Designing for the biscuit barrel

Rowan Moore wrote an intelligent, considered review in The Observer yesterday of FAT’s building for the BBC in Cardiff. This is a building with some very odd and special needs, in a very difficult position, and FAT’s response has been to treat the only element it can, the facade, and do so in a way that is both playful and thoughtful. Moore quotes Sean Griffiths of FAT saying one of those things that is so blindingly obvious that we often ignore it – at our peril. ‘Most people don’t go into most buildings,’ he says. ‘The facade is what they experience. If you mention the Taj Mahal, what people think of is the facade.’ This is both serious and naughty at the same time. Griffiths knows full well that his building will never be Cardiff’s Taj Mahal. It could just get on the odd biscuit tin, but it will never draw the crowds. Yet there is a truth in what he says about the way we experience buildings. Judged by weight of numbers, there are more ‘users’ passing by than actually entering buildings. So who is the client?

Buried in the piece is a rather depressing lesson. FAT, says Moore, would have liked to influence more than just the facade, to design key spaces such as the canteen, but this was not to be. ‘Computers and Excel spreadsheets make the world,’ Griffiths told Moore, ‘and it’s a strange assumption to think that architects have any power to change it.’ One has to admire his pragmatism, while deploring the circumstances that make it necessary. Clients, it seems, will spend money on pleasing the passer-by, but the occupants of buildings are not so favoured.







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