Still doyen of all it surveys

Paul Finch celebrates the centenary of the Architects' Journal
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The Independent Culture
A century is not a long time in architecture. When the Architects' Journal embarked on plans to celebrate its centenary this year, it was rather assumed that the world the weekly magazine knew at its formation in 1895 would bear little resemblance to what we know today.

Not so. In examining the life of the profession over the past 100 years, as portrayed in its pages, it is remarkable how many issues have recurred constantly, albeit in adapted forms. This year's Reith lectures by Sir Richard Rogers might have been given in the1890s by Ebenezer Howard, prophet of the garden city movement. Arguments about urban congestion, problems of transport and pollution were not all that different in1895.

Similarly, the role of the professions was under debate then as now; George Bernard Shaw's aphorism that modern architecture was a "conspiracy against the public" has echoes today: only two years ago the government attempted (but backed down) to remove the right of anyone other than qualified architects to so describe themselves. The right was first established in 1931, against a background of bitter disagreement within the profession. Some argued that state registration could do nothing but harm, others that it was vital in the public interest to protect clients.

Architecture's reputation has risen and fallen like a barometer at regular intervals. The golden age of, or rather for, the profession occurred during the years of post-war consensus between architects, politicians and society at large, when the great radical programmes of housing, health and educational buildings allowed hundreds of practices the luxury of working in a subsidised state sector without having to worry about the crude world of trade and commerce beyond. As that boom came to an end in the early Seventies, architects began to feel the pinch: when Anthony Crosland, then Secretary of State for the Environment, announced the party was over (he was referring to public sector spending), few could have predicted the way in which the architectural profession would suffer as a result.

During the Thatcher years of the mid- to late Eighties, thoughts of recession and mass unemployment were far from most architects' minds. When it happened, it was all too quick: private sector collapse accompanied by increasing stringency, and privatisation, in the public sector.

Architects had never been particularly well paid, but had benefited from some sense of social status. This, too, changed in the Eighties with the attacks of the Prince of Wales. From the grandee status of architects such as Voysey and Lutyens in Edwardian Britian, through the high-minded social engineers and self-confident commercial designers of the Fifties and Sixties, the latter-day architect was perceived as the cause of high- rise hell in the public sector, the ugly commercialisation of towns and cities and the despoiler of the countryside.

These images contained grains of truth, but only grains. In reality, the working life of the architect 100 years on from the founding of the AJ was to do what had always been required: meet the clients' wishes; cope with the requirements of planning, other statutory controls and the complex technical requirements attaching to any building; produce buildings that users enjoy; and, of course, make money and stay in business.

In acting as a synthesiser, architects and the buildings they create are absorbers and reflectors of what is going on in society. This is what gives architecture its enduring fascination. And, as we survey the contemporary scene, it gives some cause for optimism. There are probably more well- known architects practising in Britain than at any time this century: Sir Norman Foster, Sir Richard Rogers, Sir Michael and Lady Hopkins, Nicholas Grimshaw, Terry Farrell, Will Alsop and a host of others. The only well- known architects 30 years ago were Sir Basil Spence (Coventry Cathedral) and Colonel Richard Seifert (Centrepoint Tower); today's climate is more encouraging because more varied.

The recent success of the profession, at home and abroad, has taken place despite brickbats from on high and (more justified) from below. Despite the recession, there is a spirit of determination to promote the virtues of architecture to a wide audience, both on the part of the profession itself - through a revitalised Royal Institute of British Architects - and in the media. Not long ago it was rare to find regular coverage of architecture in serious newspapers; now it is unusual not to find it. Many of those involved have worked at some time for the AJ or its sister journal, the monthy Architectural Review (100 years old next year).

The AJ has been, broadly, on the side of the progressive and avant-garde rather than retrogressive approaches to design, pinning its mast to the future, not the past. Yet it has recognised that even the newest architecture draws from the past, and so has been ready to rethink and represent history. It has also been largely on the side of the profession, yet independent of it. It has spawned competitors, yet has never been seriously challenged as the doyen of Britain's weekly architectural press. The current strength of British architecture can only give cause for hope, and for a second century of the AJ.

The writer is editor of the `Architects' Journal'. The Bride of Denmark, a pub designed and built by the staff of the Architects' Journal and Architectural Review between 1946 and 1954 in the basement of their former 1770s offices in Queen Anne's Gate, Westminster, was long the source of editorial inspiration at the Architectural Press. Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright were just two among hundreds of celebrated architects who stopped here to drink and sign their names on the pub mirrors with a diamond-tipped pen. The stuffed lion was found by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, one of the AR team at the time. When the Architectural Press was taken over by Emap and moved to Clerkenwell in 1991, the Bride of Denmark was abandoned. Now, the magazines have approached English Heritage and Westminster City Council in the hope of installing the Bride in the basement of the RIBA in Portland Place, London W1 Photograph: Martin Charles