All buildings deserve proper parenting

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Design & build is architectural foster parenting: without the designer's sense of ownership, buildings end up humdrum

There are, it has long been held, two main types of architect, both originally identified by poet and architecture historian and critic John Betjeman in the 1930s. These are the formally dressed architects and the casually dressed ones, representing respectively the business minded and the artistically minded. Hipsters versus corporate types.

Well OK: but in our hearts we know that this is nonsense, don’t we, even while admitting that we all like to project (or can’t help projecting) a particular image of ourselves? Beneath this veneer all architects have to do pretty much the same things. It’s a design business, it involves working with lots of different people, it’s complex, highly regulated work where it is increasingly difficult to retain control of your aesthetic, technical and social intent AND turn a profit. 

For years now we’ve had a much more damaging professional division than the one of personal style. This is the one where architect A conceives and designs the building or place to the point where it wins planning permission, whereupon he or she is promptly dispensed with. The project is then ‘delivered’ by architect B, if an architect is involved at all. Whether or not this is part of a design-build process (it usually is) it has always seemed to me unfortunate. There’s nothing wrong with an architect taking on this delivery role – plenty of firms do it and are good at it, and work is work, after all. But there’ll always be changes, and these usually won’t be referred to the original architect for comment. Although some architects actively dislike the delivery role and prefer to bow out at an earlier stage and design accordingly, this preference is surely rare. 

What to do when someone else decides to take your design child to foster parents? Can an architect do anything?

Recently I strolled round a successful, long-term council estate regeneration project. It has won awards. The place is trans­formed and best of all, the tenants are closely involved and are all still there. Three large developments there were designed by the same architects for the same client. The first two were delivered to completion by the original architects. The third is now approaching completion, delivered by others. The difference is tangible. The design is overall the same but details are cruder. One set-piece central element which could have been very special is now humdrum. It’s by no means bad: it’s just not as good as it could have been. 

Doubtless the same numbers will be housed, and the original architects would also have struggled with the cost-cutters. Doubtless the delivery architects acted professionally. But they would not have had the same sense of ownership of the design. I feel the original architects would have tried harder to find alternatives, would have cared more about the final feel of the place. 

What to do in these circumstances? CAN an architect do anything when someone else decides to take your design child to foster parents, so to speak? I’d like to hear your views on this. Write to us: letters.ribaj@riba.org.