Sir John Sorrell, chair of CABE
17 November 2009

Now that there is no longer the means for an architecture of wealth, do we have the imagination to create new kinds of places which lift our spirits? Sir John Sorrell explored this topic at an event at Tate Modern on architecture in an age of anxiety, on 16 November 2009.

© iStockphoto/Fred de Bailliencourt


“I doubt if I ever saw one, even the smallest, without some tingling of delight.” These are the first words of my favourite book - `Delight’ by J.B. Priestley.

He wrote it in 1949 – a time of anxiety and austerity – by way of an apology to his family for being such a grumpy old man.  He wanted to say how much the small pleasures of life actually meant to him.  Fountains.  Shopping in small places.  Buying books.  A lovely view.  Over a hundred short chapters about delight.

Sixty years on, for those involved in the world of architecture and the built environment this is another time of anxiety - and for many, austerity. 

However, I wanted to start by talking about delight because I believe we also live at a time of opportunity.

When Vitruvius set the three key principles of architecture, translated by Sir Henry Wotton, he did not stop at commodity and firmness.  His third principle – and for me the most important one - was delight.

Over the last 20 years, public building has improved in Britain. Many more places now are well built, fit for purpose and delight their users.  We should be proud of this.  It is a story which should be better known.

This progress has not really been recognised, partly because the big, high value, glamorous buildings tend to get the headlines. Partly because of an innate tendency for self-denigration in the UK, that we seem unable to shake off.

Now, there is good reason to be anxious. When it comes to construction, you can hear the screeching of brakes.  A third of all the architects in the country are now jobless or without enough work to keep them busy. No one can predict what the economy will look like this time next year.

Beyond and above all this is the unfolding story of climate change, constantly outpacing efforts to predict it.

Architecture articulates what we care about

Architecture, landscape and urban design speak to us about our values as a society. They articulate what we care about.  Faced with a grim new housing estate, or an ugly commercial development, what was really cared about is usually all too clear. A quick planning consent; the fee; pleasing the accountant chief executive, or the fund manager in EC2.  Nothing to do with delight.

Tonight I will draw on what I have learnt from five years at CABE, which sees most of the worst and many of the best architectural schemes. And from what I have learnt as someone who has run a business through the depths of a number of recessions.

I shall try to make the case for new and different values underpinning architecture. I shall look at how architects can help us make the transition to greener cities and more civilised neighbourhoods - provided the profession has sufficient appetite for reinvention. And I shall look at how the art of creating great places could define a new era, epitomised by delight.

Flipping a financial crisis

CABE was 10 this autumn. We decided to use our anniversary to reflect on what the country must do, not just to survive the next ten years, but to thrive. Reverberations from the past can ease the way into the future, so we asked Simon Schama, now Professor of history at Columbia University, about national responses to previous financial crises.  

Simon found strong parallels between our current situation and the financial crisis of 1825. A crash following a speculative building boom. John Nash and Robert Adam had embarked on grand plans for London. You can still see their ambition when you walk up Regent Street.

Then, in 1825, banks went down like ninepins. There was terror in the finance markets.

What struck Schama was the nature of the rethink that then took place, a shift in values. Public sector investment continued, but in a different direction. Cholera was starting to hit. So to avert an epidemic, money was diverted into building sewers. Money was also diverted into better gas lighting, and into the creation of new streets in deprived rookeries across London.

But Schama argued that the scheme which best reflects that shift in values is Hampstead Heath. It was about to be sold by its gentleman owner for housing. A campaign to save it began in the late 1820s, led by Coleridge. The campaign took decades but eventually of course the Heath was declared fully public property.

So the ‘lungs of London’ were created at a time of crisis. When you are next strolling across the Heath on a Sunday, think about how close it came to being built over. Think about what would have been lost, if a financial crisis hadn’t been flipped into something else.  

I was born in 1945 during an air raid, and grew up on a working class council estate. It wasn’t abject poverty but there was certainly no spare money. When I was 14, one year before I was going to leave school, my art teacher suggested Saturday morning classes at Hornsey College of Art. When I turned up to my first class, I’d never even been in an art gallery. But I knew within half an hour this is what I wanted to do. At 16 I started at the college full time, and I started my own business when I was 19.

Other people had a similar experience. Peter Blake went to Gravesend Technical College. My wife Frances, then Frances Newell, also went to Saturday morning art classes in the 60s. It was part of a government policy to select kids who might benefit. It’s an idea which still has some mileage, because there is nothing whimsical about it.

A time for revolutions, not for patching

We were unknowingly part of a hard-nosed calculation about the value of culture and art to the nation. The government was determined to meet the promise it had made - that life after the war would be better than before. And as Beveridge had observed in 1942:  “a revolutionary moment is a time for revolutions, not for patching”.

That meant investing in culture alongside the welfare state and the NHS. Economist Maynard Keynes was instrumental in establishing the Arts Council. The Edinburgh Festival started in 1947.

It was not only food and petrol that were rationed during the war - art had been rationed, too. From 1941, a Painting of the Month was on display in the National Gallery. Each picture was driven up from Wales: our national art collection was stored in a slate quarry. People queued round the block to look at a picture.

I was conceived at same time as the Design Council – originally called the Council of Industrial Design - which eventually I went on to chair. The War Cabinet discussed setting it up in 1944. It showed faith in the ability of design to solve mighty problems in extraordinary times.

That appetite continued with the Festival of Britain in 1951 – the national exhibition to promote better quality design when British towns and cities were being rebuilt.

All this at a time of continued rationing, of course. Perhaps the classic age of austerity.

What of more recent times? The idea of Tate Modern was first mooted in the last recession, in 1992: a pioneer of the idea of re-using old industrial buildings. From Salford to Gateshead, the cultural regeneration led by projects like the Lowry and the Baltic has helped to fashion the identity, the global reputation of Britain.  

And we need to remember what a bold move that was at a time when most city centres felt hollowed out.

"The city where your dreaming is repaid"

Rachel Cooke described the Sheffield of that time nicely in The Observer recently: “The city centre was unimaginably bleak. Hardly anyone lived there. It was where you went to buy cheap shoes and Thorntons toffee. Then you went home again, on the bus, for the miraculous price of 2p.”

I was back in Sheffield not long ago myself, and walked up to the city centre from the station. You pass a poem on the wall of Hallam University, a hundred feet high, by Andrew Motion. It’s called ‘What If?...’ and I liked his line: “The city where your dreaming is repaid”. Fifteen years ago, this would have sounded foolhardy. Now, even though Sheffield is having to square up to recession, it feels convincing.

That has a lot to do with the way that the council has invested in its urban landscape, and re-designed those blackened streets into somewhere you want to be, not just drive through. A place to spend time, not just money.

They have invested to make the place beautiful - and once places are beautiful, they come alive. Within the council chamber you can hear the sound of children playing outside in the summer, running through the fountains of their new Peace Gardens.

A moment of delight.

The urban renaissance - unfinished business

You won’t find this kind of transformation everywhere, of course. The urban renaissance is unfinished business. Ordinary places like Telford, Margate, Runcorn and Widnes have still not recovered from that last recession. They have been nourished less well, and less wisely.

Take Stoke on Trent, for instance. In the early 1990s, it had the worst unemployment in the country outside Cornwall. “Regeneration” came in the form of out-of-town retail sheds and distribution centres.  

In part, the foundations for Stoke’s current problems lie back in the industrial revolution. The six small towns which make up Stoke grew up haphazardly, to provide investors with a good return on ceramics and minerals. Those investors weren’t bothered about urban design, or creating a civic heart for the city. And 20 years of regeneration policy has failed to address this fundamental weakness.

This kind of place will struggle to prosper in a low carbon world.

Yet people there care about where they live, just like everyone else. The latest market research shows that 87 per cent of people believe better quality buildings and public spaces improve their lives.

And it makes no difference what you vote. Or at least just a couple of percent! 98 per cent of people who intend to vote Conservative have an interest in what buildings, streets, parks and public spaces look or feel like to use. This compares with 96 per cent of people who said they would vote Labour - and 97 per cent who said they would vote for other parties.

So we can be confident that people want good architecture. This is not some elitist concern. People know that a well-designed place makes their life better, easier, dare I say it, more delightful.  

The question is, where now?  What kind of architecture do we need in an age of anxiety? There will always be room for iconic buildings which can become much loved landmarks.  But we need buildings I think of as ‘local heroes’.

By this I do not mean homespun, but locally rooted - or contextual – buildings, which capture and express the identity of the place they serve. And express that in a distinctive way, that leaves every opportunity for an extraordinary, contemporary idea.

Architects have been the servants of poor quality development

And for this, we need architects to have a different attitude. For too long, architects have been the servants of poor quality development. Now we need architects with the confidence to challenge the client and influence the brief. Architects who will resign a job which is destined to create a bad building. It may seem strange to talk of architects resigning jobs in the current climate. But architecture now needs to be underpinned by different values.

I’d like to see a new generation of architects self-evidently ambitious for the everyday. The practice of Bauman Lyons has built its office in one of the most deprived parts of Leeds, and will only take on work less than two hours’ commute away. 

Capturing the spirit of a place

A growing number of small practices emphasise a ‘new modesty’, stitching places back together, seeing architecture as part of the layering of the city rather than its transformation. Capturing the spirit of a place by using the assets already there. That strikes me as a smart way to conceive architecture in an age of austerity.

This contextual architecture should become a new contemporary movement. It will be largely new to us in Britain. And emerge hand in glove with another by-word for these times: localism.

I have no argument with the emerging consensus that seeks to shift power back to local people. But they need to be informed to be able to make informed choices. How do we do this?

Challenge the profession

If more control flows to a local housing trust, for instance, then the role of local architects becomes more critical in guiding, creating, and mentoring high quality designs. This will challenge the profession much more than it yet realises. In my experience, on the whole, there is not the right level of skill among many architects at a local level to create first class, functional, affordable, beautiful places.

That is partly why we need public interest organisations to mediate local debate, to champion architecture, not just architects, and make very clear the costs of bad design.

The challenge of creating places to serve the 21st century will also demand a different mix of skills.  Architects need to conquer their age-old failings as project managers. The profession is stacked full of wonderful lateral thinkers. It attracts a never-ending stream of young, inventive talent. Just look at the pavilions commissioned each year in Bedford Square by the Architectural Association.

But delivering a delightful project which will adapt well to climate change, within a budget your client can afford, means fusing new disciplines. That requirement isn’t new. Patrick Geddes, seen by some as the grandfather of town planning, was part planner, part botanist. But it has been lost. And we now need a new generation of architects who can mix art and science, who can manage and deliver as well as design a project, and who offer us more than just artistic direction. It is a new world before us.

So what kind of places might emerge from an architecture underpinned by different values and different skills? Let’s look at a few examples.

South Gate, Totnes is a delightful housing scheme achieved by the architects working closely with the community. Distinctive contextual design, belonging to that place.

In Lace Market square, Nottingham, the tree sculpture’s intricate lace pattern reflects the lace making heritage of the city.

In West Wing, Barts, patients love the artworks: “The lights get brighter as it gets darker outside – warming colours on a winter’s afternoon.”

Crawley Library uses sculptural signage on dried, cracked pillars of green oak. I love the use of English Gothic font for Dracula in the horror section.

Marlowe Academy. in a deeply deprived area of Ramsgate. The old school had terrible GCSE results and high staff turnover. Now with a new building, enrolment is up by a third; and staffing by 40 per cent.  Last year 19 students went on to university - unimaginable before.

Castleford footbridge, in a former mining town. A scheme pushed for by local people who wanted somewhere disabled miners could go, for delight.

These places lift my spirits. A mix of the useful, the stylish, and the smart. But if there are reasons to be cheerful, there are also some obvious causes for concern. I will give you two here.

Working in the shadow of the axe

One of our greatest problems is not just the lack of cash, or the state of public finance. It's the culture and the norms that might prevail once we finally pull out of the recession.

You can sense the financial sector feels things are getting back to normal.  But it’s not business as usual for the public sector. Whoever is in power, we are entering a period of very harsh spending cuts which could undermine education, healthcare and culture.

There is almost glee in some quarters at the prospect of the public sector taking the pain for a crisis caused by the banking system. Yet we are talking about key funding programmes with the capacity, for example, to change the fabric of our schools for generations. This is what is at risk. There is mounting pressure to cut quality, even cut out design altogether. We have to stand up to this. We have to find the courage, use the evidence and make the argument.

A study during 2007 on the value of urban design showed that better design increased economic, social and environmental returns, adding up to 20% in rental and capital values. Good solid evidence that even the Treasury might buy. The same research was run again this year to reflect the impact of the recession, and what it revealed was intense pressure on developers to reduce specification costs, and value engineer out aspects such as landscape design which have somehow - despite climate change - become optional. 

Take the High Line, Manhattan’s new park. For 23 years it lay derelict. It opened this summer and is already proving the economic muscle of beautiful green places. There is real estate frenzy along that 22 block ribbon. The Whitney Museum of American Art is building its downtown venue directly underneath the High Line.

The case for investment

The case for investment in the built environment is surely well enough rehearsed by now. Towns and cities are the engine of the economy. Good design will increase that capacity. 

It would be a profligate waste to cut just as we are beginning to see a huge improvement in what gets built by public clients. Take the Westminster Academy, setting high standards in a gritty location dominated by the Westway flyover. It is a civic landmark: local people are proud of that building. Or the Michael Tippett School, the special education needs school in Lambeth. It would be madness to dissipate the investment and progress that has been made.

Localism for me must also mean support for people working in public sector organisations and in local government. Not blaming them for the financial mess we are in. And certainly not demonising the very public servants who will need to deliver these cuts, and who we need to do that job with great skill and shrewdness.

The idea of an ‘easyJet’ approach

The simple old equation that private sector services are good and public sector services are bad flies in the face of most evidence. Yet public service reformers remain animated by a desire to follow private sector examples. Politicians from both parties are hailing the idea of an ‘easyJet’ approach for local authority services. This no-frills approach to council services is being pioneered in Barnet - which has moved its council offices to the NorthLondon Business Park. No-frills means a basic level of service with extras available to those prepared to pay more.

Modelling yourself on a low cost airline suggests to me the loss of a sense of greater purpose.

Imagine if easyCouncil had been a Victorian vision. Mancunians would possibly have got a clean water supply, but never Manchester Town Hall.  

If the Town Hall had not been built, as a symbol of the city’s pride, would Manchester have led the industrial revolution? Would it be as ambitious now in leading a green revolution? I think not. (And by the way, the building of that Town Hall was championed by the mayor at a time when cotton famine in India had devastated the city’s economy).

The lessons from previous financial crises have shown what a visionary approach can achieve. We know even more now about how well-designed and maintained places attract inward investment.

Stripping out budgets for management and maintenance leads to shabbier, dirtier places. It lowers sights to a point where a gulf develops between the best and the worst places. It creates places of private wealth and public squalor.

During tough economic times, we need decent, civilised places as a safeguard against social breakdown, against isolation and loneliness. Places to build trust, friendly places to hang out and feel safe, places to meet people.

But the idea that we’re getting back to business as usual is not limited to the financial sector.

An unreconstructed development model

You might have expected a radical rethink in the construction industry on the back of the credit crunch. Far from it. What we see is a determination to return as fast as possible to an entirely unreconstructed development model.

CABE reviews the designs proposed for around 350 schemes each year. If these get through planning, they are built over the following five to ten years. It’s rather like holding a crystal ball. You see what the future could look like. It helped CABE raise the alarm, for instance, when only a handful of schemes were taking sustainability seriously a couple of years ago.

When we look in that crystal ball today, another spectre looms. A lot of development, especially during the last construction boom, has been retail-led. Now you can see this trend moving up to another level.

On Merseyside, for instance, a new stadium for the St Helens Rugby League Club should be good news. The local authority is desperate for this stadium to be built. So desperate, they are failing to demand decent design. When the Tesco’s there is replaced with a superstore and massive new car park, it will dominate a site which relegates the stadium round the back, with lousy public space. Despite CABE’s analysis and recommendations, even the Government Office has refused to intervene.

The opposite of localism

Retailers don’t just want to build a new supermarket nowadays. They want to redevelop town centres, with housing and shopping streets. Our concern is not only the quality of this kind of development – which is generally very poor – but the way in which architecture and places are created in the image of the retailer. For me, it represents the opposite of localism.

Coming back to Barnet, both Asda and Tesco are pushing weak schemes here against strong local opposition. They want them located next to the existing Sainsbury’s. The Asda scheme fails on every level: it’s car focussed and architecturally confused with poor housing tacked on.

A couple of weeks ago I was shown another proposal (not in Barnet), about to get planning permission, for a supermarket with housing above it. Because the retailer will not allow front doors off the street, residents will have to enter their flats round the back, by the railway line. In other schemes, you walk through the delivery yard to your front door. 

But I think that residential development above cavernous retail units raises an even more serious issue. These units will be redundant long before the homes built on top of them. Then what will happen?

I see how supermarkets pile the pressure on the local planning team, making the case for their schemes. But we have to look at the long term impacts. And as a designer and a businessman, I think it would be perfectly possible for supermarkets to work to an alternative development model.

Stop building standard stores

The supermarkets should be required to respond to localism, for instance, in the same way that architects themselves must respond. They must be challenged to try new things and stop building standard stores. Localism, not tokenism - the wind turbine, the pastiche design, a few shelves for local produce.

The truth is that supermarkets are now drivers of urban growth. They are makers of our urban fabric. They dangle the prize of economic growth before the eyes of local authorities who are judged by the Treasury on their ability to deliver gross value added.

Some essential thinking needed

Tesco has 350,000 employees nationwide. Sainsburys just announced a profit of £252 million for the first half of this financial year. Every council feels the pressure to secure a few of those jobs and a bit of that growth.

I am not making a point for or against supermarkets per se. What I am saying is that we must engage in some essential thinking about how they are shaping our built environment.  Well-designed retail-led development could contribute to local prosperity, instead of undermining it.  But this will only happen if the public sector takes the reins.

We need more local councils to set out a prospectus for the place they govern. Explain what makes it special. Tell the story of the place and what they want its future to be. And any development proposal that fails to respond should not get built.

This is not a time for patching. Just as happened in 1825 and after the war, we need to change direction in favour of the public good. And this is where I would start.

Catalyse a movement to green our towns and cities

First, with the Olympic Park. One of the largest new urban parks in Europe for 150 years. We have a chance here to create a Hampstead Heath for the East End of London.  It will send a powerful message about contemporary British values. These Games will reflect what we care about as a nation.

So the 2012 Olympics should not be in any sense an iconic spectacular, like Beijing, but catalyse a movement to green our towns and cities. This is something we should do supremely well. Britain has an unrivalled history of garden design at the heart of great placemaking.

The creation of a green infrastructure – a network of green spaces, trees, green roofs and waterways - is not only a technical exercise for climate change adaptation. It is about designing and creating civilised places.

This is about us learning again to create cities within gardens, not just gardens in cities.  The Olympic Park should reframe London. And other British cities should follow suit, fusing the organic and built environments in a way that most people in this country haven’t had the privilege to enjoy for centuries.

Just look at Barking Town Square, an award-winning public space. Its brand new arboretum is a delightful, playful new feature in a high density development.  

So my first point is that the 2012 Olympics should catalyse a movement to green our towns and cities.

Empty spaces, temporary uses

Second, when times are tough, designers identify and exploit empty spaces.

Today it is not old industrial buildings which lie empty, but vast sites earmarked for retail development. In Bradford there’s a hole in the ground where Westfield had proposed a 23 acre shopping scheme. In Preston, Grosvenor has pulled out of the proposed Tithebarn development.

Some of these kind of sites are already being transformed.  'Wonderwood' has sprouted in Holbeck in Leeds with a temporary public art installation.  And elsewhere in Leeds, MEPC is not just boarding up its 22 acre Wellington Place site while it waits for market conditions to improve. Instead it is spending £1m to create a park. There'll be an urban beach, a five-a-side football pitch and vegetable plots.

In the City of London, there are plans for stalled or vacant building sites to be used for allotments. In nearby Islington, allotments are in such demand you now have to join a 25 year long waiting list.

Berlin, a city which was bankrupt, is one of the most culturally exciting places in Europe today. It was empty warehouses that kickstarted Manchester’s renaissance in the early 1990s, providing the spaces for the fledgling music industry and Madchester scene.

So my second point is that there has never been a more important time for imaginative uses to be found for empty spaces.

The art of public building

Third, I would use the quality of public building as a springboard for the future. Even the quickest review of public buildings over the last decade reveals a shift in value and utility. I would go so far as to say that the art of public building has been refound.

Is this just wishful thinking? No. Let me whisk you through a handful of the great public building projects completed over the past decade. These are not incredibly expensive buildings, or extravagant places.

The Roundhouse, in Chalk Farm; St Pancras; Burscough Bridge in Lancashire; Newlyn  Art Gallery; Chimney Pot Park in Salford; Northala Fields in Ealing; the Langley Academy in Slough;  Manchester Civil Justice Centre; and the redesigned Oxford Circus.

I think it is interesting that last year the Stirling Prize went to Accordia, a housing development, narrowly pipping the Westminster Academy, and to the Maggie’s Centre this year, narrowly pipping another healthcare building, the Kentish Town Health Centre.

Although this Health Centre didn’t win in the end, for me it is the perfect example of a local public building that can help to change people’s lives.

So though this transformation is not complete by any stretch of the imagination, this is why my third point is about using the quality of public building as a springboard for the future. Because we have reached a tipping point.

Don't shred capital investment

Of course, public money is in short supply. But don’t shred capital investment in our schools now. I can tell you that school design is getting better all the time.

And there are young people still going to school in buildings that will make you squirm.

Though the budget may shrink, we must keep on investing in the school estate. And don’t imagine that refurbishment and make-overs will solve all the problems. We still need to be investing in new build schools.

We also need to apply what we know from schools to healthcare buildings. I do not think it’s wise, for instance, to have an investment programme like the NHS Local Improvement Finance Trust aiming to produce health care buildings without any assurance of design quality.  And now we have ‘Express LIFT’ which - as you may have guessed - gets the job done a whole lot quicker but with no design work at all undertaken by the PCT or bidders.

Even the biggest fans of Kentish Town Health Centre would hate it to be the best healthcare building of the 21st century.

We know about the galvanising impact of minimum design standards. They need to be applied across all our public building programmes. This is not about regulation or red tape. It’s about you and me as taxpayers getting value for money; and the delivery of public services in a place full of delight.

In conclusion

I believe that great architecture is about our quality of life.  It is about buildings and places that combine utility, longevity and delight. All three. The Royal Festival Hall, for instance, encapsulated the optimism of the 1950s, and it is a public building that delights us all just as much today.

We are very clearly at a turning point. There are choices to be made. 

I think the financial crisis of 1825 is instructive. It suggests to me that one of our primary concerns should be to avoid a return to business as usual and the development norms that prevailed two years ago.

But the baby must not be thrown out with the bathwater. I am fortunate to spend quite a lot of time in Somerset House, where my education Foundation is based now. In the late 90s it was a car park – now it is a delightful public space (with fountains, of course).

Design and beauty are beginning to infuse the popular imagination in this country once more, and we must build on the progress made with public building, and not squander the investment already made.

I have argued tonight for a change of direction and a shift in attitude and values. And for a public sector epitomised by strength of character and sticking to what you believe in: values that CABE holds dear.

So this is a call for more exuberance, not less.

I know that architects are optimists. And architecture is about problem solving. It is also about reappraisal. Something the profession must consider for itself, if it wants to lead us out of an age of anxiety, into an era of delight.