Culture minister Ed Vaizey has pledged to do all he can to avoid the ‘disaster’ of the Farrell Review becoming just another report to be left on the government shelf. Instead he told an audience gathered at the NLA this morning for the review’s launch presentation that it is ‘just the beginning of a conversation’ and a platform which will be reassessed in a year’s time to see what progress has been made.
Vaizey was speaking at the event at which Sir Terry Farrell himself presented some of the review’s key findings, alongside eight of the architects and other specialists who had helped him compile it.
Farrell said that since the official press launch 48 hours previously there had been some 4,000 unique visitors to the review’s website from 60 different countries, as well as over 1000 tweets, over 90% of which had been positive (albeit with some ‘oddball’ responses). This, said Farrell, showed the extent of interest in the subject, of how to initiate widespread change in the architecture and built environment professions, as set out in the document’s 60-plus recommendations.
One of the key problems the review process identified, though, was the way in which architecture and built environment issues had been shunted around political departments, and the way in which consecutive governments reassess where it fits and how to approach it. The Treasury, moreover, has ‘far too strong a stranglehold – they’re control freaks’.
Another concern was the fact that, despite having some of the best architects in the world, there is still a great deal of low quality developments being built in the UK. ‘Drop yourself on any street corner in Britain and look around you – it is fairly woeful what you see’, said Farrell. Already, there has been movement on some of the recommendations, however. Farrell reported that there had been conversations already about staging an international festival of architecture in London, with NLA and others, and with educational bodies about creating a foundation course in architecture, another of the review’s recommendations. ‘I believe this has got to be a review that is owned by us and has to have a long life’, said Farrell.
Farrell also commended the idea of the creation of ‘urban rooms’ across the country where the public can learn about their localities, proclaiming the NLA to be ‘the most wonderful urban room in Britain’, and he offered his name to support the notion of a Skyline Commission, another NLA initiative.
Panel discussion of the review was wide and varied, including Sunand Prasad’s observations that we no longer operate in an ‘either/or’ world, but one where a new generation of young people do not have an inbuilt schism between tradition and modernity’; we should all learn more about placemaking and the built environment; and we should at least look to review the idea of protection of title.
Peter Bishop echoed Farrell’s earlier words by saying that there was a paradox in Britain where, despite having some of the best practices and schools in the world we can produce an ‘awful lot that is mediocre’ and that the review should be the start of a 10-15 year project to turn things around. Certainly on education, Farrell pointed to many of the countries in the world whose architecture we admire – Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland – have some of the shortest architectural education courses (five years).
Other points included from Alison Brooks, who suggested a more business-like approach from architects could be valuable, but that ‘value engineering rarely delivers value and it rarely delivers engineering’. Victoria Thornton emphasised the need for champions but that the Department for Education needs to better understand the value of design education, while Hank Dittmar made the point that planning – considered largely reactive – is most often perceived as development control empowering NIMBYs rather than engaging communities. The greatest damage, he added, has come through insensitive road design and ‘planning needs to be reconfigured as a design discipline’. Bishop said one of the reasons for many of the issues in planning is that, as a profession, it is ‘woefully deskilled and under-resourced’. Lucy Musgrave commended the review’s ‘public, very participatory and inclusive process’ but asked who champions the civic in this country? And Jim Eyre warned that there was a seemingly ‘intractable’ problem over bringing architecture onto the schools curriculum, and that the methods government used to procure its buildings are ‘totally inappropriate and need to be re-examined’.
Perhaps, said Farrell, architecture and the built environment should take a leaf out of the books of health and food in this country, both of which have been revolutionised in the last couple of decades. The UK needs to return to place-based planning, and although there is no one big idea or silver bullet from the review, the will to change must be there just as it was to drive the UK to better standards in food and health. ‘Campaign’, he told the audience. ‘That’s how health and food changed. These things change because everybody kept pushing.’
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly