Architects who listen to their ‘inner voice’ and not the client produce bad buildings. It’s the deadly sin of designer egotism, says Robert Adam, and it makes us strangers in our homes
How can spot a genius when you see one? There aren’t many about, so eliminating non-geniuses is a good start. To make it easier, if you find anyone that thinks they’re a genius, they’re not. So, comic-book egghead behaviour such as showy flashes of inspiration and telling everyone about your unexpected insights are not signs of genius – quite the opposite. You might have noticed that this is way lots of architects behave. This means that, contrary to what they think of themselves, these architects aren’t geniuses.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Most people aren’t geniuses, so architectural ones will be few and far between. The trouble is that architects are brought up to think that they’re great men or women in the making. Architecture schools have long abandoned the practical arts of building, for which the seven-year-long course was designed, and largely devote themselves to making buildings look like magic mushrooms or discussing the finer points of broken tea pots. Any suggestion that time would be better spent getting the hang of damp-proof courses is dismissed as an impediment to the vital task of nurturing inspiration and genius.
Once you think you’re a sage you can have a great time. All that matters is your inner voice. No longer do you need to pay attention to what people or your clients want. No, it’s your job to find out what deep down they really want, not what the poor souls were naive enough to think they wanted. You needn’t bother with dull stuff like working out how bits of buildings fit together. That’s for dummies and a distraction from the real job of expressing the latest version of French philosophy with bent steel and pointed bits of glass. Best of all, not only are you always right but, if anyone says you’re wrong, this proves the point – ordinary people don’t understand genius.
the king of ego, daniel libeskind, decided that the real meaning of north london can be summed up with one of his architectural car crashes
Examples are not hard to find. Take the Scottish parliament. If anything should be about the identity of the people of Scotland, this is it. But did Enric Miralles ask anyone in Scotland what they thought stood for their much-loved nation? Of course not; Miralles was a genius. Instead he took a quick trip round the place and found out what really made Scotland a special place – boats. Not any old boats, but boats being made in towns, then being launched and going away. (You couldn’t make this up.) So for generations to come MSPs will sit in what a Catalonian who reckoned he was a genius decided was a typical Scottish decision-making place – an unfinished boat. A pity nobody in Scotland has the same idea. And what about the hairdryer-shaped seagull-nesting platforms fixed all over the building? Well, I can tell you the secret, they’re a sort-of-but-not-quite silhouette of Raeburn’s painting of the skating minister in the Scottish National Academy. Unlike the boats, Miralles didn’t tell anyone about this. The poor people of Scotland, who paid a fortune for this insane edifice, have to live for the foreseeable future with a massive display of egotism.
Then there’s the king of ego, Daniel Libeskind, who can decide that the real meaning of north London can be summed up with one of his architectural car crashes. In spite of the fact it’s much like all his other jumbles, his inner genius has decided that this is just the thing because lots of people from all over the world live there. Or Foreign Office Architects, which had the staggering insight that the identity of Birmingham was its sky – yes really. And this is why New Street station will be wrapped in a huge curtain of stainless steel the will reflect (wait for it) the sky – at least until it gets dirty.
We’re increasingly stuck with what someone with a deluded idea of greatness thinks is the identity of our precious villages, towns and cities. Their ego tells them that their genius and inspiration is so much more important than the things we think connect us with the places we call home. Is it any wonder that many of us feel strangers where we live?
Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects