Up in smoke

London may turn its nose up at the provinces, but that could ultimately be its downfall, leading to a rise in regional initiatives, says Hugh Pearman.

What does the word ‘provincial’ say to you? Does it imply something a bit rough and ready, unsophisticated or narrow-minded? Well, of course it does – that is one of its dictionary definitions. How about ‘regional’? That’s a bit better. A province is subject to the capital. A region, however, can be autonomous. Think Catalonia. Barcelona owes nothing to Madrid.

We do have a problem in the UK, however – more so than in any other European country. Relative to the total land mass, our capital is huge – physically huge, economically huge and influentially huge. This makes it very difficult for any other British city to compete against London, particularly when it comes to design. The capital calls the shots.

Readers out there working in Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Leicester or Leeds (insert any other city of your choice) will be only too aware of the problem, as am I. I’m fresh from having an exhibition proposal rejected by the British Council. Unlike the Arts Council of England, which is regionalised, the British Council allegedly represents the cultural life of the entire nation, internationally. It assembles some excellent touring exhibitions. In dealing with it, however, you might be excused for thinking that it is the London Council.

One of my mistakes – no doubt there were several others – was to propose an exhibition of architecture and design by exclusively non-London practices. This seemed a reasonable idea, given that the brief for the exhibition in question was to examine British architecture outside London. But this proved to be a touchingly naïve assumption. What I should have done, apparently, was to get modish London names to redesign the provinces. It’s fine to throw in a few token regionalists, but to have only barbarians from outside the gates – that, it was made clear to me, would be plain embarrassing.

It was an interesting research process, however, because – as a Londoner myself – I found out a great deal about good design outside the capital. There is no question that it is stonier ground – London is a hothouse that nourishes some exotic growths. Elsewhere, they think you’re a nonce if you come up with stuff like that. Only rarely can conditions be right for a team such as Glasgow’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margo Macdonald to flourish regionally, and their flowering was very short-lived. Strange, given London’s power, that the most successful design-led housing developer in the country, Urban Splash, is not only entirely regionalist, but has built its reputation on non-London designers. It now employs Londoners too, and some of the regional groups it gave a break to are building a London presence – a reverse of the usual pattern. This is healthy, but, let’s be honest – while Scotland has broken away, to an extent, from the rest of the UK, London still dominates.

There is some consolation. If one definition of ‘provincial’ is narrow-minded, then London too, with its often blinkered viewpoint, is a province. If London is such a power that it may as well be independent, then the same applies to the British regions. They are different. They are recovering strongly from a post-industrial slump, so their work is more pragmatic, less fanciful.

It may be time for a new school of powerfully regionalist British design to emerge. But where, and when?

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