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Architecture’s finding new partners, and dancing to a strictly Latin beat

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Ian Martin imagineers some rebranding

Monday. Afternoon tea with Zaha. Congratulate her on the sinuous hairdo and dynamic frock. Privileged to get a close, and very sudden, look at her Stirling trophy.

Tuesday. Rethink London’s South Bank. Instead of treasuring these heritage masterpieces as they would in Venice, why not imagine them as blank canvases for advertising, as they would in Venice?

Wednesday. Design a cartoon mascot for the Big Society, giving it baggy trousers and a special on-backwards benefits cap.

Thursday. Meet up with an old commercial architect friend, Mitzi Manfeld. Lunch is on me as Mitzi’s unemployed and skint these days.

The latest recession has pushed her practice into a ditch, despite the fact that it was ‘future-proofed’ back in the 80s with a plus sign in the middle. Those were the days, when Manfeld + Partners and the rest of the design world seemed glamorous and invincible. People would never tire of the New Romantic look, would they? All that swashbuckling yachting wire, the saucy glass reinforced plastic, the nascent, deregulated Docklands shimmering in the distance like a pirate galleon. Everyone flew the skull and crossbones then.

Alas. Who could have foreseen that gurning wide-boys and venal shareholders would steer us all into the shit? The economy crumbled. The profession atomised, became a million boutique one-person practices with a drawing board and a fax machine and picking the kids up from school in a minute can I ring you back. The RIPBA, recoiling from concepts such as ‘learned’ and ‘society’, reinvented itself as some sort of nationwide business luncheon club. Still Mitzi’s practice survived. Clients recognised a safe pair of hands in that ‘+’.

Even when things picked up in the 90s and grim-faced bastards with tiny spectacles and shoulder bags starting using lower-case practice names, she held her nerve. The Great Colonic Imperative too passed without incident; she bravely resisted the urge to rebadge the practice ‘manfeld :: design’.

Manfeld + Partners only started to look old-fashioned and clunky when the Urban Vibe arrived around the turn of the century. Suddenly, having a name like shed69 or splash city or slam/punk~ jointz was a prerequisite for landing any job with the word ‘gritty’ in the brief. In a panic Mitzi ordered new stationery with ‘yo manfeld’ at the top but it was too little, too late. The clients had all disappeared and were now working in partnership with key stakeholders and regional agencies and architectural practices with names that sounded like lipsticks.

At least she can still lunch like it’s 1988. We’re on our third bottle of house screwtop and have yet to order starters. I hate seeing Mitzi bobbing about like so much human jetsam on the tide of architectural destiny. Come on, buck up, I say. Dry your eyes. We’re going to rebadge our way out of this bollocks. We order another bottle of wine and some mezze, and get out the napkins and fountain pens.

Our point of departure is this: the only way she’s going to attract clients now is with a made-up Latin name. A cursory glance at the pages of the architecture mags reveals that success is inexorably clustered around practices that sound as if they’ve made a fortune from PFI, have a CEO who looks like Grandpa off Peppa Pig and who are gobbling up medium-sized practices for next to nothing and masterplanning eco-towns in China. Just check out Epic Space Quarterly’s Hot 100 Architecture Firms. Eight of the top 10 are called Consignia, Magisterium, Gravitat, Spem & Alium, Urbibia, Tectonica, Archium and Factorii.

We decide that Mitzi’s retooled practice has to sound Latiny AND reflect the pretend narrative architects and clients share these days. All that guff about architecture having to be ‘green’ and bumptiously carbon-neutral, as if the building will exist in their imagination only. How it’s all about places not spaces. How it has to be in touch with its feminine side.

Then I hit on it. The perfect name: PLACENTUM. Mitzi claps her hands, missing: we’re on our sixth bottle now. But all her troubles are over.

Friday. Success. Inside 24 hours Placentum has landed a Soot Museum in Durham, a dormitory megalopolis near Blingnang and a double-page spread in the Creative on Sunday.

Saturday. Five-a-zeitgeist theoretical football. West Homage Albion 1, United Blingdom 2. Match abandoned after ironic pitch invasion.

Sunday. Reclinio.


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