September 23, 2012


Architects are the last people who should shape our cities: New, shiny buildings are all well and good, but what architects forget about is a sense of place - and the beauty of wastelands (Jonathan Meades, 9/18/12, The Guardian)

New buildings are simple: imagination and engineering. New places are not. It seems impossible to achieve by artifice the parts with no name, the pavement's warts and the avenue's lesions, the physical consequences of changed uses, the waste ground, the apparently purposeless plots.

It shouldn't be impossible. One cause of this failure is architects' lack of empathy, their failure to cast themselves as non-architects: architect Yona Friedman long ago observed that architecture entirely forgets those who use its products. Another cause of failure is their bent towards aesthetic totalitarianism - a trait Nikolaus Pevsner approved of, incidentally. There was no work he admired more than St Catherine's College, Oxford: a perfect piece of architecture. And it is indeed impressive in an understated way. But it is equally an example of nothing less than micro-level totalitarianism. Arne Jacobson designed not only the building, but every piece of furniture and every item of cutlery.

At macro-level, a so-called master planner will attend to the details of streets, avenues, drop-in centres, houses, offices, bridges. The master planner is almost certainly an architect, even though planning and architecture are contrasting disciplines. There are countless differences between a suburb and, say, a shopping mall in that suburb. We are all familiar with the hubristic pomp that often results when actors direct themselves. Appointing architects to conceive places is like appointing foxes to advise on chicken security.

The human ideal is to revel in urbanistic richness, in layers of imperfection. I got sick of Rome when I worked there: too much perfection, too constant a diet of masterpieces - the lumbering, sod-you-ness of Basil Spence's British Embassy was peculiarly attractive. The only town in the Cotswolds that attracts me is Stroud, where the tyranny of oolitic limestone is ruptured by brick and slate.

The overlooked can only survive so long as authority is lax. When authority goes looking for the overlooked, the game is up - as it is today in the Lea Valley in east London. The entirely despicable, entirely pointless 2012 Olympics - a festival of energy-squandering architectural bling worthy of a vain, third-world dictatorship, a payday for the construction industry - occupies a site far more valuable as it was. It was probably the most extensive terrain vague of any European capital city. The English word "wasteland" is pejorative, lazy and more or less states that the place has no merit - so why not cover it in expressions of vanity?

Posted by at September 23, 2012 6:03 PM

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