Tim Soar is one of the best architectural photographers around. This is one of my favourites, taken from a series of portraits of architects at work, in this case husband and wife Buddy Haward and Catherine Burd who work together in their own practice. I like the sense of place and the relationship between the two people.
The central tenet of Lord Rogers’ complaint about Prince Charles is that he is not an expert on architecture. Presumably he is making reference to the sort of expertise of fellow superstar architect Sir Terry Farrell whose Home Office Building on Marsham Street was opened a few years ago to widespread acclaim in the architectural community and a RIBA Award.
The building has just been named as one of the worst buildings in the country in terms of its performance.
Published June 17, 2009
For me, the most telling remark amongst many in Lord Roger’s diatribe about the Prince of Wales’ intervention in the development of the Chelsea Barracks housing development is this:
“Are we going to have royalty dictating to us modern art? Are we going to have royalty dictating their taste in music? No, because they’re not experts in any of those fields.”
Now of course, we all have opinions about music and art regardless of whether we are experts or not. Doubtless Rogers has his own. He may not like The Beatles, and presumably never felt the need to learn the guitar before forming his view.
The statement is a dead giveaway because architects simply don’t like other people having negative opinions about their work. Certainly they don’t like people who have some influence having those opinions.
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) Journal has just announced the results of a poll to find the best British designed building of the last 175 years. You can take the results at face value if you like but the interest for me is in looking at what the whole exercise says about the relationship between architects and the rest of us.
The format for deciding the winner was like that for Britain’s Got Talent – a combination of votes by a panel of judges and ‘the public’. Now, when RIBA Journal says ‘the public’, it obviously means people who read RIBA Journal and others who have an interest in architecture. Writing in the Sunday Times over the weekend, the Journal’s editor Hugh Pearman expressed that he was pleasantly surprised that the choice of the overall winner – Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art – flew in the face of widespread public distaste for modernism. He made reference to the ongoing tension between the architectural community and Prince Charles about our appetite for modernist buildings.
I thought Hugh Pearman’s comments did achieve some sort of balance but there are issues with the whole exercise. The first is that this is not a public vote (natch) so it doesn’t really tell us anything about where most people stand on the modernist vs. traditionalist debate. Secondly, it highlights an underlying widespread feeling amongst architects that the rest of us should keep our opinions to ourselves because we don’t know what we’re on about.
And finally, as Pearman almost acknowledges, the underlying problem is not really a question of taste or comprehension of any school of thought; it is that the majority of buildings of whatever type range from mediocre to poor, with relatively few successes.
Published March 30, 2009
Tags: Architects, Design
We all like short cuts. This is as true for designers and architects as anybody else, which is why they so often rely on iconic products to offer a little visual clue to people, to let them know the place they are in is the right sort of place. Cool. Contemporary. Just like them.
Many of the products they use in this way are 20th Century classics. And often they are chairs. The Barcelona chair. The 3107 chair. The Panton chair. The Eames recliner. Each has not only its own integrity as a design but a widely known iconography upon which designers can draw. An elbow in our ribs, a wink wink, know what I mean? Know what I mean?
These products are also the most copied. The market is flooded with fakes. Even the famous portrait of Christine Keeler that is central to the iconography of the 3107 uses a fake chair.
Place your hands on the screen and let’s see if I can gain an insight into what sort of person you are.
Here we go.
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable yet largely hidden strengths that you have still to turn to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be slightly insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you always make the right decision. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept other’s statements without satisfactory proof. But you think it can be unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
Sound familiar? Well it should because that is how most people see themselves. You are not alone in feeling this way. Far from it. While we all harbour some fantasy of ourselves as completely unique, the kind of people who peddle this sort of tripe – astrologers and psychics among them – have always known that most people have far more in common with everybody else than they’d like to believe. What makes you genuinely unique is your relationships with others.
In fact, the above passage is largely made up of ‘Barnum Statements’, which most people think are true of themselves but not so true of others. Coupled with people’s generally poor grasp of the laws of probability, this creates a fertile spawning ground for psychics, astrologers and spiritualists.
You can pull a similar stunt when you’re writing about particular professions. If you regularly read the trade magazines for civil servants, lawyers, marketeers, accountants, architects, designers, engineers, consultants, call centre managers and people in IT, HR, FM, PM, QS, CS and BS*, you’ll daily come across an editorial making a fairly common sort of point about the way in which that profession sees itself. We can Barnumise it thus:
What you do is of significant strategic importance, yet you do not receive the recognition you deserve. You tend to be under-represented at boardroom level where you could add significant value to the organisation. Unlike those bastard architects/surveyors/accountants/project managers etc, when it comes to major issues you are not consulted early enough so decisions are made on the basis of bad information or no information. As a result the organisation invariably screws up big style. And just guess who’s going to have to put it right? That’s right- muggins. You’re not paid enough for the great job you do, either. And another thing: people have got completely the wrong impression of you. You’re not geekish/ difficult/ socially inept/ arrogant/ closeted/ unattractive/ middle aged (delete as appropriate). You’re the nice guys.
The fact that everybody thinks this about the job they do makes life a little bit easier for two groups of people. Editors of trade magazines can repeat this sort of stuff all they like and probably win awards for it with the thanks of a grateful profession. Suppliers can also use it as a key part of their marketing message. For a start, it offers an easy PR opportunity for those vendors keen to show how much they empathise with their customers through a ‘we-feel-your-pain’ piece in an appropriate journal.
As an extension of this, there is a tendency for professions to demonise each other. For example – and it seems to be difficult for both sides to discuss this out in the open – there’s an undercurrent of bad feeling between facilities managers and architects. Facilities managers in particular seem to resent the fact they have to manage the results of the creativity of other people, feel they aren’t involved in the creative process soon enough and possibly resent the high profile enjoyed by architects.
I’ve always seen the difference between building design and FM as the difference between conception and parenthood. One is an act of creativity that takes a relatively short amount of time to complete (speak for yourself, I know) but which people think about a lot. The other is an act of responsibility that never really ends and which people may talk about a lot but nobody else is really all that interested in. There’s a reason why Channel 4 televises the Stirling Prize and leaves the BIFM Awards alone. What seems to make all this harder to bear for FMs is that they are often in loco parentis, so are often managing a building not of their own making.
So my point is this. The ideas and feelings that unite us both as individuals and as professionals are far greater than the things that divide us. We may think we’re all one-offs, but any uniqueness we may possess is apparent mostly in our relationships with others. Worth remembering when the guy from IT is getting on your tits.
*I made the last one up. I think. If you’re a BS, you’re not alone.