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Ignore the push for relevance and celebrate just being there

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The first-year students at Kingston School of Architecture have been asked to end their year by considering the site of a disused boathouse on the River Medway, opposite the new development of housing by Countryside Properties and the historic naval dockyard. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and currently not accessible, except at low tide along the foreshore. I suspect this place is beautiful, although my own experience is limited to a distant view across the Medway from the south. I wonder if these young architectural adventurers will see the scope beyond a project to propel them forward into the second year. The brief is very open and suggests the possibilities of a local museum, a place for parties or weddings, an interpretation centre for the SSSI, or the like.


The overwhelming suggestion is that it should have a functional relevance in a socially acceptable manner, and I wonder if that is correct.


The site lies within the area of the famous Thames Corridor and, in spite of the SSSI, will eventually become part of urban sprawl stretching from Tower Bridge to Southend on the north bank and Broadstairs on the south.


The opportunity for the Kingston students is to redefine their little patch in the context of urban sprawl and, by doing so, help to define an idea of beautiful urban sprawl. The site could be devoted to the beauty of simply being there, a place to be discovered, its particularities just underlined; not fettered by the requirement of having to be ‘relevant’, or promoted as an attraction.


Henri Cartier-Bresson said that there is in the work of Pierre Bonnard a trembling and a humility that had always overwhelmed him.


Certain painters became fully accomplished at the end of their life. Bonnard blossomed from the beginning to his last breath. His profound intelligence never suffocated his sensuality.


Sensitivity is the clue. On 7 February 1927 he wrote: ‘Purple in the greys/Vermilion in the orange shadows, on/A cold fine day.’


Distinctions invisible to many. Perhaps the Medway point on the surface of the earth can be a place that celebrates the invisible and allows people to see what is usually ignored.


‘The man who sings is not always happy, ’ wrote Bonnard. I take this in the same way as when I see a mural, ie an attempt to brighten up an area with severe problems, a work which signals that not all is well, an act of desperation. The disused boathouse is only a sign that things have changed and it might be best left as an image of past times. Nostalgic imagination also has a function.


The school of architecture has said too much in its brief. The job for the architect is to determine the brief. Today it is even worse.


Architects are invited to submit tenders to establish a brief for others, who will also have to submit some form of presentation in order to adopt the work of others. This bureaucratic system makes absolutely no sense, unless you are an administrator looking to stay in employment. All it manages to do is flatten everything to normality, which results in the mundane. Real life is better than that.


Our students in Kingston will grapple with a secret desire to do things which, for many, may be moderated by an idea of relevance. I say be yourself and explore the possibility of beauty and personal responses. There are no rules, even though architects and critics will tell you otherwise. The ordinary person in the street hates the pseudo-science of architectural rules; they are more intelligent than that.


Bonnard wroteon 18 January 1939: ‘That an inner feeling of beauty coincides with nature, that’s the point.’


WA, from the garden table, London

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