Election night will be every bit as enjoyable as usual, here at the cutting edge of design criticism. My deep-sleep pattern will be pleasantly undisturbed by the agony and ecstasy going on out there. My vote for the Green Party will give me an unassailable moral superiority in the debriefings of the days to come. For now, I have woken up and silenced – with a single blow of the hand to the radio – John Humphries, James Naughtie and a legion of hung- over, dandruffy, pot-bellied politicians in bad suits. I know, I know – the men are even worse.
Anticipating tomorrow’s grey dawn, let me be the first to welcome hundreds of Design Week readers back into the country. Here is a summary of what’s been happening while you’ve been away on your suddenly urgent overseas fact-finding missions: nothing.
To those of you considering leaving for good as post-election ennui sets in – don’t do it! We need your taxes. We need them very badly.
Everyone is agreed on one thing: there’s no more money – for anything – and nor will there be in the foreseeable future. A short while before the election was called, I had a corking dinner with the merry pranksters down at the London Docklands Development Corporation. The LDDC was demob-happy – it will cease to exist soon – and most of the conversation was a variety of self flagellation. Exactly what had their great Thatcher/Heseltine experiment achieved in terms of design quality? Nothing, they shrieked, their voices cracking with hysteria. To cheer themselves up, the LDDC had wheeled on a free-thinking, intellectually proficient – and very fat – Tory economist from the
Government Office for London. The conversation got round to the various grants and tax breaks given to revive derelict Britain over the years. This roused the corpulent guest to speak: “Where’s the population?” he demanded.
We looked around nervously. The wharves were deserted. He explained the obvious: without crazy government borrowing (forbidden by the Maastricht Treaty), what any British government can spend is only what it can raise in taxes. Unemployment can only be beaten down so far. Taxes can only be put up so much. We can’t pull the Lottery stunt again. There’s not much left to privatise. The only other way to get more money is to have an expanding population of working age – which we do not have. Therefore, the money spent by any British government on tackling dereliction is just the same money every year – sliced up in different ways and given different names (Single Regeneration Budget, anyone?). There is not, and will never be, enough money.
I found the solution to this impasse when I went to the National Theatre the other week to see Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, for which the National has built itself a whole new theatre-in-the-round for 180 000. Not architecture, you see, but stage design. This demountable theatre, complete with dedicated acoustic and lighting rigs, can be put into store and brought out whenever the National needs it.
The play was a bit over-declamatory even by Brechtian standards, but I couldn’t fault the design (by the Olivier’s production manager Annie Gosney and her in-house team). It is the UK’s only large in-the-round theatre and it was done on a wing and a prayer. It brought to mind the temporary timber and scaffolding theatres of Aldo Rossi and Tadao Ando, but much more besides. It reminded me of the stage-set interiors done in the burnt-out bit of Castle Howard for the filming of Brideshead Revisited in 1980 which are still there masquerading as the real thing. It made me think of the Sherlock Holmes Baker Street set in Manchester’s Granadaland, which seems real even from six inches away, and the exhibition of proposals to rebuild Paternoster Square in the City of London back in the early Nineties, where one of the allegedly awful existing blocks was done-up inside so well, you thought: this is great, why knock it down?
On this day, then, with everyone wanting more public money and none available to give, only one design profession knows how to magic real, new spaces out of thin air. They have been refining their art and their science, making silk purses out of sow’s ears, since Shakespeare’s day. Stage designers, march from your burrows into the daylight! Your country needs you!