The month in architecture: #FinchGate, Turncoats and crisis at the Cass

A critical digest of what has been holding the architecture world's collective attention

‘Rethink’ is quickly becoming one of the architecture world’s more nauseating verbs. In the Guardian, Alejandro Aravena, the director of the 2016 Venice Biennale, was presented as calling for a ‘rethink’ of the ‘entire role and language of architecture.’ This was mostly headline trickery; Aravena’s piece offered little deeper than a vague call for ‘open systems’ and ‘collective effort’ with an incongruous reliance on military terminology. If the upcoming Biennale - Reporting From the Front - is to succeed in its desire to expand architecture’s scope it should drop the esoteric veil.

‘The battle for a better built environment’, Aravena concluded, ‘is neither a tantrum nor a romantic crusade’, a phase which can be read in new light following the bickering seen in the architectural press this month. Writing in the AJ, veteran hack Paul Finch slammed Guardian critic Rowan Moore’s review of the New London Architecture housing competition as an attack on architectural invention (and imagination as a whole). Central Saint Martins head Jeremy Till called it ‘bar-room bullying passed off as journalism’ and the brawl overflowed to Twitter dragging in many familiar names from the pages of glossy design magazines.

At the heart of his complaint, Finch was incensed with Moore's ‘airy dismisal’ of the proposed Garden Bridge. But we should not be so afraid to criticise ideas simply because of their proponent's status. Nicolás Valencia in ArchDaily has called it ‘the right to fail’: something he believes to be an inalienable right of the architect, that sometimes an idea simply does not hold up to critique, even after successive ‘rethinks’. Finch decries what he sees as a ‘misrerabilist’ tendency but London's urban condition often is miserable. Believing something dreadful is going on behind the scenes may indicate cynicism, but is often true. When journalists conflate criticism with ‘miserablism’, they are stunting their colleagues' ability to do their job.



Jeremy Till weighs into the heated debate between architectural journalism heavyweights following Paul Finch's article for the Architects' Journal


PLP Architecture's proposed tower design which replaces the Pinnacle. Image by Hayes Davidson

The Housing and Planning Bill certainly offers reason to be miserable.  Forcing the sell-off of council homes and providing 'affordable' starter homes that are anything but this piece of legislation promises only to fuel property speculation. Look at the stump-like replacement for the Pinnacle , green-lit in November, a slab of offices with a now obligatory viewing platform. Or London Met management’s attempts to wrest the Cass from its Whitechapel home to make a quick buck. Bad ideas exist, and many remain so after successive rethinks.

Thankfully, the team behind Turncoats are referring to their debates not as ‘rethinks’ but rather as ‘rugby tackles’ of the big issues facing architects today.  With three debates down, Quit Architecture Now, Consultation Con and Vanity Publishing - it is palpable how the panels and audience are warming up to the vodka-fueled format.

Flora Neville, writing in the AJ, called for ‘more debate, less performance please’. But on the contrary, the performance is vital to enabling a freely spoken serious discussion. Just as we should not misread the theatrics and humour of Turncoats as a couching of ‘real’ debate, criticism should not be conflated with po-faced misery. Following a few months of heavy discussions on architectural ethics that go nowhere, we should celebrate the opportunity to inject some humour into proceedings - and recognise its genuine ability to ferment debate.