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In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Tuesday October 20 2015

A house, said Modernist Architecture Le Corbusier famously, is a “machine for living in”.  Something very similar can be said about all buildings.  They are machines to do stuff in, and their number one requirement is that they should work properly.  Do the job.  Not break.  Not leak.  Not collapse.  Not be a struggle to occupy, work in or live in.  They should be nice for people to be in.

But merely working is not the only thing that this strange thing called “architecture” must do.  It may also be required to decorate, excite attention, amaze, astonish.  It may also be required to be, as they now say, an “icon”.

These two distinct sorts of working - working as a machine, working as a means of exciting admiration and awe - described in my two previous paragraphs, often conflict.  If all that architecture had to do was tick over successfully, without problems, then building would evolve, cautiously.  There would be no grand gestures, no new styles.

But new styles there are.  And when they first get started, new styles often involve lots of dumb mechanical decisions.  What can happen is that the architect is so concerned to make his icon look iconic that he forgets to, I don’t know, stop the windows leaking.  New styles cause mundane stuff to go wrong.

Illustration, this piece of early post-modernism:

image

This iconic Thing is the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago.  But, it now faces demolition.  Reason?  It doesn’t work, as a machine for working in:

“This building is ineffective,” claimed governor Bruce Rauner in a news conference. “For the people who work here, all of whom are eager to move somewhere else, it’s noisy. It’s hard to meet with your colleagues. It’s hard to move through the building, very ineffective, noise from downstairs, smells from the food court all get into the offices.”

The 17-storey, nearly one-million-square-foot (92,903 square meters) government centre opened in 1985, and is known for its canted and curved glass exterior and massive interior atrium containing a food court and transit entrance with offices arrayed above.

image

“Hearkening back to the grand domes of earlier government structures, such as the state capitol in Springfield, the southeast profile is a slice of a hollow sphere, clad in curved blue glass and salmon-coloured steel,” said the Chicago Architecture Foundation in its listing for the building. “The populist Postmodernism continues inside.”

The structure serves as the state government’s Chicago headquarters – the Illinois state capital is Springfield. But maintenance problems, high operational costs, and functional issues have plagued the building since it opened.

Rauner estimates the building needs $100 million (£64.7 million) worth of deferred repairs. In 2009, a large granite panel fell off one of the pedestrian arcades, prompting the removal the remaining slabs. The building has also been infested with pests.

Libertarians often claim that cock-ups like these are a classic public sector problem, and that observation has merit.  The public sector is notorious for overspending on the buildings themselves, and then imposing foot-shootingly false economies on maintenance.  Public buildings where the political will to maintain, so to speak, has wavered, can end up looking very run-down, as does much publicly owned space generally.  This is because no one person or organisation owns the thing.  No individual or small group of individuals makes clear gains if the building continues to look its part and do its job.  No individual or small group of individuals makes clear losses if maintenance is skimped on.  No one is accountable, to use a word constantly used by political people, because they so regularly feel the lack of it in the arrangements they nevertheless keep on recommending.

Further evidence comes from industrial innovation, largely now done by the private sector (albeit often heavily regulated), where innovation is done with a combination of determination and caution, with an awareness that innovation must happen, yet is hazardous.  But even there, this trade-off is often mismanaged.  The private sector doesn’t avoid error.  It is merely better at liquidating it than the public sector is.

There may be sufficient political will to preserve this Chicago Government Center, more than there might have been if it was privately owned and hence costing an owner a not-small fortune.  But it if is preserved, will the will to maintain continue to be inadequate?  Very probably.

A key question to be asked about this building is: If it must be preserved, is the building worth anything at all?  If it isn’t then there will be no buyer for it if it must be preserved, and the Chicago taxpayers will have to go on maintaining it.  And Chicago’s taxpayers right now face other and bigger problems.