Architecture: Vision and talent in a waste of tat - Francis Duffy, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, rejects a BBC documentary's apocalyptic view of our landscape

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The Independent Culture
Take a train from any major British town or city to another, from Sheffield to Ipswich or from Newcastle to Birmingham, and survey what the winter-stained carriage windows reveal - a new ruined landscape of tacky Design and Build sheds, of superstores and bricky, cut- price, ill-planned homes.

This is the architectural horror of which Martin Pawley, presenter of Architecture Armageddon, BBC 2's pessimistic prognosis on the state of British architecture broadcast last night, speaks. This is the architecture of U-turns, of myopia, of born- again Gradgrinds, of anti-planning, of greed mingled with slovenliness, of short-termism, short cuts, and despair. This is our landscape. Society always gets the architecture it deserves. This prospect is us. This architecture is you.

Yet British architects are the envy of the world. Sir Norman Foster receives his Gold Medal at the American Institute of Architects on 1 February. No architect in the United States designs as well as he does. Our architectural schools are full of keen foreign students. No European architectural schools are as good as ours. Our conservation architects are propping up the pyramids and preserving China's fragile past.

Our architectural books, magazines and criticism are the envy of the world. London's streets, from Bedford Square to Portland Place to St James's, are crowded each evening with enthusiasts, professionals and amateurs, students and practitioners, enjoying the highest level of architectural culture in lectures, events and exhibitions. No other city, not even New York or Paris, has more.

So what is going wrong? Why are Foster, Rogers, Hopkins, MacCormac so good, why are Will Alsop, David Chipperfield, Ian Ritchie, Nigel Coates internationally so admired (as well as hundreds of their less well-known but equally talented juniors) while the mass of the built reality of contemporary Britain is so horrible?

A little architectural talent can go a long way, but the scope for improvement in our towns and cities is - to put it mildly - immense.

Yet look at the superb schools, such as the award-winning Woodlea, built over the past decade by Hampshire County Architects, Stansted airport by Sir Norman Foster, the Ark office building at Hammersmith by Ralph Erskine - all innovative, world-class buildings. The talent is demonstrably available here and these able architects give exceptional value for money.

The problem is that Britain has forgotten what architects stand for, what they are good at, and how to use them to get the kind of places that we want to live and work in.

Sadly, the present Government stands, effectively, for the opposite of everything that (Conservative- run) Hampshire County Council has stood for. It has overseen the dismantling of the last remaining resources of skilled procurement of architectural services in local as well as central government. It has glorified lowest-cost fee bidding for professional services in the public sector. Its architectural policy - if it has one - is based entirely on the Treasury's ignorance and on the empty promises of project managers who think the design of buildings should cost nothing and that ethics are a type of brick.

Anyone at the sharp end of this rough old building industry knows what this official navety and de- skilling of the construction industry, especially in the public sector, means: a colossal series of incipient blunders which in five years' time will surely lead to bitter tears on the part of the users of cut-price buildings and to clouds of litigation. Worse, by that time government policy will have completely coarsened and degraded the public face of Britain.

Martin Pawley's analysis is, nevertheless, too much of a post-mortem. Despite his architectural training, Pawley is not in love with the future. He manages to express the hopelessness of the present situation, but not the hope. He didn't explain the sense of what ought to be that lies - even at the bottom of this terrible recession, even with this Government - at the heart of the architects' calling. He didn't get across the beliefs and the values that regulate what architects do and distinguishes them from others in building who are driven by very different motives - like making a fast buck, like getting through the next five minutes, like not caring a damn about people, for the environment or for the future.

Architects invent the future and honour the past. We live to design, to create options out of nothing. To design well we have to straddle various divides, which makes our work conspicuous, hard to categorise, dangerous and easily vilified.

Architects, for example, alone within the construction industry, have the responsibility of bringing together the volatile, often barely articulated requirements of the mass of people who use buildings and the unbending money- and time-driven logic of construction. Building is not easy. Design is even more difficult. Left to its own devices, the construction industry, as anyone who has had anything to do with it knows all too well, has all the vices of any supply-side driven part of the economy. Architectural design, inconveniently for those who think supply- side priorities are enough, must take demand into account as well.

The architects' traditional role, with one foot in the construction industry and the other in the clients' camp, was classically captured 200 years ago by Sir John Soane, who argued that the architect must 'be the intermediate agent between the employer, whose honour and interest he is to study, and the mechanic, whose rights he is to defend.'

By 'employer', of course, Soane meant what we now call the client; by 'mechanic' the builder or, more grandly, the construction industry. With this famous dichotomy, Soane put his finger on what professionalism in architecture really means: the ethic that comes with the responsibility of determining what ought to be done. It is these underestimated ideals - of design invention and of professionalism - that differentiate architects and drive them to act fairly in a naughty world. We may not always succeed, but the ethic is intact.

Had Martin Pawley attempted to explain these ideals then his programme would have been more accurate. It would also have been more cheerful. A great many architects happen to believe in the real possibility of creating a better future for Britain. Most really do try to study their clients' long-term as well as short-term interests. Some do so brilliantly, producing architecture of the highest quality. Some fail spectacularly. Many succeed quietly - patiently piecing together and mending the ravaged fabric of this unhappy country. Lots are unemployed.

Much of the new building you see through the dirty windows on your train journey is the result of the decay or the suppression of architectural ideals under the wrong sort of commercial pressure. Whatever the deal, we will all pay for this rubbish sooner or later. Society does get the architecture it deserves. Crying 'Armageddon' won't help. Britain has a vast store of under-used architectural talent.

What architects need to do, for the good of all, is to demonstrate to ordinary people how their talents, their ideals and their professionalism could easily make a Woodlea - or better - in every street. Then even the apocalyptic BBC might encourage rather than undermine our native talent for architecture.

(Photographs omitted)

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