Parliamentary interest in buildings? Never!

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The Independent Culture
Speeches in the Houses of Parliament on architecture are as rare as a good new public building. A fortnight ago, Denis MacShane (Lab, Rotherham) broke the mould, delivering an intelligent and lucid plea for higher standards of public architecture. The Government, MacShane suggested, should set up a panel of leading architects and other expert advisers and create design guidelines to raise the standard of new British buildings.

"Much of modern architecture", he railed, "as commissioned by public authorities is an affront against aesthetics [he means it is ugly]. Five billion pounds is spent each year on public buildings, but ministries and other commissioning bodies ignore good design even when it offers value for money."

The worst-offending body, MacShane suggested, was the Ministry of Defence. And few would disagree. The MP called for a "new generation of patrons" who would commission public architecture of the quality Britain was once famed for: the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich by Sir Christopher Wren, the original Bank of England by Sir John Soane. It does seem remarkable that MPs and peers sitting in the Gothic Revival splendour of Westminster Palace (designed by Charles Barry and Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin; the House of Commons was rebuilt after the Blitz by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott) should find architecture unworthy of intelligent debate. Perhaps they are too tired or jaded to either notice or care.

Only two MPs declare an interest in architecture (although many are keen, for some reason or other, on property development and construction). They are Robert Banks (Con, Harrogate), a founder of Antocks Lairn Ltd, an office furniture company, and Sir Sydney Chapman (Con, Chipping Barnet), a former architect (he trained at Manchester) and surveyor.

Among their lordships, Dod's 1997 Parliamentary Companion lists the third Baron Hankey, an architect, the second Baron Kennet, writer, broadcaster and for many years president of the Architecture Club, the sixth Viscount Knutsford, National Trust stalwart, and Baroness Ryder of Warsaw, founder of the Sue Ryder Foundation. Two worthy knights recently elevated to the peerage, my lords Rogers of Riverside and Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton are also keen on the subject, the former one of the world's most famous architects, the latter a passionate Gothic Revival buff.

Is this really the lot? I don't think so. Other MPs (Mark Fisher, Lab, Stoke-on-Trent Central, the Rt Hon John Selwyn Gummer, Con, Suffolk Coastal) and peers (Baron Attenborough - Dickie Attenborough, the actor and director) are very involved in matters architectural. Most tend to hide this specific concern under the all-embracing banner "The Arts".

Even so, MacShane's argument is irrefutable: Parliament is not very interested in architecture. Certainly my discussions with several successive Secretaries of State for the Environment and their counterparts at National Heritage have revealed scant interest in the subject and precious little knowledge. As these ministers have sweeping powers in terms of planning, listing and conservation, one might expect them to know a little bit more than they do.

Only a few weeks ago on these pages, we learnt that Jack Straw (Lab, Blackburn and very possibly the next Home Secretary) is very much in favour of the Government's pernicious Private Finance Initiative, a means by which public buildings are financed by developers, and new schools, for example, may end up as the tail-end of a new shopping scheme or development of luxury, executive-style "apartments".

Philistinism among parliamentarians is nothing new. Harold MacMillan, when prime minister, approved the demolition of the Euston Arch (one of London's finest, and oddest, monuments) either because he wanted to appear modern and with-it (out with the old, in with the new) or because he was settling scores with old enemies. Young William Hague (Secretary of State for Wales, Con, Richmond, Yorks) sees no reason to save the magnificent Brynmawr Rubber Factory near Ebbw Vale. This fascinating building, designed by the decidedly left-wing Architects Co-Partnership and the philosophical engineer Ove Arup, is the industrial counterpart of the Royal Festival Hall which it resembles: a building of elegance and grace designed to bring good working conditions to people who had known hunger, repression and an 82 per cent rate of unemployment before the Second World War. While there are plenty of possible new uses for this monument, perhaps its socialist history counts against it in the mind of one of Margaret Thatcher's most devoted disciples.

Architecture frames most of our lives for much of the time; Parliament would do well to take a little more interest in it than it does. Denis MacShane know this, but I fear the current crop of MPs and too many peers would find it hard to tell their Barry from their Pugin, let alone Norman Foster from Richard Rogers, even when the latter is sitting under their honourable noses

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