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Three Classicists - Ben Pentreath on Firmness

Classicist Ben Pentreath on Firmness

Of all the Vitruvian attributes, firmitas, which translates as ‘stability’ or ‘firmness’, is the one I suppose most architects aspire to, whether or not they like to consider usefulness or delight (I’m not convinced they do).

Why are we in the game? It’s probably not because we enjoy meetings with planners, or health and safety legislation, or recessions. It’s because we like to have things built – to leave our mark on the world. And do to that, buildings must stand up.

Of course, we all like to leave our mark in different ways. One school of thought teams up with engineers and computer technology to form buildings of tortuous complexity. Another prefers massive superstructures clothed in glass curtain walling. And then there is the architecture of the business park, the school extension and the inner-city Travelodge – ubiquitous buildings with flat veneers of thin, flimsy cladding.

Why are we in the game? It’s because we like to leave our mark on the world

I like solid, masonry construction. I fear for a world in which building regulations create sandwiches of light plastic membranes in the interests of energy-efficiency, but which have none of the longevity, robustness and durable simplicity of materials such as brick, stone, timber and single sheets of glass.

For me, mark-making is really about town-making; slowly, so stability evolves over time. While I love working on single buildings, the larger composition provides the challenge and the excitement – I’m more John Nash than John Soane. Nash teaches us that one way to longevity is not necessarily the structure at all. In fact, it’s the delight.

In the longest term, even the most stable building turns to dust. A friend of mine says architects need to think more about what their buildings will look like as ruins. If I was allowed one thought to add to the style wars, it would be that classicism makes for beautiful ruins. Modernism doesn’t.

Ben Pentreath is the founder of Working Group Design

Three Classicists will be at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 29 May.

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