Too important for politics

What do the electioneering parties offer for architecture? Not very much at all, says Jonathan Glancey
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The Independent Culture
Architecture is the most political of the arts, the most battered and blown by the whims, prejudices and ignorance of Westminster. For decades, governments have confused architecture with building. These overlap, but are not necessarily the same thing. When Harold Macmillan, cynical destroyer of the Euston Arch, talked of building 300,000 homes a year from the mid- Fifties to house the "never had it so good" generation, he meant just that: building. So many of the homes built at that time to give truth to the weasel words of ambitious ministers were all but free of architecture.

Today we look at photographs of self-congratulatory, waistcoated housing ministers and Mr Mainwaring lookalike local politicians "sharing a joke" as they examine scale models of Soviet-style estates intended for London or Glasgow, and despair. Most of what was built was junk, either clever in theory but too hasty in construction, or banal and badly built. The human element was in effect excluded from architecture in order that politicians could claim to have done something to alleviate housing shortages or to replace war-scarred Victorian slums.

This political cynicism has stamped its well-heeled boot into the face of British towns, cities and, increasingly, the countryside with little sign of abatement ever since. Harold Wilson's Labour governments of 1964- 70 have a lot to answer for about the brutal manner in which our cities were ruined by rapacious architecture designed for profit above all other considerations. The Tory governments of the past 18 years have given us an architectural free-for-all in which tawdry, post-modern office developments have vied with kitsch private housing and patronising Noddy homes in what remains of the public sector. Flash-trash, most-mass-for-your-cash has been the rule of the day.

Governments themselves have, despite their vast spending power, commissioned some of the shabbiest buildings imaginable for departmental use. Most insultingly, Mr Major's government has worked tirelessly to flog off some of our greatest public buildings to an uncertain future in private hands.

The debacle over the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich has been no more, and no less, than the tip of an iceberg.

Intelligent modern architecture has seeped through into private and public realms as if by stealth or even magic. The National Lottery is just that: a lottery. It will help to finance some excellent buildings and environmental schemes and a lot of silly ones. The few buildings, like them or not, of lasting value that have emerged over the past two decades - the much- maligned British Library chief among them - have been encouraged and rebuffed, financed and jilted in a see-saw fashion.

If, then, you were to cast for a vote for architecture in the general election, which party would best represent your interests? I have read and re-read the Labour Party's document on a future cultural policy for the nation, but can find little in the way of firm foundations. There is a lot of talk about participation and democratic processes, but little sense of direction or belief. This is odd, because the Labour Party's Mark Fisher is a truly cultured man and he has sought advice wisely. Perhaps it is in the nature of policy documents to be bland so as to cause no offence.

When the London County Council (LCC) came into being in 1889, it published few words on the subject, but set up its legendary architects' department, responsible for designing and supervising the building of some of the finest public housing yet seen anywhere in the world. A band of young men and women seeped in the arts and crafts ideals of William Morris, in the writing and teaching of John Ruskin and in the romantic socialism of the 1880s and 90s, used their talents to the full to shape a lasting architecture that did more to raise the standard of living for poor Londoners than any number of impressive-sounding speeches and documents since.

The LCC had a clear architectural policy and put it into action. In fact, it continued, given fresh impetus by Herbert Morrison, leader of the council in the late Thirties, until the Blitz. Here was a quiet revolution that married architecture to social need and political ambition. It was an extraordinary and evidently unrepeatable episode in the history of British architecture. Observers from across Europe came to learn from the LCC's sophisticated altruism. It seems unlikely that either of the main parties will do much to improve the nation's housing stock. We can be assured that Gummer-style executive estates will gobble up more and more of what remains of rural England (with a few grand new country houses thrown in for classical measure), and we know that more and more people renting in the public sector will come to live in potty little dolls' houses as Fifties and Sixties estates come tumbling down. If you have any doubt about the meanness of new public housing, consider the typical "master bedroom", which will just take a double bed.

The Royal Institute of British Architects is critical of all parties and especially when it comes to housing. In a paper published this week, the Riba says that "housing is too important to be left in the hands of politicians acting to a timetable driven by election campaigning." It estimates that Britain needs 200,000 new or improved homes a year for the next 20 years and that the Government should encourage the use of "brownfield" sites (ie derelict urban and industrial land) for new development.

Even then, few politicians and advisers have come anywhere near to understanding (or is it admitting?) the way that housing needs are changing before our very net curtains. Politicians in need of a PR massage (as opposed to other forms of massage) enjoy posing with gleaming wives and perfect children at the gates of "ordinary" houses with roses around the door, but this way of life is increasingly an illusion. Writing in Building Design magazine, Cedric Price, an architect whose eye to the future has often been spot- on, believes that the real housing nightmare "is the inability of all politicians alike to address the reality of the new constituents of the new housing hunger and for architects and administrators to realise the sea-change in design and planning inherent in sheltering this new citizen - the post-nuclear, long-life, ever-changing, single-person non-family. Add to this range the mobile, the loner, the world citizen, the three- career octagenarian, the marriage-hater and the spendthrift, and the concept of a house without wheels that is built to last and goes well with its neighbours becomes ridiculous."

Which it is. In a healthy economy people may well need to choose to up and move fairly frequently, and yet our public sector housing policies are very much concerned with trapping the poor in dull homes and no hope of escaping them.

What Labour has promised to do if it comes to power in May is to appoint an advisory panel of architects to set high design standards for the government buildings, or the civil estate, on which pounds 4-5bn a year is spent on design, construction, maintenance and repair. Such a body will want to consider what to do with the Government's dismal Private Finance Initiative building programme, which seeks to provide new public works through private sector funding. The Royal Fine Art Commission, concerned about the low standard of PFI schemes, held a seminar this week aimed at encouraging politicians to think of good architecture as an asset and an investment.

Interestingly, no politician and very few worthy quangos and committees ever talk about beauty or delight. Architecture is always referred to in terms couched in the language of the accountant or government inspector. It is easy to talk numbers - 200,000 or 300,000 new homes a year - but much more difficult to imagine beautiful homes. The power of good architecture to raise the spirits should never be underestimated. Not for nothing does Ulster enjoy the most expensive council housing in Britain. To build, that is, not to rent.

There is no guarantee that either of the main parties, or any of the smaller ones, will do much for architecture. Perhaps, what we want need most is for Westminster to help make good new architecture possible. This will never be done by grand committees, by a minister of culture (reaches for revolver) or platonic guardians steeped in the writings of Vitruvius, but by reconstructing the planning process, which prevents good building while encouraging the worst. Ultimately, the problem is housing and how we are going to house ourselves over the next century. But, as a week is a long time in politics, how can any politician be expected to think in the long term, much less worry about the quality of new design? For architecture's sake, you might as well vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party on 1 May and then begin to fight, fight, and fight again for the cities and buildings we love

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