Kevin McCloud urges us not to judge buildings at face value

Our editor-at-large urges us not to judge buildings at face value – taking the time to experience a building first-hand is the order of the day.

By Hannah Fenton | 1 April 2017

Our editor-at-large urges us not to judge buildings at face value – taking the time to experience a building first-hand is the order of the day.

Kevin McCloud urges us not to judge buildings at face value 1

Last month I wrote about House of the Year, a Channel 4 show accidentally inspired by the Horse of the Year Show. It’s good, wholesome architecture on telly – without the show jumping, of course – but I have this niggling doubt about putting architecture on TV at all, and it’s to do with the way we have all become instant critics.

You can now Instagram your way through a city, or suck up all your favourite buildings, landscapes, or pictures of caravans from around the world, and put them on to one Pinterest board. I have a file of photos on my laptop pompously called Doorways of the Luberon, as if I’m going to publish my own Athena-style composite poster. I have another called Manholes of Europe, dedicated to street furniture, naturally (I don’t think there was ever a poster in that one).

Magazines provide the analogue version of this experience; telly gives you a moving version. Gaming offers a realistic and usually unpredictable environment. All of them give an impression of the instant, something we can collect and edit and reorder into our own version of the world and then wittily tag with a punchy caption or a Twitter link. It makes us all journalists and editors. It turns us all into sham connoisseurs because we don’t even have to visit places any more, which is good for our collective carbon footprint, but bad for our integrity and world view.

It also makes it much harder for me to write scripts, because I’m in competition with 15,000 other design junkies who have something witty or scathing to say about a building or a chair. To get round this I will usually disseminate and promote their writing by nicking it. That’s fair in my view, given how difficult they’ve made my life.

Although I do have one advantage here. Being old-world and analogue, I do get off my arse and visit places. The Doorways of the Luberon poster would have been all my own work, made entirely from photos I’ve taken. I even have an old-world view that chairs are meant to be sat in and be comfortable. Buildings are meant to be looked at inside as well as out; their functionality, layout, atmosphere, context and history, and connection to a place are more important than what they look like.

Good architecture is not a look and, when it is successful, it does not conform to a brand. It is highly responsive to time, people and place and sometimes, when it is brilliantly successful, it transports us out of time and place. If you don’t believe me, visit an old church. Standing inside a thirteenthcentury building, it’s hard not to feel displaced, thanks to the multi-sensorial assault. With your eyes open you can drink in the beauty of light through stained glass or exquisitely carved stone. But with your eyes shut, you still know you’re there. Your hands will tell you the age of the oak pews, polished smooth by centuries of use; the combined smells of the place – flowers, mould, incense, wax, stone – will tell you exactly where you are. You can’t communicate the complexity of that experience on a Pinterest page or while playing Lethal Organ II.