A tale of two cities : ancient and modern

1: Richard Burdett and Liam O'Connor In the first of a new series profiling the powers behind the scenes, Jonathan Glancey focuses on two men who are shaping today's urban landscape
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The Independent Culture
Architects and their buildings are only ever the tip of the construction process. No building emerges, perfect in every detail, like Venus from the sea or Athena from the head of Zeus. Beneath the surface, men and women are at work steering commissions for new buildings and new city developments into right and wrong hands.

Because the building process has become so complex in our pluralistic and legislation-laden society, experts and advisers of one sort or another are increasingly needed and relied on to recommend what should and could be done.

Only 60 years ago, an inspired businessman like Frank Pick, legendary chief executive of the internationally admired London Passenger Transport, was, almost singlehandedly, able to commission new buildings, to reconstruct and extend great chunks of the capital, with remarkably little interference.

In 1995, the inspectors from English Heritage will be down on you like a hod of hand-crafted bricks if you so much as paint your door a non-standard colour. There may be aesthetic logic in such microscopic regulation, but it does make building afresh for our own era a pernickety and increasingly arcane business.

So, when John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, wants to examine a new edge-of-town superstore development, or the City of London decides to investigate the possibilities of building radical new designs within the confines of its famous square mile, who do they turn to for advice?

To a new breed of architectural adviser such as Richard Burdett, director of the Architecture Foundation, and to Liam O'Connor, John Gummer's counsel at the DoE.

Both Burdett, 40, and O'Connor, 33, are relatively youthful voices in the cumbersome world of planning and building. Both trained, but have not practised, as architects; both are full of energy and are as diplomatic as they are determined to see Britain abound in architectural and urban excellence.

On the facade of it, Burdett and O'Connor represent opposite views on how contemporary architecture and modern cities should develop.

Burdett's Architecture Foundation (established in 1992) is, at core, the voice of the new avant-garde establishment. Its board of trustees includes Sir Richard Rogers (chairman), Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Gallery, Alan Yentob, controller of BBC1, and Andreas Whittam-Smith, former editor of the Independent, who established this newspaper's commitment to the arts and architecture.

The foundation, currently considering where to move next, has its home in the Economist Building in London's St James's. This is an appropriate home as the building (in fact, it is a complex of buildings raised on a miniature plaza), designed by Peter and Alison Smithson, was the first of its era (the early Sixties) to prove that unashamedly Modern architecture could be beautifully resolved, handsomely finished and located in the very heart of one of the most elegant and historic areas of central London.

Burdett's proposition is exactly that. Intelligent modern architecture is no King Kong set on ripping up old city centres. On the contrary, it can be a handmaiden to history, bringing fresh blood and vigour into declining towns and cities.

The foundation is different from, say, the Royal Institute of British Architects, which is a professional lobby group representing the interests of qualified and practising architects. Interestingly, the very existence of Burdett's foundation has encouraged the RIBA to develop its burgeoning Architecture Centre, a place where the public at large is being encouraged to discover architecture, to meet its practitioners and to have a say in its future.

The Architecture Foundation pushed itself into the public eye wih a series of exhibitions looking at the work of the best young European architects and ways in which the city, and London in particular, might best be developed.

City Changes, a glamorous exhibition held in the Royal Exchange in the City of London, was a very convincing demonstration of how the latest architecture is improving rather than undermining both the character and the profitability of the capital.

Burdett had previously run the 9H Gallery in Marylebone, where the work of talented, if obscure, young architects from around the world was the staple diet. While this enterprise was fascinating, it could only ever appeal to a very select audience. In the face of criticism from his 9H colleagues, Burdett chose to become a player on a much bigger stage.

This has paid off. The Architecture Foundation co-ordinated the inspired "Future of Croydon" exhibition in 1993, showing thousands of local people how their much-mocked Modern town centre could become a thing of practical beauty.

Since then, Burdett has been one of the judges for the design of the new Tate Gallery of Modern Art. He was naturally very pleased when Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, two of the European architects assiduously promoted by the 9H Gallery, won the day.

Currently, Burdett is masterminding a string of public discussions to be held at Central Methodist Hall, Westminster next summer on the future of London. A high-profile series, the events will be televised and lead, hopefully, to some concrete proposals for the revitalisation of Europe's one and only, hopelessly deregulated capital city.

If Burdett has the ear of the new avant-garde establishment, Liam O'Connor is the practical conscience of the traditionalist lobby. O'Connor rose from the ranks as a lecturer at the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture. He has been a mainstay of the Prince's architectural summer schools in Italy and is a fervent and energetic proponent of the compact, high- density city modelled on classical principles, many of them rooted in Renaissance Italy.

His romantic approach to history is matched by an ability to make history work today. I have watched, for example, a class of his students at the Prince of Wales's Institute develop a theoretical proposal for a new Tesco superstore in south London into a small masterpiece of traditional urban planning.

O'Connor has gone on to be John Gummer's official architectural adviser. So when we hear Gummer launch into a reasoned and utterly convincing case for the restriction of edge- of-town and out-of-town retail developments (land-gobbling superstores in particular), we are hearing the thoughtful voice of Liam O'Connor. It is not that John Gummer has not thought these things through (he has), but that O'Connor is able to frame the issues accurately and to provide the ammunition necessary with which to fight the battle for the future of beautiful British cities and well-tended countryside.

Currently, O'Connor is devising a scheme for the redevelopment of the site of Gummer's DoE. The DoE is famous for being one of the ugliest modern buildings in Britain. What O'Connor proposes is that once the concrete towers are razed, the site should be returned to a traditional street pattern, but employing architecture in a variety of complementary styles.

Where Burdett and O'Connor disagree, although both are too diplomatic to do that in public (partly because each knows the other has a point), is over the question of how buildings should look. In many other respects they agree on how our cities might be developed in a more compact, more environmentally sound and more glamorous way.

Between them, they have the ears of the old guard and the avant-garde. Perhaps if they were united or merged by some miraculous process into one person, the silly divisions that continue to exist between the modern and traditionalist lobbies would be bridged and the City Resplendent would become a compelling and understandable goal for all of us.

n In tomorrow's 'The Fixers', Iain Gale profiles Jay Jopling, crown prince of the art dealers

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