Fantasy future – a New Year wish for architecture

Words:
Hugh Pearman

Hugh Pearman had a dream over Christmas… then reality intervened

What should the world of architecture be like in 2020? I had the strangest dream of a better world and when I awoke I found a scrawled list in my handwriting by my bed. It read: 

'Return to the halcyon days of a mandatory fee scale calculated on final construction cost / Fees to be absolute, not dependent on planning permission or client whim / All planning permissions over agreed minimum value to be dependent on direct involvement of an architect / Default contract to be ‘traditional’ / Architects to be default team leader and project manager / Design architect by default to be the build-out architect if that is their wish / Architects to offer full cost consultancy as a bolt-on service / Joint qualifications (architect-planner, architect-engineer) to revive strongly / All local authority planning departments must contain qualified architects in senior positions / Return of public-sector architects’ departments to prominence nationally as part of a new drive for best-quality social housing / ‘Value engineering’ by others to be outlawed / ‘Permitted development’ of offices to residential without scrutiny to be banned / Architects of a building to be default architects of subsequent alterations if still in practice / All shortlisted competition entrants to be properly paid / All competitions for projects under £2 million to be reserved for emerging local practices / All staff in architectural practice to be properly paid / Officially enforceable end to long-hours culture / Gender and ethnic balance in practice to closely match the population at large / Building Regulations to mandate ultra-sustainable, demonstrably safe, well made and long-lasting buildings of good materials / Demolition of existing sound buildings to be the last resort / A ban on stylistic dogma and any sumptuary laws relating to architectural aesthetics / Freedom of movement for architects, academics and architectural students between the UK and the rest of Europe maintained / All architects to be fully conversant with the practicalities of construction upon qualification.'

It's clear we can’t make a better built environment for everyone in a lowest-common-denominator, bargain-basement, dog-eat-dog fashion

Oh yes, it was a dream all right. Like most or even any of that is ever going to happen! And besides, isn’t it all just too manifestly selfish? Remembering my 1960s predecessor in this editor’s chair, social activist Malcolm MacEwen who set the RIBA on the path to enlightened reform, who are architects meant to be serving – themselves, the cynical end of the development business, or society at large?

But it is also clear we can’t make a better built environment for everyone in a lowest-common-denominator, bargain-basement, dog-eat-dog fashion. Better buildings cost that much more – to design as well as construct. You have to put in the hours, which need to be properly paid – and not around midnight. 

Like everyone in the architectural family, I encounter hostility: why is build­ing X or Y so bad? Why did nobody realise Z would be disastrous? Obviously no-one can legislate for talent, only basic competence, and architects have no monopoly on building design. My standard response is: follow the money. Who’s got it? Have they invested enough of it, wisely, in the right places and at the right time? Fair shares for all, as they used to say. Dream on.


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