Most architecture is a form of public art, so why do so many architects seem to disregard what the wider population claims to like, writes Robert Adam


Source: Robert Adam

Robert Adam

Architecture is for people. But which people?

Commercially, it’s for whoever pays the designer. But decent designers care about the quality of their design and a bigger group will judge this.

Like many professionals, the views of colleagues are seen as the highest level of praise. However, buildings aren’t usually designed for fellow professionals. Beyond the client, they’re often designed for as-yet unknown present and future users and, importantly, for the thousands of people who will see them every day.

It is a brave or arrogant architect that would say that all these people don’t matter. So, any design in a public place is for the client and for the wider public. Reference to the profession is only to give the designer some assurance that it fits into their colleague’s idea of what makes a good design.

It should follow that a responsible architect would seek to produce a design that satisfies both the client and the wider public. For architects proud of their inventiveness, this could be an opportunity to exercise their creative skills. And if the profession itself was similarly responsible, it would laud any such attempt.

…the idea came up that art should be radical and revolutionary

But something strange has happened in the last seventy years or more. What architects like and what most people like has drifted apart. The evidence for this is contained in numerous academic and research projects (no time to go into them here but believe me).

How did this happen (and let’s leave style out of this)?

In France, at the end of the nineteenth century, the idea came up that art should be radical and revolutionary. Something far beyond normal change and development. It started off with poetry and spread to painting and sculpture. These are arts you can take or leave, but it got to the one you can’t avoid: architecture. The broad public, however, while they might like inventions that make life more comfortable and fun, usually just want beautiful and familiar places.

How could being disruptively different be justified? The artist thought he or she was ahead of the game. It wasn’t just what the artist liked; it was the way things ought to be and, indeed, will be. And being so right, it was inevitable that a conservative public would catch up in the end.

This is the theory of the avant garde; originally a military term for the skirmishing force in advance of an army.

So, what to do with the stubbornly conventional public… ?

When a lot of artists who think like this get together, their idea of rightness is reinforced. They become a mutually supportive community who can care even less that what they do is not very popular.

By collectively assuming a high ground of artistic progress, they can draw in others seeking sophistication and, by force of numbers, convince some that this is the only way and that they too have to join in or get left behind.

I think this will now sound familiar.

So, what to do with the stubbornly conventional public who’ve failed, after at least three generations, to catch up? They’re the army that’s decided it’s not interested in the battle the avant garde was fighting and stayed at home.

The first is to educate them, to make them think like the profession. The irony is that if everyone is radical, no one is radical and there would have to be another battle to fight in an endless scramble to be different. And it hasn’t worked anyway. Why would anyone bother, instead of just getting on with their lives?

A belief that the profession knows best or that this would be dumbing down is patronising

The second is to ignore them. To dismiss their obstinacy as bad taste, ignorance or, worse, inferiority. Some designers may think that they are satisfying subconscious yearnings, even if the public don’t realise it. And anyway, people should be grateful to get what a superior group of professionals and their fellow travellers think they ought to have. Meanwhile, let them have the poorly-designed homes they want to buy. This is too low to stoop for those aspiring to artistic greatness.

The third is to join with them. A belief that the profession knows best or that this would be dumbing down is patronising. True, there can be great intellectual and artistic depth in the design of buildings, but what’s the use of that if it’s rejected straight up because most people just find it alien? Does a good novelist write books that no-one wants to read because their message is too hard to put over?

It might mean abandoning the idea that being modern just means being different. It might mean that innovation, talent and creativity are turned to the popular as well as to good design. Is this contradictory? Is this impossible? Surely not.