It's easy to alter perception, buildings are more difficult
Hindsight is a wonderful thing; perception is much more magnificent and as freely available. It can be offered before, during and after the event and continuously modified in response to the shifting situation. It can also be attributed to others for a myriad of purposes.
In a debate on Radio 4 on the ban on wearing a jubbah (full-length Muslim outer garment) in a school in Luton, one politician's perception was offered in defence: that the ban was the result of both the management of the risk of a mobile fabric trip hazard, and a liberal policy of encouraging student attire, ensuring that neither creed nor class interfere with the well managed process of integration into our culturally diverse society. While I found the perception to be grotesque, I recognised that it was offered as one possible insight. In these political conversations, perception becomes a tool for the abdication of authorship of idea: implying many views but proposing none.
In architecture it is the reverse. Our perception of the information to hand is our core skill. Our difficulty is finding people who enjoy our perceptions enough to pay us to perceive things for them. Then our perceptions may become buildings, which we hope our clients (as the possessors of hindsight) will not overly criticise and that others might enjoy. Our perception becomes our signature.
As an architect I can offer one perception of towers, trophies, signature architecture and branding. To get permission to build a tower you need signature architecture (acknowledged leading-edge design brands with cultural and political kudos). All parties are aware at the beginning that the trophy is the planning application. The brand charges a good fee because it knows it can get more area through the process of planning than others.
(Maximum area and volume - despite declining net-to-gross efficiencies - gives what I would term the 'gross gross'potential of the site). The brand can do so because it is generally accepted that it is more likely to produce a good building and addition to the skyline than others. The brand practice, therefore, must build out the trophy (writing its retention into the appointment documents) to ensure it is not built bastardised, damaging the brand. The brand deserves to get well paid, because its perception of the nature of the deal, resultant form and the city skyline is what will bring the project to fruition.
As a columnist I can offer another perception.That fees are often agreed for applications on submission; again on success;
and again when the architect is not retained for the construction phase, or when the site is sold on. I can assert that in many instances applications are made with all parties aware that the architect will not be retained for construction. In the worst cases, it might be recognised from the outset that the developer intends to build a super-sized, dumbed-down product that will get a similar rent, and the architect will publicly bleat about the bastardisation of the project while privately pocketing a healthy fee. This is the cynical view missed by the worst of the naive press, which clamour for scandalous banner headlines yet say nothing new.
Either way, maintaining the quality of architecture is tough. My perception is that we should make deals wherever we can to strengthen our position, while simultaneously avoiding compromise. Architecture is a balance between making good buildings and good money; all architecture is to some extent commercial, but it is also about degrees of perception. My perceptions will be informed by whether I like the building, the architect, the client, the deal or any combination of the four.
That is the delight of perceptions; they can be swiftly resituated. The difficulty is that buildings can't.