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Judge architecture on its merits, not on the politics of its designer

Paul Finch
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The notion of ideologies ‘infecting’ buildings and public spaces tends towards a regrettably unpleasant discourse, says Paul Finch

‘Europe, as well as the United States, has seen a return of right-wing tendencies in the political landscape. And this rise of a (new) political right has in turn infected our physical and digital landscapes as well.’ Thus runs the blurb for a lecture at the AA this week by Professor Stephan Trüby – and, given the recent announcement that all US Federal court buildings should be designed in a Classical style, the lecture is at least timely.

However, I couldn’t help noticing the use of the word ‘infected’, which set alarm bells ringing. One of the more unpleasant aspects of our current political discourse is the attribution of illness, particularly mental illness, to anyone who disagrees with your views. It is a short step to leap from ‘ill’ to ‘degenerate’.

The idea of ‘infecting’ buildings and public spaces thus becomes part of that unpleasant discourse, which I’m afraid to say shows no political boundaries. The right says it about the left and vice versa, with an unfortunate by-product, which is that, in some weird way, there is healthy architecture and sick architecture. Debate about whether a building is good or bad design becomes an irrelevance compared with whether it is ‘healthy’.

Taking this view leads you down a variously dangerous path, whereby an architect whose political views you do not respect cannot design a good building.

Just as bad, if they have impeccably correct views (seen from either a left or right perspective), then somehow their architecture is acceptable even if, by any conventional standard of judgment, it is hopeless.

What’s more, there are some implicit assumptions in the notion that populism is ‘infecting’ public space that need to be seen in the wider context of architectural history. For example, could we say that Russian gulags and chairman Mao’s re-education camps were representative of ‘left-wing tendencies’? Shouldn’t we equate the extermination of millions of their own people by Stalin and Mao with Hitler’s holocaust? Is the right any worse than the left?

Is architecture OK if the architect believes in the brotherhood of man, even if it is designed at the behest of monsters?

The criticism of people (like me), who think buildings can be reasonably assessed in respect of the quality of their design, is often abusive in tone. A recent example was someone who claimed that, if it were well-designed, I would find a torture chamber acceptable. This is tenth-rate abuse, rather than criticism, but it is part of a spectrum: once you dismiss the idea that good or bad architecture can be objectively assessed, you open the way for assessment on the basis of anything else, including political prejudice.

There is another aspect to this, which is the way architects are held responsible for what takes place in a building they have designed, even if it were designed for something completely different. Suppose a fine church were used as a torture chamber? Does that make it any the less a fine church?

Reasons to be cheerful

On to cheerier matters: last week I had the pleasure of chairing a day-long series of presentations, by 17 practices and two universities, about the possibilities for a series of neglected or abandoned sites and buildings in the Liverpool City Region.

Instigated by Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram and organised by the region’s architecture champion, Paul Monaghan, the presentations were a stimulating combination of analysis, ideas, wit, and commitment, as will be covered in next week’s AJ will illustrate.

The spirit of optimism, one of the profession’s most engaging characteristics, was much in evidence, whatever significant problems were being addressed. That spirit was also in evidence in respect of the architects of yesteryear, who in some cases left behind a legacy of urban or design failure which now needs to be addressed.

At least we know, or think we know, where they went wrong.

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