Architects: time for some soul-searching

Last week NLA hosted a panel discussion in response to Michael Gove’s throwaway remark about architects ‘creaming off cash’ through the government’s national school-building scheme. An opportunity for a lot of disgruntled people to come together and vent perhaps? To the majority of architects this proposition – that they are doing anything for ‘the cash’ – would be laughable. Design budgets and consequently architects’ fees are seemingly perpetually squeezed and marginalised. The common explanation for this is the faulty composition and operation of the construction industry, where value and cost somehow become divorced – often because the user and the client (the money) are different parties.

Nevertheless, clearly the cash-squandering misconception exists. But only one speaker in the panel of 8 (Jonathan Ellis-Miller) was brave enough to ask why – and to suggest that architects might be at least partly culpable in their failure to engage. The others merely asserted the value and importance of good design – a stock response. Making the same arguments about the value of good design, however true, is clearly not enough, or even perhaps relevant any more.

Gove is highly educated and intelligent. He has no doubt heard and understood this argument. In a recent appearance before the Education Select Committee,  he made this (really quite valid) point:

‘the evidence that I have seen shows that, if you educate children in very poor circumstances, that undoubtedly has an impact on their education. However, there is a lesser return to value on investment once you pass a certain point. If children are being educated in dilapidated surroundings with inadequate materials, you have got to address that. However, when you move from good buildings to great buildings, as it were, that additional investment is not necessarily the most cost-effective way of using education pounds in order to transform children’s achievement.’

Architects should take note and think about where they can truly add value (and earn a living) now. Too bad for those whose business model is based on public sector contracts: unfortunately that was short-sighted. Joanna Van Heyningen, notably the only woman on the panel, sensibly made the case for architects deploying their expertise in working with existing fabric, to create a ‘spatially intelligent masterplan’ that can accommodate future piecemeal development. In fact architects should relish this sort of challenge – a design problem with some parameters. She suggested that the imperative to tear down and rebuild all school estates was always a misguided one. One can’t help but feel that – although not exactly cash – there is perhaps some monument-building ego mixed up in this somewhere.

If ever there was a time for architects to try and stand outside the profession and see what others see, to reassess their own DNA, rather than mud-slinging or complaining about being misunderstood, it is surely now.

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