Architecture: Cities need muscle as well as heart

The Government is setting up a new body to ensure quality modern building. But, unlike its predecessor, will it have any real power?

When Culture Secretary Chris Smith announced in December his intention to create a new body charged with "championing good architecture", the sigh of relief from the architectural community was audible. At last the Labour Government seemed to be making good on some of the promises it made in its manifesto.

Smith said the new body -with the working title of Architecture Commission - would "combine the design review role of the Royal Fine Art Commission with an enhanced regional dimension and significant grant-giving powers". He then set up an implementation group to advise on how the new body would best fulfil its remit.

The implementation group had its first meeting this month and consists of figures well respected within the industry. Interviews for the chairman of the new body are likely to take place later this month. Names being touted for the role include the director of this year's Glasgow architecture festival Deyan Sudjic, Sunday Times architecture correspondent Hugh Pearman, Architects Journal editor Paul Finch and Architecture Foundation director Lucy Musgrave. So far so good.

But concerns are surfacing that the panel's remit does not include a discussion of the new body's role as champion for architecture, which looks like being little more than the RFAC with grant-giving bells on. The grandly titled RFAC was always caught in the invidious position of having influence but no teeth, charged with upholding national design standards without the ability to implement any. As Tom Stoppard wrote about the House of Lords, it exercised responsibility without power - the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages.

The property developer and architectural patron Lord Palumbo cautions: "The substitute body won't make much of an impact unless it is voted wider powers by Parliament." He suggests that a starting point for the new body, "the very minimum", should be a proactive role in education with the aim of putting architecture on the curriculum.

Lee Mallett, the director of the architectural communications specialist Wordsearch, says the new champion for architecture must continue the work done by the RFAC in using its position to "embarrass" developers into improving their buildings. "I observed at first hand how the RFAC performed. When [Lord St John of] Fawsley arrived as chairman, he raised the stakes and, while other bodies stood on the sidelines while a lot of tosh got built, the RFAC had a generally positive effect."

The RFAC under Fawsley supported the challenging designs of Zaha Hadid for the Cardiff Bay Opera House, and directly intervened to preserve the International Terminal at Waterloo Station from mutilation by stopping an office block being built over it. While it was sometimes criticised as being the personal fiefdom of Fawsley, the RFAC was never less than robust in expressing its views and could not be characterised as anything other than independent.

Mallett suggests this robustness should be maintained but warns against increasing the power of the new commission: "It would be a complete nightmare to give it the ability to stop a building because of the way it looks. That would have a huge economic knock-on."

But Lord Palumbo says: "Wider powers is the crucial thing. I always thought the weakness of the RFAC was that it didn't have real powers. It was an advisory body and its advice could be taken or ignored. The new body needs more powers and a wider remit: whether it will be given them I very much doubt."

Scepticism is probably advisable, given the Government's mixed record on architecture. While in opposition, as in so many other areas of policy, Labour promised much. It made all the right noises and some of the right moves - elevating Richard Rogers to the House of Lords as a Labour peer, for instance. Even after the election, the omens still seemed good: Mark Fisher, a friend of Rogers, was appointed Arts Minister with the responsibility for delivering the Government's architecture policy. This policy was expected to include a commitment to quality design for all government buildings.

The good news for architects continued with the creation of the Urban Task Force, chaired by Lord Rogers, to look at the vexed problem of housing. But on the architecture policy, everything went quiet until last August's Cabinet reshuffle when Mark Fisher lost his job, with no policy to show for 15 months' grind.

If the Government wants to be a reforming administration, it should give the champion for architecture real muscle, allowing it to work both inside government and in the private sector. Grant-giving and design review should be part of the new body's work, not its only job.

It should have a wider-ranging brief, taking in Lottery projects, education initiatives, research and all government-funded buildings. This might not quite amount to a policy but it would get close to it.

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil