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Form follows function (unless you’ve got a knighthood)

I’ve long had a deep suspicion of high profile architects, all the more so if they’ve got a knighthood. My prejudices were confirmed again today, in an interview with the man who’s overseeing the government’s city academies project:

“The whole building side has been a nightmare,” he admits. “Most of the 27 already open are OK. There are some outstanding ones [...]” [...] But he is much less enamoured with the Business academy in Bexley, Kent, the first purpose-built academy, designed by none other than Sir Norman Foster. This £31m institution, backed by £2m from property investor David Garrard, was described as “the future of education” by Tony Blair when he opened it in 2003. It has a business court with a mini-stock exchange and trading floor, balconies and, most controversially, classrooms with three walls and open sides. Taylor calls it “crazy”.

“I would never have built that building,” he says. “You can’t teach in that, so we’re filling [the open sides] in.

“We’re not going to have any more glass palaces. We’re going to have functional buildings built of brick. Glass is hot in the summer, freezing in the winter. People can look through it and nasties throw bricks at it. And you don’t have balconies on schools, anybody can tell you that.”

Anybody can tell you that. So presumably Sir Norman Foster didn’t consult anybody. It’s as if he didn’t speak to teachers. Perhaps he confused his inevitable clean-lined architectural drawings with the reality of Bexley — thinking that the drawings’ perfect lawns and beautiful weather and lack of litter and brick-throwers would emerge from the paper and take over our own world.

This affair also reminds me of the infamous Clissold leisure centre, which was spectacular in its failure. There again it seems to be a case of looks ahead of practicalities, leading to “structure working at the edge of tolerance” and, ultimately, beyond it.

I can’t help relating this back to software development. We, too, have architects and engineers. But they work much more closely together, and for the most part actually practice each others’ skills — software architects who can’t turn their hand to software engineering carry no respect, and engineers who cannot understand architecture will never produce maintainable products.

Back in the construction industry it saddens me that architects seem to forget what they’re doing and who they’re doing it for. They seem to forget that engineers and the buildings’ users have invaluable experiences that will teach them things they cannot learn by themselves. Once an ego gets beyond a certain threshold it’s as if the building is in danger of being a glorification of the architect.

“Form follows function” was the lesson taught by Louis Sullivan. But maybe too many of today’s architects think they know better than him. That’s particularly hard on those of us in the real world, who don’t live in the clean-lined architectural drawings, because while Sir Norman will go on to win any number of grand new contracts the people of Bexley are going to live their next twenty or so years with a poorly built school.

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4 Responses to Form follows function (unless you’ve got a knighthood) »»


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  1. MC
    Comment by MC | 2006/02/07 at 15:35:50

    Maybe this country needs a Roy Leone to do things as the customer needs them.

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  3. Nik
    Comment by Nik | 2006/02/08 at 09:00:48

    Good article. I remember reading it at the time and I thought then the same as I think now: it’s all terrific but I strongly disagree with requirement 1: “Private offices with doors that close were absolutely required and not open to negotiation.”

    Or to be more specific, while it’s good to have some of those for one-off uses I think it’s very bad for them to be the primary home or development space of developers. For me, so much value is obtained from collaboration — even casual overheard remarks — that developers locked away in silence flashes big red alarm lights immediately.

  4. comment_type != "trackback" && $comment->comment_type != "pingback" && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content) && !ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>
  5. MC
    Comment by MC | 2006/02/08 at 12:22:46

    Well, that is a heavily debated subject over on Joel’s site. I expect it depends on what kind of work you are doing, if you are all working on the same project and in the same discipline or if its a multi-discipline “team”. From experience, lots of people all working on different projects and with different skills don’t make the best environment for the software guys…

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  7. Nik
    Comment by Nik | 2006/02/08 at 19:28:16

    I realise this is controversial. Generally I’d say the idea of developers doing things that their peers are unaware of is very bad, and that means private offices are (in general) very bad. This certainly does not mean that developers should never be allowed to work in a quiet place. It does mean that “lots of people all working on different projects and with different skills” is bad position to be in. It suggests too many projects and (if everyone is a specialist in a different area) few people to seek advice from. Your multi-disciplined team scenario is ideal, even if you expect people to have different levels of expertise in different areas.

    Getting the product out the door is only half the problem. Keeping it maintained is the other half. And that’s when you need a good spread of knowledge.


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  1. MC
    Comment by MC | 2006/02/07 at 15:35:50

    Maybe this country needs a Roy Leone to do things as the customer needs them.

  2. comment_type == "trackback" || $comment->comment_type == "pingback" || ereg("", $comment->comment_content) || ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>

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    1. Nik
      Comment by Nik | 2006/02/08 at 09:00:48

      Good article. I remember reading it at the time and I thought then the same as I think now: it’s all terrific but I strongly disagree with requirement 1: “Private offices with doors that close were absolutely required and not open to negotiation.”

      Or to be more specific, while it’s good to have some of those for one-off uses I think it’s very bad for them to be the primary home or development space of developers. For me, so much value is obtained from collaboration — even casual overheard remarks — that developers locked away in silence flashes big red alarm lights immediately.

    2. comment_type == "trackback" || $comment->comment_type == "pingback" || ereg("", $comment->comment_content) || ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>

      Trackbacks & Pingbacks »»

      1. MC
        Comment by MC | 2006/02/08 at 12:22:46

        Well, that is a heavily debated subject over on Joel’s site. I expect it depends on what kind of work you are doing, if you are all working on the same project and in the same discipline or if its a multi-discipline “team”. From experience, lots of people all working on different projects and with different skills don’t make the best environment for the software guys…

      2. comment_type == "trackback" || $comment->comment_type == "pingback" || ereg("", $comment->comment_content) || ereg("", $comment->comment_content)) { ?>

        Trackbacks & Pingbacks »»

        1. Nik
          Comment by Nik | 2006/02/08 at 19:28:16

          I realise this is controversial. Generally I’d say the idea of developers doing things that their peers are unaware of is very bad, and that means private offices are (in general) very bad. This certainly does not mean that developers should never be allowed to work in a quiet place. It does mean that “lots of people all working on different projects and with different skills” is bad position to be in. It suggests too many projects and (if everyone is a specialist in a different area) few people to seek advice from. Your multi-disciplined team scenario is ideal, even if you expect people to have different levels of expertise in different areas.

          Getting the product out the door is only half the problem. Keeping it maintained is the other half. And that’s when you need a good spread of knowledge.

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