Craft, beauty, buildings, money

On the top deck of a bus recently crawling down Euston Road, I had plenty of time to study Gilbert Scott’s handiwork on the St Pancras Hotel (formerly the Midland Grand Hotel). It’s wonderful that it has finally been restored to its former glory, and a certain MP I know can’t stop raving about the Gilbert Scott restaurant: his new favourite. But it has always graced the street, even in its era of relative neglect. The sculptural detail on the redbrick façade, and the clusters of spires – the aspects which caught my attention – are not Gilbert’s Scott’s own handiwork of course, but rather the work of a number of unnamed crafts- and tradesmen. Schemes like this were only made possible by a ready supply of builders who were in fact trained stylists, able to tell whether the capital of a column looked the same as its neighbours, looked ‘right’.

Compare this to a hotel which has just gone up, in super fast time, on Bankside. Passing it on foot one day, I stopped to watch a construction worker putting a length of faux-sandstone, pre-moulded façade into place. It was a bit too long, so he roughly sawed the end off and hammered it a bit, until it yielded and lodged in the gap. It seemed alarmingly makeshift, and the resulting hotel (the rest of which has been constructed as a series of shoe box rooms, craned on top of each other) looks like it might fall down if it rains too hard. It is going for ‘contemporary urban’, complete with signage that patronises the passerby in overfamiliar tones, which unfortunately does little to disguise the fact of its poor quality construction. Whilst it may be slightly unfair to compare luxury with budget, I fear this kind of construction – reminiscent of the Changing Rooms mdf-and-crackle-glaze school of thought – is becoming all too prevalent.

The St Pancras Hotel is a better building because it is more carefully and durably (sustainably) constructed, and it is more beautiful. These attributes are intrinsically linked. The bankside equivalent is cheap in both material and visual quality. This is a shame because beauty in the urban environment is a worthy candidate for the designation of ‘public good’. And an overwhelming majority of the British taxpaying public agrees, according to some research published in 2010 by architectural quality enforcer CABE (ironically, only months before their public funding was cut).

We have undoubtedly lost Gilbert Scott’s legions of builders, who knew how to hew raw stone into sophisticated architecture. Indeed I’ve just been reading Tom Wolfe on how the dominance of 20th century modernism stifled the demand for old craft skills (as well as creating a new stylistic dogma that has earned few fans outside of the architectural establishment). But seeking quality of craftsmanship is not the same as asking that everything is made by hand. It would be anachronistic to do so in these times of extreme automation: when, if it was required, a laser cutter or 3d printer could produce an ionic scroll in a fraction of the time a human could. But there are still skills that take months or years to be learned (more time than a 16 week apprenticeship, in any case).

I was heartened by the recent Heatherwick Studio exhibition at the V&A. This seems to be a practice that focuses on their making ability first and foremost – the process, and the development of advanced making skills, are the main drivers in their work. Many projects have originated from experiments in new ways of making – such as dropping molten metal into cold water, or extruding a full-size bench as you would a stick of rock. With this approach, the primary distinction between constructions tends to be one of size – 3D productions don’t necessarily need to be classified as architecture, or interior design, or sculpture, or most recently – buses. They are also unafraid of ornamentation, and the studio’s output is undeniably pleasing to the eye.

This catalogue of work shows it is possible and relevant to be concerned with beauty and quality in the machine age. But in all cases it requires a client willing to pay for it. Returning to my two hotels, the difference is not just the level of skill deployed in the making, although that is undoubtedly a factor, but the amount of money the client was prepared to spend in making the building, and making it beautiful. Beauty requires skill; craftsmanship and good quality finishes cost time and money. None of this is absolutely intrinsic to the function of the building, so this unnecessary cost is magically ‘value-engineered’ away. As a PhD student I recently encountered pointed out: architects – who would traditionally fight the corner of materials and details – are increasingly at the mercy of the contractor, or the developer, relatively powerless to enforce anything.

Unfortunately, whilst ugly hotels (and indeed any other building) may do their job in terms of profit-margins, they also address the street, the public realm, and an audience that has no leverage to complain. It is the public, more than anyone else, that suffers from the negative ‘externalities’ of property-development being a money-making business. If beauty in the urban environment is deemed a public good, the market is failing us.

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