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We should delight in, not bemoan, architecture's invention and imagination

Paul Finch

Why pay attention to the miserabilist tendency dominating the London architecture debate?

I read with near disbelief the review by Rowan Moore of the New Ideas for Housing exhibition staged by New London Architecture with support from the Greater London Authority. Rather than welcoming an outpouring of ideas, not just design proposals, The Observer’s architecture guru ignored the strength in depth of welcome fresh thinking.

Instead he chose to smear at least one of the 10 winning entries by implying none-too-subtly that it had been chosen because the designer is an NLA ‘supporter’, and said that because NLA has commercial sponsorship there is something ‘queasy’ about it. Under the circumstances, one can understand why NLA chairman Peter Murray invited Moore to leave the exhibition launch party.

Since the latter feels queasy about the place, it is surprising he found himself able to attend the event – but perhaps it was to confirm his miserabilist prejudices about the danger of ideas.

Nothing seems to find favour in the world of Less is Moore

It was exactly the same in relation to the Garden Bridge, which he airily dismissed; nothing seems to find favour in the world of Less is Moore unless it is wispily personal or evidence of Big Politics doing what he considers to be right.

Of course, he was not always like this – in fact for much of his time as director of the Architecture Foundation he was a proposer of all sorts of positive initiatives.

Things seemed to change after the AF competition to build a new headquarters in Southwark however. He seemed to be obsessed with ensuring that Zaha Hadid Architects won: the timescale was extended, as was the budget, leaving the other competitors at a huge disadvantage.

Predictably the whole thing ended in tears, and, apart from leaving the AF with no permanent home and gallery, it discredited the entire idea of architectural competitions. If the AF could not organise one, how could it preach to other people about the virtues of this procurement route? There was scant coverage of this shambles in the London Evening Standard. This may have been because Moore was its architectural correspondent.

He subsequently complained about conflicts of interest of others in architecture (including me as chair of CABE), possibly because he himself proved so lamentable in dealing with his own situation. Conflicts of interest are inevitable at some level – what’s important is how you manage them.

In Moore’s world there is always something behind the scenes of which he does not approve. In the case of the Garden Bridge it is the ‘shock horror’ fact that the chief instigator of the project knows the mayor. The bulk of the cost will come from the private sector. Some public money will be used without The Observer’s prior approval. You want to oppose towers planned for London? Let’s have a campaign fronted by The Observer (last year run in partnership with the AJ).

The problem with the campaign was, and is, the fact it encompasses people who hate towers and those who design them for a living. It was an NLA exhibition about towers, incidentally, that prompted the Skyline Campaign to which Moore so thoroughly lent his support. What has changed subsequently? Did he feel queasy but struggled on because it appeared that the show was anti-commercial?

Whatever its shortcomings (I don’t see many), the current NLA exhibition shows examples of invention, imagination and delight – all too rare in the world of housing. The problem with members of the miserabilist tendency is that all they ever do is moan. They can’t, or won’t, undertake anything themselves, and seem to hate those people who can and do.

Rowan Moore is a decent man who has fallen into the negativity trap. I hope he manages to climb out of it.



Readers' comments (10)

  • Ah well, if you dish it it out you have to take it.
    Throughout my career, starting in the unpromising Prince Charles years, I have fought for good modern architecture, but I also believe that the job of critics is to criticise. I want the best for London and for Britain, and feel that the abundant wealth of architectural talent in the country is let down by the sort of easy-going shrug that lets the half-baked and the compromised go through, and by the blurring of marketing with information and debate.
    I think NLA plays an important role and my recent criticisms are not a blanket condemnation of the organisation, which is why I have been happy to work with them on the Skyline campaign. As I said in my recent piece, there is also good work in the current show. But NLA's output does give a much stronger platform to the businesses and consultants who back it than to the credible and important voices that offer a different point of view. Many people, including architects and developers,have told me that they agree with my position.
    Re the AF Competition it was not a personal obsession that Zaha Hadid won. It was the decision of an independent and distinguished jury, with the help of professional advisers, confirmed by the AF's Board of Trustees. Clearly the ultimate outcome of the project was not good, but I have not been shy in talking about this - there is a large section on it in my book Why We Build.
    Re the Garden Bridge, I continue to find it outrageous that something presented as a free gift to London rapidly turned out to cost sixty million pounds of public money. There are many other cogent reasons for opposing it, expressed by many people.
    I often speak up for good design and have no desire to be miserable, but I'd like it if the self-satisfied wing of the architectural establishment gave us less reason to be so.
    Did Peter throw me out? I was leaving anyway. But I wouldn't have blamed him if he had.

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  • It is a sad day when the Architects Journal chooses to pass off bar-room bullying as journalism, but this is just what happens in Paul Finch’s unnecessary evisceration of Rowan Moore. I went back to read Moore’s piece and wondered if it was the same version as Finch had read. It is probably not Moore’s most lucid piece, and in hindsight the sideswipe at the NLA is unfortunate, but the general thrust of the article is hardly worthy of the bile that Finch dishes out. This suggests that a few sharp words from Moore lanced a boil of resentment that had been festering for some time.
    So what motivated such a personal attack? I suspect the answer is political. What Moore and his fellow journalist Oliver Wainwright (doubtless another of Finch’s miserabilists) have so brilliantly done in the last few years is to take architecture out of its self-preening closet and exposed it to its wider social and political context. Within the closet it has been all too easy for journalists to cheerfully and uncritically celebrate the latest fashions of form and technique. Outside of the closet, the analysis is sometimes uncomfortable, and if it is of the political left, then this is a necessary antidote to the dominance of the unfettered market forces that are ripping the heart out of London. The ultimate symbol of the way capital has been spatialised in this city is the Walkie Talkie - and it was Finch who presided over CABE’s highly questionable support for it.
    While the Architects Journal reports on MIPIM-UK (which included a panel session called “From Social Housing to Super Prime”, featuring the billionaires’ developer Nick Candy), other journalists, critics, curators and activists are analysing the effects of such corporate machines on the social and spatial production of our cities. This is what critics do, not out of miserabilism but out of a will to understand the forces at play, and to point out the power and inequalities at stake in those forces. For Finch to parody such critics as “moaners” is trite populism, as is his putdown of the opposition to the Garden Bridge as some kind of Observer readers’ conspiracy – a putdown that trivialises some of the serious and well-founded concerns about that contested scheme.
    My main concern is that Finch is using his position of power in the establishment to mock and thereby stifle critical debate, with Moore as a convenient whipping-boy. His attack on Moore reads as an attack on journalism that does not accord with the corporate ideologies of multinationals such as EMAP, and coming from an influential and once generous editor, this is a sad sign of the times. But my reading is that such attacks come too late. The younger generation of architects and critics, as with the younger generation in general, are aghast at the self-satisfaction of the architectural and political elite, and in their own decidedly non-miserable ways are getting on with the crucial business of proposing alternative models.

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  • Finch is a bloated dinosaur that has had his day. He's had his shot at shaping London, and Till points out above - Finch's legacy is the Walkie Talkie and a London left to the lowest common denominator of market forces. There is a different agenda on the table now, one which is alien to Finch and his crowd of WAF-going schmoozers, who will soon be consigned to irrelevance.

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  • This doesn't seem hugely dignified. Wouldn't a simple Twitter spat have surfficed?

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  • Quite.

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  • Why did you come to a meeting in Waterloo as a guest of the Garden Bridge Trust during this summer ? What is your connection to them that you defend them so staunchly?

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  • There is no architectural 'invention and imagination' in the Garden Bridge - the idea came from a professional actress, not an architect. Once you are set on a garden with large trees on a bridge then there isn't much choice but to make it a huge concrete slab.

    Play the ball, Paul, not the man. The NLA is dominated by positive luvvy talk from developers, but then they could use as a strapline CABE's favourite comment on everything when you were in charge as a strapline - "another bold addition to the London skyline".

    So we are supposed to celebrate an "outpouring of ideas" at the NLA, as if float free from their proponents and champions? What sort of fantasy realm do you live in, Paul? Proposals (not "ideas") are carefully floated and propogated by an industry dominated by money in off-shore bank accounts which has no interest in "good or bad ideas", or in architecture or the urban realm, but just in duplicating itself.

    Most of the bollocks you champion Paul doesn't even get built, but in achieving planning permission these "ideas" increase the paper value of their intended sites to the benefit of the developer - and we don't even get the development.

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  • What a peculiar notion that only architects can have' ideas'. The tone of most of the above makes my point about the relentless negativity of a tiny group of people for whom nothing is ever good enough. In response to the troll, I was not a guest of the Garden Bridge Trust at anything ever. In relation to earlier comments, I was not 'in charge' of Cabe at the time of the Walkie Talkie inquiry and was not even a commissioner in 2007. Emap is not a vast multi-national, but a division of the Top Right Group, which is not multi-national in a significant way. The main point is whether you support ideas and imagination or moan about them. I know which side I am on.

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  • So you support ideas and imagination, Paul? Is that all there is to it? No better or worse ideas? No analysis or critique? What a simple world you pretend to live in - 'just say yes'.

    But you don't live in that world, do you Paul? You're simulating. In fact your entire posture is just a smear against those who analyze and critique projects you like, like the Garden Bridge. This is readily admitted by proponents as not really expected to function as a bridge (try reading the Transport case or the Business case), but it will function as a visitor attraction (in an area heaving with visitor attractions) which will apparently bring benefit by creating an uplift in land values to the north and south of 5% (which is exactly what we don't need in those areas). It is inordinately expensive (Mill bridge £22m; Nine Elms proposals £40m; Garden Bridge £175m), and will cost the public purse £60m in capital and £3.5m per year (the exact amount being extracted from Kew Gardens' grant). Oh, and £20m of public money has been spent on PR and consultants at extreme and irresponsible risk (given that they can't even get a lease on the land to build the bridge on) despite there being no strategic transport or regeneration need (in the London Plan or the Mayor's Transport Plan), but simply because of lobbying and private conversations by mates who stand to make a shedload of money, and because the Mayor encouraged TfL to bend procurement to such an extent that the resultant audit had to be fiddled.

    This goes against everything CABE preached when it comes to developing projects. But to point this out is 'moaning', 'relentless negativity'?

    In fact you, Paul, are the negative one, pouring your hyper-scorn on reasoned critical judgements rather than engaging with the convocation of problematic issues identified by an increasingly sceptical public. And it looks to many of us that it is this - the fact that you have backed a loser - that really gets your goat and generates your force ten gale of bad breath.

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  • Getting nasty. Comments closed.

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