So it’s a shame that architects have forgotten how to read them, because they speak volumes about their profession. Yes, Robert Adam’s seven deadly sins has moved on to ignorance …
If you’re a bit of a local history buff and you meet an architect, you might want to chat about the old buildings in your area. There’ll be lots of things you’d like to find out about: the kind of columns on the manor porch, the date of some houses, what the decoration means on the church. Or you may just welcome the chance to talk to a fellow enthusiast. Be prepared for a disappointment. The odds are that your new architect friend knows absolutely nothing about anything historic and, what’s more, isn’t that interested.
If you still want to chat to your acquaintance about his professional interests, keep off architectural history and stick to things like the latest way of fixing titanium fins or whether solar panels can look sexy. For most architects, history starts in a small way in 1930; before that everything is irrelevant. It can even be dangerous, because if they got to like old buildings they’d lose their architect friends. Going out of your way to know nothing about what architects did in the past is not thought a handicap by architects today; on the contrary, it can be a badge of pride.
You’d think that, as most architects design in historic places sometime in their career, a rough idea of what old buildings are about might be useful. But what architects thought in the past is not what today’s architects want to know; they’re much more interested in finding some mystery proportion or obscure philosophical principle that only they can understand. And once they’ve found it, they can argue forever that any weird shape or odd collection of materials will fit in. It doesn’t matter that nobody else can spot the great secret they claim to have discovered.
Architects don’t care if anyone else can understand what they’re doing. They’re just as proud of not knowing what the public think as not knowing anything about history. For architects, nothing is more annoying than public opinion. The trouble is that normal people care about building style and there’s a serious danger that, if you ask the public, they might ask you to design something they like.
For most architects, history starts about 1930; before that everything is irrelevant. and if they got to like old buildings they’d lose all their architect friends
Just in case this does happen, architects have already worked out a handy get-out clause. Each time the subject comes up they spout the same old mantra: what matters is quality, not style. This is a clever way of getting out of the problem but it’s not quite what it seems. Saying quality matters is like saying virtue is good; it means nothing. So what this really means is just that style doesn’t matter. Which, of course, it does. But saying it doesn’t matter means, “I don’t care what style you want, I’ll design in my own style, thank you very much.”
Of course, it’s best to avoid the problem by not asking. It’s much easier not to know than to find out. If you know, either you have to take notice or admit you’re not taking any notice. If you don’t know, you can claim that the public do like it really, or that you think the public are coming round, or even that the public should like it and soon will if you give it to them. The last thing that architects want to do is to worry about what the people who have to live with their buildings actually want; this will get in the way of their artistic genius. They’d prefer to behave like an author who isn’t interested in whether anyone’s going to read their novel. Ignorance, after all, is bliss.
Although most architects don’t know and don’t care about what anyone other than their fellow architects think about their buildings, they do want to make sure that everyone can see them. This needs lots of space around the building and this is called “public space”, which sounds good but isn’t. It’s only public if the public use it and, often as not, it ends up bare, barren and dotted with little eddies of dust, crisp packets and newspapers.
For architects, towns and cities are just big display cases for their work. The fact that the place matters so much more than the building is something else they just don’t want to know. Making good cities is the last thing on their minds. As the heroic urbanist Jane Jacobs was heard to say, “The most cunningly ignorant people I know are architects.”
Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects