Published July 6, 2010
The decision by the Government to put an end to the Building Schools for the Future Programme is something that concerns me greatly. It has become more and more apparent to me over the years that we are profoundly affected by our circumstances and the things that surround us. ‘I am I plus my surroundings’ as the philosopher Jorge Ortega Y Gasset put it. BSF was about replacing the school buildings we had been lumbered with after the War – most of us of a certain age will recall prefabs and Portakabins – and creating school environments that reflected something contemporary and important.
What is possibly more worrying is the new emphasis on Free Schools, which Michael Gove has been championing for some time based on a Swedish model. (I had cause to write about this some time ago for a Swedish client and am aware that the Swedish example is not ideal.) Such schools do not demonstrably increase standards but they do increase elitism and they do encourage the dissemination of dangerous and stupid ideas such as creationism, especially when, as Gove does, you think that the people who run them should have more control over the curriculum.
There is already a precedent here. The Labour Government actively championed the Academy system which encouraged autonomous control of the curriculum. Tony Blair himself personally endorsed The Kings Academy in Middlesbrough which taught pupils of the dangers of ‘moral relativism’ and that the literal Genesis account of the creation was just as valid a scientific explanation for the origins of the world as anything else. I can only see free schools taking us further in the same direction given the interest religious groups have already shown in running hundreds of free schools.
We are in danger of exchanging a programme that was to deliver a progressive education infrastructure for one that will encourage a growing number of young people to discard science, intellectual rigour, open mindedness, tolerance and The Enlightenment for a belief in the fairies at the bottom of the garden. If you want to see where this might lead, you only have to look at America and the number of people there who believe the world is 6000 years old, women were made from the rib of man, that the world is going to end in the next fifty years and that when it does that will be a good thing.
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.
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.
At first sight, Zeichensaal is a photograph of an office. In this case, the office of Richard Verhölzer, an architect from Munich who was important in the post war reconstruction of Germany. It takes a few seconds and close examination to realise it is in fact a photograph of a model of the office, carefully and painstakingly reconstructed by the artist Thomas Demand from an original image. I saw it at Tate Liverpool yesterday.
It’s method is very post-modern. Like the work of Gursky it uses a trick to distance itself from reality. Whereas Gursky uses the digital manipulation of images, Demand reconstructs a real place to twist the perception of the viewer.
This is Hopper at his best. Office in a Small City may have been painted in 1953 but his isolated and daydreaming worker is a timeless and universally understood character. The telling detail for me is the ornate false front to the utilitarian building and furniture.
One of the many things the Internet was supposed to kill off was the printed word. Books, magazines and newspapers, all screwed apparently. Yet while the growth of online media has had an impact – especially on newspapers, which do look pretty screwed – the media still has a tendency to proliferate, to evolve and learn how to thrive in niches.
That is why there is such an amazing diversity in British publishing. David Attenborough may become breathless describing the biodiversity of the world, but even he might raise an eyebrow at the scale of life either thriving in the fertile canopy of British publishing or grubbing around for an existence in the dank leaf mould on its floor.
The top level figures are intersting for analysts but it’s only when you get into the detail that things get really interesting. So, while a well-known media database impressively lists some 25,000 editorial contacts and around 11,000 titles, a quick search through it identifies that 65 of these are devoted to livestock farming. Drill down further and you see there are three of these dedicated solely to breeding pigs. There is only one for ostrich farmers but that may be because you can only write so many headlines featuring the words ‘head in the sand’ before you lose the will to live.
Everywhere you look there are similar evolutionary branches. Six magazines devoted to potatoes – growing them, not cooking them. Forty-two aimed at dentists. Three devoted to pigeon racing.
And it’s no good sneering at these titles and industries because you work in a different field. We all look the same to outsiders. For all I know, in the parallel universe of swineherds there is an editorial in this month’s issue of Pig International questioning the need for quite so many office design and facilities management magazines. So don’t mock. Because if you get involved in any industry, if it earns you a living, it will quickly become interesting enough for you to read several magazines a month about it.