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Not-so-smart intelligent buildings should be consigned to history

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One sure sign of a recession in the property business is the way the term 'intelligent buildings'drops out of use. As a handful of historians will remember, it first came into vogue in the early 1980s, when magazines like this one started publishing technical drawings of buildings that looked like circuit diagrams. Buildings with brains seemed unstoppable after that. Their high point was 'Big Bang', when the City let it all hang out in pursuit of economic growth. In those heady days information technology was like Ecstasy. You could hardly open a newspaper without seeing hard-faced businessmen laying down the law on the 24-hour business environment, the new stock exchange Taurus system, or the role of new technology at Broadgate and Canary Wharf.

But only a year after 'Big Bang' came 'Black Monday'. The FTSE fell to 1565 - which makes today's 4000-odd look comfortable - world stock markets crashed and the property market began to slide.What was the use of raised floors like platform shoes and storey heights rivalling St Paul's when the Taurus dealing system had to be abandoned, with the City shedding jobs like a punctured fuel tank? In the boom years, 180,000 new jobs had been created by expanding financial services in London. Three years after the crash more than 50,000 of those jobs had been wiped out.

The last man off the sinking ship was Paul Reichmann, the developer of Canary Wharf. He started building his supertanker of an intelligent building in 1988, when the pack-ice was already advancing over the horizon. Reichmann thought he knew what he was doing. His 800ft tower was going to be built so fast that it would outrun any recession.

Only two years after work on it began, the first tenants moved in.

Number One Canada Square was a phenomenon. It had as much floorspace in one building as in the whole of the original Broadgate. It had dealing rooms nearly six metres from floor to floor - although they were fitted out as normal office floors in the end. But it was no good. 'If you were so intelligent, 'Reichmann must have cried of his great building when Canary Wharf went into receivership in 1992, 'why didn't you keep me rich?'

Charles Darwin understood the limits of intelligence. He knew that it was no use any species trying to bulldoze its own environment into submission. The environment lays down the rules. If the species prospers, fine.

If not, no appeals tribunal and no compensation. Viewed as a gigantic piece of industrial design, like a rack stereo system writ large, Canary Wharf was a triumph. As an instrument of wealth it was a disaster that bankrupted its creator. Its 'intelligence'gave it no defence against ice age economics. After the collapse of Olympia and York, most of the development team fled from Docklands to China to build 'intelligent buildings' there.

The only way Reichmann could have ridden out the crash at Canary Wharf would have required a conceptual revolution, one that is nowadays foreshadowed by 'hot-desking' and in 'in-car working'. All he needed to do to set up his alternative financial centre was to spend a few bob on hardstanding and provide sandwich bars for 20,000 IT-equipped BMW drivers. That way his 'intelligent building' would have been able to disperse overnight when the crash came. The cars might have ended up banger racing or being recycled into profiled cladding or knives and forks.

So remember the next time you hear the siren song of the intelligent building: if they are so stupid that they can't even save their owner from bankruptcy, how intelligent can they really be?

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