A short article by Colin Stansfield-Smith from 1985:
THE PUBLIC SECTOR NEEDS CENTRES OF DESIGN
by Colin Stansfield Smith
from ‘Hampshire Architecture’ 1985
The skills of the talented designer architect should now be at a premium in public service – but there is little evidence that they are. Extolling the virtues of estate management, no matter how necessary, is hardly likely to attract these skills into the fold. Managing a large public estate with it’s inherent responsibilities of an historic heritage, making it more efficient in energy and running costs, adjusting, re-organising and rationalizing it, maintaining it; all these are a necessary part of a design centre but are subsumed in it.
The vision and enterprise, even the entrepreneurial skill required for estate management depends on the quality and emphasis given to design. Good design must be ‘up front’ to popularize the whole idea of building. It cannot be something that is taken for granted. Much more, it needs to be the visible shop window of an enlightened authority, something that it can take pride in and perhaps in it’s more confident moments boast about. It should infiltrate the visual standards of everything from sign writing and graphics to interior design, and a good deal between. It should not be restricted to buildings, but should include spaces and environments generally, involving at the same time collaboration with artists and sculptors.
Architects are the rightful custodians of the public estate because they have the capacity to introduce joy, imagination and wit into our environments. It is not merely a questions of creating a climate in which excellence in architecture and the collaborative arts can be achieved (this would be virtuous and commendable but it is so often only a token gesture in reality); a public authority must itself be creative to the point where what it does is an inspiration for others.
Public architects in the last ten years have had to operate at an increasingly complex, difficult and sometimes hostile interface with their public. Dealing in the 70s and 80s with existing buildings rather than just with new ones they have had to satisfy the needs of building users as well as administrative and adviser clients. This is in contrast with the 60s, when new buildings on green field sites were provided in advance of the appointment of users (such as headmasters and college principals). This ongoing relationship with the users of buildings presents the public architect with a whole series of opportunities, all with a public relations commitment.
In 1985, a large proportion of the public estate alienates rather than celebrates the very purpose it was originally built to serve and much of this alienated estate was conceived during the last forty years. Many of it’s associations and images are depressingly institutional. Box-like, corridored, uniform and drab – frequently bounded by that nadir for all public estates, the concrete post and chain link fence. This depressing environment can and must be changed if there is any justification for having architects ‘in-house’.
Although it is difficult to engender a feeling of confidence and optimism in these stringent times, extensions to existing buildings should still be seen as an opportunity to improve whole environments rather than as the execution of some new efficiency game. Building is not just a ruinous expense, informed only by impersonal facts and figures and objective scientific method. Credibility for the designer now attaches to the individual not the profession, to the identity of the individual site and the calibre of the particular design team. Individuality deserves recognition.
Architecture should be put back into its proper place as an art, with its essence acknowledged as a valid intention in building. This would liberalise attitudes to architecture. It could promote a relationship between a public architect and the users of the buildings for which his is responsible similar to a musician and his audience. Architecture is essentially about celebration: its business, apart from performing its basic function, it to make life pleasurable and to enhance it’s meaning.
But the contemporary concern appears not to be about quality but about efficiency: about more and more numbers and more and more measurement. Any institution the size of local government finds it difficult to accommodate individuality – matters of opinion, matters of taste; it succumbs to collective, objective consistency to the point where the design stereotype is almost impossible to avoid, from the impact of guidelines, bulletins and endless prescription. To attempt to personalise would involve accusations of ‘ego trip’, self-centred indulgence, elitism. Creative skills are difficult to remunerate in a system that only recognises and measures objectively and reveres the status of management to the detriment of professional judgment.
To practice architecture calls for considerable skills; to practice architecture well means giving an important part of your mind; to practice architecture extremely well means giving your life. That sort of commitment is required in social architecture. These days it seems difficult enough to make a building at all. To realise architecture with some or all of its concomitant associations is to achieve a real bonus.