Vision and Talent in a Waste of Tat

Article excerpt

Take a train from any major British town or city to another, from Sheffield to Ipswich or from Newcastle to Birmingham, and survey what the winter-stained carriage windows reveal - a new ruined landscape of tacky Design and Build sheds, of superstores and bricky, cut- price, ill-planned homes.

This is the architectural horror of which Martin Pawley, presenter of Architecture Armageddon, BBC 2's pessimistic prognosis on the state of British architecture broadcast last night, speaks. This is the architecture of U-turns, of myopia, of born- again Gradgrinds, of anti-planning, of greed mingled with slovenliness, of short-termism, short cuts, and despair. This is our landscape. Society always gets th architecture it deserves. This prospect is us. This architecture is you.

Yet British architects are the envy of the world. Sir Norman Foster receives his Gold Medal at the American Institute of Architects on 1 February. No architect in the United States designs as well as he does. Our architectural schools are full of keen foreign students. No European architectural schools are as good as ours. Our conservation architects are propping up the pyramids and preserving China's fragile past.

Our architectural books, magazines and criticism are the envy of the world. London's streets, from Bedford Square to Portland Place to St James's, are crowded each evening with enthusiasts, professionals and amateurs, students and practitioners, enjoying the highest level of architectural culture in lectures, events and exhibitions. No other city, not even New York or Paris, has more.

So what is going wrong? Why are Foster, Rogers, Hopkins, MacCormac so good, why are Will Alsop, David Chipperfield, IanRitchie, Nigel Coates internationally so admired (as well as hundreds of their less well-known but equally talented juniors) while the mass of the built reality of contemporary Britain is so horrible?

A little architectural talent can go a long way, but the scope for improvement in our towns and cities is - to put it mildly - immense.

Yet look at the superb schools, such as the award-winning Woodlea, built over the past decade by Hampshire County Architects, Stansted airport by Sir Norman Foster, the Ark office building at Hammersmith by Ralph Erskine - all innovative, world-class buildings. The talent is demonstrably available here and these able architects give exceptional value for money.

The problem is that Britain has forgotten what architects stand for, what they are good at, and how to use them to get the kind of places that we want to live and work in.

Sadly, the present Government stands, effectively, for the opposite of everything that (Conservative- run) Hampshire Cunty Council has stood for. It has overseen the dismantling of the last remaining resources of skilled procurement of architectural services in local as well as central government. It has glorified lowest-cost fee bidding for professional services in the public sector. Its architectural policy - if it has one - is based entirely on the Treasury's ignorance and on the empty promises of project managers who think the design of buildings should cost nothing and that ethics are a type of brick.

Anyone at the sharp end of this rough old building industry knows what this official navety and de- skilling of the construction industry, especially in the public sector, means: a colossal series of incipient blunders which in five years' time will surely lead to bitter tears on the part of the users of cut-price buildings and to clouds of litigation. Worse, by that time government policy will have completely coarsened and degraded the public face of Britain.

Martin Pawley's analysis is, nevertheless, too uch of a post-mortem. …