London skyline opinion Sam Jacob

"We've got 99 problems but architecture ain't one"

Opinion: a campaign to protect London's skyline and the UK government's first review into the state of architecture both point to the same thing: Britain's approach to building is broken, says Sam Jacob.

After a year of consultation, the Farrell Review has been published. Commissioned by the Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, communications and creative industries, its brief was to provide a wide ranging review of the role of architecture and the built environment in the UK.

The same week saw the launch of the Skyline campaign backed by the Architect's Journal and The Observer calling for a review of the glassy forest of tall buildings rising up in London right now, for a commission into tall buildings. Of course, all these tall buildings have already sailed through planning – or, as in Convoys Wharf this week, have been waived through by Boris Johnson himself as though he was directing one of his clunky retro-kitsch Routemasters into a parking spot.

Both the Farrell Review and the Skyline campaign point to a self evident truth: there's something wrong with the UK's approach to the built environment. Both talk about that thing they call "design quality" and the general lack of it in the cities around us.

It is absolutely beyond belief how bad so much of British architecture and development is. And the Farrell review is right – this is really remarkable given we have some incredible architectural talent here in the UK. Often though, this talent is building elsewhere. More often, sadly, it's not building at all.

There’s no doubt given the right combination of client and designer we are more than capable of sorting out the niceties of architectural design. All it takes, in the words of the song, is a little more understanding between the two worlds. (If you are a client with aspiration but little knowledge of architects please do give me a call and I can help match you to some fantastic architects.)

The Skyline campaign is right too: some of those towers are right stinkers. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Look around the country and it's frankly shameful what passes for architecture. But those responsible – the architects, clients and planning officers delivering this awful stuff – seem immune from their crimes against humanity and civility. In fact rather than suffering any crippling shame they seem to go from strength to strength.

Why? Because it is not "good" projects that are significant for a career in the built environment, it's evidence of having delivered things with as little pain as possible. And as we know, it's far easier to do something poor to middling than it is to do something good. In other words, hiring and procurement is tipped to actively reward poor to middling work. And, armed with a PR budget, its fairly easy to be artificially hoisted into industry press coverage, seats on panels, win awards and otherwise gloss you with an apparent air of respectability.

The Farrell Review gives us 60 "detailed" recommendations to improve architecture. Amongst them are some very good ones. But with that many recommendations I wouldn't blame Vaizey for walking dizzily away. Whoever heard of the 60 Commandments or the 60 step programme?

So let me re-edit the report. I'll ruthlessly strike out the autobiographic background (why are architects incapable of describing the world without recourse to themselves?), the self promotion of the panels' interests (why can't they leave their own agendas at home for once?) and ruthlessly redline the well-meaning but secondary issues (all fine, but not really key). And I'll underline its main point in neon magenta highlighter.

This Jacob/Farrell Review would start, like Jay-Z almost did: "we've got 99 problems but architecture ain't one."

In other words: it's planning, stupid.

However many "good" buildings we might produce, it's the overall vision that's conspicuously missing from our approach to the built environment. Things won't get better without it.

We don't really have to look that far to see that planning can play a central role in the making of British life.

From the New Towns act in 1946 to Milton Keynes in the 70s, Britain saw an incredible combination of practicality and imagination. It was a bureaucratic and technocratic vision that rolled up its sleeves and got stuff done. It was head-in-the-clouds visionary and down-and-dirty at the same time. It was a very British form of planning.

For this brief period – especially the twenty-year period of the Mark II New Towns – something remarkable happened. It happened not because of architects but because of cross-party support with long-term planning. Because, in other words, of a shared, popular desire. It was powered by the dual fuel of central government and semi-autonomous bodies. Yet remarkably it gave architecture the freedom to develop real visions: from futuristic citadel megastructures to diffuse bucolic re-imaginings of Los Angeles.

Planning was popular and the promise of what peacetime planning might achieve was part of wartime propaganda. It was the central plank of election manifestos. It was the subject of Hayward Art Gallery shows. Special issues of general interest magazines were dedicated to super-experimental ideas about planning.

But the privatisation of planning and architecture post 1979 changed the way we could think about Britain. Depleted of their once legion architectural staff and stripped of their own powers to build, local authorities can now do little more than wait for the private sector to approach them, like the protagonist of a Jane Austin novel at a dance.

Exposed to the fluctuations of short-term politics and markets, the private sector remains risk averse and wedded to tried and tested formulae.

This inevitably results in the piecemeal, fragmented approach that characterises our current approach to the built environment. Rather than thinking, planning became a weird ritualised dance involving alternating and choreographed begging and bullying between the private and public sectors.

Just look – as the Farrell Review does in a surprisingly interesting flow chart – at the history of governmental relationship to architecture. Multi-various ministries and departments have held multi-various briefs in the post-war period. Currently architecture sits, bizarrely, within the ministerial portfolio of Media, Culture and Sport.

It can't be sport or media, so that must mean it's culture. The kind of 'culcha' that you hear about on Radio Four, the kind of culture that you do at the weekends and you list as a hobby on your dating profile. But architecture is only culture in the anthropological sense: as the total sum of a civilisation. Art for sure, but everything else too: economics, society, politics, power.

What's worrying is that even when Britain's visionary planning past is invoked by government or clients it's invoked in a nonsensical way. Just for everyone's attention:

  • A Garden City doesn’t just mean a few more trees.
  • You can't call any old spec housing development a New Town.

Both these terms are specific. They describe real moments of innovative, world leading, creativity and imagination applied to the built environment.

Both Garden Cities and the many flavours of New Town emerged as urgent desires for reform. They arose as responses to the problems of the industrial city and to the destruction of war.

There's little doubt that we are in an equivalent kind of crisis where society is being rapidly reshaped by forces beyond our control. Reading the Farrell Report or the Skyline campaign, it's hard to feel an equivalent sense of urgency despite the daily national coverage of the crisis in our contemporary cities.

The flows and eddies of global capital are having a dramatic effect on the landscape of Britain. This is not an issue about design quality. It involves thinking at a grand, totalising scale and developing that vision into the built reality of a place.

So, a big yes to the Farrell Review's recommendation for a government architect. But what Britain really needs is a minister of spatial planning.

Someone whose brief is to think strategically about the design of the country. To join up the scattered fragments of HS2, Crossrail, Ebbfleet and Thamesmead, airports, tall buildings, taxation of empty properties, windfarms, help to buy and every other large scale scheme and issue that's either on site, on the drawing board or on the horizon.

Even more important, their role would be to establish the narrative within which decisions could be made. A joined up narrative that the entire nation, not just government departments, might be able not just to participate in but get behind and believe in. A vision, a drawing even, of the possible future Britains we could chose to build.

Sam Jacob is principal of Sam Jacob Studio, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association, and edits Strange Harvest.