Built for the people - so tell the people

The public should be involved in a city's development. A centre for architecture is the answer, says Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Culture
On Thursday, Sir Norman Foster and Spencer de Grey will present their powerful scheme for the remodelling of the Great Court of the British Museum in a public lecture to be given at the Royal Institute of British Architects, London. This is the first of six lectures sponsored by the Independent at the RIBA this autumn looking at the future of major public spaces in London. These are the British Museum, the British Library, the Grand Midland Hotel and St Pancras Station, the proposed new gallery for the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and the River Thames seen as a whole.

Before anyone asks, "Why London?", the answer is because one has to start somewhere, and the major architectural projects currently under construction or proposed for the capital raise many of the issues concerning our belief, or lack of it, in public design and the public realm in general. Of course, there are major projects of great interest developing throughout the country: the Lottery Fund and promise of manna from the Millennium Commission have encouraged a spate of new design in the public arena, from a controversial opera house in Cardiff to a Sydney Opera House-like conference centre in Glasgow.

In their different ways, the ambitious London projects reveal our changing attitudes not just to the public realm, but also to the way new buildings look, the extent to which we expect to be involved in, or kept abreast of, their development and our increasingly ambivalent attitudes towards conservation.

The British Library, representing a record pounds 450m (at least) of taxpayers' money, suffers painfully from having been such a secret project. Throughout its unnaturally prolonged gestation, the library has remained hidden not just behind a cloak of secrecy (and all the gossip, spite, innuendo and lies that go, sweaty paw in barbed glove, with keeping things so very secret), but behind large hoardings on Euston Road. It seems remarkable that so large a building could hide itself so well for so very long. Only now is its stepped, red-brick, Scandinavian outline coming into focus, while its opulent interiors are still well beyond a nation's grasp (and gasp - they are rather spectacular in a Nordic way).

This is not to put a case for allowing the public, the library's paymasters, to trample around a construction site. That would be dangerous and silly. It is, however, a plea for public projects to be explained clearly and accessibly to the public. It is remarkable that London, unlike, say, Paris, Copenhagen and Havana, lacks a proper architecture centre, where new projects can be seen, explained, talked about and even understood. If such a centre existed, we would feel more in touch with what is happening to the look and working of what remains, despite England's diminution, one of the most important world cities. Also, we would be able to get to grips with sad stories like that of the Government's stupidly managed plan to sell the Royal Naval College, Greenwich (see opposite) before they became a national scandal.

Edinburgh and Glasgow are both investing in such centres. This reflects the interests and machinations of two powerful and rival urban cultures that fully intend to operate as world-class cities, with or without London, in the future. Every city and major town should have some such centre. In small towns, a part of a town hall or other public meeting place would do. In big towns and cities, such centres might have their own homes. These would be an important investment in open government, local democracy and common sense. And if more people in this country were able to see and understand the quality of the work of our best architects, fewer would rail against brave new architecture and even fewer want to invest in a Joke Oak or Neo-Geo house spotted in a housebuilder's catalogue.

Modern architecture has often seemed scary at the time of its design and construction not so much because of its unorthodox forms, but because it has been shrouded in the lineaments of obfuscation. And architects can be their own worst enemies, discussing buildings in terms of half- digested fashionable philosophy or in unhelpful jargon aimed at sounding important while meaning precious little. This is perhaps because architects fear to be confused with mere builders (which they sometimes are, but mostly are not) and need to underpin their designs with substantial-sounding intellectual foundations. Yet the greatest architects of this century have found their own distinctive voices, neither pseudo-academic nor deliberately baffling. So Sir Edwin Lutyens talked almost exclusively in dreadful (and dreadfully funny) puns (and, by making clients and critics smile, slipped his immense seriousness behind them without anyone noticing, so he got a lot of work and designed like an archangel), and that much-misunderstood giant, Le Corbusier, talked and wrote in poetic fragments and riddles shot through with revelation and uncommon sense.

So, go and hear Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, Sandy Wilson and Will Alsop speak. If you have never heard them, you will be surprised by their very real desire to communicate and begin to understand just how good they can be when struggling to make sense of a public realm that is treated by today's governments like something the cat sicked up.

And, of course, even these world-class architects have something to learn from you, even if all you manage to do is to teach them how to speak English more clearly.

Some years ago I attended a workshop given in west London, where local authority architects got to meet members of the public and, over a cup of tea, to visualise their ideal house. One old couple who lived in a tiny, unmodernised council flat explained how they dreamed of their own cheap and simple little house in a garden, or preferably vegetable patch, of their own. The earnest young architect listening to them, and how clearly they articulated their dream, hummed and hah-ed a bit and then put pen to paper, saying, as he did so, "Erm, I conceive of your house as, erm, a ... shed." The old boy banged his NHS crutch on the table. "I don't want to live in no fuckin' shed, son." What the architect meant was a glamorous, open-plan, hi-tech cabin or bungalow (to use a word he could never have done) that, given his sketch, was a delightful and imaginative response to his clients' brief. Yet the misunderstanding created an unbridgeable chasm between the two parties. Communication breakdown - it's always the same.

Architecture centres and more public talks by architects could only help to turn "sheds" into desirable homes for ordinary people and the best modern architecture into something to relish.

28 September: `The new British Museum' by Sir Norman Foster and Spencer de Grey.

5 October: `New British Library' by Colin St John Wilson.

25 October: `Grand Midland Hotel' by Jonathan Glancey.

2 November: `New architecture, forgotten places' by Piers Gough.

16 November: `New ICA' by Will Alsop.

14 December: `A strategy' by Sir Richard Rogers.

All lectures start at 7pm, at Jarvis Hall, RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1.

Tickets: pounds 4, students and concessions pounds 2.50 from RIBA Bookshop (address as above), 0171-251 0791.

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