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Your views: Is Britain's architectural industry crushing its fledgling practices before they've grown wings?

Hari Phillips of Bell Phillips Architects responds to AR’s Emerging Architecture issue and asks why so few British entries made it to the finish line

I’d like to congratulate AR for its December edition featuring the Emerging Architecture Awards. These awards are vital in recognising young architectural talent and the quality of the architecture produced this year was exceptionally high as ever. The projects are a vibrant, joyful and enriching cross-section of architectural expression.

I was reminded again that really outstanding architecture requires not only talented architects but also clients who are genuinely committed to exciting design and prepared to put their faith in the architect’s vision. I was struck by the strong selection of young Japanese and Spanish architects set against the notable lack of British architects.

Of course the awards are international and the standard is very high, however I would argue that the standard of architectural talent in the UK is as good as anywhere and therefore couldn’t help wondering whether there is a correlation between the degree of strong patronage required and the absence of young British architects.

One might argue that the economic downturn has limited opportunities for young practices. To an extent this is true, yet there are still plenty of new buildings being constructed in the UK. These projects, however, demonstrate an increasing tendency to resort to the usual tried and trusted names. Consider, for example, the Olympic construction programme.

A vast amount of money is being spent on this high profile project and perhaps quite rightly the big venues are being designed by the big names. However opportunities should have been identified within the programme for younger talent to shine. To date there has been little evidence of this.

What about patrons who have a track record of supporting outstanding architecture? The Serpentine pavilion is used to showcase architects from around the world who have not yet built in the UK and attracts a great deal of publicity. Yet this is surely a missed opportunity to promote our own best young talent, instead of well-established global starchitects who already have glittering careers. 

Design competitions, traditionally fertile territory for talented young architects to procure work, have all but dried up in the UK. Increasingly competitions are being run on the basis of expressions of interest or PQQ’s which inherently favour more established firms.

This shift exemplifies a continuing trend in the UK construction industry of clients becoming increasingly risk averse and feeling compelled to demonstrate due diligence and accountability by commissioning Project Managers to concoct ever more elaborate procurement processes.

These processes are not about producing great architecture, they are merely an arse-covering exercise so that in the worse case scenario some faceless middle manager somewhere can point to a paper trail that abdicates them of their responsibility for making a decision. This results in a tendency towards lowest common denominator, bland, risk-free design.

When design competitions do take place there is an unhappy trend of projects not coming to fruition. In 2010 our office was shortlisted for an architectural competition to design a temporary building for the 2012 Olympics alongside a strong shortlist of young British architects; Moxon, 42 Architects and the eventual winners Studio Octopi.

Last week it was announced that the £220,000 building was being scrapped and replaced instead with some ‘bollards’. This announcement was made at about the same time as the budget for the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies was being doubled from £40million to £80million.

As the Emerging Architecture Awards demonstrates innovation and creativity requires a degree of risk which is increasingly absent from the British construction industry. At a time when smaller practices need good patronage more than ever, the UK seems to lack the conviction required to support its young designers. Until clients start taking responsibility and putting their faith in our best emerging architects we will continue to look with envy on the work carried out overseas and agonise about the quality of architecture in our own country.

Hari Phillips is director of UK firm Bell Phillips Architects. As a practice Bell Phillips works hard to create uplifting projects that confront architecture in the real world.

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