Architects actually save you money

Culture minister Ed Vaizey, who in the autumn reshuffle took on responsibility for architecture, got a good press with his first visible act in this domain – approving a batch of listings that included two former nuclear missile bases and the tower of the Forton motorway services station on the M6. RIBAJ editor Hugh Pearman called him up for a chat about his approach to architecture and found a minister who cut his teeth on Open House, admires Rogers’ Lloyd’s Building, AHMM’s Westminster Academy and Alain de Botton’s programme of modern houses. As for Education Secretary Michael Gove – now’s the time to present him with good ideas, he says.

HP: Is Brutalism coming back into favour?

EV: I don’t think these were particularly controversial. There’s certainly an element of timing, in that buildings built during the 50s, 60s, and 70s are now coming into their maturity, where people are seeking to ensure that they are protected going forward. And to a certain extent they have stood the test of time. It’s impossible to say that there’s a coherent view of these buildings, and there are difficulties sometimes with individual buildings, either because of their location or their state of conservation, but I certainly think we shouldn’t shy away from them, listing them where it is appropriate.  I believe that the National Theatre is a much-loved landmark now.

HP: The World Monuments Fund has highlighted British Brutalist buildings under threat including the Hayward Gallery/Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Birmingham Central Library, and Preston Bus Station. Of these, shouldn’t Preston in particular be listed?
EV: I know it’s an issue. It’s been up for listing before, hasn’t it? All I would say is that I’m well aware of the passionate support that Preston has as a modernist building. Again, it plays to that point that people shouldn’t just assume that these buildings are eyesores. Many of them are iconic and define an area as much as an era. But to be clear, I think it was rejected in 2010 and a review of the decision was turned down in 2011, so it’s unlikely to come up for listing any time soon.

HP: You’ve always been quite a champion of modern architecture. What is your view on ‘the contemporary’ as it were?

EV: Well, I’m a champion of architecture in general, and I was very pleased to be made an honorary fellow of the RIBA. I’m a fan of contemporary and good architecture, and certain things I’ve done along the way I’m pleased with, for instance I campaigned quite vigorously in opposition to ensure that our party took the importance of design very, very seriously. And I was pleased that in the National Planning Policy Framework, in a relatively short document 2 or 3 pages were devoted to the importance of quality design. It was partly my lobbying of Grant Schapps but also people forget that Greg Clarke, who was then the planning minister, is a member of the 20thCentury Society. So there are fans of modern architecture in the government.

I’m a great fan, for instance, of Alain de Botton promoting modern architecture through Living Architecture. Again, I think people enjoy it, hugely. I don’t think we should underestimate that. I also think that just because a building is contemporary doesn’t (necessarily) mean it’s good. There are poorly-designed buildings and potential eyesores. But I think the important principle is that we live in our times. One of the reasons we value our heritage is because it tells us a story, you know, the story of our nation and our culture over the years, and it would be a very sad thing if this generation didn’t leave behind its own imprint of what what’s regarded as high quality architecture and design. That’s really why I support it.

HP: To what extent can you make representations to other departments on architecture – education, for instance?

EV: There always needs to be more (of that). A difficulty of government, of whatever stripe, is working across departments, but I think the Department of Communities and Local Government is doing some very important work on that. I do think the role of architecture minister is to be a champion for the profession, and to say to other departments that there are a number of things about architecture:

Firstly, architects actually do save you money. Architects are part of a team that can work to realise a project much more effectively, if you’ve got a good architect at the centre of it.

Secondly that the importance of good design and architecture can be fundamental to delivering successful outcomes in a whole range of areas. So a well-designed school can actually fantastically help your teaching. For instance I remember going to visit the school in Paddington – Stirling Prize nominated, the Westminster Academy (by AHMM) – if you go around there you find, for the layman, small details like no blind spots – they’ve built into the design thinking about bullying, so it’s hard to take someone off into a corner and steal their stuff.

HP: I would hope to see some of that thinking survive into the new school-building programme.

EV: I would certainly hope so, and I don’t think we should preclude architects having a say. The key driver I think for Michael Gove (Education Secretary) is to ensure that costs are kept within bounds, so I think there’s a challenge for the profession as well, to engage with people like Michael Gove, and say – we can deliver you low-cost projects, but it’s important as well to bring forward well-designed schools. I mean, I remember Hampshire County Council publishing books on the quality of its schools in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s something that people can be very proud of.

Hospitals are another obvious example, where little details of architecture can make a great difference. I went to visit the Circle Hospital in Bath (by Foster and Partners), and – again, tiny, tiny details - for example the strip lighting on the way to the operating theatre: instead of being down the middle, it’s on each side because the patient is lying on a bed going down the middle of the corridor, and they don’t want to be staring up at bright lights. Or putting a room between two operating theatres means they can double the numbers of operations, because they can prepare one operation while another one is going on. Now those aren’t features that necessarily win you architectural awards for looking great, but they’re the kind of details that in a well-thought through project can make an enormous difference to the outcomes. It was interesting that Circle made a huge deal out of the fact that Foster had designed the hospital. Architecture was one of the selling points.

HP: Would you say that the Stirling Prize-winning Sainsbury Laboratory proves your point about the importance of the learning environment?

EV: Absolutely.

HP: What first attracted you to architecture? It obviously goes back a bit, this interest.

EV: Well, I’m lucky for my upbringing. I make no bones about it, I grew up in a house where my mother (art critic Marina Vaizey) was deeply involved in the arts, in a visual environment if you like, and I was very lucky to be able to visit buildings and so on. It was always all around me. I got involved at a young age, in the 1980s, with Victoria Thornton’s Open House. Victoria may or may not confirm this, but I became a tour guide – not as an expert, but as someone who marshalled visitors. It’s all around the world now.

HP: Do you have particular favourite buildings, ones you’d go to again and again?

EV: In London I’d say the Lloyd’s building is probably pretty iconic in terms of modern architecture. I’m a big fan of the Broadgate development. I would also say, obviously, the Olympic sites were magnificent, particularly Hopkins’ Velodrome, which I thought was an outstanding piece of architecture. There are many others.

HP: To get back to my original question, that first batch of listings of yours did make quite a good impact. People were saying, we have someone with an eye here.

EV: This is what I’ve heard. People have been very kind.

HP: I wasn’t aware of anyone saying, how dare you list these monstrosities.

EV: No, I haven’t either.

HP: Has the mood shifted regarding this period? That there is no issue with these buildings when it comes to the rising generation?

EV: I certainly think that my generation now embraces a lot of these buildings as statements of their identity. I think that’s great.