Architectural truth can be stranger than fiction

1 - 3 December 2021, Lisbon

Architectural truth can be stranger than fiction

1 April 2021, Paul Finch
 
It is good to be back on the World Architecture Festival website, after a decade during which this column appeared in Another Journal. Your correspondent is the same, but the column will now, I hope, have a more internationalist feel, as befits a website which promotes a truly global festival, committed to the entire world rather than a particular country or continent. Of course there will be some London gossip too . . .
 
It has become increasingly apparent over that decade that the challenges and opportunities facing architects worldwide have a huge amount in common – that is to say those triggered by the effects of climate and demographic change.
 
Opportunities in a world which (on the whole) is getting better rather than worse concern the provision of built environment benefits to the continually increasing proportion of city-based dwellers, and a total population which is set to increase dramatically by 2050, though environment commentators frequently fail to mention this as they focus on relative minutiae (put that bonfire out!).
 
Of course opportunity can be seen as challenge – or worse. A first novel by OMA partner Reinier de Graaf, The Masterplan, relates in an entirely believable way the story of how a new city is created in former Portuguese territory in Africa, and the compromised role of the architect involved.
 
The novel is a follow-up de Graaf’s terrific Four Walls and a Roof: the complex nature of a simple profession, a series of essays which included the account of an international competition in Russia which read like the first draft of a screenplay.  The novel could be similarly regarded, not least because of a curious statement not included in the novel itself, but underneath the publishing details preceding the title page: ‘The author has, in good faith, recreated the events relayed to him. For privacy reasons the source cannot be revealed, nor can its account be independently verified. Until such happens, this book is to be regarded as a work of fiction.’
This is followed by an author’s note in which de Graaf gives an account of how he met an architect, son of a much more famous architect-father, taking part in an international competition; the son subsequently asks him to write the story of what happened to him when he tried to masterplan a new city in Africa, handing over notes which form the basis of the narrative that follows.
 
Post-modern conceit or true story? Is Reinier, who certainly has a sense of humour as well as the ridiculous, playing with us – or is the novel simply an amalgam of ‘true’ stories, creating what is a rather compelling page-turner?
 
As I write I am listening to radio tales of corruption on the part of local politicians, Frenchoil companies and Chinese contractors undertaking huge projects in former European colonies in Africa; life may be imitating art, or more likely has inspired it.
 
What rings all too true is the experience of the struggling architect, who has been recruited to the role of master-planning a city for a million citizens. He has to cope with an obscure client, a design-build construction operation completely uninterested in the design element, and the pre-determined outcome of most of the project (prior to any master-planning on his part), remarkably similar to a model of the new city the architect sees when he arrives at the project hq for the first time.
It has to be said that this is not a great work of literature (too many coincidences, a dubious back-story, some infelicities of language despite an editor’s efforts), but it is a good yarn. And for anyone who undertakes international design work in Africa or parts of Asia, there will be much that rings true.
 
When did planners forget about design?
 
Quote of the week: ‘The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) has welcomed government proposals to strengthen planning legislation to empower planners to reject poor design and drive up quality.’
Fact: rejecting designs of poor quality has been something UK planners have been able to do since time immemorial. There is absolutely nothing new about this, but sometimes a convenient fiction takes advantage of government and professional amnesia.
Needless to say, the RTPI says more ‘resources’ are needed to bring this exciting new initiative to fruition. Actually what is required is planners who know something (anything) about design. They used to – when the Town Planning Institute was created in 1914, most of its members were architects.
The point where ‘planning’ and ‘architecture’ diverged explains many of the dismal examples of both which have littered the country for 60 years.
 
Stating a claim
 
I see Lewerentz is being billed as ‘Sweden’s greatest architect’ by promoters of a forthcoming exhibition about the undoubtedly great man. Asplund must be turning in his grave!

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