Notre Dame: Why do architects write such nonsense?

BY Nicholas Boys Smith   /  6 August 2019

Be careful when words are perverted by inverted meaning. According to the latest international architectural firm using the fire at Norte Dame to promote their own business, this featureless box proposed for the square in front of the fire-ravaged cathedral was made to “recall” it while being “true to…. the cathedral.”

“The temporary structure is reminiscent of the structural rhythms and forms of the Gothic cathedral. With a roof constructed out of ETFE cushions and walls made up of translucent polycarbonate, the temporary structure will be flooded with natural light, emphasising the ethereal quality of the space whilst creating visual relief.”

Now a child of five could tell you that is arrant nonsense, utter gobbledegook. It seems hardly worth listing the many and multiple ways in which this translucent shipping container is profoundly and obviously utterly unlike a medieval cathedral inside and out; the featureless walls; the lack of ornament; the wooden frame rather than the flying buttresses; the ETFE cushions rather than the rib vaults; the ubiquitous white shimmer rather than the delicate lines of light refracted thorough stained glass and rotating with the clock upon stone pillar and floor. It no more “recalls the structural rhythms and forms of the Gothic cathedral” than would a Lego brick or an aircraft carrier.

Posh portacabin or the essence of the Gothic?

So why do people write this rubbish? The firm responsible is presumably composed of rational men and women, not actively trying to make themselves look ridiculous. In fact, a big ugly box is quite a sensible temporary structure for the parvis de Notre Dame. It’s certainly not one whose ultimate demolition will be controversial and it can sit lightly upon the existing square without the need for expensive or destructive groundworks. This is a posh portacabin not the essence of the Gothic. Why the need to dress it up with such mendacious doublespeak? As the French might say “appelons un chat un chat.

In fact, the upper echelons of the development and design professions routinely use language which has lost all touch with the physical reality of what they are proposing. Design statements and promotional videos are crammed full of gardens which are not gardens, of villages which are not villages and of squares which are not, in point of fact, square. Ask that passing five-year old again.

Calling something a square does not make it a square

Developers propose as “urban villages” buildings whose scale and aesthetics are robustly industrial. The architects of multi-storey towers in serried ranks describe them, with no apparent irony, as “human scale.” (Which humans did they have in mind?) Pushing the barrier between satire and real life, the promoters of one high-end high-rise have Christened it the “Canaletto.” They are seemingly oblivious not just of the aesthetic contrast between 31 storeys of sheet glass and the Canal Grande, but of the profound social disconnect between the way luxury towers with their exclusive pools, saunas and clubs encourage residents to retreat from the city in contrast to the way cities of beautiful streets and gentle density tend to encourage residents to advance into the city and collectively enjoy its mix of places in which to live, talk, walk and (in Venice) float. Look at all the people in a Canaletto painting if you want to see what I mean. Or read the evidence in the writings of Jane Jacobs or Jan Gehl.

These cannot both be a Canaletto

Now you might be saying; “this is just PR puff. They do not mean this.” Up to a point Lord Copper. All salesmen exaggerate and always have. Victorian speculators were perfectly happy to promote terraces into soi-disant mansions and Streets into Avenues. But there is something else profound going on as well.

Until remarkably recently our cities, towns, streets and buildings were largely conceived, designed and built by craftsmen and builders passing on learned knowledge and experience, using locally available materials and responding to (often quite simple) local rules or customs set by city or parish authority. In a Muslim city these might be the custom derived from the Qur’an on minimum street widths and heights. In Sienna, they might be the medieval edicts that new buildings must “proceed in line with the existent buildings… so as to be of greatest beauty for the city.” In London, a series of Housing and Building Acts were readily interpreted by builders thanks to a series of fairly standard patterns taken straight from books. To look at these books now (and there are few copies left, so well-thumbed were they) is to look at London. This organic response to local materials, culture, climate and age-old regulation is why most historic towns have such an ineluctable sense of place.

Architecture was reserved for cathedrals and stately homes and even then, architects were either apprenticed or autodidacts. Nicholas Hawskmoor learned on the job as Christopher Wren’s clerk. Wren taught himself architecture after a hand break turn career change from being a Professor of Astronomy. Architecture was, above all, a practical trade. If you doubt that read Vitruvius or recall the word’s derivation: arkhitekton in Greek means master builder. Up until about 120 years ago most nascent architects learnt their trade as articled pupils or assistants in offices, supplementing their knowledge with evening or day-release classes.

However, over the last century and a bit architecture has become an academic profession. Almost every partner in a major firm seems to be a visiting professor somewhere. And “studying” architecture takes six years effectively barring the profession to all but the offspring of the most prosperous. But what do they study? Viewed from the outside, architectural theory and thought would appear to be a perverted scholastic as opposed to a properly empirical discipline. Theorems are toyed with, explored and exploded. Logic is stretched beyond breaking point. Concepts are cleverly inverted. Design that is “contextual” in practice can mean anything from matching the Flemish bond on an antique wall to a visual slap in the face (that’s how you get a Gothic shipping container).

The most obvious victims of this intellectual legerdemain are debt-laden architects themselves whose salaries are falling in comparative terms and whose role in the design and building process is in full retreat in the face of surveyors, developers, engineers and urban designers. Most new British homes are not touched by any architect in the design and development process, certainly very few of those developed by the largest house builders.

Most young architects I have met or worked with (though good, earnest and well-intentioned people) have neither practical experience nor a proper academic understanding of the types of places in which people prosper. They are unhappily stranded equidistant between the pragmatic utility of the master builder and an empirical, rigorous and numerical understanding of wellbeing-maximising design.

On the one hand, they cannot project manage, calculate build costs, navigate a planning permission. They are not master builders. On the other hand, nor are they properly aware of the growing corpus of statistical or neuroscience research which links certain types of building, street or place with citizen satisfaction. They are not really academics either. It’s not their fault. Some of their teachers actively reject this type of empirical research. One professor at a very prestigious school told me that it was impossible to research what people actually like as it is too complex a subject. This is nonsense.

And this is why it matters that an international architecture firm seeking some cheap PR on the back of the Notre Dame fire is so effortlessly able to write such awful guff. Words matter. For as long as designers and their marketing co-religionists can use words to prove (to themselves at any rate) that 1=2 and that black is white, then the public will continue to distrust them and the volume of housebuilders will continue, largely, to ignore them`. But we should be using architects to create places. We should want them and need them.

The solution, probably, is a shorter and more practical education, less scholastic, more empirical. The curricula for architects, planners, surveyors, highways engineers and builders should all include some elements of place making, the history of architecture and urban design and the empirical links between design and popularity and wellbeing. And, as soon as possible, they should get out of the classroom and onto the job. Then they would be less able to write such rubbish and better able to be true master builders, delighting in creating beautiful places in which the human being can flourish and prosper.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and co-chair of the Government’s Building Better Building Beautiful Commission.


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