Power to the people

In the current dirty war among the mandarins over tall buildings in London, the feisty Architecture Foundation wants the public to be consulted, too. Quite right, says Jay Merrick
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Two of Britain's most powerful architectural and cultural establishments are currently taking chunks out of each other on the killing floor of the multi-million-pound Heron Tower planning inquiry in London. In the green corner, English Heritage, who don't want this particular skyscraper because it might ruin the City's skyline near St Paul's; in the red, the Government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, who do. And somewhere in between is an anarchic, objectionable creature who might, on occasion, take a pop at both of them.

The "creature" is the Architecture Foundation, a small, well connected organisation that wants to suck the public into architectural and planning debates – not as matter of largesse, but as an act of dynamic and creative transparency. The foundation celebrated its first decade of existence two Mondays ago.

And it sprang to mind last Thursday, after I opened a white A4 envelope containing a slim document with acetate covers. There was no identification of its source. On the cover page was a blurb setting up two key critics of tall buildings in London – Sir Neil Cossons of English Heritage and Tony Arbour, chairman of the GLA's planning advisory committee – for a fall. "Included in this short document," it declared, "are some facts that may balance their outbursts with the reality of the lives they lead."

"Most people don't want [skyscrapers]," Sir Neil is reported as saying. "If developers want to build tall, they must justify their case. Where is the proof that London needs tall buildings?" Who are "most people"? Why should it be left to developers, alone, to prove the case for tall buildings?

"I went and stood on the top floor of the Tate Modern and sat quietly for a couple of hours and just looked," says Cossons. "It is difficult to see a single distinguished tall building. If some of those buildings cease to be worth having, we should make every effort to get them down." Yet his wrecking-ball instincts are less evidence of a destructive mindset than an implicit admission that tall buildings, good ones in the right places, are unavoidable.

The document, quoting from English Heritage's website, notes that Cossons has lived in Shropshire since 1971 and adds: "It is unclear which of the two protected views of St Paul's are of most concern from Sir Neil's home, in relation to the proposed development at London Bridge." An utterly specious stiletto.

Referring to the proposed 1,000ft "glass shard" tower, off-the-record remarks, allegedly from members of English Heritage's advisory committee, are quoted. "Why are you wasting this jewel on Southwark?" is one. And the second: "We'd have no problem if this was built in Croydon." Even if the sound bites were concocted, there will be far too many who agree with such condescending, class-ridden cant.

This dirty, opaque war began before the Heron Tower inquiry kicked off. In a simplistic polemic in The Independent, London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, referred to the "hysteria" of the "squat-buildings lobby". If that hysteria exists, it is no different to that found in chunks of the mystery document, which notes that "70 per cent of local Southwark residents have consistently expressed a preference for London Bridge Tower". If so, did they truly know what they were preferring, or rejecting? Just how effective is public consultation on architecture and major planning issues? Is the public – regardless of its opinions – always properly informed?

Such questions are the grist of the Architecture Foundation, described by its millennial chairman, Will Alsop, as a "useful irritant". Alsop, British architecture's most effective rule-breaker, backs the foundation's ethos – to promote public self-help in architectural and planning matters, and to fertilise debate among architects whose ideals may have more to do with professional exclusivity and aesthetic cleansing than fissile issues that make projects difficult to control.

"I think the Architecture Foundation can explore public participation," says Alsop. "It's an evolving museum for experiment and testing and raises funds for doing particular projects to explore things such as housing – a big issue. There's a way to use our headquarters as both a museum and an architectural exhibition, the contents of which are part of a process of exploring the open process of architecture."

That openness was evident in 1991, when the foundation mounted an exhibition called Lost Opportunities for London, which proposed an elevated railway running down the middle of the Thames and an airport over Kings Cross. It set a marker for alternative agendas. The following year, London was again the big subject, and in 1993, it got grittier: Foyer, a transitional centre for young homeless people designed by Ian Simpson, was featured; so, too, was Croydon – ah, yes! – which was seeking bright ideas for a makeover.

The recipe grew steadily more catholic. Dance, structure and landscape, floating social housing, "sensual" installations. And then, in 1996, London in the 21st Century, a series of debates that drew in more than 15,000 members of the public.

The purest expression of its agenda surfaced in 1998 with the AF Roadshow, a design initiative involving Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hammersmith, and Fulham. It targeted neglected spaces in the boroughs, sucked local people into the improvement process and delivered designs backed by local-authority commitments. This direct-action public service aspect became the propellant of choice after Lucy Musgrave became director of the foundation in 1997.

"We don't have the answers, but we're in a brilliant position to ask questions," she insists. "We can bring fresh thinking into the public domain. We all share the public realm. Small interventions can affect public life. The young generation of architects sees ways of engaging in our work on these questions – some of which have fallen off the agenda in architectural education. There's sometimes a suspicion about architects' desire to get engaged."

The Architecture Foundation's vibe, under Will Alsop, may radiate a little more hazard. "To work and not know what you're going to do," he muses, "allowing the process to determine decisions. In that way, it's not difficult." This implies a redefinition of the role of architects, so that projects "are allowed to come into being. They're not always best left to architects".

Or to the Establishment. It may not be fair to contrast the work of a "useful irritant" such as the Architecture Foundation with the lobbying of institutionalised behemoths, but their doubts are universal: why are ratepayers and voters so far down the food-chain of consideration in architectural and planning matters? They may not have the answers, but they deserve better information and consultation. Without it, the public can feel no real responsibility for what's happening around them. And if they don't, the "debate" on issues such as skyscrapers might as well be held in a Star Chamber.

Calling London, a series of Architecture Foundation events at 30 Bury Street, SW1, London, until 5 Dec 2001 (020-7253 3334)