Friday, 29 October 2010

Design review by royal appointment

It seems that the Prince's Foundation would like to run a design review programme. Presumably this would be a sort of revival of the 'licence to crenellate', which applied a while back.

Prince Charles' tastes over the years have seemed to favour the classical rather than the Gothic, but it's never been clear whether he would really prefer to turn the clock back to roughly the eighteenth century - the peak of Georgian excellence, but by which time the powers of kings were already a bit restricted - or roughly the thirteenth century - Gothic architecture, but proper kings.

However, it seems that the popular view of the licence to crenellate - that it was a favour which was in the royal gift - is mistaken. According to the historian Charles Coulson, there was in practice not much restriction on building castles, and there was 'very slight chance of interference by royal officials even in so intensively governed a realm as England.'

But that was then.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

One New Change

To EC4 to witness the grand opening of Jean Nouvel's One New Change - the City's brand new monument to retail. It was mobbed with City workers taking an early lunch - there was even the obligatory street performer on stilts, just like architects always draw. He had a French accent ('no phurtos, s'il vous plait'), so perhaps it was Nouvel, who is not tall and might have been worried about being lost in the crowd on his big day.

The eye-catching 'stealth bomber' architecture has been criticised as 'likely to become dated' by some of the design chatterati - a line of attack which always needs to be challenged. St Paul's cathedral on the other side of the road can be dated by a historian, but does it look 'dated'? The mania for 'barcode' elevations and the like has been subject to the same criticism, but Eric Parry's building in Finsbury Square, an excellent example of the style and shortlisted for the Stirling Prize, seems likely to stand the test of time simply because it is a good piece of architecture. It will be possible to date it in a hundred years, just as we can now date an Edwardian civic building to within ten years or so without looking it up. Perhaps 'temporal distinctiveness' should be added to 'local distinctiveness' on the planners' checklists.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

What is the English for urbanism?

If there is to be a CABE 2.0, then it would be good if it could be a proper champion for urbanism in England.

In a way, that is what it had already become - but it had never made this clear. CABE, rightly careful about use of language, has wherever possible avoided terms like urbanism and urban design, fearing that they are even more of a turn-off, for all except the professionals, than the word architecture (which they avoid like the plague). Yet its reviews of projects and its advice are far more focussed on urbanism than on architecture. Whether those architects and others who moan about CABE's activities are moaning because of this fact or in ignorance of it is not clear.

Architecture - designing buildings - is really difficult. Urban design is, in principle, easy by comparison. It is delivery that is the difficult bit. For various reasons, urban design is got wrong in England, constantly and everywhere.

The Urban Design Group, the Academy of Urbanism, the Urban Design Alliance etc. all exist separately, with slightly different remits - all are well intentioned and sound - but are little heard and not effective on the ground - certainly if the evidence of what gets built in most places is anything to go by.

There is no strong nexus for urbanism at the RIBA or the RTPI, and none in government. If a minister took and interest and got the point and asked who to go to to find out more, it would be hard to know where to point them.

If there is to be a new version of CABE more independent of the government, it should be a national centre for urbanism, with a strong physical presence, and a shop window prominent in central London. All of the organisations with an urban in the title should be rolled into it, and major developers and landowners should support it.

Then we might have the beginnings of a decent, public-facing Baukultur, as the Germans call it - an urban development culture, with a common language, free of gobbledegook, understood by professionals, public bodies, the private sector and the public. 'Civic architect' is an example of a term that gives the flavour and communicates readily to most people - Leeds City Council has just got rid of the last example of this once common post in England.

If we got that culture working properly, with better briefs, better clients and better planning authorities, there could be a framework where architects could be left to design buildings without the constant irritation (apparently) of busybodies telling them where they are going wrong.

This would all take several decades, and in this period the precepts of urbanism will probably change in all sorts of ways anyway because of climate change - all the more reason to get on with it.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Dynamic view protection

It's good news that Indian elephants have been given the protection of heritage status. But how do you protect a view of an elephant?

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Reports of CABE's death greatly exaggerated?

CABE is severely threatened by the withdrawal of funding, but it appears that it is not actually being abolished, as many other quangos have been.

CABE is eleven years old. That is about the age that someone or other - the Spartans? - put their children out in the wild for a few days to see if they survived; and that seems to be the Government's attitude to CABE. Learning to forage will be the order of the day.

There has been a national design review programme in England since the 1920s - the Royal Fine Art Commission did the job before it was wound up and replaced by CABE in 1999. If you went back and looked at the RFAC's judgements about projects in the 1950s, 1970s or 1990s, you'd find much the same issues being discussed in much the same way as in CABE's reviews now. Peer review is peer review, and it's generally a good thing.

CABE has always promoted the value of good design - taking various senses of the word value, but including the monetary one. This thesis is to be put to the test rather directly now, as they seem likely to have to seek out those who are prepared to pay for design review.

My money (but only in the metaphorical sense) is on a national design review programme carrying on in some form.