It’s not just that architects don’t listen to clients or the public – they’re divided into camps that don’t listen to each other. Which is a pity, because they can have good ideas
You might think that a laid-back, cool, smart-arse profession like architecture would be full of open-minded, up-for-debate, liberal dudes. Well, you’d be wrong. Don’t even attempt a sparkling discussion about the pros and cons of structure and aesthetics unless you want to end up in a Punch and Judy show. Somewhere in the dark recesses of their educational past, a rigid dogmatism was inserted into the soul of every architect. Buried in their breast is a deep conviction that knows no reason and brooks no challenge. Question this ineffable belief and expect a mouthful of rabid gobbledegook or just a sniffy silence.
This pig-headed behaviour perplexes many a poor client who’s been foolish enough to think that he or she has employed a rational being who may just like to discuss what the person who pays the bills might want.
But what is it that drives these fanatical ideologues? Above all, most of them believe with a passion that they were brought to this Earth with a duty to save the poor, misguided public from imprisonment within their own taste. Being modern is not just something that happens because you’ve been born in this particular period in history, it’s something you have to work at and, once you’ve got it, you’ve got to make sure that everyone else gets it – whether they like it or not. This is not just taste or fancy; heaven forbid! It’s a calling and a duty. If someone doesn’t agree, argument is pointless. If they’re a client, then they’re not offered anything else, however much they ask. If they’re the public, they just have to put up with it.
This is so fixed among architects that whenever you see anything to do with new buildings published or talked about it’s always the same kind of examples and illustrations that appear. If there’s a book about houses, don’t expect to see anything that looks like the houses that most people buy, unless it’s to poke fun at them. All the houses will be oddities, most of them built by architects for themselves, their family or their mates. And if anyone outside the magic circle goes along with all this, they will become instant heroes and stand as “irrefutable evidence” that everyone’s starting to fall in line and believe all this stuff.
Reserved for special disgust are the few architects that don’t toe the line. They let the side down and are in danger of letting the cat out of the bag by telling people that buildings don’t have to be strange things they don’t like. Giving Joe Public the idea that they can get what they want is very dangerous indeed. These people need to be kept out of the way and silenced wherever possible.
This little group of dissenters (let’s call them the Traditionalists) are so battered and bruised by all this that they’ve created their own dogma. The key thing to their thinking is that anything the other lot (let’s call them the Modernists) do is bad. So the Traditionalists define themselves by being what the Modernists aren’t. The problem with this is that it puts the Modernists in charge in a negative sort of way. If the Modernists have an idea, the odds are the Traditionalists will think it’s no good. Of course, the clever thing for the Modernists to do would be to think up lots of vaguely traditional ideas and push the Traditionalists into a smaller and smaller corner. Luckily for the Traditionalists, the Modernists are so bound up in their own dogma that they’d rather boil their heads in oil than do anything that anyone might think belonged to the other side.
So architects are divided up into hostile camps. There are two main ones, one much bigger than the other. The Modernist camp has its own set of dissenting camps, too, but they all agree on the big issue – you must never be mistaken for a Traditionalist. And the Traditionalists have a matching principle – you must never be mistaken for a Modernist. This means that a good idea from one side never finds its way to the other.
So while each camp works itself up into more and more fanatical ways of keeping the others out, it’s architecture that suffers. And architecture is more about the people that live with it than the obscure ideas of those who design it. I suspect that most people really would like something traditional and modern-looking but, the way it’s going, architects won’t deliver it.
Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects