The red house is not perfect, but the grace of humanism is visible in the gleaming oak staircase
[AJ WRITING PRIZE] Shortlisted: Poppy E McNee
There is a disquiet. You can feel it when dealing with the diminishment of the architectural contract, upon introduction to yet another obscure and freshly essential sub-consultant, at the degree shows with the beautiful illustrations of dystopias on the walls - images almost empty of people and particularly devoid of anyone, even in the far distance under the gathering mist and crows, who could be an architect.
There is an honour in being part of a profession in a time of profound change. You have an awareness of a game all around you with evolving rules, some of which you are shaping - in this dream landscape there is always something shifting just out of sight.
Once, the architect had a fixed place; we could be buried with the king. Now we are far from royalty, an ancient profession lost in the hubristic woods of white-collar post-industrial revolution jobs, doomed to a mass grave. The hand used to be dominant. Now pen meets paper only after something has been printed, or to ease the birth of another digital sketch. We go out into the world with laptops, without models and drawings, paper and wood. Even the third language (spoken, written, drawn, made) of the technical drawing, the last refuge of production, is shrinking, as building information modelling(BIM) changes the delivery process across the profession.
The act of design has fallen into a shrinking gap between a rushed design stage, and a delivery process now fraught with risk and confusion.
We have a propensity to be sold tools that cripple us. A tool is a language. The computer sits in the place of the drawing board, the architect twists to the side to draw beside the keyboard, before retreating under headphones, to model in a software made for purchase-less surfaces with hard edges, in a never-ending plain, under a dead sky.
Delight does not come here, the architect seduced by parametric modelling is unsure of the value of beauty and creation, of a personal judgement, and most comfortable with something generated by data.
Is it any surprise our profession is becoming less valued? We build unlovely houses under the guise of affordable, we build rickety public projects with the value engineered into only a set of numbers.
We should embrace the idea of having a belief system constructed on something higher than fashion and profit, crafting ourselves a polemic, with all the risk of being wrong.
We have just become the first species on the planet to shape our own geological age, the Anthropocene, shortly to be accepted as part of the official Geological Timescale. The past few hundred years have changed our planet indelibly. More people are alive today than have ever been in human history, and most of us live in cities.
The Anthropocene is the conclusion to the past hundred years of our history and we have a duty to become the architects this new age needs.
The Red House, Bexleyheath, of 1860 by Philip Webb, was never used as the creative living and working centre it was intended to be. His first independent commission for William Morris was built on Pugin’s ideas of the English home and strengthened into a whole place of house and garden, hearth and landscape. The house is not perfect, but the grace of humanism is visible in the hunched form, the glossy oriels and coloured birds, in the gleaming oak staircase, in the glimpses of frieze. There is craft, colour, joy, and there is intellect.
Webb and his contemporaries resemble the collectivist studios and creative endeavours springing up in the wake of the star international architects. They dealt with the same problems of architecture affected by the industrial revolution that are challenging us now.
While the Arts and Crafts movement had a propensity to retreat into nostalgia and romanticism, it appears more relevant now when British manufacturing is almost dead, when the Earth is indelibly changed.
Today there are young, small collectives unafraid of considering the role of an architect in a wider context. But the entire profession needs to take responsibility for our collective duty, there is a greater role for us if only we could bring ourselves to be genuine.
The completion of the Red House, coincided with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, crystallising a revolutionary scientific concept. Imagine how Webb would have enjoyed being an architect now, despite the challenges - our own geological age, the ultimate challenge for a humanist, with all the knowledge we have about the intricacies and grace of natural systems.
Today’s office building is the precise inversion of the principles of the homes of Pugin that inspired Webb. Instead of a skin enclosing rooms for humans, the interior is anodyne and predictable, while the facade fights for meaningless individualism, disguising the ubiquity within.
If Pugin were alive today he would likely be fascinated with architectural ideas at the edge of progress, the ideas of biomimetics, the architecture needed for the age of the Anthropocene. Both Webb and Pugin drew upon the ingenuity of the natural world. Pugin was a true draughtsman; it is hard to see him accepting the limitations we have imposed upon ourselves with BIM and sketch modelling software.
We should do the same; it is our duty to the profession to regain some integrity, and we can begin with our tools. Draw, and think. Believe in something, and speak.
There is often a discomfort in looking backwards for our education, architecture schools rely on new and ever more startling glossy and sharp ideas - the image rules, the building becomes less and less necessary. The young architect learns a language of jargon that is hard to forget.
It requires bravery and intellect to step beyond fashion, to be genuine in this profession, to invite client, builder and banker with you on an honest endeavour. Architecture will not survive, even in its current mutation, unless we expand our own sense of duty and become architects of the Anthropocene.