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Fireworks and architects

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The first of six ‘combative’ debates didn’t disappoint, says Flora Neville

There’s much talk of provocation and ‘feather ruffling’ at the inaugural Tuncoats, a new programme of debates aimed at ‘rugby tackling fundamental issues facing contemporary practice with a playful and combative format’ that will foment ‘open and critical discussion, turning conventional consensus on its head.’ The first one, held on Bonfire night at the London Metropolitan University’s CASS, was entitled ‘Quit Architecture Now’.

A warm up act, a free bar before the debate, a phone, twitter and photograph embargo are all on the cards in the name of avoiding what co-curators Phineas Harper, deputy director of the Architecture Foundation and Maria Smith, director of new practice Interrobang call, ‘luke-warm love ins… dull, stuffy, uncritical debates.’

When I arrive I’m greeted with Russian-revolution style vodka and my phone is sealed in an envelope so I won’t be tempted to tweet.

If you lie corpse-like in bed wearing a turtleneck, having forgotten what sex is, quit architecture now

Luke Courtier, the warm-up act, delivers a deliciously sarcastic portrayal of a life devoted to Design. Rapidly spoken to a few notes on his guitar, he laments, ‘my searing ennui’ that ‘all started last week at the International water closet biennale, I was giving a key note on a very small Japanese toilet with an unnervingly aggressive bidet function and everything just flushed away as it were.’

Following Luke, the first panellist for the motion, Kate MacTiernan. Having studied architecture and worked for Makespace, Kate became creative director of Shuffle, the community organisation behind the annual Shuffle Festival in Mile End.

If you lie corpse-like in bed wearing a turtleneck, having forgotten what sex is, ‘quit architecture now,’ Kate advises. ‘We don’t actually need you in society,’ she says, ‘there’s enough shapely shit out there.’

‘I will shoot myself in the head,’ is her dramatic assertion, if architects continue to claim that their buildings do anything for communities. Renzo Piano claimed Central St Giles would be ‘a joyful heart’ for the city, she says. A Byron Burger restaurant where people go on their lunch break is hardly the heart and soul of London.

‘It is architecture itself that needs to stop being so architecture,’ and with this she concludes, ‘Quit architecture now.’

Next up, Harry Parr, who studied at the Bartlett before co-founding Bompas and Parr, the design studio that produces inhabitable clouds of Gin and Tonic and the world’s first multisensory fireworks. In a remarkable, techni-coloured shirt, Harry jumps straight in. ‘Let’s deal straight away with this issue of sex, don’t have friends who are architects.’

His arguments in favour of staying in the profession are both winning and imaginative. Though it takes a long time to get to the top, ‘there’s so much waiting for you when you get there.’ Like Rogers, ‘you can become a megalomaniac,’ who pretended he couldn’t understand any French when designing the Centre Pompidou, so that, ‘through sheer bloody-mindedness, he got his own way.’ Though as an architect, ‘you will die,’ you have stone at your fingertips, through which you can always be remembered no matter how talentless you are.

Crispin Kelly, founder of property development company Baylight, introduces himself as ‘the good developer’ who sees his duty to ‘nurture the architect.’ Architects have become disenfranchised, he says. ‘They have become the sort of people who do a little sketch, get paid a small amount, then go home to not have sex.’

The life of the developer meanwhile, is a racy, pacy well-paid ride which gives you the chance to ‘employ your ex-tutors… get really rich… and ban words.’ Anyone in a Baylight meeting who says ‘place making’ or ‘the space between buildings,’ is allegedly sacked on the spot.

Claire Bennie, independent development specialist and ex-Peabody shaker-mover, has by far the most stirring argument, turning the tone from architectural entertainment - a good cop, bad cop routine - to something more inspiring.

Challenge RIBA, which stands for ‘Remember, I’m the Bloody Architect’.

‘You must do this architecture thing,’ she says, ‘put your armour on and enjoy the joust, ok here we go.’ With an encouraging frankness she presents the profession’s parameters. Your clients are ‘philistines’, builders ruin your buildings, the public hate you ‘because you built all those towers in the 60s’, the regulations are restrictive and arbitrary, government policy is screwing everything up, university culture is ‘petulant, arrogant and blokey’, the hours are long, as is the education and the pay is appalling.

And that’s where the fun starts.  

Don’t quit, she says, instead… empathise with your client, persuade them to be a patron. Understand contractors, know their craft inside out, make them respect you. Win the public round, bring them along with you. Deal with the regulation, relish the negotiation. Take a stand against government policy, it’s the only way to confront the housing crisis. Challenge RIBA, which stands for ‘Remember, I’m the Bloody Architect’. Be stewards and custodians of good architecture. ‘Stop whingeing and look outwards.’ From what I hear, architects aren’t all that good at looking outwards. They seem to philanthropically throw all their perspective on the drawing boards and don’t retain any for themselves.

Despite the ‘Don’t Quit’ motion winning convincingly by a loudest shout judgement, there was unanimous agreement that architects need to kick the current architecture habit. The first step to recovery, says AA is to realise your addiction. Perhaps the other AA should do more to prevent architecture addiction by encouraging students to avoid ‘place making’, to consider a v-neck, to accept their inevitable averageness, and to prioritise sex. Perhaps.

The next Turncoats event, ‘Consultation Con’ will be at The Women’s Library, 25 Old Castle St, London E1 7NT on 12 November. Reserve a place.  

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