of increasingly concern to politicians - possibly often more with a view to their chances of re-election rather than any real commitment to the need for basic reform.
    The scheme to recreate the House of Commons debating chamber and lobbies within William Whitfield's building at considerable cost is just an example of parliamentarians 'looking after their own', but there are hints that we haven't seen anything yet.
    Apparently Jacob Rees-Mogg has issued orders to his civil servants forbidding - inter alia - the use of metres etc in favour of good old imperial feet and inches.
    Perhaps we now have the old Etonian version of street market traders and barrow boys running the show.

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