that building

A couple of weeks ago I posted some entries that included a mention of something called ‘this building’ and then ‘that building’. I should explain that the building in question was the new Selfridges store by Future Systems. I had an entry about it written on my PDA, but a clumsy battery replacement wiped it clean. With hindsight this was probably for the best, as it was becoming a little bitter and somewhat less than constructive. This evening morning I’ve decided to try again.

We could talk about the way it has absolutely no relationship with the street, or we could talk about the oppressive scale of its parts and its illegibility, or we could talk about the clumsy detailing that smacks of ideological stubborness wherever you look; but that would only lead to bitterness again. No, rather than critique its urban design credentials, I’m going to use it as a vehicle to tell a story about beauty, using a few interesting anecdotes.

Around the time it was due to open, a friend of mine asked Amanda Levete from Future Systems a simple question over dinner. The question was Why is it the shape that it is?. The reply that came back was simply Because it’s beautiful. That was it. No qualification was felt necessary. She’d decided. The formal solution was offered as the primary (or only) driving force for every other decision that had followed. It’s raison d’etre was to look as beautiful as Amanda dreamed it would be.

Rewind a few years. I’m sat in a lecture being given by American architect Neil Denari. He talks of people and functions, clients and landscapes, weather and politics, technology and light, building regulations and the laws of physics. He shows us the net result of all those compromises and we are dumb struck. I salivate at the spaces and places he creates. When we move to the questions and answers, a hand goes up from the back and a voice says,

Neil, you’ve talked very eloquently about all the programmatic elements that go into making your building, but you’ve never talked about the final form of your buildings and how you think they look. I wonder if you could say a little about your feelings on beauty?

It’s Neil’s turn to be dumb struck. His jaw visibly drops and for the first time in the whole lecture he hesitates and then says,

I’m completely obsessed by beauty. It’s all I think about. I thought that was exactly what I’ve just been talking about for the last forty five minutes. It is, isn’t it?

Neil doesn’t believe he’s been given the key to the cupboard of divine geometry. His role isn’t to oversee a selection of shapes that are pleasing to his eye. He divines his own beauty from the solutions that are born of the compromise between conflicting programs.

Next time you visit Selfridges, see if you can count the number of compromises that have to be repressed and hidden to sustain the vision of Amanda’s geometry. It’s covered with them.

A few weeks after it opened, I heard the following on the number 52 bus from Perry Barr into the City. As Selfridges came into view, a guy on the back seat said,

Just look at that. It’s a f**kin’ ab*rtion. Have you ever seen anything so ugly?

to which, his friend replied,

I know, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to look like f**kin’ chain mail or a f**kin sex aid.

This entry is an expansion of something I originally wrote on the comments section of Warren Ellis’ site, after he’d posted a picture of the building accompanied by an astute observation that it was the first building he’d seen that ‘looked like it was designed to eat people up and shit them out’. I suspect he had a hand in writing the original brief. I decided to revisit it here because his site archive got fried earlier this year and the article in question is now gone forever.


It’s late/early and I’m off to bed. Tonight I can add another book to the pile on my bedside table, as my signed copy of Lawrence Lessig’s ‘The Future of Ideas’ arrived in the post today. I’ve also managed to snaffle an account on the new Google mail service Gmail, thanks to Peter Lindberg‘s kind invitation. I should also point out that his fine observation today that, there’s a sweet spot between regularity and irregularity in a city’s plan where the city is optimally navigable is part of a story worth backtracking through the blogosphere.

Damn. I swore I’d never use that word.

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