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We're the value-added

We know we can do it; now it's getting the message across

There’s a lot on the Venice Architecture Biennale this month – you’ll find our profile of Rem Koolhaas and review of the show itself, plus second and third opinions by our practising architect correspondents, on the following pages. As with all architecture festivals, you always wonder whether the world of architecture is talking to itself or to the public – and you nearly always conclude that, whatever the organisers may say, they are mostly about internal dialogue in the profession. That’s necessary, but it’s not enough.

There are exceptions to this rule of course. The Open House initiative, for instance, which is all about seeing inside other people’s beautifully-designed houses plus other buildings normally closed to public scrutiny, is a continuing big hit with the public. Indeed it’s a general rule of thumb that the main point of contact between profession and public is through houses. And because domestic property generates lots of advertising in newspapers while architecture as a subject generates almost none, the papers all have fat property supplements but very seldom have fat – or even thin – architecture supplements, though a few (and I am grateful for this) continue to support architecture critics. See also the popularity of TV property programmes and compare their ratings with the niche audiences for those on architecture. But the RIBA has quietly made great headway with the BBC website, which is now quite a home for architecture stories.

It’s no use bleating. Most people see not architecture but the building industry, and feel detached from it

It’s no use bleating that architecture is the most visible of all the arts, has most to contribute to the common good, and therefore must surely command huge public interest. Most people see not architecture but the building industry, and feel detached from it. Hardly surprising while communities are helpless in the face of developers who seem to get away scot-free with a lowest common denominator housing, retail or office on prime sites. Often, it must be said, with RIBA member practices involved. Just look at what’s happened in our city centres despite Cabe, local design review panels and the planning system.

But we know we can do better than that, as this year’s RIBA Awards prove – as you’ll have seen in our Awards issue last month, it’s the best advertisement for the profession. This is why the RIBA’s determination to be ‘outward-facing’ is so vital and why its research findings must be seen to be independent, not special pleading.

Rem’s Biennale takes the architecture out of architecture, leaving only the building industry and historic nostalgia. It’s provocative, clever, entertaining, and a bit empty. As our inaugural Schueco Excellence Awards for design and innovation prove this month, good architects take good proprietary systems and make every conceivable kind of good architecture out of them. The variety is remarkable and that is hugely encouraging.