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Saturday26 July 2014

Only a united front can stop architects being swept aside

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Nothing in 2012 has helped architects regain their confidence, so they must do it for themselves

Amanda Baillieu

Amanda Baillieu — editor in chief

Architects — who rarely agree about anything — concede that the London Olympics was the standout event of the past year. But how important it will be long-term remains on hold. The same is true of less memorable events.

So far, the National Planning Policy Framework has proved a damp squib. Even the Housebuilders Federation, which this week reported an upswing in approvals for new homes, is careful not to hand the credit to the guidelines.

The country’s acute housing crisis was rarely off the political agenda, but there was no defining moment. Red tape still dominates Whitehall thinking and politicians trying to capitalise on the crisis quickly became unstuck.

Nick Clegg talks about creating garden cities for the 21st century but the term seems remarkably hollow; nothing the government has done this year suggests that it has any other interest beyond persuading developers to start building.

Accusations of such sloppy half-hearted thinking cannot be levelled at Michael Gove, whose education reforms have hit architects hard.

Next year will reveal if they have found a way to improve on the “baseline” school designs, and what role the profession will play in designing the new academies and free schools given a £1 billion boost this month.

Capital projects have been thin on the ground because the economy refuses to recover. The only way they can be funded is by cutting Whitehall jobs because no one — least of all the banks — is prepared to take on construction risk. This is unlikely to change next year, but expect a needless stream of policy announcements trying to persuade us otherwise.

Meanwhile, architects are not excited by Ed Vaizey’s promise of an architecture policy review — and who can blame them. What can it possibly say we’ve not heard a hundred times before? Design champions, design reviews, green papers — architecture has had them all but with little result.

As for those institutions BD writes about all year — RIBA, Arb and Cabe — they continue to muddle along, some more surefooted than others, but they are powerless against the big changes that are sweeping architects aside. After the faltering economy, the most serious is a procurement system dominated by contractors, which is process and profit-led. Procurement was on this year’s agenda, helped by a RIBA president who is prepared to put up a fight, but so far there’s little sign of change.

The Stirling Prize, away from the TV cameras, seemed to regain its credibility, but the same cannot be said for Arb, whose raison d’être seems an anachronism — a view that is gaining political support. But is it enough for proposed reform to be given parliamentary time next year?

Part of the reason this is doubtful is because the profession can never agree. It remains as split over the need for Arb as it is over fee scales.

This makes politicians as well as clients nervous.

Meanwhile, architects lack a clear position on what role they want to have when the economy does recover. Agreeing on this, if nothing else, must be the objective for next year.

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Readers' comments (5)

  • zecks_marquise

    National front of architects?

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  • No, the Architects' National Front is the way to go! Ignore the heretics who support the National Front of Architects!

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  • Lo and behold, Scottish National(ist) Front of Architects will take charge!

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  • The economy is not going to "recover". It is undergoing a profound structural change.

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  • On the one hand, wanting developers to develop, on the other expecting they will cough up for social housing, community benefits, and general development levies?

    What is it you really want Amanda?

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