This building has drawn many admirers - too many, says the owner, who has now banned visitors. What does this tell us about attitudes to architecture?

'We assumed they would enjoy this building. It's too good for them. They have no respect for it' - Gabriele Bramante, architect
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Where there was once a dismal lean-to shed nailed to the community hall in Chessington, Surrey, there is now a shining building which many consider to be a work of art. Art or not, the new Citizens' Advice Bureau, a cube of seamless lines, bold colours and glorious light, and just a few months old, has become a testament to the perennial British failure to appreciate modern architecture.

At least, that's the view of the woman who designed it, Gabriele Bramante, a German-born architect, who fought tooth and nail for every last penny of the pounds 330,000 it took to build. Despite winning accolades from the Civic Trust and the BBC (it was viewers' choice in the architecture section of the recent BBC Design Awards), the Citizens' Advice Bureau says it is tired of visitors coming to look at it and won't allow its entry into a further awards scheme. Bramante feels that the committee of volunteers who run the bureau would have preferred a Portakabin, rather than what, by any standards, is a rather beautiful - and clearly popular - building.

When Bramante asked for judges from the Royal Institute of British Architecture to be given a half-hour viewing for a further round of awards, the committee said enough is enough. The time has come, they insisted, for the work of art to be an advice bureau again, a place for working in and not for looking round.

Architectural students have wandered through the doors in droves, and the curious have dropped in to walk across the York stone floors and run their hands along the fine sandstone and beech fittings. It has got to the point where one exasperated official snapped at Bramante, saying, "I'm fed up of people telling me how good this building is."

For those who appreciate good new architecture, the Chessington CAB is cause for celebration. Why shouldn't an architect bring some pizzazz to a dull English horizon? "Nothing is too good for ordinary people," said Berthold Lubetkin, the pioneering British Modernist who designed the hugely influential Finsbury Health Centre in central London. (This building, 60 years on, still serves its original purpose and has an enthusiastic staff who, whenever convenient, happily allow a regular flow of visitors to look around.)

Bramante says she has taken Lubetkin's dictum to heart. Clearly, however, sometimes a building can be too good for ordinary people.

"They just don't understand what they've got," says Bramante. "They want it to go back to what it was. They wanted a Portakabin, not a building, not beautiful architecture. It's tragic. We assumed they would enjoy this building. It's too good for them. They have no respect for it."

Among Bramante's concerns is the way her client is treating the bureau. "They fitted a brass letter box, when it already had a letter box," she sighs. "They are putting in blinds from John Lewis because they can get a 20 per cent discount, instead of blinds designed for the building, and they have filled it with loose furniture, even though it has specially designed fitted furniture."

It is an old story and one that generations of architects have learnt to tell. Even so, Bramante (this is her first major building) says she is astonished by the treatment meted out to modern architecture. "We have enormous talent in this country, but it is no good unless somebody has the courage to give an architect the freedom to express that talent."

Attitudes to modern architecture in Britain have been muddled for many years. The extent of the divide between those whose instinct is to stick with the safety of the past and those who want to move forward was crystallised by the Prince of Wales, the self-appointed guardian of true British architecture. His "carbuncle" speech criticising a design for the extension to the National Gallery more than a decade ago summed up the constipated mood of caution in architecture, celebrated by his own Institute for Architecture, in Regent's Park, London, set up to train architects along traditional lines. Since then, however, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has refused to recognise the standing of the institute's qualifications, which means that study with the Prince's favourite gurus and teachers does not an architect make - at least, not officially. The institute's standing is all the more complicated because over the past year, the Prince of Wales has invited at least two firms of very modern architects - radical, in the case of Branson Coates Architecture - to work with him. Even so, those who hang on to the Prince's coat-tails, while mouthing platitudes in recent months about how it is possible to have a good modern building, prefer all things old and crumbly when expressing their views privately.

Witnessing few commissions coming their way at home, more adventurous British architects claim that our visual culture has long been frozen in the past. Those who have moved with the times are being pushed overseas by an army of nostalgic fundamentalists to countries such as Japan, Spain and Germany, where there is plenty of work and modern architecture is liked as much as traditional design.

They include David Chipperfield, designer of the recently opened boat house at Henley-on-Thames, who receives 80 per cent of his commissions abroad, and who is despairing at the attitudes in Britain. "We seem to take a perverse enjoyment of things not happening," he says, "unlike France or Spain and other European countries. They see their glorious days in front of them, whereas we think our glorious days are behind us. Anything that erodes our Victorian past is somehow destabilising. Whereas Germany wants to build for the future, and is robustly modern, and Spain has recovered from Franco and wants to build a new society, we've wanted to switch off. The daft thing is that cities are being eroded by planning legislation that allows Tesco's and Sainsbury's to go up all over the place, but resists projects like the Cardiff Bay Opera House. They're hitting the good ones instead of the bad ones."

Back in Chessington, the RIBA has been cautious over its role in the saga. Rather than leap to Bramante's defence, it anxiously points out that she is not a fully qualified architect, and it is concerned over claims that there have been practical problems with the building. According to the RIBA, the relationship between the client and the designer of the building, in this case volatile, is also an integral part of architecture. It is therefore a key aspect of its criteria for judging awards. Chris Palmer, a spokesman, says: "You've got to respect the fact that it's the CAB's building. The idea you can just go along and judge it for an RIBA award as Ms Bramante would like us to do, but without permission, doesn't make sense. You can't send four people in with balaclavas to have a look and run away. It's their building now."

Clearly a building is never just a work of art, unlike a painting or a sculpture. No painting can be accused of being too hot in summer, as the CAB committee has said of Bramante's design. It also says that private conversations in interview rooms can be overheard. Such things can normally be solved - quickly and without rancour - yet if designers and clients cannot even come together to support a small vision of the future in Surrey, what hope is there for the great adventures in architecture that Britain needs to take it into the next century?

Mark Welling, chairman of the local Citizens' Advice Bureau, says: "The management committee has always said it is delighted with the building. But we have reaffirmed our decision not to go ahead with the award. We have a public service to fulfil, we rely on volunteers, and that is our function. Ms Bramante has never been very good at looking at the needs of the other parties involved."

As the public wanders by and smiles in surprise at a space that has been filled by something out of the ordinary, the small splash of innovation on the Chessington skyline is arguably a public service in its own right. Yet, as the battle continues, it is easy to see why Bramante wonders if she would have been better off building her client a a shed instead.