22 May, 2009

Architects are not obsessed by cash and glass boxes

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

I wish Simon Jenkins’column was as informative as it is entertaining (Charles should stick to his guns. The carbuncle crew are still hard at work, 15 May). From its opening paragraph, a sideswipe at the “massed ranks of the [architectural] profession sat in dark suits”, to the last, “the profession’s refusal ever to confront its past remains a scandal”, the Jenkins pen plays fast and loose with facts.

As it happens, half the audience at the Royal Institute of British Architects lecture by the Prince of Wales, which prompted Jenkins’ diatribe, were non-architects. And the poverty of postwar urban design, 60s housing estates and commercial buildings is ritually condemned in architectural curricula and professional seminars, which also regularly advocate the balance between “discretion” and “ostentation” that Jenkins mentions in a more reflective passage.

If the architecture profession was “interested only in icons and cash”, why are they earning less than other professions and why are more RIBA awards not given to the “glass boxes, blobs and phalluses” that developers the world over are so fascinated by? Our awards are far more likely to recognise ­”modern designers” who “have worked well within the rhythm of ­existing city streets”.

Jenkins makes sweeping statements about architects’ culpability, though 99% of them have little to do with the buildings that he detests. He also has the facts wrong on the highly publicised Chelsea Barracks, whose bulk and massing are largely the product of planning directives and site value, and whose verdant public spaces will be a fine addition to the area – a far cry from the widely separated slab blocks at Roehampton with which it is bizarrely compared.

Turning to the Prince of Wales, no one, so far as I am aware, is saying that he is “abus[ing] his position in commenting on style”. What many of us are asking of him is to resist commenting on individual projects during their often tortuous passage through our planning system, which may be seriously in need of reform but which does have clear democratic principles of governance embedded within it.

Jenkins’ statement that “the prince must be the last public figure to take architecture seriously” is simply ­surreal. Stand down all you well-known broadcasters, musicians, artists, politicians and scientists who take part in RIBA activities and contribute to architectural debates.

All this would be comic were it not for the desperate need today to do something about the low quality of design of our public buildings, housing estates and urban spaces. Partly as a result of the building and design failures of the 60s, and of our risk-shifting, low-ambition public culture, architects have fallen a long way from the position they once held.

The profession has had to change, and the bulk of Britain’s 27,000 architects quietly deliver decent work for their hugely diverse clients. If Jenkins could see that a better future for our towns and cities needs society to make best use of architects’ skills, he would do more to bring about the quality of public realm that he seeks.

Sunand Prasad is president of the Royal Institute of British Architects president@inst.riba.org

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