Architects have always had to be masters of building technologies within the cultural, social and economic constraints of their time. But society has also expected them to be innovators, able to advance the art of building and designing urban places beyond existing conventions and constraints.
The latter is impossible without enlightened patronage. Architectural patronage has historically been provided by individuals who understood how to use architecture to underline their status and power, or by the church or the state.
In the public realm, which now accounts for a substantial proportion of architectural commissions, such patronage has largely been transferred to quangos and to commercial organisations, most of which are risk-averse and apply finance-dominated criteria to the appointment of architects. As the majority of architectural practices in the UK, employing about 80% of all UK architects. are ‘small’ practices, which do not conform to the publicly accepted risk profile, the majority of talented architects are effectively excluded from the bidding process for new public commissions.
The quality of UK Architecture is being severely disabled by this process. In spite of having some of the best architects in the world the UK has relatively little world class architecture to show for it. We are obsessed with signature architecture at the expense of good architecture of a less self-conscious kind, addressing the improvement of the public realm and the future of our cities.
Although CABE has created greater awareness of the need for a positive change in attitudes, more needs to be done to convince the public of the vital importance of using the available architectural talent to greater effect. Architecture is a cultural phenomenon, which must be made more accessible to the public through general education. This would ensure that profit hungry and risk-averse clients and contractors would find it much more difficult to milk the current building boom at the expense of society at large.
Hans Haenlein www.haenlein.com