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There's still magic in architecture - we just need to find it

Magic isn’t Derren Brown; it’s more Carlo Scarpa. So cast your own spell, says Rory Olcayto

Architecture is a magical act. Making a building is like pulling a rabbit from a hat – only very, very slowly. In the end, you get something from nothing: atoms coalesce into solid forms, a microcosmos is born. Architects cast spells. Those sketches and diagrams you keep for the duration, especially the one when you first meet your client – King Arthur to your Merlin – well, those are spells. No one else, except another architect perhaps, really understands them but your sketches, your diagrams? They are magical icons loaded with intent.

Before we had art and science there was only magic. Magic is a way of looking at the world, of feeling, divining, representing. It’s not Paul Daniels or Derren Brown; it’s more Carlo Scarpa or Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It’s Van Gogh too, and Malevich and Rembrandt, but it’s also Erwin Schrödinger and Peter Higgs. It also might be you. Try to remember…

It can be hard to see the magic today, under the weight of PQQs, PFIs, frameworks, red tape and any manner of the other black arts that seem designed to neutralise your role. But the magic you felt when you first began your studies? It’s still there. Somewhere.

Sometimes it takes another to remind you, jolt you, shock you all over again. Someone like Peter McCaughey, the Irish artist I discussed last week, who I first worked with 20 years ago during the Glasgow Winterschool, and worked with again a couple of weeks ago during a design charrette in the same city. McCaughey’s work is important. It is mysterious, funny and thoughtful. Can architecture be like that too?

Years ago now, travelling back from Helsinki, on the way to the airport McCaughey asked the taxi to stop so he could fill his empty travel bag with snow. In his essay Not Untitled, in the volume Cultural Hijack: Rethinking Intervention, he recalls: ‘The bag of snow and I travel from Helsinki via Heathrow to Glasgow. The security team who scan the bag get a shock when I am asked to open it. No obvious rule has been broken and I get to take my snow home. I travel around friends’ homes inviting them to remove their shoes and socks and stand on Helsinki. The snow finally disappears after five days.’

Once McCaughey drew a circle on a map of Glasgow’s gridiron and resolved to walk the line. But the grid kicked back, tried to block his path: walls, offices, homes, but also pubs, shops, alleyways, even stationary vehicles, showed their opposition. McCaughey walked his line though. It was important to see it through.

Another moment in time. Another McCaughey project. Spring ‘96. There was no fanfare, no flyers, not a single corporate sponsor. Without warning long-forgotten glass paving lights came to life. Nearly 40 of them, made into something else, with light-switching systems, projected images, sound and embedded objects (including wasps and fish). Then, again without warning, and after only 14 days, the lights switched off, the artworks vanished. Perhaps it was just a dream. But whose?

One thing McCaughey always does when he sees a bent lamppost, sign, or tree, no matter where he is, is grab it and strain and struggle with it, as if he’s wrestling it to the ground. Ha ha. So what? It’s been done a million times before. By kids! But what does it mean to do something like that? As McCaughey has written before: it’s about intervening in your own life. You should try it, dear reader. What have you got to lose?

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