Thatcher is a divisive figure among architects, but there’s no denying her impact on the architecture profession was huge
Former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher died this morning following a stroke. Her term as PM, from 1979 to 1990, heralded massive social and industrial change for the UK. Her policies, and decisions made during her tenure, also had a major impact on the architecture profession - some good and some bad.
In the 1970s most of the biggest architecture practices in the UK were part of the public sector - architects’ departments within local authorities and the health service. Under Thatcher, the vast majority of these services were closed or privatised, with their work soaked up by private architecture, planning and engineering companies which have since become some of the biggest in the world. Less than one in three local authorities currently employ architects as architects. Meanwhile, architecture has become one the UK’s greatest exports.
Although the Monopolies Commission came into existence before Thatcher became prime minister, its decision to declare mandatory minimum fee scales “anti-competitive” was made at the beginning of her first term. This was compounded by an Office of Fair Trading ruling a few years later. Described by one architect as “probably the worst thing to happen to our profession”, the declaration forced all professional bodies in the UK to withdraw official fee scales. Further rulings now prevent the RIBA from publishing even recommended or suggested fees.
One of the key moments of Thatcher’s career was the Big Bang - the moment in October 1986 when her controversial deregulation of the UK’s stock exchange and financial services sector took effect, changing banking forever. Wide-sweeping reforms were introduced in an attempt to re-establish London as a financial centre and make its market more competitive in an increasingly global market.
This deregulation created a need for more office space and huge trading floors in London, sparking a flurry of new building in the City. It also created a whole new cultural approach to money, with yuppie culture and a desire to spend giving birth to, or indirectly supporting, a number of new design movements.
Founded by Thatcher’s Government in 1981, the London Dockland Development Corporation was charged with the total revitalisation of eight square miles of London that had once been thriving docks. As the focus of the country’s wealth moved from manufacturing to financial services, the Corporation’s first large-scale development plan was unveiled. The Canary Wharf project - the then largest single commercial development in the world - formally began in 1988 with an inaugural speech by Thatcher.
Although much of the Canary Wharf area’s real boom took place in the late 1990s with the introduction of public transport links, it is still one of the most potent architectural symbols of Thatcherism. The architects that benefited directly include Cesar Pelli, John McAslan, SOM and Norman Foster. Simon Jenkins described the development as “big, bland and bankrupt”.
Very little publicly-funded housing was commissioned under Thatcher, but she did introduce Right to Buy for council tenants, effectively removing thousands of properties from the social housing system. Right to Buy heralded the end of an era in social housing design and the gentrification of large swathes of London in particular, with knock-on effects for architects working in both social housing and home improvement. Housing architects everywhere are still awaiting the opening of the social housing floodgates with bated breath.
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