I am, according to John Massengale at Veritas et Venustas, a schmuck. Of course I understood this was derogatory, but I was inspired to look it up.
Originally, schmuck meant decoration or ornament in German. It’s easy to see how that would become a word for jewelry, but what about the other meaning? In Yiddish (a language related to German, spoken primarily by European Jews), schmuck means penis, and you can still use it this way, though it’s less usual than the first meaning. Apparently at one time, a man’s schmuck was considered decorative. This is similar to the slang expression family jewels (testicles).
Fascinating. I had no idea.
I’m a schmuck, apparently, because like many others, I think that the design codes being championed by John Prescott are controversial. They’re controversial because, right now, nobody agrees on the level of control that the codes should be allowed to exercise. I often find that the ideas promoted by projects like Poundbury – the inspiration for the need for design codes in the UK – are regurgitated elsewhere with a complete disregard for context. Codes work for abstract issues like density, scale and parking ratios, but their extension into specific design details is dangerous. I have no argument with the principles around which Poundbury was built, but the built result is becoming a pattern book that people dare not question, despite the fact that there is no direct relationship between the principles and the possible physical form that might deliver those ideals.
Since the finger of blame for this proposed future is usually pointed towards Prince Charles, I can see why John might get a bit upset about the British opinion of both him and his commentary. The Prince and he are, it seems, kindred spirits. Whilst it’s true that his ‘monstrous carbuncle’ speech wasn’t entirely to blame for the difficult times that followed (despite what some may claim), there’s no denying – as Michael Hammond says in todays AJ – that after the speech,
…the industry was riven in two. The Fundamentalist movement, in support of Classical architecture, conservation and ‘retention of old buildings at any cost’, was reborn, fuelled by the press and public opinion. It had effectively been given a Royal Charter. The advocates of contemporary design, on the other hand, were lost in a wilderness and seemed to be thwarted at every corner.
The split in the industry still exists, and much time has been wasted shouting at each other across the canyon that seperates us.
The desire for the ‘retention of old buildings at any cost’ may now manifest itself in the design codes for the new. If the goal of the codes are misunderstood (by either author or reader) and their focus is overly concerned with the formal aspect of the projects put forward as exemplary case studies, then we are in danger of achieving little more than pastiche. If, however, the design codes are able to present a guide to the abstract essence of successful housing models, then we’ll have a useful yard stick for holding up against future development. To avoid conservation for conservations sake we must accept that even architecture, both physically and ideologically, is mortal. Its impermanence is as certain as everything else we cling to.
Apart from the repression of diversity of form, the other aspect of concern with the ‘controversial’ design codes, is the likelihood of causing a system of rules whose inflexibility could be time consuming and self defeating. The new housing development in Upton, Northamptonshire is one of the early tests for strict design codes such as those being proposed by Prescott. My colleagues and I entered the competition to deliver the first phase of the project and the result was, we believed, one of our strongest proposals to date. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to progress to the second stage because two out of the two hundred houses on our plan were designed as three storey when the design code had specified only two 2 storey on that specific street. The feedback suggested to us that they wanted to put us forward because of the quality of the design, but couldn’t because we’d broken one of the design codes. I recognise that this isn’t the most objective of anecdotes, but it makes a clear point about the self defeating nature of a system so intolerant to questioning and reassessment.
I am, however, indebted to John for encouraging me to engage with the full text of Prince Charles’ speech of 1984. After all, I was only 9 years old at the time and probably too busy with my Action Man to recognise its importance. Here’s an extract:
Enabling the client community to be involved in the detailed process of design rather than exclusively the local authority, is I am sure the kind of development we should be examining more closely. Apart from anything else, there is an assumption that if people have played a part in creating something they might conceivably treat it as their own possession and look after it, thus making an attempt at reducing the problem of vandalism. What I believe is important about community architecture is that it has shown ‘ordinary’ people that their views are worth having; that architects and planners do not necessarily have the monopoly of knowing best about taste, style and planning; that they need not be made to feel guilty or ignorant if their natural preference is for the more ‘traditional’ designs – for a small garden, for courtyards, arches and porches; and that there is a growing number of architects prepared to listen and to offer imaginative ideas.
Whilst we may disagree about carbuncles, be they monstrous or not, I could at least reassure him that ‘enabling the client community to be involved in the detailed process of design’ is exactly what I do on a daily basis. Which isn’t bad for a schmuck.
Accepting the mortality of the things we create is also something that the art collector Charles Saatchi must grapple with this week, as part of his horde has recently been turned to ashes in a blaze at a warehouse. I’ve seen mixed reactions to the news over the last couple of days, ranging from happiness from Matt to sadness from Joel. It brought to mind a story about a tutor at the school I studied in, who announced that the class would have a barbecue at the end of a project to celebrate their achievements. The unsuspecting students then found their vege-burgers being cooked on the flames of their burning drawings – being too precious about your own work is a great way to be blind to your shortcomings, or so the tutor claimed.
Sadly, I must confess that indifference was my initial reaction to the news. This is probably largely because the piece leads with the fact that Tracy Emin’s ‘Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-95’ was confirmed as having been too close to the Camping Gaz. I would have enjoyed watching that one curl up as the nylon blistered and the guy ropes went ping. Although I’m sincerely hoping that Damien Hirst managed to buy back all his work after he realised that Saatchi ‘only recognises art with his wallet’. I can still remember seeing that shark for the first time as if it was only yesterday. I will certainly shed a tear if any of Rachel Whitereads work is lost. I’ve never seen anyone else make such beauty out of absolutely nothing.
Let’s hope that when the Dalai Lama finished telling the Prince of Wales all about impermanence yesterday, he managed to give Saatchi a quick phone call too.
A somewhat lengthy entry today, which will hopefully suffice for a few days, as I am taking a trip to York with Sarah this weekend. Armed with my new sketchbook, my new copy of The House Book, and my very old copy of The Iliad, I shall be steadfastly offline.