Pieces of eight
12 August 2007
Paul Finch OBE, one of CABE's founding commissioners, looks back at eight years of working and how CABE has changed.
Paul Finch OBE, one of CABE's founding commissioners, has just stepped down. We asked him to look back at his eight years of working and at how CABE has changed
After nearly eight years, three locations and hundreds of design reviews, it will feel strange to be leaving Cabeworld. Well not entirely leaving - I will carry on chairing the joint CABE/Design for London Olympics design review panel - but there is an awful lot of white space in my diary for the rest of the year.
Looking back over those eight years is reminder of how much CABE has changed: in terms of size and scale of activity, it is barely recognisable compared with 1999. We started with a tiny staff in the grand surroundings of St James's Square, with the shade of the Royal Fine Art Commission hanging heavily over us. That had its upside, particularly in the form of the director of design review, Peter Stewart, who guided me through this arcane new world. CABE had a long honeymoon period with the media and with our 'customers', who soon expanded to include not just supplicants for CABE design review approval, but organisations eager to take up the enabling offer which has been a crucial part of CABE's development.
The introduction of the CABE Space programme, with a concomitant increase in staff and funding, marked a step change for CABE in terms of size, funding and responsibility. We could no longer pretend to be a small tight organisation barely able to muster a softball team. The expansion to more than 100 staff still seems pretty incredible from the perspective of St James's Square, but the active teams which make up the total still seem to me to be working in that original CABE spirit.
Of course CABE's internal life is only really important in respect of its external consequences. Measuring the effect of CABE's activities is not a simple matter, though perhaps we should make more of the constructive impact of enabling and design review programmes on those parts of the built environment we have dealt with. We have stopped a number of bad large projects in their tracks, but having done so do not talk about them since the clients and designers subsequently produced better proposals we were happy to support.
From a personal viewpoint I think the overall standard of proposals we see has risen in respect of shopping centres, offices and attitudes to energy; it would be foolish to suggest that we do not continue to see far too many mediocre proposals, especially in respect of housing estates and (regrettably) public buildings such as schools and hospitals. The task, as far as design review is concerned, is never over.
CABE has responsibility without power (better that way round). That is the proper condition for an advisory body, even one that is proactive; as an adviser to government, CABE has a specific public interest remit which gives its advice added significance, which I believe is why various government departments have been keen to use our expertise or to take our advice. This has always been offered in a spirit of constructive engagement, with enthusiasm, with conviction, and in a spirit of the 'frank friend'. CABE is no place for the cynical, the world-weary or the defeatist.
I leave CABE certain that commissioners and staff have both the relish and the expertise for the tasks ahead, not least the schools design review programme. Excellent new commissioners will soon be joining the team, which includes not just staff, but the host of reviewers and enablers across the country who have made CABE such a networked player in the built environment game. Long may it last.