For the first time in my life I have the chance to design a building for myself. There’s so much to think about – what materials to use, how to address the site, whether to go all-out for modernity. And as I struggle with these dilemmas, a phrase comes into my head, something my mother said in the way that parents do, compressing acclaim, regret and disappointment into one sentence: “You should have been an architect.”
It’s true that I always wanted to become an architect. For years, as an adolescent, I would settle down with a thick pad of graph paper and start to sketch intricate plans of houses and public buildings. I was always dreaming up the perfect house, especially as I was a boy whose daily return from school meant gazing up at the plain 1960s box in which he lived and sighing at the unfairness of it all.
My designs for a perfect house offered glamorous features such as rubble-stone chimneys, extensive carports and towers from which to look down on everyone else. I visualised blissful living in a city of buildings capped by exhilarating rooflines. Doesn’t every child dream up the sort of place in which they would like to live, whether in an imagined fairytale land of castles and forests or by creating landscapes for train sets and Lego villages? In those drawings we all drew of home as a smiley-faced saltbox with a dash of smoke emerging from its chimney even if our actual home was in a modern block of flats, weren’t we attempting to figure out the meaning of our world?
My parents were happy to think of their thirteen-year-old son becoming an architect and when some friends of theirs bought a country cottage which required complete renovation, they arranged for me to spend the day with the architect who was going to design these works. From this I would get a true idea of what being an architect was like. I could hardly wait.
It was a bleak April morning as my father dropped me off at the site. Peter the architect was not quite how I imagined architects to look. He wasn’t wearing black-rimmed spectacles like Le Corbusier or wearing a turtle neck sweater like Phillip Johnson. He was short and stubby and wearing a green anorak, and drove a battered Renault not an Italian convertible. He didn’t look cool and sophisticated at all.
“So, you want to be an architect?” he chuckled, setting down a shopping bag from which spilled the tools of his trade – a Thermos flask and a box of sandwiches. No sketchpad for grand plans, I noted.
I nodded, sucking in my cheeks so that I appeared slick and architect-like.
“I’d like to design something really good,” I said, wishing that I had brought my sketches to illustrate the point. I ignored the humourless laugh he gave and continued to declare my genius. “Houses, of course and then a luxury hotel and perhaps a cathedral,” I said, my mind imagining how these would have swooping rooflines and perhaps an interestingly shaped swimming pool with a bar or font in the middle. I was trying to ignore the pitying look he was giving me.
“We’d all like to do that,” he said slowly. “Most of the time you’re lucky if you get to design a toilet-block.”
I blinked at him. He was very much mistaken if he thought I was going to be the sort of architect who designed toilet-blocks. For a start architect and toilet-block weren’t words I readily grouped together. Had he set his architect-sights so low that he actually considered it good fortune to receive a commission for a public lavatory? I wondered why grown-ups were so disappointing, not at all like the sort of adults you read about in the colour supplements who were beautiful and successful and inspirational. The sort of adult I was destined to become, in other words. Where were his big ideas, his grand designs?
He ignored my piercing, judgemental gaze.
“Well, we’d better get on with it,” he said.
The place was a heap, just old stone walls and a sagging roof. My job was to hold the end of the tape as he made his preliminary measurements. Endless measurements. In a light drizzling rain, I held the end of the tape as he measured every inch of the exterior and wondered when he would produce a sketchpad and outline his vision. Anyone could measure a house, after all, but only the gifted few could draw it. I imagined that we would discuss what should be done with the place. I could see how a rubble-stone chimney might liven up the facade and there were several spots in which a large carport could be built. So why wasn’t he asking me for my ideas?
Over lunch, rubbing the calluses that had formed on my fingertips from gripping the tape measure, I asked him what I should master in order to become an architect. I knew his answer would be drawing plans and perspectives and I looked forward to telling him how good I was at this.
“Maths,” he said between mouthfuls of fishpaste sandwich. “It’s important you’re good with figures.” My heart sank. “And physics, of course.”
I was lost. I thought architecture was all about vision, not the two most boring subjects on the planet. My two worst subjects at that.
“But what about drawing?” I ventured, hoping that he would put down to puberty the crack in my voice.
I waited for him to tap the side of his head with his fingers and reply, “Hang on, what am I saying? Drawing is of course and without doubt the most important thing that an architect needs to study.”
But instead he stifled a guffaw. “That’s the least of it.”
The day was doomed from then on. Stuff architecture, I thought. Although I did enjoy the moment when he knocked away some crumbling plaster to reveal the frame of a medieval window. He stared reverently at it as though it might evaporate if he took his eyes off it.
“That’s what makes this job good,” he said quietly. He seemed mesmerized by the window. “Not that we’re lucky enough to see that very often.”
So that was that. My architect dreams were dashed.
I did study architecture in the end although only its history but that was good enough for me. No threat of maths or physics muscling in on that. The university I chose had a concrete campus of futuristic 1960s towers. At my interview I was told that the faculty was moving to a new building. “You should take a look,” my interviewer told me. “It’s nearly finished.”
Although I was totally unaware of its existence until that day, the new building was the most modern in Britain at that time. A vast metal hangar designed by Norman Foster, it housed not only the History of Art department and a restaurant but a lofty gallery for an eclectic collection of paintings and sculpture. Its glazed end rose before me as I wandered along the university’s suspended walkway and I had to stop to get my breath. This was too much good architecture in one hit and I felt dizzy.
It is one thing to love the architecture you see in books and another to find yourself working for three years inside one of its best. I loved that building even if the seminar rooms were too small and required the lights to be switched on during even the sunniest days. And the metal doors gave me static electric shocks all the time. On dark winter afternoons it summoned me to stand outside and marvel at the way it glowed like something from a science-fiction film. It gave me a taste of just how complete a building could be, humming quietly away in the background, its blinds whirring when the sunlight changed, the way it seemed to effortlessly consider my comfort. And although I was pretty lazy in my studies, the building seemed to encourage me to feel brighter than I was. Shuffling in on a Monday morning to hand in an essay that really should have been started more than twenty four hours before, it seemed to rebuke me: “Come on now, you can do better than that.” This one building firmly set into place a belief that has never left me, that our surroundings make a difference to how we experience the world.
I love this way that good architecture adds to our lives. Your mind expands when you visit the great Gothic cathedrals of France or glimpse a Modernist masterpiece in a city. You breathe differently in great buildings, your heart rate quickens. These buildings are the sort of celebrities that I crave and I treat them in a similar way, feeling that I know them so well from photographs and then not quite knowing what to do when I am standing face-to-face with them. Something odd happens. I place my hands on their walls just to make sure that they exist. I want to hug them, to envelop them in my own arms. Rarely do they disappoint. The tiles on the sails of the Sydney Opera House were perhaps creamier than I had imagined them from photos but I can’t imagine them being otherwise now and I still smile each time I see that building.
There’s a joy in walking along a street and glancing up to find an odd roofline or a curious feature rewarding those who care to look. It’s like a secret communication and all the more special for that. This happens rarely. Living in suburban Australia I find little to elevate me. Houses tend to be uniform, not unpleasant just boring. It’s not a particularly Australian problem either. Even in countries renowned for design prowess such as France, new homes tend to follow a traditional pattern which is relentlessly staid. But in Europe at least, dull buildings are often surrounded by older buildings of historic charm which distract you from their neighbour’s blandness. Of course a 1950s fibro house in a Ten Pound Pom suburb has a certain appeal but it’s not precisely the stuff that makes your heart sing. Not for long, at any rate.
I’m puzzled by the sameness of our built environment. Do we really want to be like everyone else? Being different can be filled with fear, I suppose, and it takes guts to renounce the Look of the moment. But isn’t it heartening to hear someone say that all their life they wanted to live in a wooden house with big windows and a sunny garden? And more heartening yet to find that this is indeed where they live?
Do we forget those places we drew when we were young? It may be difficult to identify what we want to live in now but perhaps we can find the essence of it when we reflect on those pictures we made as children.
In my own plans, as I became ensnared in trying to be original and trying to be myself and trying to respect the site, I nearly gave up altogether. That the building has turned out to be little more than a long shed shows perhaps a failure of my vision and my dare-to-be-difference. Except that I love its open space. Big spaces allow big thoughts. I smiled when the builder told me that my drawings were good. All that’s left now is to add is a rubble-stone chimney and a car port.