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How much does your building weigh? by Poppy McNee

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

All I want to do is read a book and not look at this damn building anymore. I am within sniffing distance of the library and stuck watching the glassland towers scratch themselves up into the sky. This town has hives. Too much sugar. Too much sweet cash.

My name was Richard, and I suppose it still is. I am in a unique position here in the Crick Building, and this is only partly because I understand money and how it moves, especially when it moves at speed and in a state of excitement. I can see from the unlovely Euston to the former slums of Farringdon, now bursting its banks with architects and furniture designers in orthopedic glasses. Regents Park glistens in the sun, sweaty after a big night. Money moves this city, and we all sway as it tugs at our feet.

My name was Richard. Accidents happen. Especially these days, when we are time poor, care poor and cash rich. I wasn’t even using my own skills that I had built so long and so proudly, money had pushed and pulled me into construction work.

Have you ever been on site when someone dies? You can feel it everywhere right from the wide women who wrangle the deepfryers up to the suits in the site office, you can feel it. The faces in the site office go that extra bit greyer than usual. And you just know, someone somewhere is asking themselves already, but really, how much time will this cost us?

Young men aren’t yet craftsmen. You need time to learn the real personalities of brick, or how to pour concrete when it might freeze overnight, or how wood likes to lie beside its cousins. They haven’t yet learnt that the value of doing something well simply for the sake of it, freezing time in the act of making. I can see it in St Pancras, the hands of the past gently pressing time aside for us, soft leaves of care and hard won knowledge. Rowlock and shiner, soldier and sailor.

Those of us unlucky enough to miss out on the schooling that architects enjoy still appreciate the flow of light over stone, or the echo of rain on glass, or the beauty of buildings that resonate with time, and with craft, which is just another word for love. It doesn’t take five years of learning the appreciation of deliberated ugliness to know when a building hums with care. Love speaks in made things, in a democratic language that reaches out through time.

Up in the north the shepherds still count their sheep in Brythonic Celtic, yan tan tethera, the language of skills can be old tongues hidden in plain view. You learn the language and the appreciation of care and the love of making comes upon you slowly. Dentils, kneelers and trammels.

I cannot recommend trying to effectively haunt a modern building, as the work of hands are invisible. Having been here as I have, you get a special insight - it’s all stick on, thin as wallpaper over cramped voids. Grandeur is paper thin, quality is only applique. Buildings these days could be accreted termite mounds with barely a thumbprint to show they are human-made. Our systems have become so effective that our presence is almost imperceptible.

Effectiveness is the word of course, hiring the inexperienced cheap young man is certainly resource effective. And incentivising him with the pressure of long hours is highly program effective. And building fast is highly cost effective. Things that aren’t effective include rigorous health and safety regulations, or site inspections, or unions, or even now recording accidents, those little whistles in the dark that preempt a bigger problem. Our effectiveness, as we rush onwards, ever more frantic, will cost us more lives, and lose us more time. Young lives usually too, those most expensive in years. How much does your building weigh in time? The time invisible in the making of seamless surfaces, the action of hands lost in glossy magazine articles. The time lost to those who should never lose their lives building it, lost years of injury or blindness, or darkness.


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