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Building for authority.

This issue is about buildings made by governments, both national and local, to serve the needs of citizens--the people who pay for the results. In these pages are good examples, but the British government seems determined to ignore any notion of quality.

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Do democratic governments have any role at all in architecture? If democracy is rule by the people rather than an individual or an oligarchy, what kinds of building and cityscapes should represent the state and its citizens? Few would deny that governments have to assume a role in providing certain kinds of building. Even the most right-wing regime needs barracks, police stations and prisons. Should these be provided as mere shedding at Guantanamo Bay? Or should they, Habsburg-like, have some kind of symbolic presence? What should the range of public building be? Does government interest in the appearance and atmosphere of buildings indicate an unhealthy return to imperial thinking? Do governments have a legitimate role in deciding about the quality of building, rather than just its provision?

Certainly some governments believe they should have. In Norway, for instance, there is an elaborate code intended to improve the quality of all publicly funded buildings (AR August 1993, p7). France has a vigorous competition system for young architects to encourage new thinking in public works. In countries like Germany and Finland, all important public buildings are put out to competitions, in the case of the most important work usually with completely open entry, sometimes with controversial and even unpopular results, like the Kiasma art museum in Helsinki, won by Stephen Holl (AR August 1998). Of course jury decisions are sometimes open to question, but at least such competitions are set up to improve the quality of the public realm.

In contrast, the British Government has largely taken the line that architectural quality is irrelevant as long as there is appropriate quantity. The Labour administration has embraced with fervour an invention of its Conservative predecessor, the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), under which most official work of both central and local government is handed to the private sector. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with this in principle. After all, the private sector built the terraces of Bath and Edinburgh, the Rockefeller Center and the great consumer malls of North America (which even if they are ecologically disastrous and scarcely great architecture, are at least immensely popular).

The PFI is a means of transferring the cost of assets we achieve in the present to the future. In a sense, this has always happened, yet the PFI is a much more complicated process than the simple one of a speculator investing capital and hoping to get a decent return during the lifetime of the resulting building. In its simplest interpretation, PFI means that government or local government commissions a building from the private sector but pays nothing initially. All construction and commissioning costs are borne by the contractor. Then the government leases the work from the builder for a fixed term of years, during which it has to be maintained by its maker.

Not so simple

Apparently, this is an absolutely brilliant system: we acquire assets for which we pay as we use them; the government does not have to increase its borrowing; taxes will not increase; maintenance is dealt with free by the maker. But PFI is not so simple. Because the government must be sure that the deal is correct and competition for a job between providers is totally fair and appropriate, the process of bidding for PFI work is immensely expensive for contractors. So virtually the only values involved in creation of PFI work are financial. Accountants, quantity surveyors and bureaucrats rule--a brilliant recipe for mass-producing shedding for the lowest price per cubic metre, but not one for generating even architecture of mall quality. The designers are not directly contracted to the client and design work is largely part of the bid process. Contracts for as many as 50 schools can be awarded at a time: results are predictably totally without cognizance of locality, orientation or community.

Now that the first fruits of PFI have been up for a few years, it is clear that all are far from free of blemish. Some PFI buildings do not work properly; some are the cause of litigation; some are clearly going to have maintenance problems throughout their lives. Not very different perhaps from the results of conventional, old-fashioned means of building procurement. But there is a very important variation. Virtually no products of the PFI system have architectural quality, and most are little better than the very crudest publicly funded buildings of the 1960s, the last time when the building industry was unleashed with considerations of quantity far overwhelming those of quality. Now we view the rotting hulks of much of the utilitarian public work of that era with horror, and are trying to find ways of affording to demolish or improve them. PFI will be used. The dreadful circle will continue.

Enhancing life

Clearly, we cannot expect modern governments to emulate Augustus who found Rome in brick and left it in rather flashy marble. Indeed it would be very sinister if we did the last people who used the first emperor as a model for building policy were Hitler and Stalin. But we can hope for policies that will generate publicly funded architecture and urban spaces that will enhance our lives and those of our descendants, rather than satisfying bureaucratic accounting norms--and buildings, funded directly by all of us, which set an example to the private sector. After all (though PFI temporarily conceals the fact), we are paying for the stuff. We, and our children, deserve more for our money than serviced volumes.

But at the moment, when the United Kingdom government is spending more on public building than for a generation, it emphasizes three methods of procurement of public buildings: Design and Build; Prime Contracting and PFI. All put the contractor rather than the designer (and client) in control of the process of generating buildings. As a result, architecture (if it is considered at all) is usually reduced to a series of gestures, sometimes as bad as or even worse than those of PoMo at its vulgar height. The state of British public building is analogous to that of the nation's railways which, handed over piecemeal to the private sector, have become the most expensive and least efficient in Europe--the laughing stock of the world.

Profession must fight

In the United Kingdom can we hope to achieve at least the qualities of new public building and space that are regularly generated in Scandinavia, Germany, Spain and France? Sadly, at the moment, there seems little chance. In fact, PFI and its vile variants are spreading to governments all over the developed world. There is some hope that PFI will be destroyed by its inner contradictions as more and more PFI buildings are completed, seen and experienced in use. But that will take a long time, and the built legacy will still remain.

All architectural institutions of every country in which PFI and its vile siblings are promoted should fight fiercely against them. The RIBA and its equivalents should show how such systems of procurement must lead to mediocrity at best and at worst to disaster. If they do not, what are they for--just unions for protection of our business? They should learn from Spain and combine to demonstrate to the public what real architecture can do, and convince them that an independent profession can provide better places to be in than what bureaucratically controlled commerce can produce. Professional responsibility and initiative must be shown to be inherently more creative than commercio-bureaucratic procedures. Otherwise, our descendants will have to live with (and continue to pay for) the kind of squalor that we have inherited from the '60s, which we are pulling down as fast as we can at great cost, both economic and emotional. P.D.
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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Cover Story
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Words:1325
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