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Spare us from drowning in life-sapping conformity


Everyman: Mr Average; common as muck; a nobody; typical; the person in the street.

There is a notion of what is normal, a quality so omnipotent that it becomes invisible. It is this invisibility by which we are measured: out of kilter; off the wall; black sheep; odd ball; square peg; STRANGER.

An architect's work is considered against an image of a typical person. Of course, this person does not exist, and yet we insist that this mythical person is the measure of what we do. The stranger, to me, is more interesting. This is the person who revitalises flagging conversations among groups of old friends. This is the person who brings different values to a community.

Some critics believe that buildings should be quiet and unassuming - blending into a background that represents some idealised backdrop to 'normal life'. There is, within Modernism, an idea of the understated, that allows people to add animation and colour.

I have difficulty with this idea, particularly as the context for Modernism has changed. In the 1920s and '30s, there were no multinationals, with their concepts of control by the application of common standards. In the middle of the previous century, management was carried out in a localised manner that left individuals free to organise themselves.

Codes of behaviour - manners - were well developed, but individual expression was encouraged. Today we have a national curriculum, and league tables which ensure maximum stress and conformity but discourage teachers from being inventive in the classroom. These are just a few examples of the social change which affects the architect. Modernism was a social ideal first, which unfortunately became a style.

However, the idea of a celebration of people is still relevant. Practical considerations of light, height, ventilation, and space contributed to the overall objective, which took advantage of new technology and building techniques. The result was cool, white and bright, with plumbing. It celebrated the people that it contained and allowed them to shine.

What is often forgotten today is that this work was startling. Only now, when the 'style' is more prevalent, do we begin to see it as the norm which retreats into the background. It was not like that when it was new. The danger now is that, as we continue to slide into a style which is corporate, affordable and nonstartling, it becomes a uniform, inhibiting any local expression of culture and custom. The word 'blandness'springs to mind.

If the context has changed, Modernism must evolve to suit, or even influence, the society which it serves. To use a musical analogy, Ian Dury and the Blockheads should prevail over the Pet Shop Boys. The work needs to be tinged with dirtiness, vitality, flexibility and individuality. Not everything is the same and everyone is special. Everyman is an outdated concept which denies people a sense of place. I no longer want to hear journalists talking of nice, understated, respectful designs.They are missing the point.

Mr and Mrs Average may have several jobs, strange pastimes and hobbies, wear individual clothes, and bring up their offspring in their own way.

If we abhor the idea of the nanny state, save us from buildings inhibited by the building inspector. He loves what I am trying to do and will help in any way. He loves it because it will help to make my city different from any other.

From my desk at Alsop Architects, Rotterdam

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