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Who’d want to go back to when most architects worked in the public sector?

Paul Finch

And if the NHS is so brilliant, why isn’t there a demand for a National Architecture Service? asks Paul Finch

Personally I am not a big fan of email Christmas cards, which I tend to delete without opening. On the other hand I always enjoy an envelope, particularly if the contents are the kind of delight that architects and designers can produce so well (Thomas Heatherwick’s offerings have been especially memorable over the years).

This year, the winner by several lengths were ‘The United Kingdom of ORMS Designers and Architects’, who sent a brilliantly designed ‘Brexmas passport’, complete with witty stamps and permits in facsimile mode. Congratulations to whoever was responsible.

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Source: Hockley Design

My other favourite this year was equally witty in two ways. Pentagram has for years been sending out marvellous ‘Pentagram Papers’, always immaculately designed, on a huge range of subjects from dried flowers to restaurant recommendations. This year the subject matter was customer reviews of the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer (‘Faster, safer than using a knife’), which appeared on Hutzler’s website.

So the double wit was first choosing a hilarious subject for general viewing, and secondly producing a physical document rather than emailing a web-link, thereby introducing the world of typeface, scale and layout – you know, that stuff which website designers find so hard to get right.

Some of the reviews are pretty witty themselves: Madalyn K offers the following: ‘If God does not exist, then how is it the banana fits so perfectly in this banana-slicer!?!?! CHECKMATE, ATHEISTS!’ The pseudonymous Manny Thanx comments: ‘Being a modern guy living in the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, I chose to download the Hutzler 571 mobile app instead of purchasing the actual slicer.’

At this time of year, the distinction between the virtual and the real that comes into sharp focus is illness, whether winter colds or something more serious. It is a very physical business, hence the media’s near-obsession with the NHS and its alleged failures. Clearly no system is likely to be perfect, but I wonder whether the occasional horror stories that hit the headlines are a true reflection of the service as a whole, which from the perspective of my nearest and dearest (including me) has been pretty damn good over the years.

No system subjected to massive increases in demand is likely to prove resilient forever

However, no system subjected to massive increases in demand (eg resulting from net migration over the past 20 years), and which has no truly effective mechanism for preventing ‘health tourism’, is likely to prove resilient forever. I see parallels between train companies and NHS trusts in this respect: massive and impressive increases in service delivery to ‘customers’ which strain operational systems, sometimes to breaking point. The moronic behaviour of transport unions in respect of passengers on Southern was to an extent mirrored by junior doctors last year, encouraged by dubious ring-leaders whose motives appeared more political than medical.

The niggling doubt about monopolised public services like the NHS, funded directly from the public purse is this: if it is so brilliant, why isn’t it replicated around the world? And why, for that matter, isn’t there a demand for a National Architecture Service? Goodness knows, there is surely a need for an NAS, which could address everything from housing demand to improving energy-profligate buildings? Why couldn’t taxpayers go to their local NAS practice and seek design improvements to their dwellings, the equivalent of cosmetic surgery for the fashion-anxious? And of course the NAS would always be on hand to provide examinations, diagnosis and prognosis for cities with problem areas, applied through the Local Plan (Local Anaesthetic).

This is, of course, more or less what we had for about five decades, when more than half the profession worked for the public sector. Would we want to revert? I doubt it.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Hi Mr Finch,

    Many thanks for your article, I have a couple of points that I belive are worth noting.

    I feel your piece isn't a question about what works and what doesn't, as you have mentioned all systems have their faults.

    I believe this to be a question of whether you consider architecture to be a social service. This same question can also be asked of whether you believe the NHS is a social service. What is critical to understand is that social services do not go hand in hand with free market ideology - they always require state subsidies / control. The minute a 'social service' is subject to the free market it will fail in quality for the majority of people, while only being able to benefit the super rich. And since it is the super rich who hold positions of power, it is within their interest to keep these services private (hence why the NHS is not replicated around the world).

    This can be seen in architecture today, where the best / award winning buildings are almost always those with great amounts of (private) funding. Whereas publicly funded projects require mostly un-paid architectural labour, an implementation of private progamming and a strectched budget.

    If you believe one should profit from such social services, then its focus isn't social or focussed on quality.

    And on your point of a national architecture service within the UK, some of the best modernist housing schemes and public buildings were designed within this time (in both architectural and social ambition). I implore you to find something that is in any way comparable to what is being built today.

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  • In these days of post-truth and anti intellectualism, perhaps the AJ thinks it is lucky to have Paul Finch as a columist. He does the magazine no favours.

    He admits that the NHS is brilliant but then goes on to dismantle it.
    It is replicated across Europe, and more importantly, most Europeans contribute more, and have far better health, as the figures for infant mortality and cancer treatment show.
    Junior doors are by no means unqualified, they are just the ones who are not Consultants or Registrars, and at present it is almost impossible to progress to those ranks cease of government cuts. They are the guys who put you together after your car smash and so on, working sometimes 3 shifts in a row with another 2 of being on call.
    Their action is a response to yet more pressure to work longer hours of less pay and no career progression.
    It may be seen as political, but nowhere near political as Jeremy Hunts determination to slowly crush the NHS out of existence.

    PF’s portrayal of Public service architecture is also way off the mark. More good architecture was then produced than now.
    Political interference was, and still is a major contributor to crap architecture.

    PF’s interference is pretty one-sided political, and I for one am sick of not experts, but interfering politicos, who know not of what they speak.

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