New drive to banish Britain's dumbed down developments

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The Independent Online

A campaign to banish gormless pastiche architecture from historically important parts of Britain's towns and cities, announced by the Arts minister Baroness Blackstone, faces at least two big problems – developers who dumb down innovative design proposals and planners who do not know a carbuncle from a creative masterstroke.

The one-year campaign kicks off with the publication of a 40-page guide to better design and will be followed by a series of lectures and seminars aimed at planners and other local authority officers and committee members.

The Building in Context initiative, sponsored jointly by English Heritage and the Government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe), is the latest attempt to make architecture a dynamic public issue. But will it simply add another layer to planning decisions on important projects in conservation areas?

There are many examples of excellent new architecture in culturally sensitive sites, but no compelling evidence that interesting projects pushed through in one local authority encourage similar ventures in other areas. Geoff Noble, English Heritage's assistant regional director, said: "We can all think of mediocre buildings shoe-horned into sites. Insipid buildings where only lip-service has been paid to the context. We acknowledge there's a problem. The new guidance is there to stimulate deeper thought about places."

The general lack of thought has been depressingly quantified. A recent local government design survey, to which only 56 per cent of authorities replied, showed that less than 40 per cent of planning application decisions involve architecturally trained staff, and that there was "overwhelming demand" for advice from design panels, though cost and time restraints tended to rule them out. Only 36 per cent of local authorities have architect departments – and even then they are involved in less than half of all planning applications.

English Heritage and Cabe have published 15 case studies of exemplary architectural approaches in historic areas. But even among this small sample, there is room for dispute. The Gwynne Road housing project in Battersea is a bright spark in a grainy setting; the striking Davygate retail scheme at York and the Headland Café, part of Bridlington's new foreshore development, are also outstanding. But can the same be said of The Bars apartments at Chester, or the Juniper House office block in King's Lynn?

The Building in Context campaign will warn against both the safety-first pastiche approach and wacky incursions but, at some sensitive sites, these demands may be beyond most planning departments. Will Alsop, a past winner of the Stirling Prize, British architecture's Oscar, said that "the quality of what is built is only as good as the architect.

"I feel that with the establishment of Cabe that, in a way, the process becomes institutionalised," he said. Developers often neutered potentially interesting projects by paying small fees to young architects on the basis that their designs obtain planning approval, by which time the architects were broke. "The developer then brings in a commercial architect. It happens all the time."

Even finding genuinely bright, new architectural talent among Britain's 31,000 practitioners is difficult. Britain's 14 regional architecture centres, with a brief to promote better design, get about £1.5m in overall funding – not enough, says Mr Alsop, and much less than comparable centres in other European countries.

"Design matters," he said. "But it can't be promoted without cash. The Government's enthusiasm for architecture after they were elected in 1997 seems to have slipped away, partly because of the Dome."

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