§ 7.35 p.m.
§ Lord St. John of Fawsley rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what they are doing to promote the quality of British architecture.831
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall preface my general remarks on this important subject with a plea for a particular building. There is a great and imaginative scheme by Speyhawk for the refurbishing of the St. Pancras Station buildings as an hotel. As your Lordships will know, had it not been for a former Member of this House, Lord Palmerston, that building today would have been the Foreign Office.
§ This scheme is ready to go ahead. There have been delays from Camden Council. The Secretary of State is looking at the matter now. I make a plea for a quick decision so that this magnificent building may not have to go through another winter of destruction and discontent.
§ I am very pleased to be inaugurating this short debate on architecture. I think that these are the subjects which this House particularly excels in. I well remember listening from the gallery to a full-scale debate on poetry which was launched by the noble Lord, Lord Willis, in 1978. It is still reverberating in my ears, and that debate was a major help to the cause of literature.
§ I hope that in future we may have a wide-ranging and detailed debate on the subject of architecture. Owing to the vagaries of procedure, we could not have it today. But the Government would be doing a public service if they gave over a day to this crucially important subject. Meanwhile, we must do what we can.
When the Prime Minister came to the Royal Fine Art Commission before Christmas to launch our independent trust she spoke in a memorable speech of a double duty which we all have. She said:
We must preserve our heritage and ensure that our own 20th century adds worthily to it as we approach the second millennium".
§ I start out by saying what the Government can do and what they cannot do in the architectural field. There is no question of ideology about this. There is no such thing as a Conservative architecture or a Socialist architecture. There is good architecture or bad architecture and that is all. Except in their own buildings, I do not believe that a government can create great architecture. But they can do something very important. They can create the conditions in which good architecture can flourish.
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment therefore has a secondary but crucial role. He is a trustee of the possibilities of civilisation. We are fortunate that in the present Secretary of State we have somebody who is not only of great personal cultivation but also has very distinguished architectural antecedents.
§ We are fortunate too in the other great power in the Department of the Environment—I refer to the Permanent Secretary, Sir Terry Heiser, who is one of the great civil servants of our time.
§ I wish in my limited time to make three major points which I believe are the keys to achieving good architecture in the future. The first concerns patronage. We need enlightened patrons, and enlightened patrons need to do three things: first, to produce a good architect; secondly, a good brief; and thirdly adequate funding.832
§ Example is more important than precept. The Government in those buildings for which they have responsibility should give a lead. There have been successes. I single out in particular Richmond Terrace, the restoration of which has been excellently carried out and a new building added by Mr. William Whitfield which has been hailed throughout the aesthetic world as a major contribution to contemporary architecture.
§ But I am afraid one Whitfield does not constitute an architectural metanoia. He can point the way; but if we want good architecture we must get more good architects. Remember the advice of Mrs. Beeton—first catch your architect. I paraphrase her words in saying that. Certainly in the Royal Fine Art Commission we find that that is true again and again. To prove the point, another example is the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre by Sir Philip Powell. That building is an outstanding achievement of our day.
§ Unfortunately, those are exceptions. There is so much that is inadequate, tawdry and unworthy. The crown courts at Warrington, as they were originally designed, were a disgrace. Perhaps I may ask my noble friend about the DoE building at Marsham Street. Even he must harbour some cryptic doubts about it, although it is his pad. At least he has the advantage of not having to look at it, since he can look out of it. It is a prime candidate for demolition. Until I saw it I never knew what the words, "blot on the landscape" meant. Unfortunately, it is so tall that it is a blot on the skyscape as well.
§ Why is there so little that is really good in the official field? I believe that it is because too much is designed by in-house architects. In-house architects go by seniority and not by genius or even talent. The brilliant and aspiring young architects will take themselves off and there is a constant haemorrhage. As for design and build, the less said about that the better. I am glad to say that the BBC seems to have abandoned its scheme for further use of design and build at White City.
§ I say to my noble friend that it is the duty of the Government to go out and get first rate people to design our public buildings and embassies. An embassy is, like an ambassador, a spectacle. It is the visual embodiment of what a country stands for. Give the young and talented architects a chance. Do not wait until they are falling into the grave. As regards the matter of selection, both the Royal Fine Art Commission and the RIBA would be very willing to help.
§ I turn to my second major point, which concerns the regeneration of the inner cities. That is shorthand for urban regeneration. I took new heart on election night when I heard the Prime Minister say, in the very moment of her triumph, that she hoped that her third government would give a central place to tackling that daunting problem. There is a multiplicity of schemes, both private and public, for helping the inner cities. I shall not bore the House by going into them. The significant point is that design quality is at the bottom of the regeneration check list. The truth is that the more economically deprived an area is, and the more depressed it is, the more it needs superlative quality to repair its fortunes, to restore its reputation 833 and to raise the morale of the people who live there. That point was made in an excellent paper on our inner cities which was written for the RFAC by Mr. Tony Aldhous.
§ Furthermore, quality is crucial to success. There is no contradiction between good design and quality on the one hand, and good business on the other. In fact, one helps the other. Many of our developers realise that. Why not give that more emphasis when setting up development corporations? We have recently heard that there is to be a new one at Sheffield. There are to be city action teams at Nottingham and Leeds. Why not give design a much higher priority when they are set up?
§ The London Docklands Corporation has had phenomenal economic success. But within that area anything goes: the good, the bad and the ugly. It is hit and miss. It succeeds at times. But success in lotteries is no argument for lotteries. The latest monstrosity to be approved is Philip Johnson's building, London Bridge City Phase II, which apes in a very inferior way this great Palace of Westminster and would reduce the Tower of London visually to the status of a garden folly.
§ Or take the newest scheme for Canary Wharf which we have seen in our newspapers this morning. The RFAC has spent much time and many hours looking at Mr. Travelstead's scheme. We achieved many improvements. The towers were moved out of the central line of vision of Greenwich. Alas, Mr. Travelstead is gone and we are left with the new scheme which is reminiscent of what I recall from reading the Bay's Own Paper. Come back Mr. Travelstead, all is forgiven! Contrast that with the success of Liverpool, Mercury Court, Albert Dock or the docks at Salford. That shows that commercial and aesthetic success can advance together hand in hand.
§ What can we do? The Government have set their faces against aesthetic control. Perhaps I may make a plea to turn those faces back again. That is what the public want. Secondly, we should have concentration on pre-application guidance and consultation so that good ideas can get in early. Thirdly, we should encourage competition so that everyone has a chance. Fourthly, we should have urban design guidelines.
My last point, which is perhaps the most important, is that we shall never get British architecture right until we get a more visual form of education. We are a people of a strong but suppressed imagination. That is why we are strong monarchists. That, among other reasons, is why your Lordships' House is so respected in the country. We care about the show. We have the greatest visual heritage in the world. The trouble is that people look and do not see. Architecture is both the Cinderella and the most accessible of the arts. As His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales asked in his epoch-making speech at the Mansion House as regards Paternoster Square:
Did modern planners and architects in London ever use their eyes?".
The answer is, "No, they did not, because they were never taught to". We should all be grateful to His Royal Highness, who is the most highly placed
person in public life to speak with such knowledge of architecture since Thomas Jefferson. Now the Royal Fine Art Commission, under the leadership of Dame Elizabeth Chesterton and Mrs. Nutting and with the backing of the Secretary of State, is embarking on a scheme to improve visual education: "Look—See—Judge!".
§ Perhaps I may conclude where I began—with the question of quality. Style and passion in architecture must always be subordinate to quality. The former is subjective; the latter is objective. What is important is how a building fits into its surroundings or—it must not be forgotten—adds to them by contrast or originality. With that double guideline, and with dogmatic modernism on the decline, British architecture faces a new and exciting future.
§ 7.48 p.m.
§ Lord Hutchinson of Lullington
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to take part in a debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Fawsley, particularly when he so characteristically raises a subject of supreme importance for vast numbers of citizens. I should like to start my remarks by congratulating him on everything that he has done for the Royal Fine Art Commission since he has been chairman. Certainly he has raised its status. He has made it infinitely more efficient. It now fulfils in the most distinguished way its job of being an adviser to the Government on matters of aesthetics and taste.
I suggest that the first thing that the Government should appreciate about architecture is that it is an art that impinges more than any other on the consciousness of the ordinary citizen. The Minister for the Arts does not seem interested in the subject in any way. The run-down Arts Council has abandoned altogether its long-established fund for housing the arts. It is only in the DoE that a flicker of interest in this subject remains. It is the noble Earl who now has the responsibility of tending that small flame.
A major concern of any government must be the quality of life of their people. The environment in which we all live is central to our happiness. So the Government must concern themselves, interest themselves and instruct themselves in the architecture which is producing homes, offices and public buildings, whether the latter are government departments, barracks, museums or—no doubt dear to the noble Earl—prisons or other institutions.
What should the Government do? First, they should set an example and exercise their overwhelming influence. As the noble Lord has already said, Prince Charles has done a magnificent job as far as concerns influence. He has established the fact that architecture affects us all and that the people affected should have some say in the creation of their environment. That job should surely have been done by the Government.
A government who are prepared to spend hours of valuable time stopping local authorities from an imagined promotion of homosexuality could very easily spend half that time stopping local authorities from the very real promotion of the fifth-rate architecture which blights cities such as Birmingham and London. Planning procedures can be streamlined 835 and simplified. The powers of planning committees can be more clearly and more broadly defined to prevent the endless frustration that drives so many of our best architects abroad and the hideous comprehensive developments that are imposed on powerless ordinary people.
I suggest that the Government can commission, with enthusiasm and knowledge, beautiful and worthwhile public buildings. Indeed, in the United States I have seen government offices, other buildings and prisons of the greatest distinction. Can the Minister tell us something of the arcane procedures by which his department chooses architects for government buildings? Who designs the prisons for the Home Office? I do not know whether they are in-house architects. I rather hope that they are not.
Let me spell out something of what I mean. When our great National Gallery wished to build an extension facing Trafalgar Square to display its incomparable treasures, the Government would not provide. There was no money for new building for the nation for a national gallery that attracts millions of visitors from all over the world in London's central and most famous square! Trafalgar House wanted the address No. 1 Trafalgar Square and was willing to build a block of offices with two attic floors on top for the Rembrandts and Titians in the National Gallery. The Government thought that that was a wonderful solution. Luckily, the public thought otherwise. Now the Sainsbury family have chosen a distinguished American architect to build a proper building for the nation. To that beneficence the Government have so far given absolutely nothing.
When at the Tate Gallery we wished to create a home for the great Turner bequest to the nation of his major works, the Government would do nothing to help. The Clore Foundation came along and backed our choice of architect, James Stirling, and gave the nation the brilliant building which is now on view at Millbank. We went excitedly to the Government and asked them to match the sum which we had been promised. A grey face at the Office of the Arts and Libraries informed us that the Government presumed that the foundation would meet the running costs of the building as well. At that, the foundation threatened to pull out. At that moment the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Fawsley, became Minister for the Arts and from that moment all was sweetness, light and encouragement. Even some topping-up money was produced.
At the moment the Courtauld Institute is struggling with the begging bowl to have its magnificent bequest of old masters displayed in Somerset House. The Goverment are not even offering assistance to the University of London for the cost of running those galleries, if they are ever opened.
Finally, Baron Thyssen has just announced that his supreme and unique collection of paintings, some of which are on view at the Royal Academy, could find a home in any country prepared to provide a suitable environment for it. The Baron is a good friend of this country; he lives here. I ask the Minister whether the Government are prepared to commission one of our 836 internationally famous architects to prepare plans for that collection—Messrs. Foster, Lasdun, Rogers, Stirling, Dixon. There is no question of Mrs. Beeton catching them. Any one of them could do a wonderful job.
If the Minister replies, as I imagine he will, that the Government would be prepared to hold out the begging bowl to private enterprise, perhaps I may suggest another course. Instead of holding out he should throw out the Inland Revenue from the rest of Somerset House, restore it to its former glory and create a magnificent gallery with a walkway along the Thames from Waterloo Bridge opposite the South Bank. That would be a perfect setting for those wonderful paintings if they could only come to this country.
I say to the Minister, look upwards and look across the Channel. There there is a consensus that the taxpayers' money should be spent on things of the spirit as well. There the government build the great Pompidou arts centre, bearing a Prime Minister's name. It is the government who build a second opera house in the Place de la Bastille, who convert an old railway station and make the Musée d'Orsay and who provide a Picasso museum in the Marais at the same time as making the Exocet missile, the TGV train and cheap atomic energy.
The noble Lord, Lord St. John, achieved much in government but before he was removed he failed in one respect. He did not convert one of his dry colleagues to an understanding and appreciation of the arts. I suppose that we have the most philistine government of this century. The noble Earl may of course be the one exception—we have yet to hear him on the arts. He is certainly exceptional in his versatility and his humanity. I do not say that philistinism is unique on the Benches opposite. Last week when I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips —I am sorry that she is not in her place—tell the noble Lord, Lord Cottesloe, that there was nothing beautiful about Hampstead Heath and indeed it could be compared to Wormwood Scrubs, I knew that she would never embrace the liberal culture which is to be found on these Benches.
The Government now have a great opportunity to give good architecture its head. The Education and Arts Committee of another place in its report in 1982 said:Cultural resources can be seen as a vital element in the regeneration of Britain… [and] as improving the chances for successful rehabilitation and redevelopment in the inner city areas".It saw, as the French have long seen, that the arts are an influence on economic development. It cited as examples the Maritime Museum and the Tate of the North in Liverpool Docks, which I am glad to say was started in my time at the Tate Gallery.
I should like to end by commending to the Minister an idea that has had an astounding success in the United States of America in tackling the problems of rebuilding the inner cities; namely, the creation of what are called Rudats (regional urban design and architectural teams). Instead of developers coming into cities, applying for planning permission and imposing from above their ideas on the local community, this scheme approaches the problem from the bottom upwards.
837 The community or the local authority asks the equivalent of the RIBA for a Rudat, which is a small team of totally independent experts who have nothing to do with the city in question and who will work with the architect. The team may consist of an engineer, an economist, a social worker and a town planner. They spend a period in the city researching the area, holding public meetings, conducting phone-ins and finding out what amenities the inhabitants of that city want, as well as their housing and commercial requirements. They get together and in a very short period, usually within seven days, produce an outline development plan. They return to the city and present that plan to the public, again holding public meetings and using the local press. Having finally adjusted that plan, they hand it to the architect and the developer who will carry it out.
Rudats have operated in no fewer than 98 cities in America for the past 10 or 12 years and have achieved very remarkable results. Recently they held an international conference in Pittsburgh. The centre of discussion was a Rudat which focused on a desolate valley of disused steel mills called the Mon Valley. Five members of the team came from Britain, one of them being the distinguished architect, Richard Burton. His Royal Highness Prince Charles attended that conference. I understand that that idea has now been taken up in this country by the RIBA. We call them Cudats because "community" replaces the word "regional" in the name. A Cudat with some American members has recently been formed in Newcastle and one has been operating in Southampton.
In that way the inhabitants of a city are brought in and are consulted. They participate, become involved and often very excited about what is happening in their own city. Local labour is recruited at all levels and the project ceases to be anonymous. In those circumstances the chances of a good architect are far higher than when the choice is made by the town clerk's office or from the cosy groups of supine architects who are constantly employed by successful developers. I hope that the Minister will tell the House whether the Government will seriously consider the use of such teams in their plans for the inner cities.
My final suggestion is that the Royal Fine Art Commission should be given some sort of status as the Government's adviser on taste and aesthetics. As I have already said, since he became its chairman, the noble Lord has done a tremendous amount to reform, streamline and galvanise the commission. It is now an effective and very distinguished body. Could it not at least be given a statutory power to call in designated schemes and make its views known or have the power to delay any scheme which is brought to its attention? We all await with the greatest pleasure the Minister's view on these matters when he speaks on architecture for the first time in this House.
§ 8.6 p.m.
§ Lord Gibson
My Lords, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord St. John of Fawsley, that one thing that the Government have clone for architecture is to appoint him chairman of the Royal Fine Art Commission. They could not have made a better choice. I cannot 838 match the eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, in showering praise upon him but I can certainly match the noble Lord's enthusiasm for the appointment and for what has happened so far.
I submit that the state has four roles to play as regards architecture. They may have others, but to me there seem to be four obvious ones. First, there is the role of patron—commissioning new buildings for their own occupation, whether at national or local level, and maintaining, where necessary adding to, existing public buildings. Secondly, they are the protector of our architectural heritage, laying down and administering the rules for its protection. Thirdly, they are overlord of the planning authorities. I think planning is too big a subject to touch on this evening although the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, has mentioned it. Finally, the Government have the role of provider of education in the sense that architecture should be an important part of the education in the arts which every child ought to have the chance of receiving.
To take first the role of the state as patron, how is the commissioning of new buildings or substantially adding to old ones best done? I agree with the noble Lord, Lord St. John, that it is not done by using in-house architects but by public competition. The job of the in-house architect—in the case of the DoE it is the PSA—is to look after public property and to organise competitions when they are needed. I think they perform that task very well. I dare say that more maintenance functions could he contracted out to the private sector, although I do not think that that is very important in itself. I think that the Government do that job very well. Like the noble Lord, I do not know how the building that houses the DoE came to be built. I had prepared some scorching comments to make about it, but as the noble Lord has already made similar observations I shall not add to them.
It is important to ensure that competitions arc designed to find the best architect for the job and not just a winning design. A few years ago, as the lay judge on a panel to choose a winning design for a new building at Kew which was intended to house a reference collection and exhibition hall—and I believe it is now almost ready—I had an interesting experience. Perhaps I may say that we could not have carried out the task without the help of Sir Philip Dowson, one of the members of the panel. There were 270 entries to be judged, and we had to do it blind in the sense that we were not allowed to know the names of the architects who were putting the designs before us. I think that we chose a good design, but whether it was the best one we shall never know. I believe that the method of the competition was the wrong way to set about the task. We were judging designs, and we should have been attempting to find architects.
In that competition I can think of at least one entry which was extremely imaginative and interesting but in which there were aspects that the curator at Kew, who was naturally a member of the panel of judges, felt would make it unsuitable unless they were changed. If we could have discussed the design with the architect—and of course we did not know who he was—and suggested changes, we might ultimately have preferred his solution.
839 I do not intend my words in any way to derogate from the design that we chose. The building has been erected and it looks to me as though we made a very good choice indeed. However, there was no input from the client, and the point that I am making is that in most cases an input from the client is an essential element in producing a good building. So the best competitions are those in which the architect is selected after interviews in which ideas and sketches can be discussed.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, outlined, basically it was holding the competition for a winning design that got the National Gallery into difficulty in its initial effort to provide for its extension. The chosen design did not suit the trustees and, of course, the partnership with a commercial developer in order to finance it limited the trustees' ability to meet their real needs. The difficulty was resolved through the incredible generosity of the Sainsbury brothers which obviated the need for the developer. The National Gallery began all over again at the beginning and the subsequent competition ended in the choice of Mr. Robert Venturi, with whom it could begin from scratch.
Such competition makes possible the dialogue between client and architect from the earliest stage which no mere provision of a brief by the client can possibly achieve. We have had a similar competition, although sadly without the elimination of the commercial developer, at the Royal Opera House. The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, and I were both on the panel that chose Mr. Jeremy Dixon. I think the design promises to be worthy not only of the opera house but of the historic environment of the Covent Garden area.
On the subject of competitions, the most instructive example of methods of public patronage is the story of this palace, told in the book by the late Sir Robin Cook. As chairman of the works of arts sub-committee in your Lordships' House, I must tell you how deeply I miss him. His knowledge of this palace was encyclopaedic, as was his knowledge of the methods by which money was obtained to maintain and improve it. I not only miss him very much personally but in this House we are all very much the poorer by his sad death. His book describes how, after the fire in 1834, there was a general demand for a public competition to which the Government responded a year later and ordered a Select Committee to advise on the procedure.
Commissioners to find an architect were subsequently appointed, with Charles Hanbury-Tracy, later Lord Sudeley, as chairman. He was then an MP but his knowledge of architecture was considerable. He designed his own vast house at Toddington in Gloucestershire—a mansion which few realise is not inspired by this palace but is its predecessor. The inspiration must have been the other way round. It puts beyond doubt the influence of Hanbury-Tracy and his commission on the appearance of this palace. Among other members of the commission were Thomas Liddell, an amateur Gothic architect, George Vivian, who wrote on architectural matters— he was not wholly wedded to Gothic architecture—and Charles Tennyson 840 d'Eyncourt, who designed his own beautiful Gothic house at Bayons in Lincolnshire.
As we all know, the commission chose Barry, who brought in Pugin. However, in recommending Barry the commissioners were clever enough, when reporting to the Select Committee, to say that Barry's design needed revision before execution, thus keeping in their own hands the power to influence his final plans. They therefore had the best of both worlds.
Throughout the building of the palace there was intensive input from the client of a high order. I tell this story only to emphasise that if the state is to be a good patron—as it was in the building of this palace —it must engage citizens who are well informed about architecture to act for it and not attempt to do so itself. I am sure that this is even more essential—if that were possible—at the level of local government.
Another aspect of the state's role as a patron of architecture is the maintenance of public buildings and the treatment of buildings which are no longer needed by the state. Recently the Royal Society of Arts and the Cubitt Trust held an interesting conference called "The Future of the Public Heritage" at which the Government's role in conserving historic buildings and their ownership was discussed, as were the uses to which such buildings when redundant could be put. A small book was subsequently produced and, although I must declare an interest as chairman of the Committee of the Environment at the RSA, I venture to commend this book to your Lordships.
If I say no more on this part of the state's responsibility for architecture, I nevertheless consider the maintenance of the public heritage as an extremely important part of it. The present dirty and blackened condition of the Victoria Tower of this House is a standing reproach to this nation's pride in its architectural heritage. To leave that tower dirty for years after cleaning the rest of the building, and all for want of some £4 million, is difficult for me to understand. I am assured that it will be begun in 1991.
The noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, has already spoken of the pride which France takes in its surroundings. I ask noble Lords to consider whether the French, with all their pride in their heritage, would allow a comparable monument in the heart of Paris to stand out like a dirty thumb for so long. It is all a question of priorities, and of pride in one's surroundings. If one wishes to stop people leaving litter in the streets then one should start by showing a pride in the built environment. I beg for a strong lead from this Government in this regard.
I spoke of another role of the state in architecture as being a protector of historic buildings. It lays down and administers rules for their protection. This is a very difficult role in a constantly changing society where the use of buildings needs to change so frequently. The listing system that the DoE administers is essentially a good one. However, it does not, and should not, give final protection. It merely guides the planners as to the amount of resistance with which they should oppose the removal or alteration of the buildings. I am unclear as to who are the advisers of the DoE, when, and if, it rejects the advice of English Heritage—the 841 quango which replaced its former in-house advisers. It appears that English Heritage's advice has been rejected in the case of the listing of a number of postwar buildings in the list just announced.
To whom does the Minister turn for a second opinion if he is not happy with the advice of English Heritage's experts? I hope that he will tell us. I stress that I am not talking about planning decisions, which may on occasion have to override listing. But when deciding whether to list on purely architectural grounds, then on whose advice does the Minister dismiss the opinions of English Heritage's experts? I am sure that he will help us there.
Finally, I come to the Government's role, as I see it, in providing for our architectural education. We hear much nowadays about the public's role in influencing architects and the need for architects to pay attention to what the public wants, and I heartily support this. But in that case, in order to have better architecture we need a better informed public. If we really mind about our built environment, new or old, the interest of the public must be an informed one. Architecture therefore should have a leading place in the study of the arts as an element in the core curriculum.
We shall be discussing educational reform in this House quite soon. Perhaps this point can be emphasised afresh in that context. It is quite fundamental, and if time is not found for it in schools, or if there are no qualified teachers to teach it, then, unless time can be found and the teachers trained, architectural standards in our country will be much lower than they ought to be.
On the professional side, do not let the schools in which architects are trained ignore the past, as I believe they wickedly did for some years when training students in the post-war period. A decent future depends on an understanding of the past in architecture as in everything else. When teachers and architects ignore this factor they lose touch with the community and a desolate architecture—of which we have seen too much in the post-war years—is the result. Good architecture flourishes where the community is conscious of the difference between beauty and ugliness. We may not always agree with the decisions, but there is a strong predisposition to judge between beauty and ugliness. That is what we have to promote. It existed in the Italian Renaissance and in Ancient Greece. Let us aim for a renaissance here and let it begin in the schools.
§ 8.19 p.m.
§ Lord Raglan
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord St. John, and I have wondered why there is nowadays so little good architecture. Although I do not disagree with his suggestions on how to try to achieve improvements, I am not sanguine that such suggestions will bring immediate effect. The antecedents of the architecture to which both he and I agree to object go back a long way.
When I saw this Question on the Order Paper I at once thought of tower blocks and slab blocks which were the subject of a painstaking study by Professor Alice Coleman, published a year or two ago under the title Utopia on Trial, which I have been reading. These are buildings about which, from the day they 842 were built, passers-by protested at their unattractiveness, and experience quickly proved them also to be disagreeable to live in. Why, one must wonder, were they ever built?
The excuse is that at the time they seemed quicker to build; yet houses would have been as quick to build and almost certainly cheaper. But these houses, had they been built, would not have been of the traditional type. More likely they would have been of a quite untested, novel construction. They would have had deliberately non-traditional features—original ideas as they were called—such features as slit windows or flat roofs, in spite of the fact that no one has ever been able to design for this climate a flat roof that will last without leaking.
I was a new town chairman for rather a long time and therefore had much opportunity to consider this matter. Some years ago I was walking through a new housing estate of a Radburn design where so far as possible pedestrians are segregated from vehicular traffic. Mothers were supposed to push their prams along concrete pavements, but they were so bumpy that they made straight for the nearest tarmac road where they were not intended to be. I therefore was musing to myself as to why architects designed houses of problematic quality which few but themselves liked the look of and where the simple everyday practice of pushing a pram had not been considered. I can suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, that these pram-pushers were indeed part of his well-informed public.
There were many of these paved paths, neatly laid out at right angles to each other. Everywhere, however, there were muddy footpaths subtending these right-angles, for people were ignoring the paths which were drawn on graph paper and were taking an old fashioned short cut. I then realised that the estate had not been laid out for normal human beings, but for theoretical ones. Not just this estate suffered from that. Hundreds of estates throughout the land were being created rather as an exercise in abstract art, designed with an almost Olympian detachment as to their real effects on real people.
For this extraordinary state of affairs I do not blame architects as persons, for nearly all those I know or have met are kindly and considerate people. However, they have a habit of not living in or near their creations, preferring a farmhouse or a Georgian square. But that fact only serves to emphasise the detachment which so many of them have from the consequences of their work and their habitual indifference as to whether anyone likes it.
This indifference to criticism is a feature of a whole range of modern art. It is an idea which has prevailed for a great part of this century and I believe is based on the notion, unprecedented in history, that it is the artist's duty to express himself and the duty of the spectator or audience to be uncritical. However, being put into the position of having to accept what one is given is in effect to suffer producer control, which throughout the ages has been a formula for poor quality products, and that is what too often we find.
As is well known, people can vote with their feet as to which pictures they view or which music they listen to, but architecture is unavoidable. Architecture is 843 the public art and I believe deeply that it has a duty to produce buildings which invite us to like them; otherwise one is vesting in architect and developer power without responsibility.
The fear of what is to be built next has been a strong motor of the conservation movement. I almost hate to think of the amount of time that I have spent in the last 15 or 20 years in the city of Bath. First, there was the task in which central government played an essential role of halting the wholesale destruction that was going on. This was not achieved before about a quarter of the city had been laid waste. Since then the main problem has been to dissuade assorted architects from putting up buildings which would have been wholly inappropriate in their context. Here again the continuing support of the Government has been crucial, as has the influence of a growing number of architects who have not gone along with the modernists.
While the bulldozing was going on, we were told that if we wanted to keep 18th century artisans' cottages, we should have to find 18th century artisans to live in them; and Bath had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th century. So although there was much mindlessness in it all, one could, and still can, detect an element of wilfulness in attitude. Having lived with the problem for as long as I have, I have not been able to escape the conclusion that one motive in destroying so much was that people liked what was there and that sometimes one reason for bringing forward incompatible designs has been an itch to blight the old by juxtaposing the new.
I am not holding up Bath as being of perfect design or offering an ideal way of life, though it is worth pointing out that the preservation of most of its historic core has saved the city from inner city blight. Bath represents a town whose architects and builders really wanted their buildings to be liked, and it retains that welcoming feeling. It was built entirely speculatively to cater for what the customer, the citizen and the sightseer, admired and felt comfortable with.
These desires have changed but little over the centuries, as is shown by the vast number of people who contentedly live in centuries' old buildings in layouts the evolution of which was brought to a halt by the modernist revolution. This revolution, which started in the 1920s, still has momentum and still retains its juggernaut tendencies. Towers are still being built, although I think only for offices, and so are slabs like the new Broadgate development, although it is well known that their bulk increases wind pressure. What may be suitable for Chicago, where nobody walks if they can help it, is not suitable for London, where people walk a lot.
There are signs of improvement however. I have seen three modest new buildings in or near Fleet Street recently which I admired. Many new buildings now have facades and one welcomes them into the ranks of the living in contrast to the dead faces of their predecessors. There is still a long way to go, but a need to put things back on the right road of architecture for people and not just for architects, as has been mentioned this evening, has magnificently and tellingly been given by the Prince of Wales. The 844 prospects therefore are much brighter than they were less than a year ago.
The Government can help in improving style by never again erecting, as they did in Marsham Street, a building which makes one think that height limits might be a good thing. They can help in bringing forward legislation to prevent landmarks and national monuments from being obscured or dominated. For instance, the hotel in St. Katharine's Dock should never have been allowed to compete, as it does, alongside the Tower of London. Perhaps the Government could be most influential in revising the Halford-Abercrombie site ratio planning rules in the light of their effect on our environment during the past 40 years. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord St. John, referred to those.
Subject to what the noble Earl may say tonight, I should like to bring forward those matters for debate in your Lordships' House in due course. Meanwhile I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord St. John, for asking the Question. It is hard to overestimate the importance of architecture and its impact on the way in which we live.
§ 8.31 p.m.
My Lords, I apologise for not having put my name on the list of speakers; but I intend to be brief. I intervene because I feel strongly that something should be said about the relationship between buildings and behaviour. I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord St. John, for his brilliant and informative speech. I should also like to congratulate other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate because I have learnt a great deal from them.
I should like to begin by making two quotations. The first is from Plato:Let our youth live in a beautiful land".The second quotation, which is more relevant to our discussion, is from Churchill:We shape our buildings but our buildings shape us".Having been brought up in one of the most superb settings in this country—the buildings and grounds of Stowe in Buckinghamshire—I am particularly conscious of what I owe to that environment in almost every sphere of my life. At the other end of the scale, we see the cramped and crowded ugliness of so many of our modern buildings. I refer particularly to the high-rise blocks with their ghastly overhead walkways, totally lacking in privacy, and which have been so widely criticised. Indeed, I have done so at least once in your Lordships' House.
I submit that it is in no way fanciful to connect the relatively high incidence of youth crime in the vicinity of such buildings, and others totally lacking in anything approaching beauty, with this appalling environment. I have visited some of the buildings and have been told exactly that by the people who live there. I believe that any statistical survey will bear out what I have said.
I could elaborate but I shall not because time is short and I have been unable to prepare a detailed speech. However, I should like to conclude by putting forward two points which concern me deeply. The noble Lord, Lord St. John, opened his speech by 845 referring to St. Pancras. I believe that all noble Lords will agree that it is one of the great buildings of this country. It certainly stands out in London. The great train shed is without compare anywhere in the world, and I am glad that the noble Lord has its interests at heart.
The second point that I should like to raise bears on a Starred Question that I asked about three months ago. It was: what is being done about the proposed development near St. Paul's? At the time I received a brief reply from the Minister and I shall be grateful if he can elaborate on what he said on that occasion in order to bring us up to date.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I envy the Minister because I believe that he will rightly be expected by all noble Lords to respond to the many interesting points that have been made. One of the aggravations speaking in such a debate as this is that one comes to say what one has prepared. So much has been said by all notable Lords who have spoken and I should have been pleased to pursue and largely support that.
I should like to say that it is a delight and joy to the colleagues of the noble Lord, Lord St. John, who served with him in another place to see him here and hear him speak so powerfully and perceptively upon a matter in respect of which we acknowledge his deep experience, interest and passion. I believe that what he has said tonight will not only be worthy of being read tomorrow morning but of being re-read. I certainly intend to do so. The noble Lord set the scene at a level and from his own unique experience. My experience is not as broad as is that of the noble Lord or others who have spoken. I should like to use my experience and talk about what may be called "community architecture". It is different but nevertheless important.
I was most interested to hear what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson, about the Rudat experiment in France. I am sure that when I have finished speaking, the noble Lord will understand that that is exactly what I am trying to achieve in this country. One of the benefits of a debate of this kind is that we can learn from what has been said by others.
If ever there was a discipline, a science or an art which merited the epitaph, "I cannot describe what it is, or how I feel, but I know what I like", it must be that of architecture. In the experience of most people the role and the place of an architect in our modern buildings may well be limited to the home they buy or, more rarely, that they commission. They will also come face to face with the skill of the architect when their local council puts out for consultation plans submitted for a scheme either to redevelop a part or the whole of their town or city; or for the building of a new estate within or on the edge of their town. Visual impressions, perspectives and external treatments are gobbledegook to most people.
As for mass, scale or aesthetic treatments, they may be so much clever talk, but it does not mean that people do not know what they like; they do. Nor does it mean that they do not care; they do. However, it may well mean that they feel that they cannot 846 influence the way in which their environment, townscape or landscape is developed or created; and they should. The design and the power or the sympathy of the built environment is not just the prerogative of the professionals, the design team, the possession of the planner, the speculator or the estate agent. Ultimately, it becomes the endowment of this age as a bequest to the future. It will be paid for by this generation's consumers, residents or tenants. That townscape will certainly be lived and worked in by today's residents and workers.
I plead the case of the all-too-often silent majority who are affected but often ignored or taken for granted. Why is this? Is it that those who shape and reshape our living spaces hold ordinary people in either contempt or disdain? I submit that this is but part of a syndrome in Britain today where money—the making of it, the profit from it and the salting away of it—dominates our society. We are money mad.
I must confess some difficulty in avoiding making party political points. As the noble Lord, Lord St. John, said, in architecture there is only good or bad; there is not Conservative or Socialist. I shall be content to rely on what is known by all who follow such things. If we were getting it right, for the sake of our children and our children's children, in a timescale measured in centuries and not decades we should be concerned to ensure that it is the long view and not the short view that prevails. We must satisfy our responsibility to the future. I must say that there is clear evidence that this is all too often sacrificed in order to satisfy present-day financial problems. All too often it is the greed of the developer, the speculator or the professionals which dominate the shape of things to come.
There is much to be done by the architects themselves, lf, as I assert, there is a widening gulf between architects and the public and communities, it is a two-way street. Architects should come down to our level and instead of speaking down to their clients, who I claim are ultimately the public, they should come into our communities and invite the people to tell them what they want. Who ultimately pays for the architects' designs? It is not the consortium or the planner but the public who live and work in the built environment over which they have so little sway.
Why is it that so much of the townscape is fashioned, and residential areas designed by, architects who show their confidence in what they design by living elsewhere—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Raglan? When I was a member of a local authority in the 1960s I took my share of responsibility for what was planned, and sadly much of it was rightly the subject of criticism.
Let us take the issue of maximising the use of land allied to housing and the maximum number of homeless people. The whole country was galvanised into erecting tower blocks. In Greater London alone there were, and still are, more than 5,000. I wonder how many of their architects chose to live in their creation. Given the proper criteria of homelessness which would debar them, why do we not have a period of two to five years for architects and planners to live within their creations in order to demonstrate 847 their faith and to adjust their views for their next essay in community architecture?
§ Lord Raglan
My Lords, I did learn of one distinguished architect who lived in a tower block for three months. He was Mr. Goldfinger, who is now deceased.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, that is a very interesting comment, and the fact that it is possibe to name only one architect who lived in his creation for three months makes my point.
If there is to be a two-way process, what can be done to give architects a meaningful dialogue with their ultimate clients, the public? For that to take place requires not only humility from the architectural profession that they can learn something from the untutored and the uneducated but also for the public to appreciate the role of the architect and his constraints and problems.
I have a strong belief that there is a huge, unfulfilled yearning for knowledge in this field. There is a great respect for our historical places and admiration and even love for the fine buildings and other places which are monuments to a past age. We need the trained and sensitive architect, but we also need a public who understand in general terms the context in which sympathetic architectural treatment is to their benefit or otherwise. I would welcome this process beginning in our schools, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, and the younger the student the better.
When I took my degree in the Open University I took a foundation course, one unit of which roamed over the history of architecture and the salient features which characterised the civilisations, schools and styles over the years. I confess that a veil dropped from my eyes. It was the same with art appreciation and the history of art. After putting behind me my annoyance at waiting perhaps 40 years for this eye-opener, I developed an unquenchable thirst for more and more. If that can happen to a then 50 year-old, just imagine the effect that it could have on a 15 year-old. Of course I had the great good fortune to be awakened by the excellent course material of the Open University.
The media has a vital part to play in the renaissance of learning about architectural matters. At present that is limited to the heavy daily and Sunday newspapers in which the architectural correspondents set out arguments about major matters attractively and enticingly. I believe that the Independent deserves a special mention in that sphere. I invite those newspapers to take unto themselves the worthy and nationally valuable task of educating the masses in architectural matters. There is enough happening every day to provide pegs or measuring rods upon which to hang a tale—moral or otherwise. The capturing of the imagination of young people who can observe critically and assess positively what they see, but more importantly, what they want to see in the future, would be a great service and would be much better than many other campaigns, themes or crusades. How about it, dear Mr. Editor?
848 That other great arm of the media, television, is already well apprised of the opportunity. Who can forget the unforgettable programmes in which our civilisation was surveyed, those programmes by the late lamented Huw Weldon or the many programmes of late which have dealt with specific developments of current controversy? These are made all the more relevant to people's lives when they embrace not only the views of architects and planners but also those of ordinary people who have a distinctive claim to be seen and heard. They live there, work there and will be looking at whatever is being built for the rest of their lives, as will their children.
Perhaps I may echo a point made in an earlier contribution. Let us remain suspicious or sceptical of the value of architectural competitions, which usually involve the work of architects judged by other architects. I listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, had to say in this respect. James Stirling designed the new history building for Cambridge University in the 1960s. It gained national and international awards. Within a year it had sprung over 500 leaks. It was bad to work in—too cold in winter and too hot in summer. It was constructed mostly of glass with tile facings and the tiles fell off. The university did extensive repairs and even contemplated building an envelope to weatherproof it. There was little point in suing when this disaster only came to light after five years and therefore no claim could be made. The point is that a building that gained the acclaim of other architects was unsuitable for the purposes for which it was built and for the materials of which it was made. Architects often design beyond the capabilities of the technology of the time.
I want the calling of architecture to be not only respected but valued and even revered. I strongly feel that architects have some hard thinking and even soul searching to do—certainly individually but, more importantly, collectively. In my view, they are victims of our times but that does not excuse them from taking a stand on behalf of their professional integrity.
An onlooker looking in can come to the conclusion that the running in the ultimate design is largely, perhaps wholly, dictated by considerations of time, profit and exploitation. Good architectural treatment may well cost more and take more time. Just how often do architects dig their toes in and even refuse a commission if it is offered in such a form and with such imperatives that the input of the architect is demeaned and suborned? If the architect is simply a technician who takes his orders and complies with his brief for his fee, and in so doing aids and abets the creation of a monstrosity or a hideous or offensive blot on our skyline, he or she is unworthy of our patronage or support. If developers find that they are encouraged to produce a viable scheme or treatment as quickly as possible, not at least so as to generate rateable income, rents or profits, who is there to blow the whistle?
I favour much stronger powers being wielded by a central body with enough muscle and power to hold the line against philistine actions motivated by greed or varying interests. For example, I applaud the creation of such bodies as the Covent Garden Community Association, which is active in respect of 849 the Opera House. Those bodies invariably arise out of an attack on people's concepts of how they perceive their town and their living area and demonstrates the very real problem there is. Such bodies as the Enfield Preservation Society, which wears the mantle as custodian of Enfield heritage and past, as well as acting responsibly towards proposed changes, has us all in its debt, as indeed have hundreds of civic societies. I assert that the views of the community through such bodies are given less than fair treatment by developers and alas by architects. I want to see architects looking on such bodies as allies, always assuming that the architect wants to serve the people as well as, if not before, the speculator.
Nowhere do I see a better illustration of all that is wrong in this relationship than in the London Docklands development. The noble Lord, Lord St. John, was spot on with his comments. I applaud the fact that this area of our capital is being transformed. I give credit to the Government for wanting something to be done. Yes, we have housing and jobs, but there is square mile after square mile being developed at a frantic pace by private capital without, as far as I can ascertain, a grand design for land use or democratic control.
Colin Davies described this in the Architectural Review as the old dock areas being splattered with mediocre mush. If communities are at the heart of our lives, why should so many of them feel that on the great decisions they are marginalised, taken for granted, informed rather than consulted? My plea is that British Architects and architecture stand both at the crossroads and in the dock. They have only themselves to blame. They can rescue themselves. They have to speak out when they feel affronted by the pressures from their paymasters; and I do not minimise those pressures. They must be proud of their calling. They should welcome public support. They should seek it and cultivate it. Architects should be supported by the public.
The public should acknowledge that the best for our future may not be the cheapest. We should start public appreciation of the role and the fruits of architects and their gifts at an early age. We should encourage every government to see their role as the custodian and trustee of the past in real terms, not just the preservation of monuments but by keeping a tight grip on the changes in our environment which diminish the worth of those monuments. It will require from this Government a determination to say no to grotesque and gratuitous change, often on a massive scale, in the interests of what we bequeath to the future. I believe that the public would be on the side of such a government, and that is a prize not to be sniffed at by any government, especially this one.
§ 8.52 p.m.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Caithness)
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord St. John of Fawsley for giving us an opportunity to debate this matter. Discussion of architecture in this Chamber has been, in recent years, a rare event. The last major debate was, I believe, that initiated in 1943 by the then Lord Wimborne which dwelled in particular on the role of 850 the Royal Fine Art Commission. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that this debate should have been initiated by my noble friend who, since taking the chair of the Royal Fine Art Commission in 1985, has done so much to raise public awareness of architecture and the impact on our towns and cities of the development now taking place.
If there has been discussion, here and elsewhere, in recent years it has too often been an occasion to lament the damage done by architects and developers rather than to celebrate the appearance of a distinguished building. We have suffered a crisis of confidence in architecture and it is only a slight exaggeration to say that along with the term "planner" the term "architect" has come close to a term of abuse.
The reasons for this remarkable fall from grace have been the subject of much heart searching and debate and it is a matter which, I have no doubt, will provide a rich field for architectural historians. But there is, I believe, already consensus on one point; that is, that architects in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s lost touch with the people and communities they served. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, that architecture came to represent the values of the institution and the bureaucracy rather than the people who would live and work in the buildings they designed.
In the 1960s and 1970s there was a mistaken belief that better building meant more control and more regulation. The variety, complexity and richness of architecture was lost in pursuit of purely mechanical goals of "dimensional co-ordination", prefabrication and standardisation. There was as well an idea that to discard individual preferences and adopt instead common values was somehow improving. The conditions of the planning committee were substituted for the vision of the individual client and the social survey for the view of the man in the street. Indeed, my noble friend Lord St. John of Fawsley and the noble Lords, Lord Gibson and Lord Raglan, said that perhaps it was the building in which I work—the DoE—that epitomises that which is bad. Of course, I have to remind your Lordships that it was none other than the Royal Fine Art Commission which commended the building's light and airy design; and that helped to silence the growing number of critics of the building as it was being erected.
Your Lordships will have noticed that there has emerged in these past few years a very different style of architecture. They will have seen, in the City of London, confidence expressed in some of the most exciting and distinguished buildings to be erected in the City in this century. The new offices in Finsbury Avenue, designed by Arup Associates for Rosehaugh Greycoat estates are a good example and, I believe, set new standards for the design of office buildings. If you walk in the City today you will also find more modest examples of refurbishment and redevelopment which display the same confidence and architectural skill.
That same confidence is seen in our urban development corporations which have fostered a whole new generation of outstanding buildings. Someone has said that a test of fine architecture is that a building attracts people who have no reason to 851 visit it other than that they find it attractive and exciting. Contrary to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, I believe many buildings in London Docklands pass this test with flying colours. A high quality of design plays a part in all of our initiatives to regenerate previously rundown areas of our towns and cities.
Industry, too, has emerged as a patron of much fine architecture. I am delighted to find that there are many in industry who wish to see the success of their companies expressed in the buildings they occupy. The result is industrial buildings of international distinction which maintain what is a very proud tradition in this country. The list is long but I would point, for example, to the Renault Centre at Swindon by Foster Associates, the Greene King brewery at Bury St. Edmunds by Michael Hopkins and the Trebor factory at Colchester by Arup Associates.
Your Lordships will have noticed too that, in the hands of some private housebuilders and housing associations, very different styles of housing have begun to appear in some of our towns, cities and suburbs. Areas which were once the preserve of council housing have been invaded by more attractive houses more closely matched to people's need and preferences and of a richness and variety that has been missing for many years. This applies not only to new housing development but the highly imaginative renovation by private sector housebuilders of some of the most run-down estates.
We have a fine tradition of civic, industrial and domestic architecture in this country. There was a period in the 1960s when, with our eyes set on a brave new world, we lost sight of that tradition. We were deaf to protest when buildings regarded with great affection were torn down. Those who disapproved of the generation of buildings which replaced them, ascetic in style, incomprehensible in the images they presented, were dismissed. Regrettably, our enthusiastic embrace of new technology led us to ignore the unchanging importance of scale, variety and an ability to "grow old gracefully".
I hesitate to embark on a discourse on architectural style. There are noble Lords here very much more expert than I. I do not align myself with the post modernists, the classical revivalists or those who support high-tech. But I welcome the very lively debate about architectural style which is now in progress, and I welcome the fact that this debate is not the preserve of learned societies but extends to the daily newspapers and indeed to any community where a new building is proposed.
The shift in styles which has occurred in these past few years is remarkable. It is certainly not the result of any Government edict nor, I believe, the result of the deliberations of architectural theorists. It is, I believe, a response to overwhelming popular opinion. There is no greater force than public opinion and we need people to speak their mind on developments. I am greatly encouraged to find increasing attention given to the discussion of architecture on television, on radio and in the press.
My noble friend Lord St. John of Fawsley asks what this Government are doing to promote the quality of British architecture. What we have done, 852 and will continue to do, is what my noble friend said governments could do, which is provide opportunities for people to realise their preferences and tastes. We have created confidence in the business community and in industry. We have created a climate in which people are anxious to express their achievements in architectural terms. In our extension of home ownership we have given people freedom of choice which finds expression in attractive new housing developments and the renovation of older houses. Our proposals in the Housing Bill will provide a similar opportunity for those who provide housing for rent to respond to tenants' wishes and to compete to provide better and more attractive homes.
We have in the past few years produced a series of distinguished new public buildings; and here, through the Property Services Agency, the Government have had a direct hand. The PSA seeks to produce a high standard of design through the work of its own architects and in its selection, briefing and management of private consultants who now carry out about 70 per cent. of the total workload. The PSA has an important responsibility as a patron of architecture. As well as employing established practices such as Stirling and Wilford for the Clore Gallery at the Tate, and William Whitfield for Richmond House (as it is now called), the PSA seeks to award 10 per cent. of its commissions to rising young architects. Examples are Kit Allsopp's design for the Northampton Crown Court, which last year won the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition Award, and the new courts in Truro by Shalev and Evans. Over the past year, the PSA has won some 16 major national or international architectural awards.
It is for that reason that I take issue with my noble friend's comments on the work of architects in the Property Services Agency. Perhaps I may add one comment on a development which I am sure he will applaud. That is the refurbishment of Durbar Court in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
We have rolled back regulation and control. The revisions we have made to the building regulations have been well received. Instead of detailed regulations, we have functional requirements supported by guidance which provides new freedoms for architects to exercise their skills. We shall continue to simplify the planning system wherever possible and improve its efficiency. We shall continue to look for opportunities to reduce unnecessary controls.
This Government do not seek to promote better architecture by prescription or control on the assumption that those in Whitehall or the town hall know best. We have been down that road and we have seen where it leads. We believe—there is a wealth of precedent to support the case—that fine architecture can only emerge where people are given the opportunity to exercise choice.
My noble friend Lord St. John of Fawsley and the noble Lords, Lord Gibson and Lord Graham of Edmonton, have referred to the need for more attention to education in architecture and the visual arts in schools. I know that this is a matter which is pursued with great enthusiasm in many schools. My own department has been engaged in funding, with 853 the RIBA, an innovative project to encourage studies in architectural awareness in primary and secondary schools.
Education and increased public awareness provide the basis for enlightened patronage. Given that patronage, I am confident that our architects and builders have the skills to provide the finest buildings we could want. Indeed, the worldwide recognition of British architects is unprecedented, and some of the most distinguished buildings erected in recent years, in Europe and further afield, are of their design.
My noble friend Lord St. John raised the important matter of the refurbishment of the St. Pancras Hotel. I understand my noble friend's concern for the future of this important building. I am sure my noble friend will understand that I cannot comment upon the proposals which are now before the local planning authority. On another development the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, asked to be updated on the situation at Paternoster Square following a question that he raised earlier in the House. Although a number of designs have been prepared for the possible redevelopment of Paternoster Square, no formal application for approval has been made. It would be wrong for me to comment any further at this stage.
I was interested in some of the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Hutchinson of Lullington. I was particularly interested to hear his thoughts on how my right honourable friend could centralise power by taking away decisions from some of the local authorities. He talked about the Thyssen collection. If Baron Thyssen were prepared to consider his collection coming to this country, we would take every care to see that proper provision was made for its accommodation. I take note of the suggestion made by the noble Lord for the future of Somerset House. That would indeed be an exciting prospect.
The noble Lord asked about the choice of consultants for government buildings. The PSA maintains a list of all design consultants who have expressed a wish to work on government projects. Selections are made with great care from this list. He took me back to my days as the Minister with responsibility for prisons. One prison that is often the subject of debate is Holloway Prison. That is a prison which he and the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, know well. I soon found that that prison was designed by a distinguished private practice.
The noble Lord, Lord Gibson, raised the question that has been to the forefront of my mind in the recent past. That is the matter of listing. There can be no one view on the merits of a building or one source of advice. Of course we pay very careful attention to 854 the expert advice of our advisers, English Heritage. We must have regard to the much wider body of opinion. It was the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, who said that an architect does not live in what he designs. One of the properties that I listed recently was a house lived in by its designer, an architect. I merely that this comment from the press, but his remark on hearing the news was that, "it was great fun to hear that in view of all the opposition that he had had from local conservation groups when he designed it". That shows how tastes change. It strengthens the point of the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, when he said that our role as the protector of heritage is indeed a difficult one.
Lord Hutchinson's exposition on Rudats and Cudats was picked up by the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton. I know that these are associated with initiatives in the United States of America. We are not without similar initiatives in this country. I absolutely agree that it is essential that the local community is closely involved in proposals for development. I am pleased that at every level—from the modest local initiatives such as the RIBA's involvement in the Globe Town area of Tower Hamlets, to the major design initiative taken in Birmingham—many people from many disciplines and countries are coming forward to advise on the future of the city schemes. It involves the widest consultation.
I believe that architecture reflects very closely the society in which it is produced. I think that it was Lord Clark who said that if asked to make a judgment about the achievements of society, he would believe the buildings it produced rather than any statement of a government Minister. I urge your Lordships to look about you as you travel around the country, to see the new buildings now emerging from behind the scaffolds and hoardings, and to take heart.