The End of Excellence?

(This Piece first appeared in The Herald on 25 July 2014 and is based on a talk I gave at the Athenaeum that week)

I have never visited Paris, but I have, just last night, visited a fantastic exhibition of excellent buildings and spaces at the grand old Athenaeum, in Central Port Elizabeth, entitled; “100% Paris”. You can still catch it. It runs until 25 July 2014. The exhibition is part of a collaborative between the Alliance Francaise, The ECIA, the NMMU School of Architecture and the MBDA. The ECIA’s Regional Awards programme is on Exhibition and so is some very interesting work by the MBDA and NMMU on the Baakens River Valley.

Visiting exhibitions and events of this sort always gets me thinking and this time was no exception. I gave a small talk on behalf of the ECIA and there was some very stimulating discussion that followed. The event got me thinking about “Excellence” and especially excellence in the built environment. What is it? What is its purpose? Has its time passed? Is excellence and means to an end? Or is excellence an end in itself? It got me thinking about “The End of Excellence”.

Because, as I said at the talk last night, I am quite sure, if you were to ask anyone who ever visited, Paris, or London or any other beautiful city, to speak of what was most memorable of their visit, they would speak of the built environment. They would speak of the bridges, the steeples and the spires. They would speak of the parks, the walkways and the avenues.

I am pretty confident, that after having returned from London or Paris,  you would not speak of how neatly the accountants prepare their balance sheets, or with what precision the doctors sew up their stitches after an appendectomy.  Yes, of course these disciplines are indispensable to our civilisation, but we must confront the truth that there is something very significant and lasting about the impression that the built environment makes on us.
So, what about Port Elizabeth? Yes, we have some beautiful places. We have the Donkin Memorial, City Hall and Feather Market Centre. We have an extraordinary collection of buildings, parks and spaces in Central. There are some parts of our city that are truly excellent, but  many of these are all very old buildings and places.  So, I ask: are we still able to create excellent spaces? Or, have we moved into and era beyond “ The End of Excellence”?

I ask this because, excellence is under threat. Around the world it is being beaten up and kicked in the teeth. Excellence is being bludgeoned simultaneously by a gang of three thugs. I am not afraid to name them.

Thug number 1 – “Mediocrity”

“Mediocrity” is a politically correct thug. “Mediocrity” says that perusing excellence is unfair because then not everyone gets a chance. “Why should people that are un-talented, unmotivated and generally useless not also get a chance?”

Thug Number 2 – “Competition”

“Competition” is dressed like a respectable accountant, but still very much a thug. “Competition” says that “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed”.  “What makes Central better than Charlo? What makes the North End Stadium better than the Boet Erasmus? What makes Architect A, better than Architect B? Show me the calculation! Is it longer? Is it heavier? Does it have more light bulbs?”

Thug Number 3 – “Compliance”

“Compliance” is a mouse-like, lawyer-like, thug? Compliance says “excellence” what is this? Where in the rules does it say we have to create an excellent city? “Compliance” says, we have made rules designed for stopping corruption and thievery, “What more do you want?”.
The sad news is that these three thugs have taken over public and private sector property developers. The people that build our cities are now controlled by these thugs or have become their agents.  Where excellence still happens, it happens because of the super human efforts of isolated individuals in the public and private sectors, who, in spite of the odds being stacked against them, see to the delivery of excellent buildings and spaces. Even today. Even in our city.

 The private sector routinely deliver s mediocre buildings and spaces because it appeals only to the mediocre tastes and expectations of you and I, the people who frequent their mindless malls, rent spaces in their sterile office parks. The public sector routinely delivers a mediocre built environment, for the same reason as the public sector, but they but they are also absolutely determined to see the each and every individual participant in the long sequence of events that leads up to anything getting built, is equally as mediocre, “So that everyone can get a chance.”
The private sector explains that it has no choice, it must remain competitive. It explains that the stock market will punish it if it were to waste money on creating an excellent built environment. “So as long as our competitors can get away with building poor environments, then so will we.” The Public sector, explains that “We are dealing with tax payer’s money here. There must be competition, to show that we paid bottom dollar.”
The private sector says to the public. “I have done everything you have asked of me. I have got the EIA, the TIA and the HIA. I am exhausted. I have complied. Where does it say I have to develop excellent buildings?”  The public sector says pretty much the same, but is even more exhausted by the complex internal compliance procedures required to so much as move a pencil from one desk to another. There really is no time and energy left to champion such niceties as “excellence”.
Yes, it is sad. Yes, it is demoralising. But it is the brutal truth. Excellence everywhere is under attack and none so more as in the built environment. But, I ask:  Is it the End of Excellence?
My attempt is to convince you that it is not the end. Yes, we are under attack from these three mindless thugs. Yes we are bleeding. But there are things we can do. 

And while there are still things that can be done, it cannot be the end.

Author: Tim Hewitt-Coleman

The World can be a better place.... But how? Taking the debate beyond the political, beyond the theoretical into the real economy, into the physical and spatial dimension where cities, landscapes and livelihoods take form.

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