It is one thing to say that self doubt is a positive character trait in the architect, it is quite another to embrace the uncertainty and fear that this position brings. Recently I was fortunate to listen to Neil Gillespie speak about his work with Reiach and Hall, in which his honest and candid appraisal of the last thirty years of effort was laid bare for all to see, and whose talk spoke little about the Stirling Prize nominated Glasgow College, and more about the works and experiences that lead his practice to that moment.
Gillespie’s talk, titled “In Two Minds” is a thinking man’s journey through his life’s work. A reflection on the architect’s fascination with context, and his realisation that true value can only be defined when one idea is measured against another. Gillespie breaks his career down into reactions to specific questions asked at particular points in time. Everything is then measured in relation to the narrative as a whole. Suffice to say, the discussion was in fluent ‘archi-speak’, pitched at a level that Gillespie admitted would rarely be offered beyond the trusted circle of architectural discourse. Inspirational and exciting though the talk was, I was left feeling that the title, “in two minds” had a wider meaning in need of interrogation.
The resonance I felt with Gillespie’s work can be explained by the most basic elements of psychology. Humans are seemingly incapable of appreciating the value of a thing without having something else against which to measure it. Even then, we often ignore intrinsic value in favour of our flawed cognitive biases. One look at the English and our ludicrous compulsion for property ownership. Our island has one of the most over-inflated housing markets in Europe, due in part to the cultural bias that has distorted our perception of the importance of owning property. Call it “Island Fever” if you will.
Gillespie spoke to an audience enthralled by his passionate stories of self-discovery and experimentation. The narrative followed the same format as any of the literary classics. Experimental beginnings followed by the challenges of adolescence, the subsequent overcoming of adversity, followed by the reconciliation or dare I say, success at its conclusion. This was a story confided to us with the trust that we would not divulge the author’s innermost thoughts to the outside world. Gillespie shared not only his passions, he also shared his vulnerabilities and his fears.
A consensus that emerged at the end of the talk was that such discourse must be handled carefully, if not concealed and protected. To paraphrase Gillespie’s own admission, “you wouldn’t tell a commercially motivated client that a grand loggia is the most elegant solution when designing an entrance sequence.” Instead it was inferred that you should talk about the increased saleability of dual aspect office space. This was uncomfortable to hear from a professional so established and respected.
Even at Gillespie’s level, architects must be careful to censor their vision in order to secure a commission. This approach seems to admit that our internal conversations about architecture could be sources of concern or nervousness for our clients. Perhaps then, we should think about changing the way we talk?At the end of the presentation, this question was glossed over with the view that “good design must be smuggled past our clients.” Such self-censorship is defeatist and wrong. By surrendering vision, we remove coherence, and the built environment becomes a poorly assembled kit of parts. We know that a movement or vision can unite or divide, but this has always been architecture’s role and its prominence must continue.
By admitting that we must use caution when sharing our inner most opinions, architects are cheating themselves of their contribution to the world. Sitting in offices and auditoria, disguising and smuggling good design past our commercially motivated clients, we are actually admitting that our priorities and passions are little more than academic indulgences. We know this not to be the case, so why do we continue in this way? If we fear that our language will put off potential buyers of our services, then that language has to change.
Gillespie’s work with Reiach & Hall proves that great architecture is still possible and perhaps that my concerns do not present as grave of a risk for the profession as I would have you believe. I am more than happy to be proved wrong on this. If however, we can agree that our relationship to the outside world is a problem, the remedy is that we face up to our own short comings and work to understand our clients and their needs better. In doing so we can create the space to become the best versions of our frustrated pseudo artistic/philosophising-selves. Our interests inform and improve our architecture and we should never be “in two minds” about sharing these ideas with the world.