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Regarding buildings as events in time can avoid unnecessary wrecks

Paul Finch

Two-dimensional ‘verified views’ of the Walkie Talkie ignored the reality of how it would be viewed, writes Paul Finch 

Back in the 1963, Ahrends Burton & Koralek designed an art gallery for a super-trendy owner/dealer John Kasmin. The gallery featured new artists, particularly from the USA, and was suitably shocking and swinging. Kasmin, though born in 1934, is still out to shock and delight, these days as publisher of a postcard series, the latest of which is launched this week. Kasmin’s Postcards: Wreck mainly features images from the late 19th and early 20th century. The images record the bizarre (as illustrated below); the surreal (an ocean liner stranded on rocks); the scary (a girl on a ladder with her rescued doll, next to a house about to collapse); and the ironic (a horse and car in tangled juxtaposition).

It is published by the wittily-named Trivia Press, and other titles in the series include Kids, Size, Elders and Meat. All record stories that don’t require much explanation: either it is obvious what has happened, or if it isn’t you can make up your own narrative. These postcards are about events, which are captured as still images in the absence of film or documentary.

1983 002 portrait

1983 002 portrait

Postcards are quite unlike the still images we are invited to venerate in the context of planning applications and appeals. While we accept the cultural meaning of postcards of the Kasmin variety, we have yet to come to terms with the fact that the greater the accuracy of ‘verified views’, the more nonsensical they may become.

Under cross-examination by a less-than-sparkling QC at the Walkie Talkie public inquiry, I was invited to confirm that what we were all gazing at, in a fat document full of ‘views’, was how it would look in real life. I said it would not. The QC pretended to be astounded by this answer (at least I hope he was pretending). Since it was a verified view, how could it not be what we would experience in real life? My response was first, that what we were looking at was a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional reality; second, that it excluded the fourth dimension, time, as if it was somehow suspended; and third that it assumed that anyone from a particular vantage point would wish to look at the tower, and not something else. This latter point is routinely ignored, particularly by opponents of tall buildings.

The point about cities is that people are on the move all the time. It is only the buildings that remain static

In real life there is foreground and background, which transforms the physical and psychological condition of the viewer; most critically, unlike verified views or indeed postcards, there is movement. The point about cities is that people are on the move all the time. It is only the buildings that remain static – except in the world of art historians and conservation zealots (including the World Heritage gang at UNESCO) who think that people are fixed too, endlessly offended by any change in the vista they see from their endlessly fixed viewpoint.

The verified view is not even a moment in time; it is a moment imagined in a future where the object in question has been built in exactly the way it is shown in the image. As we now know, as a result of the wholesale changes made to the Walkie Talkie after it had received permission, the verified views that helped it gain that permission were therefore a series of lies, rather embarrassing to the reputations of those involved.

This question of verification has taken on new significance in the wake of the inquiry now under way into Building Regulations and materials approval systems. Veteran housing and construction commentator Peter Bill, writing in Property Week, has noted the rise and rise of Agrément Certificate-type testing, where it is the manufacturer’s claim about a product that is tested, not its general efficacy. It is a snapshot which is a sort of moment in time. Unfortunately, it is how materials perform during events that really matters.


Readers' comments (4)

  • Industry Professional

    I totally agree. One of my main concerns with the Garden Bridge, for instance, was how it was designed as a stage piece with a few locations of viewing in mind but not for the walker, flaneur or citizen passing through their city.

    So the (arguable fraudulant) views offered up for planning by Heatherwick & Arup provided these fixed-position photo-opp vantages clearly designed for the static tourist and selfie-stick wielding visitor. St. Pauls nestled between two bosoms of "floating" greenery was the image mediated to sell the sham, but for the regular London crossing Waterloo Bridge in leisure or work the incredible views would be totally compromised except for, momentarily, those few metres they passed by the photo-op location sold in the planning images.

    The other bizarre view they offered repeatedly was as if taken from a drone and seemed to position their lumpen greenwash turd in some dreamlike hacienda entirely unrooted from normal London experience. Whereas, as we opponents of the project flagged up, the view of inflated underbelly of the bloated thing which South Bank pedestrians would have experiences was entirely unwelcome and barely advertised.

    Thankfully, most people in the architectural community saw through this for the very reasons you suggest here, Paul. They couldn't trick us all as easily as they hoped!

    The use of images and photo-real renders in promotion of such aggressive developments is fascinating and worthy of real research and investigation because in an increasingly visually literate, networked culture these images can have more sway than the text or data within planning applications and yet are not beholden to the same level of factual responsibility.

    Will Jennings

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  • I don't agree that a landscaped bridge is 'aggressive' development, but of course accept that people have strongly held views about views. The fate of the garden bridge was the result of factors which had nothing to do with aesthetic appearance, but were about (a) procurement; and (b) the veto that South Bank miserablists try to exercise, over anything they think impinges on their divine right to determine what anyone else should enjoy on 'their' patch. Which it isn't.

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  • I think that the notion that 'The fate of the garden bridge was the result of factors which had nothing to do with aesthetic appearance' might be rather wide of the mark, because - despite perhaps being overshadowed by the major issues of;
    A - misuse of public funds to support a semi-private venture
    B - apparent lack of planning controls appropriate to the location and environmental impact of the project
    C - abuse of process in the design and construction procurement
    D - gross abuse of the statutory role of Transport for London
    - the Heatherwick / Arup design would (I think) have been nowhere near as elegant in reality as the hype would have people believe.

    Just now Heatherwick seems to be getting generally favorable reviews for his art gallery converted from grain silos in Capetown, and it can't be long before what he's done to the London King's Cross Coal Drops is up for comment, but only time will tell whether his work is seen as notable for its quality, or just its oddity.

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  • This comments reinforces what I said about non-design factors determining the outcome. It is a triumph of the dreary.

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