Thursday, 7 February 2013

Building for the future

I used to be an architect. That is, I used to once want to be an architect. Until I discovered what pretentious tits a lot of architects are. Nobody told me - and I didn't find this out until I walked among them - that architects are not the Vitruviuses and Wrens of old; visionaries steeped in structure and form with a deep love of materials, building and fitness for purpose.

What I encountered were 'artists'. Whilst your day-to-day architect may grapple with the odd bungalow or extension, those who aspire to greatness inhabit an ethereal world where they sketch awe-inspiring doodles like this which are then given to engineers - real, practical hands-on, dirty types - to make them work. That is not to say architects are useless, far from it, but they rarely tackle the practical and sometimes (especially with small domestic projects) their solutions make no sense.

The very term 'architect' is imbued with reverence and appropriated by other fields to indicate a deeper knowledge and expertise than might really be there. Jean Monnet is frequently referred to as the architect of the European Union and William Henry Beveridge as the architect of the welfare state. But never forget that an architect is usually a professional dreamer, relying on others to fashion his dreams from the fabric of the real world.

Thus 'architect designed' while sounding lofty, usually means over time, over budget and of dubious usefulness, yet still revered by those who can see the Emperor's new clothes. The architect of Sydney Opera House, Jørn Utzon, is universally lauded but never forget that the building as drawn was unconstructable with available techniques and when it was finally completed it cost not the original $7million estimate but $102million; almost fifteen times over budget. And it was not opened in 1963 as intended, but 1973; ten years late.

Of course, it's a lovely building and rightly revered for its appearance but it sorts of makes my point about architects  They often work largely independently of the bricks and mortar brigade and have little accountability. If you want an example closer to home consider that the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood was completed three years late and ten times over budget... and it won the Stirling Prize. Some would say that's like rewarding failure.

I have no doubt that the EU energy policy has an 'architect' at the control of the dream machine. From the heady heights of Tour D'Ivoire I'm sure the gigantic bird choppers, farm land given over to solar traps and the de-de-delayed smart meter intrusion into our personal usage habits all sound like wonderful ways of building for the future, but try telling the people of this estate of 'eco homes' that a doubling of their energy costs is actually saving the planet.

The EU - the house that Jack built

So, next time you hear somebody describing their house as architect-built, don't think "Wow" and green-up with envy. Instead, pity them their over-priced, undersized, expensive folly as you drive back to your cosy traditional home. The EU - built by architects... for sheep to live in.


  1. I recall an architect whose ground-breaking work in the sixties to design high rise flats for the citizens of one large city (flats whose lifts were often broken and the stairwells soon stank of piss) who said that he would demonstrate how he could live there easily. For three months he managed to live on the very top floor of one of his creations (great views, apparently) and then fled back to his leafy London suburb.

    Forty years later they were flattened and with it the pissy stairs ground to dust.

    It was an experiment in regimented and unattractive housing that cost millions and didn't provide for humans. because he was an architect and ordinary humans aren't really that important, are they?

  2. Squirrel, at least the architect you remember had the good grace to at least attempt to live in one of his creations. The epitome of the architect as insane dreamer has to be the Smithsons who designed Robin Hood Gardens (which I had the misfortune of living opposite for 5 years).

    Despite their impeccable modernist beliefs they themselves actually lived in a rather swish Georgian townhouse.

  3. As an Architectural Technician, I explain the difference to my clients "An Architect makes a building look pretty, a Technician makes it stand up"

  4. As an Architectural Technician, I explain the difference to my clients "An Architect makes a building look pretty, a Technician makes it stand up"