For the architect, the country offers variety, novelty and the prospect of tanned craftsmen toiling in the wolds. But if you want control over a project, stick to the city
This is the time of year when one finds oneself in parts of the English countryside normally associated with holidays, and I am always curious to see how architecture at my level is practised there, as opposed to the City and the provinces.
I have always thought that the big attraction of a rural practice is that you are never quite sure what sort of building you are going to be asked to work on next. Obviously a small practice with a track record of converting barns is unlikely to be suddenly asked to build a fourth-generation nuclear power station, but “the architect” is a local figure whom everyone turns to as they would a solicitor or an undertaker. Nine times out of 10 in my own firm I am presented with a 19th-century building, usually in a terrace, usually in the middle of town, always where someone is in the process of finding out they don’t really have enough money to do what they’d like to. Surprisingly these buildings often turn out to be more different from similar-looking properties one has dealt with in the past than one might at first think, and in any event, the character of most of my building projects is determined by the client. Nevertheless the buildings are more alike than they are different, which seems to be much less the case in the country, where 600 architects are not listed in the same section of the Yellow Pages. There, the chronological range of buildings one is likely to be asked to work on is much wider, and there’s a greater chance that one is going to be working on a building that is entirely new, or for a purpose that is new. I have never been asked to do any sort of visitor’s centre, for instance, or anything to do with accommodating farm machinery - there not being much call for low-level, light-impact incubating units in EC1.
If you operate in a big city, you can be running a building company with morals and probity that would shame the denizens on the third bolgia of Hell and still keep busy
Obviously the other man’s grass is always greener, and it’s wonderful when you have those jobs where you are picked up at remote railway stations by a factotum in a mud-splattered Land Rover, and bundled off to look at the walled garden or whatever. I’d always fondly imagined that out there in the fens, or the wold, or the downs or wherever, there were lots of tanned craftsmen who could roll a cigarette with one hand while sharpening a plane with the other, whistling through a straw while they did it. And absolutely no limit to the “yes sirs, no sirs”. However it’s always salutary to be reminded of the shortcomings of the James Herriot-style practice.
I am at present re-erecting a 19th-century barn that one of my (London) clients is having rebuilt in the grounds outside their house in Cambridgeshire. Now the chap putting this thing up knows a great deal more about traditional building construction in general, and recycling ancient timber-framed farm buildings in particular, than I ever shall. The last thing he needs is me poncing around on the site asking about planning supervisors and scarfed joints. When I do go, I am delighted to see that he has just as many eastern Europeans on his sites as I have on mine, and it is a marvellous education to see materials being so sympathetically handled.
However, herein lies the problem. The mollycoddled inhabitants of the capital fear anyone in the construction business: rogue plumbers, thieving roofers, villainous double-glazing installers, the whole bestiary of operational malfeasance. So the architect is employed far more as a policeman than he is in the country. One of the reasons being that if you operate in a big city, you can be running a building company with morals and probity that would shame the denizens in the third bolgia of Hell and still keep busy. Just because you have utterly destroyed the lives of the poor people who used to live at No 28 before they all had to be taken into care, it doesn’t mean you can’t start filling up skips outside No 62 while everything is still smiles.
I have never been asked to do anything to do with farm machinery - there not being much call for low-level, light-impact incubating units in EC1
This is not the case in the sticks. It’s not quite “Old Jeb buggered up they in-line water zofteners zo bad over Coombe ’Ill ’e’ll never be working that side of the county again”, but there is an element of that. Builders have to behave. This means that architects are hired to obtain the consents, and then the builder and the client do the rest between them. If you are the sort of architect who likes to design solutions down to the last detail, this is a bit of a problem.
Although not all my projects run according to plan, at least my clients end up with more or less what I thought they’d end up with, and not what the builder thought was the most expedient. So in the vital, but unvoiced, concern of all self-employed people’s working lives, “Will I get a recommendation for another job out of it?” at least it is still my name, and not the builder’s, that is passed on first.
Gus Alexander runs his own architectural practice in Clerkenwell, London