Curating Place 2 – Reflections

Last week I was happy to join several teams of architects in a site visit to Fall Hill Quarry in Derbyshire, the location for the first project to be imagined by Curating Place. Old, abandoned industrial sites such as quarries always make me feel somber, mainly for the loss of the skills and productivity that they represent. I am also desolated by the impact we have made on the natural landscape and invigorated by the restorative power of nature in about equal measure. I believe that channelling such emotional responses will be key to the success of any development at Fall Hill.

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All architecture is designed to be experienced, but it seems to me that in commercial architecture this is so often reduced to a narrow palette of visual appliqué. Yet we all know what it is to be moved by truly great architecture.

I often refer to architecture as requiring a ‘business plan’. By this I don’t mean a bald accounting of rental income versus construction cost. Instead, I mean designers must understand and empathise with their public to create an offering that will be genuinely attractive. To do this the design must expand beyond the simple physical stuff of building and engage with social and humanistic issues to deliver both service and a truly meaningful experience. Only this rounded approach will lead to the architecture enduring. Vitruvius had it right all along, we just seem to have forgotten it in the rush to simple commodity.

People will pay handsomely to create memories that will last them a lifetime. Think about your own experiences and what you are prepared to pay. It could be enduring a night in the rain and mud to hear your favourite band, or a month’s salary for a meal in a Michelin starred restaurant. On the other hand, no-one would consider MacDonald’s or Burger King as providing a great experience and so they are reduced to competing with each other over price. If our creations fail to provide memorable experiences they will simply become commodities to be traded at lowest cost, but otherwise ignored.

The reality is that all buildings need a purpose and, more often than not, a large part of that purpose is to generate revenue. True, there are examples of grand 18th Century follies, which apparently have no purpose, but that is of course far from the truth. Follies were built with the specific purpose of creating experiences. If the conjunction of architecture and business in the modern world can offer experiences that exceed expectation then customers will not only return in the future, they will tell their friends, thus ensuring the success of the business and the architecture.

I have come across many developers and developments that labour under the misapprehension ‘build it and they will come’. This is a disastrous fallacy, as has been demonstrated by numerous Millennium Commission funded projects from the National Centre for Popular Music to the Millennium Dome. No, we must only build what we know will prove to be attractive and enduring. This actually requires some long, hard thinking about the people who will use our designs, what they need, what they want and what might surprise and delight them. Once you have identified and designed the means to delight your customers then you will have developed a ‘business plan’ that will sustain your architecture.

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