FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions / 6


















Your buildings look expensive. Is it not cheaper to use pre-fabrication and factory production?


Most people think simple means cheap. Anyone who understands manufacturing knows that cost, today, is also is a function of economies of scale and volume production. A new automobile costs as much as a fitted kitchen. Which is more complicated?

The reason the fitted kitchen gives less value is that the space it is fitted-into changes with each project. But then who wants to live in a city laid out a like a car park, as designed by the advocates of prefabricated, modular construction? The problem of building cities, real cities, is how to adapt new construction widely varying sites and buiding profiles. Our basic solution to this problem is to use building technologies derived from 'vernacular' , commonplace', construction and, whenever possible, from volume house production.

The typical 'modern' steel and glass building looks cheap and is expensive. Our brick, concrete, and tile buildings look expensive and are cheap.


The Grey suited businessman hates to be thought extravagant but needs to be thought wealthy. 'Credit' has always been the foundation of trade. His 'plain' suit is almost indistinguishable from that of his employee's. Yet it is clear to those 'in the know', that it cost ten times more. Spending a lot of money on a building that looks dull, 'normal', and therefore 'inexpensive', suits this 'Businessman' curiously well. The frameless, toughened, glass door into his office, that looks so "plain and simple", would buy ten solid doors veneered in the choicest timbers. It looks cheap. But, to those 'in the know', it tells another story.

An added advantage of this 'Minimalist' Architecture of steel and glass is that it is reticent to the point of dumbness. It is discreet and secretive-another percieved virtue in the soldier of commerce and bureaucrat of governance.


What our Clients have found, however, is that the workforce likes colour, pattern, form and narrative. The cold grey 'glass walls' of Minimalism do not enliven them, and make them loyal and happy. Having an 'Outram Ceiling' is a better encouragement to cogitation than those ludicrous, self-adhesive notices commanding the staff to "Think" that one sees in the frosted glass offices of IBM. People who work in our buildings suffer 'chromatic deprivation' when they leave them. Our users become accustomed to an altogether higher level of 'conceptual' environment and feel the loss of it when the go into the dumb, beige, world most people occupy.

While we are not pretending that our Architecture is addictive, (nor, I hasten to add would we wish it to be- the very idea!) it is nice to know that people like it so much that they like coming back to work. It all helps lessen the agony!


Anyone responsible for maintenance and cleaning knows that a patterned carpet hides stains. Buildings are the same. A 'plain', smooth, shiny, glass and steel building needs weekly washing. It can never attract dust, moss and lichen. So it can never get old. Apart from the waste of money involved in constant cleaning, I dislike buildings that never show their age. JOA green concrete grows yellow lichen after 10 years. It looks wonderful. Of course one can clean it off. But at least my owners have the choice of eternal freshness or the growth of a 'patina'.


The complexity in JOA buildings comes from the decoration. On the inside this is derived mainly from printing technology and is startlingly inexpensive. On the outside JOA decoration is mainly patterned brick and inlaid coloured concrete. These are also rather cheap to do. Yet the effect is of a masonry marquetry or pietra dura. It is reserved and flat, like Mogul inlays. No attempt is made to do anything so vulgar as to 'imitate nature'. Naturalistic realism is the road that leads to Kitsch. JOA's version of 'complexity' is cheaper, as well as more intellectually illuminating than cutting the whole building into giant shards, or erasing its features to end in a giant blob, two of the recipes of those who seek to bring some animation to the dumb lifespaces created by the harsh disciplines exercised by the 'box makers' and 'space sellers'. Decon City is Swan Lake danced by Dinosaurs. JOA pursue another choreography, one derived from Architecture, rather than founded upon its abandonment, denial and contradiction.


Decoration is 'dangerous' in that it unfailingly reveals the 'literacy' of its inventor and the conceptual ambitions of its Patrons. The 20C Architect has been taught, especially after the '39-'45 War, that Modern Architecture breaks with the whole history and culture of Architecture. The student who wishes to progress his Medium must pursue illiteracy, if not anti-literacy, in general and decorative (or as I call it) 'iconic' illiteracy, in particular. This is why 'decoration' is no longer done. No 'serious' Architect knows how to do it and would probably make a fool of themselves if they did. Loos finally only used highly figured timber and marble veneers. Corbusier used first photo-collages, then his own paintings, which were not done for themselves, but as a means to formal invention, and finally 'brut' materials. His work is unusually 'decorative' for the Architect he professed to be, and remains a misunderstood aspect of his invention- a situation entirely due to his own reluctance to own-up to the metaphysical subjects he cogitated.

The only late 20C Architect who succeededin making, as Professor Robert Maxwell has properly argued, the whole body of his buildings into works of an ornamental dimension, was James Stirling. But the penalty for this extraordinary, and rare, achievment was a terminal 'rustication', that travels far beyond even the mere suburb, and can be found in for example, the Braun Factory in Germany. When called back into the proper sphere of Architecture, the centre of the City of London, Stirling's refusal to learn how to 'decorate a shed' led to the lumpen coarseness of Number One Poultry.


At the end of this chaotic and secretive 'ornamental' dimension to the story of Modernism, in which the 'movement' drove itself out of the proper terrain of its own Medium, 20C Architecture has ended by exiling itself upon some lunic Arcadia bathed in the light of a world freed from lexicality. Soon no-one will hear the exile's cries. Meanwhile, back in the real city, 'original' Architecture is classified as a 'mistaken' inability to perceive the 'correct style for the job'. Architecture is relapsing into a succession of arbitrary formalities, whether driven, as in Las Vegas, by transcripts from holiday travelogues, or, as in the Avant Garde, by the equally problematic texts of contemporary Philosophers. Neither practice ground themselves on the received Medium of Architecture as that measured, modulated, (commodious) dimension of propriety which mediates between Ornamant and Function, cosmetic and body. Both focus on the supremacy of the powerful image over its measured, phrased, and intelligible decipherment. Vegas relies on the fact that its forms are so immediately recognisable that further thought will be considered superfluous. The Avant Garde rely on the fact that its aleatory fragments proffer a view that is so manifestly opaque as to preclude any hope of legibility. It is certain that sooner than later, the two will coincide. Disney has already shown the way for the best Architects of our generation to travesty themselves, can Vegas be far behind?


As to the 'difficulty' of building our designs, JOA use a method derived from volume housebuilding technologies. A team of craftsmen can still build a brick and tile bungalow in a month. This building technology creates structures of maximum value, steady capital appreciation and minimum maintenance. One index of this fact is to examine the new West-Country branch offices of Arup Associates, the premier engineers of high-tech cladding skins in Britain. It has windows of modest size (appropriate to their physical function). It has a frame and floors of solid, heavy, high thermal-mass concrete. It is clad externally, in a double skin of absorbent, porous, low-maintenance brick. The fact that it looks horribly ugly is merely the fault of an architectural technique that can not accept these simple physical facts and invent a beautiful result.

Skyscraper projects in New York are still clad in hand laid brick for these same practical reasons. To use anything else for the built environment smacks of both aesthetic affectation and technical perversity.


End of FAQ No. 7: "Cost",

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