Responding to Mister Gove
The politician now responsible for architecture, Michael Gove, is not a head-banger. Intelligent and experienced, it is unfortunate that not so long ago he had harsh words for the architectural profession about its activities and rewards, in my view almost entirely unjustified.
However, that was then, this is now. The profession in general and the RIBA in particular need to engage with him and make common cause to tackle a series of relevant and pressing problems. These include getting control of residential repairs and new construction informed by the findings of the Grenfell Tower fire inquiry; the extent to which architecture can help the ‘levelling-up’ programme of regional regeneration for which he is responsible; and the general need for new housing in the context of necessary changes to the planning system which have currently been put on the backburner.
An echo-chamber debate, alas. Privileged voters who accept in principle the need for new housing, nevertheless object to the idea that areas should be zoned for such development, even though the zoning would be subject to extensive consultation. It seems to have escaped their attention that under the existing planning regime, local authorities are obliged to identify sites which can be developed to provide necessary housing over the next five years. This is of course a form of zoning.
In London, the Greater London Assembly has told the mayor it doesn’t think residential towers are the answer to the housing problem, but it doesn’t offer any convincing alternative. Mayor Sadiq Khan defends towers, but then says he sometimes opposes them. He cites his opposition to the ‘Tulip’ landmark tower, designed by Foster & Partners in the City of London. That is not a residential tower, so scarcely seems relevant to the argument.
There is an underlying problem about London planning: we don’t know whether to love it or loathe it, even if we know we need it. So we fall back on heritage planning which never says where it thinks new housing would be suitable, especially towers.
Meanwhile, the only people building homes in real quantity, that is to say commercial housebuilders, are condemned by the political, amenity and heritage communities for allegedy building so much that they make grotesque profits; or for building so little that they ignore the poor and needy; or that what they build is not sufficiently ‘beautiful’, whatever that may mean; or that they build too densely (or not densely enough).
Then there is the perennial suggestion that we should be retrofitting rather than focussing on new building, but proponents rarely provide analysis of the construction capacity, logistical and locational challenges of such a policy.
No doubt we will keep muddling through – unless Mr Gove gets a real grip.
Echo-chamber noise is just that
A small number of vociferous architects make a huge noise in the trade media and as a result are often taken seriously, at least by journalists who agree with them and leave their professional scepticism at home instead of taking into the metaphorical office.
The potential consequences of Brexit are a case in point, where opponents claimed that it would lead to the ruin of the profession, we would never work on the continent again and so on. This hysterical nonsense was always difficult to take seriously – it simply reflected the fear on the part of a small number of practices that a source of well-trained and (more important) cheap labour would be denied them.
The proof of the pudding is laid bare in the annual survey of the biggest 100 practices in the UK, undertaken by the Architect’s Journal. Published last week, it reveals that only 7 per cent are ‘extremely concerned’ that they may have difficulty in hiring EU citizens ‘in the next few years’; only 10 per cent expect to ‘slightly reduce’ their business in the EU, with the rest thinking it will remain the same or they don’t do business there anyway.
Given that the survey only covers a tiny minority of practices (there are 5,000-plus in the UK), it is apparent that all the headlines about disaster and mayhem were so much hot air, not that those responsible will be reminding us what they said at the time.
UK politics is similarly full of echo-chamber opinions, the latest coming from the deputy leader of the Labour Party, who describes her Conservative opponents as ‘misogynist, racist, homophobic scum’. She must be under the mistaken impression that this will convince former Labour voters, who supported Conservatives at the last election, will return to the fold having been roundly abused.
This sort of spiteful venom is similar to comments made by elements of both sides of the Brexit debate. Clearly it would be difficult for either side to ‘respect’ the views of the other, but at least they could be tolerated. Debate could be conducted in reasonable language and ad hominem attacks avoided. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the fashion in the UK currently, in respect of politics or indeed architectural politics. We can only hope for more civilised times.