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Visionary project design can’t come soon enough

It’s taken a while but it suddenly looks like the coalition has discovered ‘design’.

What has been for years a strict agenda of no frills and austerity now includes talk of “beautification” and “design vision”.

When the Farrell review into architectural policy was commissioned in 2013, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) had already been marginalised and there was a degree of scepticism that the review was a cosmetic exercise.

“We have a long and great history of inspirational and aesthetically pleasing infrastructure in this country”

Now, 12 months on, in line with one of the review’s recommendations, architecture looks set to be moving up in the world from the Department of Culture to the Department for Communities and Local Government after the election – and Sir Terry Farrell sits on government’s new housing design panel.

Old-fashioned approach

Hand in hand with this, we have had transport secretary John Hayes announcing that he wants to return to the approach of the Victorians and ensure the £15bn new generation of roads are built in “harmony” with the countryside.

Residents will be given the power to help decide the design, material and even colour of road projects to make them “beautiful” rather than “brutal, crass and ugly”.

Rather like the French approach, Mr Hayes wants to see bridges become landmarks rather than ubiquitous structures.

And this week, High Speed 2 set out a design vision and revealed that Sadie Morgan, co-founder and director of de Rijke Marsh Morgan Architects and president of the Architectural Association, will head up a new HS2 design panel.

Picture-perfect design

This will scrutinise plans for the scheme and ensure the design vision, covering everything from station design to ticket machines, and drawn up with the help of 40 design leaders, is implemented.

In this respect HS2 could be said to have learnt lessons from Crossrail which was heavily criticised at one point for lack of design ambition for its suburban rail stations.

“What has been for years a strict agenda of no frills and austerity now includes talk of “beautification” and “design vision”“

Of course, it’s one thing nodding to good design principles, but another delivering on them; the effect these intentions will have on procurement has yet to unfold.

There’s bound to be tension between those holding the purse strings and those casting a critical eye. Not every contractor and engineer will relish having an architect in the foreground.

But we have a long and great history of inspirational and aesthetically pleasing infrastructure in this country.

Whatever the hitches, a design vision for new roads and rail that elevates user experience is a really exciting prospect and long overdue.

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