In many ways, construction is rather like the restaurant trade, with its high risks, low margins, dismal pay, language barriers, poor training, logistical headaches, and unappreciative clientele. As American chef Anthony Bourdain wrote in his best-selling confessional Kitchen Confidential: "To want to own a restaurant can be a terrible affliction. What causes such a destructive urge in otherwise sensible people?" You could say the same about about managing a construction firm in 2002. The pressures on bosses have never been greater: to stop workers getting killed, to eradicate racism, to recruit more women, to finance decent pensions, and to cover extortionate insurance premiums. Not to mention fresh regulations, exacting new standards of corporate social responsibility, eye-popping PFI costs, and the technological challenges of what we heralded last week as the new digital age. Even Jamie Oliver might struggle with that lot.
At least the orders are still rolling in. Back in January, there was a risk that construction would slide into recession in 2002, as clients in the travel and leisure sectors froze spending after 9/11. By the autumn, though, economists were actually raising their forecasts for growth, which was outstripping GDP for the first time since the 1980s. All the more remarkable, given our torpid economy, moribund stock market and malaise in manufacturing. Can it last? Only if Gordon Brown says so. The chancellor gave the industry a welcome end-of-year boost when he raised borrowing rather than trim investment in transport, schools and hospitals. But without those PFI contracts, construction's era of steady, inexorable expansion will be over – especially now London's commercial market is collapsing and house prices are on the turn (see news). Ho hum.
So, why do people brook construction? For the same reason, one imagines, that Jamie & Co love restaurants – the adventure of creating something to enthrall and delight the public. For great meal, read great building. One of the features of 2002 is the way some truly glorious buildings have been made out of the most unpromising ingredients; from the converted Baltic flour mill in Gateshead to the egg-shaped Swiss Re office tower in the City. Swiss Re, which opens our review of past 12 months (pages 28-37), is undoubtedly the architectural icon of 2002. Where the most enduring image of last year was the wreckage of twin towers in New York, this year, fittingly, it's a new tower that has arisen out of IRA bomb devastation as a beacon of renewal and hope. Merry Christmas, and – fingers crossed – a prosperous 2003. See you on 10 January.