Architects love chasing fame but the tiresome stuff of knowing how a building is put together seems beneath them. The sixth of Robert Adam’s seven deadly sins of architecture is incompetence
The most important thing a building has to do is to keep the water and weather out. In fact, it wouldn’t really be a building if it didn’t. It also needs to take the rough and tumble of daily use and hold together pretty well for some time. It may surprise you to learn that these are the things most architects are least interested in. Ask an architect just out of college how a builder with a hammer and saw might put together the fantasy project that has just won him prizes. You’ll be met with a blank stare. You might want to get quite technical and ask him or her how the water runs off the building’s tricky corners and fancy shapes, how that big curvy thing can be made and brought to site or how to turn a damp-proof course around a corner. Don’t expect an answer. There’s a chance he or she will pick all this up in an office later but, as they’re all trained to be superstars, wasting too much creative time on this boring stuff will just get in the way of future fame. Better not to bother; practical stuff is for dummies.
The 20th-century history of the architectural profession is one long retreat from the business of building. The first thing most clients want to know is how much their building will cost; after all it’s theirs and they’re paying for it. So of course, the first thing architects decided was too boring for them was working out how much buildings cost. Before the war they handed all that over to quantity surveyors. Next, all the poor unqualified grunts in their offices who really made sure the buildings could be built, stood up and kept out the water wanted some form of recognition. They formed an institute and called themselves architectural technicians (now technologists) and made sure they had a proper qualification. Architects wanted nothing to do with this lower order and their own institute told them to go away.
More recently, a new breed of experts turned up and called themselves project managers. Some of them were quantity surveyors, who now had charge of the thing most clients worried about most – money. Some of them were builders, who knew that most architects didn’t have a clue about what happens on a building site. Project management sounds efficient and business-like, but most of the time they’re just doing what architects are supposed to do but often don’t. So now, talking directly to clients, co-ordinating the team, running the job on site are all too often handed over to aggressive people who seem to take pleasure in being nasty to the architects whose jobs they’ve taken over.
What did architects do about this series of takeovers? Nothing. In fact, while they were at it, they let landscape and interior design get away. So what’s left?
There’s still working out how to fit functions into buildings. Sometimes that’s quite complicated but most of the time it’s pretty simple. Offices are just walls around open space, lifts and lavatories, factories are sheds without lifts and there aren’t many new ways to plan a terraced house. Of course, there’s still a lot of ways of getting the plan wrong. Think about public buildings with concealed pods that nobody but vandals wants to visit. Think about museums that are only designed to show off the building, not the exhibits. Think about buildings so impractical that they have to be closed down almost straight away. Then think of really famous architects. If you cared more about your reputation than the function of what you were designing, you’d think it was a formula for disaster. Not for architects it seems.
Some architects get fed up with the whole nasty business of trying to design things that people want for a price they want to pay – it’s so demeaning. They become social commentators, graphic artists or go into the new megalomania – masterplanning. Architects who want to carry on being architects and want to be famous are left with making fancy shapes and thinking up really complicated reasons for making them odd and unbuildable. They’d probably be insulted if we described what they do with the word Disney Corporation use for their designers’ work – “imagineering” – but once the architect’s technical know-how has gone, imagination is all that’s left. Imagination is wonderful and we need it, but not everywhere all the time, and for making buildings that don’t leak, it’s not enough.
Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects