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Cheek by Jowell

Architecture and politices at the Royal Academy

Architecture has become the radiological dirty bomb of political propaganda, grabbing nervy headlines in the international media before topping out with a malignant half-life endured by populations long after their political elites expire.

But then politics is the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them, and the UK has a very long and auspicious political tradition. Take, for instance, the noxious Millennium Dome absorbing £789 million into a dusty peninsula soon to be luxury apartments for successful people too busy to realise they don’t really like them. Or the Olympic Park − who can imagine what kind of creative east London locals might end up living there?

September’s ‘Architecture and Politics’ panel event hosted by the Royal Academy of Arts confronted some of these concerns. Chaired by BBC host Jeremy Vine, the event promised former RIBA president Sunand Prasad and Sarah Wigglesworth − architects both known for their public sector work − alongside Conservative architecture minister Ed Vaizey and his Labour predecessor Tessa Jowell.

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Millenum Dome

Unfortunately Vaizey had been called to parliament for a vote and failed to attend. Curiously − considering his absence − the discourse centred not on politicians’ failings but the profession’s. Despite this the sentiment was refreshingly menacing: should architects believe the hype or go militant?

Prasad opened with a classic ‘decline and fall’ narrative, recalling the days when RIBA presidents were treated like ministers and Maxwell Hutchinson was presented to the audience at his inauguration by Michael Heseltine. He then hit out at the government’s failure to deliver on its past commitments to sustainability, describing the rising wave of climate change consensus in 2005 which crashed in bitter disappointment shortly after the banks. ‘The big problem is the short-termism in politics,’ he concluded. ‘Between the hubristic tendencies of New Labour and cathartic reactions of the coalition we’ve lost a lot of time and ground in terms of climate change.’

Sadly it appeared Jowell hadn’t prepared a great deal for her speech. Admittedly she had difficulties with the headset microphone, however her clumsy opening gambit is worth reproducing verbatim: ‘Architecture has everything to do with politics and in every way actually for the better. Bad architecture has more to do with propaganda than it does the asset good architecture brings to attack the correlation between poor housing, cramped environments and ill health − for instance.’ The audience could have expected better from a politician who was once paid more than £100k a year to oversee art, media and sport.

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Elaborate inauguration ceremony of the Cité Radieuse, Marseilles, 1952. Le Corbusier’s PR skills were a large contributor to his success

Her readiness to condemn propaganda was also surprising when paired with remarks like ‘it is that optimistic view of the power of architecture which has shaped London’ and the sickly assertion that Olympic venue designers had achieved ‘immortality’. Nevertheless, she spoke with conviction about the redeeming power of ‘bright modern’ architecture to transform the lives of impoverished children and council tenants − a view rarely expressed with such understanding in salubrious settings like the Royal Institution. This humane insight was unfortunately missed by Brutalism fan Vaizey who must decide whether to list an array of under-performing postwar icons including Preston’s bus station.

Wigglesworth deployed a boot camp approach starting with a cutting character assassination of the profession and finishing with a rousing reconstruction of architects in an idealised future form. ‘The truth is that the production of architecture remains resolutely a game of patronage,’ she said, ‘one in which architects cultivate those with financial power in return for the favour of a job.’ Condemning this ‘slavish dependency’, which results in distrust by ‘ordinary people’, she proclaimed: ‘Architects need to throw off their chains and step into the freedom of advocacy.’

Wigglesworth’s stirring invective won the loudest roar but unfortunately architects may be hard pressed in the world of advocacy. When it comes to mobilising dispossessed people the promise of a better built environment has already been made by morally bankrupt politicians across the world.

The profession may succeed if it can be resolutely fair and compassionate. But if it cannot, the solution is either to recognise architecture cannot be propaganda or give up and embrace our role as master public relations gurus working in steel and stone.

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