Ian Martin feels the Call of Beauty at the RIPBA
Monday. My friend, the extreme conservactionist Dusty Penhaligon, has had a row with Amy, his eco-mental girlfriend in a balaclava, and is staying with me for a few days.
He’s invented something called ‘retro-historicist devolutionism’ and is keen for all tarted-up landmarks to be returned to their original function.Today, we discuss his plans for a ‘radical devamp’ of Liverpool Lime Street to a fully functioning, nationalised steam engine terminus.
Tuesday. Dusty’s latest idea: restore Battersea Power Station. ‘You could have it powered by Londoners’ shit…’ I skip lunch.
Wednesday. To the RIPBA for a research symposium: Call of Beauty. It’s full of people who are not quite sure why they’re here but are happy to be bunking off. I think many of the delegates may be on medication.
We’ve gathered to ask the big questions about Beauty. What is it? How do you spell it? Are you sure? Wouldn’t it be better if we spelled it Buty, so the conference title was even more awesome? What time’s lunch? Got much work on at the moment? Can I give you my card? Ooh, is that Alain de Botton? Any idea what this conference is about?
The last question is addressed by our fragrant chairman Sir Archie Fibonacci, the celebrated Royal Academician and exquisist. ‘Here’s a little exercise in what I call aesthetical engineering,’ he drawls. ‘Hands up those people who think they can recognise Beauty.’ Nearly everyone puts their hand up, like the pathetic wannabe exquisists they are. Fibonacci smiles, thinly. ‘Hands up those who think there’s any money in it these days.’ Obediently, all hands are lowered.And that’s the cue for Fibonacci to gather his papers in a huff. He sniffily informs us we’re all philistines and then sweeps dramatically from the room, leaving behind a stunned audience and the atomic diaspora of Vetiver by Guerlain.
An awkward silence. One of the symposium organisers announces there will be a Free Thinking Period. Diffidently at first, then in a frenzy, architects gravitate to the open microphone and blurt out their examples of Beauty. The Parthenon. Dew on a spider’s web. An Umbrian sunset. Various projects in progress, I’ve got some images on my laptop if anyone’s interested. Milton Keynes from the air. Molecular structures. The trajectory of bats. A massive pudding, with a large Armagnac, after a long boozy lunch. Hmm…
By the time I return it’s gone three o’clock and they’re halfway through the Human Blog presentations. Basically, a sequence of short disconnected talks delivered in the style of blog entries. Crucially, here in the sleepy, mentholated space of the T Dan Smith Suite, nobody can hear your spelling mistakes. I can’t make sense of what anyone’s saying, until I realise I must have missed the part where they all decided to talk SATIRICALLY.
Someone in a beard ‘warns of the perils of accepting ugly structures in the name of production efficiency’. Ha ha! An animated quangoid reverses reality by declaring that ‘architects have a problem with defining beauty, most people out there don’t’. Brilliant. Another bloke cleverly challenges our value systems by asking ‘which stakeholders’ actually care about Beauty in the built environment, and questioning ‘if a commercial case for Beauty in building can be justified’. By now I’ve got the giggles. This is like some amazing architectural comedy club.
Oh, my sides hurt. Wait. I’m the only one laughing. And why is there a horse wearing a trilby… ah, I must have nodded off in the pub. It’s all been a dream. A silly dream about architects and their bafflingly cynical definitions of Beauty.
I stumble outside, to stroll along the Thames and take in some contemporary architecture. My faith is restored. Real architecture – architecture that bends the knee to Beauty – is ‘all the stuff without adverts on it’. As the dying sun oozes over smart office blocks and luxury flats I’m reassured to know that Beauty is in such safe, and heavy, hands.
Thursday. Dusty’s on a roll. He’s proposing a ‘makeunder’ for the National Theatre,returning it to 1970s clarity, with pipesmoke in the foyer and sinister, Pinteresque intervals.
Friday. In the morning I listen to Dusty explain how Manchester should be ‘degenerated’. In the afternoon, he’s on about the Right To Rent and how swathes of north London could be ‘ungentrified’. I wonder aloud what Islington would look like ‘positively ladyfied’ but he’s not having it.
Saturday. To a Victorian pub with Dusty, who insists on warm beer and a wifi ‘cold spot’.
Sunday. Tidy the house while Dusty, from the recliner, drowsily unthinks the centre of Birmingham.