It may be beautiful architecture ... but does it plug into a laptop?
Years ago one of the motoring weeklies used to have a feature called 'Fragments on Forgotten Makes'. There was a picture of an old codger leafing through prehistoric back issues and every week he would draw from them the story of some long-extinct and curious motor vehicle - rear-wheel steering, radial engines inside wheels, body made of paper, and so on.
I doubt this feature is still running, but the idea had merit. Suppose someone who had been writing in architectural magazines for a long while started trawling through their cuttings files and drawing out extinct and curious ideas that they themselves had once confided to print?
The first such item that comes up in my files is a short piece in the mba Journal for August 1970 in which - posing as a front-line expert on the housing problem - I urge the government to requisition all unoccupied dwellings in London; provide 'positive encouragement for shared occupancy in all urban areas,' and offer tax inducements to bring about 'the sale to the state and leaseback to tenants of all owner-occupied dwellings.'
Before any of these revolutionary policy initiatives can be adopted, I then announce in my book Architecture versus Housing that 'the unworkability of conventional housing finance will within a decade bring about a radical change in housing policy which owes nothing to the principle of permanence.' Once again nothing happens.
Five years later, I explain in this very magazine that 'eight million houses could be built out of the 80 billion steel cans produced in the United States every year,' whereas brick production is only enough to build 800,000.'
I will spare the reader the background to these statements, because I have exhumed them only to establish a proper atmosphere of scepticism in which to repeat one more prediction from a more recent book: 'All buildings, from the private house to the mighty office tower, are beginning to slip away from the art-historical realm of permanent and appreciating value, into a limbo where their real value resides in their rock-bottom information-utility alone.'
Despite its echoes of my earlier faux-apocalyptic style, I believe this statement does at least correspond to one level of reality, which is what emboldens me to repeat it. When I wrote about the spread of 'shared occupancy' to more and more Manhattan towers last week, what I failed to stress was the speed at which this process was happening; that the sub-dividing phenomenon was not even primarily urban; that it was all interior design because it scarcely ever involved new building, and that it was virtually all design and build. E-commerce may require office space, call-centre space and warehouse space, but all three are seldom found in the same place.
As the partner in charge of the media studio of a major New York office succinctly put it: 'Internet companies have no infrastructure. All they know is that they want their office online in 12 weeks. If they had to wait for as long as it takes to build a new building, they would lose it.'
At present her studio has in hand about 20 Internet projects worth more than $100,000 plus another 20 miscellaneous commissions. Like most people servicing the Internet boom, she finds it hard to believe that it is sustainable, even though her studio is working seven-day weeks to sustain it. 'It's got like Name That Tune. Name that tune in 12 seconds, then 10 seconds, then five seconds and so on. It's getting to the point where your fees are not enough for what you are being put through. It's your quality of life in the end.'
There's a fragment on a forgotten make for you.