Mediocrity and compliance have displaced flair and personality
Property Week

Mediocrity and compliance have displaced flair and personality

Mike Hussey

There are many examples that support the notion that the property industry is losing its touch, losing its personality and losing its USP.

After 2008 the banking industry walked away from many of its core clients and relationship banking bit the dust. It’s interesting to see how many organisations have stepped into the clearing banks’ shoes, how quickly and how permanently.

Similarly, our industry has been “built” on people for decades. We remember Harry Hyams, not Oldham Estates, and Paul Reichmann, not Olympia & York. In the future it will be Sir John Ritblat, not British Land, and Gerald Ronson, not Heron, who will endure.

Personalities have led our industry, pushing the boundaries for years. Many of our great UK public companies are now encouraged towards mediocrity, driven by regulation, compliance, governance and adherence to the “industry benchmarks”. Now, perhaps, it is easier to comply than “stand out”.
Modern technology is driving our young hopefuls to their computers and social networking sites rather than — dare one suggest — to the telephone?

Some examples of design are becoming the victim of the client’s audit process — not a “value add” but a “value engineering” exercise.

Bland values

But amid the heated debate around Rafael Viñoly’s 20 Fenchurch Street some important points have been lost that differentiate it from the bland edifices that concern me. The building should be celebrated for its uniqueness and its letting performance.

While never a clear path, there is evidence to show that exceptional design will add value for clients and the need is for more class-leading design, not less.

My point is that “brave new world” may be closer than we think. We are being over-run with process, regulations, audit and controls. At what cost is flair being frowned upon in institutional circles?

Of course, we have seen this before. The “institutional specification” for new offices in the 1980s was a reaction to the 1970s financial crisis and the institutions’ dominance of office development. Few 1980s office developments will be acclaimed as masterpieces — and many will be redeveloped before the end of their useful life.

Ironically, those that are lauded from that period probably didn’t comply with institutional specification. We need better, more innovative and exciting architecture to grow from the precedent set in recent years — not to disappear for fear of being different.

If our professionals are being neutered by regulation and their own insecurity, the property services industry will become irrelevant. However, we have shining lights, beacons of hope and genuine exceptions to the rule. One such example was Francis Golding — a townscape expert.

He was a shy, slight man with a quiet demeanour, who was an implacable critic of mediocre design. No matter who the architect or client was, he would never compromise or qualify his view. Francis was killed last month in a tragic cycle accident in London.

We miss him terribly. We have lost a friend and a key adviser to an inadequate road management system — I suspect long overdue for an overhaul, probably lost in bureaucratic inaction because of political ineptitude.

The personality and quality of our industry is under threat. We must foster exceptional future leaders with genuine talent and give them a platform to express themselves. Our industry has given us some true historic greats who have defined the shape of our towns and cities, generally for the good.

If we can add to that in the future, be a little brave, Francis Golding will be smiling down on us and our legacy can be celebrated, not regretted, in the years to come.


– Mike Hussey