The Bartlett, one of the most esteemed schools of architecture in the country, a part of University College London, is the subject of a damning report. Produced by the investigation firm Howlett Brown, it found evidence of bullying, racism, sexual harassment and a “boys’ club” of staff who protected one another from complaints. It reported allegations that a “senior leader” mocked, demeaned and verbally attacked female students and made sexist comments to them. The Bartlett, said the report, suffered from “a toxic culture spanning decades”.
There may be lessons for the teaching and practice of architecture more widely. For years, both have been susceptible to a hero complex where the cause of great architecture is so exalted that almost no sacrifice is too much to be made in its name. Students are encouraged to work impossible hours, enduring nights without sleep. They then have to present their work in sessions known as “crits”, in front of fellow students, to be praised or dismembered by their teachers and eminent visiting critics.
This culture gets carried into practice, where the price for working in glamorous practices has often been impossible hours for low pay. Clients, too, might be expected to pay the price for genius; some of the most admired works in architectural history are houses whose cost drove their owners to the brink of bankruptcy and whose malfunctions drove them to despair. The ultimate winners were the architects who became celebrities and went into history books, but there is a lot of human wreckage along the way.
It is important to distinguish specific instances of abuse at the Bartlett (and, as are likely to emerge, at other schools) from a more generalised culture, but it’s easy to see how, given an extreme inequality of power between star architects and slaving students, one might foster the other. One can only hope a more humane profession emerges.
The last phone booth in New York has been removed. This would be sad news for Clark Kent, left with nowhere to change into Superman, and for nostalgists for all those movie detectives and desperate lovers who yelled vital messages on stormy streets while shovelling change into the phone slots. But the booths have at last gone the way of carrier pigeons and telegrams.
In Britain, we are nowhere near that stage, in part because many are listed structures, as examples of the famous red K2 and K6 phone boxes, rolled out from 1926 and 1936 respectively. Instead, their owner BT lets them rot, with fading paintwork, broken windowpanes and litter-filled floors, conceivably to help build a case for their removal. This would be a dereliction of BT’s responsibility as custodians of historic structures, but it may have a point. The K2 and K6 were designed to tidy up the clutter caused by the first appearance of less orderly and elegant booths. Now, though, these redundant objects, even if well kept, are themselves clutter.
State of the nation
A friend sends me some writing on the state of Britain. “A parasitic rather than a competitive economy… ” it says, “the best country in the world to be rich and leisured in: a place for foreign millionaires to buy themselves estates.” It has the ring of truth. The only thing is, it was published in 1968 by the historian Eric Hobsbawm in his Industry and Empire and was describing the years before the First World War. Not much seems to have changed in the century and more since then.