Why we can thank infrastructure for the victory of the avant-garde
Over Christmas I have found that twice as many drunken people lurch over to me at parties with a straight question than at other times. Their question goes something like this: 'How can it be that all sorts of weird buildings are being put up nowadays and nobody ever protests when 20 years ago all hell broke loose if you so much as mentioned putting up a small office block in the City of London?'
Despite the fact that 90 per cent of these questioners cannot tell the difference between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jacques Yves Cousteau, their question is a valid one that deserves an answer. So, instead of engaging in dubious futurology, as I usually do at this time of year, I am going to tackle it.
Let us begin by agreeing that during the past 20 years, the freeforming influence of Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Zaha Hadid and others has dissolved all recognisable building types into a baroque expressionist style that previously barely existed. Let us also agree that, during the same period, the Conservation Movement has been making it impossible to tell whether this grain silo is really a museum of modern art, or that warehouse is really an experiment in loft living. This, in turn, has led to the existence of so many cases of false identity - otherwise known as 'stealth buildings' - that to blame them for the whole thing would be good enough for the man at the party with his six-pack of lager.
But there is more to it than that. Why, for instance, did the 'impossible' architecture of the Gehry and Hadid school suddenly find itself at the sharp end of design, evading the net of cost control with ease, and blithely ignoring every charge of irrationality?
This happened because, with the waning of PostModernism in the late 1970s, the computerisation of architectural design had reached a point where it demonstrated a threat to the traditional practice of architecture and the jobs of thousands of salaried architects and assistants. In response there were calls for the closure of schools of architecture, but in the main, the profession fell back - as in times of danger it always does - upon the genius of its own avant-garde. Hence the importance of the first breakthrough, in 1982, when Zaha Hadid, then teaching at the AA, won the international Hong Kong Peak competition. Never mind that that particular project came to nothing.
The credibility gap had been bridged, other competition wins followed and, far from decimating architecture, CAD was captured by creative genius.
The forgoing gives us all but one of the ingredients of our answer to the big question. We have computerisation; fear of obsolescence and avant-garde talent. We need one more element to explain the present uncritical atmosphere, something big to take the eyes of the media off the ball so that nobody blows a whistle and comes out banging on about the rape of St Paul's, the glory of trabeated rectangles and more adaptive reuse. Cue infrastructure!
In 1997 a new reformist government is elected. By a miracle, infrastructure - everything that architects are NOT responsible for - instantly fills the newspapers.
There is a transport crisis, roads, railways and airports. There is a crime crisis, a drugs crisis, an insurance crisis, an impending war in the Middle East. Everything other than architecture requires urgent attention.
Billions of pounds are hurled at transport infrastructure problems. With all this going on no one has time to protest about Baroque Expressionist architecture. Planners look to their pensions and the gates of development are propped wide open.
Freedom for architects means everyone is looking the other way. It could be your motto.