This is the final piece of my reality trilogy.
Following on from last week, when I was fixated on light and the right to it, I am now drawn to the intricacies of the party wall - awards and all - particularly since, as a Londoner, I have great experience of this invention's effect on our lives. Londoners are rightly obsessed with party walls; after all, their earlier manifestation was responsible for both the Great Fire of 1666 and, immediately afterwards, the early Building Regulations. The latter demanded that joists rotate to span from front to back (leaving the party walls as perfect imperforate fire barriers) and timber casements recess (to prevent licking flames leaping from floor to floor).
Depending on your tendency to be either an optimist or pessimist, the Great Fire can be regarded as having created either the twin evils of party walls and building regulations, or the delights of St Paul's Cathedral and the recessed window. The latter is of great importance as an early example of the deep layering of facades so beloved of architects today. (Despite these momentous events, the street pattern remained the same and St Paul's, designed to be viewed close up from narrow streets, was not itself deeply layered. ) All this ensures that party walls remain of contrasting interest to visitors. Antipodeans see them as comic evidence of our cramped land; the Japanese jealously view the way that absence of earthquake tremors allows maximisation of land use. We know that wherever possible, which is hardly ever, you must avoid assaulting these hallowed walls.
That is, unless you have to, which is almost always. If you must touch them, do so early, as otherwise you will be made to suffer even harsher financial penalties than those you face anyway. It is a remarkable tribute to the efficacy of the legal profession, at least in terms of generating fees in perpetuity, that 350 years on from the Great Fire, the layers of statute are so complete that they have transformed thin slivers of poorly constructed masonry into ancient, even noble, relics of very great value.
These layers of statute, of which the Party Wall Award is in reality but one, have called into being the many new professions specialising in the protracted negotiations involved in health, safety, contract, brief-writing, insurance, risk, client liaison, public consultation, planning, employment, management and project appraisal, review and assessment. The traditional consultants have followed suit, rebranded (a dreadful term) and divided. Be they architects (building, landscape, urban), engineers (structural, civil, M, E and PH) or QSs (cost, project management, building finance), none are content with their existing defined specialisations. They are tending, encouraged even, to concentrate on one sector, building type, client or building fragment or activity:from fire to repair, from paint to facade.
British construction is reinventing the bureaucracy of the British Empire in India:
there is a job for everyone and everyone is essential. The remarkable thing is not how well we build but that we ever get round to building at all. The existence of this mass of dependants encourages further statute; we will soon become guides competing at the gates of the legal labyrinth. The less experienced the tourist, the more we might charge, when all we have to offer are 'fix-it' skills. At least in Italy the need for the 'fix-it' trade is acknowledged simultaneously as both essential and corrupt, and it can lead to the occasional cheeky outcome: a private house in a public park or a private office funded by UNESCO. In the UK, it exists simply to allow us to build legally. The suggestion of the last decade was specialise or die. Alternatively, this could be seen as the last throw of the dice. Specialisation will lead to extinction, as there certainly will not be enough fees to go around.