The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Journal has just announced the results of a poll to find the best British designed building of the last 175 years. You can take the results at face value if you like but the interest for me is in looking at what the whole exercise says about the relationship between architects and the rest of us.
The format for deciding the winner was like that for Britain’s Got Talent – a combination of votes by a panel of judges and ‘the public’. Now, when RIBA Journal says ‘the public’, it obviously means people who read RIBA Journal and others who have an interest in architecture. Writing in the Sunday Times over the weekend, the Journal’s editor Hugh Pearman expressed that he was pleasantly surprised that the choice of the overall winner – Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art – flew in the face of widespread public distaste for modernism. He made reference to the ongoing tension between the architectural community and Prince Charles about our appetite for modernist buildings.
I thought Hugh Pearman’s comments did achieve some sort of balance but there are issues with the whole exercise. The first is that this is not a public vote (natch) so it doesn’t really tell us anything about where most people stand on the modernist vs. traditionalist debate. Secondly, it highlights an underlying widespread feeling amongst architects that the rest of us should keep our opinions to ourselves because we don’t know what we’re on about.
And finally, as Pearman almost acknowledges, the underlying problem is not really a question of taste or comprehension of any school of thought; it is that the majority of buildings of whatever type range from mediocre to poor, with relatively few successes.