Not so hot under the bonnet, architects now care more about surface and brand, says Rory Olcayto
After witnessing Peter Zumthor collect his Gold Medal at the RIBA last week, and hear him praised by all as the most creative of contemporary architects, I couldn’t help wondering: ‘Does he use a Mac or a PC?’ We’re all familiar with the cliché that creatives prefer Macs. It’s nonsense of course; part of a marketing ruse, a brand-push, a very successful brainwash. Yet architects do tend to go for Macs, or at least those that do, make a point of saying so.
But surely not Zumthor. We were between courses at the (overly) formal dinner, and I was daydreaming. Maybe he’d use a NeXT for example, developed in the ’80s by Steve Jobs back when he was still interesting (and alive, obviously) and used by oddball Tim Berners-Lee at CERN when he conceived of the World Wide Web.
Better still, how about the British homegrown classic Acorn Archimedes? It did get phased out in the mid-1990s but their RISC processors today power your mobile phone. These were serious, well-crafted personal computers that seem closer to Zumthor’s spirit than the market-friendly, overhyped Mac.
So later that evening I googled: ‘Does Zumthor use a Mac or PC?’ and lo and behold, the second search result linked to a story entitled ‘Mac-based Swiss Architect Wins Prestigious Pritzker Prize’. (He hasn’t won it again. The story is nearly four years old). So Peter Zumthor, the world’s most creative architectTM, is a Mac-user. Or rather his office munchkins are. They use Vectorworks to create the construction drawings of the latest RIBA Gold Medal winner’s much-coveted one-off designs.
What brand of computer Zumthor uses however, is not what this is about. After all, Macs are damn good machines. Yet this blind faith architects place in the Macintosh brand is worrying. For a start, it’s not a mark of creativity but it does suggest something about the way the profession thinks, and the way it wants to be seen. It thinks about surface, more and more, and depth, less and less. Fashion more and craft less.
My father, an electronics engineer, always admired the early Apple computers, in terms of how cleverly they deployed technology and the efficiency of the processors they used, but he was wary of its ‘closed shop’. You couldn’t sneak round the back and get in when the interface faltered, for example. You couldn’t get under the bonnet to see how it worked - or rather the average punter, or architect, couldn’t. Yes, it enabled creativity, but exclusively on its own terms. That’s not the way computers are meant to be, my father would say. You should be able to programme a computer to do anything you want - but you’ve got to learn how they work first.
This made me think of another point raised while Zumthor was in town: his 10 years with the Department for the Preservation of Monuments in the Swiss canton of Graubünden - a seemingly boring conservation job nobody wanted to do - before setting up his own studio. ‘What I learned about was the mystery of vernacular architecture,’ says Zumthor, who inspected more than 4,000 houses.
But there’s a sense today that many in the profession aren’t that bothered about how things work. And this applies especially to the younger architects looking to make a name for themselves. Fame, branding, marketing - all the things that the Mac stands for - are now seen as central to contemporary creativity. Technical curiosity is a thing of the past. Worried?