Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Strange Case Of The Missing Architect

I am rarely lost for words; you might even describe me as chatty (well, that’s the polite way of putting it) but the other day, I discovered something that left me absolutely speechless.

I’ve always wondered just who designs those nasty little orange euroboxes like my former home of Dovecot Towers which are disfiguring cities everywhere. Whoever they are, they express their hatred of humanity by designing homes that are less about domestic bliss and more about smiting people with vengeance. I imagine their wizened yellow faces contorted with malice, manically intoning their evil plans and cackling until dawn as they draw up the blueprints, satisfied at the huge amount of misery they inflict upon their enemies.

Who else could be held responsible? I know that developers pay this evil piper to call their tune, but seriously – what were the architects thinking when they designed those meagre little box flats? Does nobody ever reject their demonic plans and drag them out by the scruff of the neck, slapping them as they shout: “You’ve been a very naughty architect!”

In fact truth is worse than that. The architect is invisible and powerless. The architect is absent. You see, there is no architect. Buildings urban twat-flats are designed by anybody who fancies a try.

The excellent blog Bad British Architecture (see links) has coined an excellent phrase, which always makes me laugh: ‘developer vernacular,’ that is, buildings styled and envisaged by developers, who favour cost-saving uniform grey metal fittings and orange brick infill stuck onto a concrete box.

Exactly who is responsible, then? Anybody who fancies giving it a go, basically: the work experience girl, some bloke who was wandering by, the cleaner, the man who delivers the organic veg box, Jeffrey from Rainbow, and (on more than one occasion) a troupe of semi-trained gibbons.

Here’s what happens: they draw a childlike box, with no fripperies, no extras, no fancy accoutrements like strong doors, insulated walls, space, or cupboards. They squeeze everything into their tiny little closet and afterwards put a window-box outside and call it a balcony.

Seriously though – can you imagine the same happening anywhere else, where rank amateurs intent on torturing humanity are given free rein to meddle in what should be a skilled profession and thereby ruin innocent lives? (oh right – apart from letting agents.)

Please tell me I’ve been misinformed: please tell me there’s a law stating that houses must be planned with great skill by people specially trained to this, allowing for safety, comfort and even beauty (shouldn’t our homes be beautiful – if only for the sake of the poor blighters standing outside dumbstruck with horror or pointing and laughing.)

But apparently, that’s the way it is. The plans are drawn up with a stubby crayon, and if we’re lucky, they’re in a straight line and everything! Please tell me that’s not true.

Although thinking about it – why be so churlish? Why not embrace this notion of can-do. Since you’re asking, I’ve always fancied trying a spot of brain surgery, and I’ve also got this great fantastic idea for a nuclear power station. Somebody hire me please – after all, what harm could I possibly do?


MattW said...

Well said, RG. It is supposed to take 7 years become a qualified Architect. However, judging by the poorly designed new build flats sprouting up where I live, they do indeed look as if they have been designed by the work experience youngster or the semi-trained gibbons who have never used a drawing board before! And then developers have a cheek to ask for a six-figure sum for them.

How on Earth are open plan kitchens, windowless bathrooms and tiny windows supposed to signify architectural progress? As I've said before - 1950s-60s flats seem much better designed than new build flats with good sized separate kitchens and oodles of cupboard space. So why can't architects build on these points (pardon the pun)?

Brits today have more consumer durables than in the 20th Century, yet living rooms also become part kitchen and part dining area. Room sizes seem to be getting smaller, meaning less space for the hardware.

Communal laundry areas don't seem to be provided anymore, so why not make balconies (or private courtyards for ground floor flats) a standard part of the design of blocks of flats. Residents can then have a secure area to dry their clothes naturally rather than burn CO2 using a tumble dryer - even on dry days.

fifi said...

MattW, you mention an interesting point about older flats. Flats built in the 50s-early 70s (and uni accommodation for what it's worth) are just better quality all round. I visited one 1970s? (I'm not sure but it was a good 20-30 years old) flat which - wait for it - actually had an allocated garage. All of the flats in the block did. You can't get that for love nor money in the modern developments like the one I'm currently living in. It also had a large storage cupboard (WITH A SHELF!).I ended up renting somewhere else because although the flat was solid and came with an original garage at a very reasonable rent, the electric night storage heaters were also original. And it was decorated like a 1970s guest house.

I'd also like an end to odd-shaped rooms created by the 'architect's' funky building design.

I think the main problem is there are more of us trying to live in the same amount of space. Land's getting expensive and the downturn in the property market is not a great incentive for developers to spend more time and money producing well-designed homes.

RenterGirl said...

I'll say it again: buildings should be designed by architects. Can you imagine me doing a spot of plumbing because I've got friends who are plumbers and I've read some books and have a spare bit of copper pipe? Fifi- developers have no incentive for developing well-designed comfortable even beautiful housing. None whatsoever. That's why we're in the current mess. The older 70's flats were better designed (although many had their own peculiarities - like the block I've seen where the bedroom windows are placed high on walls so as to discourage suicide - as regular readers know, something close to my renting experience, but dealt with there by extreme imposed design specifications, and ultimately, not nice to live in.)

RJS said...

Ultimately, a lot of developers of what have to come to be colloquially know as 'tw*tpads' (that asterisk doesn't denote an 'i') don't know what they're doing. A lot of small companies (like Dandara, to name but one) rode the wave of the city-centre housing boom to become humungous in a very, very short space of time.

Grasping buy-to-let speculators bought off-plan, 99% of them were completely ignorant about architecture and interior design, nobody asked any questions and for a while everybody made money, at least in theory. they are huns, visigoths tearing across our urban fabric leaving oversized urinals 'designed' by engineers and accountants.

the 50s/60s towerblocks/medium rises, for all their many fault, were designed by architects and planners with at least the intention of an ethos of social progressiveness, even if they fell short in many ways and ultimately have to be seen as a failure.

Adam G said...

"Can you imagine me doing a spot of plumbing because I've got friends who are plumbers and I've read some books and have a spare bit of copper pipe?"

Actually I can; that's something I see happen all the time.

This is a bit of a tangent from your OP, but as a building surveyor who goes into rental properties quite a bit I see self-help repairs or mods everywhere. Electrics are the worst for it, but plumbing isn't unknown, and everything in between. Usually they're done by people with minimal knowledge who want to save a few shekels. God forbid they should pay a professional when they could tinker with the system themselves at next to no cost - unless, of course, something goes badly wrong . . .

Which, going back to your OP, is exactly why developers don't necessarily bother with decent design. That costs shekels too, and they want to shave off some of the overhead.

RenterGirl said...

Adam G - you're right. I mean - I wouldn't do it, but I've known so many landlords who either refuse to pay for professionals, or simply won't do the work at all. This causes well...death. See my previous post:


AR said...

I'm enjoying your blog and I sympathise with the criticisms you've got about dovecotes; I rent, too. However, I don't reckon the problem is whether or not these towers have been designed by registered architects. I'd be willing to bet that almost all of the large blocks of flats you care to find have been designed by registered architects. However, the architect will have been employed by either the developer or the contractor. The developer will have an idea of what they want to get on the site and, assuming they're developing purely for profit, will want to achieve this as cheaply as they can. If the architect doesn't toe the line then the developer or contractor will drop them and pick another architect.

If the changes everyone wants cost nothing extra and take up no further space then the developers will incorporate them, they just need to be told. If the changes cost more or take up more space then we have to force the developers to incorporate what we want by putting it into building regulations. Either that or we build our own flats.

Following 'Bad British Architecture', it looks like the entries there are architect designed. They're just designed badly by architects. It'd be nice to see a blog that showed good British architecture, and I don't mean projects where lots of money has been blown pimping them up. I mean offices and flats that cost the same as those shown on BBA but don't suck. Do they exist?

RenterGirl said...

Yep AR that's also a good point. But off the shelf blueprints are also used quite casually - or so I am led to believe. I have seen some self-designed flats, and they have all the features I discuss: storage, separation of space, etc. When people choose that's what they ask for. But those monstrosities in Bad British Architecture are often the result of arrogance or complacency.

AR said...

Thinking about it a bit more, I reckon there's two separate issues that we're discussing here, Construction and fit-out.
Things like the look and form of the building, the overall size of the flats, the sound-transmission between them, the heating, the fenestration, and the provision of balconies will all likely be decided during the early stages of the design and construction of the building. This was the bit I was thinking of when I wrote my earlier comment, the bit that I reckon will pretty much certainly have architect involvement.
Then there's the fit-out: Things like the division within the flats, the storage, the kitchen, the lighting, the bathroom. I guess this covers a lot of the stuff that you commented on in your original post. My (very limited) experience is that you're right, this sort of thing doesn't need to be designed by an architect.
However, think about it. Architecture courses only involve 5 years of teaching (3 years taught, 2 years work, then 2 years taught making up the 7 years commonly referred to). In this time the architect is supposed to gain understanding of building form and design, planning, cod-philosophy, structure, building physics, building law, contract administration, project management, fire safety, writing gobbledegook, and how to lay out toilets. The architect has an extremely broad set of responsibilities. Besides, you can't teach everything, the architect may have very little experience of laying out residential buildings. Just because someone is a qualified architect doesn't mean they're going to be good at designing layouts of flats. Just because someone is not a qualified architect doesn't mean that they can't design a great flat.
In my experience it's the rich people that buy the pent-house flats that choose not to have the architect fit out their flat. They buy them as an empty shell and employ their own specialists to pick just the right shade of marble from that little town in North-East Italy. Oh, and they want the stairs moved over there, a hole cut in the floor here, and this window enlarged.
Also, I think that some of the poor design that you get in flats is to do with current fashions. The kitchen in the living room, the lack of built-in storage, the vestigal balconies. They're all shown proudly in the marketing images. If we're looking to architects to protect us from the vagaries of fashion then we really are all lost.
I'm not saying that architects can't design good fit-outs. I know there's plenty of examples where the architect specifies everything beautifully, even to the point of designing the furniture. However, in the case of anywhere we're likely to rent the developer has probably specified the kind of fit-out that they want anyway. The architect or designer translates that to paper for the contractor to install.
Essentially, what I think I'm trying to argue again (sorry for the waffle, that's just the way it comes out) is that I don't think getting qualified architects to do the design is going to help us. Unless the developers think they can get more money from fitting the stuff we want in flats I don't think it's going to happen. I'd be interested to see what the flats built by co-ops like those commissioned by the Coin Street builders are like. Are they better designed? Do they have more of the things that we want in them?

RenterGirl said...

You're right on all accounts, but I'll say it again: I am reliably informed that there is often no architect! I had thought that the huge number of flats left empty might compel developers to rethink their orthodoxy (tiny balcony small rooms) but they have no responsibility.