Architecture: Never mind the quality, feel the cost: The most significant British building of 1994 may be in France. Amanda Baillieu expects a creative crisis in the year ahead

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The Independent Culture
The architectural profession is facing its worst crisis this century, with about half of Britain's 32,000 architects unemployed. And those who believe that architects enjoy the most privileged position in the building team should watch Architecture Armageddon, a BBC 2 Late Show special to be broadcast next Tuesday.

'Architects are facing a crisis of usefulness,' says Martin Pawley, the programme's presenter, as one architect after another is forced to consider the end of architecture as an art and the rise of 'bottom line building' where only cheapness and profitability count.

The depressing picture Mr Pawley paints is anathema to the French, who, this year will continue to commission public buildings by world-class architects.

This month sees the opening of the Hotel du Department, Marseilles, designed by the British architects Alsop & Stormer. It is an exceptionally interesting building by any standards; it may also prove to be the most significant new building by a British architect in 1994.

In Britain there are few new world-class buildings, and major development schemes that still seemed possible this time last year have entered the realm of myth. These include the massive regeneration of the King's Cross goods yard site in London, planned by Sir Norman Foster and Partners.

Aside from a very large question mark over the need for such massive office-led schemes, the fate of the 135-acre site is now in the hands of the Government, which will announce next month whether or not it is to build a second Channel tunnel terminal at King's Cross or next door at St Pancras. The latter option is now considered more likely.

Architects believe that sites such as King's Cross could become homes for a new generation of 'urban villages'. First promoted by the Prince of Wales, urban villages - the coy name suggesting communities peopled by characters from a Miss Read story - are intended to provide homes for 5,000 people in low-rise mixture of private and public housing. The first will be in the abandoned Royal Docks at Newham, east London.

Commissions for offices and industrial buildings, meanwhile, continue to plummet - by 30 and 40 per cent respectively in the final quarter of 1993. Architects can derive some comfort, however, from the boom in arts buildings expected as a result of the National Lottery.

Well-known and handsomely subsidised arts organisations are falling over themselves to produce proposals likely to find favour with the Arts Council, one of the distributing bodies for lottery money, or with the new Millennium Commission. They include the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which, although said to be drastically revising the ratio of shops to offices in its pounds 150m development plan, has admitted that if the lottery does not provide about pounds 45m, the scheme may be abandoned.

Support may go, however, to a 1,600-seat opera house in Salford, Greater Manchester, designed by Stirling Wilford, which has outline planning permission. A 2,000-seat opera house is also planned by the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, which has opted for an international competition to ensure that the proposed building is of the highest quality.

This will please the Arts Council, which is concerned that there could be a new generation of arts building commissioned on the basis of cost, not quality. The council has already had direct experience of this in Swansea, which organised a competition for a National Literature Centre - a proposal which helped the city to be chosen as City of Literature for 1995, partly funded by the council under its Arts 2000 initiative. But Will Alsop's winning design was dropped on the grounds that it would be too expensive.

Meanwhile, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Liverpool are competing to be City of Architecture and Design in 1999. The winning city, to be announced next January, will receive pounds 400,000 from the Arts Council.

With 'live' projects thin on the ground, competitions continue to capture architects' imaginations. At the end of this month the winning design for the Richard Attenborough Centre for Disability and the Arts, Leicester (sponsored by the Independent) will be announced; it will be the first building specifically designed for disabled artists.

More than 500 architects from 20 countries have taken part in a competition organised by the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, a Buddhist community based in Scotland. The centre has purchased Holy Island, off Arran in the Firth of Clyde, and is looking for an architect to design two retreats there.

Another competition will be launched in the spring by the South Bank Board, London. The board, which has spent the past year dithering over the fate of its Sixties-designed buildings, has appointed an architectural consultant - Gordon Graham, a former adviser to Sir Norman Foster on the headquarters of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. While the Hayward Gallery, at least, is to be saved, other Sixties buildings are unlikely to attract such support.

English Heritage faces a tough time in the spring when it is due to unveil the 80 or so post-war office buildings it would like to see listed. Likely contenders include three in London: Centre Point, New Zealand House, Haymarket, one of Britain's first fully air-conditioned buildings, and the 32-storey Millbank Tower that looms above the Tate Gallery.

The property market is alarmed that the listing of office buildings will prevent them being adapted for profitable and useful redevelopment. Listing has not, however, prevented Sir Norman Foster from altering the head office of the insurance company Willis Faber Dumas, Ipswich, which he designed 20 years ago.

English Heritage says the alterations are 'a substantial improvement'. But will it look so kindly on the latest plans for rebuilding Battersea Power Station, acquired last year by the Hwang family? The Hwangs are keen for new buildings to be designed in a style similar to Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's original; they will appoint architects in the spring to draw up a masterplan based on ideas by John Portman, the American architect famous for skyscraper hotels and exhibition centres.

The Department of National Heritage, which agreed to list Sir Denys Lasdun's Keeling House - a mid-Fifties concrete housing block in Bethnal Green, east London - has admitted that the historic interest of the building may be outweighed by the cost of its restoration and repair. This means that listing modern buildings is no guarantee of their survival. The department has failed to give any public commitment to raising awareness about architecture as an art, other than commissioning a paper from the Royal Fine Art Commission on 'what makes good architecture', which has yet to appear.

And after a year of deliberation the department has still not reached a decision on whether or not to lease the Museum of Mankind, Burlington Gardens, to the Royal Academy and the Architecture Foundation. In the wake of the department's decision to turn the Serpentine Gallery, Hyde Park, into riding stables, such a philanthropic gesture and nod to architecture would be surprising. There is a tough year ahead.

(Photograph omitted)

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