Friday, March 3, 2017


How do people, the public, see architects? One might get a diverse range of random hypotheses in responses to this question, all based on matters parochial, ad hoc and conversational, maybe even jokey or ironical; but what are the facts? The way in which the word architect is used in ordinary language could help gauge our understanding of others’ perceptions: see - context of the word and its references could enlighten us. Maybe the status given to architects in law might be of some assistance: see - Here architects can be seen to be rated by way of the position they hold in the schedule of those considered sufficiently socially authoritative, and reliable, to confirm evidence and statements legally.

In the first proposition that suggests ordinary language might give some clues to how architects are seen by the public, one soon discovers that the usage of the word architect means anything and everything somewhat too loosely, almost metaphorically, and in no way at all gets close to any understanding of what the profession might think of as an architect. This muddling usage looks like it is merely part of a verbal game of clever expression. In the latter proposal that considers the list of those able to certify evidence and statements, folk who hold real substance and standing in our society, the architect is not even listed as a credible source; but politicians and credit union officers are. In both examples, in language and law, the architect remains a vaguely voided identity. The situation suggests that the public has no perception of an architect other than in its randomly ordinary, emotive ‘commonsense’ referencing, with the shell of the word, the ‘skin,’ hinting at some over-viewing, organisational quality or role in the news media, where the word appears more part of an effort to impress with ‘posh’ analogies and unusual references than anything else; a little like ‘segue’ - see: JARGON in sidebar.

The recent ABC News report on a case where a journalist fell up stairs, (see Woman falls up hospital stairs, gets $1.6m payout - via @abcnews below), is interesting, not because of the outcome. The text says that two engineers, (why two?), were used to give evidence on the proportions of the stairs, (dare one suggest that one was an expert on risers, the other on treads?),# advising that the stairs in question did not conform to the required regulations. But who is it that designs the stairs? Who knows more about stairs than most? Why are architects not there in the court as specialists who know how stairs, the physical experience of gait and purpose, can vary with proportion? Who but an architect might know how handrails should be located and detailed to relate to these different places, perceptions and purposes? Maybe the architect was present in court, and was not very happy? After all, it is the architect who situates, sizes and shapes the stairs in a particular position in the plan of a project to suit the associated functions, incorporating the stair as a transitional space and form, complete with specifically considered treads, risers, landings, walls, windows, doors, handrails, materials, finishes, nosings and hazard textures all as appropriate to the circumstance. It is the builder who constructs the stair.

What seems clear is that, as appears evident in the legal listing, and in everyday language, architects are too arty-farty to be reliably useful to the ordinary occasion that involves matters of fact and safety. It seems that they are seen to be a little dodgy, likely to be ‘poofters,’ queers, or otherwise gender-challenged or perverted given their commitment to art and aesthetics; their different sensitivity. Why, seems to be the proposition, would anyone even consider using an architect for something as serious as stair proportions? Surely this subject would be beyond their interests; out of range of their reliability that might be more concerned with the colours, and the sculptural and spatial references involved? Any detailed attention to making is perceived as an engineering issue – measurement, as if architects know nothing of measure, fit, or fitness for purpose. The Vitruvian summary of elements necessary for a well-designed building: firmitasutilitas, and venustas, (firmness, utility and aesthetic beauty – Wotton’s ‘firmness, commodity and delight’), seem to have been lost, left to history, and are no longer associated with architecture or architects today. Here the popular cliché has it that only ‘delight’ is considered to be relevant to the profession: the remainder is ‘engineering’ - or has become tasks undertaken by project managers and quantity surveyors.

So the simple answer to the first question is that architects appear to have no public standing beyond being seen as self-centred, indulgent artistes, distracted aesthetes who know nothing of facts or budgets, but only concentrate eloquently, with spectacular flourishes, on designing and constructing grandly whimsical edifices to glorify their clever selves, to reveal their unique genius. The engineers make everything practically and structurally possible. It might all sound very unfair, but the 'common' man and woman seem to be thinking like this: that architects are an elitist irrelevance that wastes people’s money and time; that they are an indulgence used by the rich for display, prestige and social entertainment.

So it seems that Gehry press on with works and blurb that only confirm this perception in every way possible. Little wonder that the legal profession has such a low opinion of architects that it excludes them from any social standing in factual legal acknowledgement and argument; with the public doing likewise in everyday chatter that refers to everybody as an architect other than an architect. It appears that architects are used in court as specialist, expert witnesses only to talk about aesthetics - the appearance of places that are made possible by engineers and builders: see - a book that speaks of the tortured role of the engineer in modern architecture.

What might the profession do about this? It should do something because the current perception holds architects in the limbo land of practical irrelevance and social unreliability, even if architects all consider themselves to be otherwise. It will need a concerted effort to turn things around, a commitment to things simple and ordinary; a rigour in dealings with reality: then architects might gain some respect beyond the gaping isolation and mystical wonder that currently keeps them at arm’s length from the bamboozled public that remains doubtful of such edgy, aesthetic performances.

The response to the world?
A colleague has recently finished a small, ‘modernist’ home in the mountains for himself and his wife. The project was concerned with issues of efficiency in size, cost and materials, as well as performance and expression. Since completion about a year ago, he has told me that he has had over one hundred people stop, stare, take photographs, and walk in uninvited to knock on the door to ask him who the builder was. No one has ever asked who the architect was – no one! Who cares? Who knows? Architects just do not exist in the mind concerned with the practical necessities of the everyday, and its laws, even if ‘the everyday’ experience can recognise particular qualities of an outcome that have not been ‘engineered,’ not even by two experts.

SEE: Woman falls up hospital stairs, gets $1.6m payout
 - via @abcnews

Woman falls up Charters Towers hospital stairs, gets $1.6m payout
By Kristian Silva
Posted Wed at 5:57am
A woman who tripped while climbing stairs at a regional Queensland hospital has been awarded $1.6 million in damages for her injuries.
Amelia Anne Covey, who worked as a physiotherapist at the Charters Towers Hospital in the state's north, suffered neck and arm injuries during the fall in May 2010.
Two engineers told the Supreme Court in Townsville the vertical gaps between steps on the staircase were inconsistent and outside tolerances allowed in the building code.
They said her stumble was consistent with what could happen when heights of staircase risers varied too much.
Ms Covey, now 34, said she continued to suffer regular pain and headaches since the fall.
She had been climbing up the staircase when she tripped.
"I lost my balance, I grabbed the rail, and my balance was all put off," she said.
"I just kept travelling awkwardly up the stairs, and then fell.
"But I had my hand on the rail, and my arm was yanked, basically to the side, backwards."
'No evidence employer turned its mind to safety'
The court heard two other people had injured themselves on the same stairwell after Ms Covey, leading the hospital to install non-skid strips on each step.
Justice David North said Ms Covey had been walking at a regular pace and was not negligent when her fall occurred.
He said one of the hospital's responsibilities was accident prevention and to ensure the safety of its staff.
"There is no evidence the employer, through its servants or agents, turned its mind to the safety of the stairway or sought advice," he said.
Ms Covey told the court that surgery to her arm had failed, and she was unable to continue working as a physiotherapist due to her injuries.
She changed careers and began studying law, and was admitted as a legal practitioner in April 2016.
In a decision handed down this week, Justice North ordered the State of Queensland to pay Ms Covey about $1 million for past and future lost earnings in her line of physiotherapy work.
Other payments totalling about $600,000 included compensation for damages, pain and suffering, and for future care and assistance.

# P.S.
In Kenneth White’s book Across The Territories Travels from Orkney to Rangiroa published by Polygon, Edinburgh, 2004, a couple of sentences on page 57 caught the eye:
The malitia always went about in pairs. That was because one could read and the other could write.
One hopes that this was not the case here with the two engineers.

14 MARCH 2017
Now that the State election in Western Australia has been decided, the media, in its cliché wisdom, has declared two new ‘architects’:

The leader of the National Party, Brendon Grylls, who lost his seat has been declared "the architect of his own demise;" while the Liberal senator for Western Australia, Mathias Cormann, Minister for Finance in the Turnbull government in Canberra, has been described as "the architect of the (very poor) decision to swap preferences with (the right wing political party) One Nation." It is a description that he refutes with his usual accented, stubborn spin.
The incumbent Western Australian Liberal government was defeated by the Labor party in what has been described as a 'landslide' victory.

One can thank the media for this jargon reporting. Muddled and silly language and concepts are becoming a regular event on ABC TV. Tonight’s news had one item on a possible Scottish referendum, (yes, another one), summed up with the astonishing, self-satisfied, ‘clever’ statement made with a discerning, serious journalistic authority that noted: “It could go either way.” Brilliant! Do not all such polls have the likelihood of ‘going either way’? We need better than this.

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