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Paul Finch at MIPIM: Why architects love the idea of being a chef

Paul Finch
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Paul Finch savours this year’s MIPIM property market in Cannes and asks ‘where was London’s Mayor?’

I had a light supper with Ken Shuttleworth at MIPIM last week – a simple dish of four oysters. However, they arrived in separate little china dishes, with white toppings making them resemble hard-boiled eggs. The waiter instructed us to eat the content of each dish in its entirety in one mouthful, using the dessert spoon provided. The taste experience was remarkable: at the bottom of the were little ice crystals; in the middle the oyster; the top a warm foam with sea-flavours.

Simple ingredients had been transformed by juxtaposition, temperature difference, and complementary textures – the result of a creative chef.

My observation: it is completely understandable why so many architects love to cook – and more than that, to be chefs. The reasons are as follows: first, a chef conceives a complete menu, and thus is in overall control of the meal and what guests will enjoy. Second, the chef takes charge of both specification and, importantly, the purchasing budget. Third, the chef is in control of detailed production and timing. Fourth, he or she can control the nature of consumption via the way a table is dressed (cutlery, glasses and so on). Fifth, the chef is in control of delivery. And finally, whatever happens, the same exercise, or a different one, can take place the following day.

Compare that with the burdensome life of the architect. A given site; someone else’s brief (menu); specification powers subject to interference; an imposed budget; partial control over delivery, possibly, but perhaps very little if it is design-and-build; little relationship with unknown end-users; no certainty of control of fit-out; and, at the end of it all, no possibility of repeating the exercise without going through the process for two or three years.

The upside is that architects do not have that daily performance to undertake, always under scrutiny, and generally working with a clientèle that wants each dish to be exactly the same as it was the last time. The kitchen-meisters have their burden too; but few would aspire to become architects. Some would fall into the category of post-modern architects, memorably described by Berthold Lubetkin as ‘ornamental pastry-chefs’.

The virtues of consistency

Like most regular MIPIM visitors I have my favourite restaurants in Cannes, which I prefer not to name since it just makes it more difficult to get a table. In most cases, their virtue is consistency, both of food, wine and service. It is not question of being brilliant, it is a question of being competent in the use excellent materials – particularly fish and seafood.

Again, you might make a comparison with the world of architecture, in this case what you get from different practices. A wise old RIBA president, Fred Pooley, made the theme of his presidential term ‘competence’. A bit dull we thought at the time. Now old and wiser myself, I realise that just doing things properly is not as easy as it sounds; to do so on a consistent basis over decades is extremely difficult.

So there are plenty of practices, especially smaller ones, who do not aspire to win the Stirling Prize, and would be happy to win the occasional award for when the confluence of good client, good site and decent budget creates the context for something special. Nevertheless, the lesser work will be of good standard, and significantly better than a lot of the mediocre stuff we seen built across the country, with little evidence of an architect’s involvement.

There is often criticism of repetition, as if it implies low standards. I refer to the buildings of Piazza San Marco in Venice as proof positive of the benefits of replication. One might add Gower Street.

Where was the mayor?

The notable missing person at MIPIM last week was the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. He likes going to fashion industry events, but apparently has little interest in the clients, architects, builders and suppliers who drive the future of the capital.

This is odd, because his own policies on housing provision are almost entirely dependent on the private sector producing ever more units, so he can get his ‘affordable’ portion. Every time he increases his density targets (like Stalin increasing wheat production targets as delivery failed to materialise), or raises his affordable percentage, or otherwise changes the rules of engagement, he antagonises a sector he needs as a friend.

This year’s moans: first, without any reason given, Brompton bikes are excluded from the portion of the draft London Plan dealing with cycle provision. Why? Second, a late appendix to the plan demands that the discounted element of build-to-rent developments can only be supplied via a ‘registered provider’. This means that developer/investors may have to completely change their business model. So just another spanner in the wheels of desperately needed housing provision.

The mayor’s deputy, Jules Pipe, did sterling work behind the scenes, but GLA staff were banned from attending. I chaired a talks session on the extraordinary Old Kent Road masterplan, with no officers from the GLA or Southwark present. Crazy. The Mayor needs to turn up next time, proving not only that London is open for business, but that there is somebody minding the shop. You do that on the London Stand – and Sadiq would get a warm reception.

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