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What my 40 years in architecture have taught me...

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Paul Finch’s letter from London: During my 40 years in architecture, some things have changed utterly, but others are much the same

January 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of my life in journalism.

Starting as a trainee with a business publishing company, I had no idea in what direction I would be heading, and it was by chance that I learned my craft on two weekly titles dealing with commercial property and architecture respectively. I immediately felt at home with these subjects, and that was the end of a potential career on medical or engineering publications.

Plus ça change and all that: it is curious how many stories and issues seem to loop around on long-scale trajectories, with each generation of news desks discovering that the old-timers in the office really have seen it all before, or at least something like it. A few subjects I recall from the early months of trainee journalism include controversy about the future of Covent Garden as the market moved to Nine Elms; the proposals for new traffic arrangements and comprehensive redevelopment of Piccadilly Circus; a crisis at the RIBA over the level of subscription payments which resulted in the president inviting all council members to resign and stand for re-election; and Basil Spence becoming involved in a flaming row with the AJ over his designs for the Home Office in Queen Anne’s Gate, which appeared to be rather different to what was actually emerging on site.

Colonel Richard Seifert was in his prime as the major commercial architect of the day; I recall going to the opening of his International Press Centre tower in Holborn, then regarded as the last word in height, but now overshadowed and awaiting demolition in favour of something more profitable. Down the road, his Centre Point building (now listed of course) was still the subject of huge controversy, because it was alleged (wrongly) that it was being kept empty as an ingenious but unexplained way of making it more valuable.

The Colonel was on the RIBA Council, and on the issue of subscriptions, took the view that far from being reduced, they should be raised to a level appropriate for running a really good learned society. This didn’t go down too well with the Salaried Architects’ Group and the young guns who got themselves elected onto council and fought a good fight in a way that doesn’t seem to happen any more.

If things were stuffier then, and they were, that had some upsides too. I can’t recall any stories at that time in which any practice behaved with the cavalier disregard for staff that seems to have infected some offices recently, judging by what is reported. Reputation counted for much in a pre-commercial era where practices weren’t allowed to advertise (do they do much these days?)

You can’t turn the clock back and few would want to, but it is dismaying today to see partners and directors of some architectural practices, and big property consultancies, behaving like the crew of a stricken liner whose first thought is to grab the lifeboats for themselves: forget about the passengers and shareholders.

But the old professional ideals were in any event beginning to run out of steam, faced with the rise of consumerism (publication in colour was commonplace by 1972, but architectural publications still treated it with suspicion), and with the political implications of the upheavals of 1968, even if we had a Conservative government.

Environmentalism, energy concerns, community politics and radical new ideas about education were already changing the profession, and familiar patterns of boom and bust were part of the construction scene. Nothing much has changed here.

However, if certain fundamental aspects of architecture and architectural politics look familiar after four decades, there is plenty that has changed utterly. In particular technology and the means of production in the architectural office, which were by no means predictable, except by sages like Buckminster Fuller, Cedric Price and the Archigram boys.

They knew what was what, but nobody in the ‘real world’ was paying much attention. I wonder if things are so different today.

Basil Spence’s Home Office in Queen Anne’s Gate prompted debate in the AJ over the differences between the designed and finished building

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