We often disdain teenagers, glued to their smartphones and instantly reacting to events via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. But having got back home from today’s RIAS Convention in Edinburgh, I reflected on what I saw and heard there. For me, Amin Taha was the highlight, thanks to his architectural insights and well-paced delivery.

Taha’s career so far has produced a number of well-resolved buildings which have brought him increasingly larger and higher profile commissions around London. Each one builds on his serial investigation of materials, so far exploring the nature and possibilities of non-loadbearing brick, of load-bearing stone, and now embarking on a journey to discover the possibilities of sheet brass and bronze.

Taha presented his take on the Etymology of Architecture, starting with a potted history of art and architectural history. Giorgio Vasari was arguably the first art/ architectural historian with his encyclopedia of artistic biographies, “Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”. It anecdotally recorded the process of creating art. Two centuries later came Johann Winckelmann with his “History of the Art of Antiquity” and its follow-up volume, which additionally offered some opinions about the work. Perhaps that was the birth of naive architectural criticism.

Taha’s reflections on those books sets his own work into a context: he’s conscious of the Art Historical Industry and aware of the labels it coins. Perhaps there’s a Post-Modern (or post-Venturi) knowingness to his buildings. That said, the remaining half hour covered the evolution of his work, through housing at Barrett’s Grove, Bayswater Road and Upper Street – all of which explored in different ways how CLT (massive timber) construction could provide a more economic structure than concrete or steel frame. In cities like London, most of the development cost actually pays for land, not the building which sits on it.

Most of Taha’s insights came in the form of asides about technique and building economics, such as the housing development at Upper Street in London where the client initially approached Daniel Libeskind, but found him too expensive. The building was completed for around £3000 sq.m., whereas Libeskind was hoping for a budget of at least double that. Shades of the supermodel who wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning for less than £10,000…

Next Taha touched on a Metro station in Sofia, before going into detail about Clerkenwell Close, his home and the office of his practice, Groupwork. The initial concept involved creating a bronze exoskeletal frame, but it was eventually built using trabeated Portland stone. The natural face of the stone is expressed where many would saw it to form a veneer, then dress or flame finish its face. The result is both startling and obvious, although the local Planners evidently hated it so much they fought in the courts to have it demolished.

In a world where we’re rightly pre-occupied with climate change, social and political issues, it was nevertheless good to hear someone speak with clarity about architectural language and materiality. To paraphrase Amin Taha's sign-off at the end, “Let the materials drive the architecture”. I’m glad the RIAS invited him to Edinburgh, where he studied architecture years many ago, and I hope he eventually gets the chance to build in Scotland, too.

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