Careers Advice: Improving awareness of design and architecture

Written by: Peter Murray
Published on: 26 Feb 2018


Design quality is high on the political agenda. Housing secretary Sajid Javid is keen to encourage more of it in order to boost the delivery of new housing. London mayor Sadiq Khan’s draft London Plan is backed by his strategy of ‘Good Growth by Design’. The National Planning Policy Framework says “good design is indivisible from good planning”. So how can planners enhance their career prospects by improving their awareness of design and architectural issues?

Definitions of ‘good design’ cover a wide spectrum. Sarah Weir, director of the Design Council, says that good design “is about more than aesthetics. It is about delivering...for its users, and for everyone affected by it.”  Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, says: “It’s about the quality of people’s lives, it’s about people. It’s not about buildings and shiny developments.”

That is of course true. But the end product of the design process, what buildings look like and how well the spaces between them work, are of great importance to local communities who will be affected by new development and how they impact on the character of neighbourhoods. So here are a few ways of familiarising yourselves with thinking on design quality, architecture and placemaking.

1. Read some books

The Royal Fine Art Commission (RFAC) started conducting design reviews in 1924 and ran them until 1994 when the RFAC made way for the Commission of Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE).  The book 'What makes a good building?' by former RFAC secretary Sherban Cantacuzino has not been bettered since in answering the question posed by its title. It avoids subjective judgment: to say that a building is good is not the same as saying “I like it”. 'How to read buildings: a crash course in Architecture' by Carol Davidson Cragoe is easy to digest and compact. It’s part of a series including 'How to read Modern Buildings', 'How to Read Houses', and 'How to Read London'. On how design relates to the wider environment, Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic’s 'The Language of Cities' studies the ideas that shape metropolitan centres, the buildings and the spaces between.

2. Join a society

The Georgian, Victorian and 20th Century Societies organise a wealth of events and their journals and books provide useful insights into the evolution of architecture - particularly if you’re involved with conservation. The 20th Century Society’s ongoing series about the architects of the last century including Frederick Gibberd, Chamberlin Powell and Bon and Birmingham’s John Madin are relevant and readable.

3. Visit an architecture centre

There was a growing network of centres around the country that provided information, education and design review until the funding for CABE was withdrawn by the Government in 2010. These are struggling to keep going in a very different economic climate although the Architecture Centre in Bristol continues  to deliver a busy programme of events and exhibitions. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has recently opened a public centre on the docks at Liverpool to complement the programmes at its London HQ.  New London Architecture (NLA), an independent forum for discussion, debate and information about architecture, planning, development and construction in the capital based at the Building Centre in London, has free lectures and exhibitions on architecture and planning as well as guided walks around areas of change in the capital. NLA also has a dedicated NextGen programme, providing support for those starting their careers within the built environment. Design South East - formerly the Kent Architecture Centre - runs training sessions for local authority members and staff, as does Urban Design London.

4. Google it

There are dozens of websites that discuss architecture and design of which Dezeen is probably the most accessible and popular. The London Architecture Diary (LAD) lists events taking place in London and is an invaluable guide for locals and visitors alike. If you want to get a feel of how Starchitects approach their work then TED Talks has presentations by the likes of David Chipperfield, Thomas Heatherwick and Daniel Libeskind. Zaha Hadid Architects on YouTube, completed before Hadid died, provides a fascinating insight to the firm’s approach. Norman Foster - one of best architect communicators around  - gives a comprehensive interview Striving for Simplicity, also on YouTube. Bjarke Ingels of BIG Architects - as much showman as he is designer - stars in an enjoyable Netflix Documentary as part of the series Abstract: The Art of Design.

Peter Murray is chairman of New London Architecture