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Architecture on the Bookstalls


Giles Worsley

Architecture may be all around us, it may be the only one of the arts that we cannot avoid,, but despite this the British find architecture difficult. Even the educated middle classes who flock to exhibitions on Cezanne and have informed opinions on the work of Anthony Gormley react nervously to architecture. Perhaps it is the difficulty of dealing with constructions of such three-dimensional complexity , perhaps it is the realization that you need to have some grasp of architectural language or syntax to understand a building. Whatever the reason,, there is little intelligent general discussion about architecture in this country.

Good architecture cannot be created in a vacuum. A successful building requires a skilled architect working to a considered brief for an intelligent client. The same is true on a national scale. In the broadest sense, the nation acts as patron for the architectural profession. Without an informed climate of opinion, architects are inevitably working in a vacuum, perhaps creating the occasional masterpiece, but having little chance to create a culture of good building.

That is what has happened in this country. For too long architecture was seen as an arcane art to be left to architects and architectural historians. Those without a professional interest were left to grumble on the sidelines, disconsolately reviling new building and regretting the familiar sights they had replaced. Ordinary people had no voice and, it was assumed, no particular interest. The result was marked alienation between the architectural and planning professions and the public. This alienation explains why so much post-war architecture has proved to be so unsuccessful.

All this began to change with the Prince of Wales's Hampton Court speech in 1984. Given at the dinner to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the speech touched a nerve in the nation - to many people's surprise, not least the Prince of Wales himself. An extraordinary outpouring of public comment, opinion and emotion followed. By expressing his own hopes and fears, the Prince of Wales had given ordinary people the confidence to discuss architecture.

The media swiftly responded. Most of the broadsheet newspapers acquired architectural correspondents and architecture became a respectable subject for television and even radio. Inevitably, however, simplification and distortion followed. While the best commentators have made great strides to inform their readers, as a whole the press is driven by the need for a story, and this is generally found through personalities and perceived conflict. The result was that while architecture received much higher profile than it had before, the debate was all too often sterile and simplistic - the Prince versus the architects, Classicists versus Modernists. This black and white vision of architecture neither reflected the breadth of the prince's views nor the reality of the way that architecture was changing. At the same time the architectural press remained narrowly concerned with the views and interests of the profession. Magazines such as Architects Journal , Architectural Review and Building Design continued to report what was going on within the profession and to review the latest buildings and exhibitions, but made no attempt to involve those with an interest in architecture but no professional involvement. Perspectives on Architecture was launched to fill this gap in 1994, exactly 1 0 years after the Prince's speech.

Perspectives was founded with a very simple goal, to open people's eyes to architecture in the hope that it will help create that climate of informed opinion that is essential if Britain is to have a culture of good building. Its principal audience is the interested by not particularly well- informed general reader, but, inevitably, a high proportion of its readership have a professional interest in the subject, in particular architects, planners and conservationists.

The mix of readers and the range of their knowledge and interest makes editing Perspectives a particularly difficult professional challenge, but it also provides its editorial impetus. Each issue of the magazine - and indeed each article - needs to appeal across the whole spectrum, while at the same time neither patronising nor boring any section of the readership. An essential belief is that architectural journalism should be accessible to everyone and that if the ordinary reader finds it hard to understand an article then there is a fair chance that the professional will be equally put off. Making the magazine readable and attractive to look at may remove some of the mystery with which some architects and theorists like to wrap their work, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Perspectives believes in addressing architecture in its totality, from the high excitement of major projects by internationally known architects to the gritty reality of adding an extension to a terraced house. Local architects building simple but appropriate houses in sensitive settings are as much of interest as knighted architects building on prominent sites. It also believes that buildings cannot be understood unless their setting is considered, hence the magazine includes articles on urban design, gardens and landscape. Similarly, the crafts are essential to good building and are therefore covered regularly. Nor is architecture seen purely in terms of new design. At a time when it is never quite clear whether there is more to conservation than simple preservation, Perspectives is particularly concerned with informing the debate about the retention and continued use of the nation's building stock.

The magazine is also catholic in its approach. It aims to broaden the architectural debate, and starts from the realisation that architecture is too complex for there to be a single approach or theory which will solve all problems. Thus although the magazine was launched by the Prince of Wales and is published in association with the Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture, it was not conceived as the mouthpiece of the Prince, and was always intended to be editorially independent of the institute, As the Prince of Wales commented in the first issue of the magazine:

'Its editors will have their own views. I expect they will not always coincide with mine! But Perspectives can be the means by which a growing and already powerful debate about the sort of world we build can be better informed. It will provide a medium through which alternative views can be heard, and through which the non-experts as well as the experts can be stimulated, informed and entertained, as well as sometimes irritated or provoked.'

Perspectives does not claim to have all the answers. Instead it prefers to ask the questions, to suggest approaches and challenge orthodoxies. It hopes to stimulate interest in architecture, and give readers the tools and information to engage in the architectural debate. That debate is not the black and white pantomime of the popular press, but it cannot be left to the cloistered isolation of the professional press. There is a potentially great popular interest in architecture. It needs to be encouraged, and indeed must be if we are to create a culture in which good building flourishes. That is what Perspectives is trying to do. #


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