|47 and 49 Ludlow Street, Photo by Author, New York City, c. 1900 and 2000||Crossroads in Peckham, Photo by Author|
For a moment, let’s set aside so-called ‘Architecture with a capital A’. One could at least argue (though by no means conclusively) that the best of today’s work is as good as it’s ever been. Unfortunately, one would be hard-pressed to make a similar case for the state of today’s average, middling, and just OK buildings—in other words, the places 99% of us spend 99% of our time.
Compare two New York City facades: a tenement building built c.1900 and the apartment building built one hundred years later next door. Both are unambitious, market-driven, mediocre works. So how to explain the obvious disparity between them in quality, refinement, and (yes) beauty? Any answer, of course, involves much more than architecture, and must take into account a contemporary society that seldom nurtures craft and long-term investment. Architects, however, cannot ignore the decline of mediocre architecture if the majority of our work is to retain any shred of long-term value. A few distinguished works of Architecture are fine, but a world of good mediocre buildings would be far, far better.
Thankfully, most of our lives are played out through a chain of objectively unimportant, low level events that are on the whole unremarkable in the grand scheme of things, quotidian. In the same way, we tend to grow up, live, work, fall in love, have families, and fade away in entirely ordinary, run-of-the-mill architecture, built stuff that gets the job done, that holds in the heat and humidity in the local pool, and manages to pass planning because it has a gable roof and red brick façade, stuff that answers similar questions in similar ways in a million different variations from Perth to Plymouth.
If you took a picture of any of this low level architecture that fills Britain, the image would present a depressingly mute mediocrity, nothing but the complete factual averageness of the building or space which, if of recent vintage would no doubt end up, to howls of anguish, on Bad British Architecture. But architectural photography severs the container from what it contains, it shows the aesthetic failure, but not how that failure is really a triumph.
It is precisely these places’ anonymity, their almost total lack of outstanding independent qualities, that ramps up the value of any uniqueness that does exist to such a degree, meaning that we become like archaeologists digging for clues, constructing local significance from minute fragments of singularity that are gathered slowly, over time. It takes longer to become attached to places so messy and banal, their qualities are not handed to you on a Haussmannian plate, one must work for it. And everyone does, instinctively, attaching their memories cumulatively to slight peculiarities, like the unusually large traffic island where the ice cream van sits vampiricaly, opposite the school, or the incredibly narrow gap between two wings of the sports centre, that is just the right size for kids to squeeze between to sneak a smoke, or a snog. Memories which gradually fill the most mediocre of piles with magic, memories which we all tot-up, and that cling to apparently inhospitable places and thrive there, generating an ambient, splendidly subjective beauty, a beauty which only stands out in its greatest relief when the objects of architecture sink, or rather rise, into glorious mediocrity
Adam Nathaniel Furman
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