"There’s no column in the
spreadsheet for ideology"


"There's no column in the Excel spreadsheet for ideology"

Opinion: in this week's column, Sam Jacob argues that great architecture can't be evaluated in terms of money or cultural entertainment, but must "speak directly to ideology and love".

It’s the thing that sends architects into spirals of despair. As design fees nosedive, as the position of the architect’s seat in a project gets pushed further down the table, it’s the argument we, in general, seem to be losing. The question is: what is the value of design?

Against the balance sheet, architecture is seen as an unnecessary cost. The tirade against-award winning architects by the UK's secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, is a case in point, as though it were they (rather than the contractors) who had been creaming off profits from Building Schools for the Future, as though good design was something unnecessary, an add-on to the real provision of services. Though Gove might have been extreme in his argument, he was only saying out loud what many others think.

To counter this attitude, we need first to identify what value architects and designers create. And having nailed this, we need to find ways of articulating that value through a currency that has an exchange rate with spheres other than our own.

One argument points to Apple, to the way in which Jonathan Ive could take some fairly common-or-garden components and assemble them, channeling Dieter Rams, into something with a value far greater than the sum of its parts. Another might cite the sale price of name-branded apartments more than compensating a client for the name-architect’s above-average fee. These are things that make clear arguments for good design at the bottom of the balance sheet. Part of our professional frustration stems from the fact we all know this and take this truth to be self-evident, even if others don’t. It is, of course, a valid argument to be made.

Yet we should be wary of focusing our argument on the bottom line. Architecture and design are fundamentally useless activities when viewed through the lens of a project manager’s spreadsheet. That’s why so much bad design is commissioned: because it doesn't make any difference when it is totalled up in a column. Project managers get fired because buildings are late or go over budget, but rarely because a building isn’t very good.

It’s also true that much of architecture and design is produced by and for its own audience. It speaks into an echo chamber of its own making. In other words: it’s culture. And this might be the problem. Not with culture per se, but with the everyday understanding of what culture means within society. The definition stems from TV shows and Sunday supplements. It comes from government where, for example, in the UK it sits in a department alongside media and sport. However worthy and highbrow it may be, culture is entertainment. In other words: it’s a luxury, a thing you can choose to have or not have.

Architecture and design are far more serious than this. They are the things with which we construct the world. They are the mechanisms by which we inhabit the planet, through which we precipitate the ineffable qualities of humanity into homes we live in and the cities we populate. It is a mistake to think that architecture is about money. Rather, it is ideology made flesh, and that is far more important and far more powerful.

Just as there is no column in the spreadsheet for ideology, there are no cells for love, for anger, for jealousy or triumphalism either - all proven reasons that bring great architecture into the world.

There’s a line in the 2009 television series Red Riding: “All great buildings resemble crimes”, a line whose bleakness conceals a truth. I’d argue that it’s not crimes that buildings resemble, but the drive that brings them into the world. And it’s this drive that architecture and design must address. To make themselves heard, architecture and design should speak over the heads of money and culture directly to ideology and love with a clear and persuasive voice. Because it’s here that their real value lies.

Sam Jacob is a director of architecture practice FAT, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, as well as editing www.strangeharvest.com.

Top image of spreadsheets is courtesy of Shutterstock.

  • JoeB

    “It is a mistake to think that architecture is about money” – that is the mistake, I believe. In the end, the market is the boss. It is the architect’s responsibility to convince clients and stakeholders that good design/the ideology belongs on the spreadsheet and in fact makes it look better.

    I think the focus should be on defining the value of good design in simpler ways so that developers can understand its power. I know it’s tough, but I don’t think there is another choice.

  • BriH

    I would take issue with Sam over this; bad design has been produced by an architect just like good design. The question is not whether the architect has been influenced by the bottom line, but whether or not he is capable of fulfilling the brief with good design.

    Anyway, one person’s bad is another’s good, so a piece cannot be evaluated in those terms. My yardstick would be (whether or not I like it): Is it fit for purpose? Was it close to budget? Would I use the architect again?

    • Olgiati

      That’s building, not architecture.

      • Phil

        Jog on.

  • Hajra

    Spreadsheet is a column in neoliberal ideology, but so is architecture! This is something that is easy to criticize and tricky to work with; I personally admire people who do both with vehemence, drive, inspiration, agility, lust and anger.

  • A wonderful piece and a debate that needs to continue. I think though that the issue of the bottom line or spreadsheet is a serious one and surely good design is all about working to and with constraints. A bigger budget does not make for better architecture.

  • m-a

    I think a lot of architecture is not accessible or easy to read for most members of today’s society, hence the problems with seeing value in design. If architects tried harder not to produce by and for their own audience, the higher values design and architecture bring to the cultural context would become more obvious and more appreciated.