Friday, 10 September 2010

Free Schools, Unnecessary Design and Aesthetics

My eye was caught this morning by an article in Building Design which quoted renowned education expert, Toby Young, (I believe his “How to lose friends and alienate people” is a standard textbook for all PGCE students) as saying that “design is not necessary.”

While I appreciate that the piece is written in a pretty provocative way (and that the headline didn’t appear to be a direct quote), I found the general gist made me feel profoundly depressed, although initially I wasn’t really able to really articulate why.

Following a frenzied morning of tweeting (thank you, @NemesisRepublic), I think I’ve figured it out.

The last couple of years have been a very tough time for designers across the board, with fee’s being squeezed again and again. As an example my former boss, Don Munro, used to get us to put a time into fee proposals for ‘designing’. This would be the time when we sketched, thought of ideas and just considered the site and project. Increasingly clients started to challenge this. I think this was best summed up by client who said , “I don’t want you to design, I just wasn’t you to draw it up.” As far as I know, Don no longer puts time for ‘designing’ into his fee proposals (but he still designing).

I think this trend has been reflected in much of what has been designed and built recently. Landscape Architecture companies have won work with incredibly low fees, which are only possible by rehashing schemes that they’ve done before – same surfacing, same planting, same furniture, same details and often starling similar arrangements (I’m particularly thinking of some recent public realm schemes). The results are generally mind-numbingly bland and uninteresting. I’m afraid this type of approach is like kryptonite to me. Without wishing to sound like Prince Charles, it’s my fundamental belief that all site design should begin with consideration of context.

Perhaps I’m just being paranoid, but I get the sneaking feeling that there are people in power who do see money spent on professional design advice as unnecessary (yes Michael Gove, I’m thinking of you), and that it can be eliminated. But I think it’s also fair to say that the public perception of designers, and architects in particular, isn’t that great.

I think the problem is that design has become confused with aesthetics in the public consciousness. Like fashion – expensive and frivolous.

But design is also about functionality (for most designers of the built environment I’d say much more so). Time thinking about design, is not just time given to making things look pretty. It’s thinking about how a design will be used – is that space big enough, is that material suitable for this location and how will it be used in the future?

I guess my concern will be that instead of employing architects and landscape architects, there are those who think you can just send some volunteers on a course about how to design stuff, meaning less work for the likes of me. Isn’t this what the Big Society is about?!?

Or maybe I’m being overly concerned. It could be that when the likes of Toby Young say that “design is unnecessary”, what he really means is that they don’t want designs that are too fancy, but that he lacks the understanding of the subject to properly articulate this. Perhaps he could do with some professional advice?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Antony Gormley: 6 Times

In the far mists of time when I was studying for my art GSCE, a friend and classmate called Jude, made an amazing discovery. Following a suggestion from his Sister, Jude stuck cut-out newspaper headlines (stuff about war and pollution and Africa), around his slightly dodgy, 2B pencil and poster-paint representations of cow bones . What he hadn’t expected was the rapturous response he received from our Art Teacher, Mrs. Warwick, who thought this was the greatest artistical innovation, since middle-class Westerners discovered batik.

Following this success, Jude prepared an artist study, with of a painting of a desert and some droopy clocks(inspired by Salvador Dali), surrounded by newspaper headlines about scandal. He then went on to produce his major project, which featured a gouache seabed, with pencilled fish bones and aquatic skeletons, surrounded by headlines about, oh, oil being bad or something. For his piece de resistance, Jude’s final art exam... actually I can’t remember, but I’m dam sure it had bones and newspaper headlines.

I give this story, because it seems to me that Antony Gormley has followed a similar career path in the grown-up world of art, as my mate Jude did at Judgemeadow Community College. Only instead of bones and newspaper headlines, Gormley has figures. Also like Jude, Gormley seems to enjoy most success, when he sticks most closely to this formula (i.e. figures on Crosby Sands = good, random plinth in Trafalgar Square=bad).

While it may appear that I’m being snide about Antony Gormley’s work, it is with some affection. For me he’s like the Abba of the sculpture world; you know it’s cheesy, but you can’t help liking the Angel of the North (or SOS).

Hence I thought I’d share some recent Guardian photographs of ‘6 times’, Gormley’s new installation of 6 figures leading from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to Edinburgh’s Leith Docks.