preserve of geniuses

I’ve been watching some British TV shows – detectives, lawyers and doctors in small towns and villages – and marveling at how addicting they are.  They are well written – the ones I’m hooked on – the acting is strong and the filming / editing lush.  And the combination makes a show that is technically rich with a human vulnerability built in that draws you to the story and characters.  Layers of broad brush and detail finely cut and a steady parade of exceptional actors:  technique and humanity in a fine balance.  Their great appeal is in the quiet strength and nuance of their craft.

To talk about craft in the electronic age is clearly a throwback.  Our houses are not of clay and wattle made; often they’re factory built by speculators.  In America consumer goods are made in enormous factories and now even more in industrial towns in China.  Everyone works in finance, IT, Google.  So is there a place for a conversation about craft among the ones and zeros?

We don’t have good cities because we, as a society, are fixated on geniuses instead of being committed to craft, says Alain de Botton in the following interview with Monocle magazine editor, excerpted below.  Typically craft is pitted against technique in our discourse on the topic, but interestingly this critic sees our star culture as the biggest threat to the simply and beautifully made environment.

The buildings in our cities that we care about most are the hip new museums and multi million dollar apartments and private parks.  There is a veritable media scrum – Dezeen, Daily Dose, BLDGBLOG, MoCo Loco – that buzzes around these perfectly designed objects and the starchitects who conceive them.  The media is singular in its intent:  to provide catwalks for the very sexiest buildings, created by star and rising star designers, presented in rarified, contextless environments.   The persistent gaze of the public is directed relentlessly toward the perfect object, and by implication, away from history’s most hopeful and enlivening environment, the simply and well crafted city.

To be fair, genius and its beautiful products make our critical avant garde; they throw up sign posts for better direction and design.  But the argument being made is that committing to geniuses alone gives us mere flashes of beauty when what we need to build great places to live in is often very ordinary.

Here is an interview in which he discusses cities, diversity of ideas, contemporary work, light industry, the creative class, the 24 hour city.  Brimming with good ideas.

An excerpt from the linked clip:

Tyler Brule:

Why don’t you think there is more benchmarking?  Because you said, we’ve been building cities for millennia and if we look east at what’s happening in the gulf as well.  I think people are going to have vast tracts of land where people are going to be very unhappy, with long driveways and surrounded by walls and no gardens.  And we look at the Palms and the Worlds and all of these things.  I mean really no sense of community.  Why aren’t we learning from best practices and cities which are inspired?

Alain de Botton:

I think part of the problem is the idea that architecture is the preserve of geniuses, rather than craftsmen.  There’s a competition over what architecture is really about.  I think good architecture is closer to carpentry.


We’re in the world of the bizarre and the strange.  If you look at the gulf states, or any of the modern cities springing up around the world, architects are vying with each other to create shapes that are ever more peculiar, that are sort of frightening and terrifying and horrifying.  But the idea of the ordinary is in decline.  Because I think that at the end of the day a good city is kind of ordinary, just like a table is quite ordinary.  Now you can have genius at the level of the ordinary and you can have mediocrity at the level of the extraordinary.  And I think that’s the distinction that these developers are missing.

Q&A: Alain de Botton, Monocle Magazine

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

You should check out this innovative and ingenious guy He’s a bit Heath Robinson at times, but that’s no bad thing.

Comment by blackwatertown

Thanks for the link – v interesting artist. I like the screw in coffins. Ingenious inventor and social critic all in one.

Comment by Peter Rudd

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