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The architecture of terror, and the engineering of responsibility

Ian Martin plays the Bin Laden blame game

Monday. The world’s epic space community is trying, as suavely as possible, to distance itself from the ‘architect’ responsible for the house where Osama bin Laden was killed. Not because the building was poorly designed, but because a spokesman for the company shrugged and told the world’s press that ‘lots of people come to us. We are more interested in making money, rather than the individual’.

OK, that second part seems plausible enough. Loads of architects have those gristly, indigestible mission statements. Some fly-by-night plan-drawer in Abbottabad has simply lifted ‘we are more interested in the individual rather than making money’ from the slow-loading website of some witless bunch of urban onanists, then clarified the premise.

However. The first bit, about ‘lots of people’ coming to see them, is a problem. That’s the part that makes architects sound stretched and indiscriminate. Less like artists and more like private doctors. Architects are dream conjurors, alchemists, street magicians. NOT corporate sausage machines. NOT mercenary chancers. NOT splayed whores.

The official line from the International Architects Network is this: ‘Architects throughout the world condemn unequivocally all acts of terrorism and non-chartered practice, which both pose major threats to our built environment.

‘We note the recent speculation that bin Laden may have turned to jihadist violence in frustration when his studies were cut short, but would emphasise that he was training as a civil engineer, not an architect. The global architecture community has consistently rejected the notion that bin Laden was the “architect of 9/11”, an unacceptable slur on our noble profession.

‘There is evidence that the so-called architect of bin Laden’s retreat may have been a civil engineer himself. Architects emphatically do not have lots of people coming to see them. Each client relationship is unique and leisurely, which is why proper architects are so clever and expensive. If any profession deserves to be a scapegoat, it is surely civil engineering.’

Tuesday. The civil engineers are furious and have issued a statement reminding everyone that bin Laden didn’t finish his course. This proves that civil engineers are not natural terrorist masterminds.

Also, the qualifications of whoever submitted the house plans is irrelevant, they say. Of much more interest is the fact that the eight-bedroom hideout had three storeys, in flagrant breach of local planning regulations. The civil engineers are clear: either incompetence or corruption on the part of planners kept Osama hidden behind a security wall 2m higher than the locally approved maximum.

Wednesday. Planners have reacted with fury. Approval for the bin Laden house was managed through a ‘property agent’. These shadowy go-betweens are not subject to the rigorous professional standards endured by planners. Furthermore, which sounds more terroristy and sinister: planner or ‘agent’? Planner or ‘AGENT’?

Thursday. Property agents are denying any responsibility for al-Qaida’s corporate headquarters. Their job is to facilitate a sale; the guilty professional is whoever took the client’s brief for a minimalist operational base, allowing form to follow a prescribed utilitarian interior. If the design and construction industry is sending a hit squad after anyone, it should be the interior designer. Who is probably currently sketching out a chain of boutique spiderholes in Tora Bora.

Friday. Interior designers and minimalists have joined forces to reject the claims that either discipline is implicated. Minimalists are pointing out the considerable amount of clutter discovered at Casa bin Laden, the painful visibility of electrical wires, and the absence of any vases with twigs in.

The interior design industry has taken the view that none of its members is culpable, as there was no discernible interior design. There WAS plenty of evidence of ‘sustainability’, though. Live/work space, a vegetable garden, livestock, passive climate control. Blame the eco-nutters, they say.

Saturday. The world’s green practitioners have ignited with indignation. Yes, the carbon footprint for al-Qaida’s high command was impressive. But unremarkable; all houses in the neighbourhood are built to conserve resources. The problem isn’t modest residential building, but ostentatious skyscrapers…

Sunday. Having done the rounds, the blame for terrorism has settled back with architects, where it’s staying for the time being. The Twin Towers were a ‘target’, after all. All icons are an act of defiance, goading the nihilists. And architects are still in the top five World’s Most Hated, below terrorists but still above jazz pianists and Nick Clegg.

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