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Thursday24 July 2014

Five things Margaret Thatcher did (or didn't do) for architecture

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Thatcher is a divisive figure among architects, but there’s no denying her impact on the architecture profession was huge

Former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher died this morning following a stroke. Her term as PM, from 1979 to 1990, heralded massive social and industrial change for the UK. Her policies, and decisions made during her tenure, also had a major impact on the architecture profession - some good and some bad.

1/ Privatisation of local authority services

In the 1970s most of the biggest architecture practices in the UK were part of the public sector - architects’ departments within local authorities and the health service. Under Thatcher, the vast majority of these services were closed or privatised, with their work soaked up by private architecture, planning and engineering companies which have since become some of the biggest in the world. Less than one in three local authorities currently employ architects as architects. Meanwhile, architecture has become one the UK’s greatest exports.

Margaret Thatcher with the then RIBA president Michael Manser

Margaret Thatcher was not popular with architects but she gave up more time to the profession than any of her successors, according to BD’s archive, which is bulging with photographs from her 11 years at Number 10. This photograph was taken on the occasion of Michael Manser’s inaugural reception as RIBA president in 1984 and also coincided with the RIBA’s 150th anniversary. Thatcher had just arrived at Portland Place and was introduced to Manser by the cabinet secretary Robin Butler, who can be seen standing between the two, while Manser’s wife José is just to the left of the picture. The occasion was a great success, recalls Manser: “She gave us a huge fillip.” To mark the occasion the RIBA had been decked out in green foliage and white flowers and was lit by 500 candles. Guests included several dukes and captains of industry and there was supper afterwards. “She was dashing,” says Manser of the former prime minster, “with a mind like a laser.”

2/ The Monopolies & Mergers Commission

Although the Monopolies Commission came into existence before Thatcher became prime minister, its decision to declare mandatory minimum fee scales “anti-competitive” was made at the beginning of her first term. This was compounded by an Office of Fair Trading ruling a few years later. Described by one architect as “probably the worst thing to happen to our profession”, the declaration forced all professional bodies in the UK to withdraw official fee scales. Further rulings now prevent the RIBA from publishing even recommended or suggested fees.

Margaret Thatcher with Stuart Lipton

Margaret Thatcher with Stuart Lipton.

3/ Deregulation of the city - the Big Bang

One of the key moments of Thatcher’s career was the Big Bang - the moment in October 1986 when her controversial deregulation of the UK’s stock exchange and financial services sector took effect, changing banking forever. Wide-sweeping reforms were introduced in an attempt to re-establish London as a financial centre and make its market more competitive in an increasingly global market.

This deregulation created a need for more office space and huge trading floors in London, sparking a flurry of new building in the City. It also created a whole new cultural approach to money, with yuppie culture and a desire to spend giving birth to, or indirectly supporting, a number of new design movements.

Will Alsop explains his scheme for Riverside Studios at Hammersmith to RIBA president Michael Manser and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher

Will Alsop explains his scheme for Riverside Studios at Hammersmith to RIBA president Michael Manser and PM Margaret Thatcher. Under Thatcher’s government, the very concept of state funding for the arts came under attack, and everything from abstract sculpture to socially critical plays was condemned both for content and as a “drain on the public purse”. So it was perhaps no surprise that Hammersmith & Fulham Council abandoned the scheme only days later.

4/ Canary Wharf

Founded by Thatcher’s Government in 1981, the London Dockland Development Corporation was charged with the total revitalisation of eight square miles of London that had once been thriving docks. As the focus of the country’s wealth moved from manufacturing to financial services, the Corporation’s first large-scale development plan was unveiled. The Canary Wharf project - the then largest single commercial development in the world - formally began in 1988 with an inaugural speech by Thatcher.

Although much of the Canary Wharf area’s real boom took place in the late 1990s with the introduction of public transport links, it is still one of the most potent architectural symbols of Thatcherism. The architects that benefited directly include Cesar Pelli, John McAslan, SOM and Norman Foster. Simon Jenkins described the development as “big, bland and bankrupt”.

Margaret Thatcher with Jeremy Dixon

Jeremy Dixon pictured with Margaret Thatcher at Michael Manser’s inaugural reception as RIBA president in 1984. Thatcher looks almost benign, listening intently to Dixon who is explaining the model, which he made himself for the 1982 Venice architecture biennale. It was an architectural self-portrait based on the facade of his housing at St Mark’s Road in west London.

5/ Right to Buy

Very little publicly-funded housing was commissioned under Thatcher, but she did introduce Right to Buy for council tenants, effectively removing thousands of properties from the social housing system. Right to Buy heralded the end of an era in social housing design and the gentrification of large swathes of London in particular, with knock-on effects for architects working in both social housing and home improvement. Housing architects everywhere are still awaiting the opening of the social housing floodgates with bated breath.

Zaha Hadid and Margaret Thatcher - 1984

Zaha Hadid explains her competition-winning proposal for The Peak in Hong Kong to Margaret Thatcher - 1984.

Please share your views on Margaret Thatcher’s impact on architecture in the comments below.

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Readers' comments (15)

  • jason brown

    "The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money to spend" ................. Margaret Thatcher

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  • Never amounted to more than a Grocer's daughter!!! Little stock and what there was past it's best by date???? Grantham's Grasper!!!! Deserves a "non-memorial"? Competition anyone? Zah Ha Ha's role model I suspect?

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  • Battersea power station is Thatchers monument!

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  • Ah yes, deregulation of the city - she followed her mate Reagan and started the deregulation of our financial institutions which lead directly to the biggest banking crisis in history - the largest international ponzi scheme ever .... more than a few people in the construction industry and elsewhere are paying a very heavy price for this reckless and irresponsible action and may yet lead to the collapse of Europe as we know it.

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  • - deregulation of the architectural profession - abolition of mandatory fee scales - and creation of the Eighties "Thatcherite Architecture" that has ruined every town and city in this country.

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  • The memorial to Thatcher are the large parts of northern England which were once thriving communities with vibrant industries which are now waste lands with shattered communities.
    Not to mention sowing the seeds of today's economic woes....oh and she re-took some rocks in the south Atlantic at the expense of too many young lives.
    That memorial enough for you?

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  • I would like to propose a Saturday Night Fever style illuminated dance floor as a fitting memorial to her. Preferably somewhere in the North of England, South Wales or Glasgow.

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  • jason brown quoted Margaret Thatcher …

    "The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money to spend"

    Whereas with Capitalism, other people's money never runs out, even in a financial crisis with 40% architects either out-of-work or seriously under-employed, we have to support the banks.

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  • died in the ritz. grantham's daughter was in touch with the common man 'til the very last.

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  • "creation of the Eighties "Thatcherite Architecture" that has ruined every town and city in this country."
    - I don't think we should be blaming the style of architecture being built at the time on Thatcher...who should we blame??...the architects who designed them! (unless all those architects were just puppets with pencils being controlled by Thatcher, in which case I take it all back!)

    "grantham's daughter was in touch with the common man 'til the very last."
    - I know!!The cheek!! I shake my fist in the air with rage!! The funeral is at St.Pauls too...

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