Eh gyirl me like ya featcha

Driving up the Hagley Park Road the other day, my taxi driver slows down, leans his head out of the window and motions a girl to cross the road in front of us. She remains expressionless and moves across the road with an easy rhythm. My taxi-driver suddenly becomes frantic, leans across me and shouts out “Eh girl, me like ya featcha!” The girl walks on, kisses her teeth. Jamaicans have a way with language. That last thought inspired me to think about what I would have said, had I been in a position to celebrate the beauty of a well orchestrated structure.

            People may be excused for thinking that architecture is the horrible mess that builders leave behind on the the pavement after they have finished whistling at the girls while holding strange implements. But this is no reason to turn away in disgust: People have to live and work within that mess. Those people might stop and think how much easier their life could be made if the space in which they perform that life was more in tune with the life they had envisaged.

            An informed public can make an enormous difference to the urban environment: It is the public’s responsibility to demand quality. They have to make up their mind as to what quality consists of. The fact is that bad architecture is not always the architect’s fault. The real fault lies with those who think that architecture is somehow an easy thing, for which simple common sense is enough. Architects, clients, committees and the general public often make that mistake. The making of good architecture is difficult. To make architecture work well, in today’s highly urban society, requires a broad and deep training.

            And we must have good architecture; it is as important as a good economy and a healthy environment. In fact, good architecture is directly related to both of those! Buildings are the setting of our daily life. They frame the view from our window, they mark our passage through the day, they help determine the success of our gatherings, reflect and mould our voices and channel our activities. Good architecture has the ability to enhance our daily life, effortlessly. I would suggest that good architecture is an agent of economic development, not just by demanding a varied, self-disciplined and highly skilled work-force but also because it provides some of the main ingredients in that intangible space of a successful economic transaction: trust, stability and potential. Good buildings create value, they draw people. Drawing people together naturally creates the setting for economic activity.

            And good architecture is not just a luxury only to be afforded by the rich. Good architecture does not necessarily cost a lot of money. It costs critical thought.

            What is good architecture? That is the mother of all questions. Let me begin by being rather vague about it. Good buildings ease the processes of daily life. That makes the intuitive simplicity which a good building must achieve, a very complex affair. Think of ho much effort has been spent on making a computer program accessible to the layman. The two things are comparable. Good design is as arcane a science as computr programming.

            One way of spotting bad architecture, is to look for the overriding, dominating presence of one feature in a building which actually becomes a hindrance to the proper functioning of others. The exhibition of material wealth, for instance, has often hindered the experience of the comforts which that very wealth is supposed to bring; so many houses built against the hills of Kingston have become large, dank, amorphous lumps of cavernous concrete, they do not exhibit the hard-earned wealth they are supposed to represent; they merely exhibit a senseless waste of it. The overriding obsession with mere size has killed off people’s access to light and the fresh breeze, these wealthy people turn their back to the view they have paid so dearly for. As a consequence such buildings defeat their own purpose. They become the expensive obstacle to the pleasant life they were supposed to ensure. How easy it would have been to create a place which has that air about it which sustained success always carries: that air of being comfortable within one’s skin, that air of self-sustaining and independent confidence, that air, in short, that some people have as they walk across the road: self possessed with the whole world there for the taking.