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adding value

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Architecture is valuable if it is the obvious product of social, contextual, functional, and creative inclusions.

To add value to a design, all four of these qualities must be perceived, to some degree, by those who walk past buildings and places, or who live or work in them.

New architecture, regardless of its form or materiality or techniks, should also have an aura of the continuum of historical time; this increases the architecture’s range of valuable meanings. Early Modernist architecture expressed an industrially purified Classicism; Venturi’s ideas about complexity and contradiction were originally inspired not by Las Vegas, but by historic Roman and Mannerist architecture. Historical architectural pastiche is valueless, incidentally – a hollow Disneyfication of history and the perception of time.

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There is added value in architecture which conveys its character in direct – but not necessarily predictable or “safe” – response to the character of its setting. Too many contemporary buildings are literally superficial in this respect: their massing and surfaces are standardised, and they are often “interestingly” colourful or graphic. The latter only succeeds if the architects are highly skilled; most of this genre of buildings resemble generic stage-sets, as temporary as the pixels on the designer’s screen.

This kind of architecture lacks the highly significant value of being experienced as a made object created by individual minds, eyes, and hands. In Hamburg, for example, one cannot pass Fritz Höger’s 1924 Chilehaus without feeling that its design, its making, and its place in the city are indivisible: it is architecturally brilliant, but absolutely civic. In 21st century London, the same is true of Caruso St John’s Newport Street Gallery, Lynch Architects’ Zig Zag Building, or Peter Barber’s low-cost housing. (Worland Gardens)

Jay Merrick is the architecture critic of The Independent, London, and also writes for Architects Journal, Architectural Review and Icon. He wrote the central texts for monographs about practices including schmidt hammer lassen, Grimshaws, and Wilkinson Eyre; and he acts as an general editorial consultant for architects. His novel, Horse Latitudes, was published by Fourth Estate in 1999.

These are rare exceptions to the status quo. The architectural commodification of our towns and cities is erasing any connected sense of past, present, and future architectural and civic possibilities. We feel and imagine less about our surroundings; we are excluded rather than included. The architectural present tense is supposedly good enough for us; our reactions to most contemporary buildings are becoming equally commodified. We can’t take human meaning and value from this situation. The only time buildings are publicly (and usually mistakenly) perceived as having value, or contributing to our towns and cities, is if they are big and architecturally unusual. We all know the banal, valueless trigger-words: iconic, landmark, stunning, exciting, unique. Most “iconic” buildings are the equivalent of overdramatic performance-artists, distracting us from the progressive devaluation of the architectural quality of more ordinary types of buildings. Yet it is these, above all, which demand added architectural and civic value. Ultimately, it is excellent ordinary architecture – which is not a contradictory description! – that adds the greatest value to the greatest number of people’s lives.

Exterior of Newport Street Gallery London Building
Low cost housing in London Morley
Staircase at the Newport Street Gallery
Chilehaus in Hamburg
Zig Zag building in London
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