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Wednesday30 July 2014

Sunand Prasad – Architecture: the fourth R

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Sunand Prasad: Architecture - The fourth R
BBC Radio 3
Available at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00v7sxl
3/5stars

Sunand Prasad’s BBC Radio 3 essays on engaging the public lack a sense of urgency.

The former RIBA president Sunand Prasad is frustrated by the lack of interest that the British public has in architecture and planning. Whole supplements are devoted to food and music, he says, but new civic spaces or great engineering feats rarely get written about. If they do, it is normally in a negative light such as news items about cost overrun. In his series of five radio essays, he says: “I think a keen awareness of our surroundings should become an essential part of our citizenship. As important in the future as the three Rs.”

Prasad bemoans a lack of involvement in the process of architecture, a failure of people to realise the role they can play and, ultimately, a loss of faith in architects, planners and engineers.

The last time architects and the public were both riding a rocketship to the future was the 1960s. Prasad remembers being taught about the excitement of the new M1 in a geography class. But shoddy mass production passed off as sleek modernity coupled with naive car-centric planning brought an end to that love affair.

Then there was a period of renewed political engagement in the early 1970s, kicked off by the “battle for Covent Garden”, where righteous popular anger led to the salvation of the historic London market. (Prasad was taught at the AA by the late Brian Anson, the architect who went public with the original designs and was sacked by the GLC). But when and why did the public take its eye off the ball after these twin derelictions of duty by the construction establishment?

Without identifying this most recent falling away, it is hard to be convinced by Prasad’s argument that the public is disengaged from its environment. What about Grand Designs and the
fascination with the iconic? These are genuine popular sensations.

Prasad makes a reasoned case for the importance of the public to be engaged, even if the kernel of his arguments may be wearily familiar to consumers of the RIBA’s many press releases, policy statements and lobbying documents. Proper scrutiny would ensure that the long-term value of quality shelter is not engineered out by over-zealous accountability while helping tackle climate change, and encouraging development to cleave to authenticity, looseness and common sense.

But Prasad is no polemicist and it’s hard to feel much engaged by his broadcasts. His mania for qualification and his all-round decency also render his talks unmusical. Paragraphs rumble beyond their apparent conclusion. He does not pause after a sentence, but carries on, sometimes giving the impression there are two people in discussion.

What is left is the well-meaning optimism of the successful architect – who after the AA spent an early part of his career under Ted Cullinan before setting up his own practice – burnished by years of diplomacy at the RIBA. Lacking is a sense of peril and currency. What battles would a Brian Anson be fighting now? And didn’t everything just change? The imminent disintegration of UK capital expenditure is hardly mentioned.

The essays are at their most engaging in the marginalia, such as when he talks about the rhythms of life in Gandhi’s ashram of Sevagram, where he grew up. Elsewhere, it’s all lacking in urgency. If Prasad truly wants to communicate with the public in the manner of his hero Anson, he’ll need to loosen his diplomatic tailoring. If he wants to delight it, he’ll have to share his delight in the details he observes.

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