Speaking Buildings into Existence
Talk Review

It is rare to attend an architectural event with the variety of speakers who presented their schemes at Living Architecture’s packed-out The Next Chapter at the Royal Geographical Society. It prompted me to test out a new hypothesis, namely that the way an architect speaks reflects their style of architecture. I think I’m on to something.

Peter Zumthor is quietly dramatic with flourishes of thoughtfulness and wit. John Pawson is slow and measured with a deadpan humour. Charles Holland is conversational and ironic with a varied selection of references. So, the theory – kind of – holds. Grayson Perry, being an artist rather than an architect, was excluded from my experiment, despite making an entrance in a waft of perfume, a blaze of aqua and fuchsia and producing a set of statements like: “minimalism has got a bit kitsch”.

Three hours of presentations by such a line-up is bound to provoke debate around a whole host of themes. One of the most interesting, and perhaps unusual, aspects of the evening was the portrayal of the client-architect relationship. Alain de Botton, best known as a philosopher, but also creative director of Living Architecture, has the ability to seem completely at ease on the stage. He was there in the role of the chair, of the interviewer and, critically, the client.

One of the most entertaining exchanges of the evening was Peter Zumthor’s rendition of “the bathroom story” where Alain de Botton is the villain who won’t allow a totally teak bathroom in the holiday home Zumthor is designing. This, Zumthor claimed, challenges Living Architecture’s claim to “let the architects do what they want”. It was also a good illustration of how, as Alain de Botton described it “at moments, architects make you [as a client] feel deeply vulgar!”

As a promotional evening for Living Architecture, essentially a holiday rental company, this event could be considered a success: lots of laughter, lots of discussion (despite some inane questions from the floor) and lots of forward-looking ideas.

Tackling the “distinctively British problem” of resistance to contemporary domestic architecture is a fascinating endeavour. The products so far look variously cosy, beautiful, even a little provocative. The projects in progress range from “a collection of blocks” to “control freakery” to “gypsy John Soane” (you can guess which is which!).

To proclaim a “crusade” on the British taste for neo-Georgian pastiche is a brave and contentious pursuit. It’s rare to have such an esteemed collection of minds in one room at one time. Let’s hope this sophistication – and fun – is reflected in the architecture.

This article first appeared on bdonline on 11 February 2015