We need to say No to bad design

Carole-Anne Davies 
responds to last week’s call here for an architecture policy for Wales

Architecture is one of the design professions with which the Design Commission for Wales is concerned in its role as both watchdog and champion for good design in the built environment. Other design disciplines with which we are involved include landscape and urban design, design for transport infrastructure some of which may be described as engineering, and design for energy infrastructure.

In almost a decade working throughout Wales, with our processes openly recorded and frequently observed, there has not yet been a clamour for us to take steps to achieve the formulation and adoption of a national architecture policy. That isn’t to say there shouldn’t be, simply that there hasn’t been.

If there were, what would such policy look like? What would it cover? Who might formulate it in whose interests and how might delivery be measured and accounted for? The suggestion is that it would be a Welsh Government initiative. How might that fit with the swathe of existing design policy written into Planning Policy Wales, and its Technical Advice Note 12 (TAN12)? How would it assist local guidance and its implementation?

A few evenings ago, I asked my colleagues at the Commission if we should be ‘doing a Cameron’ and requesting that Wales’ First Minister host the brightest and best of our architects in a summit to inform fresh policy. Nervousness rippled around the table. Tony Blair’s initiatives were swiftly recalled. It seems just yesterday that Lord Rogers was charged with heading an Urban Task Force to reshape our towns and cities and visions of John Prescott and Richard Rogers were regularly sprawled across the popular and trade press. These interventions did much to re-establish the importance of good architecture and urban design in the public consciousness. Many of the bodies it brought about are still making a huge difference.

So what is it that we might still require to plug the gap and lock good design and its capacity to delight, into our daily lives and cultural values? If it were policy, how would it change matters? Perhaps such policy would need to have the ‘teeth’ (it’s all about teeth apparently), to bring about, require or enable good architecture. It’s therefore worth considering what forces shape good architecture and design. Which key ingredients bring it all together?

Through all our work and in the increasing number of beautiful and bold architectural schemes in Wales we find that there are more or less five key elements:

  • A good client with a clear vision.
  • A sound brief articulating that vision and objectives.
  • A good architect and design team.
  • A realistic and available budget.
  • A sound procurement strategy.

Are any of these things always or necessarily influenced by policy? Would the outstanding Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama have been better with a national architecture policy in place? The client’s vision aimed to transform and make visible our national conservatoire. Their understanding that design quality is inextricably linked to the functions of the school, the student experience and therefore the college’s ability to compete favourably with RADA and the Guildhall may or may not have been influenced by policy. I suspect they were rather more shaped by client ambition and opportunity, a damned good architect and a capable estates team.

One example is the South West Wales Maggie’s Centre for cancer care, in the grounds of Swansea’s Singleton hospital. It happened because of the efforts of Charles Jencks’ charity, a profound commitment from Dr Pat Steane and many others to champion the project, raise funds, and continue after the death of their architect. The early support of the Design Commission was we understand, helpful. A supportive local press and the personal and political commitment of key players also made a vast difference. Its opening brought together the First Minister, the Japanese Ambassador, architect Kisho Kurokawa’s daughter and grandson, the project team Garbers and James, Charles Jencks, John Hartson and the Morriston Orpheus Choir – putting the spotlight very much on good design in one glorious tiny building in Wales.

Scotland has long had an architecture policy, and policies for streets, places and schools. It also has Architecture and Design Scotland, the equivalent to the Design Commission for Wales, and an Architecture and Place Division in Government, populated with architects, planners and designers who know their stuff professionally as well as what they want delivered through policy and their design body. Recently they examined ‘design blockers’ in a brief but thorough research project which posed the question: ‘If we have all this policy and these tools, why is it still so difficult to achieve good, well-designed places?’

The findings are worth considering: contradictory policy, variance in planning practice, the presence of red herrings ranging from perceived planning appeal risks, to resistance regarding the adoption of anything but blacktop (asphalt and concrete) and challenges to the market assumptions of major house builders in that old chestnut ‘we can’t sell design’. All of the above are also applicable in Wales. So more power to Scottish elbows in their efforts to diminish these barriers. We are content to learn lessons from wherever they exist.

No doubt we could recount similar tales from all over the UK, possibly even from mainland Europe where the perception is of a world perfectly shaped through a divine combination of informed communities, constantly demanding good design, promptly delivered by outstanding architects and planners, in all municipal and private settings. It’s easy to believe the grass is greener and that it’s all Java Island. However, on a wet Wednesday in Meppel at Overijssel, Netherlands, you may find as many citizens in the local Albert Heijn who could care less about design, as you might at Cardiff’s Ferry Road retail park – judging by some of their more recent housing, maybe a few more. It is just as possible to experience appalling urban sprawl on the approach to Seville as it may be in Llanelli.

The reality is that with or without a national architecture policy, achieving good architecture and good design, particularly excellence in the everyday, is hard work. It requires relentless effort, often out of the limelight, continuous learning and constant epistemic activity to embed in our cultural DNA, a sensibility for a well designed built environment.

Where then might we look for good mechanisms and real achievements? Freiburg is probably still ahead by a nose. The key ingredients here include a resistance to nuclear facilities in the 1970s, early recognition that good architecture and urban design are economic drivers and the clear articulation of that recognition in a concise charter for action. Crucially, it benefits from the leadership of a design literate senior city planner, backed by continuous political commitment, for almost 25 years.

Hot on Freiburg’s heels, comes Bordeaux’ regeneration, bringing to life its historic fabric through a beautifully stitched public realm. Antwerp, Hamburg, Berlin, and Copenhagen are all classics. Some do have architecture policies but more often they have other mechanisms. In Hammarby Sjöstad, Stockholm, the city fathers had the vision to install district heating systems (fuelled by recycled waste), a valuable and enabling inheritance for modern infrastructure. Other achievements result from a skilled municipal, team, a clear development policy, significant infrastructure assets, genuine partnerships with bordering authorities, enough but not too much money, and the backbone to say no to any scheme not ‘twice as good’ as any previous one.

Instead of accepting any development over none, the single act of turning away development that is simply not good enough is one of the strongest signals of the expectation of and commitment to quality. The danger for Wales, as elsewhere right now is that just good enough, may once again, become good enough, when the best should be expected and can still be achieved.

The debate about the powers that shape places is important and we welcome the rebel yell and its capacity to galvanise the professions and perhaps the policy context. The more noise there is to be made about design in all its forms, very much the better. Its good that many voices, from the IWA to the CBI, are at last placing good design higher on their agendas. If the creative industries strategy could more adequately recognise built environment professions in addition to architecture, even further headway might be made.

The Design Commission for Wales was incorporated in 2002 with its national programmes coming through in 2004. In that time voices have grown, events have spread, organisations have multiplied, some local authorities have become bolder and good quality projects have begotten others, as they inevitably will. All this is preferable to the embarrassed silence of the early days. It is testament to the role we all play in driving good design up the agenda, and year on year record awards have been achieved. And yet, everyday housing quality, transport, health and learning environments remain key design issues. The ambition and scale of projects needed to keep or attract the best designers are few and far between. Large practices dominate and smaller scale talent struggles to survive. Big money is scarce and big impacts from deep cuts are about to get much, much worse.

Award winning architecture is one important part of the story. The challenge and the opportunities remain to use design to breathe new life into an existing but often crumbling built fabric. We need to revive our towns, perhaps as 21st Century agoras, to stitch together public spaces, plan transport interchanges that people want to use, and create neighbourhoods where people wish to live.

This debate is a useful one and will doubtless draw much needed traffic to websites and readers to the too few print platforms we have to open up discourse and encourage informed voices. We might also consider, however, that if the best that can be done is to turn to government and treat policy as panacea, then we will surely get the design quality we deserve.

Carole-Anne Davies
is Chief Executive of the Design Commission for Wales Follower her on Twitter @CaroleAnneDavie

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