WAF 42 ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ 26/2/24        

The old adage ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is often thought to be an ancient Chinese proverb attributable to that most veritable of philosophers Confucius, but it seems that the phrase is of much more recent origin, and its credit to Confucius not only unfounded but also mischievous. Jack Trout, author of the much-acclaimed book on marketing called ‘In Search of the Obvious’, has suggested that the true translation of the Confucius phrase is ‘A picture is worth a thousand pieces of gold’ which, in English at least, doesn’t quite have the same ring to it!

It is more likely that the phrase ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ originated in the USA in the early part of the 20th century, when the expression ‘Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words’ appeared in a 1911 newspaper article discussing journalism and publicity.

Other similar phrases popped up regularly in the 1920’s, but it is probable that the modern use of the term stems from an article in that infamous and widely read trade journal Printers’ Ink, wherein Fred R. Barnard (namesake of the English illustrator, caricaturist and genre painter noted for his work on the novels of Charles Dickens) promoted the use of picture images in advertising with the line ‘One Look is Worth a Thousand Words’. Adverts of the day, as any study of early newspapers will reveal, were as long on persuasive text as they were short on images!

Some years later another piece by Barnard appeared in a March 1927 issue of Printers’ Ink under the heading ‘One Picture is Worth Ten Thousand Words’, a phrase that he claimed to have been a Chinese Proverb. But Barnard was later quoted as saying that he had only called it a Chinese proverb ‘so that people would take it seriously’. 

That they certainly did, for it was soon thereafter credited to Confucius who would surely have turned in his grave at the thought. Fake news indeed!

Adopting that mantra, I offer below two pictures, worth together a thousand words, against which I pen an extra thousand or so words of comment. 

A building with a brick wall and a brick wall

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A building with a pipe on the side

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The second image above is an enlargement of a part of the first image showing the cheap and nasty rainwater pipes that serve the building they adorn in Bethnal Green. This of course is nothing unusual: similar miserable arrangements can be seen across London, and indeed throughout our entire country, as the processes of modern procurement, be they straight Design and Build or some other sort of Construction Management contracting, deliver upon us the worst in terms of poorly thought through and ill-coordinated detailing. First, they eradicated the craftsman. Next, they came for the designers….!

Design and Build is, as we well know, a misnomer, and the images above betray a complete absence of any design thought or coordination. The stormwater drainpipes, as shown, of course never appeared on any architect’s drawing: such information was no doubt completely absent from the concept information and left for the Trade Contractor responsible for ‘plastic guttering, downpipes, all hoppers, clips, brackets and fixings etc.’ You know the language!

So does any of this matter? After all the building that I illustrate is anyway wholly undistinguished….

The answer is a resounding yes, it does matter because something very precious is steadily being replaced with the banal. Wherever I walk around London, from the districts of Mayfair and Bloomsbury to those of Poplar or Acton, I find that older buildings never fail to delight in terms of the detailing, the craft, the skill, and the care with which they were originally designed and built. Against that, so much of the new disappoints in terms of the construction and the detailing, even when the design concept has merit. And much of that disappointment lies in the increasing absence of attention to design detail, and the absence craft in its execution, that hitherto gave delight. 

As a complete contrast take the Divinity School in Oxford and the drainage details there as evidenced in the pictures below:  

A building with a statue in the front

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A building with windows and a drainpipe

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A black pipe on a stone wall

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                              Divinity School, Oxford by William Orchard – built during 1480’s.

Commodity. Firmness. Delight?

Lest I be mistaken, I am not calling for a return to traditional forms of building and I fully recognise the need for modern, lightweight, components with ever greater strength to weight ratios; better thermal performance; and thinner envelope construction. But I am calling for greater coordination and care in the selection, arrangement and detailing of the components that we do use. Let us never forget that infamous metaphorical line by Mies van der Rohe: 

‘Architecture starts when you carefully put two bricks together’.

Louis Kahn of course famously suggested to his students that when stuck for inspiration they should have a conversation with their materials, asking ‘What does a brick want to be?’ In his book featuring Kahn’s wonderful Bangladesh National Parliament, William Hall reports such an imagined conversation wherein Kahn asked, ‘What do you want, brick?’.

‘I like an arch’ was the reply to which Kahn allegedly responded ‘Look, I want one too, but arches are expensive, and I can use a concrete lintel…what do you think of that brick?’ But the brick remained firm: ‘I like an arch’.

Of course, whether lintel or arch it matters not, because in Kahn’s hands arch or lintel were both beautifully incorporated into the whole. That is the point, as is well illustrated in the images shown below:

A building next to a body of water

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                       Bangladesh National Parliament completed 1982 – Louis Kahn

A close-up of a building

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            Salk Institute for Biological Studies completed 1965 – Louis Kahn 

But it is more than just the detailing and the beauty that is compromised through the crudeness of contractor led design and construction; it is also function and, critically, safety. Post the awful fire at Grenfell Tower back in June 2017 there has been an enormous rash of litigation claims following the investigations of facades to high-rise residential buildings which the government put in train. 

Thick and fast have come the dismayed reports of the findings: missing cavity barriers (both in design and construction) to compartmentation and around openings; combustible insulation extensively incorporated (both in design and construction) in contravention of ADB2 guidance; service extract ducts and flues discharging into cavities and cladding surfaces that breach spread of flame guidance. The list goes on and on; the affected buildings run into their thousands; the costs of remediation into the billions.

Architects are not free of criticism in all this, but one thing is for sure: the transformation in methods of building procurement that has taken place over the last four decades, with the tendency to split the construction process into trade packages, and to transfer substantial parts of the design and specification responsibility to ill-trained construction surveyors, Design and Build contractors, and so-called specialist sub-contractors, has brought with it a terrible price.

If such a process delivers drainage arrangements of the like shown on the outside of my Bethnal Green example, just think what the inside, hidden, construction looks like!

UK Design and Build of course started during the Thatcher era – the first Design and Build contract was published by the JCT in 1981, just two years after she came to office as Prime Minister. Perhaps it is no coincidence that she famously claimed that Oxford’s ‘monumental buildings impress ….by their size rather than their exquisite architecture*’

Maybe she just didn’t see the drainpipes at Divinity College the way I do.