Civic duty – what happened to public sector architecture?

15 July 2014

National planning and collective action once dominated the mood in UK architecture. Today, just 2% of architects work in the public sector. Why did this happen and what impact did it have on the built environment? Philip Kleinfeld finds out.

Travel to Croydon, a commuter suburb in south London and the last thing you'd expect to find is a team of young enthusiastic architects and planners.

Banal, cultureless, brutal - it's a place that has suffered almost permanent derision since a brief planning quirk in the '60s transformed it into a dumping ground for real-estate capital.

The result is an odd, jarring urban landscape - part international city, part Victorian market town, a "mini-Manhattan" stuffed full of office blocks on pilotis and big concrete flyovers. Not a place, in short, for a generation of graduates supposedly swung by the fizz and pop of private practice.

But, appearances can be deceptive. East Croydon's tower blocks may be worn-looking, but its planning staff and urban design team are some of the most progressive in the country - cajoling developers into understanding Croydon's context, producing master plans for the centre and undoing the most destructive parts of the '60s "boom".

In fact, the real oddity with Croydon is not that architects and designers happen to work in a suburb stigmatised for hopeless sitcoms and crime stats, but that they work in the public sector at all.

In the UK today, just 2% of architects work for the state, a staggeringly low figure given that the public sector remains responsible for more than 40% of the country's total construction output. At a time of local authority budget cuts, and empowered private development, this lack of design expertise is having a major impact on the way the UK looks and where its population gets to live.

Past generations

It wasn't always this way. After the Second World War, a housing crisis and crumbling urban fabric meant local authorities were bursting with talented, idealistic and often faceless architects, devoted to making a different, fairer society.

It was in London City Council's architecture office (LCC) that many of these ideas were shaped and distilled. The LCC was a hotbed of intellectual ideas at the time, with fierce debates between competing modernist ideologies - the mild neo-vernacular, Scandinavian-influenced modernism of the early new towns and the much harder, flasher, Corbusian brutalism.

"The real oddity with Croydon is not that architects and designers happen to work in a suburb stigmatised for hopeless sitcoms and crime stats, but that they work in the public sector at all."

From the monumental Alton West estate in south-west London to the much softer modernist Royal Festival Hall - opened as part of the Festival of Britain - public servants built some of the UK's most remarkable buildings.

"It was an idealistic time," says Elain Harwood, an architectural historian with English Heritage. "A call to arms according to Colin St John Wilson - the architect of the British library. They were people that wanted to make a better Britain."

Camden Council's work in the '60s is a particularly interesting example of what this kind of experimental, committed public housing could produce. Neave Brown's Alexandra Road Estate, with its stepped, low-rise concrete and long winding terraces, is about as far as you can get from the grim pre-fabricated tower blocks that have come to dominate popular perceptions of post-war UK architecture.

And yet, that legacy - of faceless bureaucrats tearing down the UK's Georgian streets in the name of some alienating utopia of walkways, monolithic towers and Municipal Flat Block As- is the one that tends to endure.

Some of it is deserved. Quite a lot of what the state produced in the post-war period was bad. It's hard to believe today, but during the '60s and '70s, public housing in the UK had full cross-party support. Conservative and Labour Governments built fast and cheap without the conviction in quality that Aneuran Beven had laid out in the '40s.

The collapse of Ronan Point, a system-built east London tower block in 1968 was like Pruigg Igoe without the dynamite. The accident stemmed from a volume housing builder, but it became a symbol of the public's general disaffection with UK modernism.

Rallying cry

It's hard to gauge how far these ideas have changed the way today's architects think about the public sector. You only have to think back to last year to hear former Urban Splash employee Nick Johnson railing against the evils of the imaginary borough architect: "I would no more trust a local authority to design me a house than I would a local authority hairdresser to cut my hair," he said.

Even Terry Farrell, whose mid-60s Blackwall Tunnel air vents are about as concrete as it gets, dismissed the country's least favourite architectural style as "a freak of historical interest".

Combining a narrative of architectural failure with a view of the state as limp, bureaucratic and managerial, hardly encourages a career in public service. Just ask Vincent Lacovara, who joined Croydon Council as an urban designer after graduating from the Royal College of Arts.

"When I told my peer group that I'd applied for a job at Croydon Council, they thought I'd gone mad," he says. "It was a common attitude in the group I studied with. Broadly speaking, people aspired to either set up their own practice or get a job with a well-regarded design practice and be able to be involved in working for someone respected in the industry."

His former colleague Finn Williams, who worked for OMA in Rotterdam from 2004 to 2005 and now works at the Greater London Authority, agrees: "Going into public service is too often seen as a last resort," he said in a submission to the Farrell Review, the UK's latest attempt to solve its increasingly awful built environment. "[It's] an admission of failure as a designer... an abandonment of ambition and creativity."

Private matter

If the "small-government" right edged the ideological battle with post-war social democracy, the economic one was a rout. Key members of the architectural establishment - Leslie Martin, Stirrat Johnson-Marshall, Richard Llewlyn Davis and Robert Matthew - had already abandoned the LCC for private practices back in the '60s. But, it was Thatcher's administration that did the real damage.

Nicholas Ridley, a hard-line monetarist, created "enterprise zones" outside of local government control as part of an assault on local planning. House-building was stopped altogether, and local authority architecture and urban planning departments became obsolete overnight.

"It was a new kind of configuration," says Mike Edwards, emeritus professor of planning at UCL's Bartlett School. "The gradual and then rapid dominance of a kind of neoliberal market-oriented ideology in which private enterprise is assumed to be somehow better than public, which are run down and extinguished. The old ambitions to go and work on new towns or social housing or public libraries or schools, became much less substantial in economic terms and less appealing professionally."

Under the new model, responsibility for development and regeneration was devolved to the private sector, with the complex work of aesthetics, place and history moved to the judgment of commercial forces. Local planners became peripheral actors simply waiting for the private sector to approach them "like the protagonist of a Jane Austin novel at a dance," FAT's Sam Jabob said in Dezeen in May.

It's impossible to find an aesthetic style that adequately illustrates the changes of this period, but some clear signs are available.

Owen Hatherley, author of the New Ruins of Great Britain has tirelessly documented the proliferation of cheaply built, unaffordable flats "offset" by a roulette wheel of phony facades. For all the talk of luxury and icon, the UK now has the smallest new houses in Europe - much of it with neither the quality or social utility that a big chunk of architecture produced or commissioned by the state had before and after 1945.

The Farrell Review's acceptance that something has gone wrong with the UK's built environment is certainly a step in the right direction. The country has a largely merited reputation for strong, eclectic private practices and architectural expertise, and yet their impact on, and authority over, urban space remains negligible - 80-90% of new house building is in the hands of a small clique of house-building firms with little interest in design beyond triple garages and pitched roofs.

Replacing the current system of reactive development control with proactive planning - something Croydon Council is known for doing well and the Farrell Review has recommended - is certainly welcome.

But, the coalitions most recent set of reforms - the National Planning Policy Framework and the 2011 Localism Act - goes in totally the opposite direction, removing some of the few mechanisms of control planners actually have to restrain developers. The government's commitment to building firms and development interests, combined with a 58% cut on local authority planning budgets make the Farrell Review's recommendations, progressive or not, look like window dressing.

Private vs public

It's hard to imagine what role architects and design-minded people can play in a policy context that militates against them. One might expect, given the UK's accelerating housing crisis, a sudden programme of energetic public-sector house building to kick in. But, with centre-left and centre-right wedded to the idea that the private sector will build if planning regulations are sufficiently relaxed, that hardly seems unlikely

And yet, what's happening at Croydon Council suggests there is still a point. Even without a change in policy direction or an improbable return to the white heat of the '50s there is, it seems, still value in reversing the depletion of public-sector architectural expertise.

"It’s hard to imagine what role architects and design-minded people can play in a policy context that militates against them."

"Where there is a strong planning department, for example at Croydon Council, it is possible to secure excellent design with or even despite the current policy framework," Williams has said.

What Lacovara and Williams have done at Croydon is respond to the present conditions to the best of their abilities, using the skills they have as architects and planners to influence decisions at a local level. Whether this means directly building social housing, schools and public buildings, or simply using design skills to stop the unrelenting drabness of so much urban space, their work remains deeply important for local communities. Croydon is undergoing major changes with a £50-million improvement programme targeting transport infrastructure and the public realm. Having people with design skills influence these changes is crucial.

"I'm actually open-minded about the necessity of architects designing buildings directly within local authorities," Lacovara says. "What I do think, is that we should have more people with design training working in local government and the civil service, using the skills architects have in synthesising complex information and joining dots between different subject matters."

New radicals

As long as the political class is wedded to the interests of business, promoting economic growth through urban accumulation, there is little hope of any major change in urban policy.

But outside the old boys' network, signs of change are emerging. A new group of planning radicals led by Finn Williams under the name NOVUS has recently sprung up to revive the radical, egalitarian side of planning they believe has vanished.

Add to that a whole generation of students that are, according to Lacovara, more "civically minded" than previous ones. It may be a long way from the social-democratic energy of the post-war years, but as Croydon Council indicates, the glamour and fizz of private practice isn't the only thing motivating today's architects.

The view from Taberner House – Croydon Council’s former office.
Neave Brown’s Alexandra Road Estate.
Vincent Lacovara leads a discussion at a public event.
Bush Fair Shopping Centre Harlow, Essex.

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.