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Martin Pawley: death by insensitivity

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Strange how the vocabulary of architectural criticism, which descended to Sun-like depths of demotic savagery in the 1980s, has hopped back into Victorian prissiness in time for the millennium. Back in 1986 it was considered devastating to have your new building described as a 'carbuncle on the face of a much loved friend', or a 'broken 1930s wireless set', or a 'place for burning books', or a 'fire station with a tower for the bell'. These are only the best known of the hundreds of examples that poured forth at the time, and in every case the architects of buildings described in this way - when they did not pass out on the spot like victims of a voodoo curse - invariably put their affairs in order. 'No work for a year' was the word on the street for what was coming to them, and they knew it.

Nowadays, the way to deliver the coup de grace to an architect's career is much more subtle. At the lowest level, a newly completed building can be described as 'questionable' - a peculiar word that immediately puts a stop to all further questioning. Considerably more punishing is the word 'inappropriate', a term equivalent in its power today to a sentence of flogging or transportation to the colonies in former times. Could anything be worse than to be 'inappropriate'? Actually, yes. For a terminal effect equivalent to a death sentence, the deadly 'i' word can be used, as in the sentence: 'A local resident is reported as having described Vasco da Garment's new South Kensington open-air centre for high-volume drumming studies as 'insensitive'.

In this sentence we can observe the power of the new subtlety at work. Note the following points: the resident is not named but the architect is. The 'quote' is no more than hearsay: there is not the slightest chance of the passage being construed as a libel, since 'insensitivity' itself is not an offence. In former days all these points would have served as indications that the alleged resident's description was so mildly expressed that the chance of a petrol bomb or a protest march outside the drumming centre was virtually nil. Not any more. In the caring 1990s, 'insensitivity' may not be an offence in law, but it is in professional life.

It would have been far less wounding if the resident had described the building as like a combined Gestapo headquarters and poison-gas factory. Poor Vasco da Garment! His chances before the ubiquitous disbursing committees that increasingly control access to the world of the built environment are dwindling by the hour. The only thing that can possibly save him now is another piece of new vocabulary. He must hope that someone on a preview committee somewhere will use the word 'pastiche' to describe something he has drawn.

This word, which is widely used by lay persons who have not the slightest idea what it means, has magical restorative powers. Clearly no designer can simultaneously produce a 'pastiche' that is also 'insensitive'. Besides, 'pastiche' isn't so bad. It can be used as a stepping stone to 'eclectic'. Vasco might be able to save his career yet.

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