June 6th, 2006


Spare us the cutter!

Having spent hours yesterday clicking through rented accommodation on Immobilienscout, I'm left with a depressingly familiar feeling, a feeling I get when confronted with markets of all kinds. I'd sum it up in this peevish complaint:

"Listen, I'm about to spend a large amount of money on something. At least give me some exciting designs, some eccentricity, some choice in exchange for my money! What's with this cookie cutter stuff? This ultra-conformist super-conservatism? Is there only one basic model of anything at any given time?"

Alas, all too often it seems that the answer is "There is only one basic model of anything at any given time." That's why, ultimately, mass production consumer society is a joke and a lie. There actually isn't any choice at all. There's nothing to get excited about spending your money on (should you have any) because nobody dares to stick their neck out. You see fresh ideas at design school degree shows, sure. But by the time they get to market... well, they just don't get to market. The cookie-cutter stamps out the standard shape of apartment, of car, of watch, of trouser, and discards everything else, throwing weird dough back to the bin as offcuts and misshapes.

Basically, what I see in the Berlin housing market is the same apartment, time and again. It's got textured white wallpaper and shiny wooden floors. It's always got the same bathroom, of pristine, clinical white tiles. It has a balcony and is located in a terraced apartment building with no elevator. It's an unfurnished shell, a hollow cookie. If you want to live in an industrial loft or a shop unit, forget it: that's gewerbe, commercial space. If you want to live in a water tower, you're tilting at windmills. You'd think, with the World Cup on and the city full of giant footballs, there'd be an influx of Soccer Ball Homes to rent. No chance, mate. Radical forms, it seems, stay in the realm of advertising, art, sport, industry and science. When it comes to rented accommodation, people want the same old vanilla-flavoured cookie.

Now, at least Berlin has a healthy rented accommodation market. Britain, once a nation of renters, hardly has any left, and what little there is comes gruesomely furnished.

But why is it that the kinds of experimental buildings illustrated in the photos on this page -- buildings by Atelier Tekuto's Yasuhiro Yamashita, taken from his interview with Design Boom by way of Jean Snow -- can only be found in the private sector? To escape from the cookie cutter, it seems, you have to have the money to employ an artisan to make a one-off design. And even then, it helps to be in a country like Japan, where over-tight, vanilla-friendly planning permission restrictions aren't going to force you to "respect the surrounding context" (which is probably deeply banal and old-fashioned anyway).

It's not as if Yamashita is even that radical. His Cell Brick and Crystal Brick houses, for instance, are simply cubes. Yes, they play games with scale, their tiny windows making small structures look huge. Yes, they look more like offices than private living spaces. But surely they're the sort of thing that everybody should have the choice to live in, and that every designer would come up with if they had the slightest spark of playfulness or originality? They're probably not even that expensive to build.

We live in a cookie-cutter world, a world of pathological conformity and a stunning lack of flair. There are some consolations, though. Forgetting its soul-crushingly boring exterior, you can at least decorate the inside of your house with something architecturally interesting (my inflatable dome serves this purpose). Or you can visit as many original public buildings as possible (Berlin has embassies and museums designed by some of the world's most celebrated architects). You can spend time in cars or planes or airports (which at least feel like they were designed sometime in the present), or content yourself with the unbounded (but unapplied) imagination to be found in art galleries. Or you can retreat to the screen of your computer. After all, as I sang once, "a digital city's more easily changed than a city of concrete".