‘We were skint and I needed work’: Rory Olcayto interviews AJ columnist and ‘The Thick of It’ writer Ian Martin on his life in architectural journalism
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Why did you get a job as an architectural journalist?
We were skint. Eileen, my missus, was pregnant and gave up work. I was in a band and working on a local paper in north London. We were being turfed out of our rented flat, had to find somewhere cheap to live, so moved to Catford. We had to sell the car, so I needed a job a bus ride away. Building Design was in Woolwich then, so I got a job there. The architectural press was plunging downmarket, and interested in recruiting proper hacks instead of wafty lofty types steeped in the mysteries of epic space. It was the same when I moved to the AJ in the mid-80s. The bloke I replaced as news editor was a beacon of cultured learning, hugely loved and admired by the profession. I was ignorant and vulgar. Looking back, I can see why certain types patronised me. I don’t blame them, that was their job. Plunging into ‘architecture’ was a bit of a culture shock. I’d never associated with so many bourgeois wankers in my life. Overwhelmingly, though, architecture was a pleasant surprise. I met a lot of ordinary, unponcey architects and discovered that the profession is stuffed with clever, kind people.
Why did you shift from straight journalism to satire?
I did a lot of very boring stuff in the 90s. But always, week after week, there was the weekly column in BD, then AJ, then BD again, then AJ again. 22 years I’ve been doing it now. It’s seen my household through two (three?) recessions now. Somehow the arts editor of the Guardian read and liked my column and asked me to do a funny weekly thing. It was awful, genuinely terrible. They sacked me after a couple of months, so I sulked then persuaded my brother to start a satirical website, Martian FM. We did that for a couple of years until Armando Iannucci spotted it and invited me to write gags for a Channel 4 thing he was doing. That was the biggest break of my life. I got to have a late pass on Series 1 of The Thick of It, much of it overwrought angry swearing, then got to be a member of the writing team.
Did satirising the architectural profession provide the right kind of training for your role on The Thick of It?
I don’t think so. The column has always been hived off in its own little world. But news journalism at the AJ and elsewhere taught me important lessons about economy and the three criteria for any ‘story’. Whether it’s a shitty page lead about some monolithic corporate architecture provider clinching a deal to design monolithic corporate bollocks for some billionaire gangster consortium in China, or whether it’s a screenplay. You still need heat (controversy or conflict of some kind), topspin (something that makes you want to hear more) and pipework (facts or backstory).
Why are you so angry about the coalition government?
Really? Why? Are you kidding? A shit-awful Cabinet of Entitlement, screwing our poorest and most vulnerable fellow citizens? And nurturing the heartless greedy arseholes whose SOLE MISSION is to steal our common wealth? Fuck ‘em.
Who’s your hero?
Berthold Lubetkin. He represented the noblest of all architectural endeavours: housing for ordinary people. As opposed to housing rich bossy clients in some dream home with the complicated German roof that always ends Act II of Grand Designs. Plus, he was the cleverest and funniest architect I ever met.
Ian Martin on satire, Berthold Lubetkin and wafty lofty types