Serving up fast track construction for whopper office projects
It is a truth universally acknowledged that anyone in search of a justification for dabbling in architecture - other than a mad desire to take a drink from the firehose of art history - must be in search of a seriously commercial firm. By seriously commercial is meant a firm with offices in the City - not in Hoxton, or on the river - a firm where the senior staff wear identical suits; where the sliding glass doors open and close by themselves; where the only reading material in the reception area is the inhouse magazine - and where the in-house magazine contains such blood-curdling, totalitarian, non-art historical mission statements as the following: 'A building is a means to a business objective. Integration of the construction process helps achieve this objective by complete dedication to the client's needs from the entire design and construction team.'
Clearly compared to 'cultural architecture' commercial architecture is strong stuff. A place where the blood on the carpet is real blood, the desks - cleared by midday - are real desks, the drastic decisions taken really are drastic. Why? Because, as our militant in-house magazine explains: 'There is nothing more frustrating than watching a project slide further and further away from its intended date of completion while its cost rises higher and higher. In some way everyone on every team can help prevent this happening. It is their duty to do so whenever they can.'
It may be OK to be three and a half years late with the Jubilee Line Extension. But in the world of commerce, directors fall on their swords, whole teams get fired, people go out of business and subcontractors do not get paid.
It is because of this difference that there are two worlds of architecture. One is populated by celebrities who are ceaselessly praised, the other is populated by unknown or reviled people who carry visiting cards with titles such as 'president', 'principal', 'design director' 'vice-president' and ' director of communications'. The people in the former group have an unreal job to do - who needs another art gallery? But the people in the latter group have an impossible job to do. Their job is to try to make architecture and building work at the speed of a fast food restaurant.
This has always been impossible - think of the way Canary Wharf cruised sedately into bankruptcy 10 years ago - the buildings were going up and the market was going down, but no power on earth could synchronise the two movements. Now, with the fall of the dot coms - a fall, incidentally, that could just as well be blamed on the poor supporting performance of the construction industry (the most fragmented industry in the modern world), as on the greed, the herd instinct or the madness of investors - the demand for speed in construction is going to become even more insistent. Having once seen 2,000m 2offices remodelled in eight weeks from the first phone call, tomorrow's clients are going to be trying for six weeks max. And if these clients also realise the pointlessness of the obstacles being put in the way of fast building by the planning bureaucracy, the conservation agencies and the friends of the views of Saint Paul's. . .
Ever since information technology introduced business at the speed of thought, business has dreamed of being able to order up buildings like hamburgers - 'A whopper office floor with full retail wrap please, and could I have extra parking with that?' What it doesn't want to order up is a lecture series on cornice lines, or months of archaeology.
And if it doesn't get what it wants? Well, there are other firms, other parts of the country, even other countries. Commercial architecture already knows that.