Archives for category: Heroes

(For Jim Stephenson and Threshold Architecture Hub Brighton for the Love Architecture Festival)

There’s a strange myth that’s perpetuated by older architects that serves only to reassure themselves that they’re still relevant in a changing world – the myth that architecture is a skilful mastery of form and light and something that you get better at as you get older. It’s a little like Yehudi Menuhin telling Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious that they’d never get anywhere because they couldn’t play – missing the point that each new generation invents their own rules and plays the game its own way.

Architecture as a discipline discriminates against the young – it’s too often taught by middle aged practitioners with too much time on their hands who surround themselves with the tutors and critics architects they were taught by, hoodwinking students into the notion that architecture is a learned art, handed down by generation to generation. Who can forget that tragic image of Frank Lloyd Wright, master, pencil in hand, ‘correcting’ students work with them gazing adoringly up at them? For someone purporting to be interested in Modernism, he wasn’t remotely interested in sweeping out the old.

There’s nothing sadder than working within established traditions, this unquestioning assumption that there are a priori codes, rules and conventions, as typically purported by this older generations, crushing the life of the next generation with their miserable desire to maintain the status quo. For all it’s faults, what’s great about the AA is that it’s generally only possible to teach there for a short amount of time: there’s no permanent jobs, no tenure – only short term contracts where teachers are encouraged to move on after a few years, which encourages renewal. I know my time is limited there – as it should be. The relentless sweeping out of the old – good and bad together – is an essential part of making way for the new.

Modernism at its best is about a process of reinvention akin to punk – a process where each generation of new architects establishes new ways of working that purposely fly in the face of the previous. The incredible Cineroleum was an amazing example of this – a ramshackle self-organising group with no authorship, hierarchy or formal entity – challenging the notion that extraordinary architecture needs quality materials, formal control, discipline, order or craft.

The Cineroleum’s inventive use of (found, scavenged) materials reminded me when another practice – AOC – said ‘Truth to materials? That’s bollocks.” In an age when so few architects have reinvented ways of talking about architecture, ways of practicing architecture – here was a group that you knew even from their name (Agents of Change) they were incapable of doing anything boring.

I saw AOC talk once – they blew me away. They were all so young, so provocative, so fresh. Instead of a practice made up of a monoculture of architects all from the same mould of truth, materials and buildings – here was a practice as rock n roll band who know there was no such thing as truth, no such thing as material integrity and that there was no need to talk about architecture using the same tired old clichés.

They were a band who even had a cultural interpreter – Daisy Froud – as part of their team, How great was that? Instead of just buildings, they also designed games, scenarios and ideas. It seemed that instead of an office, they just had a kind of pop up space with sofas and Russian books lying around.

This youthful idealism is so often cruelly dismissed by ageing practitioners – who still feel there is a ‘correct’ way to lay a brick. An older architect told me how shocked they were that the 20-something Feilden Fowles had never served apprenticeships with established practices for any period of time, and how, disapprovingly, the height of their ambition coincided with a period of their (youthful) constructional naivety. Surely this is how it should be: huge ambition with limited knowledge of how it ‘should’ be done. It was, of course, the same ambition that motivated Feilden’s father to establish his own practice at a similar age as equivalently un ‘qualified’ non-architects in a run down old premises on the London Road calling itself the Community Architecture Shop, and trying to find new ways of working and structuring a practice.

I failed in my attempt to get the word ‘responsible’ removed from one University’s architectural teaching manifesto. Careful, cautious, sensible, polite, level headed: these are all things that architects are taught to aspire to be, and all too willing sign up to be by joining the ‘professional bodies’ that try to define what architecture could be, a place of large and imposing institutions, a world of respect, tradition and torpor. What place in the established profession for the provocative, the hot headed, the idealistic, the impetuous… and the new? As Steve Jobs said about youth: “Stay hungry. Stay Foolish”

I was shocked recently after seeing the banality of a once-great architect’s recent work – and asked the project architect ‘what happened?’ She replied – which explained everything: “He got, well… old’.  Trying it out, trying to make it work, squeezing new ideas into unexpected places, inventing the future: these things are only possible by the young. Older architects – without exception – run out of that most important – the only important – motivation in architecture: the desire to change the world, the desire to make things different than they are now.

It’s impossible to think of the Ramones without thinking of their first album artwork in 1973 – a photograph taken by Roberta Bayley of the four ‘brothers’ dressed in identical uniforms, skinny ripped jeans, cheap plimsolls and leather jackets leaning nonchalantly against a distressed wall with the band name looming large above them. There’s such a great deal architects can learn from pop music, and in particular the Ramones, who showed us that it’s about everything as well as the music – it’s about the invention of an identity that gets lived and breathed.

The Ramones understood the potential of the graphic image. You’d have bought the record on the strength of the album artwork and its promise of irreverent polemic without even hearing the first perfect minute and a half of existential angst that opens side one. It’s astonishing just how much one photograph can say about a band.

So many of us still see the building as a divine and pure object of desire, capable of telling its own story. But architects don’t just make buildings; we also create an image, an image that places us in the cultural context in which we operate.

I can’t help but wonder whether architects should be more like the Ramones, who couldn’t really play and could hardly sing, but knew that the music was only part of the story.  If only more architects understood that design is an attitude as much as a thing, an identity that we can try on, change, adapt, use to provoke and communicate with, a loaded and charged social and political tool and that it isn’t just about the building.

Alec Issigonis designed the first Mini in about 1957 on the back of a napkin. It was such a revolutionary idea, yet so simple and so beautiful. It was easy to communicate with a few pen sketches the intelligence of the thing – a tardis like box that was bigger on the inside than on the outside, where every square inch of space was maximised so that four people could sit in comfort and still have acres of storage space around them.

Issigonis achieved it by mounting the engine, gearbox and radiator sideways, by eliminating anything that wasn’t essential and by getting his old friend Alex Moulton to design tiny rubber suspension pieces instead of springs to stop suspension turrets from jutting into the passenger cell.

It was also, in the early days, just so beautiful – the two spoke Bakelite wheel, the wand like gear stick, those lovely door pulls which where just a piece of plastic coated wire, the sliding windows, those little toggles that were the locks, and the numberplate that flipped down when you opened the boot.

It seemed so obvious to me that architects had such a great deal to learn from his attitude to packaging space, yet remember being told by an old tutor of mine when I was at the AA when I asked her why we thought about space in such a different way to Issigonis: ‘God, you’re so stupid Piers, I cant even believe you’ve asked that question’. But I never understood, because she never told me, why architects couldn’t learn from Issigonis.

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