Democracy is in trouble because politicians tell us what we want, then labour mightily to make sure we get it. Much the same is true of architecture, says Robert Adam
Architecture only has a walk-on part in the great drama of public life. But it’s still part of the drama so, if you want to get a better idea of what’s going on in architecture, you need to look at the whole performance.
To see how we’re governed you need to go right to the heart of public life. The government is democratic, but democracy has been in the doldrums for some time. Some call it voter apathy, the Fabian Society calls it post-democracy but mostly it’s called the democratic deficit. In recent years, and even in the past few months, the French, Dutch and now the Irish referendums have shown us just how little our governing elite trust us. Former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing summed it up nicely: “Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly.” No wonder we’ve become apathetic.
How does this fit with architecture? Cabe is a quango that has grown by mopping up the ambitions of politicians who talk up design but have no idea what to do with it. In 2004, it commissioned a survey to find out what people wanted from their houses. They’d had a survey on the same subject only two years before and found that most people liked traditional houses. Cabe is an organ of an establishment that is instinctively opposed to traditional design, so, like the EU with the Irish, they hoped that by asking the same question again they’d get the answer they wanted. When the result only confirmed that “most homebuyers favoured houses and apartments with traditional-looking exteriors”, they quickly buried the figures and wrote a woolly report instead.
This research only repeated hard evidence that has consistently shown that about 80% of the British public want traditional designs for their houses. And there’s no logical reason to suppose that it’s any different for other types of buildings. The design professions, however, don’t trust the public – they know better. The suggestion that architects should design what the public says it likes is usually treated with horror and ridicule. One respected architect recently went so far as to announce that traditional designs, by definition, couldn’t be good.
If the design professionals know best, what is it that they know that ordinary people don’t? Everyone knows that buildings have to do a job. They’re supposed to function, stand up and keep the water out. There’s no mystery here. The big secret seems to be that buildings have to look as far away as possible from anything that might be described as traditional. With this in mind, the architectural establishment, architects advising planners and (frighteningly) an increasing number of planning officials themselves, do their level best to make sure that anyone who wants to make their buildings look traditional doesn’t succeed. And if anyone does, they rubbish them.
The justification for anti-traditionalism is that if you’re going to be ‘of your time’, ‘for today’ or ‘for the future’, you have to be very obviously different. This is, of course, nonsense
And what’s the justification for this? It’s that if you’re going to be “of your time”, “for today” or “for the future”, you have to be very obviously different. This is, of course, nonsense. The future isn’t fixed, it’s what we want to make it. Being different is often billed as innovation – generally a good thing in an industrialised consumer society. But this muddles up innovation in industry, which is technical, with innovation in aesthetics, which is just taste.
All this is propped up by a crazy formula: being different is good + the public doesn’t like different things = if the public doesn’t like it, it must be good. In the past few weeks a very old and very honoured architect let it be known that he was under the sad delusion that his 50-year-long design routine was still shocking. It never occurred to him that it stopped being shocking ages ago; it is now predictable and boring and people don’t like it.
But still architects hang on, convinced that they are right and history will prove it. To paraphrase Giscard: “Public opinion will come round, whether they like it or not, if we keep presenting them with something they don’t like.” It hasn’t.
Perhaps architects should stop insulting the public and devote their creativity to making what the public likes, only better.
Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects