Wednesday 21 August 2019

Home Truths: Architects need 'Awesome tune

The Lego Movie.
The Lego Movie.
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Last year my children and I emerged into a cinema lobby in a blissful daze after experiencing the hilarious rollercoaster spectacle that is The Lego Movie. The kids were bouncing and giddy and singing, geed up by the energy, the extraordinary fun, and the tub thumping 'Everything Is Awesome' theme song. Then we ran into a group of architects I knew who got to see the same film.

They too were chattering in high excitement, faces beaming, hands gesticulating. Among them were three characters who have designed some of the most exciting Irish homes I have seen. The Lego Movie's fable of a humble jobbing worker becoming a 'Master Builder' is after all, an architect's penultimate fairytale.

I stopped to say hello but very soon picked up on the fact that, these architects had seen a very different movie. I stood in awe and listened to them excitedly naming off specific Lego pieces that they had each identified in the film, one after another - by catalogue number.

Architects are different.

Where most professions either lean towards 'right brain' abilities and talents (creative) or 'left brain' (mathematical and precisise) a good architect must have a perfect combination of creative and precision functions. So you get people who get excited about nano-detailing. Encountered as a group by the ordinary punter, they can sound like they're speaking in high Klingon.

But one man's pedantic is another man's precise and one man's obsessive is another's perfectionist. When it comes to designing buildings that people live and work in, we absolutely need these qualities in our architects.

Some of the best buildings created by Irish architects have been created in this generation. At the same time fast moving changes in building technologies and systems, the need to maximise scarce land resources and the requirement to upgrade much of our existing housing stock for better conservation of energy all mean that architectural skills have become more rather than less vital.

But despite this, everything has not at all been awesome for architects in Ireland.

Since 2007 a profession that had previously been well resourced has been scraping and scrimping.As soon as the Crash landed half of Ireland's architectural graduates could not get work. This situation lasted for years.

Yes Irish architects made hay (and pots of cash) in the boom years but precedents were also set in this period about how the profession has been treated.

Architects were bullied horrendously during the boom by the sort of no nonsense, no frills construction bosses who landed in a helicopter or rolled up in a four by four to make certain everything was done their way ...or the highway. Light touch regulations that didn't protect their work meant bullying was easily done.

Architects as a collective failed to communicate this to the rest of us - and communication is arguably the profession's biggest failing.

In a world where the tradesmen were king, the architect was too often regarded as an onsite "pest" and way too often the architect's instructions were ignored by sub contractors who sought to save money for themselves. Unlike in the UK where council inspectors descend on every project like a rash until it is perfect, there has been no state policeman here to ensure the architect's instructions and plans were followed.

Last year saw the introduction of the Building Control Amendment Regulations 2013 in the wake of Priory Hall et al to ensure that builders or developers (under the category of "building owners") must have an architect certify that a building is fit for purpose as per regulations. From that point on, if there's any problem at all, the blame lies with the architect.

By these regulations, architects have been royally stuffed as a profession - made the whipping boys and girls for faults that emerge in buildings in the continued absence of proper levels of state inspection to enforce what they instruct. A former president of the architect's RIAI professionaal organisation asserted it was "the 21st-century equivalent of hanging children for stealing sheep".

Architecture in Ireland has always had a serious communication problem - both at ground level - by failing to communicate the very real benefits of good design to the life and pocket of Joe Public - and at national level by the failure of its professional organisation to get stuck into politicans and other professions to fight its corner in the manner of interest groups which represent groups like farmers, builders and publicans.

They need reinvention in much the same way thatLego has succeeded in persuading us to regard a worthy luddite buiding toy as a computer gaming, tv and now, a movie sensation.As a collective, an accomplished Irish profession needs to ditch Klingon and speak English. They need a loud voice and they need an awesome new tune.

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