Friday, 10 April 2015 13:13

What is an Architecture Policy and what should it do?

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Twenty years ago there were few examples of architecture policies issued by national governments, though now a number of governments, mainly in northern Europe, have them. A quick search for the history points up the Dutch as key movers. Their first architecture policy appeared in 1991 (‘Space for Architecture’) that was followed in 1996 by ‘Architecture for Space’. These were produced by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Cultural Affairs, but the Housing, Spatial Planning and Environment Ministry was also involved.

The first report led to the creation of a number of significant new institutions. Architectuur Lokaal  was set up. It describes itself as “an independent national centre of expertise devoted to building culture”. “Building culture” means a fusion of construction, culture and architecture, which “encompasses spatial planning, urban design, infrastructural works by engineers, and especially architectural design and art in public space.”

Another outcome was the establishment of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam. I used to take students there on our study visits, though it was a tough call for some after a night partying on the ferry across the North Sea the night before. As a museum cum information centre it remains a good place to get started. Following the 1991 policy a number of local architecture centres sprang up across the Netherlands.

An inter-ministerial working group was also set up, and by 1996 other Ministries, notably Transport and Public Works, were also associated with the policy. The 1996 version was also notable for addressing the growing importance of the private sector in Dutch development. This followed the identification in the Vinex National Spatial Planning Report of areas for large scale residential development. Thus the reversal of words in the title from the first policy represented an attempt to upscale the messages.

Shaping the Netherlands followed in 2001. It anticipated the dramatic change in the trajectory of the country in the past decade. “Our system of norms and values is shifting” it observed, noting that multi-culturalism was a “hot issue” and the rise of individualism and the network society. However, there was still an emphasis on major government-funded infrastructure projects. There was also a repetition of earlier calls to break down departmental silos and for designers to be given opportunities to use their creative powers. A budgeted programme of support for activities, institutions and events was also provided. Thus over a decade the Dutch architecture policy developed from a concentration on buildings to an action plan that encompassed concerns with landscape, planning and cultural history.

The European Forum for Architectural Policies

The Netherlands held the EU Presidency during 1997. Architecture policy was one issue that the Dutch Presidency put on the table. One result was the formation of the European Forum for Architecture Policies. The Forum has worked with MEPs and stages discussions in the European Parliament, as well as liaising in the cause of architecture and urbanism with the European Commission.

Yvette Masson-Zanussi from the French Ministry of Culture is one of the driving forces of EFAP. During the French EU Presidency in 2008 she played an important role in getting the contribution of architecture recognised in the Conclusions of the Council of the European Union (2008 / C 319/05). The result was a call to Member States to “have architecture play an integrating and innovative role in the sustainable development process, beginning with the design stage of architecture, urban planning, landscaping and rehabilitation projects.” They were also called to support education and training of for architecture, heritage and planning as part of the creative industries. There was also a mandate to the EFAP to work on dissemination and consultation.

Latest from the Dutch

A new Dutch architecture policy was launched just a couple of weeks ago. It is tuned to the new economic times and reflects the political shifts that have seen the Netherlands become increasingly Euro-sceptic and deregulationist. The Dutch ESPON Contact Point, Dave Evers, speaking at the ESPON INTERSTRAT conference in Edinburgh last Friday summed up the mood of today’s Dutch government in a pithy one-liner: “If it’s none of your business, stay out”.

One area being cut back is spending on culture, and the architecture policy still sits within the cultural ministry. There is a new Foundation for Creative Industries that aims to make culture less dependent on state subsidies. The new architecture policy thus makes it clear that it is up to architects and other organisations to make the people of the Netherlands aware of their responsibilities for places. There is a strong emphasis in the new policy on training “patrons”. Architectuur Lokaal will have a key role in providing this support. This builds on its existing role of providing advice on procurement procedures and competitions.

In other words, the role of policy becomes to give information to private commissioners of buildings to enable them to make informed choices about architecture and design. The days when the publicly funded social housing associations were major commissioners of innovatively designed developments are over.


So is an architecture policy really helpful in today’s world? There are a number of issues that need to be addressed if such policy is to be more than a set of vague exhortations about “good design”. Perhaps the first is to be clear about what the scope of such a policy is meant to be. Is it “just” about design of buildings, or does it encompass the wider place-making agenda, and if so, what is its relation to planning policy in particular, but also to other areas of related policy such as regeneration or countryside management. How does an architecture policy link to energy conservation and promotion of renewables?

While I am very aware that Aaron Wildavsky famously quipped that “If planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing”, a broader base is preferable in my view. If the policy is only about architecture as narrowly defined, and concerned with nuts and bolts issues about registration, procurement etc, then it is only likely to speak to architects. Even as things stand in Scotland, where there has been an architecture policy in existence for a decade or more, it is not an essential reference point for developers or planners, for example.

Given the economic situation, now more than ever an architecture policy needs to address the conservation and management of existing environments. It needs to celebrate creativity certainly, but also to make a case for the mundane and the value of using expertise to increase energy efficiency and find viable new uses for buildings that have become redundant. These are areas where multi-professional working and community engagement could bring some real innovations, and governments have a role in promoting and supporting such initiatives.

There is an obvious risk that high-minded exhortations about the role of design will simply wash over procurement managers or the volume house builders. Given the extent to which they are the agencies shaping new development, an architecture policy needs to confront these realities if it is to have any value. Issues of risk and incentives have to be addressed with new propositions that would begin to change mindsets, and some of these could involve changes to the way that development management currently operates.

Last but not least, a policy needs to spell out how architecture can contribute to preventative spending, using real examples. Then we would have some firm base on which to make the case to other government agencies and departments that design really does matter. In short, an architecture policy needs to be thought through in terms of what it is trying to achieve, who it is directed to, and what levers there are to pull.

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