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Weekend roundup: Style Wars – Return of the Scruton

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Simon Aldous’s take on the big architectural stories of the week: Government launches ‘beauty’ watchdog • Maggie’s apologises for competition • Parenting survey 

While tackling the housing crisis demands that we build a vast number of homes, the government has repeatedly acknowledged that it is also crucial to ensure that this housing is well designed.

Speaking at last month’s Stirling Prize presentation, housing secretary James Brokenshire called architects ‘the guardians of quality’ adding: ‘So often the difference between the ugly and the beautiful isn’t because of “good architect vs bad architect” but rather a case of there being little or no architect at all.’

But these warm words now have a bitter aftertaste following Brokenshire’s announcement that rather than look to architects to safeguard architectural quality, he was looking to Roger Scruton – a persistent critic of modern architecture – to carry out the job.

Scruton will head the government’s new Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which is charged with developing ‘a vision and practical measures to help ensure new developments meet the needs and expectations of communities.’

Which is all a bit of a gear change from Brokenshire’s words four months ago, when, stressing the importance of good architecture, he proclaimed: ‘We in government certainly won’t be dictating to local areas what good design looks like.’

Fears that Scruton’s appointment could reignite traditional vs modern style wars were exacerbated when housing minister Kit Malthouse embraced the new commission with a tweet showing two buildings ‘both built in the last 10 years. One will stand for centuries, one won’t.’

The buildings were a glazed office on Oxford Street and a Neoclassical courthouse in the US state of Alabama, the latter presumably being Malthouse’s architectural ideal.

It’s a remark so wrong-headed one hardly knows where to start. Immediate questions that spring to mind are: how does he presume to know which will last longer? A lot of modern architecture would have lasted a whole lot longer if the government hadn’t refused to list it; why is he comparing two completely different building types? But mostly … what the bejesus does this have to do with housing? Is he proposing that all new council housing is fronted by Doric-columned porticos? 

The tweet is, however, a tactic straight out of the Scruton playbook – of using specific and self-selected examples to make vast generalisations. Scruton once sought to ‘prove’ that classical music was better than pop by extensively analysing one example of each – both chosen by him.

Malthouse’s courthouse choice cost £37 million, so is presumably more robust than the Confederate statues that have caused much controversy (many of which were hastily and cheaply erected during the civil rights movement). But the building nevertheless seems to chime with the notion of constructing an ersatz idealised past.

Among the many architects dismayed by the new ‘beauty’ watchdog was Jonathan McDowell of Matter Architecture, who remarked: ‘The last thing the promotion of better design needs is to be paired with “style”. Achieving good design is much too important to be equated with, or even in the same sentence as, that superficial concern.’

RIBA president Ben Derbyshire, while ostensibly welcoming the commission, tellingly added: ‘Without the skill and expertise of the UK’s world-leading architects, there is a risk that “beauty” becomes a single identikit style, failing the communities so desperate for high-quality, sustainable homes.’ 

Paul Finch: Forget ‘beautiful buildings’ – the government should create a Housing Delivery Authority instead

Scrutinising Scruton

Scruton’s appointment as ’housing tsar’ has prompted much research into his previous words and actions, and the findings aren’t pretty.

In 2002 it was revealed that he had proposed to one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, Japan Tobacco International, that it pay him £1,000 a month in return for ‘placing’ pro-smoking articles in some of Britain’s most prestigious newspapers. 

In 1999 he was successfully sued by the Pet Shop Boys after he claimed the pop duo’s songs were almost entirely the work of sound engineers – an allegation so ludicrous it suggests Scruton is quite happy to wade in on a subject he knows little about.

In the past week Scruton has come under heavy attack on non-architectural grounds, with the unearthing of a multitude of unsavoury views he has expressed in the past – including on sexual harassment and date rape

At the time of writing, Scruton still holds his position, but there are signs his tenure could be as brief as that of Toby Young’s on the board of the Office for Students, from which he resigned after previous ‘ill-judged’ comments were raked up. 

There was, however, at least one person ready to defend Scruton’s appointment. Oh, what a surprise – it’s Toby Young!

Poll: Should Roger Scruton head the government’s beauty watchdog?
• Yes
• No because of his views on architecture
• No because of his other views 
• No because of all his views
Vote here

Last week’s poll asked whether the government should allow rooftop extensions without planning approval to help tackle the housing crisis. The answer was a decisive ‘no’ – 80 per cent considered it a bad idea with 61 per cent fearing it would lead to bad design.

Will work for food

Shutterstock lunch

Shutterstock lunch

‘We’ve gone from “will work for food” to “will work for the possibility of winning food”,’ tweeted architect Nick Simpson. He was responding to the competition for design ideas for a hypothetical future Maggie’s Centre, where the top prize is lunch at Maggie’s Newcastle.

The competition provoked anger from several architects, including Invisible Studio’s Piers Taylor who suggested it was ‘devaluing what architects do’. Meanwhile, Jeremy Till, head of Central Saint Martins, called the contest an ‘exploitation of intellectual, professional and human capital’.

Is this all a bit harsh on Maggie’s, a charity that has over the past 23 years built up a network of cancer-care centres, all designed by high-profile architects giving their services for free? If the likes of Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers didn’t expect payment, why should anyone else?

Nevertheless, there is a difference here. The big names were all directly commissioned, rather than being asked for speculative designs. Moreover, their established success meant they could comfortably afford to give their time for free. Norman Foster created a beautiful Maggie’s Centre for Manchester, but a practice that this year paid out £23 million in bonuses probably isn’t going to feel deprived by giving one client a freebie.

However, Maggie’s feels that its intentions, in this case, have been misunderstood, saying the competition was intended as ‘a creative and fun way for Newcastle students to learn more about Maggie’s’. The contest was then widened by adding a ‘professional category’ to enable non-students to be involved – but ‘we never intended it to be seen as a serious competition’.

I’m not entirely sure that makes things better.

Practices still penalising parents

Shutterstock emasculation

Shutterstock emasculation

Back in August, the AJ published an article by former BDP architect Pepper Barney explaining why she had left the practice following her maternity leave after it declined her proposal for flexible working. Her piece – the AJ’s most-read ever online story – prompted us to seek a wider picture of what it is to be a parent and an architect.

The results of our parenting survey show that, while some practices are adopting family-friendly policies, a large number continue to perpetuate the culture of long hours and presenteeism. The survey found 28 per cent of requests for flexible working from parents were either unsuccessful or only partially successful.

Crucially it has traditionally been women who are expected to take the brunt of responsibility for childcare, with many reporting that their career progression has suffered as a result.

But, the survey showed, when fathers have attempted to redress this balance, they can find they also suffer. One respondent said that, after his employer agreed to a flexible working arrangement, he found he went from being ‘project architect on an £11 million project to a CAD monkey’.

And yet, for those who argue that flexible working isn’t compatible with a successful architectural practice, there are plenty of examples to the contrary – notably the practices shortlisted for the annual AJ100 Employer of the Year award. Suzi Winstanley, a partner at Penoyre & Prasad, tells how she was promoted from associate after taking time off to have her son, and she looks forward to a day when ’the norm is a productive four-day week without a cut in full-time pay’.

And Tim Burgess of Cove Architects makes the point that part-time employees can often be more cost-effective. ‘We found you can hire heavyweight experience and talent for the cost of a Part 2 if they work a three-day week,’ he says.

But here’s a twist: careers expert Paul Chappell believes Brexit could accelerate the change in attitude as EU architects quit the UK and demand for architects rises. ‘Firms not willing to look at more flexible working arrangements will therefore be missing out on a large group of well-qualified potential employees,’ he argues.  

Also this week

Ordnanceroad peterbarber photos2

Ordnanceroad peterbarber photos2

  • It may seem hard to believe, but Peter Barber designed the above council housing for the London Borough of Enfield without any help from a ‘housing tzar’. The AJ’s Rob Wilson calls the Ordnance Road scheme ‘large-scale architecture writ small, speaking of big architectural ideas and not just a pattern-book’. It would be interesting to know what Roger Scruton makes of it.
  • Reiach and Hall’s archive for the civil nuclear industry has won the RIAS’s 2018 Andrew Doolan award for the Best Building in Scotland. The Edinburgh practice’s Nucleus building, in Wick, triumphed over 12 other shortlisted projects, winning the architect a £25,000 prize.
  • Airport projects are clearly like buses. You have one overturned by a referendum and another one will be along in a few minutes. After Foster + Partners’ $13 billion Mexico City airport was axed, the practice now finds itself in the running for the $8.5 billion expansion of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. It will have to see off rival bids from Calatrava and SOM among others.
  • Energy efficiency failings have been exposed at thousands of recently completed public buildings with less than 2 per cent managing to achieve the top eco-ranking. Government figures showed that more than two-thirds were given a rating between D and G (the lowest ranking) under the Display Energy Certificates monitoring initiative. The scheme requires submissions from all state-occupied structures larger than 250m² that have either been newly finished or have been sold or rented for the first time in a decade. 
  • Zaha Hadid Architects is among a group of practices selected to design an entire new ‘smart city’ to the west of Moscow. The practice, working with Russian-based TPO Pride Architects, will help create the 460ha Rublyovo-Arkhangelskoye district near the Russian capital. Also working on the project will be Japanese practice Nikken Sekkei, Russian architects UNK Project and ABD Architects and Italian practice Archea Associati.

Simon Aldous’s Weekend Roundup is emailed exclusively to AJ subscribers every Saturday morning. Click here to find out more about our subscription packages

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