Architecture – the musical

Words:
Maria Smith

The profession needs to retune its principles

The government recently announced that spending on music education would not be cut in the coming years. For my father, a man three years away from retirement who has spent his entire career cleverly arranging meagre budgets in order to offer as many young people as possible the opportunity to learn a musical instrument, this was a concluding vindication. He texted me: the government has announced that spending on music education is safe until I retire. 

Earlier in his career, my dad undertook a mammoth piece of research to prove that young people who learnt a musical instrument did better in their exams despite taking time out of ‘academic’ classes to do so. This was measured as an uplift in GCSE results compared with SATS scores and controlled for socioeconomic factors etc. What he wanted to prove was that if you take two 11 year olds with the same opportunities in life and exhibiting the same academic potential but give only one violin lessons, then that child’s academic performance will improve simply by virtue of their brain benefiting from their participation in music. All this was to help defend public spending on music education.

Shortly after gathering all the evidence and carrying out the statistical analysis, he shut down the study. He never published. He had become disillusioned with the notion that spending on music education – on arts education generally – should need to be justified by a demonstrable, quantitative impact on what were considered more important achievements. This, he realised, was an admission of inferiority. Lashing music to academic utilitarianism would not only leave music vulnerable to a potential loss of buoyancy over which it had no control, but also evade endowing music education itself with any value. What had at first seemed a very clever way of beating them at their own game, would likely be tantamount to digging music education’s own grave. He spent the next 20 years arguing for the value of music on its own merits. This culminated in his term as chair of Music Mark, the UK association for music education that advocates quality music education and influences government policy. It is a victory indeed then that in this environment, spend has held.

It’s ok to build something that is absolutely necessary, or that echoes the past in some way. It’s ok to build something provided you’re building it as apologetically as possible

So why am I talking about this in the RIBAJ? Because architecture is falling into the same trap and needs a similar sense check. Read any design and access statement and you will find evidence of our contemporary methods of justification. My contention is that these fall into three categories: utility, history, and modesty. It’s OK to build something that is absolutely necessary, or that echoes the past in some way. It’s OK to build something provided that you’re building it as apologetically as possible. But if you can’t meet these criteria, our planning and other systems of acquiescence will not allow it.

The year 2016 has been a doozy and we’re all exhausted and brow beaten. The biggest mistake Patrik Schumacher made when taking to the stage in Berlin to deliver that incendiary lecture (see p60) was failing to read the room. He purposefully provoked, hoping to incite a formidable debate, playing devil’s advocate and fancying himself a weirdly incombustible straw man. But we were in no mood. The media hysterically cherry picked the most inflammatory titbits, and the architecture community rallied against a perceived common enemy. Unfortunately all this buried the valid points he raised, for example that of over-regulation. 

Beyond the extraordinary number of standards that turn arbitrary minimums into the only thing available, and force us all to live in a state endorsed manifestation of heteronormativity, an insidious victim of over-regulation is the poisonous language of justification that regulation demands. Our pathetic begging to permit the realisation of lowest common denominator area schedules wrapped in faux-any-old-thing cladding is embarrassing, and deeply damaging. 

With every design statement that obeys the utility-history-modesty dogma, we admit our inferiority, we concede that architecture is an unfortunate necessary evil that we must endure for its services to acceptable endeavours. You know, like finance. It’s no wonder that fees are squeezed and value engineering abounds. We’ve set ourselves up to fail. The measures of success we’re adhering to are inherently anaemic. Unless we can find a way to justify architecture on its own merits, we’re slowly cannibalising ourselves.

My friend has a rule about shopping: he is only allowed to buy something if he desperately needs it, or it’s reduced in price. This is endemic in architecture’s culture. My dad would not approve. This is not a culture that composes great symphonies. 


Maria Smith is a director of architecture and engineering at Interrobang

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