My first column for The Property Chronicle offers a welcome chance to reflect on matters beyond the moment. Which is useful as learning from the past enables us to design for a building’s uncertain future. There is much to consider as it is only when we ‘finish’ that the life of a building begins. Mark Twain once noted the future is never what it used to be, so in architecture, as in life, tolerance is key.
This idea has underpinned my thinking since I studied at the Bartlett, UCL in the mid-80s. Indeed it was there, in academe, that three fellow students and I set out our views in our manifesto on architecture and accommodating change, ‘The Fifth Man’. It took us until 1989 to formalise our eponymously titled practice, but the idea of both dimensional and political tolerance was always key.
We enjoyed the fact that some said we sounded like a Dickensian law firm (the trend then was for new practices to proclaim titles that used some clever hyphened word play). In our view, then as now, fashion is something to be aware of but not to follow. We also believed that whilst architecture is both an artistic and a practical discipline – professionalism remained key. So whilst we were keen to continue to build a brave new world we were also certain that we needed to offer delight in architecture. In that sense we were much more Heaven 17 than Joy Division: we recognised that you can turn off your radio but you cannot easily walk out of your home!
We never set out to be on trend or on message. Mainly because we always believed that time is the best test of architecture; that an idea is more important than a brand; and that the accepted orthodoxy too soon becomes a tyranny. Of course we did not wish to stand still, indeed we saw ourselves as keen innovators. But we noted that innovation is closer to iteration than is commonly assumed. And, as accelerated progress, it can always be referenced in history and is not something to be pursued for its own sake. Innovation is called into being by an attitude that positively embraces significant new challenges, technologies and opportunities; and not by a desire to be noted or notorious! What we did state very clearly in The Fifth Man was that function alone was an insufficient generator of an architecture; and that modernism had failed to successfully deliver the everyday buildings that make the city.