Today’s architectural writers wield their influence to powerful political effect, argues Gillian Darley as the election looms
Buildings, whatever their purpose or form, carry some political baggage. Decisions, values, strategies, judgements have been weighed up and are implicit, at least, in the outcome. When I applied to take a postgraduate degree in politics and administration at Birkbeck I was asked at interview why would a graduate in art history be heading off in this direction? The implication was that I had changed tack. But with an ease that eluded me for the rest of my course I chose the perfect response; I replied that as I was frequently writing about social housing and so dealing with the end results of policy and process, I wanted to understand how the latter impinged on the former. It got me a place.
When JM (Jim) Richards became architectural correspondent of the Times in 1947, a post he held for 24 years while remaining an editor of the Architectural Review, he was answerable to the news desk, not the arts editor, and at the mercy of the editors – three in his time. My four years at the Observer in the early 1990s were each marked by a new editor. I never met one of them and worked for an arts editor, losing my slot when her successor arrived. I don’t think then, in the years of John Major’s premiership, architecture impinged on editorial policy. In contrast, Jim Richards considered that the demolition of the Euston Arch (which he opposed) took place because the editor, William Haley (who supported demolition), had Harold Macmillan’s ear.
My impression, recently at least, is that the broadsheets have encouraged their architectural correspondents to leave the arts silo and range much wider, engaging with major issues from London’s skyline to the social housing crisis, open space planning, urban development and design, mayoral planning interventions and more. Essential political battles are being fought hard and well, often with those leading the debate on the page (or screen) having a far more sophisticated grasp of the options than government ministers or their opposition shadows.
The noticeable absentee in the architecture column now tends to be the big name architect. Most redevelopment projects are put together by a clutch of practices, often each itself just a bundle of initials. Who is designing what has ceased to be of much interest. It is the how and the why of the development that keeps people talking – it is what touches the readers.
When Ian Nairn wrote successively in the Telegraph, the Observer and eventually the Sunday Times (latterly for the travel pages) he frequently took up the cudgels and made himself unpopular in the profession. His outburst against architects, a double-page central spread in the Observer in mid-1966, was hugely effective rousing the president of the RIBA, Lord Esher (aka Lionel Brett) and the editor of the RIBA Journal, Malcolm McEwan. The former was gentlemanly, responding in sorrow rather than anger; the latter was incandescent, accusing Nairn of political naivety, social ignorance, romanticism and more. Nairn was thrilled with the action and for weeks the paper was filled with letters, pinging to and fro, for and against the charges.
The current generation of architectural correspondents wields impressive power with, it seems to me, due recognition of their responsibilities. Their online material washes up and down the channels of social media. Outrage (a term Nairn made his own) is the mood but where, for all this, does the protest lead? I’d like to imagine that the clamour of informed voices will begin to tell – introducing a kind of citizens’ choice (a democratic version of a citizen’s arrest) to which politicians may need to listen carefully.