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The death of architecture

Unless you're a 'starchitect', chances are you'll end up creating mediocre glass-clad hangars, says Jay Merrick. Does the problem lie with the profession, or the politicians in charge of our towns and cities?

British architects have become political and cultural punch-bags, and the Budget's "radically relaxed" planning rules in Enterprise Zones will batter them even more. Ruth Reed, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), welcomes the Chancellor's proposal with a pathos-laden hope that the new rules will "protect the essential requirements of sustainability and good design".

George Osborne's "gift" to enterprise, and Ms Reed's painfully dutiful response to it, highlights the fact that the architectural profession is riven by confusion. Are architects cultured designers or glorified triage surgeons working in towns and cities lacerated by architectural collateral damage caused by political and commercial expediency, rubber-stamped by planners?

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, thinks architects are conniving bread-heads. Sir David Chipperfield, one of Britain's most culturally thoughtful architects, says the profession's rising generation of new talent has been blocked from competing for major projects. Our Government has no rigorous interest in architectural standards. And now, even the Riba is daring to suggest that the current version of homo architectus could die out by 2025.

The modern architectural quality of our towns and cities has been under mounting pressure since Margaret Thatcher stripped away in-house architectural and urban planning expertise from most local authorities. Thirty years on, the way buildings and places are conceived and designed seems to be collapsing into world-class mediocrity at precisely the time the Government pursues soundbite initiatives such as the World Class Places scheme, which will allegedly make our communities "high quality, safe and more sustainable places to live in".

The very word "architect", says the Riba's Building Futures think-tank report, "is perceived to hold practices back in terms of the type of work they are able to do. Some practices have already created offshoot companies with a separate identity and different branding to their main practice, avoiding use of the title 'architect' in order to reach more diverse markets and branch into areas such as lighting design, product design, industrial design, interior design, installation design, branding and community consultation".

And we might be tempted to think: so what? As the designer William Morris said in 1889, the only historical constant is perpetual change. Stuff happens; people and places evolve; architects invariably adapt to any situation, or client.

But are clients and planners always serving places and cultures in the fullest way possible? And if they're not, architects are complicit in creating buildings and places that may have little or no formal contextual or cultural value.

Architects serve commercial forces that are generally uninterested in the complex cultural qualities of place, aesthetics and history – and our planning system struggles to cope with the tensions, and the bad architecture, generated by this situation. From design to delivery, architecture is being corporatised and re-calibrated as part of sophisticated management systems. Architects are increasingly seen as service-industry operatives and it cannot be long before student architects' reading lists include tomes on the management and production structures of exemplars of global corporate efficiency such as Toyota, Walmart and Tesco.

Most architects spend about 5 per cent of their time actually designing, partly because they're up to their necks in gruelling, and often turgidly repetitive, consultations and client meetings. Their early designs are fed through clients' value-engineering software, and if the projected commercial outcomes don't match client expectations, the idea is shredded. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it encourages passively compromised design and, ultimately, architecturally dumbed-down places.

This situation is exacerbated by deep uncertainties about the way architects are trained. Consider two successive recent editorials in Building Design magazine. The first, by its editor-in-chief, Amanda Baillieu, argued that architects' education must change because they are "not equipped to do anything other than design buildings". The second, by its editor, Ellis Woodman, concluded with the words: "The crisis in architectural education is not that schools are failing to deliver an education in business, but that too many of them are failing to deliver an education in architecture."

These views should not be seen as crudely contradictory: they are the yin and yang of a vital debate at a time when more architectural practices are fragmenting in search of work – a trend that may further separate individual architects from the need to understand, and care about, the relationship between their work and its effect on the quality of places and lives.

No wonder architects, en masse, already suggest clones of Slartibartfast in The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, whose only nerdy skill was designing fjords. By 2025, an even more tragicomic remark from Douglas Adams' satire may be more appropriate to legions of marginalised architects: "There's an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they've worked out."

How has this come about? The Government and the architectural profession have been dominated by powerful inertia. Local authorities, desperate to regenerate chunks of their towns and cities, squeeze politically useful bolt-ons out of developers – implants of housing, car parks, link-roads and public spaces that councils can't afford to build. But architectural quality isn't ring-fenced and most councils can't risk spending six-figure sums to contest second-rate developers' appeals on projects that belong only on Crap Town postcards. The Government seems satisfied with this sado-masochistic, quick-fix approach to regeneration, which was cemented into place after the economic crash in 2008.

Since then, there has been a 40 per cent slump in demand for architects' services. Many practices have not only dropped their fees, but are doing design-preparation work for nothing. If architectural quality continues to be degraded, it won't be a subject for meaningful discussion at any level. And it won't be fought for in the places where it matters most – I don't mean in the prime locations where blingkrieg architecture will always prevail, but in the ordinary, relatively unremarkable parts of our towns and cities.

The promoters of Big Society – and New Labour before them – have demonstrated no rigorous interest in promoting meaningful architectural standards. New Labour, for example, presided over the absurdly constipated idea that individual, commercially led consortia had to waste at least £3m just to compete for a single project in the now ditched £55bn Building Schools for the Future programme. If a consortium won, say, one in four school projects, then several compensatory millions had to be slashed from the cost of the schools they did build. As a result – and there are admirable exceptions – many of these schools have a deadly, stalag-like look to them.

Gove says architects creamed off big profits from these school projects when, quite evidently, most of them were implicitly cost-squeezed from the outset. Speaking at a recent conference on the new free schools programme, he declared: "And we won't be getting Richard Rogers to design your school. We won't be getting any award-winning architects to design it, because no one in this room is here to make architects richer." He made similar remarks, reported in Hansard, last June.

But there is more to the alleged impending death of the architect than Mr Gove despising "rich" architects even as his Government allows banks and their "y'all right there?" staff to provide satirical financial services to Les Misérables, while the City mass-produces new regiments of the super-rich. The profound effects of corporate and Government inertia on the fate of architects and architecture is further tainted by the historical image of architects and the architectural establishment, and by the way our towns and cities are increasingly seen by planners and developers as virtual realms – urban diagrams that can be tidied up and made more profitably controllable.

It is hard for most architects not to harbour the idea that they are faintly God-like: cue image of William Blake's divider-wielding deity in The Ancient of Days. Architects are, after all, the nominal descendants of geniuses such as Alberti, Palladio, Hawksmoor, Lutyens, Le Corbusier and Aalto. And since the beginning of the 20th century, their role models have tended to behave with insouciant arrogance.

When one of Frank Lloyd Wright's wealthy clients complained that a leak in the ceiling was dripping water on a valuable table, Wright replied: "Move the table." And when Sir Basil Spence made final checks on the fixtures and fittings of the University of Sussex campus in the 1960s, he suddenly began to smash light fittings with his walking stick. "Not what I specified," he barked. "Replace them!" In the early 1990s, Peter Rees, the City's planning supremo, attempted to check required design changes on One Poultry, whose architect was the famously imposing Sir James Stirling. "I've made the changes," Stirling growled, "and you don't need to see them."

Unless your name is Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano, or Norman Foster, those imperious days have gone – but their aura remains. Yet it is the client, cultured or philistine, who is now king. Very few have the architectural intelligence of, say, Lord Palumbo, who commissioned One Poultry, nor do they often exhibit the architectural and placemaking ambition of the mere handful of developers currently working with master architects such as David Chipperfield and Eric Parry, and with outstanding, highly cultured younger practices.

In Britain, the rise of new architectural talent is not supported strongly enough. Chipperfield complained in The Architects Journal that the Riba's "soft" attitude towards organising design competitions was stultifying: "I think there were five open design competitions in the UK last year. There were 200 in Germany and 1,600 in France. I think that's shocking." His inference is that too many British architectural competitions have produced same-old same-old outcomes. Talented younger architects who are not inclined to fag for the establishment's prefects are at a major disadvantage.

Many younger architects are also profoundly puzzled by what is currently regarded as impressive architecture. Why, indeed, should anybody think architects are making anything other than superficial contributions to our lives and built environment when they encounter tinny, eerily temporary-looking developments – yet more colour-saturated urban stage-sets littering Britain's so-called urban renaissance with cynical gimcrack architecture that might as well have been designed by marketing wonks, or extruded from the pages of JG Ballard's novel, The Atrocity Exhibition: "Desperate for the new, but disappointed with anything but the familiar, we recolonise past and future."

British cities, as Owen Hatherley rightly says in A Guide To The New Ruins of Great Britain, "deserve better than to be reduced to a systematic regeneration formula of 'stunning riverside developments' and post-industrial leisure in the urban core, and outside it a sprawl of distribution sheds, retail parks and reduced versions of the houses of 150 years ago".

Why don't those who are reinventing our built environment demand better, more thoughtful architects, better materials, better urban thinking, better ethics? Because, in many instances, they simply don't need to spend 3 or 4 per cent more of their development budgets on these absolutely crucial things to gain planning permission. The new pathology of socio-urban change spreads across countless petri dishes of redevelopment: tranquilised, CCTV-monitored town and city centre regenerations and blustering Enterprise Zones certainly create jobs, shopping and housing – but how often do they convey any sense of a vividly engaging plunge into fresh urban, architectural and cultural richness?

It doesn't help that the media often treat architecture as if it were mordant entertainment that has more to do with both the Orwellian and postmodern versions of Big Brother than with any thoughtful discussion of architectural quality. We have become supplicants to the iconic and its Zen of architectural bling. And if architects and architecture are perceived as faintly trivial, why should governments, or the silverbacks roaming our towns and inner cities in search of development parcels, pay more than lip-service to what architects think or say?

Yet it isn't just cardboard cut-out feral developers, abject planners and Government ministers talking puerile nonsense about architecture that threatens to transform most architects into plug-in design drones. Across two decades of helter-skelter socio-economic change, architects have simply failed to get a hugely important message across to the public, to planners and to those in Goveland. It is that architects and architecture of unmistakable quality are absolutely crucial to the future intelligible meaning of our cultural and commercial landscapes.

If Big Brother's clock does strike 13 in 2025 for Britain's 28,000 architects, they will not only find themselves members of the Royal British Institute of British Slartibartfasts – they will form an army of querulous, closely controlled Winston Smiths recomposing our towns and cities, via "radically relaxed" planning rules, into an endlessly craven series of Room 101s extracting maximum profit from maximum architectural defeat.