Voice 15 - John Brown - Temporary Curators

/ John Brown / Conservation

‘A great city is built over generations, by the hard work of people separated by time, but connected by place.

We are the temporary curators of this environment, and our task is to protect and enrich it in a spirit of honesty and optimism.’

John gave the above quote when asked to provide a short statement of his architectural ethos to the office, something that sums up his attitude towards the practice of architecture. A manifesto for an application of spirit and labour in the field. He then furnished us with his thoughts on each of its constituent parts as surmised below.

A Great City

Cities, of course, are endlessly interesting. Eric Jenkins’ book ‘To Scale’ does an incredibly simple thing – it juxtaposes two cropped out images of city plans together at the same scale, at a size of one kilometre by one kilometre. It reveals, for example, that all the spirit, character, life, people and stories contained within the square kilometre organised around Piazza del Campo, the public space that defines the centre of Siena could neatly fit within the playing area of Tiananmen Square. Which is not to make a value judgement about one being inherently more valuable than the other – but to be presently reminded of the richness and variation of urban life, and the range of scale, spirit, occupation and character these environments can exhibit.

Separated by Time but Connected by Place

Architecture constitutes a significant part of our common, shared culture, the way we define ourselves as a society and how we relate to our forebears and with one another today. This is a pertinent notion right now because of the current debate about the extent to which history in the built environment is manmade, ceremonial, celebratory, and problematic, as manifest in the ongoing removal of many statues commemorating Confederation figures in the southern American states. It seems wholly appropriate that statues of these divisive figures are removed – the hope would be that these are replaced with more suitable figures around which a new history of the built environment can be formed.

Temporary Curators

Of course, all those acting in the built environment today are but doing so for a period of time – following on from those curators of the environment in the past and as forerunners to those who will care for it, and our additions and subtractions from it, once we are done. One only has to think of errors from the past, such as the substantive demolition of Penn Station in New York, one of the finest transport buildings of the 20th century, a Beaux-Arts trainshed cathedral in girders and glass roof, its replacement one of the least spirited transport hubs in America, to sharpen this idea in the mind.

Protect and Enrich

As well as recognising the ways in which we can contribute towards the improvement of our built environment and therefore towards our common culture, we also need to recognise that some things cannot necessarily be improved by the application of architectural agency. One of these is the Barrowland Ballroom in the east end of Glasgow, a music institution that still attracts the best bands, not because of its architectural and stylistic smoothness or ‘coolness’ but in part for the very reason that it has avoided such change that could have been affected by these concerns over the last forty years and as such retains a joyful, adhoc theatrical aesthetic that is one of a kind.

Honesty and Optimism

It is almost impossible to be an architect, or at least a good one, without an optimistic view of the world – that things can get better through the application of care, consideration and labour. In a sense that is a guiding definition of an idea of what architecture is and why it is important – through the application of thought, attention, capital and material, applied by a great many actors within the field – from executives to labourers, we can improve our common setting for public and private life to be played out. If presented with a pessimistic architect, be wary.

Penn Station, photographed on completion in 1910