The pressure to conform causes singleton Tarek Merlin untold grief at his friends’ dinner parties. It also happens to be the single greatest blight on the built environment
I was quite happily digging into my main course at a dinner party the other night when the conversation veered involuntarily, and in some way inevitably, onto the subject of relationships. I realised, to my horror, that I had found myself trapped inside that middle-aged, middle-class, Bridget Jones cliché of being the only single in a sea of couples.
Until this point I had been blissfully unaware of the predicament my hosts had unwittingly thrust me in, but as I was forced to lay bare the intricacies of my love lives and losses, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of quiet disdain, as the disconcertingly attentive group noted how difficult it must be for me and that I would ultimately have to compromise if I was ever to settle down.
All this time I had been running on the misguided assumption that they had all enjoyed living vicariously via my numerous Facebook updates regaling them with stories of nights out. It seems, instead, that I actually represent for them a kind of betrayal of their expectations – that instead of upholding the traditions of births, marriages and deaths, I was simply getting away with it.
If all we have to work with are replicas of previous styles, then regurgitated replica will only beget regurgitated replica
There seems to be a common denominator that runs throughout our lives, one that we spend most of our teen years trying to rebel against before inescapably morphing into a version of our parents. This may not always be a bad thing, of course, but the instinctive desire for a sense of tradition is the thing that holds us back in other walks of life. It is the reason we have planners, world heritage sites, parish councils, and it is why we have Nimbys. It is why they look upon change with fear, why they respond to technological evolution with mistrust, innovation in construction methods with scepticism and new ideas in architectural expression with little but contempt.
It is why developers invented the term “Georgian-style” to pin onto their developments like a rosette of familiarity. It is why we have Poundbury. And it is why some people view tall buildings through an alarmist, prejudicial eye, afraid that tallness will spread like some sort of plague across the land. They forget the spice that variety brings to life and the richness and joy that is inherent in the existence of diversity.
The London Festival of Architecture is now but a hazy summery memory, but still the words of Boris Johnson from his speech at the opening party back in early June, echo in my head. Even he conceded that it is the mix of old and new in London that makes it inspiring. It is the very proximity of traditional and contemporary that imbues the other with uniqueness. All the ensuing rhetoric emanating from that speech about the resurrection of Parker Morris standards was, I think, something of a red herring – no standard is any match for market forces, especially as they still won’t apply to the private sector, which is where this dark problem actually lurks. What seems to have been overlooked in his speech was the thought-provoking question he put to the heaving architectural throng. He asked what period features from this decade would be the ones lovingly restored in the decades to come? What treasures will the yuppies of the future be salvaging from derelict properties to be proudly reinstated in their homes of he future?
Some people view tall buildings through an alarmist prejudicial eye, afraid that tallness will spread like some sort of plague across the land
This way of thinking is a trap that would trip up even the keenest of futurologists – isn’t the very idea of “period features” the problem at the core of our obsession with tradition? If all we have to work with in the future are replicas of previous styles, then surely regurgitated replica will only beget regurgitated replica, in some kind of never-ending Sisyphean spiral. There are ways of being contextual without imitation or limitation even, and there are ways of reflecting traditional values without pastiche.
But however you look at this, whatever your preference, the balance of tradition and innovation is arguably never as important as the level of quality. Bad innovation is every bit as pointless as bad traditionalism, and design codes, standards and planning policies are there to prevent those with little imagination from doing too much damage. It’s just a shame that these, like the rules in the Game of Life, are blanket-applied to the rest of us.
Tarek Merlin is an architect at SMC Alsop