Architecture: A fresh facade for British architecture

The new president of Riba is keen to celebrate the history of buildings, and to convince us all of the importance of good design. By Nonie Niesewand
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The Independent Culture
THE BUS shelter in Eltham where Stephen Lawrence was murdered should bear a blue plaque, says Marco Goldschmied, the new president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Structures have a meaning beyond bricks and mortar; they make a contribution to "history".

And which buildings would he knock down? All those Sixties corporate blocks on the South Bank opposite the Tate Gallery, "as far as the eye can see".

"They are a reminder of our society at its greediest and most philistine," he says. "Besides, they don't sit well with Turner and Mondrian." His only other contender for a blue plaque is James Stirling's and James Gowan's University of Leicester building, "which expresses the way the building works internally on the outside".

Marco Goldschmied is 54 and for the next two years he will have the ear of politicians, the backbiting of his colleagues, and an agenda to promote British architecture at a sensitive time in its history "when the practice of architecture is about to be submerged by a wave of jargon".

But how important is Riba today? "Very. Riba has 27,000 members around the world. Besides, Riba is a charity, not a trade union, so it can impartially promote architecture at a time when forces against cultural values and institutions are strong."

Even so, its role has diminished in the last 20 years. Goldschmied blames Thatcherism, and Riba's own inertia and introversion. Since he himself is neither inert nor introverted, the august body can expect changes when his two-year term of office begins in July. The president is clear about his goals: he wants to make architects more accessible and show both government and society what they can get up to.

He is thrilled that the Queen's Gold Medal for Architecture was won by Barcelona, the first time it has been awarded to a city. "It's terrific that individuals and organisations that have done exceptional and relevant work to promote its artistic and scientific development are honoured. A mixture of mayors and town planners - and two of them are qualified architects."

Riba in 1999 is a bit like the BBC World Service: respected abroad but ignored at home; professional and with a reputation for integrity; a little dull, and losing audiences. But nobody should switch off. Buildings stand about for a long time and impact upon the environment, so the profession needs a strong spokesman and a strong policy-maker. But even though he has a management degree - he was project director in 1971-77 on the Pompidou Centre in Paris - Goldschmied dismisses what he calls "management speak".

Labour wants to set up an advisory body, the Architectural Commission, under the auspices of Chris Smith at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. Some fear that the chairman of English Heritage, Jocelyn Stevens - whose views are intemperate even when championing modern buildings - will apply. Marco Goldschmied wants David Steel, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, to head the new body.

"At long last we've got Government interested in sending representatives to find out about architecture. Now we need a politician interested in architecture."

If the new Architecture Commission is to raise the quality of government buildings and those funded by government, such as New English Partnerships and the housing corporation, as well as private buildings, it needs funding. It will need to work closely with Riba and the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions.

So what is Goldschmied's message to the two relevant ministers, John Prescott at DETR, and Chris Smith? "To resist the temptation to use the issues of the built environment to buy votes at the next election. We're still living with a lot of crap built under the two Harolds - Macmillan and Wilson. Use your power to force the nation out of the cheapskate, quick-fix mentality of the last two decades."

The only son of a widow - his Italian father died when he was ten - Goldschmied moved from Trieste to Harrogate as a child. His passport, in the name of Marco Lorenzo Sinnott Goldschmied, attracted the attention of the xenophobic passport operators, an experience that contributed to his awareness of racism. It may also be part of the reason why he became involved with Stephen Lawrence's family. Stephen wanted to be an architect and in 1998 Marco Goldschmied introduced an award in his name for the best building under pounds 500,000. "Riba should help anyone of any race, creed or gender who wishes to attain the necessary standards."

He studied at the Architectural Association in the Sixties when London was swinging, and student power meant they fired their principal. Even as a student Marco exhibited signs of showmanship. Planning the annual all-night degree show party, he borrowed from the fashion grandee Diana Vreeland. `Think Pink" was the theme, and, dressed in pink flares from Carnaby Street, he got a band to play all night for pounds 150. The band was Pink Floyd.

His first job on graduating from the AA was with Richard Rogers and he set up the Richard Rogers partnership in 1978, with Rogers and John Young. So what does he know now that he wished he'd known when he started as an architect in 1969? "Just how devastating the demise of the GLC would be for London, so that I could have told Ken Livingstone to play it a bit more low-key for a year or two."

Asked to identify a building for which he was responsible (as part of a team) and most proud, Marco Goldschmied chose four: the Pompidou Centre in Paris, because it's so improbable; Lloyd's Insurance building in the City, because it's so versatile; Billingsgate in east London, because of its subtlety; and Patscenter in Princeton, because it's un-American.

Saatchi & Saatchi lobbied on Goldschmied's behalf in his campaign in the run-up to the presidential elections at Riba. Just as friends, not commissioned, which shows the kind of networking that he enjoys. But he is touchy about it. "I did not have a spin doctor. I worked very hard on my campaign. I was helped by three friends in council and in the profession. I toured the country, holding meetings from Exeter to Edinburgh, from Belfast to Brighton. I did my own interviews and press conferences."

His aim is to make people more aware of the importance of architecture in their lives. "Riba must work to restore the primacy of architecture and its humanising influence in our culture.Architects are like other professionals, but we must explain that magical process - the line, planes and volumes in the mind manifesting in the physical form of a room, a street, a gallery or a square."