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Trump, Schumacher and ‘alternative facts’

Paul Finch
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The getting of wisdom about architecture cannot be done through Twitter, says Paul Finch

What is wrong with students today? If they are not claiming to be frightened out of their wits by free-thinkers like Germaine Greer, they are demanding ‘safe spaces’ where anyone who disagrees with their world view is not allowed air-time.

The latest piece of nonsense is whether or not something described as ‘Jamaican stew’ should be banned from college canteen menus because it is not really Jamaican. It is really upsetting some students, apparently, poor diddums. Good luck with chow mein and chicken tikka masala.

Far from being evidence of the post-truth culture we are supposedly having forced upon us by Donald Trump/Darth Vader, all this looks like a combination of narrow-mindedness and that special brand of bigotry reserved to ‘students’ – all in the name of accuracy and truth which can only be identified by them.

Trying to control what the press says, and punishing people who have views different to your own, turn out to be characteristics of both the current American president and students on either side of the pond. Rather embarrassing to think they have much in common.

It would be good to think that this situation does not pertain to the world of architecture, but that is probably expecting too much. Look at the attack of the vapours prompted by Patrik Schumacher’s recent provocative polemic about ways we could think about addressing the housing shortage in London. Normally rational people appeared to see red mist before launching into vituperative criticism which came close to demanding that he be silenced; by whom was not specified.

This all came to mind in thinking about President Trump’s assertion of ‘alternative facts’ in relation to how many people attend his inauguration ceremony. His spokesperson’s claim that he got as many people turning out as President Obama was demonstrably false, thanks to aerial film – which meant the ‘alternative fact’ was at best a mistake and at worst a downright lie.

However, this is not to say that alternative facts are all lies, far from it. It would be more appropriate to use the phrase ‘additional facts’, that is to say relevant information which illuminates (and may appear sometimes to contradict) other facts in specific circumstances. Although much of the debate about these matters has centred on the reporting of news, the arguments have resonance with many other worlds, including that of architecture.

You might say that ‘facts’ about a building constitute information, the sort of thing that you see in a data file about the project. But what about the wider picture, which concerns issues beyond what is being built within a given red line? That is to say context: historical, geographical, urban and so on. Adding facts about context to facts about a building will give you not just information, but knowledge.

Adding facts about context to facts about a building will give you not just information, but knowledge

If you then add in a further set of ‘facts’, which might be about the history of the practice, the history of the building type, the nature of the programme and why it is being developed now and for whom, you begin to understand something about the truth of a project – which I would describe as the getting of wisdom on the part of those understanding and synthesising all those facts.

This is why the Twittersphere, or antisocial media as I think of it, is so hopeless as a way of communicating any sort of profound understanding about anything that matters. Needless to say, I have no wish to ban Twitter, or Instagram, or any of the other opiates of the people currently coming our way from sunny California. I do say there should be a metaphorical health warning attached to these new media: ‘May contain nuts’.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • 'May contain nuts' indeed - and the extent (or otherwise) of 'facts' about buildings is neatly illustrated in today's AJ description of a 'hidden' house in Knightsbridge - all very clever, but image 15 - the site plan - is the joker in the pack, with the 'given red line' spilling the beans on a rather different story to that portrayed by the lead image suggesting ingenious use of a 'gap site'.
    A greatly expanded basement footprint that encompasses part of the next street as well as the corner building next door, and it just goes to show that you can't necessarily take anything at face value.

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