Pop property development TV masquerading as design is a stab to the heart of the profession, says Rory Olcayto
Down the pub… As above, so below. Know what I mean? On the one hand, ‘above’, you have a construction industry where architecture has been totally commodified. Bought and sold. Like Mickey Rourke in Angel Heart. That bit where Robert De Niro eats the egg and says it represents the human soul and it turns out De Niro is actually the devil and he’s just eaten Mickey’s soul…well, that egg is the architectural profession and De Niro is… I dunno, let’s say the Candy Brothers, but he’s not really them, it’s the whole culture, you know? Yeah, you do. You know what I’m talking about.
So you have a situation where it’s a case of, ‘Would you like your project with or without design, Sir?’ because it’s like a paid-for-app for your phone, which is nice to have but it’s not really necessary, - you don’t need it really, do you?
Or maybe a developer is doing a shitpile of a building on a site but it’s not going to happen for a while, so they get some young gun, a hot shot, to do a ‘meanwhile use’, y’know a pop-up, a shelter, a pavilion-type thing.
It’ll be up and running for the summer and Innocent Smoothie sponsors it and that bloke from N-Dubz launches his aftershave there. And it’s quite well designed. Maybe the editor of Icon or Blueprint - no, actually, Dezeen - will give a talk there and guess what, the talk will be ‘Pop-Ups - good or bad for design?’ and it makes the developer look cool.
And then on the other hand, ‘below’, you’ve got a pop culture that doesn’t know the difference between architecture and property. It’s been a problem in the States for years. So you’ve got telly programmes that are really about property development but sort of masquerade as design programmes, or pretend to be about design, even if they’re not trying to be Betjeman’s Metro-land, or the Joy Of Essex, or any other Meades documentary. Which is fair enough.You can’t blame pop culture. In Britain architecture and property really are interchangeable.
Design is something that ‘adds value’. Architects say that all the time. Design isn’t an elegant problem-solving technique, or a set of principles and rules built up over generations, it’s just a gloss on the skirting.
You can’t blame Grand Designs, either. Or Kevin McCloud. Although what’s funny about that show is the architect is hardly ever in it. It’s about crazy punters who pretty much hand build their own homes.
It’s another stab in the heart of architectural professionalism. What else could it be?
Have you noticed how obsessed the BBC is with trying to top Grand Designs? Its latest effort, The House That £100K Built, is even scheduled an hour before McCloud’s show in the hope of catching his audience.
It’s a weird set-up. Two guys - one the former editor of the AJ, Kieran Long, the other ‘maverick architect’ Piers Taylor - do their best to improve a project already under way by suggesting changes here and there. Like, ‘why not use reclaimed metal cladding from a factory ventilation stack in the room upstairs instead of plastering it and painting it magnolia,’ says Piers, or ‘look, you don’t need a carpet mate, just leave the floor bare concrete!’ (pictured). The idea is this expert guidance keeps the budget below 100 grand. Austerity. Recycling. Blah, blah, etc.
Yeah, it was watchable. But is that what this great profession has been reduced to? Two of the brightest guys in the business fiddling round the edges? Cajoling here and there? Damage limitation?
Yeah - you’re right. Design for London was like that. It was set up basically to make things less shit. An entire organisation that didn’t design anything but said, ‘perhaps if you do this, or that, it won’t be so bad’. It’s what I’m saying. Endemic. As above, so below. Pint?