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It is a pity that architects don’t talk more often about volume

Paul Finch’s Letter from London: Architectural discourse would benefit from a little more volume and a lot more time, says Paul Finch

To hear the way that architecture is frequently discussed, you would think it is almost entirely a matter of external appearance. Mind-numbing controversies about the merits or otherwise of particular buildings centre on two-dimensional images of facades. Take the Danny Libeskind proposal for the Victoria and Albert Museum, for example. The Times famously showed an elevation of Danny’s design which made it appear that the side of the building redesigned was in fact the front.

This sort of drivel no doubt contributed to the pitiful failure of the National Lottery to make funding available for that fine scheme, or indeed to Danny’s other Lottery contender, the Imperial War Museum outpost in now-fashionable Salford. Both were denied funding on the grounds that they were insufficiently distinctive architecturally, a gigantic lie that helped to discredit the Lottery’s pretensions to cultural authority.

If the English establishment could not understand, or take kindly to, the notion of deconstruction, still less has it been able to come to terms with the idea of architecture as occupied volume. The almost criminal lack of concern about the living conditions of many of our citizens in respect of space and volume has infected the architectural profession to the extent that otherwise civilised designers refer to ‘over-size’ dwellings, which are in fact one up from rabbit hutches.

As this column has remarked before, the only politician to stand up for decent living space in new housing is Boris Johnson, and all power to his elbow. He, at least, has understood that the volumes enjoyed by the moneyed classes are part of what makes a decent life. Of course, we cannot all live in castles or manor houses. But that does not mean we have to accept that, 40 years after the abolition of Parker Morris minimum standards for homes, we should live like Hobbits.

In taking his stance, Mayor Johnson has, unusually, declined to fall into the trap of assuming that quality and quantity are inevitably different sides of the environmental coin, doomed to perpetual conflict. The reality is that sensible regulation on minimum sizes would not affect provision by one jot, for all sorts of reasons that don’t need to be rehearsed here, other than the reminder that the principal cost of the construction of almost any house is land, not materials or (within limits) size.

It is a pity that architects don’t talk more often about volume. After all, the manipulation of three-dimensional space is, potentially, what designers are really good at. The idea of sequence through changing volumes is incredibly powerful at a big scale, and a matter of real importance in relation to the dwelling.

The fact that volume and sequencing are difficult to communicate and are almost invariably absent in the single images generally used at architectural award ceremonies, does not alter the fact that they are critical elements in the creation of any new building, of any scale. That is why, many years ago, Cedric Price wrote a programme for a student awards scheme run by the AJ, which asked competitors to describe the sequence of volumes in a museum of the 20th century (the competition was set in 1995). A number of competitors gave sequences of areas, but very few a sequence of volumes. Perhaps because they had not appreciated the relationship between volume, use and time.

Time, which is little discussed in relation to architecture, is the architect’s potential friend, way beyond the ideology of the project manager, inevitably obsessed with the contractual present. A building’s true success is in satisfactory use through time. Plumbing can be replaced. Volume is more difficult.

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