Architecture: The country's architectural enforcer

A small, unelected quango wields ultimate power over Britain's architectural planning. James Fisher examines its record

Every three weeks a distinguished group of architects, historians, property developers and artists gathers in London's St James's Square to discuss the merits, or otherwise, of prominent architectural proposals. Presided over by Lord St John of Fawsley, this is not another Establishment drinking club; it is the only official body with the right to comment on the nation's architecture.

In a country which generally pays scant regard to architecture, it probably comes as no surprise that there is only one organisation dedicated to enhancing design in the environment. Even less surprising is that the body's grand name, the Royal Fine Art Commission, makes no reference to the subject.

But all that could be about to change. Buried deep within the Culture Secretary Chris Smith's consultation paper on the arts, with its promise of free entry to museums, was the news of a review of the RFAC's work, remit, even existence.

Smith said he wanted to create a new "champion of architecture", and invited comments on four options, ranging from abolition to a revamped and renamed Royal Architecture Commission.

But, given the paper's shyness about the proposals and the lack of general knowledge about the workings of the commission, it seems unlikely that the culturecrats are going to be inundated with responses.

This seems a shame, given the importance and scope of the commission's work - currently studying plans for a new shopping centre in the heart of historic Bath, the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, and a cake house in London's St James's Park. And "working on" is the correct phrase. Architects whose plans are being examined have just 20 minutes to present and justify their proposals to a formidable selection of their eminent peers, including the architectural knights Michael Hopkins and Colin Stansfield Smith. Sometimes they come back several times to the commission's panelled offices for what can be a gruelling experience.

Ten days later, a letter reaches the architect in question, the client and, occasionally, the local press, with comments and advice. Often penned in colourful prose by Lord St John himself, these letters don't mince words. A recent example of his bombast concerned plans for a commercial development at Knightsbridge Green, opposite Harrods, which the commission described as an "architectural disaster" and a "blot on the landscape".

Getting into his stride, Lord St John continued: "Embedded in conservation areas, this site is part of one of our greatest thoroughfares. Surely London deserves better than this architecturally incoherent building, more suitable to a Midwestern town in the United States than to a prominent shopping and commercial centre in one of the greatest cities of the world." This devastating salvo fired to Kensington & Chelsea Council's planning committee, as it met to decide the development's fate, had the desired effect - the plans were thrown out.

Other timely interventions by the commission include proposals for an office building over the Waterloo International Terminal, which was scrapped, and the Inland Revenue building in Nottingham, where it persuaded the last government to hold a competition to find an architect after seeing the original "banal" proposals.

All good deeds, no doubt. But the charge most commonly laid at the rather forbidding door of the 74-year-old RFAC, which has an annual budget of pounds 700,000 and a staff of eight, is one of croneyism.

Francis Golding, the RFAC secretary, a neat career civil servant in his early fifties, is robust in his defence of the commission: "As regards croneyism, or looking after its own, you simply cannot make that charge stick. Neither the great and the good, nor architects and commissioners, get away with it.

"Three of the last four plans Sir Michael Hopkins has brought here have been roundly condemned. Allies & Morrison have never been supported in my time at the commission, despite Graham Morrison being a commissioner, and Richard Rogers completely redesigned an office in Soho after comments from the commission."

Sitting in his august office beneath a painting by Howard Hodgkin (a friend), Golding also swiftly dismisses the idea that the commission is partial to a particular architecturalism - modernism, classicism, post modernism: "The commission works with people to make better design," he says. "There is no house style; no favoured style. Ian Ritchie (a modernist) and Quinlan Terry (a classicist) both get praised to the skies. Buildings have to be appropriate to their place - and that has nothing to do with style and everything to do with quality," he says.

On the subject of Chris Smith's review, Golding and the commission are optimistic. "We can't see that they can come up with anything other than the option we want. It makes no sense to put us in the Arts Council, and I can see no support for the idea of an advisory secretariat within the culture department."

But what do architects, the recipients of advice, criticism and condemnation, think of the RFAC?

Terry Farrell, architect of the MI6 building in London, has been visiting the commission for more than 20 years - at one stage of his career he was going monthly - and, most recently, presented a hotel to be built next to the Tower of London.

His experiences have been mixed, and have varied according to the composition of commissioners and the identity of the chairman. "I've sometimes disagreed with the content of the letters, which can be a bit personal and hurtful," he says. "But that is better than other impersonal and faceless bodies, which operate entirely behind closed doors. English Heritage doesn't allow architects to present their schemes. At least the commissioners get to hear about a building from the person most involved with it.

"On balance it has been a good thing, although at times I have disagreed with it, and been impatient and frustrated by its comments. But the commission is supportive of good architecture, and there is no other politics there, other than architecture and urban design."

Others in the profession give a similar two cheers for the commission, with praise for its independence, tempered by memories of past slights and barbed criticism of cherished buildings. Given the nature of the commission, and the fact that they will have to run its gauntlet in the future, it is not surprising that most are guarded in their comments. The Wales Millennium Centre architect, John Rudge, of Percy Thomas Partnership, is keen to register his "strong views" about the commission, which has been very critical of the project. But he will be making them known confidentially to the Culture Department for fear of upsetting his clients by damaging relations with the commission: "What I am prepared to say is that while the aims and aspirations of the RFAC are correct, there needs to be a regular review of its procedures to make sure they match up to those aims and aspirations. Also it should be more regional; as Scotland has its own RFAC, there would be merit in having a Welsh RFAC."

Welsh RFAC or not, change is certain as a result of Chris Smith's review, although it is unlikely to be as radical as the commission feared. While Labour was in opposition, it appeared to be sharpening its knife in readiness for what was widely regarded as an easy target: an undemocratic, elitist, pompously titled quango, run out of stuffy St James's Square by a Tory peer who served as a minister under Mrs Thatcher.

In power, as in other areas, Labour is acting somewhat differently, and is likely to give the RFAC a wider remit and more power. It seems they came to bury Caesar and ending up praising him.

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