Labour’s GLA needs a contemporary home

There’s a nice symmetry to the offer by Japanese developer Shirayama Shokusan for part of County Hall to house the proposed Greater London Authority. Anyone with fond memories of the reign of “Red Ken” Livingston from the building before the Greater London Council was axed and the GLC-sponsored Fun Days will sigh with nostalgia at the prospect – if only because it brings back memories of that pre-Lottery era when genuine public sponsorship was on a par with private funding for cultural events.

But however tempting, the Government should decline the offer. We’ve entered a new age, charged with optimism and self-confidence, and the GLA should be a part of the so-called new beginning. Far better, therefore, to set up shop elsewhere, and use the opportunity to show a commitment to design by commissioning a first rate British designer. That’s what the Design Council will do when it moves later this year to premises rumoured to be in London’s Bow Street, with Ben Kelly handling the design.

We need sweeping changes if we are to kick the habit of being a purely “heritage” culture. Just look at the trouncing those trying to cash in on it with “theme-park” museum attractions recently received from National Arts Collection Fund chairman Sir Nicholas Goodison.

In a radio interview last week, furniture designer Tom Lloyd spoke of the UK’s penchant for repro-styling. If the average Brit has a big Lottery win, a Tudorbethan-style house is likely to top the shopping list, he said, rather than a stunning piece of modern architecture. It’s certainly easier to buy repro furniture in most towns than the modern designs featured in the Sunday supplements.

Things are changing. But while consumers’ appetites are whetted by the style press and increased travel, it’ll take much more to persuade British industry that well-designed contemporary products will sell. That’s why we need New Labour to take the lead, even in the small matter of the GLA premises. Look what President Mitterrand’s overt patronage of design did for Paris.

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