FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions / 5


















Your buildings look expensive. Are they?


The economics of buildings are not very well understood. But there is a way of simplifying them.

When I received the commission for my first large building, a 100 Metre (300'0") long Warehouse, back in 1976, I bought a newer car and drove about Southern England looking at the sites of warehouse projects. I noticed that all of these projects were built with a steel portal frame, cavity brick walls, wooden windows and corrugated fibre cement roofs. I assumed that this technology was the 'contemporary vernacular' and simply used it myself. Our first project cost £11.00/sq.ft. for the Warehouse area and £22/sq.ft. for the two-storey offices. The average cost was £16/sq.ft. It was published in the Architectural Review and various Foreign Journals. It led to an invitation from Michael Heseltine to the Commercial Developers to attend a power breakfast at the Ministry and discuss the relation between good architecture and commerce. My Clients did not feel able to attend for fear that talking about Architecture would compromise their reputation in the property ndustry as hard men capable of putting up really ugly buildings. JOA's first building was satisfyingly cheap but it was far too beautiful to be properly 'commercial'. Heseltine did not imagine it would be worth inviting a mere Architect to breakfast to discuss the role of Architecture in the Thatcherite project.

When JOA work abroad we use a similar approach. Whenever I go to a new country I ask to see a building site of the kind related to the sort of building JOA have been asked to design. Then I just try to use that 'vernacular' technology as best I can. The reasons for this are many. Firstly it is obviously cost effective. Secondly, because it is commonplace, tenders will be keen. Thirdly, should a contractor fail, another can be found to do the job. Fourthly, because it is commonplace, it has grown out of the locality and has its cultural roots there. For example, in Milan stucco on hollow clay pot is thought a higher class finish than exposed brickwork. The opposite is true in Britain. In the Netherlands precast concrete is more commonplace than a steel frame. In the USA the reverse is the case. Fifthly, and finally, I have no problem in adopting whatever 'vernacular' is local because Architecture, contrary to received opinion, has nothing at all to do with any putative 'origins' in a particular constructive technology, like cut stone, or steel or woven banana leaves. All are equally useful to the Architect's medium, so none can be argued to have any Architectural virtue, as such.

It would be unlikely, however, if after 25 years of constructing JOA buildings we failed to have certain preferences. But all of them descend from the commonplaces of building technique.

I wanted, as a young man, to be an Aircraft Designer and flew planes myself. I found this, in the end, a somewhat urewarding activity, in the sense of being overwhelmingly, monosemantically, dull. I changed, decisively, to wanting to design the roadway rather than the vehicle. If one excepts interplanetary rocketry, nothing entirely radical has happened in manned flying since the 1950's. Jets still have wings and burn paraffin. Supersonic flight has been an environmental failure. Piloting has shrunk to a mere human interface, increasingly replaced by 'smart' missiles, sandwiched between vast, unseen, systems that direct him here and there. In one century the military pilot has changed from an heroic loner, to a small cog in a huge machine. Commercial flying is like sitting on a conveyor-belt in the sky.

As a result of my intimate knowledge of aircraft technology, I have always failed to understand why anyone would want to 'transfer' aeronautical technologies to building. I cannot imagine anything less like an aircraft than a building. Buckminster Fuller, who so many, so-called, 'Hightech' Architects admire, was undoubtedly the least useful 'architect' of the 20C. The only practical thing he did was to prove that Architecture had nothing to do with structural economy. His thinking was 18C. He was Boullee with Bolts.

Compared to real aeronautical technology, Hightech buildings are Junkyard Art.

It is not so difficult to learn how to build, and, through that, how to obtain constructive value for one's Clients. One just watches people who do it without any pretensions to the metaphysical ambitions of Architecture. One can reasonably easily work out what they are doing. Half of all the hot-rolled structural steel used in Britain is still consumed by 'Portal Frame' structures. It, and not a geodesic dome, is still the most cost-effective way of enclosing space. Yet how many Architects, young or old, can turn a pitched roof into top quality Modern Architecture?


End of FAQ No. 5: "Technology",

Return to "The List of FAQ's"".  


* JOA can be reached by E-Mail at anthony@johnoutram.com , by telephone on +44 (0)207 262 4862 or by fax on +44 (0)207 706 3804. We also have an ISDN number : +44 (0)207 262 6294.




John Outram