1. The art or practice of designing and constructing buildings from the outside in.
2. Architecture where the style and appearance of a building is of ultimate importance
3. The creation of hollow and meaningless iconography which is ultimately inhumane and irrelevant to the concerns of our age.
While studying to be an architect I remember a lecture from Jeremy Lowe, our History tutor, on the evolution of styles in architecture. It transpires that there are three distinct stages in the evolution of any particular style. Initially, when a new style is first established it manifests itself in a rather crude manner. Once people have worked out the underlying rules and principles and mastered their application, the trues and purest manifestation of the style emerges, often referred to as the “high” period; for example “high gothic”. The final phase in the evolution of a style is characterised by pastiche as characteristics, elements and forms become over-elaborate and exaggerated, often to the point where the original characteristics are caricatured and become almost unrecognisable.
So you may ask, what has all this “arty bollocks” got to do with buildings, architecture and sustainability? Well, it is my belief that we are on the threshold of a period of rapid and revolutionary change and that when we examine the buildings that we are making now it is clear that we are witnessing the death of modernism, as we make way for a new sustainable architecture. Many of the most iconic buildings realised over the recent past are caricatures, the architectural equivalent of “gurning”, with designers trying to outdo each other with more complex and contorted form; with ever diminishing relevance. Take for example, the Olympic swimming pool, the Walkie Talkie or at a smaller scale the ArcelorMittal Orbit. Each one invests significant money, materials and energy to take a perverse shape which offers little or no additional value to the user experience.
Olympic Swimming Pool:
"Would you like wedges with that"?
The car melting genius of
the Walkie Talkie building
The contorted, "gurning" nightmare
that is the Orbit Tower
So I would like to propose that we create a new category for these stylistically driven projects, “archicouture” and let it embrace any work that places shape making and formal gymnastics at the centre of the design process. Then let’s make a rule that says, like couture in fashion, it is only acceptable for work of this type to be undertaken for the sole use and occupation by wealthy, private clients and that these buildings are only used by the public on a totally discretionary basis. Then we can focus our resources on the development of projects that are anti-iconic and instead are focused on the wants, needs and desires of their intended users. We can insist that proposals are philosophically rather than stylistically driven and that procurement processes judge intent rather than appearance when selecting teams for all publically accessible buildings including schools, hospitals, shops, offices and crucially housing. The revolution, as Billy Bragg once said, is only a tee shirt away, so let’s make it an organic, fairtrade, unbleached and vegetable dyed one!