Practicality not enemy of art in architecture

October 6, 1995

Your report on Professor Monk's architectural course at Luton (THES, September 22) has a surprisingly philistine ring.

It is also gratuitously insulting to Richard Rogers and Norman Foster in suggesting that their example is irrelevant to an architectural course. All teachers of architecture are aware that few, if any, pupils will reach such heights, as those who teach physics hardly expect a class of Einsteins, but that is no reason to cancel all aspiration to be an Einstein, or to omit Einstein from the course. We do not produce "mainstream" physicists who do not bother with general relativity. Foster and Rogers are not part of an irrelevant artistic elite, they are simply among the best at the job.

Teachers of architecture are also well aware of the changes that have taken place in procurement and management, but 15 years of design-build has not produced an inspiring body of work. The reason is clear enough: the tail wags the dog. With cheapness and speed of construction as priorities, repetition is the order of the day. The same buildings pop up from Penzance to Aberdeen, for schools, hospitals, offices, whatever. The style is now brick-clad with a low slate roof, but the underlying principle is that of the system-built tower blocks of the 1960s. It erodes both the local sense of place and the identifiability of institutions. We should remember each time we build that we have duties not only to clients and investors, but to users, neighbours and the surrounding culture.

We spend less on our buildings than most other countries in Europe, not because we are poorer, but because we give architecture less priority. We are not so mean with other things - who automatically buys the cheapest pair of shoes in the shop?

If we want good architecture, buildings need to be specific to place and purpose. They will necessarily be more expensive and take longer to design, but we will end up with a better environment. Architectural students should certainly learn about construction techniques and production processes - they do at Sheffield - but not at the expense of cultural aspects. We should be suspicious of schemes which oppose art in the name of practicality, and we should ask searching questions about how the latter is defined.

Peter Blundell Jones

Professor of architecture

University of Sheffield

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