Rules of engagement: Allford stakes out his territory
Following a brief conversation with the editor at the St John restaurant in Clerkenwell (while delighting in a significant share of a whole roast suckling pig followed by a week of digesting), I now find myself embarking on a new project - this column. How appropriate it is that I was passed the baton by Will Alsop, following a chance encounter in the same venue on a different evening. I could sign off now:
'From a paper-clad table at St Johnà' However, as with all things architectural, it's not that easy. So what does the year hold, and what will be the 'conditions of engagement'? It strikes me that the easiest way to predict any conditions likely to arise as supposedly vital new areas for discussion is to flick back through the history of the recent, and indeed not-so-recent, past. And if parallels of the conditions we might face are sourced through study of the past, what of the options for an architectural response? Are they, too, to be found lurking in precedent?
The answer for me is undoubtedly a resounding 'yes'.
This is not a pessimistic clarion call for navel gazing or introspection, but an opinion about the importance of context to the making of architecture. That context for me is political, financial, historical and social - the latter too often forgotten in our explorations of architecture. It is an opinion that I will doubtless return to. After all, that too is what columns are all about: supporting platforms, freeing up facades and the recycling of ideas.
Which leads me to consideration of the old favourites of architectural discussion:
long hours, low pay, bloody-minded clients;
the stupidity of the planning system and the harsh realities of democracy in action;
the culture of blame and risk so beloved of health and safety apparatchiks (the vultures of the world of safety are scarcely interesting enough to attract even this modest term of abuse); the highs and lows of colleagues and rivals; the claims - true or false - of the protagonists of the latest 'ism'; the failure of the architectural press to embark upon a campaign of intelligent architectural criticism; the endless haggling between RIBA and ARB and the linked debate about the nature of architectural education. The latter point is still, ironically in an age of 'lifetime learning' (itself another glib catch-all phrase), assumed to be the responsibility of the schools to take on and the profession to moan about.
Why, considering all of the above, do we do it? Because architects are necessarily optimists - a view I share with my predecessor Will Alsop; optimists engaged in the business of examining, repairing or making new the environment around us, with the idea of 'freeing things up' and allowing for the potential for life to be improved a little. We are rarely in a position to change the world, and we are probably at our most destructive when we aspire to.
Which brings me back to one of the many apposite aphorisms of the late Cedric Price:
'No one should be interested in the design of bridges - they should be concerned with how to get to the other side.' I can think of no better justification for the recycling of ideas.