Kevin McCloud on the connection between buildings and place

Our editor-at-large ponders the relationship between buildings and site, and how it affects our love of them.

By Hannah Fenton | 3 March 2017

Our editor-at-large ponders the relationship between buildings and site, and how it affects our love of them.

There’s a paradox in our built world that nothing is truly new. The moment you open the packaging on your iSlab, it starts to get knocked about. Some of us panic at the idea that our new toys might have been manufactured six months ago; that’s ancient history in computer upgrades. Meanwhile, buildings are right at the back of the grid. They’re slow to design and build, and the moment they’re finished, they start to erode and mark. They have to sit outdoors in the rain, suffering the humiliations of the weather. By the time they’re a week old, they’re already no longer new.

William Morris, the designer and founder of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, wrote in the society’s manifesto in 1877: ‘As good buildings age, the bond with their sites strengthens. A beautiful, interesting or simply ancient building still belongs where it stands, however corrupted that place may have become. Use and adaptation of buildings leave their marks and these, in time, we also see as aspects of the building’s integrity.’ For Morris, the accumulated marks of time, use and place, of decay and weathering, strengthen the story of a place. Whereas a 21st-century designer might find the degradation of their work abhorrent, Morris celebrated the way in which all human creativity is more or less Ozymandian. We take a piece of cliff, we cut, carve and polish it into the most valuable object, we site it and then we watch as the universe claims it once more and weathers it slowly back to powder. Steel returns to iron ore grit, concrete eventually splinters back to dust and my 1986 IBM computer that was once pale grey is determinedly assuming the sticky yellow hue that all plastics adopt as they age. Pretty soon it will dissolve into its own pool of crude oil.