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Calling all architects: It's time to think big

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If the government refuses to consider grand schemes, then architects should do it for them, writes Rory Olcayto

One of the biggest infrastructure projects today is the laying of transcontinental and transatlantic fibre-optic cables so that traders can sell shares more quickly. ‘A couple of milliseconds can roll out to a $20 million difference in a trader’s account at the end of the month,’ says Nigel Bayliff, chief executive of Huawei Marine Networks, one of the companies behind the project.

As the PopSci website (strapline: the future is now) declares: ‘The New York-to-London line could be the company’s biggest draw, providing a competitive advantage of just five milliseconds – about the amount of time it takes a bee to flap its wings.’ Talk about priorities. But then if we leave the market to define how we live, this should come as no surprise. Not for nothing are its financial backers known as ‘The Masters of the Universe’.

Implementing big ideas changes the shape of the world (if not the universe). The sewers of London, rural electrification, the NHS, the New Town Act – and now, $1 billion cables to speed up market trading. When you consider this alongside news of our prime minister’s latest pledge, a £400 million fund to kickstart house building and provide mortgage relief for first-time buyers, the truth hits home: elected governments don’t do big ideas anymore, the private sector does.

It’s why the papers this week were full of reports of Google X, a secret division set up to work on big ideas such as the driverless car and the internet of things, wherein physical objects are tied into digital networks (so you can google your socks). But its plan to build a space elevator, made from super-strong carbon nanotubes that would stretch 22,000 miles into space, is the one that’s caught the imagination of news editors struck dumb by endless recession stories. Will it actually happen? I think it will; but not in time for a building study during my tenure at the AJ. Nevertheless, it’s a worthy idea to think about, develop, prepare for and be inspired by. Many clever people dismissed JFK’s lunar ambitions, but in the space of a decade, NASA had worked out how to get there – and did it with technology utterly feeble compared with the smart phone in your pocket.

Architects have often been at the centre of such ideas. Rem Koolhaas’ new book on the Japanese Metabolists, for example, shows how Kenzo Tange and his cohorts created vast new, highly technical architectural projects aimed at solving big problems, like overpopulation and scant physical resources.

We have one such thinker – and doer – on these islands too, and surprise, surprise, his creative mind was forged in the Space Age: Norman Foster. His plan for an island airport in the Thames really is visionary. Thankfully, the prime minister is beginning to see that. Hopefully it will be viewed as part of a wider renewal programme for the UK backed by public money, linking our great towns and cities together, with new transport and power networks too.

And hopefully Foster’s boldness will turn our profession back into one that’s passionate about big ideas, with the ability to make them happen. It shouldn’t take you more than a few milliseconds to realise the alternative.

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