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Rush to judgement: failure to learn from the lives of buildings

The scandalous failure to revisit and learn from the lives of buildings seriously diminishes the potential of architecture

Archisculpture 028 archival pigment print 70x49 or 100x70 or 142x100cm 2014

Archisculpture 028 archival pigment print 70x49 or 100x70 or 142x100cm 2014

Failure has its upsides. It provokes reassessment and constant improvement. As Lancelot Law Whyte announced in The Next Development in Man (an author and book once highly regarded and now rather forgotten), ‘Thought is born of failure’. (After the expletives, presumably.) Architects recognise this truism. After all, how does design proceed? By continuously assessing the shortcomings in a sketched proposal and rectifying them. Creativity feeds on criticism, even if only voiced in the head. Another form of failure should have been invaluably informative for today’s designers. Most modern architecture followed conventional formulae, but it preached the innovation and experiment that also characterised it. The many and varied designs resulting, which included successes and now demolished failures, are usefully seen as analogous to scientific hypotheses, to be tested and learnt from. But although reported on when conceived and executed, precious few of these designs have been revisited and critically assessed in use, even by their architects. This scandalous failure of architectural culture has seriously deprived us of knowledge and betrayed modernity’s pseudo-scientific promise.

Beyond immediate reportage and superficial anecdotal reports, we know surprisingly little about how buildings are faring. Considering the substantial costs in constructing and running them, this is extraordinary. Perhaps the most valuable contribution to architecture today would be for some institution to fund serious critical study and post-occupancy analysis of these and other significant buildings.

‘“There is no failure, only feedback” – and feedback takes many forms’

In line with the popular current mantra, ‘there is no failure, only feedback’. Reflecting the complexity of architecture – and the increasing performance expected of it in line with our increased capacities for modelling and monitoring – feedback takes many forms. Leading-edge buildings today may be packed with sensors (measuring such things as temperature, air movement, CO2 and humidity levels) connected not only to the computerised building management system (BMS) but also monitoring equipment in the consultant engineer’s office. By contrast, some of the most startling and useful information can be anecdotal arising from conversation with tenants. An example discovered by a market analysis team is that tenants of Darbourne & Darke’s much-lauded Lillington Gardens considered it overcrowded: they saw the supposedly humanising ‘crumble’ aesthetic as symptomatic of the architect being unable to fit all accommodation within rectangular blocks, as in the nearby Churchill Gardens. Such perceptions are sobering for critics to hear because they inevitably belong to the inner circle of architectural cognoscenti who see things through similar eyes, rather than with the sometimes fresh and innocent perceptions of the uninitiated.

In this context, the critic is somewhat of a gadfly. Buildings published in the architectural media are there because deemed interesting and good. So the role of the critic is as often that of an advocate – explaining and justifying a building, evoking an experience of it – as it is that of fault finding or offering the informed and balanced assessment that is impossible due to complexities and pressures. Moreover, as any reader recognises, critics vary hugely in quality, not only in knowledge and critical acumen but also in the descriptive powers that help the reader envisage a building more vividly. So the views of some critics count far more than those of others.

Given a prominent platform from which to offer it, the critic’s opinion may have long-term influence on the reputation of a building or architect. But this can be very unfair because the critic passes quick comment and judgement on only partial aspects of a building on the basis of very limited familiarity. To spend time in or revisit a building can result in a very different opinion than that gained from a quick visit, which will be different yet again from those who live or work in a building. (Here the race for journals to publish first does not help, a problem compounded by the instantaneity of online media.) Hence Alvar Aalto’s assertion that his buildings should be judged only after 50 years, an attitude one can only endorse and quite at odds with the output of some architects that seems geared only to looking good in the initial photo shoot.

‘Clumsy and incoherent designs deemed bad by architects can function satisfactorily and be popular’

Worrying for architects is that there seems to be no necessary correlation between architectural quality and success in use, and not only when measured purely in profits. Although good design doubtless contributes much to a building’s success, clumsy and incoherent designs deemed bad by architects (a potential source of heated disagreement) can function satisfactorily and be popular. And how to judge treasured buildings of real architectural merit that owners now consider as loss-making under-development but others want to conserve for their historic and artistic value? And what to make of the Arup Associates building at Broadgate that satisfactorily framed and animated an-all-too-rare set of rather fine contemporary urban spaces. This has now been replaced by the dazzlingly shiny, inhospitable and over-scaled horror by Make that kills the spaces it edges. The Arup building was hardly a failure, but what about its barbaric replacement? Isn’t this at least a failure of planning meant to preserve civic values?

Conditions and interpretations shift over time. Take, for instance, a typical dismal developers’ office slab from the ’60s or ’70s. Once seen as the shiny slick epitome of future efficiencies, with tight service cores and thin curtain walls, these were by today’s standards very inefficient thermally and in energy consumption. With constrained floor-toceiling heights, they could not be upgraded in comfort standards or for the cabling required by IT, and were soon demolished. Devoid of aesthetic and civic quality, such buildings were unloved by all. But were they failures? Not for the clients the architects sought to please. They were very happy with their quick profits – and to be left with an obsolete building as yet further development opportunity. But no matter how pleased the developer client, such buildings mark architecture’s nadir, meanly concerned only with minimising investment in relation to speed and degree of return in profits and giving next to nothing to users and the surroundings.

‘The generic office slab reveals the most common form of failure with modern buildings; narrowly defined constraints of functional fit and financial return’

Seemingly paradoxically, even the generic office slab reveals what is probably the most common form of failure with modern buildings. They are too tightly tailored, in accord with functionalist tenets (and ignoring much that we now consider relevant), to too narrowly defined constraints of functional fit and financial return. Even if the partitioned floors promised flexibility of layout, this was of a very limited sort. In current parlance, such buildings lack resilience, along with the generous redundancies that biologists tell us are vital to resilience and ecological health. It is sobering to remember that early examples of such buildings, such as those by Mies and SOM, were hailed as masterpieces. The best, admittedly, remain elegant. 

But no matter how refined and elegant these buildings, how beautifully proportioned the facades and crisply detailed the curtain wall, we now judge buildings differently from the narrow criteria and certainties of what is sometimes called the Second International Style. The burgeoning environmental crisis and postmodern criticisms of the inability of such buildings to create satisfactory urban fabric have vastly expanded architectural design concerns and criteria of judgement. Now we look at these hermetically sealed buildings (often in tinted glass), in which few occupants enjoy views out and none fresh air and natural light, very differently. They are decidedly alien, and alienating, with conditioned air and artificial light pumped and cabled into them as if they were submerged below the sea or on a toxic planet. 

It is sometimes said that criticism, like journalism, constitutes the first draft of history. Whether that proves true depends on many things, including the biases of the critic – which tend to be those of the times as much as personal – and how the conditions and concerns of the time have changed. Today, reading criticism of the mid-20th century (the heyday of Mies and SOM) makes us aware of how much things have changed since those confident times. Yet reading criticism of the equally confident, but also conflicted, Victorian period is to marvel at how astute much of it is in its judgements and vivid in its evocative descriptions. Buildings may last as stable fixes in the city, as too do our views of those of agreed architectural quality, but received opinion can change dramatically about the value of others. It is interesting to speculate on how many currently lauded buildings might be assessed in the near future.

This piece is featured in the AR February 2019 issue on Failure – click here to purchase your copy today