Four Walls and a Roof

“You can’t tell a book by its cover!” the adage goes. The front one of this book promises insights into the complex nature of a simple profession. There’s a photograph of an orange building that is seemingly simple but we know who this author is and where he’s coming from. In fact, we might not have picked up the book if we didn’t. We know the office he’s associated with has a history of using simplicities to represent complexities. Or vice-versa. In the early 1990s this was called “Dutch-logic.

I remember when architecture was described to students as MIDWAY BETWEEN ART AND SCIENCE and, more shamelessly, as A SYNTHESIS OF ART AND SCIENCE. In the intervening years it looks like we’ve moved on to architecture as THE REPRESENTATION OF COMPLEXITY AND SIMPLICITY RECONCILED.

Twenty or so lines in, de Graaf admits that some of the essays in this book were written earlier and that some were written with a book in mind – much like that other successful business development manager, Le Corbusier. I resisted the impulse to read the last line of the book but let myself be distracted by the back cover recommendations that span the whole gamut of architectural authority from Yale to ZHA. I thought it odd there was nobody from Harvard but, in the end acknowledgments, Harvard University Press is thanked for reaching out to him an offering this opportunity.

Patrick Schumacher: “This book is a frightfully funny and addictive read and probably not only for architects. For us architects, it is also a profoundly annoying account of our profession, debunking its pretensions, reveling in its ironies and paradoxes. The persistence with which it makes my hair stand up musty mean something: De Graaf is real rather than a cynic. Let me annoy him for a change: Renier, you are a brilliant writer.”

If Patrik Schumacher’s commits to print that he found this book “funny and addictive [as a Jilly Cooper or Jackie Collins summer bonkbuster?] then I’m inclined to think the opposite. In my impromptu sample of two, I’ve noticed that architects choosing to work in what I shall unfashionably persist in calling starchitecture, tend to use the word “ironic” to describe something that in any other field would be described as problematic or hypocritical. I wonder what about this supposedly simple profession is so magnificently complex?

At the end of the book is a list of content previously published. It would have been helpful to have had it upfront. The essays are grouped as shown below, with bolded numbers indicating previously unpublished content. The section, Powers That Be contains an essay titled A benevolent dictator with taste describing OMA’s perfect client but the following essay chastises HRH Prince Charles for his undemocratic interventions in the UK planning process, the difference being that HRH is not a client. The last three essays, 42, 43, and 44 distill all the essays into a satisfying conclusion as they were no doubt intended to be. They are probably all you need to read. It’s not a happy ending. An index would have been helpful.

[AUTHORITY] 1 2 3 4
[DEFAULT BY DESIGN] 5 6 7 8 9
[FOUND CAUSES] 10 11 12 13 14 15
[TRIAL AND ERROR] 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23
[POWERS THAT BE] 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32
[MEGAPOLI(TIC)S] 33 34 35 36 37 38 39
[PROGRESS] 40 41 42 43 44

Even before getting to the list at the back, it was often easy to tell which essays were written and published first and which were written later. For example, Chapter 2 is fun and gossipy. The question asked at the beginning of Chapter 4 becomes the title of the book and we are asked to ponder this question along with the author.

Chapter 5 is a short history of London’s Pimlico School. The author finds it ironic that social optimism manifested itself in a style known (in English) as Brutalism with emphasis on the brutal.

“It is ironic that the benign ideology of the welfare state chose to be represented by an architectural style known as Brutalism. The market economy, it seems, applies the irony in reverse, using a polished, politically correct architectural language to cancel an essentially brutal rule: survival of the fittest under the guise of good taste.” [p.27]

The author reveals which side he is on by not only perpetrating this misappropriation of béton brut from the French, but extending it to fit his analogy. Yet, I know what he means. It’s just that it’s not ironic.

Chapter 5 is a previously published and lengthy essay that follows the DDR’s plan to house its population in apartment blocks built from prefabricated components – a goal that was largely achieved in 1990 when Germany was reunified. A large proportion of the population relocated to the former West Germany, leaving many apartment buildings unoccupied. Gentrification of Berlin forced people to either move to or return to the former East Germany but to cutesy bungalows made from the salvaged components of disassembled apartment blocks. Four Walls and a Roof is thus a metaphor for the combination of comforting post-modernism and neoliberal market forces saving people from their four walls having to share a roof with those of others. The story is presented as a stylistic victory but the big difference is that the housing is no longer provided by the state. De Graaf admits that East Germans now struggle to afford it. Perhaps this is also ironic?

The middle third of the book is a bit dull, unless you enjoy reading about architects trying to drum up business with an unstable consortium of five landowners in London, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, or some opaque clients in an opaque selection process in Moscow. It’s difficult to be sympathetic if a person chooses to swim with the sharks. If this is the complex nature of a simple profession, then it’s only because the author has chosen to make it so.

A note on page 513 states that the names and some identifying details of certain individuals described in this book have been changed to protect their personal privacy. All mention of the BBC is avoided in Chapter 6. The media client that controls access to the rest of the project site is redundantly referred to as the corporation. NDA’s must have still been in place in 2017. The owner of a local shopping centre at the southern end of the project site decided to withdraw from the consortium and go it alone, the outcome being Westfield Mall. Architects would have known of the site and the brouhaha but few others. It made me think this was a book written for other architects and maybe the occasional student.

While I think of it, an architecture school in Moscow is referred to a few times as “our school” – as in “OMA’s school” but even though its location is mentioned its name STRELKA is not. This is odd. I can’t help wondering whose privacy or interests this protects.

Anyway, the London saga all took place just when I was about to leave London but de Graaf had already been in Dubai presenting OMAs proposal for the site that was to have been the centerpiece of Dubai Canal. OMA’s rotating building proposal was called Dubai Renaissance [Dubai Naissance, surely?] was a seriously over-egged slab on a rotating plinth, and with protrusions contradicting its slip-form construction. This is just architects trying it on to see if a client will bite but even pre-2008 Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai must’ve known that even he didn’t have that much money to burn and so the contract went to ZHA and their slightly less dreadful and apparently more achievable Signature Towers proposal that went ahead for a while. Until it didn’t anymore.

The last time I saw this poisoned chalice of a site was mid-2020 and it was still empty. Designed and created for a landmark to occupy, it gave architects the rope to hang themselves. De Graaf is right when he says “it is not what was built but what wasn’t built that is the best indicator of what the time was like”. I’ve said the same.

This whole practice of presenting monied clients with three images as visual options 1, 2 or 3 makes the business end of architecture easy. The person who makes the decisions doesn’t even need a translator to pick which one they want. This is why theory matters little in architecture and why, in architecture school, having ideas that produce flashy imagery counts for so much. It’s a response to what architecture is sold and to whom. It follows the money. It’s why architecture happens mostly in other countries and why the business development manager has so many air miles.

For all the media churn their various proposals for the UAE have generated over the past 15 years, the only building OMA has to show for it in the UAE is the over-egged yet underwhelming Alserkal Avenue art space. It’s a shed.

Getting commissions, and the problems and trials one has to endure in order to maintain a healthy office cashflow is the theme of many of the posts in this book. It is not the story of people trying to save humanity from itself. In Chapter 41, titled The Century That Never Happened, the idea is floated that the 20th century (which ended around 1975 with the “Conservative Revolution” [Rich people unite! Make your voices heard!]) was an historical anomaly with its crazy notions of equality and a more even distribution wealth. The implication is that the future after modernity will be much like it was before with architects condemned to work only for the wealthy, whether it’s a consortium of investors, a benevolent or even not-so-benevolent dictator, or an oppressive tech giant. It’s castles and pyramids all over again. De Graaf is certainly well travelled and well read – two things that go together in business class lounges and long-haul flights. He reads the room. Informed by Fukuyama and Piketty, he has an understanding of how the world works for those whose wealth is not generated by labour. He’s a wealth whisperer, as Chapter 38 reveals.

Close to the end, there was a reference to LC’s famous “Architecture or revolution? Revolution can be avoided.” This quote is generally believed to mean that good housing is a basic human right that should not be denied. Or it could equally well mean that the status quo can be maintained by keeping the little people happy. Nobody knows. It wasn’t peer-reviewed. The last three chapters are a decent attempt to make sense out of one’s life in the world of architectural business development. The answer seems to be to not think too much about the past. It’s one way of dealing with it. Sounds like a plan. I fear his reading is correct. The final sentence was “Perhaps, in the end, this is where history’s resolution lies: In oblivion.

For me, Four Walls and a Roof was best when it was at its most bloggy. Chapter 38, At Your Service: Ten Steps to Becoming A Successful Urban Consultant is written in the irreverent and confessional style of Sam Jacob’s blog How To Be A Famous Architect which, in 2009, was one of the inspirations for this blog. So much so that, the first title of this blog was misfits’ notes on architecture but I soon changed it to misfits’ architecture which is shorter but still not catchy.

The world needs more architecture bloggers and providers of independent content. Four Walls and a Roof would have been better as an insider blog these past ten years. I hope some day these words come back to bite me.


1 thought on “Four Walls and a Roof

  1. Alia

    I enjoyed this book. It’s nice to see the world through the eyes of your starchitect boss. No matter the country, every starchitect is the same. And the problems of building in the far east – invariably similar. The informal style reminded me of the late Lebbeus Woods’ blog. It was a cool blog.

Comments are closed.