Football chants, wearing Gilbert & George cufflinks, designing Middle Eastern cities of the future … it’s all so conformist. And when even virtual worlds smack of the pack mentality, something has to be done
If you have ever had the dubious honour of witnessing a pack of celebrities stuck in a room full of non-celebs, as I have recently, you may have noticed how they tend to huddle together, nervously, in a loose but well organised circle. Typically, the one deemed the most famous will be at the centre, and the rest will be spiralling outwards from that point in an ever-decreasing pecking order of fame. If the leader needs to move, the group moves, behaving almost as one, shuffling along together in a silly, subtle dance.
If you have ever had the dubious honour of attending a Premiership football match in a VIP executive box, as I have recently, you may have noticed, thanks to the advantageous height and perspective, how the entire crowd can at certain points during the game behave almost as one, in a delirious hypnotic trance of expletive chants and masturbatory hand gestures towards the opposing fans.
If you have ever had the irrefutable dishonour of waiting for a cab outside a Co-op in a forgotten Kent suburb on a cold Sunday morning, as I have recently, you may have witnessed the young suburban housewife going about her wifely duties. While her husband is unwillingly emerging from his lager-induced coma, steadily hungering for breakfast as his synapses spark back into life, she has already jumped in the car and arrived at the local garage, and into my cognisance. Seemingly without thinking, she has got the News of the World in one hand, a pint of milk, some eggs and bacon in the other, and is asking the man behind the counter for a packet of Bensons. Soon it will be “Cuppa tea?” and “How many slices of toast?”, and not long after that they will be comfortably numbed by the Eastenders omnibus, followed by curry and an early night.
If not the horrors of Sunday in suburbia, it could quite easily be an equally mind-numbing afternoon at the Tate Modern. Willingly playing our part in the commoditisation of culture, we can purchase some daring Gilbert & George “Piss” and “Shit” cufflinks from the gift shop afterwards.
And if not the Tate, then why not the arduous assault course that is the shopping experience in “town”? You could spend hours “up West” trying to find a Boots that still has a bottle of the elusive No 7 Protect & Perfect beauty serum in stock.
Welcome to the pack culture. It’s that voice of conformity we all have deeply rooted within us, an instinct to follow, to comfort ourselves with a sense of familiarity, and avoid stepping out of the fold or pushing for something new. It’s the thing that makes us stale and stagnant, and afraid of evolving.
Interesting how two of the world’s leading megalomaniacal architects have produced almost identical visions for two different cities of the future in the Middle East
So what does all this have to do with the construction industry? Well, I would argue that if we don’t keep stirring things up we will end up with a similarly stale and stagnant industry. The buoyant construction industry we are all blissfully experiencing at the moment doesn’t come without it’s own particular kind of complacency. We have to continue to find a new way of doing things, a new tradition, and one that is neither constrained by the habits of our past nor inhibited by the fear of our future. If we don’t, we run the risk of just regurgitating old ideas and blindly implementing them simply because there is no better alternative available to us.
Interesting how two of the world’s leading megalomaniacal architects – Foster + Partners and Rem Koolhaas – have both recently (although, of course, wholly independently of each other) produced almost identical visions for cities in the Middle East. Both are square in plan, both based on a Cartesian grid, both seemingly void of any notion of evolution.
Even in the virtual worlds of Second Life or Tomb Raider, where we could easily argue artistic licence to invent an entirely new world environment, we replicate the existing built environments of the real world.
All this time we have spent trying to achieve a real-world likeness with digital imagery, be it in computer games or insipid architectural visualisations, we should have been pursuing something else, an altogether more visceral, hyper-real version of our aspirations. Otherwise, what hope is there in pushing our real-world endeavours to be the best that they can be?
Let’s continue to aim not necessarily higher, but just with a little bit of harmless non-conformity – a little more Agent Provocateur and a little less Marks & Spencer.
Tarek Merlin is an architect at SMC Alsop