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Belief system

Hugh Pearman

Sometimes designing is so much better than thinking

Architecture is not only about designing buildings and places. It’s also about methodologies and approaches. Sometimes including theory. I’m told that the subject of this month’s obituary, Kit Evans, reckoned that all architects should design with regard to theory. He was alarmed to find people who just designed in response to brief and context and budget, without – what? Some underlying driving force? Stylistic preference? Truth-to-materials rationale? Manifesto ­position? I don’t know, though I do know that he was a good if not wholly satisfied architect.  

The point is, HE knew, or he thought he did. I’ve touched on this too often before – you know, what Lasdun called his ‘personal myth’. This is the thing that drives you on, that makes you believe you have something unique and/or valuable to contribute. It can be self-generated, although often this belief is inculcated in you at architecture school, or by a powerful first employer, and it never leaves you. 

It’s perfectly possible to get through an entire career in architecture untroubled by any such belief, of course. Plenty of architects do perfectly well on competence and good taste alone. Fine architects of the past like ­Oliver Hill would do you a building in any style without compunction. Basil Spence was no great theoriser. Other architects over-think things, over-theorise: don’t get me started on the Smithsons. 

Basil Spence was no great theoriser. Other architects over-think things: don’t get me started on the Smithsons

Two of the firms of architects in our Culture section have what you might call strong approaches. Both have projects in East Anglia. You will know John Simpson Architects for its monumental neoclassical stylings: its additions to Cambridge’s University Arms Hotel are the subject of a column by Charles Holland. And if you don’t already, I hope you will soon also know more about Colchester’s HAT Projects. Its approach is twofold: to blend architecture and life as partners in both, and to work collaboratively with end users and craftspeople. You wouldn’t say that the practice has a house style beyond great clarity of layout in the humane-modernist tradition, and why should it? This is architecture as a proper service.

And then there is this year’s Architecture Foundation Antepavilion. This programme encourages fresh thinking by new talents – useful follies, in a way – and 2018’s floating inflatable offering by Thomas Randall-Page and Benedetta Rogers is a proper jeu d’esprit, the antidote to Simpson solidity. It carries obvious references – one immediately thinks of the 1960s dreams of Archigram – but is not burdened by them. You just fling yourself down in the air-cushion auditorium and bask in the golden glow from the ballooning roof above you and feel the shared experience – and that’s it, really. Sometimes it takes a lot of work not to think too hard.