Background check

As Architecture Week swings into action, architectural pundit Hugh Pearman and architect Sean Griffiths outline two different views of the current state of relations between architecture and design

National Stadium for 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing

Is this picture changing? The Royal College of Art has always believed in cross-disciplinary fertilisation. Its professor of architecture, Nigel Coates, is also an accomplished furniture designer. Its professor of design products, Ron Arad, is known for his furniture, from his Tom Vac chair to his flexible ‘bookworm’ bookshelf, but is in fact an architect, as shown by his designs for the Upperworld Hotel at Battersea Power Station. It was at the RCA that James Dyson made the triple jump from art to industrial design via architecture and engineering. But why should designers of all kinds have to wait until they have graduated to get that kind of opportunity?

In the commercial world, Pentagram long ago blazed the trail of multidisciplinary working. Architects Lorenzo Apicella and William Russell work alongside graphics wizards such as Justus Oehler and David Hillman, or the product design team headed by Daniel Weil. But more flexibility needs to filter down to the undergraduate level. Now that London’s scattering of art colleges has been incorporated into the ambitious University of the Arts, design has a higher student profile than ever before. At the same time, our tightly regulated architecture schools are waning in influence and falling out with the Government inspectors. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the way architecture and design are taught. Perhaps it’s time for an undergraduate British Bauhaus to feed the design firms of tomorrow.

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An architect’s view of design:

Not so long ago, I called for a moratorium on design. This was inspired, on the one hand, by a profound existential struggle caused by trying to choose from a multitude of tasteful door handles and, on the other, by disgust at the suggestion of a certain Swedish furniture manufacturer that we should chuck out our chintz and fill our houses with boring ‘better designed’ Scandinavian Moderne stuff.

However, I’m glad to see chintz is back with a vengeance and that a witty, clever, fun but dark kind of design, personified by the likes of Marcel Wanders, Fabio Novembre, Tord Boontje and the Campana brothers, is emerging and, hopefully, displacing the kinds of the space age retro, produced by the overrated Karim Rashid and his followers.

What interests all of these designers is a concern with ornament. But whereas design is relatively fast-moving, architecture is more like a supertanker that takes years to turn round. So, unfortunately, we’re not doing much ornament in architecture, certainly not anything with historical reference, which remains anathema to architects, who still struggle to free themselves from the yoke of Modernist functionalism.

Instead of the playful, conceptual invention we are seeing in design, architecture is suffering from a continuing obsession with abstract formalism, whose latest manifestation is a series of concrete boxes that look like railway signal boxes or telephone exchanges from the late 1960s. Even those who are tentatively introducing the decorative, such as Herzog & de Meuron and Rem Koolhaas, are only applying it as wallpaper to their otherwise abstract forms.

So I’m now officially withdrawing my call for a moratorium on design and instead demanding that one be imposed on box buildings. Or we could take a leaf out of the book of the excellent young Dutch designer, Maarten Baas, and just set fire to some of them.

By Sean Griffiths, partner at architects Fashion Architecture Taste

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