Architects and leaks
I’m a great fan of Rowan Moore’s weekly architectural column in The Observer and generally enjoy reading his elegant prose over my Sunday breakfast. Of course I don’t agree will all that he says; like any good critic he can be very annoying. A recent column in which he wrote about Gillespie Kidd and Coia’s seminary near Glasgow caused me to choke on my muesli.
Spectacular photography (there’s even more on the website) of this rotting concrete hulk brilliantly illustrated the power of the Corbusian architecture by the then young partners of Gillespie Kidd and Coia, Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein. But the story also talked about the building’s failures: “The junctions of its ambitious geometries did not prove equal to the temperamental Atlantic weather, nor walls of single glazing to the cold. The specification of hard-to-replace lightbulbs from Denmark meant that students would take still-functioning bulbs to meals with them, for fear they would be un-Christianly pinched.”
Fine. Lots of buildings have teething problems for a variety of reasons, but what stuck in my craw was MacMillan’s response, reported by Moore, when asked why his buildings leaked: “I think it’s because we had to build them outside.” !
Such black glaswegian humour might raise a laugh in Kelly’s Bar but would not go down too well with clients who have had to suffer from some architects’ casual attitude to detailing. Indeed it sneers at the very idea that we build in order to keep the outside out and is sadly a view held and joked about by other great architects. Frank Lloyd Wright famously told clients to get a bucket when asked what to do about the myriad of leaks that occurred in his buildings (Falling Water was a “seven bucket” house according to the client). I heard Arthur Erickson make a similar response about leaks in one of his houses.
I understand that designing innovative architecture can lead to technical challenges of various kinds - but it is no joking matter and gets architects a bad name. I just don’t buy the idea that to be a creative architect you have to be technically incompetent. There was once a time when it was accepted that great opera singers could not act, now, with better training more and more can now sing and act at the same time - with inspiring results.
A few days after Rowan’s piece, the saga of V&A in Dundee’s escalating costs broke in the press. Launched in 2010 with a budget of £45 million, the museum's price tag has increased to £80.1 million. Not all Kengo Kuma’s fault I’m sure, but not good for the profession’s reputation and reminds me of the year the RIBA really put it’s foot in it by giving the Stirling Prize to the Scottish Parliament Building whose final costs were ten times the original estimate.