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The monstrous outbursts of evil that weigh down human ingenuity

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I had an idea about a dozen years ago. It was during the Strangeways Prison riot. Night after night, it was on the news. The inmates had taken over the prison. The authorities were powerless. The governor of Strangeways was interviewed on the news.

Why is this riot happening? He was asked. Surely there must be some reason.

To my surprise, the governor, instead of offering up the popular mantra 'Search me, squire, ' shot back with an answer that must have been on the tip of his tongue all the time. 'It's a monstrous outburst of evil!'

Then, to my second great surprise, his TV inquisitor, a man chosen for his fierce expression and bulldog-like tenacity, perfectly happily moved on to the next item.

It was at this point that knowledge burst upon me and I knew that all human knowledge really is confined to what can be crammed onto a bookshelf. The more books you put in one end, the more books fall off the other because there is only a finite amount of information the human race can hold in its head.

As for the rest, it forgets what it learns as fast as it learns what it does not know.

From this aperçu I deduced other things: that the Middle Ages, far from being over, is with us here and now; that trial by torture is with us; and the ducking stool is on the shelf, in the witchcraft section. What we believe is rubbish, for we are all flat earthers, know-nothings, end of the worlders. Why else would there be such a demand for double facades and opening windows in a polluted city like London? Monstrous outbursts of evil, of course.

But natural ventilation is only one of the fantasy nostrums of the present.

For instance, there is convention that the lack of synchronisation between construction cycles and economic cycles, like the lack of synchronisation between road capacity and the number of cars, are all matters beyond human control, like the weather.

But this is not so. They, too, are monstrous outbursts of evil that weigh down human ingenuity like a pair of diver's boots. True, architecture can survive economic cycles simply by being longlived. Buildings can be powered down, even abandoned completely for years, and then refurbished and brought back into use. This is a kind of adaptability. But it is an extraordinarily costly one. It has been too costly for patrons for 80 years. Now it is too costly for clients, too.

Today, privately, major developers and architects in Europe and the US admit that thousands of city-centre office buildings, some less than 10 years old, are obsolete, destined sooner or later to be pulled down, converted or abandoned. Whatever they pretend, today's captains of commerce can see no likelihood of the kind of investment finding its way into US or European commercial development post-11 September, that found its way in in the 1990s.

The corporate world is up to its old tricks, dealing with obsolescence by 'downsizing' buildings, 'reinventing the business environment', 'decentralising', 'hot-desking', 'distance working', and so on.

In short, it is sending the architectural profession a message: a message saying that the electronic age still wants an entirely new value system for buildings.A value system that is diametrically opposed to the tradition of permanence and high value. A value system that requires the act of building to become not more and more fraught with cultural significance, triple-stage competitions and endless pontification, but more and more trivialised, valueless and impermanent. Either that, or it is going to come in a poor second to electronics, the spaceenclosing technology that requires no space at all.

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