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It’s the thought that counts

Hugh Pearman

It’s good to build, but the idea is the cornerstone of architecture

I’ve said it plenty of times in these pages, and I’ll say it again: architecture does not have to be built to exist. It helps, obviously. But the unbuilt version is no less architecture than the built, and – given the usual compromises and cuts on the way to site – is frequently superior. Two of the finest pieces of 20th century architecture are Mies van der Rohe’s –­designs in 1921-2 for glass curtain-walled skyscrapers in Berlin. Never built, and in form very unlike his later work that did get built, they remain enormously influential.

And there’s the point: unbuilt architecture of influence gets absorbed into the general architectural hive-mind, often to ­re-emerge in the hands of others. Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Mile-High Illinois’ of 1957 anticipates today’s supertall towers remarkably well, minus the nuclear-powered lifts that Wright sparkily suggested. And we’re all used to the idea that Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood’s ‘Fun Palace’ for Stratford, East London, fed straight into the concept of Piano and Rogers’ Pompidou Centre in Paris, and adaptable high-tech in general. It’s not uncommon to find architects running parallel careers – one in everyday buildings that get built, the other in fantasy or idealistic or just plain speculative projects that do not. Don’t decry this – Soane did it as much as Wright, Mies or Corb, and it’s not a million miles away from how architectural competitions get won. There’s the winning design, and then there’s what gets built if you’re lucky, and the two may or may not correlate particularly closely.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Mile-High Illinois’ of 1956 anticipates today’s supertall towers remarkably well, minus the nuclear-powered lifts that Wright sparkily suggested

These thoughts are prompted, as they always are at this time of year, by our August ‘Eye Line’ drawing competition results, which will be announced from 28th July. Thanks to our partner AVR London for its support of this. Eye Line does not demand practicality or buildability, though it rules neither out. ­Instead, it celebrates the art of architecture, the pleasure of the drawing for drawing’s sake. And I hope you’ll agree that this year’s winners and commendations, quite apart from the clear skill and talent on display, also show that most valuable of architectural commodities: optimism.

Let’s hope, naturally, that post Brexit everyone doesn’t find themselves with too much time on their hands to indulge in the pursuit of the unbuilt. We and the RIBA are keeping close tabs on that and will pass on our findings and recommendations to you. But – in another recurring theme of this column – time to think, in architecture, is never a bad thing. New projects get mulled over, new groupings of architects, other professionals and artists spring up. Architecture gets most progressive during uncertain times. Mies, after all, designed those great prophetic buildings during the political and economic turbulence of the early Weimar Republic.