Dan Cruickshank – Adventures in Architecture

11 February 2009 (Last Updated February 11th, 2009 18:30)

Dan Cruickshank mixes a passion for design with an Indiana Jones-esque enthusiasm for adventure and discovery. Phin Foster meets the honorary fellow of RIBA and British national treasure, to talk Himalayan kingdoms, communist utopias and Mumbai shantytowns.

Dan Cruickshank – Adventures in Architecture

Phin Foster: Your taste is known for erring on the classical. Are there any contemporary architects whose work you particularly look out for?

DC: It's contemporary engineers that really excite me. The world of construction and engineering is often more inspiring than high design.

"Most of the great European cities we admire were built by ruthless speculators doing nothing more than trying to make money."

The Öresund Bridge connecting Malmö and Copenhagen, for example, is a fantastically elegant work. It's both a massive engineering achievement and very beautiful. On the one hand there's the sheer boldness of the construction, but then all forms and design features are there for a very specific purpose. It comes without hyperbole or intellectualist baggage.

PF: Is hyperbole something that turns people off participating in the architectural debate?

DC: The language of architecture should never exclude people because people are what the entire enterprise is about. We all live and work in buildings and they affect our lives tremendously. Despite this, many people do feel distanced from it; they see architecture as this overly technical, intellectualised subject that has nothing to do with them – unlike painting, opera or music, for example. It's centrally important that as many people as possible play a part in debate
over what we keep and what we build.

PF: Do you see television as a powerful tool in generating public debate around architecture and design?

DC: Television has to be about more than light entertainment, reality and game shows. If you can get the balance right between information, inspiration and entertainment, you can find yourself with an audience of between two and three million people. It's terrifying how powerful a medium television can be and how easily such power can be abused, but that should not detract from the opportunities it affords.

PF: Do planners make enough of an effort to involve the public in the decision-making process?

DC: Not always. Recent plans for a whole cluster of towers in near my home in East London were pretty alarming. Names such as Foster, KPF and Terry Farrell were on board, but there had been little or no dialogue with local residents. Things got to quite an advanced stage before planning permission was even requested, despite the fact that the development would have dramatically altered the character of the surrounding area.

PF: Is there too much emphasis upon 'the new' among today's city planners?

DC: Ultimately, the great challenge is building along the same narrative arc. New buildings should not challenge the old; you can conserve and build anew, providing you understand that it is the sense of continuity that can be inspiring.

"Historians and conservationalists are not the enemies of modern design."

Architects must recognise the contribution and inspiration the past offers as a jumping-off point for new design. I do think that many are not engaging with what has gone before.

They're hardly taught history in school and you'd think that courses would concentrate a little more on the legacy of their own profession at least. Historians and conservationists are not the enemies of modern design, but they can be seen as such.

PF: Is there a right way to blend heritage and modernism?

DC: There is no single answer to creating a harmonious model of new and old. All great cities have their different approaches; there's not one place that you can point to and say: 'that's the answer.'

One can be absolutely thrilled by the madness of New York, the high-rise buildings off narrow streets on a Georgian plan, it can be thrilling, but that is also down to its sheer uniqueness. Alternatively, architecture in Bhutan has been created based upon long-held traditions that reinforce historical design. Both approaches work, but one can hardly claim they're interchangeable.

PF: Do many success stories emerge through a series of coincidences?

DC: Most of the great European cities we admire were built by ruthless speculators doing nothing more than trying to make money. Somehow they ended up creating corporate works of art. How one repeats that process now is difficult to see.

PF: So good intentions do not always lie at the heart of successful design?

DC: Somewhere like Brasilia is very interesting. It started as a utopian, communist dream, but has become deeply divided. Apartments are now far too expensive for the poor to inhabit, so they've moved into shantytowns on the outskirts. The whole utopian ideal has been completely undermined. The buildings remain extremely beautiful, but their original raison d'être no longer exists.

"Legacy can only come through the creation of something with lasting value that transcends the conditions for which it was created."

PF: Can you think of an example where a city's inhabitants do have complete control over its architecture and evolution?

DC: I visited Dharavi in Mumbai, the biggest slum in Asia. It was fascinating to discover how architecture and planning works when practised without architects and planners. The people have created their own world and it prompts so many fundamental questions: what is the nature of a city? What is the nature of architecture? How does a shantytown made up of recycled materials connect with the narrative of architecture?

Seeing people with nothing shaping their own universe, creating art
and beauty, was wonderful to behold and I didn't expect that. One expected to be confronted by very difficult lives, but these people were almost joyous. It was a genuine community.

PF: Is it right for planners and architects to speak of 'legacy' before end-users have had the opportunity to leave their mark?

DC: Legacy can only come through the creation of something with lasting value that transcends the conditions for which it was created. Historically, most buildings that have lasted the test of time weren't created with this overbearing concept in mind. Buildings were built to last 60 years, but they become our heritage in a way that would completely baffle their creators.

PF: Are there any contemporary buildings in London that you believe fulfil that role?

DC: I can see Foster's Gherkin from my front door. It's a funny one that: an amusing building. It's almost like a one liner where the punch line wears off after a little bit. But it is successful, certainly in terms of having an identity that appeals to the public. People like it and, in the end, perhaps that's all that really matters.