There they go again: someone from one of the glossies has just rung me up to ask who will be the big-name architects and designers in the forthcoming decade. A decade ripe with significance, being the first of the new century, they add – as if I hadn’t noticed. Think laterally, they urge me – which I take to mean, don’t just go for the usual semi-established types with rectangular specs, interesting haircuts, part-time teaching posts and no socks. They might, adds the editor brightly, even be people who are still at school.
Pish and tosh, I reply. What do they want? Someone who’s got a great A-level in the craft/technology bit of the national curriculum, and who’s going on to art college to do a foundation course? On the basis of that, am I meant to predict the next Norman Foster or James Dyson? Or do they mean I should do the usual, and talent-spot the graduates at the Royal College of Art – or scan the field of the Royal Society of Arts’ Design Award winners or the student prize at the Royal Institute of British Architects? Even these, I explain patiently, will not necessarily be sure-fire winners.
The people you notice at this stage of their careers are almost certainly going to spend the next few years working for someone else anyway: which brings me to another problem. As it happens, I’d been helping to judge a new award for young architects, the results of which will be announced on 19 February. Young means 35 and under. Which is, of course, ancient for a footballer or an advertising creative or a graphics whizz kid, but as surely everyone understands by now – architects are deemed to be babies until they are 40. For the decade after that they are considered young.
Only when they hit 50 – the age at which, in certain other walks of life, people start getting put out to grass – are they considered mature. Then, of course, they can never retire. The famous names of architecture are conventionally at their very busiest when the Grim Reaper finally knocks on the door.
So, a lot of entries for the youngsters award were inevitably from architects working for other people. How to tell their work – their original concept – as opposed to architecture conceived by someone else, which they merely drew up and coordinated? As anyone knows who’s seen the portfolios of the multitudes who have passed through the big-name offices, some famous buildings are apparently the sole effort of about 50 individuals. It was tough.
I looked round the room at my fellow judges. One of the architects there – I will spare everyone’s flushes of self-congratulation or self-loathing by naming none of them – had been singled out as an up-and-coming wunderkind ten years previously by the same mag that now wanted to know the new crop. And today? Well, he’s doing all right, for sure, but the trouble is that he’s still regarded as an up-and-coming wunderkind, which means he still hasn’t built much. Facing him across the table, however, was an architect nobody had heard of ten years ago – had scarcely heard of five years ago, come to that – who is now almost indecently successful, winning competitions and awards one after the other.
My thoughts drifted away from architecture to design. Same held true there. I was about to nominate someone who, when I checked, turned out to have been tipped ten years ago. Well, all I can say is, he still shows great promise. And then I thought of a certain well-known multimillionaire who now employs 200 designers of his own and gets to talk to Tony Blair on planes to Japan – and, guess what, ten years ago he failed to make the cut. Presumably he was deemed to be neither young, clever nor fashionable enough.
What, I wonder, will happen to the fortunate one who we all agree should win the young architect award? What will happen to the clutch of promising architects and designers I tentatively recommend to my glossy mag editor? Never forget how the young Bruce Springsteen was hailed as the new Dylan. It took him years to live that one down, especially as the old Dylan was doing rather well at the time.
There are already too many architecture and design gongs, but room should be made for just one more. The Grey Power Design Award. Eligible to all living on borrowed time – shall we say 70 and over. And it won’t be a lifetime achievement prize either. It will be given for the best work of the previous year. I foresee cut-throat competition.