here we go again. This week we read – with a wry sense of history repeating itself – of proposals from think tank Policy Exchange, supported by Housing Secretary Michael Gove, To create a ‘new school of architecture and urban design’ Dedicated to the industry of place, “which will faithfully revive traditional architecture from the records of obscurity unfairly set by contemporary architectural education”.
Too often we come across some flavor of this pink-tinted bugger: that the real reason our society doesn’t provide adequate buildings and homes, or enough of them, is because schools of radical modernist architecture don’t teach young people how to do it like we used to. But once architects learn the golden ratio in the School of Place, the floodgates will open, the mood will change, and the public will get behind those 300,000 new homes a year.
Obviously, that’s not how this works at all. It’s never just about design; And in the case of housing in particular, our towns and cities are shaped in large part by market forces, developer incentives, government funding and policy, and an industry that has been shaped entirely to perpetuate “value” over quality. Design lives in an ecosystem that, I’m afraid, is often fairly low on the food chain. Pointing fingers at architects for the public’s lack of support for new buildings is a bit like blaming sporting goods designers for your team’s poor performance on the field.
Many of us will remember Gove’s earlier form in the field as Education Secretary, and his battles with the Department for Education when he canceled Labour’s ambitious school-building programme. Architects were once again the target, accused of “scrapping cash”—a supposed euphemism for “paying for professional services.” Having modeled dozens of schools before and after Gove’s intervention, we’ve seen first-hand its impact on the sector. Rather, one feels that it is the skill and determination of Gove’s unfairly disadvantaged architects, who are now under pressure to design a school within a single four-week period, that allows the continued creation of quality educational buildings. I look forward to reading how the new approach creates “best possible outcomes in the placement industry”.
Are you telling us, Policy Exchange, that suburbanites will line up to cheer at the 20-story Vitruvian delights?
If you’ll allow me to read between the lines, let’s examine the underlying belief system a bit. What is beloved of classical architecture? Is it the quality of the detail – the endings, the arcades, the inner surfaces? These things, which are no doubt attractive and attractive, cost money and require skill and labor—the kind that were cheap and available in the old days. Goff points out that it will take time to “deliver a workforce imbued with the skills needed to make this transformation possible.” I would gently suggest that it might also help if his management were not directly responsible for the devastating loss of skilled construction workers in the UK over the past six years, driving up costs which in turn lower quality.
Well, if we can’t afford these expensive pieces (even though they’re totally embedded in the architectural language), how about those classic proportions? Modest three-story homes and muscle mansion block real estate? The commission of the best building and the beautiful building and its issuance Living with beautyHe has much to commend him for. But building, say, the proposed five-story-max city streets on which the report floats is not an option for architects today. Land inflation, property speculation, maximizing the amount of delivery even on public land—all macroeconomic aspects that are beyond the architect’s control—to a large extent dictate the heights of new buildings. Are you telling us, Policy Exchange, that suburbanites will line up to cheer at the 20-story Vitruvian delights? Will this, then, be “the architecture the public wants”?
How about a world of cities, green parks, and tree-lined avenues? This is putting the place at the heart of the policy exchange proposal. Gove hits the nail again in the head in his recent musings when he says that The public does not want to see AstroTurf in new developments. It’s right right there. Fortunately, after five years of training, School of Place graduates will know to write “GRASS (REAL)” on their graphics, and things will change quickly.
In all of this data, I dug to see if there was any mention of the role city planners would need to review and approve these beautiful new developments. In this one there are two paragraphs. This is an integral part of the pipeline for anything ever built, and notable for being something Gove has actual control over. Planning is also a profession whose role, value and funding have been utterly destroyed in recent years. Perhaps Gove could also look at structural reform of our procurement and delivery systems, which incentivize fee reduction and value engineering once planning permission is granted.
Joffe is right when he says: “Rome was not built in a day. But it would not have been built at all if those who had devoted their lives and careers to its creation had not first known how to build it. He forgot to mention the slavery, exploitation and patronage by the rich who, for example, allowed Severus and Celer built the Domus Aurea under Emperor Nero. Or indeed so many of Gough’s alma mater at the University of Oxford, whose beautiful classical surroundings supposedly inspired his love of form. The buildings we create are the result of a society in which they are conceived as an expression of aesthetic and ego Happy to be an architect in the 21st century.
Alex Luria is an associate at Jestico + Whiles