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It’s time to resist the rise of the miserabilists

Paul Finch

We can’t let the procurement bores and heritage zealots stop good architecture, writes Paul Finch

Take two London situations: in Lambeth, an excellent and sensitive design for an educational building infill by Tony Fretton is thrown out by the planning committee, despite support from planning officers, and with no big formal opposition from mealy-mouthed Historic England.

The committee doesn’t like it, however; in the faux-democratic world in which we now live, the personal prejudices of individual councillors masquerade as independent judgements of urban quality. You look at the huge developments nearby, all approved by the same planning authority, and you begin to wonder if you are going mad. The big stuff, often by cynical clients and second-rate architects, goes sailing through without demur. The small stuff, by committed clients and first-rate architects, gets a thorough trouncing, almost as though there has to be compensation for the rotten stuff already permitted.

Fretton roupell street view 2 crop

Fretton roupell street view 2 crop

Tony Fretton Architects’ Roupell Street proposal

There is also the unfortunate influence of what I have described as the ‘miserabilist tendency’ at work. Nothing new is ever good enough, and anything already built takes on the status of Tablets from the Mount, completely ignoring the circumstances in which recent development was given permission. The existing has to be ‘protected’ at all costs, thereby allowing the zealot wing of The Twentieth Century Society to operate in an irony-free world, in which the only acceptable design ideology is its own, even if it is directly opposed to the ideas of the architects whose work it claims to be protecting.

If the Twentieth Century Society describes something as the architectural equivalent of a crime against humanity, it probably has something going for it

Reworking of the RMJM Commonwealth Institute in Kensington, now the Design Museum, is represented by the Twentieth Century foxes as a disaster, instead of an unanticipated and extraordinary achievement. My working assumption is that if the society describes something as the architectural equivalent of a crime against humanity, it probably has something going for it. My faith in the judgement of Historic England is also being sorely tested because it seems to have no understanding of the benefits and qualities of contemporary architecture. ‘New equals bad’ seems to be its dreary working mantra and if I read one more patronising Historic England comment saying that a new design ‘does not do harm’ to an existing environment, I will scream.

Listen guys: everything was new once, including everything you have been listing in recent years, which you would object to if it were submitted for planning today.

I can’t help reflecting that the people who took such delight in sinking the Garden Bridge, the self-selecting morally superior guardians of idealist procurement systems, have simply made the world more helpful to those who want to stop almost any development anywhere – but who ignore the big commercial stuff and get their kicks by beating up public projects.

The triumph of the miserabilists results in an attack on design ideas all over town. I have been following with interest the case of the Rotherhithe Bridge for pedestrians and cyclists. This was the invention of reForm Architects and engineers Elliott Wood, who had an idea, designed a bridge and carried out all the public consultations and design exercises over the past three years. Everyone loves it. Oops! They are not on the TfL ‘framework’, so cannot compete in the competition recently announced to select a ‘team’ to deliver the project the good guys invented. No design competition, of course. Good ideas, design and bureaucracy just don’t seem to get on. 

This is a pathetic state of affairs, especially Mayor Khan’s stated support for initiatives that will keep London great. Does a world city flourish by promoting ideas, or does it succeed by encouraging procurement bores to take over the world of commissioning? Unfortunately, the miserabilists and the non-creatives appear to have the upper hand. 


Readers' comments (3)

  • Well said Paul. Great little schemes get stopped on the case officer's whim, or because they don't know want to admit they don't understand design, whilst the politicians pass anything that brings in lots of CIL money.

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  • Completely agree in regard to the local councillors and miserabalists - procurement fairness and opportunity creation is more complex. I have been trying to pen something similar in recent weeks but gave up as it was becoming a rant. We had a design for a new home on a brownfield site at committee in Woking which was supported by officers but refused 5-1 by planning committee members. The average age of the 5 against was around 75, the 1 was 45. One of the councillors is on public record as saying 'we don't want modern buildings here, we want 1930's bungalows'. It was granted consent at appeal. These attitudes will change of course when the new batch of councillors are elected but for many good projects it change will not come soon enough.

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  • In this case the officers were fine but the councilors weren't. I hope they have the stomach for an appeal.

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