Alison Wolf

October 28, 2005

Architects, in thinking of themselves as artists, too often seem to overlook the role people play in their grand designs

I had a "Sebastian" moment this summer. It felt just like that scene in Twelfth Night when apparently normal people whom Sebastian has never met before keep either hitting him in the face and challenging him to a duel or swearing undying love. "Are all the people mad?" he demands.

I was not in Illyria, but picture-postcard Alpbach. This village in the Austrian Tyrol has hosted the Alpbach European Forum since 1945, in response to the catastrophe of the Second World War. It brings together political and business leaders, academics, writers and students to discuss politics, economics and science - but also architecture and, this year, architectural education.

This now takes place in universities and a few panellists (including me) were there to discuss general developments in higher education. But most speakers were architects, including eminent faculty and heads of some of Europe's leading schools of architecture.

Just what is one to make of being told, against a picture of London's Swiss Re gherkin, that "this will probably be the last skyscraper because what else, architecturally, is there left to do?" or that as architects "we are meant (sic) to develop new forms"?

Architecture, I was informed, "is something you cannot teach", and building something great depends on "forgetting all you were taught". So why are there thousands of students in huge architecture faculties? Can all of them be mad?

Maybe architects use words differently from literal-minded social scientists, especially when making bravura speeches at conferences. But it was clear that architecture schools are almost entirely occupied with design and, more specifically, with visualising structures that strive to be different. Their faculty apparently think of themselves as artists - and "art... simply has to be free".

A friend of mine is finishing a construction engineering and management degree here in the UK. She thought seriously about architecture as well, and talked to the head of faculty about how to decide. "Well, does spending your first six months designing birds' nests grab you?" he asked.

A successful developer at Alpbach (speaking prose to the architects'

poetry) complained that all the architecture students in her country spent their time designing opera houses. Opera houses can be wonderful, but just how many of them do we build?

What really disturbed me was not the preoccupation with design. If I could have been anyone in the world, I might well pick Christopher Wren, or Sinan, architect of Istanbul's greatest mosques. Obviously, architecture involves understanding structures and space. But buildings exist for people to use. People were remarkably absent from any of the discussions - or from the PowerPoint presentations with their photographs of structures and iconic buildings.

I worked for many years in a listed modern building designed by a famous architect. It was uncomfortable and inflexible. People on the ground floor looked onto gloomy spaces that attracted refuse and dereliction and soon became fenced with heavy bars. Animal transport firms would be in court if their lorries reached the temperatures that our offices often did. I had thought, though, that everyone had learnt crucial lessons.

Jane Jacobs transformed our understanding of how urban communities work and why public housing schemes were so often disasters, with her Death and Life of Great American Cities . In the 1980s, here at King's College London, Alice Coleman's work on crime, vandalism and design had a major impact on local government in the UK. Sink estates, with their deserted walkways and bleak expanses of grass that no one owns, are now being demolished.

Design and layout are not the only things influencing behaviour, or the magic answer to crime. But if students are to design buildings for people, surely they need to learn how people behave. One speaker at Alpbach bemoaned the fact that "commercial pressures" meant that blocks of flats no longer had communal spaces and rooms. He seemed completely unaware that, when built, such rooms were left abandoned, or co-opted and misused by a tiny group, because they were classic examples of "confused" space for which ownership and responsibility were unclear.

Architecture faculties are subject to the same narrowing pressures as the rest of us. No doubt some do consider human sociology and psychology, though my straw poll of architects so far hasn't identified a single one who has read any Jane Jacobs. But when people complain about the unimaginative buildings erected by developers, I will in future have a definite sympathy for the bad guys, responding to the (human) market.

Alison Wolf is Sir Roy Griffiths professor of public-sector management, King's College London.

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