How has architecture come to be such a regulated, disciplined, controlled and artistically emasculated business? And what can be done to save it?
Twenty-five years ago last month I attended – the only time in my life I have done so – the RIBA’s annual conference. It was striking for three reasons, all of them regrettable. The first was the remarkably flimsy, intellectually fraudulent, historically ignorant “keynote” address by Tom Wolfe, which he would subsequently expand into his captious polemic From Bauhaus to Our House. The second was the alarming passivity of the audience, which either didn’t realise that it was being collectively insulted or was, by then, so inured to deprecations of architecture that it could not stir itself to respond by, say, walking out.
The third was the sartorial dreariness of that almost entirely male audience, which was almost entirely dressed in the drab suits of high street tailoring. Was I in the presence of some sect that worshipped at John Collier – “the window to watch” – or at Hepworths, or Burtons? No, this was architecture’s rank and file. And although it may be foolish to judge by appearances it is even more foolish not to judge by them.
A familiar and reassuring figure of my childhood and adolescence had vanished: the flamboyantly bow-tied, floppy-haired chap with deafening Tweeds and yellow socks. (Actually, I’m not sure if they all wore yellow socks, but a friend of my father did). That generation of architects – now dead, and by the time of that grim conference mostly on the point of retirement – dressed as though to express their self-proclaimed status as artists. Or aspirant artists. Or, at the very least, as arty folk.
By 1979, however, architects had come to think of themselves as technicians, as members of a profession, as businessmen. An architect with the temerity to regard himself as an artist was by then a laughable and immodest dinosaur. That is the way it has, for the most part, remained these past 25 years. Twenty-five years that have thus been atypical in the history of architectural endeavour; 25 years that will, with luck, come to be seen as a strange hiatus.
At a typically lavish bash to launch his tectonic bildungsroman Place (Laurence King, £29.95),
Sir Terry Farrell made a speech that was quite the opposite of that which one might expect on so convivial an occasion. It was bereft of jocular niceties. Instead it was an impressively passionate call for a reassessment of the way architecture is taught and, just as important, of whom it is taught to.
Farrell's contention is that architecture's self-image is increasingly that of a branch of civil engineering
Now, this was not a matter of pedagogic hair-splitting. Farrell’s incontestable contention is that architecture’s self-image – abetted by the skeletal purity of much current work – is increasingly that of a branch of civil engineering. His argument, based on his experience as an astonishingly precocious painter of neo-romantic landscapes, illustrator, pasticheur and photographer, is that a background in the visual arts is of incomparable value to the future architect. The corollary is that the current emphasis on mathematics and physics is misplaced, though hardly surprising given the mistrust of art unless it is “practical” or “vocational”.
The qualifications demanded for entry to architectural courses are, simply, wrong. And schools are complicit: they discourage pupils who are not strong in maths in the belief that this is the primary gift required. Which would no doubt interest, inter alia, Michelangelo (sculptor), Inigo Jones (stage designer), Sir John Vanbrugh (playwright), Sir Edwin Lutyens (doodler), Le Corbusier (painter/sculptor), Pancho Guedes (sculptor and the only member of this list to be a “qualified” architect).
These people have changed the way we think of buildings. They have done so through that combination of imagination, memory, intuition, risk, bloodymindedness, whimsy, obsession, practicality and craft that we deem art. And which obeys its own rules – that are unquantifiable, and so impervious to bureaucratic scrutiny and professional control. In the mid-19th century, opponents of architecture’s being granted the status of “profession”, such as Norman Shaw, foresaw the problems posed by attempts to regulate an art as if it were a discipline like the law.
There is today an obvious irony in the insistence on irrelevant educational qualifications. For there has never been a better moment to be innumerate yet to conceal that failing and render it utterly irrelevant.