He who dares – builds

Hugh Pearman laments the easy option so often taken in relation to design projects, and regrets the fact that Zaha Hadid’s opera house plans fell foul of this risk avoidance

A Millennium commissioner once described Virginia Bottomley to me as “terror on two legs”. She would not, he clarified, make any decision which appeared to carry any vestige of risk. Her advisers being mostly career civil servants, for whom avoidance of risk is akin to a religion, it followed that nothing of any great importance ever emanated from her department. This was the person they put in the chair of the commission when it was set up, with consequences now obvious to all.

We were having lunch, the commissioner and I, and he was defending the decision not to grant a paltry 50m to Zaha Hadid’s Cardiff Bay Opera House, so killing one of the very few millennium projects of any merit. Machiavellian character that he is, he was quietly satisfied. He hated the project, and he hated the architect, and he had succeeded in making the scheme seem very dicey. He tried his skills on me. “It’s unbuildable, Hugh,” he declared, staring me straight in the eye. I suggested that since its engineers had succeeded in making the “unbuildable” Sydney Opera House stand up 30 years before, a structure as relatively conventional as Zaha Hadid’s opera house should be a piece of cake.

Upon which, he changed the subject to matters such as the opera house’s business plan (over-optimistic, of course) and car park (in the wrong place, naturally). Whether or not he had made Bottomley believe the “unbuildable” canard, it was just part of the terrifying prospect of risk he had cunningly erected round the project like stacked cards.

All this came back to me last week when I read Nicholas Crickhowell’s scorching book on the Cardiff fiasco, Opera House Lottery (University of Wales Press, 15.95). Lord Crickhowell, the former Welsh Secretary who was chairman of the opera house trust at the time, has produced one of the most fascinating accounts of Government mismanagement and sheer bad luck I have ever read. He talks of “the old-fashioned civil service view that the avoidance of blame is even more important than the avoidance of risk” and of the “paralysing effect” this had on the commission. I have looked up every reference to my Iago-like commissioner acquaintance, and he mostly emerges as a good egg. He covers his tracks well.

Recently, we have had another little risk-avoidance farrago, this time not the commission’s fault. It was the Hungerford Bridge saga – in which Westminster Council tried to bump competition-winning architect Lifschutz Davidson off their 15m (Lottery-funded) project to revamp the bridge. The council did not do this out of spite, but out of the risk-avoidance mentality. Designers are dangerous. Costs might run out of control if they are put in charge of a capital project. Better to hand over their designs for someone more reliable to work up. Project managers, design & build bureaucrats, folk like that.

That one had a relatively happy ending after a storm of protest. The architects went to law, successfully contended that they owned intellectual copyright on their designs, and are back on the job. But the worrying thing is not such test cases, but the cases that never get tested at all, because architects and designers of merit – particularly young and small firms – are never considered in the first place.

There is no way to quantify this. You can count failed projects where good designers are involved, but how do you count projects where they should have been involved, but were never asked? How many design jobs, from huge building schemes down to quickie graphics commissions, are awarded on the “avoidance of risk, avoidance of blame” principle? The principle that will always avoid anything fresh and original, let alone controversial, lest it should return to haunt those who approve it? The principle that results in shortlists of “approved designers”, all of whom are chosen for their supposed ability to control costs, none for their creative flair?

There is a kind of economic boom on. Work, we are told, is coming out of designers’ ears – they’re turning jobs down now. Well, maybe, and I also know some very bright designers with very little work on at all. Why? Perhaps because they are a little bit too radical, or their practice is a little bit too small, or maybe they just speak out of turn at meetings. Someone ought to commission these people – but there are fewer and fewer clients prepared to take the risk. Caution triumphs over glory, nearly every time. The inept Millennium Commission will forever be remembered for its failure of nerve down in Cardiff – but what sort of consolation is that?

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