17 Sep 2010

Toby Young V Architecture Ltd: 1- 0

I’m not a fan of Toby Young, but when someone says something sensible I’m willing to listen. Young is planning to start a new ‘free school’ in west London. In a statement that no doubt made most architects choke on their organic Muesli he denied that there’s any link between building design and academic achievement. As to be expected, the comments sparked ‘a backlash’ among architects who ‘lined up to attack Young’. The world would be a much better place if all mobs had the decency of architects to stand in a queue when savaging someone.


The role of chief inquisitor in this ridiculous witch hunt fell to RIBA president Ruth Reed, who called Young’s comments “hugely damaging” and “absolutely false”. She added: “The danger is this myth that good architecture is a luxury. It’s almost a hairshirt idea that in the age of austerity you can’t afford good design. Poor design is a poor investment.”

See what she’s done there? Quite how she made the leap between Young saying there’s no link between architecture and academic achievement to making him seem like a champion of poor design is really baffling. I’ve given up on expecting common sense from members of the architectural establishment a long time ago, what with their adeptness at wrapping themselves in a protective layer of vacuous buzzwords and meaningless platitudes. Reed seems to be well ensconced in this semantic security blanket.

Let’s take a look at Young’s offensive statement: “We will be looking for an architect who doesn’t have too inflated an idea of how important buildings are to educational outcomes because I think the connection between the two is practically zero. Given the limited resources available, free schools are going to have to be pretty creative over the use of their spaces.” I would love this as a brief; I would certainly prefer it to the New Age mumbo jumbo about the magical qualities of ‘design’. Why are Reed and the architects who stood in line behind her so offended?

Let’s examine another little nugget of wisdom from another architect: “Good design in schools does not have to mean steel and glass extravagances built at great expense. It does mean the creation of decent space: classrooms with acoustics that allow all students to hear the teacher, fresh air and daylight to help concentration.” Mr Marston seems to come from the ‘stating the bleeding obvious’ school of thought, next week he will explain certain patterns of unhygienic bear behaviour in the woods.

But let’s get serious, there’s a real problem here. Architects have fully embraced the culture of targets and the philistine instrumental logic that drives it. There’s no way that they could justify architecture on its own terms anymore, everything has to have a measurable impact in order for it to be justified. Is there anything more ridiculous than these attempts at establishing links between good architecture and academic achievement, health and happiness?

Reed should spend her energy arguing against austerity instead of embracing it and timidly suggesting that it still leaves space for ‘good design’. She would do better to argue against free schools and the madness of transferring the responsibility for education from the state to select groups of parents. I have no problem in people setting up their own schools, but the logic behind the free schools is an admission of the state’s failure to create a successful educational system. Why should we bail the politicians out if they can’t do their jobs?

Instead, Reed spearheaded a column of disgruntled architects in a meaningless attack on Young. I personally can’t help but agree with Young. There are many reasons why we should have great architecture but the dubious environmental determinism that insists on a link between academic achievement and good design is not one of them. If we can’t make a better case for outstanding architecture, we would be letting our profession down.
In fact, I would be interested to hear Reed’s justification for Notre Dame de Paris for example. Would she argue that there’s a scientific link between the size of the windows and the atmosphere required for worshipping a monotheistic deity? Would she find a link between the angle of the pyramids of Giza and the ideal conditions to prepare for the afterlife? I dread to think what ridiculous explanations she and her fellow architects in the ‘queue of disgruntlement’ would come up with.

Great architecture, like music, art or literature, should not be instrumentally assessed. It is the weakest of faiths to justify outstanding works of architecture through a philistine worldview that is incapable of enjoying things for themselves. If architects had more self-confidence and assuredness about their profession they wouldn’t have been rattled so easily by the comments of someone who after all built a career on pissing people off. But having surrendered a long time ago to this instrumental view of architecture, the architectural establishment was visibly shaken by a very minor critique. What a sad state of affairs.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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