Why Architects Give Me the Willies
A long time ago - it almost feels like another life - I used to write about architecture. For three years, starting in the late 1980s, I worked for Blueprint magazine in London. Then, as now, it covered both architecture and design, and I wrote news, features and reviews about every aspect of these subjects.
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In truth, I always felt a little uncomfortable when it came to architecture. Although I had read my Pevsner etc. while studying art history, I had come to architectural writing relatively late via a stint on an interior design magazine. It had never been my intention to pursue the subject. I knew a lot more about art, literature and film than I did about the history of architecture. Graphic designers sometimes claim you can only write about graphic design effectively if you are a designer. I think that's nonsense, but I often felt that not being an architect was a real disadvantage when it came to the more technical aspects of the subject. Blueprint's publisher and editor had trained as architects and most of the magazine's strongest architectural writers - people like Martin Pawley and Rowan Moore - had qualified as architects.
Still, I enjoyed it while it lasted. There is no better way of experiencing cities than going to look at the architecture. So I would trek around Barcelona, guidebook in hand, studying every building by Gaudí and the other modernists, or make pilgrimages to Paris to familiarise myself with each new architectural grand projet. I'd visit Antonio Citterio in Milan and interview Shin Takamatsu in Kyoto. Back in London, I'd head like a homing pigeon for the bookshops at the Architectural Association and the Royal Institute of British Architects. For a while, I immersed myself in architecture. In 1989, I even wrote a book about an architect, Nigel Coates, though what attracted me about Coates was his theorising about the city and his intense engagement with popular culture - then unusual in an architect - as much as the architectural aspects of his work.
Despite this exposure, I never felt completely at ease in the company of architects. In the mid-1980s, working at the Architectural Press in London on a magazine called Designers' Journal, I received an early taste of the social stratification of design disciplines. The company's Westminster offices had a magnificent wood-panelled Victorian pub called the Bride of Denmark in the basement, where architectural luminaries such as Le Corbusier had scratched their signatures on an ornate mirror, and we would take old-fashioned tea breaks there. There was almost no mixing between those who worked on the long-established weekly Architects' Journal and the illustrious monthly Architectural Review and our upstart interior design magazine. We sat in our own groups.
At Blueprint, meeting designers from all disciplines, I realised that I just plain preferred designers as people. It's no secret that graphic designers can be arrogant, but this is a kids' erector set compared to the architectural ego in its most towering, steel-trussed, grandiloquent forms. An architectural education is, after all, long and demanding. You have to be smart and determined, with large reserves of self-belief to go through with it. Those who make it to the highest levels of the profession mix with the super-wealthy, become rich themselves and achieve great power, but any architect enjoys considerable social standing. The other professional groups that architects most resemble are consultant surgeons and lawyers. What links them is the control they are licensed to exert over our physical being. Surgeons have life-saving access to the body's vulnerable interior. Architects channel and direct the body's movements in space and our safety depends on them. Lawyers concern themselves with whether the body will remain free, or be constrained, or even die in countries that retain the death penalty. These are tremendous forms of power for an individual to wield and this knowledge and the sense of self-importance it fosters permeates these professions, shaping their ethos, and influencing the status we accord to these groups.
I decided to concentrate on writing about visual communication because, compared to all this, the activity was an underdog with much less power and everything to prove. While architectural writing had some obvious benefits - there is a more developed public interest in architectural matters and many more places to write about these topics - the subject seemed so well worn that it would be hard at this stage to make much of a contribution or impression as a writer. The significant work has already been done. Also, I enjoy small, light, transient, relatively inexpensive things, little bursts of communication and expression that float through our lives subtly infusing our perceptions and inflecting our moods and beliefs. I am still interested in architecture, but a new bridge in southern France by Norman Foster that I shall probably never cross means much less on a personal level than a book design, a poster, a CD cover or a website that is part of everyday experience and actually makes a difference to me. I'm sure that's true of most people, but the bridge still receives the newspaper write-up - because architecture is very expensive, because it expresses the conditions of power, and because, compared to anything else we create, it is just, well, big.
All this came back to me while working on an exhibition about British graphic design at the Barbican Centre, London. Called "Communicate", it was paired with a Daniel Libeskind retrospective and each exhibition had its own floor. Shortly before the shows opened, I was introduced to a member of Libeskind's entourage. He said he liked our exhibition and that it made a good support for the main exhibition - Libeskind's. In reality, both exhibitions occupied the same amount of floor space, received equal promotion, and had supporting event programmes of a similar size. Our catalogue was actually bigger. But there it was again: to this man's way of thinking, Libeskind, a non-British architect, singlehandedly outweighed the cultural contribution of more than 100 British graphic designers created over 45 years, and furthermore, in the briefest exchange he felt a need to let me know it.
Shortly after the exhibitions opened, an architecture and design critic got in touch to say that he had found the contents of "Communicate" much more absorbing than Libeskind's show. It was nice of him, but no prizes for guessing which one he wrote about in his paper.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is a writer, critic, lecturer and curator, specialising in design, media, photography and visual culture. He founded Eye
, co-founded Design Observer
, and contributes columns to Eye
. His latest book is Uncanny: Surrealism and Graphic Design
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