Design in Public Services

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:22 pm on 29th January 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Flather Baroness Flather Conservative 4:22 pm, 29th January 2003

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, for initiating this interesting debate. Design surrounds us all the time. We value good design when we see it, but we do not stop to think about it. I thank the noble Lord for making us think consciously about a subject that we do not normally think about. It was a privilege to hear the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Thames Bank. I hope noble Lords will agree that we would like to hear more from him from time to time.

We have heard much about good design, but I begin with the impact of bad design. In the 1970s I became a member of the board of visitors of Holloway prison, which at that time was newly constructed. If one needed an example of impractical bad design, it was that prison. It was decided not to have bars on the women's prison, but the windows were so wide that a slim young woman could slip out. In the end they had to put bars on narrow windows which made it even darker and more unpleasant inside. One could not see very far down the corridor or what was going on around the corner. There were places where things could be thrown onto little roofs. Your Lordships would not have liked to see what used to land on those bits of roof.

We have to realise how destructive and expensive bad design is. It is important to start right and provide for people's needs. Good design, however, uplifts the spirit. That point has not yet been mentioned. When we go to see the Great Court at the British Museum or Tate Modern, the spirit lifts. Good design gives us much more than a space to use; it does something for our spirit.

I have a few points to make, which may be because I am a woman. Forgive me if my glasses keep falling off; they are not mine. It would be today that I would forget my glasses. Good lighting is important. How often lighting is relegated to being something that will happen by itself. In this country, where we have four months of almost non-stop darkness, good lighting should be at the top of everyone's list of considerations.

I turn to practicality and the people who are to use public spaces. The noble Lord, Lord Borrie, mentioned patients, victims and so on. If they are to use a space, are they ever consulted? Do we consult patients when we design hospitals? Do we consult anyone else when we design facilities for those people? It is extremely important that there should be an opportunity to consult users. A working environment can succeed only if the people who are to use it are at least asked for their views about it.

With your Lordships' indulgence perhaps I may place a slight gloss on the debate: good design is in itself a public service. I have been involved for five years in the construction of a memorial on Constitution Hill. It is a long overdue memorial to the men from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the West Indies who volunteered to serve with the British forces in two world wars. Somehow they have been forgotten. Nearly 5 million served in the two world wars.

The memorial sits on the top of Constitution Hill as one enters from Hyde Park Corner. The architect Liam O'Connor described it as follows:

"Four sculpted piers in solid stone, surmounted by bronze urns form a cenotaph, a square, a public space, sacred to the sacrifice made by a great many people.

The space between the piers forms a perfect square . . . framing views towards the Wellington Arch to the west and a domed pavilion to the north. The pavilion forms the heart of the composition; a belvedere in the Park flanked by two plinths, each a monolith carved with campaigns from the two World Wars. Cast bronze railings with a peacock theme form balconies from which the four main piers may be viewed across the sand-ride . . .

Bronze lamp standards have been designed with tops to match the pavilion dome and the lotus leaf capitals re-appear as supports for the urns and the pavilion dome finial. The oak leaf section of the lamp standards re-appears as a wreath moulding to the urn bases, a reference to Lutyens' Whitehall Cenotaph".

The reference to Lutyens extends beyond the Whitehall Cenotaph, because coming from New Delhi as I do, I see echoes of Lutyens throughout the memorial. It completes Aston Webb's original plan for a gateway to that side of the park. It is a serene and beautiful memorial, with beautiful Portland stone. The construction is exquisite. I think that that is a public service. The good design of that memorial helps us to enjoy the past even more.