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Going out of fashion for architects is a fate worse than death

Paul Rudolph, who was always in some ways considered a young architect, was born in 1918 and died in 1997 having nearly reached the age of 80.

Sir James Stirling, who looked his age and died of complications following a minor operation, was very unlucky not to live beyond 66. Walter Gropius survived to the age of 86 and Le Corbusier was 78 when he died. Sir Edwin Lutyens managed 75 years, Mies van der Rohe 83, Richard Buckminster Fuller 88. And Frank Lloyd Wright was active until his death at 92.

Even Albert Speer reached 76 (despite a prison diet), and the prospects for Philip Johnson still look limitless at 94.

Clearly an inescapable part of being a famous architect, if only a small part of it, is to live to a great age. Provided the long years are spent in fruitful practice, they bring experience, wisdom, greater knowledge and more clients. Nowadays even the melancholy physiological side effects of age can be compensated for to an extraordinary degree. Wright in his last years may have been reduced to seeking inspiration in dreams, but just as Beethoven composed his greatest symphony when age had rendered him almost totally deaf, so did the great American master produce epics to the end.

And so did Mies van der Rohe, who designed his last great buildings - including the sadly unbuilt Mansion House Square in the City of London - when he was virtually crippled with arthritis.

Is there no downside to longevity in architecture? Well, if there is, it is not an obvious one. As students of military history will know, the hardest battles and the greatest slaughter bring the most rapid promotions in their wake, and thus the departure of Sir James Stirling made possible the rise of his long overshadowed partner Michael Wilford to his rightful position in the firmament - although perhaps not yet to the vacant chair in the ruling triumvirate of the profession that for two decades has been dominated by Stirling's peers, Lords Foster and Rogers, and is also coveted by the unique former partners, Farrell and Grimshaw.

The only real problem with congenital longevity must be that it means, as a cause of architectural promotion, that death is the exceptional event.

More often than not it is changing fashion that suddenly makes room at the top, although even this is not always equivalent to a death sentence, as might well be said to be proved by the career of the career of Paul Rudolph. He never stopped designing, never relinquished the ambitions that animated him in the 1960s, never closed his office, never even lost access to powerful clients.

Instead, in the aftermath of the protests at the Vietnam war and the other great student upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s, he merely slipped out of the mainstream architectural image cascade and ceased to be as fashionable as he had been.

So there is a lesson in all this.

While the implications of ageism in architecture are real, they go largely unprotested and no doubt will continue to do so.

From the standpoint of the young, the aged and admired do their worst by continuing to do their best, but no one can really blame them for it.

For what they protect is not only their own reputations, but the reputation of reputation itself. It is because of them that, despite a massively overcrowded profession, success is still rare enough to count.

In the end it is the value of success, upheld by the conspiracy of modern medicine and old fashioned dog-eared stamina, that keeps old architects in the saddle until they drop.

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