Paul Finch finds it baffling that the institute has entered the Garden Bridge debate
Since the proposed Garden Bridge in London will be one of the great tourist attractions for the capital, there is little need to worry about the relatively small amounts of public money being invested. It will pay London back in spades. I find it baffling that the RIBA has started squeaking about the procurement process, possibly because the main designer, Thomas Heatherwick, is not an architect.
I know that worthy people are deeply concerned over governance proprieties in relation to this matter but, on the whole, noise is being made not because of genuine concerns about procurement (I could send the RIBA a list of other examples involving its own members if it wants to extend its silly campaign), but because those concerned just don’t like the idea of this particular bridge.
Unfortunately the miserabalist tendency has the bit between its teeth and, to mix a metaphor, smells blood. It is a lively time for the tendency, what with Blossom Street heading for judicial review and David Chipperfield thwarted from producing a house and studio for Tracey Emin. How the people who hate design and imagination must be gloating, especially now Portland Place has lumbered into the ring. You might have thought it had more important matters to worry about.
As an aside, I remain a supporter of the institute. As usual, in my annual talk to Part 3 students at the Bartlett this month, I recommended that they join their professional institute, because at a fundamental level such organisations represent independence and knowledge, and indeed independent knowledge, rather than royal or state ideologies. Dictatorships either ban professional bodies, or stuff them with stooges. In democracies those who can should join and vote for people who will represent their views. The Architects Registration Board can be shut tomorrow as far as I am concerned, since it does nothing of any value that could not be done by, say, the RIBA.
Optimistic as ever, I was able to stop worrying about any of this in the context of a two-day World Architecture Festival conference in Dubai last week, dealing with the subject of identity. The last time this subject was raised at a British-organised event was back in 2008 when the RIBA ran an event in Barcelona, in the days when it was capable of organising a national conference, courtesy of Tony Chapman.
This week I am speaking at a Lend Lease event in Sydney, dealing with similar issues, which include the power of the icon, the difference between brand and identity, the future of cities as dense environments, and the relationship between building, block, neighbourhood, quarter and, ultimately, the city itself.
Identity can be expressed through architecture, and in a joint presentation with my WAF colleague Jeremy Melvin, we reviewed the way in which designers had dealt with this in relation to the Milan Expo last year. Although formally the Expo was about food and energy, the reality is that it is an architectural expo where the fortunes and aspirations of countries represented can be assessed. We all remember the triumph of the Thomas Heatherwick UK pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, an unusually powerful combination of idea, engineering, technology and post-event planning, and which in a subtle way managed to make the Union Jack, as I unpedantically prefer to call it, look cool.
But, as Keith Priest reminded us in Dubai, it is not necessarily architecture and design that gives a city its identity. Manchester has thrived on football, music and universities. All true, but it has had the great Peter Savile, a designer who has come close to making brand and identity synonymous.