With a season-by-season, throwaway culture borrowed from Ikea and designer magazines, architecture is in danger of becoming a branch of the fashion industry
Stop buying things from Ikea. And Don't browse in Habitat any more. Just stop it. You won't find happiness inside; you won't find quality or real value. What you will find is poor imitation of modernist design, shoddily made, built to be thrown away, season after season.
It wasn't always like this. Ikea was the one that benevolently told us to stop installing carpet in our bathrooms and start sanding our floorboards. But it has gone too far: in its aim to bring good affordable Scandinavian design to the masses, it has taken the next step and actually started mass-producing taste.
On a recent jaunt to Habitat, I spotted a gorgeous glossy black coffee table and rushed over with glee to read the tag. Then, appalled at myself for being so easily deceived, I moved on. It seems that under the millimetre thick (scratched) glossy surface lies the somehow reassuringly familiar sight of MDF. The tag read "Polyester lacquer on MDF", a snip at £229. The thing is, somebody will be seduced by its gloss, not read or care what it says on the tag, and they will buy it.
Cheaper equivalents are sold in the Next homeware department and similar atrocities exist in Woolworths' new range of trendy tableware. Tesco, loath to be left out of such prolific commerce, is producing its own budget homewares, selling terrible teasets in a faux chinoiserie style for the discerning student fashionista to lord over.
Obnoxious interior makeover programmes have transformed product design, interior design and even architecture, into subsets of the fashion industry, with its seasonal changes and throwaway culture. What happened to pride in our antiquity?
I'm certainly not calling to rebuild the past. Experiments in rebirthing history such as Poundbury will always fail. For all its villagey charm, everyone is painfully aware that, ultimately, it's a replica. Like a fake Rolex, as soon as you have it up close and in your hand, you can tell. So what's the point?
Too many architects have become mesmerised by the sirens of fashion, feasting on a diet of Elle Deco and Wallpaper*, seduced by the frippery of bad graphics and glossy lacquered visualisations. Scratch at the 400 gsm gloss paper and there is nothing of interest to be found there either.
The tag read ‘Polyester lacquer on MDF’, a snip at £229. The thing is, somebody will be seduced by its gloss, not read or care what it says on the tag, and they’ll buy it
Too many developers and contractors are obsessed with gross-to-net ratios, Excel spreadsheets and managing their gap funding. They forget what they're doing - the massive physical impact they have on a city and the subsequent cultural impact as people struggle to live in shoddy new-build developments.
This issue could not be raised at a more timely moment. As the ODPM wages its short-termist, knee-jerk war on the housing problem, we must arm ourselves with some notion of the big picture. Do we know what we're trying to achieve? Do we know what we stand for?
Architectural movements seemed to die out after Archigram in the 1960s and perhaps NATO in the 1980s. The subsequent mêlée of architectural "styles", described with contrived words such as deconstructivist, tectonic, high-tech and postmodern, never really meant anything.
Everyone is unique now. "No house style" sounds great on those expressions-of-interest documents but the butterfly effect is one of a disparate architectural community, a bunch of individuals roaming around ignoring each other.
We need to design with authenticity, we need to build an AuthentiCity. The Olympics and the Thames Gateway, two huge chunks of land awaiting development, will be an important litmus test of our architectural generation. The architects and construction teams involved must ensure the aspirations they have now will shine through on completion.
As architects it seems our role becomes increasingly about trying to protect pieces of design intent from the QS and main contractor. Nobody on the team sets out to dilute the design or cheapen the construction. But there comes a point with any project, where the creative morality we start with just cannot compete against its fearful contender, cost and his tag-team buddies, buildability and programme. Nobody has a bottomless budget or never-ending programme, but we have to remember that if we always pursue the lowest common denominator, if we Ikea everything to a flat-packed cheapened version of itself, we might as well not bother in the first place.
Tarek Merlin is an architect at Alsop & Partners and one of the 10 young professionals on Building's graduate advisory board