18/12/23 22:45

The end of the year is a time for reflection, and I guess this year won’t be any different.
About to make a change in my own career, I inadvertently realised that I started out with a holiday job at a “traditional” slightly old-fashioned practice, then went to work for a “design-led” practice after I graduated – and spent the rest of my twenties there.  During my thirties I worked for a practice which blended good design with commercial acumen, then I worked for an out-and-out “commercial” practice for most of my forties.  Accidentally, the jobs seem to coincide with my own decades.
The categories are set in inverted commas because they’re categories which other people apply to the practices, rather than their own descriptions of themselves.
The Narcissism of Small Differences is a term coined by psychiatrist Sigmund Freud to point out that we sometimes find ourselves arguing about the trivial details which distinguish us from others, who are in fact virtually the same as we are.  To the layman, the differences are invisible, because all architects are the same – even those wearing bright red trousers or black polo neck jumpers.
A classic example of the NoSD are the imaginary lines we draw between what we perceive as different categories of practice.  So you get “conservation” practices, “design-led” practices and “commercial” practices, neatly pigeon-holed as if there’s no crossover between their work.  I blame tutors at architecture schools, who in turn lean heavily on critics such as Pevsner who had an art historical training.  Pevsner couldn’t help himself from sorting sheep from goats.

One result of sorting the sheep and goats into different pigeonholes (apologies for the strained metaphor…) is that swathes of good architecture are ignored.  I’ve just finished researching an article about the evolution of power station architecture in the UK.  It includes a discussion on the roles of the critic Reyner Banham and a practice called Architects Design Group in the development of the 2,000 MW capacity coal-fired mammoths which are currently being demolished in the Trent Valley.

ADG were based in Nottingham and their work was ground-breaking: they helped to developed an approach to landscape design which is still used today (the Zones of Visual Influence technique), and their work won many awards at the time. However, ADG’s work is no longer widely known, quite a lot has already been demolished, and very little has been written about it.
That’s the curse of being a “commercial” practice: your work isn’t taken seriously by historians and academics.
An opposing example is a small project which a big-name architect took on a few years ago.  Desperate to wring some expression from the brief, and to demonstrate what a “design-led” practice could achieve, they took a speculative bungalow built by Bett Brothers in a town with a history of masonry construction.  It was a perfectly ordinary house, designed in the modern vernacular of the 1970’s, which just needed modernising and upgrading.
It could have been upgraded almost invisibly by adding 300mm of Rockwool in the attic, 150mm in the solum, cavity fill insulation in the walls plus triple glazed windows – allowing it to retain its character by tidying up the white Skye Marble harling, and setting it off with black eaves boards and window frames.  Instead, the walls were overclad in rough-sawn timber boarding and stained in a virulent colour, then a clashing colour was chosen for the replacement windows, and an oblique dormer sprouted from the roof.  Now, the house looks utterly out of place, as if it’s been parachuted in from an Icelandic fishing village and repainted by fashion designer Paul Smith.
That’s the curse of being a “design-led” practice: you strain to do something visibly different, when you could have done something thoughtful instead.
I think I was happiest during my thirties, working with a mentor who understood intuitively how to design effectively while making money, who valued good architecture above novelty or self-indulgence, and who saw there wasn’t any mileage in trapping himself in a pigeonhole.  I learned more from him than from all the other firms I worked for, put together.

As is traditional, I wish you Happy Christmas and hope you avoid being pigeon-holed – although at this time of year, partridge-holing or perhaps even turtle dove-holing would be more appropriate…


This entry was posted by and is filed under canon.
By • Galleries: canon

No feedback yet