In the UK, the commissioning of buildings is in crisis. The government and the industry as a whole is short-sighted, putting too much emphasis on function and too little thought into what makes for a long-lasting, and in that respect sustainable, building.
What is it that prompts a person to own a classic car or a family to continue to use old silver when both involve so much hard work? Why not buy a new car or use stainless steel cutlery? By convention these possessions have reached the end of their natural life, they require careful maintenance and in many cases they don’t function as well they might - they are obsolete. Their continued use requires a conscious commitment - time and money - on the part of their owner. But then, in time, this responsibility stops being a burden and instead becomes a cause for satisfaction and enjoyment.
It is a question that could be asked of those who commission and use buildings.
Balancing the spoon in my hand, I feel the distribution of weight of material and look at the shape and polished surfaces. My neighbour, the owner of the classic car, similarly takes pleasure in restoring the body of his car. What is it that prompts me and my neighbour to behave this way? Is it fondness? We have grown fond of our possessions and delight in their continued use, the pleasure that brings and the pride we feel.
Fondness is a measure of our love and affection for a person, place or object. Each has characteristics that attract us. We wish to spend time with that person or revisit a place again and again. We derive pleasure from their company, we have special memories, you develop a history - we begin to value their enduring presence. We place less demands. We experience contentment.
When we buy something new we expect perfection, we expect it to shine, we expect it to work. It should be easy to use, convenient. If at all complicated, we want to master it. Ideally, we don’t bother to work it out, to read the instructions. Increasingly we expect it to tell us how it works, or to learn how we behave and respond accordingly. It learns, it teaches, it works. Soon it is very useful.
This all stems from the idea that we have evolved through the use of tools, and, phones, cars, and buildings are all tools. Anticipating the latest acquisition, the impatient user is far removed from the idea that a hand-held tool such as an axe requires skill to use, that with time we improve our ability to fell trees. A tool is an extension of our faculties, our hands and brain.
With electronic goods like a washing machine, phone, computer or iPod, soon it is useful; in fact we can’t do without it. Then we take it for granted, in time neglect it and move on. We take a fancy to something else.
But what if this were a school or a hospital? The likelihood is after just a generation it would be considered outmoded. Social norms would have changed and technology evolved. The building no longer works, or to use architectural nomenclature, it no longer functions. The result, demolition and a new functional building takes its place. Worse still the next generation of buildings are designed not to last. The problem of obsolescence and the opportunism of novelty are formalised in construction contracts. Even if the building could survive for a number of generations nobody expects it to, nobody wants it to. It no longer fits the model. One generation’s loss of confidence becomes the next one’s modus operandi.
Why does this happen? In UK government policy and in the building industry, so much is said and written about the contribution new buildings can make to society. But the model is wrong. We talk of novelty and innovation. The rhetoric is deterministic. Generally the schools, hospitals and homes that are planned are destined to replace existing facilities. These are places that people have grown up in, been cared for in, and in the case of schools gone out into the world to achieve. There are people who have memories of these places and institutions.
Yet we have decided that the tabula rasa model - novelty - is the right one, with that sense of anticipation and acquisition. Of course, many of the buildings that are destined to be replaced are flawed, but then aren’t they all? Tower blocks, schools and district hospitals - most of them the product of social democracy and the welfare state.
Marriage requires a couple to work at preserving their relationship. So the passion that underpins the relationship at the outset succumbs, in time, to another emotion – fondness. The novelty wears off. Instead a love of endurance, the endurance of love takes over. This comparison is not trite because these pleasures of novelty apply to consumer goods and they apply to buildings. Novelty is invigorating but is its own nemesis. The risk we take in focusing on the novelty of necessarily enduring commodities is to risk their future. This is exacerbated by a purely determinist and functionalist measure of success.
What if a building did not strictly fit the brief, so we were not stuck measuring usefulness - a rigid response to apparent immediate need - alone. Specificity is difficult to pin down. Specific character is OK. Specific space is a problem.
And so, increasingly UK architects are sought to determine behaviour and events in their buildings. This way of thinking stems from central government and the politicisation of capital projects for the public sector. Can, and should, architects be held responsible for reduced recovery times in hospital or improved exam results? Yes, we can contribute but explicit causality is problematic. Society evolves, technology advances, expectations change. In the end possessions endure when we are fond of them because they give pleasure, they bring back good memories. We forgive inadequacies. When the novelty has worn off and imperfections are evident faults emerge, but you persist because there is history.
A fine chair may be upholstered, a classic car may be reconditioned- we can remake or refurbish without disposing of things. The best things engender a love of maintenance. We should recognise the need to love buildings. As architects we must cultivate this awareness so that buildings may endure.
Simon Henley is a teacher, author of the well-received book The Architecture of Parking, and co-founder of London-based studio Henley Halebrown Rorrison (HHbR). His column, London Calling, looks at London’s every-day reality, its architectural culture, and its role as a global architectural hub; above all, it will explore how London is influencing design everywhere, whilst being forever challenged from within. You can follow him @SiHenleyHHbR and be a fan of his Facebook page, HHbR Architecture.