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Embrace failure like David Adjaye

Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail better, says Rory Olcayto

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

These words were first written – in that particular order at least – by Samuel Beckett, in his prose piece Worstword Ho, published in 1983. Worstword Ho has variously been described as the Irishman’s ‘most memorable formulation on failure’ and an ‘ironic theological speculation’, but in recent years it has become more famous as the inspiration behind the Silicon Valley mantra favoured by creative entrepreneurs: ‘Fail fast, fail early, fail often’.

Now architecture, too – a profession that could fairly describe itself as both creative and entrepreneurial – has its own version of Beckett’s catchy downer, with David Adjaye stating, in a BBC interview focusing on his career: ‘It’s better to fail but to have a strong position.’ Adjaye made his point while discussing the Stephen Lawrence Centre, which he designed and completed in 2007 but which has been plagued by vandals since it opened for business. ‘The project has failed. It’s gated, it has security cameras everywhere and it has barbed wire,’ he said.

Adjaye’s honesty is astounding and more than a little welcome. Not because the building he designed is a failure. In many respects the Stephen Lawrence Centre is a resounding success: its very existence, to designs by a talented architect, is cause enough for celebration. It is astounding simply because architects rarely concede this kind of ground.

Michael John Gorman, whose Fail Better exhibition in Dublin’s Science Gallery earlier this year celebrated ‘the instructive role of failure’, has said: ‘For Beckett, failure was the ultimate goal of art.’ This approach is problematic in the field of architecture and gives weight to the argument that denies architecture as a ‘true’ art, but it is, nevertheless, very useful in understanding how we separate exciting, interesting, ‘good’ architecture from the mediocre and average stuff that mostly bubbles up. Adjaye’s architecture, whether you like it or not, generally falls into that first category.

Our report, too, that the truck lift in the British Museum’s World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre – essential to the museum’s plans to loan out more of its collection (now archived deep underground) and bring more touring shows to Bloomsbury – is still not operational months after it was due should not be looked upon too sternly. When you take a risk and innovate in the field of architecture, problems – hopefully just of the teething variety – are usually more than likely.

Adjaye, however, is bold enough to embrace failure, perhaps even as a creative spur. Not only did his studio almost topple over after the credit crunch, his Idea Store in Whitechapel has seen its external escalator all but abandoned (leaving the overall scheme feeling a little half-cocked) but news this week has confirmed Wakefield Council will proceed with demolishing the London-based architect’s six-year-old, £6.2 million market hall (which we looked at in a building study in AJ 28.08.08). Yet today he is one of the world’s most in-demand landmark architects. And to blame Adjaye for the market hall’s failure, as one letter-writer does this week is to overestimate the power architecture plays in shaping a city’s fortunes. The role of the high street, where we buy our products, and the economic forces which show more profitability in leisure uses for city centres over retail are surely the factors most likely to have determined the fate of the market hall than its design.

Still, if failure means more buildings by the likes of David Adjaye and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, let’s paraphrase Beckett: ‘No matter. Fail again’. Twitter: @roryolcayto

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