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Time for a reality check as we seek to invent the future

in practice

We have always been intrigued by ideas of reality, the most important idea being that we recognise that reality is itself an idea, an invention. Television, of which I have seen a fair amount recently, plays most heavily on this idea of reality. Reality TV is all. It is film footage of the Edwardians and the Second World War in colour. It is failed celebrities reviving interest in their real lives by copying real people (who once went into an unreal house - Big Brother - so they could then become real celebrities) by incarcerating themselves in a real jungle. It is all a real bore.

When there is a real disaster, we need real footage of real people experiencing real emotions to begin to understand the reality of horrendous statistics. Without this reality we become inured to the continual bombardment by news of the reality of impending doom; it seems that disaster is only real when it happens to places that we have, or might have, visited.

On a prosaic professional level, stereotype architects are often vilified because they do not live in the 'real world' but in a parallel fantasy world of ambitions and ideas. Ironically, some will simultaneously advise us to 'get real' if our fees rise and begin to reflect our real needs. And so the tiresome portrayal of architecture as the tragic struggle of commitment to ideas in the face of adversity is prolonged. We are taught this reality as students and it is promoted in the literature of architectural folklore. It is a model of reality that excuses our failings in the eyes of our peers and has been happily promoted by other professions who can feed off the fees it generates. When clients believe this model, it does real damage: great ideas are rejected as mere fantasy and ersatz 'visions' are promoted as innovation. There are a lot of the latter about at present.

This was highlighted at 'Touching the Real', a recent discussion about architectural education in Edinburgh. The more we speak of real projects in the real world (of the profession) as being different to the fantasy projects for the fantasy world (of education), the more we undermine our only real offer:

that 'offer' being the ability to imagine something that could soon become real and be rather better than the current reality. Of course we need to temper unbridled enthusiasm, for what we might do to improve things, with an awareness of what might happen if we get it wrong. History suggests that our failure will be at least as well celebrated as our success.

This was all elucidated over the recent holiday period as I juggled a series of books, a flurry of films, some travelling and a sequence of heavy meals. Two Penguin books, from its 'Great Ideas' series: Marx and Engels (The Communist Manifesto) and George Orwell (Why I Write), dovetailed brilliantly. I was left pondering the need to continue to imagine a better world and the dangers thereof; that is until Le Corbusier's When the Cathedrals were White suggested that outrageous rhetoric can often predict the (better? ) future.

It was, however, the juxtaposition of film and book that offered the greatest insight into why we need to invent the future and how we might do it. I watched Jaques Tati's Jour de Fete, Mon Oncle, Les Vacances de M. Hulot and Playtime, while reading David Bellos' excellent biography of the said tall balletically ungainly Frenchman. I learned that all Tati's 'actors' are in fact real people playing themselves:

Tati's genius was simply to get them to imitate themselves. The lesson is clear: we should spend time understanding what is required before putting forward, to client, city and publisher, yet another 'extraordinary avantgarde language of form and surface'. We might then realise, as did Tati, that careful study of the needs of the lives of real people stimulate the most fantastic responses.

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