Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Architectures of ‘S’ …
March 11, 2012Posted by on
Jonathan Ive, born in 1967 and recently referred to by the Financial Times as “Apple’s invisible aesthete” and “the architect of the iPad and the iPhone” received a well-deserved knighthood for services to the design industry in the 2012 News year Honours list. Shy Johnny had made it, from Newcastle Polytechnic to a being co-founder of a London consultancy (Tangerine) that had Apple as a client, to Apple itself (in 1992). Now, the FT was celebrating him as ‘emerging from Jobs’ shadow.’
Discussing the design of the iMac, Ive ( interestingly, a confessed ‘bad drawer’ saved by machines) reflected that, “One of the problems we encountered was that you could adjust it, but the screen would wobble slightly. It was really frustrating. We architected an entire system to iron this wobble out.” (Emphasis added.)
Ive describes his Newcastle years as “a pretty miserable time; I did nothing other than work.” But he made it through. I suppose one could call that ‘Survival.’
By 2003, the Power G5 had been launched and the London Design Museum had named Ive ‘Designer of the Year.’ About the G5 Ive commented: “There’s an applied style of being minimal and simple, and then there’s real simplicity,” he said. “This looks simple, because it really is.” Ive had made it to Success and the frontiers of vocational Significance.
By 2012, when Ive was honoured with the KBE (Knight Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth, who had already confessed to being an iPod owner, Ive had achieved a different kind of social Significance legitimated by the powers that govern Great Britain in the name of Divine Right.
Survival, Success and Significance.
The first, Survival, is mostly (not entirely) a biological state of being. Without it there will (rather obviously) never be the Success that, for Ive, brought an invitation to join the Apple design team and which, in turn, was the foundation of further success and the recognition of Significance.
Most people cope with survival, even though far too many don’t. Huge numbers enjoy a relative success; and most settle for that. And some others – sometimes merely the right person in the right place at the right time – find themselves in the spotlight (managers and bankers, in particular). For Ive, his status gathered pace with the Design Museum award, was followed by an CBE in 2006 and the knighthood in 2012. This is the way it’s done in Great Britain (even if, in this instance, the significant success is US based).
One presumes that Ive is doing fine in a few other departments of ‘S’ as well: undoubtedly, he has security, most likely enjoys full sanity, probably has plenty of sex, perhaps even hopes for salvation … But the first three ‘S’s’ cover the spectrum soundly enough. Perhaps he has even reflected upon the fact that, while the biological needs are satisfied relatively easily and huge numbers of people settle for that, quite a few find success and coast along from that point, within its security. However, Significance is, by definition, for a minority and, while many recipients are content with that, some discover an insatiable appetite for even more honour. As one moves through the spectrum of ‘S’s’ a hunger of a peculiar kind can take hold. The CBE is OK, but why not a knighthood, then a Lordship and some of the other honours that exist at that level are are focused upon service to the Monarch? How many can be accummulated? It’s as if, oddly, Significance turns back on itself, perversely returning to the edgy and hungry anxieties of Survival.
But while the Significance of, for example, a knighthood, reflects a contribution to the nation and its well-being, the vocational basis to such honours is important to all those who are not civil servants, managers in state quangos, or the Queen’s part-time gardener and the like. Ive received his honours from the reigning monarch for ‘contributions to design’; others of the above mentioned for services to architecture. But one imagines that what truely pleased Ive about a rewarding career was the praise offered by his hero, Braun’s Dieter Rams.
Architects will recognise this. The social (economically underscored) honour is one thing, but celebration among one’s peers is something else, relative to which the former is merely an elevated version of Success. What, one wonders, do the likes of Sir Terry Farrell, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, Sir Jeremy Dixon, Sir Richard MacCormac, Lord Foster (Baron Foster of Thames Bank) and Lord Rogers (Baron Rogers of Riverside) and similar living establishment architects (most some 30-odd years older than Ives) feel about the relativity of this issue, i.e., social honours as opposed to, for example, the Stirling and Pritzkter Prizes, the French Legion d’Honneur and RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal (enjoyed by Rogers and Foster)?
The test comes when the Significance of honour gets sacrificed for the materiality of Success. Where is the trade-off? It is interesting, for example, that, in 2006, the left-wing posturing Baron Rogers hosted the establishment of the Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) but, within weeks, was under pressure from pro-Israeli pressure groups and the threats of the withdrawal of American commissions, forcing him to distance himself from the organisation whilst muttering about ‘terrorist Palestine’ and ‘democratic Israel.’ The apolitical Baron Foster gave up his seat in the House of Lords (where, in any case, he was reported to be a stranger among fellow peers) so that he could enjoy a non-domiciled status in Switzerland, thus avoiding UK taxes.
This convenient fracturing of roles and identities into an equation of multi-aspected trade-offs between career means-to-ends in which Success features as more real and significant than social and professional Significance is as fascinating as it is depressing. (And would have been incomprehensible to Aristotle.) It is not something that appears to feature in Ive’s character or career. Hopefully, it never will.
To place all this in context we have to note a differentiation between two kinds of sometimes tensionally interlocked honours referencing the goods of excellence: those internal to a practice such as architecture and those external to it. Take, for example, the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. because a person’s works are celebrated by those within the tradition of architectural practice the institution honours that person. But the giving of any institutional honour is, by definition, a ritual serving an external end. The notion that RIBA serves architecture rather than architects (as it claims) is a sham (although the pretense serves everyone). To the extent it does, this celebration is entirely subservient to the larger institutional aim and its acquisitiveness. This is common to all institutions, including that of government and the monarchy. When the Queen bestows an hour for ‘services to design or ‘services to architecture’ she is acting as the monarch of her subjects and of the nation. It is the interests of the monarchy and her government that she is serving; only in a secondary sense is she serving the interests of design or architecture by celebrating practicing individuals with honours.
It is the intermediate space where these internal and external interests come together and become mutually entwined that we find a fascinating dynamic that arguably binds significance to success whilst pretending that it is the latter which enjoys priority. This applies to the Pritzker and Stirling Prizes as well as to the RIBA Gold medal. (It certainly applies to the proliferation of awards now given out to any architect who stands still long enough.)
So where is true Significance within architectural practice? Ironically, it can only be found within the body of practitioners as a quiet celebration of reference and respect that becomes a feature of the continuous and active renewal of that practice. It is a part of the ongoing discourse of practice rather than the hubbub of ritualistic, institutionalised celebration.