Richard Rogers’ resignation as Boris Johnson’s design adviser reflects on a mayor with little interest in architecture

Richard Rogers’ decision to give up his role as an adviser to London mayor Boris Johnson is an opportunity for some fresh thinking about the role of design in the capital.

So far the mayor has done little to suggest he thinks design and architecture are important, which may be the reason Rogers decided to quit. His only real move has been to commission a housing “design guide”, which is certainly very worthy, but it’s also dull and hardly a way to kick-start a wider debate about housing.

The guide is the work of Design for London, a unit that itself has been cut and, like the Mayor’s Great Spaces programme, is a legacy of the previous administration and Rogers himself. But six months after the programme was announced with not one “great space” revealed, it’s hard not to conclude this is really a fig leaf to cover over the fact there’s no money to do anything at all — another reason why Rogers might have decided his services were no longer needed.

One construction project that is progressing is Crossrail, but it’s not a project the mayor will want to be remembered for. The new stations have already attracted comment for their lack of architectural ambition, and the line is destined to go down as the bargain basement version of the hugely admired Jubilee Line extension built a decade ago.

Finally there are the London Olympics. But the games weren’t his idea. At the same time the legacy plan for the venues remains unclear, and the Olympic Village is a huge missed opportunity.

The mayor needs a new adviser to enthuse him, although a design tsar in the Rogers mould now seems unnecessary, as does a design advisory panel — more camouflage to hide the lack of new initiatives coming out of the mayor’s office at present.

Housing is the obvious place to start some fresh thinking. It’s where the mayor has the greatest control, and where there’s the greatest need. Yet the biggest challenge facing his next design adviser is not coming up with ideas but ensuring they become real projects.

The design advisory panel is camouflage to hide the lack of new ideas coming out of the mayor’s office

Sizing up your practice

For at least the last decade, being a big practice — defined by RIBA as over 50 staff — was a good thing. It meant being able to chase projects with huge price tags attached and, for a time, this was where the real money was to be made. Those that were said to suffer were the medium-sized practices.

Suddenly that’s all changed and it’s the big boys who are feeling, and looking, most vulnerable, whether through a sense of foreboding about cuts to public sector projects or a general unease about overheads and staffing levels. But equally it is highly probable that a couple of months down the line it will be small practices that start panicking as medium-sized firms become insecure.

These mood swings tell us that we are in uncertain times and that forecasts are based on emotional judgments — have you just had to make staff redundant, or did you get a phone call with the hint of a job? — rather than more rational and objective reasoning.

But what’s clear is that there’s no such thing as a perfect size for a practice. It’s what makes you special and worth employing that counts.

Read more about how to survive, whatever the size of the office, in our Practice guide, free with this week’s BD.