Honey, We’ve Shrunk the World

Paul Hyett reflects on IT’s distortion of time, interval and distance. Can design benefit from its impact?

The Old Rules: Where and What? 

Since time immemorial, technology has had a huge impact on  the where and the what of architecture and building. From the  earliest days of urban settlement, beyond any Stone Age decision to bunch a few dwellings around a space for market and  trade, the where of town and building location has always been  dictated by issues of accessibility. 

This was very much the case in England. Early internal trade  depended heavily on shipping. For centuries, sturdy little craft  braved the coastlines, especially down the country’s east side,  before plying their way up the estuaries and rivers as far as their draught depths would permit. Thereafter, further haulage relied on horses (or oxen) and carts. The Ouse and mighty Trent at Hull, and the Thames out of London, were the key river routes  inland from the east, and the Severn, Avon and Mersey offered  access from the west. 

As the Industrial Revolution advanced, the cost of shifting raw materials and finished goods became evermore critical. Transferring loads to wheeled transport only exacerbated expense, so  a series of brave, complex civil engineering projects involving  systems of weirs and locks were undertaken. These were de-signed to ensure sufficient depths and enable water navigation farther up riverways and deeper inland, for example to Nottingham and beyond.

Such initiatives were complemented by an intense parallel  programme of canal construction. At its peak, this campaign extended over 4,000 miles, linking rivers and positively impacting trade and manufacturing while connecting growing towns and cities across the country. Emerging industrial settlements expanded along navigable waterways. 

In the 19th century, newly invented railways scythed their ways  through fast-growing suburbs, improved supply lines of raw  materials and components, and serviced outward markets. What  was their impact? Even greater influence on the where and the  what of building across our towns and cities. 

When oil replaced coal and straw as the power source, new  tarmacadam roads came into their own. Once again, building  typologies and location were influenced by innovations in transportation methods, always in pursuit of speedier door-to-door journey times, and for freight-goods, minimal double handling. 

The principal generator of these changes was economics: A dollar invested in a product must be returned, with interest, at the earliest possible time. Nothing has changed; newly made goods  cannot be allowed to accumulate interest debts and erode profits  

during a slow journey to market. As a result, the where of township growth, if not the origins, was  always determined by the technologies and reaches of available  transport. In America, the form of urban design (or lack of it)  was dictated by the available space (usually more in the U.S.  than in the U.K.) and by the internal combustion engine; the  impacts of emerging transport technologies drove development.

New Technologies 

To complement all this, construction technologies emerged in the latter half of the 19th century that enabled even denser city centres. These were: 

• The elevator, which facilitated the development of tall, steel framed buildings. 
• The availability of electricity to power artificial lighting. 
• Mechanical ventilation, which enabled the “deep plan”  building (notably without lightwells and internal court yards). 
• The emergence of wafer-thin curtain walls and lightweight  cladding systems that reduced loads on frames and foundations while yielding super-efficient floorplan “footprints.” 

Clearly, the impact of technology was profound, causing a complete inversion of social hierarchies. From the Romans through  to Haussmann’s Paris and Edwardian London, the cheapest  rentals had always been at the top of buildings otherwise inaccessible except by stairs. This established hierarchy was quickly  reversed as elevators and escalators offered effortless vertical  mobility and created optimum values for the now newly desirable penthouses with views! 

Occasional efforts were made to blunt the powers of market  economies on location, but with little effect. One of the most  heroic was the modernist Brynmawr rubber factory, designed  against a progressive social agenda to provide local employment  up in the mountains of South Wales after World War ll.

But the costs of hauling raw materials up, and finished goods down, the narrow winding roads proved prohibitive and Brynmawr, with its generous clinics, creche, canteens and class rooms, was closed. In the meantime, Wolfsburg triumphed in its efficiency as a manufacturing base for the Volkswagen Beetle and dispatched German exports via Hamburg, while other U.K. locations, such as Derby and Linwood, also proved too expensive as manufacturing bases for the U.K.’s export markets. As ever, the long shadow of basic economics impacted the what and the where of architecture and urban design.

New Rules

But today the basic rules have changed again as a new technology has emerged, previously inconceivable even in the mind of Mary Shelley and her fellow science fiction novelists of the 19th century. This new technology continues to evolve and make its full impact felt. It is now beyond doubt that its influence will exceed that of all previous transport and building innovations combined. 

Its impact is twofold: it “shrinks” distance (reducing demands for movement and transport) and reduces space requirements and therefore demand for volume and new building. 

This powerful new force is, of course, the “wireless” transmission of sound, images and data. Consider these time and distance comparisons:

• When John Adam travelled eastward from the Chesapeake Bay in 1778 as envoy to George Washington, it took him and his son John Quincy some seven weeks of sailing to get to France. 

• In 1866, a mere 88 years later, as described in Simon Winchester’s wonderful book “Atlantic,” the British ship Great Eastern laid the first permanent telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean. Courtesy of the brilliance and determination of Cyrus West Field, the adverse impact of distance on  communication had been largely curtailed. 

• Fast-forward to the 1950s. Sports fans could by then watch  the Australian Open tennis tournament at their local cinemas. Technology had distorted distance. Spectators no longer had to be there to see the event unfold. The “exchange”  was one-way and limited, but conventional interaction with  fellow spectators had been forever dislocated by technology’s  newfound capacity to transmit experience to remote loca tions. “Virtual” had commenced its assault on “real.” Hitherto unimagined forms of remote socializing would stream  forth as new norms.

Deconstructing Time and Space 

Even though there were still significant delays as pre-digital film  reels had to be transported and then laboriously copied and  distributed to movie houses around the country, the processes  continued to accelerate. By the 1960s we could watch sporting  events live on our TVs, broadcast directly to our homes (albeit only in black-and-white). In the 1970s good quality colour was  affordable, and by the 1990s we could further deconstruct time  by recording, “fast-forwarding” and replaying our favorite sporting events all on our own device. Two decades later, we could  even “deposit” information on the “cloud” — a shared global  storage network. 

Against today’s norms, those were the “Dark Ages” of information technology. More recent evolutions have since transformed every aspect of our working and personal lifestyles and interac tions. The rate of progress has been exponential. We now take  for granted the experience of riding “live” in Lewis Hamilton’s  Mercedes Maclaren or partaking in an outpouring of shared  grief during our late beloved Queen Elizabeth’s funeral from as  far afield as Auckland and Soweto in the southern hemisphere  to Montreal and Balmoral in the north. We also take it for granted, in international businesses, that we can dial into conference  calls or workshop sessions, one after another, and again shrink  time courtesy of videoconferencing software, such as Microsoft  Teams or Zoom. 

It is clear after only a few millennia of scientific and technological progress, our species has effectively conquered the limits  distance had hitherto imposed on communication. The world has shrunk in real terms as we quickly morph into an age of augmented and virtual realities and immersive experience. One might say, “Honey, we’ve shrunk the world!”

Assessing Impacts 

But what will be the impact of the IT revolution on the where and what of building? 

To start, the need for local and long-distance business travel has  been slashed overnight. That is a game-changing development with extraordinary impact for the what and where of our building programmes. Since COVID-19 accelerated the effectiveness  of virtual exchange, I have been participating in online conferences, meetings and workshops, as well as design reviews and  joint design charettes with delegates from around the world on a  regular basis. 

At the international scale, such practices have saved millions of  tons of aviation fuel. The all-time high for aviation fuel consumption was 2019’s use of 95 billion gallons. The COVID years  saw that same rate fall to 52 billion gallons. Increasingly sophisticated and available IT will enable us to reduce those levels  further. 

As we search for solutions, the IT and communication revolution provides our best hope for saving the planet. We have the  technology. Now, in the words of the ever-gracious President  

Barack Obama, we need only to “do the right thing!” And as  President Ronald Reagan, that most genial of American presidents liked to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” 

So, buckle up for the ride. It’s time for designers and builders to embrace these powers and employ others creatively as we seek  greater impact and influence. The world may be smaller, but it desperately needs our help.

Paul Hyett, PPRIBA, is a past president of the Royal Institute of  British Architects, co-founder of Vickery-Hyett Architects and a  regular contributor to DesignIntelligence.


Craftsmanship and QA

Standing at our local bus stop the other day, I pondered the miserable structure that purported to offer shelter from the heavy rain blowing in on the prevailing wind. Worse still, its gutter-less roof pitched south-west towards the road so the water sheeted down and puddled around our feet.

With its uncomfortable sloping bench seat this shelter is a product of one of several British companies who seem to have collectively cornered a substantial share of a global market created back in 1964. Then, young French entrepreneur Jean-Claude Decaux persuaded the municipality of Lyons to allow him to build bus shelters and keep them clean in return for roadside advertising rights which were then illegal in France. Decaux, who also personally designed the Sanisette self-cleaning public toilet that put paid to the infamous pissoirs of Paris, died in 2016 worth some $6.2 billion! There’s obviously big money in bus shelters….

One manufacturer’s website claims its vision is:

‘To enrich the personal mobility experience with meticulously designed innovative technology, designed by creative thinkers that craft compelling visions for a better way.’

I pondered these words as the rain slowly soaked through my shoes. Ambition and promise yet again cruelly savaged by reality.

And vis a vie my discomfort, was the installation simply at fault, or was the rain meant to cascade off the front onto the heads and down the collars of those alighting their buses? Or had (as I suspect) the shelter’s roof simply been laid to fall ‘forward’ by mistake? Maybe the whole thing had been installed ‘back to front’ for I know of at least one other seemingly identical shelter that faces away from the road, thus protecting its occupants from the spray thrown up by passing traffic in inclement weather. That shelter’s roof discharges rainwater into the roadway gutter.

My journey’s end that day was Seville. There the old historic centre offers a rich array of craftsmanship celebrated in the vast iron grills across windows, the elegant tracery of the metalwork from which the glazed balconies are constructed, and the beautifully carved doorways and window shutters, whilst its ironmongery, decorated mosaic tiling, and plaster reliefs combine to offer a veritable feast to the eye. The result: a rich backdrop to every street, square, alleyway, and courtyard.

But what impresses most is the consistency of quality: those medieval guys, be they blacksmiths or joiners, stonemasons, or bricklayers, all knew what they were doing, and they all knew how to deliver on quality, despite their lack of ISO operational systems and the like.

So how could my short stay in the bus shelter back home have emerged as such a wretched experience? Was it design failure, despite that suppliers’ claims of craft compelling visions…(whatever they might be)….or was it construction failure? 

The truth is that craft and nous at site level, as witnessed in Seville and a thousand and more other towns and cities around the world, remains in decline as an ever increasing proportion of buildings are manufactured remotely from systemised, factory produced components and products.

And with the progressive de-skilling of site labour and the consolidation of Design and Build as the preferred procurement route, the fundamental relationship between designer and installer is compromised if not severed completely. What chance quality?

No problem cry the advocates of ISO 9001: QA will solve it all. But the evidence emerging from the largest Inquiry ever undertaken in relation to UK construction is that despite the Quality Management systems and protocols so loudly proclaimed by our construction industry, all has been far from well. That is very much my experience in dozens of forensic investigations that now span back across some four decades: quality is all too often compromised by modern construction processes. This despite the ascendancy of ISO, and the claim that QA protocols can underpin all services from professional design to manufacture, and from assembly right through to delivery and handover.

ISO is of course not an acronym, coming instead from the Greek word isos meaning equal, and its origins can be traced back to the medieval guilds of 13th century Europe. Their inspection marks on products and work served as an endorsement of quality but come the Industrial Revolution, and the transition to factory manufactured components, those responsible for construction on site became ever more de-skilled. With that was lost the sense of empowerment, autonomy, and ownership and outputstended to be audited, if at all, after completion rather than during assembly. This, despite the claims of the ‘tick-box’ brigade, is a harsh truth that must be faced.

The later 19th century had seen further breaks with the traditions of craft and worker self-auditing processes as, particularly in the USA, the goals turned to ever greater productivity against a further de-skilling of the workforce, but come World War II the US Government saw the urgent need to improve quality: unsafe military equipment could not be tolerated and checking regimes were introduced to ramp up standards.

All this was subsequently fed into the manufacturing operations of Japan during the post-war reconstruction of its economy. Consequently, the quality of Japanese goods which had hitherto been notoriously bad (seriously impacting on its performance in combat) was ramped up. Aided by America, Japanese manufacturing was subjected to the ‘total quality’ approach: TQM (Total Management Quality) was thus born, and Japanese manufacturing systems rather than products became the focus of scrutiny. The rest is of course history: Toyota, Honda and in Europe Mercedes, Audi and BMW, swept the floor as, for the next four decades or so, UK manufacturers languished ever further behind in the value/quality proposition.

But while the ISO systems may have done much to improve product manufacturing qualities in areas such as car and plane production, its beneficial impact on the construction industry – certainly in this country – has been far less effective. Perhaps that’s because cars leave factories in finished form, good to go, but products destined for incorporation into buildings must still be assembled on site by people who have at least some knowledge of, and skill in, construction. Against that most obvious of principles, those overseeing UK construction work are increasingly drawn from the ranks of surveyors and managers whose training and value systems focus on timetable, speed of assembly and cut-throat cost reductions. And of course, risk transfer ever further down the line, and into ever more fragmented and remote quarters of the supply chain.

I can hear the howl of those that I have offended already, but perhaps, just perhaps, they should take a weekend to enjoy Seville and then go sit in my local bus shelter.

Safely back home

Published in World Architecture Festival Q3 2021

If you have yet to make your first post-Covid visit to another country, let me forewarn you: from start to finish you will be challenged. There’s no doubt of course that we had become accustomed to easy inter-country and inter-city movement, but what I have just been through in preparation for, and during, my first foray into mainland Europe since my December 2019 visit to WAF ‘Amsterdam’ has served only to reinforce my memories of those halcyon days, pre-Brexit and pre-Covid, when travel was as simple as it was cheap, and as hassle-free as it was pleasurable.

I had been invited to join a two-city workshop organised by Design Intelligence which started in Rome and rolled on to Venice….

First, I had to obtain a so-called NHS ‘Covid Vaccination’ Certificate. This involved an application to the NHS which, with laudable efficiency, sent the document electronically. Herein of course lies the first real problem: if you are anything less than IT savvy, stay at home – you won’t make it. Indeed, the level of IT knowledge and competence now required for travel renders most of our older folk severely disadvantaged: SAGA be aware; many of your 2.7 million customers – and certainly those without a smart phone, or the like, will need nursing all the way through this one! And you will need patience in abundance. I was just about IT-savvy enough to fight my way through this IT roller-coaster, but I certainly lacked the patience which led to many a stumble, and occasionally heavy falls as, short of the ability to show the right information in the right form (electronic or paper) my road ahead was blocked…..

……. Yes, blocked, and non-negotiable. Show the necessary document or stay there, stay out, or go back. Anything except go on. I kid you not: I have seen couples separated; the elderly left behind; and siblings split between parents who made it ‘through’ and those that didn’t.

When my NHS Covid Certificate arrived, I printed a copy for incorporation into my newly prepared ‘hard-copy’ travel file, and duly transferred an electronic copy to my i Phone ‘wallet’ (remember that you have done this – I forgot; more of that later). This strange little form, issued under our wonderful NHS logo, contains the simplest of information: name; date of birth; period of validity; dosage status (one jab or two!) date of ‘Dose 2’; vaccination product; and, of critical importance, the ‘Bar Code’. The NHS use a two-dimensional barcode called a QR code which is supplied by the Denso Corporation. Better than the old linear one-dimensional versions used in retail, it can carry much more information. However, be careful: if you print a copy, the paper version often fails to register with the mobile scanners used in airports. It is therefore essential that you always carry your electronic version with you on your Smart Phone. Oh, the trials of modern post-pandemic life…. things will never be the same again.

Next, and before I travelled, I had to arrange my Covid Tests which must be carried out within 48 hours of travel and certified by a registered laboratory. These are not cheap at £110 per test: you also need proof of a pre-booked test scheduled for within two days of your return….so that’s another £90. Think about it: that’s £400 for a couple’s holiday abroad. Good-bye cheap travel!

In my case it was a knife-edge as to whether I would travel or not on the allotted Sunday. Tested on the preceding Friday morning at the local pharmacy my certificate, which was due to be issued electronically on the Friday afternoon, had still not arrived on the Saturday morning. Multiple phone-calls to the chemist led to investigations which initially suggested my test had been lost (and it was too late to do another). But mercifully, around 5pm on Saturday evening, success; sample found, and the certificate arrived: I was good to go.

I arrived uncharacteristically early at Stansted: I had layered in contingency time for every possible ‘hiccup’ along the way. But no, all was easy….no queue at check in, and I was able to quickly produce i) my passport, ii) my RyanAir electronic flight ticket iii) my Passenger Locator Form and iv) my PCR Test Certificate as issued by the laboratory. Each of these carried my very own QR Code and again, I kid you not, if any one of these goes missing, you’re going nowhere. But all mine was in order, so I whizzed on through passports and security, and all was good until I was stopped by one of their grim eateries: no access without my Covid Vaccination Certificate. Easy: I produced once more my electronic version and I was in.  

The remainder of the journey was without incident, and no real problems at Rome arrivals except, on my first trip out of the UK since Brexit, I was saddened to be split from my European ‘family’ and channelled into the non-EU line. And it took forever: as other European travellers joined the fast-moving EU queues, I shuffled slowly forward with seemingly everyone in my queue being subjected to lengthy questioning. It took me one and a half hours just to get through passport control.

All the certificates had to be produced again at the hotel check-in late that Sunday evening but no hassle, I dropped my bags and made off to a restaurant. There I was again required to show my vaccination certificate; a ritual that is currently required pretty-well everywhere in Italy.

The conference was great: more meals, regular proof of Covid status being required, but all good, then off to Venice by train. Here again, serious documentation protocols: identity and Covid status certificates to get into the station, and again through the ticket barriers, and again on the train itself. My electronic version often didn’t work with their hand-held scanner, so frequently much rummaging in my case, and then my briefcase, until I found the appropriate paper version.

And on and on all this went as we progressed through the Venice protocols of hotel check-in and entry to restaurants. And my word weren’t they strict on the River Buses: no mask, no boarding. No argument.

All this is of course for our individual safety and our collective good, but it reminded me of a trip I took to China way back in 1978. At that time the country was pretty-well closed to foreigners and very different from the China I recently lived in for three pre Covid years. Whilst Europe remained very colourful (the Chinese back in that immediate post Mao Tse Tung era wore only blue denim jackets and trousers irrespective of age and sex) I remember that the Chinese nationals needed a special pass to travel by train from city to city. Indeed, without that travel within China was barred. Courtesy of Covid 19 that situation now pertains across Europe: no pass, no train travel, and no movement across national boundaries without a ‘Passenger Locator Form’. I know this is as wise as it is necessary for the common good, but it certainly gives governments a very clear grasp on where we all are.

Indeed, nothing like it has been witnessed since the Nazi machine swept across Europe….

Per chance, as I travelled across Italy on this latest trip, I was reading a biography on that most evil of the Nazis, Reinhard Heydrich. His killing apparatus was efficient to chilling effect and all without any of our modern-day computerised paraphernalia. All by paper the SS ‘machine’, with its incredible administrative efficiency, established and maintained the most sophisticated human data base ever hitherto seen which was all too often, for vast swathes of the population, ruthlessly effective from the point of invasion to their execution or extermination. There, of course, all comparison ends because, whatever the irritations, we fully understand that the benign governments of Europe are gathering and maintaining this information in the interests of its citizens. That fact affirmed; we are nevertheless being monitored in terms of our movement as never before in peacetime Europe.

Those ultimately responsible for the Nazi atrocities were of course brought to trial at Nuremburg and the worst of them were sentenced to death by hanging. Sadly, for them that process was carried out with a bungling incompetence and inefficiency that contrasted starkly with the ruthless and efficient competency of their evil regime, all due to the Americans. For it was they who insisted that ‘their’ hangman be charged with responsibility for the first 10 top-level Nazi executions.

And so it was that Master Sergeant John C Woods was to deliver justice. Sadly, for those that he executed, he had neither the training nor the experience of his British counterpart, the infamous Albert Pierrepoint, who used to carefully assess the weight of his charges to calculate the rope length, and thus a ‘drop’ sufficient to break the neck causing virtually instant death, without severing the head. Unlike Pierrepoint who carried out over 400 executions in his 25-year career, Woods was clueless: he was also an imposter….

Abandoned by his parents shortly after birth, he had dropped out of school in Kansas to join the US Navy. Finding that career unsuitable, he deserted, only to be caught and tried. He was then assessed as a ‘constitutional psychotic’ and dismissed, thereafter bouncing from one job to another until, at the outbreak of World War 2, he was drafted into the US Army as a combat engineer, eventually arriving in Normandy following the D-Day landings. There, death sentences of its own military for grievous crimes such as rape and murder were effected to maintain discipline, and Woods answered the US Army’s call for a hangman during the invasion’s advance across Europe, apparently bungling a number of executions along the way.

Regrettably, he had lied about his experience at interview claiming to have been an executioner in his home state of Oklahoma. Thus, it was that Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister who went to the gallows first (Hermann Goring having committed suicide) would take fourteen minutes to die. Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel would choke for nearly twice as long. And so on….

There was of course a cruel irony in the fact that the leaders of such an efficient killing apparatus should be executed with such bungling inefficiency, but this is an episode for which the allied victors can draw no pride….And so, however tempting it might be to liken the current frustrating paperwork and bureaucracy that frustrates our movements through and around Europe in these Covid charged times with the likes of Europe under occupation, never forget that behind the current initiatives lie Governments who ultimately care for their people’s wellbeing, one and all. These are indeed good times….and it was very nice to be back ‘in Europe’.

Colour on our streets

Published in World Architecture Festival Q4 2021

It’s astonishing that colours seem to have all but vanished from our roads. I mean proper colours like reds, greens and yellows, or those lovely deep maroons and blues once favoured for larger sedans. Everywhere you look nowadays, be it on the motorways or in the side streets, just about every car has been finished in one of those seemingly infinite shades of greys, or silver. I admit to there being occasional black or white examples amongst them, but you rarely see any ‘cars of colour’ anymore. Walking home recently I counted only two (one a sort of khaki tan, the other a metallic olive green) in a street of over 40 parked vehicles. Even the Toyota garage nearby had only three coloured options on a forecourt otherwise adorned with some 45 motors up for sale in their predictable tones of grey.

I simply don’t understand what’s happened: no-one has decreed this; no law has been passed. But there certainly cannot be any doubt that car manufacturers are pandering to public demand – they know their market! They know what people want…So what is informing this seemingly insatiable desire for the colourless car? And whatever happened to the predilection for bright primary colours that adorned the Morris Minors, Minis and Austin 1100s of those far off days of the ‘60s; or the sherwood greens and royal blues so favoured for the big Jags of the same era; or the reds and yellows much loved for the Avengers, Cortinas and Capris of the ‘70s and ‘80s,

Remember Inspector Regan’s first car? Interesting story there: Ford originally supplied a blue Consul GT ordered for the first Sweeney series back in 1974, but Thames TV swapped it for a metallic orange-gold model that they thought would stand out better against the drab London background: those were the days of the miners’ strikes, and the three-day week! And then there was John Thaw again, subsequently cast as Inspector Morse, with his burgundy Mark II Jaguar and its rather incongruous black vinyl roof. Never a grey car to be seen in any of those films. The old BMC swatch below shows the variety and richness of colour choices for the cars then produced by that plethora of British manufacturers.

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BMC Colour Chart of 1960’s

The current mass penchant for grey can be tracked back to the Germans and those BMWs of the 1980s that came to dominate the executive car market here in the UK. Yep, that is surely where it started, with the emerging preference for gun-metal finishes and their association with fine machinery and precision engineering. All of which reminded me of a passage in my 1994 M.Phil. thesis entitled ‘Architecture under Siege’ wherein I was bemoaning the uninspiring offerings of the UK house builders.

There I noted the peculiar dichotomy of the home-buyers’ evident fondness for traditional vernacular house styling with their contrasting love of contemporary car design. I described the executive’s run home from work in his flash modern carriage as he departed the city, dashboard lights sparkling and instruments silently monitoring and reporting – I italicise because marketing strategies for such machines then targeted men: goodness; how times have changed!

Such interior designs were of course no more than props, pandering to male egos through their suggestion of a functional complexity synonymous with the control systems more commonly found in Boeing cockpits. Likewise, the external form and language of the new generations of colourless cars were uncompromisingly expressive of purpose: sophisticated engineering was celebrated in unambiguously precise detailing. All was ‘machined’ to perfection. Such cars oozed technology, their quality impeccable, their performance assured.

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BMW: Synonymous with Engineering Sophistication

In similar vein the executive’s abode of that period would become ever more ‘technical’ in its equipment: we increasingly expected to be ‘welcomed’ home to sensors that monitored security; gates and garage doors that opened automatically, temperature management systems that ensured comfort; discrete sound systems that ‘piped’ music anywhere and everywhere to order; and wands that offered remote control to all communication systems. Indeed, by the eighties, Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living’ was available, courtesy of the UK housebuilder, everywhere from the dense suburbs of our cities to remote villages right across our land – except of course that the housebuilders’ offerings didn’t look like a machine at all. Modern in terms of internal function and equipment yes, but modern in their architectural expression; decidedly not! Same old vernacular, ever smaller windows – UK housebuilders’ styling was nothing but a trip down memory lane…and a bad trip at that….

And the house buyer’s apparent demand for that cottagey vernacular would remain stubbornly consistent until, it seems, just the last few months. But suddenly, perhaps even courtesy of Covid, people are taking a fresh look at their homes. I kid you not: next time you walk our suburban streets, keep your eyes peeled and look around to see what’s happening to those dull, non-descript homes of the post WW 2 era….and even some from the ‘20s and ‘30s. Many houses, and even bland single storey bungalows as well, are getting a serious makeover; what can only be described as a total face-lift. What’s driving this no-one knows but, somehow, individual houseowners are, en masse, beginning to embrace a refreshingly modernistic styling. You will see this particularly expressed in grey replacement window frames, stylish but contemporary front doors, modern and bold fonts for house numbers, and of course, white render…. and lots of it.

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 Billericay ‘Semis’ Undergoing Makeovers

Mock leaded lights are out; big panes of clear glass are in; white plastic window frames with their dirty mitred corners are out; crisp grey aluminium frames are in; mock Corinthian columns: no thanks. And a big no to the imitation gas streetlamp.

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 Identical Woodford Houses – One A Recent Makeover

Such ‘cottagey’ styles their little dormers, leaded pane windows, and functionless chimneys were of course always a veneer, a sham, and a lie. But at long last all this seems to have run its ghastly course, and housebuilders may now have to play catch up as a myriad of private owners have, through their individual retrofit programmes, set a new direction in taste and style for the housing market. What they are doing may not be great architecture, but at least it shows a growing public interest in a new language for the domestic abode….an interest that is spreading super-fast. And what we see in a thousand individual makeovers today will be in demand for the new housebuilder’s offerings of tomorrow: so, watch that space! And expect some good, confident, architect led stuff.

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Three Woodford Green Makeovers

All of which takes me to a recent visit to the VETTii Factory just west of Venice a few weeks back. Specialists in kitchen and bedroom fitted furniture this firm, one of the largest of its kind in the world, has taken the art of efficient manufacturing and combined it with a laudably accountable sustainability agenda which puts responsible production, recycling, and minimisation of waste at the very heart of its slick and stylish operations. Every day 187 articulated lorries leave its main factory gates loaded with newly manufactured products bound for markets across the world. What is it about those Italians, now the eighth strongest economy in the world, that enables them to grace all they design and produce with such breath-taking style?

In their showrooms we discussed the bold colours that are now finding their way into the finishes of the company’s fitted kitchen and bedroom furniture. In response to my question about just what informs their choice of new colour offerings for their products, I was surprised to learn that it all starts with the fashion industry shows for ladies clothing…. they in turn traditionally influence the car manufacturers and lastly, with a three-year lag, the furniture industry follows. So, as we see houses going all white and grey on the outside, it seems that we can expect some real splashes of colour beginning to emerge to the interior fitouts. Again, that would seem to me to be none other than very welcome!

A couple of cars parked in front of a house

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  Fashionable Makeovers Will Set New Agendas for Housebuilders


Published in Design Intelligence magazine, Q2 2022

‘You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today’. Never were those words of Abraham Lincoln more prescient than now….

For the architect the terms professional and authority are synonymous with responsibility. The former establishes the obligation, the latter facilitates its dispatch.

In its narrowest sense professional relates, of course, to the standard of service expected, both in the context of law and ethically. The opening lines of any Barrister’s examination of an architect in an English court will run something like ‘….and you were, at all times during the service that you provided, a professional, registered architect’. This sets the benchmark against which the service as delivered is to be measured – that is of a reasonably competent architect. Not a brilliant architect, note, just a reasonably competent architect, albeit often, where the appointment terms so stipulate, one that carries experience in the design of buildings of similar scale, complexity, and function.

Yet against the limited confines of contractual duty, there is a much higher calling to which architects should aspire. I was alerted to that on day one, semester one, year one of my training when our tutor threw the gauntlet down by demanding that we never forget that beyond any contractual duty to clients, we would carry a responsibility to the users of our buildings, and to the public who would pass them by, every day, evermore.

I never forgot those words, but how important they have proved to be in the context of the two biggest external factors that have to date affected my career: climate change and the Grenfell Tower fire.

The former is of course universal in its relevance; we live in a finite environment and the collective impact of the buildings that we design must be controlled in terms of their effect on the environment. This we all now know, and surely all now accept. And despite the undeniable progress within the construction world, we all know that there’s still a long way to go. In fact, we have only just started out on that journey….

But, in terms of responsibility, the point is that irrespective of any contractual duty to individual clients – that is, to those who pay us – we have, as designers, a wider duty to the public, and to future generations, to ensure that our buildings are ecologically sustainable. The problem here, however, is that whilst we can encourage, we don’t have the authority to impose sustainable architecture. That is why enlightened and progressive building regulations are so crucial. The architect has a standing obligation to comply with code, so therein lies the authority to ensure that any design solution is responsible in terms of the eco-agenda. And whilst this may matter little to the paying client, or the person or organisation to which we are contracted, it certainly does matter to the wider public, and to future generations to which we owe a responsibility but to whom we have no contractual obligation.

So much for the design responsibility to those who may not use our buildings but who are nevertheless affected by their performance. Here in London a recent and dreadful tragedy has served to place into the sharpest relief the responsibility that my tutor insisted was ours to carry evermore on behalf of those who actually do use our buildings……irrespective of whether they had commissioned them. The fire at Grenfell Tower back in June 2017 has led to the largest and most far-reaching Inquiry ever undertaken in the UK (and probably worldwide) into the function and operation of the building industry. Its Chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick is soon to commence work on Phase Three which will deal with Recommendations, and whilst it is not for me to anticipate what they may comprise, we can all safely anticipate that they will be as wide in scope as they will be profound in impact.

Many commentators expect that whatever recommendations are forthcoming, the issue of authority will come to the fore because responsibility for the design, sanction, construction, and inspection of any building must carry with it the authority necessary to ensure that the standards of safety, as set, are delivered. Which brings me to Winston Churchill’s words, equally prescient in this context: ‘…..you have no right (to) ask me to bear responsibility without the power of action.’  For power of action, of course, take authority.

All of which brings me to the responsibility that we, as architects, carry as leaders, both in our firms and within our industry, to those whom we train and those we employ. That is, that we must ensure that through our programmes of education, and thereafter within our offices, those coming into our profession are properly equipped to discharge their responsibilities, both competently and effectively. That means that they have the know-how, as well as the time and the fees, to enable them so to do. But it also means that they have the authority to ensure proper delivery of their work and critically, back to my tutor and his ‘call to arms’, that they have inculcated within them that wider sense of duty that goes way beyond any contractual obligation to a paying client.

We owe that to all who use, and will use, our buildings…..

Professional Interaction: a Higher Calling

Re-examining the tenets of interpersonal

Written by Paul Hyett and published in Design Intelligence magazine, Q2 2021

“I did not like the tone of your letter — please
don’t ever write to me again.”

So wrote avant-garde architect Cedric Price to Pat Enright, then a director of Murphy, the builder responsible for constructing the new InterAction Centre as commissioned by community activist Ed Berman in London’s Kentish Town. The issue at hand, inconceivable in this era of email communication, was Cedric’s insistence that Murphy should identify its correspondence by both date (day/month/year) AND the time of day. This he required to distinguish one letter from another when referencing replies to the many requests for information and clarification that were arriving daily during the early stages of the contract .

General arrangement drawings for that project, as with all others, were drawn on an unusual paper size unique to the Price office (by memory, somewhere around 700 mm x 350 mm in dimension). “Details” were produced on A4 sheets that, after allowance for borders and titles, all too often yielded less than satisfactory space for the image.

Enright had responded to the request by suggesting that the project would progress with greater efficiency if the architect focused on the issue of timely information, rather than becoming preoccupied with administrative processes — hence the infamous “please don’t ever write to me again” retort.

I reference this story because, as well as the coincidental word in this article’s title to the name of Berman’s organisation (Inter-Action) and project (the InterAction Centre), it highlights the importance of constructive relationships in any kind of creative collaboration.

The title’s other word raises a second question — what is meant by “professional”? Lest arrogance or conceit be suspected, let me immediately make clear that builders can, and indeed should, conduct themselves in all aspects of their work in a “professional” manner. But in an age where the word professional has been so demeaned as to be virtually meaningless in daily parlance, what, we must ask, is meant by “professional”?
One definition I have used over the years in teaching
“professional practice” to architects is that “professionals carry knowledge and skills that their clients do not usually possess. They offer this knowledge for a fee, albeit always with the client’s interest placed first and foremost.”
The patient therefore assumes, and codes of practice in my country certainly demand, that a doctor will prescribe with only the patient’s interests in mind: the medic will not, and cannot, take a second fee or commission from the drug company. Likewise, the architect must select and specify solely in the client’s interest and cannot receive gift or favour for so doing. That, in essence, is the distinction between “professional” doctors or architects and quacks or spivs.

And that is why footballers cannot be professionals: they may be paid, and thus distinguished from amateurs, but have only self-interest to serve in the performance of their duties. Likewise, the second-hand car dealer, and so on.

Rewind some 80 years — to the White House. The date: 27 December 1941. Winston Churchill is in bed and worried. “I am so glad you have come”, he told Charles McMoran Wilson, better known as Lord Moran, who, as his physician, accompanied him on all engagements. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had laid on a splendid supper, but on retiring to bed, Churchill had suffered chest pains and breathing problems. The prime minister’s mission had been to persuade the president to commit America’s efforts to the European theatre — a commitment much threatened by the events at Pearl Harbor just 20 days earlier. As the physician knew all too well, the stakes could not have been higher.

“Is my heart all right?” asked Churchill
Moran’s professional duty was clear and simple: it obliged him to hospitalise the patient — period. Remember the Hippocratic oath against which doctors are bound:

“I will follow that system of regimen which,
according to my ability and judgement, I
consider for the benefit of my patients, and
abstain from whatever is deleterious and

So, what did Moran do?
In full knowledge that the correct diagnosis was a mild heart attack, and that correct action was immediate hospitalisation, he told his patient “there is nothing serious.” As he later revealed in his biography (Churchill: The Struggle for Survival), “I determined to tell no one.” (Not even the patient!) In short, recognising the propaganda coup that would otherwise ensue for the German and Japanese high commands, Moran put the Allied war effort first. In attitude, if not physically, he propped his patient up to enable him to carry his American mission through to its successful completion.

Increasingly, construction professionals face the same dilemma: like Lord Moran, we have a higher calling that demands we put our world first, and where appropriate, ahead of the Developer/Client.
This increasingly requires new levels of professional interaction and shared ambition hitherto rarely seen — certainly outside the theatre of war. Essential to such professional interaction is design intelligence.

We need to exchange ideas across professional disciplines; we need to use conflict and competition in constructive ways and as vehicles to test ideas and search out the truths that will inform strategy and direction; and, above all, we need to co-operate, both within our construction professions and across our professional construction disciplines, as well as beyond our traditional industry borders.

Through all this, we, as construction professionals, need to distance ourselves from the path that law and finance have encouraged us to pursue — the path of abbreviated and ever-later information; of short-termism; of packaging and transferring risk “downstream” to those least equipped to assume it, be they suppliers or contractors, whose want is profit at any cost. Above all, away from the real problems afore us.

Striking in this respect is the dismay expressed by a senior executive of China State Construction Bureau 8, part of the world’s largest construction company, who once said to me:
“Paul — you all do it wrongly! Your people identify and then pass risk to others ‘downstream’ who all too often cannot cope. We identify risk and share it together. We solve problems — you pass them away.”
The message of this polemic is simple: “professional” conduct has always demanded attention to higher callings — beyond mere self-interest.

Interaction with fellow professionals within our own and associated disciplines has always offered rich reward in terms of innovation and execution. But now, as the young Greta Thunberg has so aptly and effectively warned us, we sit at a nanosecond to midnight: the world will see 80 billion square metres of new building in the next 20 years — a built area equal to 60% of the existing global building stock. Now we have a greater calling as professionals, one that mandates a higher level of interaction than ever before seen.

Take a look Google Earth’s time-lapse video entitled “Our Cities” published 15 April 2021 if you want a visual of what 80 billion square metres means and looks like.

Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities. Do we have the design intelligence to solve this problem? Yes! Do we have the social, economic and political systems in place to facilitate the contribution that such design intelligence can offer? No! So, to where should we turn?
Governance aside, I suggest we turn to our instincts as professionals, that we lift our sights firmly towards the territories of collaboration, sharing knowledge and creative discourse that can shape and offer that better future we know we can construct.

The platform for such effort that can connect that higher calling and combine it with the intensity of purpose and disciplined focus essential to any success is professional interaction. There, and only there, lies the combination of ethics and discipline that, together with knowledge and invention, will be critical to any collective success we might achieve.

The view from here: ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’.

Published in Design Intelligence magazine Q1 2021

Paul Hyett reflects on three challenges facing RIBA’s new president and Britain’s architectural profession: Brexit, The Grenfell Disaster’s Insurance Impacts, and COVID-19.

Simon Allford, the recently elected 60th president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, faces greater challenges in terms of scale, breadth, and complexity, than any incom-ing president since the aftermath of World War II. Back then, Sir Lancelot Keay’s concern was essentially singular: how best to orchestrate the repair, renewal, and expansion of the national building stock. When Keay took office, that process was already well underway: the great reforming Labour Government of Clement Atlee was a year into its stride creating the infra-structure of welfarism – new towns, suburbs, schools, hospitals and above all, new housing. The aspirations of the New Jerusalem Movement, which had long engaged in informing the post-war agenda, were to be pursued with a vengeance.

In contrast, Allford’s problems today are multifarious, and there is no ‘New Jerusalem’ style roadmap to guide his effort. Sir Lancelot was also superbly well prepared to respond to his challenge. At 63 years old, he was the first RIBA president to come from a Local Authority salaried background. He had spent his entire life in the public sector, first at Birmingham where he was responsible for 16,000 new homes, then from 1925 at Liverpool where he ultimately became City Architect leading the effort to re-house families from the cleared slums of inner Liverpool.

‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man…’

In stark contrast, and through a career spent entirely in the private sector, Allford has, with college chums Johnathan Hall, Paul Monahan and Peter Morris, created one of the finest architectural practices in Britain. AHMM has established a prodigious reputation with a string of awards to its credit across a wide range of building genres, the Stirling Prize being the recent crowning glory. Like his father David, who also enjoyed a distinguished architectural career, Simon lacks nothing in guts, grit, determination, and intelligence, but again in contrast to Keay, Allford’s back-ground offers little in the way of relevant experience to the tasks before him. ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man ….?’

What an hour it is! Unlike the concentrated reconstruction challenge facing Keay, Allford must urgently shape the profession’s responses to three pressing practice related issues: Brexit, The Grenfell Disaster, and COVID-19.

The burden will be awesome for we must look to Allford’s presidency alone to lay the groundwork and frame the essential responses to each of these challenges.

The competition for presidential office at the RIBA was fierce this year and offered no shortage of enterprising talent: three women and two men campaigned on agendas which covered all the familiar territories: low carbon ecofriendly design, innovation, diversity, inclusivity, communi-cation, and government lobbying. But only Allford’s campaign included initiatives for the wider range of Grenfell and COVID- generated problems, and only Valerie Passetti campaigned on the issue of Brexit. So, let’s look at these issues in their order of emergence, starting with:

Brexit’s potential to damage the interests of UK architects is enormous. Hitherto free to practice across the European Union, British architectural qualification and registration are no longer recognised. That privilege was traded away as a last-minute Government concession to secure the elusive, much coveted ‘Brexit separation deal’. Beyond that, UK architects will now be ineligible for inclusion in European tenders for public commissions – a condition that had previously been mandatory.
Our freedom to recruit younger architectural talent from across Europe will also be severely hampered as the lethal impacts of work permit restrictions kick-in. This has potentially dire consequences for a profession that exports professional services extensively, relying on architectural ‘overseas’ talent to deliver its workloads, and on the ‘core’ language skills of our continental friends to communicate on a par with our clients and competition. (As in America, the presence of second and third language skills among our indigenous British architectural population is shamefully limited.)
Allford has much to contemplate here, and much to do to get architectural service exports into Europe onto the Government’s priority list. Public and Government interest remains stubbornly preoccupied with the emotive subject of UK fisheries, an economic segment with an annual catch value of just £987 million which is insignificant when compared to the UK’s Professional and Business Service exports into Europe which stand at £66 billion.
Of that, architecture and engineering services represent 16% — over ten times the value of fishing! The shocking explanation here is that our 12,000 fishermen – with their 5,911 small trawlers which are over 50% foreign owned anyway – have appealed to this once maritime nation’s nostalgic sentimentality in a way that 56,000 architects, despite our extraordinary global influence and earning performance, have notably failed to do.
As a celebrated Stirling prize-winner, and a sophisticated lobbyist, Allford is well equipped to bang this drum at Government’s door.

The Grenfell Disaster: Insurance Impacts
Sir Martin Moore-Bick who has, with admirable determination and skill, led the investigation into the tragic fire to the residential tower block that killed 72 people on 14 June 2017, is still hearing evidence for Phase 2 of the Inquiry. But even as that process continues, the impact of the Grenfell tragedy wreaks havoc across the entire construction industry’s indemnity insurance market. A recent issue of the Architects’ Journal reported three-fold Professional Indemnity (PI) premium increases, with some architectural firms unable to renew coverage at all. An incredible 69% and 58% of firms respectively report cladding related claims and fire safety issues being excluded from future coverage. Some architectural practices with large portfolios of completed, metal clad buildings, reportedly face ‘eye-watering’ 1000% premium increases…. irrespective of the quality of their work and their ability to show code compliance and safety of design. Understandably, architects’ insurers have no appetite for these risks.
To attract renewed interest in our PI business, some argue the profession needs to increase Insurers’ confidence in our education, training, and quality control. Either way, we will need to increase fee levels to facilitate payment of higher PI coverage costs. One commentator insists that in getting our own house in order we must re-establish authority over our own work. Allford will have a heavy-duty agenda to deal with in this regard, but there can be no doubt that he carries the experience to lead the response.

Covid-19’s Effects
James Pickavance, one of London’s leading construction lawyers, recently said in a PODCAST interview: “The world of construction litigation is only just beginning to ‘inhale the impact of COVID-19.’” The pandemic has certainly had far-reaching social and economic consequences beyond anything seen in my lifetime.
Our architectural responses can anticipate incorporating ‘intelligence’ into our building surveillance and services systems to facilitate early screening and detection of ‘COVID-Carriers’ (see this author: Design Intelligence Q3, 2020). Short-term, architects will continue to assist in planning safer circulation and separation arrangements in those public buildings that have remained in use, and they will continue to design conversions and adjustments to provide emergency COVID hospital facilities. Like many other professions, architects have adapted quickly to remote and isolated working practices, on-line meetings, and virtual communications.
But Allford’s attention will principally need to turn to the further impact on PI insurance cover for COVID is set to generate a heavy stream of claims relating to construction delays, many of which are already in incubation.
Much of this will centre upon the legal battles around the meaning and application of appointment clauses relating to force majeure. These disputes will feed lawyers for a decade and more as new Case Law emerges. Developers and Contractors will clamour to establish their respective rights during a pandemic which has made it all but impossible for the construction supply side to discharge its duties under contract.
Consultants can operate a remote working policy courtesy of today’s brilliant IT facilities, but how can builders build when the UK Government has enforced a Stay-at-Home policy? Breaches of Stay-at-Home directives may not have been an option for Contractors, but Developers can claim that Government ‘lock-downs’ have merely been a necessary response to a force majeure. The issue of whether force majeure applies will surely become critical.

Pickavance estimates it will be six to twelve months before we see these claims coming on stream in construction disputes around the world. Much confusion will surround multitudes of scenarios where contracts were already in varying degrees of delay before COVID circumstances began to impact progress adversely. Architects whose fortunes are inextricably bound up with Design and Build procurement will be particularly exposed here.
Ultimately, this will only escalate the cladding crisis that has already consumed the world of construction insurance. We need to mature in our attitudes towards insurance…. it’s essential as a profitably functioning insurance market is one of the cornerstones of our industry. Allford has serious work ahead of him on this issue.

Nettles Grasped
To put all these challenges into further perspective, let us go back to an RIBA presidency even earlier than Sir Lancelot’s. Just over one century ago John William Simpson took office. Like Allford, Simpson, also the son of an architect, faced the fall-out of a global pandemic.
Spanish Flu became the worst healthcare disaster of the 20th century. It was so named because, unlike allied and axis powers, neutral Spain had no censorship imposed on reporting outbreaks there. But the disease didn’t start in Spain.

Some historians trace its true origins to Kansas and the illness, on 4 March 1918, of US Army Private Albert Gitchell. From there it spread rapidly across the Atlantic to the trenches of Europe – in the last months of Word War 1, 84,000 American soldiers were deployed to join the allied war effort in March 1918 alone. As with Covid, both the USA President and the British Prime Minister – Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George – would catch the virus and survive and, as with COVID, a second and far more lethal ‘wave’ of the pandemic followed shortly after the first. Ultimately, 675,000 Americans would die, and some estimates put global deaths at up to 50 million. The toll in the UK was around 228,000. In comparison, UK COVID deaths already number 106,564 .In this respect Allford is destined to lead the architectural profession in its response to the worst pandemic in a century. If history repeats itself, it will also be the worst pandemic of this century. Unlike Keay, whose profession embarked on a rapid course towards a majority of its membership being in state employment by the early 1970’s, Allford, courtesy of Mrs. Thatcher, will preside over a largely privatised profession with less than 1% in state employment. However, notwithstanding these statistics, some believe that the RIBA’s broader membership has never properly thrown off its state employee culture, arguing that despite notable exceptions among its leading practices, too many UK architectural practices have remained shy of the commercial sharpness and discipline expected by the development world.

Any residue of such shyness is surely set to change. We’ve received the shrillest of wakeup calls and Allford is set to turn all lights on as we face his call to arms to meet the churn in the months ahead. These crises may well spark a major cultural re-orientation of UK architectural practice. A yawn-ing vacuum openeth before us. Will we step into it, grasp the nettle, and stand to be counted? There is no doubt we should, and no one is better positioned to lead the process.

In so doing, Allford will do well, irrespective of Brexit, to look beyond our shores. The UK architectural profession already punches well above its weight on the international stage with some 10% of our £4.8 billion contribution to the national economy being in exports. Our biggest markets for architectural services are Asia, The European Union, the Middle East, and the USA with respective shares of 27%, 23%, 20% and 14% of our international revenue. These figures have grown rapidly with exports of professional services by UK architects increasing some 28-fold in the last twelve years.

The future is bright if we continue to grow these markets, and the demand is surely there: between now and the year 2035 the global market in construction is expected to be 80 billion square metres of new build. That equates to 60% of the entire current stock of building worldwide — to be added in just fifteen years. Of that 38% will be in China and 15% in North America. If the world’s design teams address the eco-agenda effectively in this work, the beneficial consequences will be incalculable. British architectural practices can and should play an enormous role in this challenge, potentially taking our export services up as far as five times their current values – that would be 50% of workloads to be export based.
Simon Allford’s presidency should be the stepping-stone to great days ahead.
Yes: cometh the hour…!

Pace and Place, Planet and Purpose: Reinvention Required

First published in Design Intelligence 23 Dec 2020, by Paul Hyett


If Christopher Wren had walked into my father’s new office, he would have felt very much at home. Albeit a small practice, like architects’ offices of all sizes across the country and around the world, the basic tools of the day were very much as they had been down the centuries: refined but largely unchanged.

Sir Christopher would have been familiar with Dad’s drawing board, T square and high draughtsman’s stool, his pair of compasses, dividers, the multitude of pens of various thicknesses, the pencils from hard to soft, and the many other fine instruments required for making those marks on paper intrinsic to the processes of design. Those marks slowly and surely became ever more clearly defined until, ultimately, they were copied and transported to the site where skilled craftsmen would translate them into reality.

The staff and dumpy level used to assess terrains, the tape measures, scale rules and set-squares, the brushes and colour washes, erasers, dusters, draughting tape, drawing pins and lettering stencils – even a plumb-line: Sir Christopher would have been “good to go” without a word of instruction or explanation. Or perhaps not quite: it was 1972 and Britain had just “gone decimal.” Not only had shillings and pence been abandoned, but our beloved feet and inches had been replaced with metres and millimetres, and our pounds and ounces had given way to the kilo.

But Wren would have mastered such changes in moments and taken just minutes to come to grips with the telephone (securely connected to the wall by wires) and the little battery-operated calculator — great for doing those complicated calculations. And, of course, the electric kettle and the fluorescent lights would have been welcome comforts — to say nothing of the heating.


Fast forward another fifty years and this most revered of architects would be completely lost in my office of today. So intensive and extensive are the learning and training necessary to operate current IT systems and equipment that the process must begin pre-school. Generations of professionals of all disciplines are being left behind, floundering and incapable, as system and communication developments accelerate along an exponential curve.

For the drawing board, wonderful paraphernalia, and instruments in Dad’s office, substitute the modern computer screen and its array of programmes: Revit and Rhino; systems like BIM and parametric design; Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WhatsApp and WeChat for communication. For archives, plan chests and the multitude of filing cabinets, take The Cloud. For physical state take cyberspace and virtual reality. Such changes and radically new equipment and methodologies transcend previous innovation of practice: the architect’s office has been completely reinvented over these last three decades. The journey to reinvent the architect’s office started with Rubenstein and Barnaby’s word processing in 1979; then progressed through the fax machine (common from the early 1980s but invented back in 1846); the mobile phone (1985); CAD (1989); websites (1991); Google (1998); screen sharing (2014); and all the other contemporary tools that have transformed design and construction from physical to virtual processes. 

The breath-taking scale of this reinvention is now being further accelerated, courtesy of Covid-19. As has been noted far and wide, we are entering a new “norm” from which there will be no return. The pre-COVID office that, despite its systems, technologies, and virtual connections within and beyond, had stubbornly endured as both a physical reality and an institution, cannot and will not survive. As a hub where workers occasionally meet in real time and place? Perhaps. But as a work setting, with the restrictive demands of assembly and nine-to-five entrapment? We are witnessing its death throes.

Just as our towns and cities have suffered the upheavals of shopping centres and out-of-town malls replacing the High Street, and the disinfecting choreographies of mail order and on-line food delivery have replaced our shopping excursions, so our commercial landlords face the imminent collapse of that hitherto bastion of investment: the office. We are witnessing the phenomenon of collaborative assembly dissipate into a dislocated corporate condition: the virtual office matrix. 


This is where we designers must shift from a reactive assimilation of the skills necessary to survive and compete in the digital world of an office environment that has been reinvented and virtualised around us, to the proactive role of using our programming and design skills (our ‘stock in trade’) to reinvent the very essence of towns and cities as we currently know them. 

In this respect, everything is up for grabs, and all norms will be swept aside. To quote Brennar Bhandar, even “the conceptualisation of wealth as a fusion of the value of land with the value of people,” initiated through the thinking of that father-founder of the modern political economy, William Petty, will inevitably be challenged as never before.  

Our recent dalliance with globalisation; the ability of multi-nationals to shift materials, production and capital around the world in pursuit of obedient and competitive labour sources; the desire of our large corporates to provide services tax-free across borders — all these agendas are up for review and revision. So too is the essential purpose of our cities and their buildings. As IT-savvy urban populations relocate to their new sub-urban and rural home platforms, the dinosaurian fabric of the commercial city will be rendered increasingly redundant. For architects, urban designers, planners, and engineers, the challenges are immense: our cities need to be reinvented in terms of programme, and their existing fabric must be retrofitted to new purposes hitherto unimaginable.  

Despite the extraordinary impacts of IT that now threaten our essential concept of place, the challenges can only intensify as the very notion of freedom — so beloved by the West — is threatened by the escalation of a multitude of factors, such as monitors, sensors, barricades, business closures, and masks. Against all this we will see the increasing phenomena of migration not only from strife and economic catastrophe, but also increasingly consequent on climate change, as our global populations continue to grow exponentially:

Taking one million years to double from two and a half to five million in 8000 BC, the world’s population doubled every thousand years thereafter through to 1650 AD, when it reached five hundred million. It doubled to one billion less than two hundred years later in 1805 AD, while the next doubling took only until 1930. By 1974 it had doubled again to four billion. Today, the global population is nearly eight billion souls.

So, here we find ourselves, at a second to midnight. Population growth attenuation, education and sustainable lifestyles have emerged as challenges against which our politics appear increasingly unable to cope, the eco-systems of our world struggle, and disorder threatens from every side. 


But our resolve must not falter. Just as the developments in information technologies and communication have prompted the reinvention of the very ways we work and live, so we must now reinvent our relationship with both planet and place. As never before, the very purpose of our cities and their buildings needs reinvention. Now cities must accommodate their functions as safe havens and adaptive organisms. 

DesignIntelligence has never been in greater demand. 

All Change?

Originally published in Panstadia magazine, Q4, 2017

I get mighty irritated by fans who struggle to get out and take a pee during soccer games. Unlike American venues UK soccer stadiums were not designed for this: we have narrower tread depths and the assumption is that spectators will sit tight during play and not disrupt their neighbours through constant ‘calls of nature’. But these calls are getting more frequent as beverage sales rise and bladders strain: drink more, pee more and pee more often. Simple as that!

Revenue enhancement is another driver for change: facility managers want to get people there earlier, retain them longer and sell them more food and beverage.

American football may offer lessons: the match is a festive occasion rolled out over a longer period. Two things are key: first that food and beverage is available for consumption, and indeed often sold directly into the bowl DURING the match which in turns assumes a move towards ‘grazing’ – eating and drinking across the entire time spectrum of the event. Secondly, it operates against an extended match time which comprises 4 quarters of 15 minutes each, played out over some 3.5 hours.

Linked to this is the increasing interest in reducing ‘time wasting’ by players under which our model of 90 minutes of play against 105 minutes of attendance has come under challenge. Studies have apparently shown that out of any 90-minute soccer match only around 60 minutes of the ‘play’ time involves true play. At present ‘our’ clock continues to tick after goals have been scored and during ongoing referee/player disputes. New proposals, if adopted, for video replays to determine uncertain referee calls will serve only to further delay proceedings and further erode time.

So, goes the thinking, why not split our precious traditional soccer game into two ‘30-minute halves’ played out against a clock that would be stopped during disputes, after goals and in many other circumstances such as player substitutions and video replays?

The implications of all this would be profound and who knows where it would end? For example, tv adverts will set the time for restarts after goal scoring (as in America) and I would predict with confidence that before we know it we will be playing two 30-minute halves over 3 hours and more of real time.

If this were to happen the impact on stadium design will be profound even perhaps leading to an increase of terrace depths from our typical 750mm to 1100mm and more to allow spectators to pass along the seating rows during ‘down-time’ or more radically, permit the introduction of ‘in-seat’ hospitality services.

Also, the extent of food and beverage services and the length of concourse concessions and numbers of points of sale, together with the extent of toilet facilities will all be ‘up for grabs’. Currently designed to meet peak half time rushes, venues would need less in the way of numbers of toilets even though more visits will be made over a longer period. Likewise, food outlets will be able to deal with steady demand uninterrupted by playtime, so less speed of service will be required and less demand will be placed on staff numbers and bar lengths as fewer people work over longer periods meeting steadier and higher demand.

Will this happen? Who knows…watch this space. And watch those waist lines if it does!