Celebrating the launch today of his new book, Epic Space, Ian Martin reflects on 27 years of weekly sarcasm in the architectural press
In late 1989, AJ editor Colin Davies asked me if I’d be interested in writing a regular column for the magazine. I can’t remember what the brief was, exactly. They wanted something ‘light and breezy’, I think. Of course I said ‘yes’. I was a struggling freelance.
We’d just moved to the North. Any regular gig was welcome, however short-lived. Especially a few hundred words of drivel that could be written at home and daisy-wheel printed from a word processor the size, shape and weight of a bank safe. Then faxed to a scanner. Then checked for glitches over the telephone. A simpler yet more complex world.
Obviously I had no idea I’d still be writing a weekly sarcastic column in the architectural press 27 years later. I was 36 then, I’m pushing 64 now. Bloody hell, it feels really weird when I put it like that. I mean, that’s like a long-term relationship. That’s a marriage. I’ve given you the best years of my life, architectural profession.
More importantly, you’ve given me the best years of yours. Twenty seven years, that’s what – two generations? Theoretically, some readers who haughtily ignored my latest column won’t even have been born when the first one appeared in January 1990 (its timeless subject, for the record, was the central importance of the long, boozy lunch). Likewise, quite a few of those who may have glanced disdainfully at that first column are dead now. Ah well. Ashes to ashes, circle of like, ars longa, tiddly bosh.
Strange to recall that long lost world of the AJ. Still at Queen Anne’s Gate then, in a creaking run of Georgian houses all crumbled together, a Gormenghast full of odd surprises and weird characters. Poshbridge Revisited. The newsroom was the only one I’ve ever been in that contained an Amicia, and I was the only person in the entire building not to have gone to university. People would have amazing war stories or an interesting criminal record, or inhabit an office filled entirely with owls, or whatever, be 17th in line to the throne.
There was an amazing 60s dining room squashed in somewhere, all orangey and plastic and ye-ye, like a Barbarella set. And oh how sorely missed, The Bride of Denmark. The legendary basement Victorian pub aggregated from bombsites by Betjers, Pevvers and that whole glittering bunch of post-war architecturalists with Test Match Special nicknames. Coffee served in the Bride every morning, tea in the afternoon. A stuffed lion. In winter, a coal fire with potatoes baking underneath.
Ian Martin’s first column for the AJ in January 1990
Yeah, no internet then. Or mobile phones. We baked our own potatoes. Now it’s all algorithms and fake content. The world has transformed itself over the last three decades into an atomised psychodrama in which nothing really matters any more, oh hello are we going a bit darker now Ian, are you sure that’s wise, shut up. Architects seem largely detached from any social cause, any ‘general advancement of civil architecture’ wouldn’t you say? For God’s sake you dickhead – light and breezy, light and breezy. Austerity seems to have validated the role of architects as that of environmental butlers to a global kleptocracy, steady on mate you’re not Adam Curtis. Yeah, social housing is being erased, replaced with cartons of contemporary living developed by and for people in ironic little hats, fair point, everyone in ironic little hats should be hunted down and gassed like badgers.
Perhaps the 36-year-old me would have thrilled to the 21st century London skyline and its stupid giant architectural cruet set, its jumble sale haul of disgustingly ugly unwanted gifts foisted on us all, please shut up old man and let the future through, yeah?
God though, the architectural state of it. The 64-year-old me looks up and just sees pilfered air given shrieking, narcissistic form by the space-fracking carpetbaggers of late capitalism, turn it up you old codger you’re not on Twitter now.
No YOU ‘turn it up’ young man, you had your go and ever since it’s been nothing but neo-liberal bullshit, architectural relativism, heartless parametricism, social cleansing, fiddling about on your fucking mobile phones and more bike lanes. Oh God I wonder now, given my once implacable opposition to HRH the Prince of Wales and his clownish views, if I have turned into him.
But ha ha this isn’t about ME, it’s about YOU. It’s so easy, isn’t it, to disparage architects or indeed any set of people imagined in the abstract as an amorphous mass. Wait, hold up – not ‘easy’ exactly because satire is an incredibly skilful art. It’s a vocation, really, like architecture.
Although, unlike satirists – who tend to be sour, crumpled losers externalising their own self-disgust – architects are, as it has turned out over the years, lovely. Oh, I’ve had run-ins occasionally with certain wankers and their PR people but most of the time it’s been immensely gratifying to have had as an audience such friendly, tolerant and good-natured people.
The 64-year-old me looks up and just sees pilfered air given shrieking, narcissistic form by the space-fracking carpetbaggers of late capitalism
My column started in the AJ, moved to Building Design and then came home a few years ago (nobody ever spotted the rude acrostic in the one I wrote when I left the AJ the first time, by the way). It has been a joy and a sanctuary for me. I have managed to produce a column even when I was on powerful meds, blitzed out in hospital, even if it did take me five days to write and was frankly rubbish. I have written it on planes and trains and in hotels in the early hours, somehow squeezed into ridiculous American writing schedules. I have turned to it as a calm pleasure when the world seemed to be going mental around me. It has been the tickover gig that helped keep the household afloat, just, through two (three?) recessions. It has been the best thing to do. My favourite thing, really. A treat.
There are those readers who have, every now and then, said nice things about the column. But I am at least as grateful to those who have just sort of put up with it, those who didn’t mind it, those who were game enough to accommodate it. Ladies and gentlemen of epic space, my most profound thanks for your forbearance over the years. I apologise for any casual remarks that may have accidentally caused offence to you as esteemed artists and important opinion-formers. If those remarks didn’t land as deliberate insults, it was my fault. Defective writing. Unprofessional. Probably trying to be too clever. Pillock.
So this is just a huge thank-you note. Architects have put up with my whiney sarcasm week in, week out since Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. Twenty seven years is a great run. I owe you.
And, God bless the AJ, I’ve continued to write weekly columns for months after the print magazine went fortnightly. At last I’m aligning, and quite right too. From this month the column will appear every two weeks – I hope for as long as I can still do it. My health isn’t entirely brilliant, but the great comfort for any writer is that you we can work right up to the end. What a way to go that would be – filing the last-ever AJ column. Bosh.
Not yet though, auteurs of epic space. Not bloody YET, thanks very much. The end is very much not nigh. Cheers, you beautiful people.