As we begin a year of uncertainty, BD’s new columnist Phil Coffey argues that architecture is an inherently optimistic profession

Phil Coffey

Source: Tim Soar

At the end of a dinner party in late 2007, a friend said to me as we shook hands goodbye, “Merry Christmas and have a happy 2009”. It took me the best part of the following year to understand that this bientôt had been no mistake – 2008 was tough.

A decade on and here we are at the beginning of another year that, on the face of it, looks like it’s going to be difficult to enjoy.

If one takes a cursory glance over the numerous surveys undertaken, it’s easy to see that architects’ confidence was up and down like a yo-yo in 2017, and why wouldn’t it be? International and European politics have given us a lot to think about: Trump, Brexit, the politics of the west… the current situation leaves us with a sense of uncertainty. This is not like running into the usual economic cycle of boom and bust… it’s more like limping into a battle for identity while trying to shoot ourselves in the good foot.

The economic future of this country will be long discussed, but the conversation betrays the cultural by-product, the political dilution of that architectural USP… that elixir of youth… that bottled-up enthusiasm, that can-do attitude… yes I’m talking about one of architects’ strongest personality traits. Optimism.

Architects thrive on optimism, we convince people that we can make the world a better place, that we can leave a city better off when we depart, but it feels like optimism is currently under attack.

“An optimist is a person not in possession of all the facts” used to be the joke but now, of course, it’s the reality. Apparently there are no simple facts anymore… only CNN apples and bananas and Fox alternatives. Is it possible to be an optimist when there are so many differing realities? £100bn one-off payment or £350m a week? A hard border, a soft border or just Northern Irish fudge? The FBI, a coup, the future of democracy?

The Washington Post recently surveyed the four most suitable words for Trump… strong, idiot, incompetent, liar… but surely “optimist” should be up there. After all, he won on a platform that promised to make America great again, as currently in Trump World the USA is at rock bottom. He’s making the rest of us optimists look like ambulance chasers. By association, architects become mini dictatorial creatives burning down your towns and waiting patiently in the wings to rebuild them. Can he really be enjoying this?

And then there’s our prime minister, Theresa May, who is so wonderfully positive and optimistic about Brexit that she held an election which, as it turns out, has made it more difficult for her government to leave the EU… something that she herself didn’t vote for. You couldn’t make this up. It is suggested that after the election she wanted out… I mean, who’d enjoy the daily grind of fighting for something you don’t believe in? Is that what optimists are? Are architects just wilfully optimistic despite our beliefs?

Louis Kahn had his own view on architecture and optimism: “I think joy is the key word in our work. It must be felt. If you don’t feel joy in what you’re doing, then you’re not really operating and there are miserable moments which you’ve got to live through. But really, joy will prevail.”

So perhaps optimism lies in the work that we do, the work that we make. As architects working in difficult times and perhaps through some “miserable moments” – and there were many who did in 2008 – maybe we can find solace in the fact that if we enjoy what we do, if we believe in it, if we start from a position where we think the world isn’t against us, then maybe, just maybe, joy will prevail?

So I implore you to wish everyone a happy 2018, and if you are feeling joyfully optimistic… wish everyone a happy 2019 too.