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'To what end, and why?': Alan Berman on the AJ Writing Prize 2012

Jury member Alan Berman sets the tone for this year’s writing prize, which reveals new perspectives on the challenges facing architects in practice today

Clamped to the monitor, rushing to get drawings out, project manager on your back, no time to lose. No time for questions, no time for why. Practice exerts so much pressure that every fast route to a solution is welcomed: don’t ask questions, adopt the standard detail, find it on the web, don’t try anything new – just get it out. The opportunity to think from first principles, to ask not only how but why, is now all but lost.

One consequence of embedding so much of practice in standard solutions that save time and avoid risk is the absence of dialogue between members of the team, between those in the office with experience and those who are learning. Questioning gives the opportunity to explore and discuss why something may or may not be appropriate. Apart from the creative value, this is one of the joys of shared practice. CAD jockeys attached limpet-like to screens can’t do that: there’s scant encouragement to pause and to think about what is being done and why. Pause for thought? No fee, no time to lose.

Architects’ unique skills are too seldom directed where they should be – the making of quality buildings and places that give pleasure and comfort; the handrail, the door step, the eaves, the shaft of light, or the magical surprise of a cleverly positioned window. To get such things right takes many hours. But we fall too easily in line with the mission of those now in control – project managers and bean-counters focused on what they can measure: speed, efficiency, risk avoidance, cost.

So there is an overpowering tendency to ‘do it like it’s been done before’ Don’t ask what’s right in the circumstances, do it safe. It’s an unusual client that approves something that’s unfamiliar, so the hegemony of ill considered precedents, of the ordinary, increases exponentially, littering our environments with the banal and the joyless. About which, surprise surprise! – even the bean-counters complain.

This is absolutely not to say that every building must be wildly different in order to avoid the banal. We need to be more sensitive to what makes quality built environments: we need, in the main, well designed unostentatious but satisfying buildings which create a context for communal life. And also a few distinctive buildings, inspiring and expressive, which shine and stand out as the loci for communal values, whether religious, cultural, educational, sport, and even - sadly in accordance with our times - corporate greed and power.

We should have learned from vernacular traditions, and from Georgian and Victorian towns: in order to create good urban contexts that are pleasant to be in, environmentally sound and economic, the mass of buildings should aspire to modesty and the unostentatious: sensibly constructed and beautifully crafted to make comfortable worlds within, and disposed to make quiet backgrounds for public life.

But the current mindset of the profession is directed against the modest and the decorous: instead there is an obsession with buildings designed to be noticed in a culture of ‘look at me’ buildings. Architects, too often seeking headlines and self-gratification, seem to delight in the wildly extravagant formal and structural gymnastics made possible by powerful CAD programmes: raking columns crashing through spaces at absurd angles, jutting cantilevers, holes through buildings, jutting pointed prows too narrow to occupy, cubes balanced on one corner. And if wild forms can’t be afforded, there’s the frantic chaos of coloured glass or steel facades, each one a public architectural tantrum shouting in the street. Expensive, difficult to build, costly to maintain, almost always environmentally unsound, yet with few if any tangible benefits. To what end, and why?

Young architects at the computer face should question these extravagant and hollow gestures. For whom are such design statements intended? For building users, for the wider public or for future generations? For clients? Or for recognition by other architects in the pursuit of celebrity status?

Architectural practice raises many ethical and philosophical questions. The more obvious are how we treat our colleagues, especially students; whether we should work for paymasters of dubious repute; how to minimise environmental damage; the morality of false decoration, and the many arcane themes that preoccupy academic theorists. But one of the most urgent, not at all academic, that should be brought to bear on daily practice, is the need to avoid being anaesthetised by aesthetics, to stop designing with an eye to the gallery, and to ask why we design something to be like it is, and at root, to ask for whose ultimate benefit do we do what we do?

  • Alan Berman is a consultant at Berman Guedes Stretton
  • The winner of the AJ/BGS Writing Prize will be announced in November


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