Running your own business is a pretty good way of disabusing yourself of any lingering enthusiasm for state regulation and mandatory collective provision. That those in business tend to be capitalists is an obvious, platitudinous assertion but there remains one profession which is perversely immune to free-market reason and where public sector boosterism persists, my own: architecture.
If you take the most prominent prosperous ‘progressives’ subtract the entertainers and journalists, those cosseted in extravagant public sector sinecures and those endowed with a generous inheritance, you can be sure that there is a preponderance of architects among the ‘productive’ remainder. Take George Galloway’s podium partner and erstwhile Blair buddy: Richard Rogers. He is arguably one of Britain’s most celebrated architects and certainly one of its wealthiest, yet his political beliefs are barely more developed than the average student union firebrand.
The architectural media shares the same core assumptions about society, economics and the public sector as the likes of The Guardian, The Independent and the BBC and if you are unfortunate enough to wade through a turgidly worded missive from the Architect’s professional institutes – in Ireland we have the RIAI, in the UK, the RIBA – you will find little from which a Guardian-reading career bureaucrat would demur. Sustainability, Public Realm, Social Justice etc. etc.
Leaving aside the obvious fact that architects in the public sector or benefitting significantly from public sector work tend to favour an expanded public sector, there are a number of factors which explain why architects in general are often prone to left-leaning politics.
- Architects are romantics. What I mean is not so much that they will conjure up fantastical confections out of the most prosaic brief but that they romanticise their role as designers. Even the most talentless hack, plugging away in an overlit identikit box on an industrial estate churning out designs for yet more identikit boxes on industrial estates, secretly dreams of his life’s work being compiled into an Oeuvre Complete. Where everybody else sees his bland grey carpeted The Office, he sees a Corbusian atelier. One of the pre-requisites for the socialist mindset is the ability to post-rationalise, explain away or otherwise redefine the dogged refusal of real life to conform to marxist dogma. Architects have a head-start on everyone else in that they apply this process to the gap between their own self image and reality.
- Architects think in soft pencil. In the initial stages of any design, the most merciless, withering critic of an architect’s ideas is a finely sharpened 3H pencil lead. There is no room for ambiguity and no possible alternatives are suggested by a line which starkly delineates all the flaws and infelicities of your designs. A soft pencil flatters your proposals and elides – for the moment – the flaws. This is crucial for the design process but inculcates a propensity to fudge or avoid difficult questions, theoretically for later resolution. This way of thinking is excellently suited to designers and to subscribers of simplistic political philosophies.
- While most architects work in businesses which are subject to the same market forces as every other business there are two specific features of architectural practice which act to negate or at least deprecate the information the market is trying to impart. The first is the cherished notion that architectural practice is a vocation. This is drilled into students at architecture school and can be reinforced by the fact that, for many architects, architecture is a hobby as much as a career. Many architects hate to sully their relationship with a client by issuing a fee account and will often favour the client who offers them interesting schemes to design but consistently dodges payment over a stolid well paying but less imaginative client. The other is professional solidarity. In practice the world of architecture is no less prone to backstabbing than any other but in theory we imagine ourselves as “colleagues” and our professional code of conduct does not only apply to our relationship with our clients but also with each other.
- Architects are planners. Forgive me yet another obvious assertion but the point is that there is little that the architect imagines cannot be planned. If you can design a house, you can design furniture for that house or the city in which that house is located, so goes the thinking. If a chair, a house, a city, why not an economy?