As a freelance architectural critic I find that I am often asked the question: 'Martin, what is architecture all about?' To which I generally reply: 'Abdul, architecture is like the stock market. Nobody knows what it is about. It just keeps going up or down or standing still all the time.'
At this point most interlocutors laugh because they think I'm joking, but some persist with questions that are harder to answer. If they do the conversation runs like this: 'Martin, please be serious for a moment. Tell me what the ancient art of architecture can possibly have in common with trading dot. com stocks on the Internet?'
'Well actually quite a lot, especially recently er, Tibor.'
'How's that then Martin?
'Well, Pierre, don't you think its suspicious when all the news from the market is bad yet the same old financial institutions keep on advertising for you to give your money to them?'
'Why is that suspicious, Martin?'
'Well, Raoul, during the recent dot. com craze some customerless virtual businesses got through £100 million in investment in just 18 months and still ended up flat broke.'
'Now Martin, I know and you know that the value of all investments can go down as well as up.'
'Of course I know that Rudolf, you twit, but I also know that estimates are much cleverer than investments. They go up but they don't come down.
£100 million might be a lot of money on the Internet, but it won't buy you much on the drawing board. Didn't you ever hear of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank or the Scottish National Assembly, or the Welsh National Assembly, or Portcullis House? They were all great architectural projects but where money was concerned they were like the worst dot. com companies. They kept on piling cost onto cost because their promoters kept changing their minds, wanting more accommodation, wanting different accommodation, restlessly wanting changes but never being able to pinpoint whose fault it was, or who was to blame when the bill for the first tranche of the £100 million came in and the client hit the roof.
'I hate to be the one to tell you Nefertiti, but all the so-called 'new economy business practices' that the dot. coms took the rap for actually started out in architects'offices years and years ago.'
'But Martin, surely architects don't set out to spend more and more of their client's money any more than composers set out to make noise. They have. . . well, er, higher aims.'
At this point I usually fall silent for 20 seconds and look long-suffering, which either leads to an entirely different subject or ends the conversation entirely. But not always. Last week, for instance, a man called Reg was as tenacious as a piranha. He wanted to know about architecture through the ages, eternal values, genius, the Pyramids and prefabs. He would not accept that architecture is like the Bermuda Triangle.
'Listen Franz, ' I rasped at length. 'I didn't say architecture was a mystery, I said nobody knows anything about it.
Nobody knows how the link between the FTSE Index and architecture works, only that old buildings are best in a recession, new ones in a bull market. They don't know why established institutions swear by stone buildings with porticos, while start-ups want glass skyscrapers. If they tried to put architecture on TV news with the other market reports it would sound like this: 'Architectural estimates rose 16 points today in heavy trading resulting from a 16-point rise in architectural estimates, no one knows why.'' 'But Martin, that doesn't tell us anything.'
'Not at all Bettina, it confirms everything. No one knows anything about architecture but it's not a mystery. Don't forget, it played a really big part in the dot. com boom.'