Iconic projects will look after themselves. Much more significant are the buildings in which we live, work and play, writes Paul Finch
How does architecture help to deliver political agendas, and how can it influence or help to bring about social change? This is the topic of a debate at the Royal Academy next month, prompted by the Rogers Stirk Harbour ‘Inside Out’ exhibition, and given zest by Lord Rogers’ criticism the role of the Prince of Wales in the planning system, with developers (not all of them) genuflecting by presenting their designs in advance.
The general subject is a fascinating one, because it invites us to consider the chicken-and-egg relationship between policy-makers, who almost inevitably prompt buildings of one sort or another, and architects and other design professionals. Who is leading whom? In the case of Richard Rogers himself and, indeed, his old sparring partner, Terry Farrell, architectural and planning ideas have frequently been presented to politicians as a way of influencing agendas, which will then result in plans and buildings. It is not simply a case of policy-makers in one ivory tower handing out instructions to professionals sitting in their own. There is miscegenation.
For politicians, both local and national, architects can be viewed as an irrelevance (Michael Gove) or as an essential element in a civilised society (Ed Vaizey), with most sitting somewhere in between. My observation is that, when politicians have direct dealings with skilled designers, they are incredibly impressed, but an understanding of design, planning, construction and outcome is not necessarily the first thing on the minds of people in office. They are often more interested in promoting projects by misleading the public about true final cost (Scottish Parliament, Olympics, HS2) rather than worrying about the niceties of what they wrongly assume to be the bow-tie element of the process.
Moreover, from the public client viewpoint, there is a tendency to think that designers only design products. But good designers can also design policies, if briefed. Can anyone say that the successive housing policies of governments for the past 20 years would not have been better had they not been devised and delivered by designers and housebuilders? They would surely have started by examining the implications of growing population numbers, household formation, land supply, and so on. None of this is mysterious, but synthetic thinking is not the stock-in-trade of those poor housing and construction ministers who generally last about 18 months in office, leaving just as they have a notion of what the right questions might be, let alone answers.
The challenges and design solutions required are sometimes thought of as only being related to iconic projects, like parliamentary or Olympic buildings. But in truth these are very occasional opportunities and up to a point will look after themselves. Much more significant are the buildings, and most certainly the public spaces, in which we live, work and play.
Architecture forms the backdrop to the lives of each of us: we are almost all born in a building; we go to a school; we are brought up in a house or flat; many go to university; almost all experience a variety of workspaces for five decades; we retire; we go to hospital; we die. We enjoy parks and gardens, woods and forests, mountains and valleys, generally modified in some respect, for better or worse, by man-made contributions to urban and rural experience.
Because design is so ubiquitous, you sometimes feel that politicians only think they have a responsibility when something is special, rather than everyday. But it is the everyday experience which, in aggregate, has the greatest effect on all our lives. Understanding this would be a good starting point for any future political strategy towards architecture and the built environment.