What four friends told me about their experiences of architecture

I’m giving a talk about architecture, to the first of Christian Michel’s 6/20 gatherings next year, on Jan 6. By way of preparation, instead of just thinking about it all for myself, I am soliciting strongly felt architectural opinions and experiences from friends and acquaintances. I could go on the internet to seek such stuff, but internet discussions on any particular topic tend to be by a self-selected group with a particular axe to grind. I seek a collection of axes, so to speak. Lots of angles. Lots of agendas.

In this posting, I will record the opinions and recollections along these lines that I have collected, basically so I don’t forget them. So far there have four. Here are these four, in chronological order of them being told to me.

First, a friend who vehemently objected to the way that modern buldings are not built to last. Why tacky boxes that get ripped down after thirty years? Why not stuff like they used to build, that hangs around for hundreds of years, like Quinlan Terry still builds?

Second, another friend, married to the friend above, a rather high-powered nurse and manager of nurses, who has had experience working with architects on new healthcare buildings. She spoke in particular of a design for a new mental hospital, which contained, she said, several suicide opportunities built into it. Since suicide in such places is very spur-of-the-moment and opportunistic, this was inviting a regular trickle of such disasters. What my friend hated and despised was not the original design as such, but the refusal of its perpetrators to change it, once the above had been explained to them. These architects, said my friend, were more interested in getting awards from other architects than they were in designing a good building which did the job required. She kept on repeating the bit about them being “more interested in awards”.

Third, a newly acquired friend now based in London but who grew up in Dublin. He spoke about a Dublin terrace, long and elegant, violated by some electrical techies who needed a switching station. Instead of hiding their damn switching station behind the facade of the terrace, as they well could have, they insisted on bashing a gap into it, to insert their modernistical box of tricks. It was quite a cause celebre when this all happened, although I’ve not been able to track it down on the internet.

Fourth, and last so far, a friend who recalled a recent visit to Budapest. She loved it, with its tall apartment buildings, with their frontages all beautifully and individually designed, in antique or art nouveau styles, early in the twentieth century. It took her back to her childhood in Bucharest, where they had just the same kind of urban housing. Until Ceausescu smashed in all into oblivion to make way for his fascistic monstrosities.

The above experiences and recollections have in common that they involved huge anger as well as plenty of intelligent thought. Two of the four involve the destruction or desecration of old buildings, and the first is about the refusal to build in an antique style in the first place.

The second, about the award-seeking mental hospital designers, is a bit different. Modernism prides itself on being functional, but is often not functional. My sense is that things have been getting better in this respect. (They could hardly have got worse.) But if the above anecdotage is in any way typical, then there’s clearly room for improvement.

2 thoughts on “What four friends told me about their experiences of architecture”

  1. Pictures of the interiors of buildings often show clean rooms, neatly arranged furniture, and maybe a couple of pieces of strategically placed art. Most rooms that people actually live in have stuff piled higgeldy piggeldy all over the place.

    What is it with the steel beam constructs that protrude out of the front of buildings, over the entrances? They don’t hold anything up, they don’t keep the rain off, they are entirely useless, except as decoration, so why are they built like King Kong?

    Medical buildings are weird. Long empty halls, vast areas with no people at all.

    Big, fancy, government buildings are kind of cool to look at, but their only reason for their layout seems to be to force a long walk to get where you are going. Is that a valid reason?

    The basic structure of a building is the cheapest part. All the mechanical stuff (HVAC, electrical, security) and the interior decoration can easily dwarf the cost of the structure. Mechanical stuff wears out, electronics goes obsolete, decoration goes out of fashion, so twenty years goes by and a building is past its due date, so tear it down and start over. The structure is the cheapest part.

    My favorite restaurant was O’Connor’s (until they closed). It was old and slightly grubby. I was very comfortable there, possibly because I too, am slightly grubby, or maybe because I had been going there for so long. Or maybe because it was cheap. Or I had a crush on one of the waitresses.

    Old buildings can be nice to look at but are often hell to live in as landlords are loath to shoulder the cost of real maintenance.

  2. Chuck Pergiel

    Many thanks for all that.

    I was particularly interested in what you said about your favourite restaurant. You said “possibly” once, and “maybe” twice. The reasons why people like buildings are often very elusive, aren’t they?

    My sense (based on experience and conversation with others (which echoes what you say)) is that if you have been happy in a building, you tend to like it a lot, no matter how unlikable it may look to others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *