Dustbins, bicycles, roller coasters and a plug for QR (which is QI)
Rowan Atkinson used to do a stand-up show in the early eighties which began with him emerging from a seat in the stalls...
...and, as he clambered onto the stage, launching into a rant about architects and architecture:
"Modern architects – scum of the earth. It doesn’t matter what you ask them to design, they still come up with something that looks like an old dustbin with a bicycle sticking out of the top."
It went down a storm. And, thirty years on, it would probably do so again. Completely unfair of course and downright insulting but, in much the same way we like to take the mickey out of, for example, slippery estate agents, over-paid footballers and disingenuous politicians (present company excepted, needless to say), architects are just one of those groups people love to mock. But it is unfair because the perception and the reality are two completely different things. As Architecture Minister (not a real title, by the way, but less of a mouthful in this context than ‘Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport with responsibility for architecture and the built environment’) I get to see many inspiring new buildings. And the difference between these gems and their more workaday neighbours lies in the quality of the design and the strength of the architectural thinking that has gone into it. It is a given – or it certainly ought to be – that high standards in workmanship and creativity are desirable in themselves, but it can deliver great value too. I was at RIBA this week, helping to launch an interesting little guide, Good Design – It all adds up, which made the point very eloquently. It brings together research from a number of sources to prove that well-designed buildings bring substantial added value – schools see better results from their pupils, hospitals record quicker recovery time for patients and community facilities draw people in, rather than push them away.
Bad design crushes spirits
And there’s the rub. Badly designed buildings can crush the spirits of those who live and work in them and, in the case of those that are supposed to have a social purpose, actually defeat the object of the building itself. The trick is, of course, to make sure you’re getting good value over the entire life of a building. Otherwise, if the thing you’ve paid for simply doesn’t work, putting it right very often becomes a budget buster, and that’s before you can count the cost in terms of damage to reputation and public confidence.
Really great buildings are also a source of awe and wonder for everyone that sees them. I wrote a few weeks ago about my visit to the Shard, and I was not surprised to learn recently from my press officer Jeremiah (not his real name, but it does rather capture his cheery, optimistic demeanour, I think) that it is a regular talking point on the commuter trains that trundle past it hundreds of times each day. Office workers stare up at it, teachers point it out to their school parties and, for a brief moment, everyone in the carriage seems to be focused on the same thing. That’s rather impressive, and it’s thanks to an architect’s vision and a developer’s ambition that it happens – and happens, I’m told, pretty much every day.
However for all that I’m quite sure that politicians, estate agents and architects will almost certainly remain as public whipping boys for as long as we cherish stereotypes and generalisations, but there’s no harm in letting the latter (if not the former) feel the love once in a while too.
And while we’re talking about buildings, a quick salute to English Heritage (EH). This week they recommended – and I was happy to approve – upgrading the listed building status of Britain’s oldest roller coaster, the scenic railway in Dreamland at Margate, to Grade II*. EH are now working with the site owner to secure a long-term future for the site and, hopefully, the restoration of the Scenic Railway as a working roller coaster. Margate is one of our coastal towns that, most people agree, has fallen on hard times in recent years. It seems fitting to me that its ‘cultural regeneration’ (a name that has a drearily Eastern Bloc feel to it but is, in fact, somewhat more exciting and dynamic than its almost Maoist moniker suggests) is being led by a mixture of innovative new build (the Turner Contemporary that opened in April) and this traditional heritage initiative. I know better than most the problems that our seaside resorts are facing these days, and so this sort of work is good to see.
Mysteries of QR
Finally, a word about the graphic opposite. It’s not a fine example of Bridget Riley during her ‘crossword puzzle’ phase, nor is it the blueprint for a particularly unsatisfactory maze. What it is, in fact, is a QR code and, as such, an ‘ambitious new initiative using 2D bar code technology’ being piloted by the people at VisitEngland to ‘inspire visitors to spend more time in the area they are visiting and stay longer.’ In practical terms, it’s a unique symbol that you can point your smart-phone at and, thanks to technology that would be mind-boggling to anyone over fifteen, the screen on your phone turns into a full-blown website, complete with video clips and sound-bites and more information than you could shake a memory stick at. The one featured here will bring you tourist information about Leicester, but before you know it, there’ll be equivalent ones for every place and attraction you could wish for I’m sure. Those of you with smart phones can download a QR reader as an app, app-arently (see what I did there?) and then you’re in business. It’ll even read the symbol off a computer screen. Go on, have a go!
Next time, I’ll be talking about another set of listed buildings and, in the process, answering the question ‘Which London Underground Station – and there IS only one – contains none of the letters found in the word MACKEREL?’