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The importance of the ‘crit’ culture in architecture
Matt Brook
13th November 2017

Well designed places and spaces have a huge influence on the quality of life of those who use and visit them.

Whether it is encouraging social integration, improving productivity, enhancing learning or attracting new investment, a high quality built environment ultimately makes for a better society.

It is a responsibility architects and urban designers should never take lightly and why every possible step should be taken from the very earliest stage to ensure a project delivers its full potential.

While a concept will often be initiated by an individual, the design process should never be a solitary process and all the best design projects are an exercise in collaboration.

Great design starts with a careful understanding of the brief, context and typology which is then distilled into an underlying ‘big idea’, an all-encompassing generator from which the rest of the design stems.

It is this ‘big idea’ that must hold the design together throughout the process, providing the intellectual rigour and compelling narrative behind the project and standing as a defender of the design solution at every stage.

Without this early clarity and rationale, a project is destined to drift or worse and that is why a culture of peer review within our sector remains absolutely paramount.

From the very beginning of their training, an architect is exposed to the culture of the ‘crit’ and this must be a perpetual aspect of the architectural process where architects are challenged to continually defend their approach through a robust design review process.

Architects are often deeply immersed in a project and a fresh perspective forces us to think critically about our own work while also ensuring that the ‘big idea’ that underpins the initial concept is sufficiently robust to carry the project through to delivery.

Matt Brook, Director, Broadway Malyan

Architects are often deeply immersed in a project and a fresh perspective forces us to think critically about our own work while also ensuring that the ‘big idea’ that underpins the initial concept is sufficiently robust to carry the project through to delivery.

Matt Brook, Director, Broadway Malyan

In recent years the internal design review process has become increasingly rigorous within our own practice as we have sought to ensure a consistent level of high quality design across all our studios and increasingly we are seeing this process become an important part of the external planning system.

I have been a member of Places Matter, the RIBA supported design review panel for the north west of England, since its inception a decade ago and in that time we have worked with industry design professionals on hundreds of schemes across the region.

Importantly, Places Matter is a multi-disciplinary panel with representatives from across the built environment including engineers, environmental specialists, landscape architects, architects, planners, urban designers and developers – all with a passion for ensuring that every project that comes before us has the necessary design and contextual quality and has a narrative that is properly embedded in the region.

The design review service Places Matter provides is collaborative with only one aim; to improve the design quality of design proposals submitted through peer review. The service provides an independent perspective ensuring that opportunities have not been missed and helping to distil the full potential of any given scheme.

While the design review process by its very nature is about challenging, it cannot be adversarial. What we are trying to do is create a dialogue so that the architect still feels they have a sense of ownership over the project and more importantly, will want to come back for further reviews of the project in the future.

Increasingly we are seeing design review panels being used in the pre-planning stage in various parts of the country but at the moment their recommendations are advisory rather than statutory and while some authorities will only recommend planning permission if supported by the design review panel, others will happily disregard.

Hopefully this situation will change and there will become a time when design review panels will have the same statutory status in the planning process as important organisations such as Historic England.

The reality is that while individual taste is subjective, good design is analytical and objective and if a rigorous peer review process can remove the emotion from the process and help push up design standards then ultimately it is all of society that benefits.

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