Last month the German courts made a monumental decision that will reverberate round the fragile walls of European architecture, and beyond. They found that Deutsche Bahn, the German railways authority, had been wrong to alter the architect’s conception for Berlin’s new central station, and are forcing the railway company to demolish the compromised part of the structure and rebuild it at their own cost to the original plans.
This is a radical move because it recognises the intellectual property rights of the architect, rights usually trampled over. And this is no kitchen extension. The Lehrter Bahnhof knits together the disparate centre of a resurrected capital. It is a hugely complex, important and symbolic 13-year project.
The architects, von Gerkan Marg & Partner, a massive German office, were well aware of the station’s role as gateway to the city and they paid meticulous care to the subterranean spaces (according to them, the biggest underground room in Europe) as well as concourses above ground. The ceiling above the underground space was designed in a series of lightweight vaults, an echo of the filigree iron and glasswork of the 19th-century halls of the city’s new central squares. In the built version the client simply removed these vaults from the design, as well as shortening the platform lengths by a third.
Most practices, fearful for their reputation and of frightening off future clients, would probably have surrendered at this stage. But GMP, perhaps Germany’s most internationally respected commercial practice, countered and won.
This situation is virtually inconceivable in the UK, where the big story is, and will be for a while yet, the Olympics. It now looks as if the Olympic buildings will be procured on a basis of design and build. Thus the architect, once the design is submitted, becomes a sub-contractor, working for the main contractor: all the power over the final product, which once lay in the architect’s hands, is lost.
Architects link up with contractors in the selection process to form consortia. Contractors, of course, don’t want to take risks with profits, so they link up with known quantities, the same few corporate commercial practices. Young, radical, interesting international architects do not get a look in. The appointment of Ricky Burdett, formerly of the LSE and curator of the last Venice Architecture Biennale, as a kind of design champion is a move in the right direction, but he will have his work cut out.
The BBC’s Broadcasting House is going through similar issues. MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, the architects handling the £800m job, were brutally displaced last year and replaced with a more commercial practice. In a similar cost-cutting intervention, the architects were asked to remove from their design the sculptural structural columns that were the defining feature of a dramatic newsroom, the publicly visible heart of the building. It is just possible that MJP may be called back into the scheme, but it remains an embarrassing situation highlighted by the architectural and symbolic ambition of the original building, a modernist Tower of Babel.
This is not just a problem on flagship public projects. The UK is in the throes of an enormous school and hospital building programme, most of which is being procured via private finance initiatives: the contractor, not the architect, leads the process. Architects are involved in only a tiny amount of the building work that goes on in the UK, hardly more than 10 per cent, unlike, say, in Switzerland where virtually every building plan needs to be submitted by an architect to get permission. The result is the most sophisticated architectural scene in the world.
Von Gerkan’s victory in the German courts is a huge boost for architects everywhere, a final recognition of their intellectual copyright and a validation of their work. They now need to look seriously at the consequences, and take action to halt the erosion of their responsibilities to the contractors whose vital interest has to be the generation of profit for their shareholders. The etymology of the word “architect” in ancient Greek, “chief maker”, is about as close as we can get. They need to reassert that role after years of erosion and neglect.