Starved of ideas

Maria Smith visits the young designers’ archi-caff

‘Young’ architects are a bit like pizza delivery guys. They pick up yummy pizzas topped with exciting ideas from the invention ovens on the peripheries of our understanding and deliver them to the centre; to the middle-of-the-road mainstream.

The ovens are challenging, angry places that steal raw ingredients from fashion and literature and economics and bake them onto deep, architecture bases (my favourite are the ones with pop-reference cheese oozing out of the crusts). Our young architects loiter around the ovens poised to seize on a pizza that represents the opposite of their teachers and their parents. They shove the freshly baked progressive pepperoni or reactionary romana into the pizza box of emerging architecture awards and bring it to the Man who is working late in the office and doesn’t know how to cook anyway. The Man builds the big buildings in the middle of our collective comfort zone.

As with everything else, there are fads in pizzas toppings, fads in dough, and fads in the shape and colour of emerging architecture award pizza boxes. As each fad swells, the Man will pay more and more for it, leading to a tasty sweet spot where the Man will pay lots but the young architects and the awarding bodies aren’t bored with it yet. But then the fad dwindles and slightly younger architects deliver us the hot new pizzas, this time with a sourdough base.

Remember the bedaemoned pop-up? Pop-up pizzas were all the rage. Now you can only buy them frozen in Tescos: £5 with a half-baked garlic baguette. So what of narrative architecture – possibly the Hawaiian of archipizzas, having arrived on the scene some time ago but yet to shuffle off the menu?

Narrative architecture started appearing in earnest in the 1980s in opposition to style and technology. It was a way to foreground the experiential and to bring sensuality back into our built environment. In 2006, when all planning applications required a Design and Access Statement, writing about architecture became something we all had to do – which was a lovely boost for narrative architecture. Since then, narrative architecture has become an increasingly popular pizza, which has all but destroyed its deliciousness.

What of narrative architecture – possibly the Hawaiian of archipizzas, having arrived on the scene some time ago but yet to shuffle off the menu?

The power of narrative is threefold. First, it offers an alternative to imagery: it gives people a mental image they can easily pass on to others. Secondly, it enables the expression of movement, transformation, and all the temporal aspects of architecture that we discuss as designers but which often evaporate in the face of a building’s inevitable stasis. Finally, narratives enable us to construct apparently logical arguments for why a design is good without relying on anything so taboo as subjective opinion or judgements of taste.

This last power is especially pernicious. The growth of architectural narratives has in no way expanded the rationalist consensus through which we must justify designs. Nor has it expanded the diversity of designs that can be justified. We work in an industry where only three kinds of justification are viable, only three stories can be told: utility, history and modesty. This is not the delicious pizza topping of my dreams. Utility is fine and always will be – there’s nothing wrong with saying a room is this big because this many people need to be able to do this activity in it. History felt great for ages, a wonderful treasure trove of excuses for architectural play. But the flip side is if you’re building on an unremarkable piece of land with no past baggage to write home about you’ll be crippled – forbidden from inventing new stories. Then finally we have modesty. ‘Oh, oh, do grant me planning because you can’t actually see my building except from space and even if you could it would look so beige and inoffensive you wouldn’t even notice it’. Such modesty is unattractive. Confidence and a big sexy smile is attractive.

Like all great junk food, narrative architecture pizzas are so delicious, it’s going to be tough to give them up. Narrative is so warm and rich, like blue cheese drooling over parma ham, that it’s too easy to stuff our faces and forget our skylines, I mean waistlines. And while we’ve been gluttonously slurping up ‘once upon a times’, representation has been preparing for a coup. We got bored of talking about representation in architecture. We shouldn’t have. The next scrummy pizza is illustration. The invention ovens’ end of year shows marked this clearly. The pizza box awarding bodies lie procumbent in anticipation. 

Maria Smith is an architect, writer, teacher and alto