Monday, 9 January 2017

RFAC 2.0 in 2017?

Older readers may remember the Royal Fine Art Commission or RFAC, the architecture quango which was abolished and replaced by CABE in 1999.  Could it now be on the way back?

The patrician ethos of the Commission, under its Chairman Lord St John of Fawsley, didn't find favour with the Cool Britannia mindset of Tony Blair's New Labour administration elected in 1997. But what goes around comes around, and so when the coalition government arrived in 2010, CABE, probably now in turn seen as a Labour oriented outfit, lost its government funding and was nearly killed off in the over-hasty 'bonfire of the quangos'.

A body called the Royal Fine Art Commission Trust has however carried on quietly since 1999.  For a few years it ran an annual architecture award, as it had when the RFAC was extant - then after the death of Lord St John in 2012, things went quiet - but it has recently been upping its profile, perhaps considering that the circumstances are right for a re-founding of the Commission.  The Trust has eminent names listed as advisers and trustees, such as former Tory minister and grandee Lord Carrington, architecture patron and developer Lord Palumbo, and Lord Foster - and for political balance, Labour MP (but a posh one) Tristram Hunt.

In November Lord Foster delivered a lecture organised by the Trust, 'Designing the Future: Starting in the North' - in Manchester Town Hall - suggesting an alignment with government 'Northern Powerhouse' policies - although as reported by the AJ, this was undermined a bit by the headline grabbing part of the talk being devoted Foster's Thames Hub scheme for an estuary airport...

And for the last year, an @RoyalFineArt Twitter account has been tweeting prolifically on things architectural and urbanistic - and significantly, with the odd hint that there might be a need for a new Royal Fine Art Commission.

Full disclosure - I worked for the RFAC and then for CABE.  Both organisations offered good advice about major project proposals - and in spite of the shift in tone and style from meetings chaired by Lord St John (until 1999) to those chaired by Paul Finch and his successors (after 1999), the content and quality of the advice given didn't change much.  Though each organisation had the odd blind spot (e.g. things royal in one case, certain 'starchitect' schemes in the other), in general terms good schemes were still good schemes, bad schemes were still bad.

CABE's role and status, in its post-2010 guise as part of Design Council CABE, are rather diminished.  The quality of advice offered is still good, but the lack of political support and the lack of public funding have considerably reduced its capacity and its influence - as has the significant growth in the number of local design review panels.

It is good for architecture if there is at least some evidence of senior politicians thinking that the subject is important.  There is no sign of this whatsoever in the present administration - the one minister considered sympathetic, Ed Vaizey, lost his job last May.  A case can be made for a strong and authoritative independent voice to speak up for architecture in national discussions - but with no minister likely to take an interest, one wonders how successful the Trust could be in reviving the RFAC to fulfil this role, if it is serious about this.  The tone of the May administration is more Rotary Club than Bullingdon Club, so from that point of view the Trust's friends in high places may not be of quite the right kind.  But before long we could have an architecture buff as our king - perhaps that is where they are setting their sights?

I scanned my copy of the RFAC's 1999 'Final Report' for a hint of an intention to return.  I could find nothing.  But considerably stranger things have happened in the last twelve months.

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