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Long-winded, wandering, and more than a little smug with it
on 22 March 2009
Within the first ten pages of starting Jeremy Till's Architecture Depends, I found myself asking - who precisely is this book aimed at? Whilst I wholeheartedly approve of Till's critique of Foster's McLaren Centre, I did get the feeling I was the converted being preached to.
In writing this book, I assume that Till is reaching out to the Foster fanboys (and those aspiring to deliver the next wave of cold, sterile, corporate architecture), and I have the impression that Till believes that majority of industry participants aspire to achieve this sort of greatness, and the style of work of Foster / Koolhaas / Liesbkind / any other big name architect. Whilst you would certainly think this were the case from the eulogising of the AJ about Lord Foster's projects, in my experience, very few younger architects have a starchitect - be it work or status - as their motivation. Most of us find them quite vulgar, inconsistent and passé.
Till's writing tone moves between the intellectual highbrow and the colloquial with uncomfortable speed and frequency. I suspect this in itself is a test; some sort of exercise to see how well the reader can cope with the stark juxtaposition of formal and informal. As you learn from the very outset of this book, Till argues that as architects we should be more happy to embrace the chaos, the unpredictable, the contingencies imposed upon us of the real world. He questions why we are so obsessed with order.
I do agree with Till's concerns that too many of today's buildings are the distillation of Platonic principles or boring concepts reduced to diagrams, held on to with far too much fervour by the designer, rendering them uninteresting to users. Do people really care about folding planes or "layering"? I also share his concerns how the shiny CGI presented to the client quickly and easily becomes all-consuming. But equally, I think even the most totalitarian and authoritarian of architects can accept the beauty inherent in unplanned spaces between buildings, the unpredictability of decay and weathering.
In essence, I was left feeling that the core message that Till was trying to express: "Architects: Get over yourselves and stop being such control freaks!" - was a valid point, but a point that could have been better conveyed in a 2,000 word journal essay, and not really requiring 199 pages of text plus 37 pages of supporting notes (which I confess to not dipping into at all). Surely it is inevitable that we end up worrying too much about certain details? It's the nature of our job to make sure things fit together well and perform, and my take is that it is just natural to find it hard for us as humans to know where to draw the line between when it is important to be precise and where we can be more laissez faire. It should be no surprise to Till that sometimes we as architects don't know where to draw the line in our precision. It's also not news to anyone that architects act as prima donnas who have a hard time accepting the ideas of others, teamwork and compromise.
Till does raise bigger questions in the way architecture is taught, and again, I concur that we should be happier to embrace the sort of questions raised by Cedric Price `Do you really need a building?'. But taken to its logical conclusion, Till's argument here risks going way beyond just architectural education and into education as a whole, and into questioning society models / the validity of the post WW2 consumption-led model of economic growth on which the majority of Western economies have been built.
A final criticism was the frequency that Till presents the house he built with his partner Sarah Wigglesworth as an example of a different way of working, embracing contingency. I have no strong feelings either way about this project, but its clear that as clients and architects, they had the advantage of determining their schedule and pouring over every element on an `contingent' basis - a luxury which in today's `I want it yesterday' society, few architects are afforded when dealing with fee-paying clients. Secondly, I found the thinly veiled self-praise - particularly the anecdote about the trade fair and the straw bale walls - rather smug and vulgar. One should not `big up' one's own projects too vociferously.