How committees and lack of vision turn Britain's grand gestures into fiascos

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An obsession with avoiding blame, seemingly endless committees and a lack of visionary leadership are turning Britain's "grand gestures" into embarrassing fiascos, say leading architects and designers.

An obsession with avoiding blame, seemingly endless committees and a lack of visionary leadership are turning Britain's "grand gestures" into embarrassing fiascos, say leading architects and designers.

Political interference and a terror of committing money and standing by the decision have left the country with a half-hearted approach to projects that should build national pride, they believe.

Marco Goldschmeid, managing director of the Richard Rogers Partnership, said big projects were hamstrung by the British belief in committees rather than "strong leaders and visionary people".

The Rogers Partnership was able to complete the Pompidou Centre in Paris in five years because President Georges Pompidou gave full power over it to one of his closest allies, he said. "Without him it would have undoubtedly collapsed [as] it would in Britain. There would have been a committee of MPs asking about the whys and wherefors. They end up worrying so long about saving money it costs more. With projects of this scale time is money.

"We have developed a lack of trust in good judgement so we have to continually verify and re-verify decisions. The Victorians did not have to do that."

Mr Goldschmeid, the immediate past-president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, said that within the public sector there was also an "obsession with arse-covering" which meant ensuring a project was completed was not always the most important priority. "We seem to want to diffuse the power of decision-making into endless committees so no one person is responsible," he said.

Tim Carter, project manager for the £60m Eden Project in Cornwall, completed in 2000 on time and within budget, said Wembley now looked like another "incompetent Dome disaster looming". He said the Eden Project's success was possible because there was a clear vision of what was needed and a commitment to get it done according to plan, which was transmitted downwards by Tim Smit, the chief executive. "The problem is that clients rarely know what they want. With Wembley, one minute it was a world-class stadium, the next they had to have a running track," Mr Carter said.

"There is no shortage of architectural practices and building contractors who can do the business, but when the client changes its mind it gets difficult, especially when you get the political element."

Mr Smit said the Civil Service needed a cultural change so money spent on big projects was seen not as a waste, but as something that would more than pay for itself if done properly. "Britain is not beyond hope in doing big projects but they need to be seen as something that puts champagne in the veins," he said.

"In this country we talk about exit strategies. The best exist strategy is to say, 'We are doing this or I die', then people stand behind you. It requires commitment and bravery."

The design consultant Stephen Bayley said the repeated failures could be the price paid for aspects of national character. "It is the flipside of an endearing part of the English personality that is reticent and disinclined to make the 'grand gesture'.

"They say that by the time you are 40 you have the face you deserve and it is the same with nations. They get the monuments they deserve. Ours tend to be small-scale, personal and intimate. You could argue the suburban semi-detached house is the greatest British contribution to a Western architecture.

"The governments that were best at grand gestures were the Nazis and Soviets so I don't see that our inability to do it is necessarily a bad thing."

FAILURES FOUR EXAMPLES OF WHAT ARCHITECTS REGARD AS TRULY BRITISH MUDDLES

PICKETT'S LOCK

The planned national athletics centre to host the 2005 World Athletics Championships was heading for a £30m overrun on its £87m budget when it was scrapped. That collapse ended the prospect of thousands of jobs in Enfield, north London.

THE MILLENNIUM DOME

The empty building has cost the taxpayer £275,000 a month since the year-long festival finished at the end of 2000. The amount of lottery money allocated to the project rose from £449m to £628m.

HOLYROOD

The present cost of the Scottish Parliament building stands at £280m. The premises are not expected to be ready until 2003, four months later than the deadline and are finally expected to cost £300m.

BRITISH LIBRARY

The new British Library cost more than £500m, three times the original estimate. The building work was plagued by mistakes, delays and constant changes to the design.

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