TWICE a month a committee appointed by Downing Street meets behind closed doors in a magnificent Lutyens building in St James's Square, London, to discuss the aesthetic qualities of everything from firemen's helmets to government buildings. Operating with a full-time staff of eight and an annual budget of pounds 700,000, the Royal Fine Art Commission may have more say about what is and isn't built in Britain than its former paymasters at the Department of the Environment or its current ones in the Department of National Heritage.
On the whole, its decisions help to improve the quality of British public design and buildings. It was the Royal Fine Art Commission that, last year, stopped the Government from building a banal new headquarters for the Inland Revenue in the shadow of Nottingham Castle, and recommended that Michael Hopkins, an RFAC committee member, be commissioned to design a world-standard set of offices for the site instead.
Among the cases that came before the RFAC in 1991, and which it was able to change, were the upgrading of the A3 near Hindhead, the International Station at Ashford, Kent, Victoria Square in Birmingham, Arsenal Football Club, the new headquarters for Channel 4 Television, a visitor centre at Bristol Cathedral and the House of Commons extension in Bridge Street.
The commission's computerised database shows that in more than two-thirds of cases - 321 proposals in 1991 - plans were subsequently modified to take either full or partial account of its views. Lord St John of Fawsley, former arts minister, and the commission's chairman, says: 'Bearing in mind that the commission has no powers other than its reputation and influence, stemming from its individual members, this is felt to be a very satisfactory outcome.'
However, on the issue of Paternoster Square, the gigantic pseudo-Classical office scheme beloved by the Prince of Wales and one of the most important architectural sagas of Britain today, this dignified committee of cultural mandarins has met its Waterloo. Its arguments may have modified the bombastic design of this colossal Japanese/US/British-backed office development, but it has been unable to prevent it; and any day now the City of London is to announce that it has given full approval to the biggest and most outrageously theatrical Classical-style architectural development London has seen since the construction of the titanic Ministry of Defence headquarters in Whitehall (designed by Vincent Harris in 1913 and completed in 1959).
The RFAC had hoped that Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, would have called in the Paternoster scheme for possible referral to a public inquiry. He has not.
Why should this worry anyone? Because, in a Britain run by politicians for whom the rules of cost accounting and an obsession with franchising are more important than the creation of civilised towns and cities, the RFAC is one of the last bastions of purely aesthetic concern. It does matter what a fireman's helmet looks like; it does matter that St Paul's Cathedral is flanked by the best modern architecture we are capable of designing. If we don't worry about such things, we may as well dress our public servants in bin-liners and have them operate out of Nissen huts.
Who is this committee to judge what new buildings should and should not look like? Members of the 17-strong commission include the developer Stuart Lipton; two retired architects, Sir Philip Powell and Sir Philip Dowson; the recently knighted architect Sir William Whitfield; the Duke of Grafton; and the current president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, Richard MacCormac. The secretary, Sherban Cantacuzino, is a Romanian prince and a former editor of the Architectural Review. Lord St John has been chairman for five years. Neither the commissioners nor the chairman are paid.
Established more than 60 years ago to look into 'questions of public amenity or of artistic importance', the commission is a clubby, gentlemanly organisation, whose formidable influence - it has no statutory powers - relies on the networking skills of its chairman and an unquestioning confidence in its own opinions. A nod from the RFAC and a project is more likely than not to win planning permission.
Successive ministers at the Department of the Environment have viewed the commission's work with benign tolerance. One exception is Lord Ridley, at the department for three years during the Eighties. He would have liked to see it abolished: 'I really don't think there's a role for arbiters of taste. We all have our own taste and it is not right for a publicly supported critic to be laying down standards.'
Other ministers have been more supportive, and recently Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, invited the commission to produce a report for him on 'what makes a good building'.
It is the Paternoster scheme that caused the RFAC to make real enemies for the first time. First, there was the Financial Times, which said the commission's continuing campaign against the pseudo-Classical scheme 'seems to be based on the festering disappointment of some members of the commission not successful in earlier competitive plans for the same site'. The comment referred to a more modern masterplan by Arup Associates, designers of Broadgate, of which Sir Philip Dowson was a director, and plans for individual buildings by two other commissioners, Richard MacCormac and Michael Hopkins.
As well as the FT, the commission's stand against Paternoster was said to have infuriated the Prince of Wales, who was instrumental in ousting Sir Philip Dowson's scheme in favour of the current architects.
There is also little love lost between the City Corporation (the planning authority for Paternoster) and the commission. The corporation, unlike other London councils, refuses to refer schemes to the commission before a decision by a planning committee.
Peter Rees, chief planning officer for the City of London, says: 'The commission doesn't understand the City and its needs. Tradespeople tend to take a more pragmatic view about development than the landed gentry and they also have less time to have aesthetics for breakfast. The point about the RFAC is that it should be trying to improve design standards, not dictate an architectural style.'
Lord St John counters: 'We are wedded to no particular style of architecture - we are simply committed to promoting good design and quality.'
Terry Farrell, one of the architects of the Paternoster scheme, disagrees: 'I think there probably is still one school of architecture represented on the commission. Modernists tend to dominate. They should mix it up a bit.'
Robert Turner, of the US architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), ran up against the commission with a redevelopment scheme for the area flanking Victoria station in London. SOM proposed a building of three different heights, rising to a tower on the axis with Victoria Street, an area dominated by tall buildings.
The commission disagreed with this. After seeing the scheme a second time, Lord St John wrote to Mr Turner: 'The commission acknowledges the changes made in response to its criticisms. It remains unconvinced by the efforts to improve the tower and must conclude that any tower on this site is misplaced.'
In an effort to win the commission's support - almost essential if the scheme was to avoid a public inquiry - SOM duly submitted a third scheme, without the tower. After the presentation the chairman wrote to the developer, Geoffrey Wilson, saying: 'The commission welcomes the omission of the tower and the general improvement in the massing. It remains deeply disappointed, however, by the architecture of the building, which it finds pedestrian and unworthy of this very important site.'
Last November, Mr Wilson unveiled a new scheme for the site. The architect was Michael Hopkins and the centrepiece was a tower, six storeys higher than SOM's, to which the commission recently gave its blessing. Indeed, in its letter to Mr Hopkins, the commission urged that the tower not be lowered, but 'refined and further developed'.
Not all commissioners were entirely in accord with the way SOM had been treated. Some were embarrassed, as they have been on other occasions, at the chairman's own form of architectural prejudice. 'There is a feeling he is upsetting people . . . people are beginning to think the commission is indulging rather than being constructive,' says another member anonymously; Lord St John does not approve of committee members discussing commission business with the press.
That Lord St John does not like US architects was made clear when he told a private dinner for 500 architects in 1990 that 'American firms are threatening London with a rash of quite unsuitable buildings'.
While there is no doubt that the RFAC is a worthwhile institution, particularly in averting inordinate pressure from developers, it is seen by many as elitist and secretive. If it wants support for its views, it needs to open up to public and press alike. It cannot afford to operate in the shadows when more and more people seek guidance on the appearance of new buildings. It needs to be seen to draw expert opinion from more than a self-referential coterie. Above all, at a time when the whole notion of progress in architecture is under attack, it should refrain from making unnecessary enemies.
Michael Hopkins was not appointed directly by the Royal Fine Art Commission to design the Inland Revenue HQ in Nottingham ('The mandarins meet their match', 3 February). Mr Hopkins won the commission through a competition. The mistake was made in editing.
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