Jay Merrick: Where's the love in the buildings we put up?

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The Independent Online

There is both irony and truth in the fierce criticism levelled at the state of British architecture by Sir Mark Jones, one of the Stirling Prize judges. Irony because while Sir Mark complains about "a lack of feeling and a lack of care for the quality of design", the prize itself, awarded on Saturday, went to one of the least interesting buildings on the shortlist, the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge. But there was truth too because the pressure that British architects are under means more and more second-rate buildings.

Sir Mark suggests that architectural education is too theoretical. On the contrary, it's not thoughtful enough. In our virtualised age, knowledge is associated with ephemeral imagery and information. Screen, mouse-click, and "individual creativity" dominate. The result: most young qualified architects learn little about the fullest possibilities of form, materials, space, and relationships between places and people.

But there is another more profoundly toxic pathology that is stifling good architecture in Britain: the relationship between local authority planners and urban developers. Planners in cash-strapped boroughs – most of them, in other words – can't afford to contest atrocious urban regeneration or housing schemes by cynical developers.

The default "architecture" for housing schemes takes the form of apartments jammed into what look very like tweaked retail park units, or housing estates that resemble cheaply built versions of Poundbury, Prince Charles's idealised vision of community architecture. In larger, mixed-use developments, a typical design tactic is to apply bright colours or spurious "features" to the facades of otherwise dreary buildings. This is lipstick on the face of the gorilla of unimaginative, penny-pinching urban development.

And the Government's new planning laws, emphasising quick decisions, will ensure that this situation deteriorates further. The tick-box attitude to quality effectively creates an urban development free-for-all. And this means that the fabric of our towns and cities are gradually being stripped of character by Cloneville developments.

Architects have little power to effect the design quality of ordinary buildings in ordinary places because they are dominated by the requirements of developers. Yet it is the architecture of the supposedly ordinary that should be at the heart of Britain's planning and development system. It isn't and there is no sign that it will be.