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Three Classicists - George Saumarez Smith on Commodity

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Classicist George Saumarez Smith, on Commodity

The Vitruvian concept of utilitas is perhaps best translated into modern language as ‘usefulness’. We should immediately draw a distinction between usefulness and functionality. There are many highly functional buildings – such as a typical airport – that would be inflexible to other uses. In fact, we know that the least adaptable buildings tend to be those designed for a single purpose, including schools and hospitals.

As we enter an era in which we need to reduce our wastefulness, however, we need our buildings to be full of possibilities for their use. How can we design buildings that will be flexible and adaptable for an unknown future?

Partly this will be answered in construction, and we may find that tried-and-tested methods that are simple and robust will serve us better than new technologies. But perhaps more importantly, we must reconnect with what makes certain buildings and spaces useful. The essential principles here are scale, proportion and the relationship to surroundings.

I have found through measuring and drawing that it is often the simplest and most old-fashioned buildings that have proved to be the most useful over a long period of time. We might think, for example, of the typical terraces of Georgian London, adaptable over the last 250 years for use as houses, flats, offices and shops.

The same is true of many old towns and cities, in which space was used wisely and economically. And, by extension, we find it is the most old-fashioned places that are the most valued and useful. By old-fashioned I do not necessarily mean in style, but embodying principles of appropriateness, common sense, neighbourliness, and decorum. These may be concepts that are no longer in the architect’s vocabulary, but I believe they are essential in the making of good modern architecture.

George Saumarez Smith is a director of Adam Architecture

Three Classicists will be at the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 29 May. www.threeclassicists.com

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