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.
Thirty years on despite much excitement little appears to have changed. I am writing this on a plane (admittedly on an iPad not longhand) bound for Harvard where I will be giving a lecture to the Graduate School of Design on developed but similar views. For us architecture’s greatest project is still to make the everyday building ‘ExtraOrdinary’ (the ordinary is not good enough). And that great architecture is that which accommodates and enhances the theatre of life (rather than the particular programme of the moment).
There has however been a very significant shift in attitudes in general within architecture. In 1989, we spoke of camps. Of modernists, of post-modernists, of deconstruction (was it a camp or a po-mo sub set) and of classicists. We were all very committed and very intolerant of each other: we were suspicious of pluralism and pluralists. We were attacked for these internecine battles and learned much, if painfully, through the once dreaded and derided public consultation process. Crucially we now recognise that something we do not best like might still be good – as Proust noted ‘the best is the enemy of the good’. Consequently debate in architecture now is not about ‘the battle of the styles’ but about the essential quality of the building or place. This focus away from the battle to become the accepted orthodoxy (which incidentally still happens to be a new tolerant ‘modernism’!) to a more useful and historically contextualised idea of debate about whether a building offers delight to all (or at least a good number) is, in my view, all for the good. We have learnt much about and of tolerance.
Beyond the small world of architecture in the much more important and larger world of life, these ideas of tolerance and the benefit of uncertainty seem however, to have been forgotten. The cyber world of Twitter, Facebook and other social media is full of bullying and witch hunts. I choose to stay out of that world. But I cannot stay out of society and, alarmingly, the idea of sentencing without trial is increasingly accepted as necessary ‘for the general good’. True to the the law of inversion the more we revere the Magna Carta the less we respect habeus corpus. Indeed the more closely I look back to 1989 the more clearly I recognise that tolerance accommodating uncertainty has all but disappeared, to be replaced by intolerance justified by certainty.