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MIPIM, and why you shouldn’t always follow the money men

Paul Finch
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For architects the client is, ultimately, far more than the person you invoice, says Paul Finch

Last week’s MIPIM event in Cannes, as cheery as ever, was full of professionals looking for future clients. The relationship seems quite straightforward: the client is the person you invoice. However, at least for architects, there are other considerations to be taken into account.

For one thing, there is place. A good test of a design proposal is whether it is doing something for a place, or to it. Terry Farrell has often said that, in circumstances where ownerships are complex or where there may be competing interests at work, it is valuable to think about ‘place’ being the real client. Of course a place can’t pay the fees, but it is still a good point.

Another consideration is the ultimate users of the building or place, who are unlikely to have much say in what has been delivered. In the case of the office market, the pecking order of influence runs as follows: funder; developer; tenant; users. It is the latter group who will spend large chunks of their lives in the product created by the architect, yet there is no direct relationship.

One definition of what it means to be a professional is that you owe a duty of care to unknown third-party users, whoever they may be: workers in an office, children in a school, audiences in theatres and so on. This requires architects to think about buildings in a way which is quite different to everyone else in the construction process, that is to say by anticipating future change.

A good question to ask of any building proposal, but a question rarely asked by the formal client, is how the planned building could be used if its first life becomes redundant. In other words, is the design about long life and loose fit, or is it so precisely tailored that any subsequent change is too difficult or too expensive to contemplate? If demolition is the only option, hugely adding to carbon generation and waste, the design may be a good example of a specific building type at a specific moment, but it is not good architecture.

 Generous buildings (in terms both of space and volume), slightly over-engineered, will last almost indefinitely. Good examples are the Georgian house, and almost any public building produced by the Victorians, whether town hall, hospital, asylum or board school, all of which have been adapted for residential, commercial and entertainment uses. Contrast them with too much of today’s new stock, which might be described as short-life, tight-fit and high-energy, in the sense that it will need to be replaced relatively quickly.

There is a breathtaking hypocrisy in the nostrums being peddled about how to deal with our housing ‘crisis’

The exception is housing, where there is an expectation that the building will last for decades after the mortgage is paid. At MIPIM, there was much discussion about renting, rather than buying. For reasons that escape me, there appears to be an assumption that renters are so oblivious to the attractions of space and volume that they simply crave single-aspect units where anything above 38m2 is described as ‘over-sized’.

As usual, I could not find a single property person who rents their dwelling, or lives in a 38m2 unit. There is a breathtaking hypocrisy in the nostrums being peddled about how to deal with our housing ‘crisis’, if that is the right word to describe a permanent condition. These include splattering low-density estates all over the green belt and building smaller and smaller in cities. 

However, there were rays of light in Cannes, involving local authorities like Enfield, which are launching initiatives to reverse the private sector race to the bottom. Of which more next week. 

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