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Pubdate: 05-Sep-1995

Edition: Late



Page: 14

Wordcount: 638

The art of luring an up-front fee


ELIZABETH FARRELLY Elizabeth Farrelly will write a fortnightly architecture column for the Herald.

ARCHITECTURE is not the only discipline which habitually greets its dewy freshpersons with the perplexing news that they’re entering the second oldest profession. Unlike other professions, though, architecture positively wallows in its ambiguous status – “between the arts and the sciences”, “both an art and a craft”, “a profession, but also an art” are the regular chestnuts. Note the emphasis on art, whatever its partner.

This both-and-ness may either double architecture’s credibility, or erase it entirely, depending on where you sit. What it does do, though, is allow the profession’s selfimage to blow out grandly, encompassing all the other common or garden dualities – reason/emotion, order/chaos, male/female, mind/body, cognition/sensation and so on. Thus your standard bright-eyed, middle-class first-year, motivated to change the world – so much easier than understanding it – falls head over the heels for the rhetoric.

Regrettably the way of life, when it comes, is a different matter. For, alone among the arts-cum-professions (except the oldest one), architecture is embarrassingly dependent on other people’s money. Unlike poems or pictures, which you can make first, then flog, your standard architectural masterwork requires hefty upfront funding. Unfunded architecture not only doesn’t sell, it doesn’t exist.

This puts bedside manner fairly high as an essential architectural accomplishment. Naked except for a few drawings and a balsa model, the hapless architect must convince developers, bankers, politicians, colleagues, contractors, planners, locals and their pets that this one is a serious goer. That is why, although so few architects can spell, they can all talk. It is also why you have to have an ego the size of Frank Lloyd Wright.

So, why do they do it? Well, somebody has to bring fire from heaven. And even now, so long after the death of modernism, the solitary – and well, yes, male – genius still reigns supreme in schools and hotbeds of architecture. Never mind usefulness, skill, care. Disdain the forthright craftsman’s hand. If you are untouched by the hand of God, forget it. You don’t rate. Inspiration is all.

That settles it then. Architecture is an art. Question is, how to make people want what inspiration tells you they need? Not only want it, but queue up to fork out for it? And not only the top 2 per cent, either: how to convince the unwashed that while architecture may be Art, it is so beneficial an art as to be seriously worth spending on?

It’s not like law, or dentistry or medicine, which you avoid like death but in extremis are pleased to pay through the nose for. Architecture is dispensable, a luxury – an art. It is an art that can send you to financial or marital ruin, or both, an art that is supposed to do more than keep the rain out, but sometimes just does other . Architecture is frozen music, which you can’t just pass on a CD to your favourite aunt.

All right, so let’s be positive. What can architecture do that snake oil can’t? Architecture is supposed to be life-enhancing. Like a good haircut, it should be supportive and dignifying, making you feel better about yourself/life/work/lot, without shouting. For some, this means fostering illusions of permanence and glamour; others prefer the old sock approach. But if your architecture constantly draws attention either to its little foibles, or your own, get another architect.

Which brings us to the question of authenticity. In a tight spot, the architect will often fall back on ideas of honesty or realness to support a personal prediction. But whose honesty – the architect’s yearning for the ineffable structural diagram? Or the client’s heartfelt desire for a smart stage set? Here’s where the joys of ambiguity come unstuck. For while the professional will do what you want (draft a will, fill a tooth, mend a leg) the artist must march to his own little drummer.

The answer lies in recognising architecture as quintessentially a team art. For every great director, there is a great producer, screen god, bit-player, cameraman, truck driver. Truly vigorous architecture results neither from meek genuflection nor from the client’s insistence on her druthers. For real masterworks, the credits roll on and on: the passion of the client, the skill of the architect, the combined energies of every grip, gaff and gofer – and a shared determination to realise the dream.


Illus: Michael Fitzjames


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