Friday, August 05, 2011
Architects & Bureaucrats Say the Darndest Things
I used to write funny blog posts about Modernists earnestly arguing for a double standard in architecture. But that's been going on for so long that the humor fades. It's bad enough that architects and academics make racist comments about New Urbanism, but what's worse is that they operate in a milieu where even that doesn't sound outrageous.
The latest comes from CABE, the British Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. CABE is what the English call a "quango" - a "quasi non-governmental organization" that gets some government funding and frequently speaks with governmental authority. CABE's governmental charter is to promote architecture and urbanism for the public good.
One of the good things about the London 2012 Olympics is the realisation that we have a set of buildings produced not by Quinlan Terry, Robert Adam, John Simpson but by Hopkins, Hadid, Populous, Make, Heneghan Peng et al. None of it endorsed by the Prince of Wales.
The first group contains the names of prominent traditional British architects whose work is frequently judged by CABE. The second group contains the names of prominent Modernist firms whose work is frequently judged by CABE. Reminder: the statement was made by the Chairman of CABE.
A group of traditional architects called TAG responded with a letter complaining that Finch goes against the government's official policy, which is to judge quality of design rather than style. (You can see the letter after the jump.) Finch's response in the Architect's Journal shows how far he stands from public opinion, let alone the public good:
Far from apologising to this self-selecting group of polemicists, I suggest that they issue an apology to me for their intemperate language and inappropriate demands, best described as bad manners.
Meanwhile, the Chair of CABE's parent organization, the Design Council, said it was okay because CABE's Chair was speaking personally, not as Chair of CABE (in an article in the Architects' Journal). Both seemingly felt it was okay that he had professionally insulted architects who appear before him.They also forgot that the year before CABE and Finch had taken the opposite position.
In 2010, when CABE's funding was being cut back, Prince Charles suggested that his Foundation for the Built Environment take over some of the planning decisions made by CABE. Finch said the foundation would not able to serve the wider public interest owing to what he saw as its bias towards particular forms of architecture and urban planning.
Stylistic preferences will make it more difficult for certain building types to win planning approval. The public interest is better served by concentrating on the quality of a piece of architecture rather than style which can come down to superficial visual appearance. It comes down to whether their advice would be independent and disinterested and they obviously have a stylistic preference.
Ignoring the double standard, there is still an important point to be made about the criteria for judgement. Finch made his judgements on the basis of architectural style: Britain's best traditional architects are all bad, in his opinion, because they don't design in the only style that he likes (i.e., Modernism). While the Prince's Foundation makes its judgements on the basis of urban design principles and the market. People at the Foundation like Hank Dittmar, the American Chief Operating Officer, have no problem with Modernist buildings if they work in context and if people want to buy them. Tower-in-the-parking-lot designs like the one below that work against walkable, sustainable cities they have problems with.
Finch's bias is nothing more or less than a common outcome of an architectural education.It does not represent public opinion, which likes both traditional and modernist designs.
Modernism's hold on the architectural profession never ceases to amaze me. To have it so institutionalized is as always disheartening, but I don't think there's anything else to do but to keep beating back the idea of it's inevitability, much like telling the priests of yore that meybe thier ideas of heaven and hell are only their own.
Posted by: Thayer-D at Aug 15, 2011 9:42:40 AM