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Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Where work and blogging meet

If you've noticed a little shallowing in depth of recent posts, you're right. Over the past month I've been busier than I have at any time over the past three years, with more concurrent schemes than I can effectively manage, all hugely demanding of every ounce of skill and experience I have. Which I'd love to tell you all about but I can't, so I'll have to comment by proxy. And how appropriate following my previous post.

Of little interest to those outside London, Prince Charles has intervened over the new designs for the Chelsea Barracks site by Richard Rogers. He has proposed his tame classicist Quinlan Terry to the site owners, the Qataris. In my view, Rogers' scheme is lazy and uninspired. Terry is clumsy and much of his output grates as uninformed pastiche, like an oil copy of a European old master by a sweatshop Chinese artist, such as those sold on eBay. I wouldn't go for either. But this isn't a point about this scheme in particular, it's about the disjunct between what designers think the Client should want, what the Client actually wants and how what the designer proposes impacts on those who will have to use the building, or look at it, or live next to it.

Architects are generally narcissistic to the point of rivalling politicians. Where politicians strive for the short-term gain that will earn them a poll boost and sod the future beyond, architects strive for the portfolio moment, that instant in time when the builders have finished but before the Client occupies the structure and starts to ruin it. This is when they hire expensive photographers (at the Client's cost) to capture the exquisite form of their creation, both by day and by night. And this is where their interest ends. Job done. Next portfolio moment, please.

In practice this generally means a quiet battle between architects and those representing their Clients, as we tone down the more ludicrous, self-indulgent or frankly insane scheme details that they imagine will give good portfolio. We call this 'value engineering' but it isn't really; it's actually a reality check for designers who are sufficiently self-deluded to believe that they can change human nature. Like politicians. So we quietly remove structural glass floors from the ladies toilets, straighten extreme angles that would halve human occupancy and demur from the suggestion that spending 20% of the scheme budget in cladding the building with Arctic seal-fur is a sound design option.

Generally, sanity prevails and most commercial buildings end up being sound and usable structures and most Clients end up being persuaded that some remaining design feature adds distinction and importance to their investment and most architects end up getting some decent portfolio.

One aspect of Labour's government over the past decade stands out more prominently than any other; the absolute absence of anyone performing this function on politicians on behalf of their clients - us. This is what we imagined civil servants were for. But Labour's legislative history seems as though the entire civil service has gone native, egging their politicians on to not only put a glass floor in the ladies' toilets but to locate them immediately above the public cafeteria.

You may disagree. You may think I am depriving the world of the expression of genius, that I am frustrating the realisation of what the client should want if he but knew it. And that civil servants should, like Mad King Ludwig's builders, accede to every cake-icing turret, every grotesque gargoyle, without impediment.

The difference is, my continued employment depends on how well I serve my clients. If we, the public, are the clients of both politician and civil servant we have a situation in which one of them - the politicians - can be fired, albeit only after a few years, but the other can't. One expects the reality of politicians and architects to be distorted by vanity, hubris and self-delusion, but one also expects a civil service that guards and safeguards the client's interests. And in this it has failed.


Nick Drew said...

one also expects a civil service that guards and safeguards the client's interests

you have perhaps read Hatfield Girl, here

it's either banned or compulsory said...

I heard a recent radio review of the latest Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
It came to the entry for a recently deceased UK architect, I don't recall his name but he was endemic during the 70s and 80s.
The Biography stated that " He was responsible for providing London with some 400-500 buildings, mostly offices, none of which were of any value or merit ".


Newmania said...

Hmmm what does it say about me that I thought you were on rather good form

Mac the Knife said...

Read Oborne's 'The Triumph of the Political Class'.

You'll need a stiff drink to hand, and I suggest securing all sharp objects before you start, but it details the whys and wherefores on arse-clenching detail.

Pat said...

Surely the theory is that our MPs represent us and keep the government in check- the civil service function is to carry out the government's plans where they are within the law and point out where they aren't.
Of course with the government formed from the majority party and able to appoint as many as it likes to sinecures (or ministerial rank if there's a difference) there's no chance of this happening.
A directly elected prime minister (or whatever title)and a ban on MPs taking office is the only step forward I can see- but whenn will it be in the interest of the government to introduce this?