Opinion Piece by Guest Author, Paul Iddon ARB RIBA

Creating a building of distinction requires extraordinary design and materials.

Not all buildings are created equal. When it comes to architecture, there are extraordinary briefs and settings that demand an extraordinary response. The interesting thing is that anyone can sense when a building is special, when it has been loved, agonised over, lavished with care and attention to detail. We can feel it in our bones, and we know it matters. The idea of ‘civic pride’ may seem a bit 1950’s, but ask any resident of Barcelona, Sydney or New York and they will tell you in effusive terms of love for their city and what makes it special. As you read this, I can confidently predict you already have a particular building in each case in your head – am I right?

This is the remarkable power of architecture at the highest watermark, it is imprinted on our collective unconscious because it represents the pinnacle of human achievement. Architecture is called the mother of the arts for good reason.

If you have been lucky enough to witness first-hand the genius of Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the innovative triumph of Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, or William van Alen’s art deco landmark Chrysler Building on Lexington Avenue, you will have been enriched for ever. There are many more all over the world, but you get the point. There is no substitute for quality, and it shows.

I would add to the list of world-class architecture, some examples closer to home. The magnificent response to the iconic Manchester Town Extension’s stone tracery was lovingly referenced by architect Simpson Haugh at No.2 St. Peter’s Square shown above. It is a building fit for probably the most important public space in the city.

Another stunning example is the Victoria and Albert Museum in Dundee by Kengo Kuma and Associates. A radical addition to the city’s waterfront, with its unmistakable references to the ruggedly beautiful Scottish landscape.

What do they all have in common?

Remarkable expression through their design and materials. Impact created through a powerful combination of quality, simplicity and clarity of form. To architects and those acquainted with the history of Imperial Rome, the ‘Vitruvian Triad’ is still the measure of architecture and has been for over 2000 years. Developed by Emperor Augustus’ chief architect and military engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio 80-15 BCE and described with beautiful simplicity in three Latin words: Firmitatis, Utilitatis, Venustatis.

These three qualities Vitruvius believed every structure should possess, most commonly translated as Commodity (appropriate design of spatial accommodation and setting on the site, i.e., good planning), Firmness (Stability and build quality i.e., excellence in detail and construction), and Delight (Beauty and attractiveness in appearance). These cases are such an incredible success because they all possess these three simply stated qualities. But achieving them is extraordinarily difficult and is as clear as day when manifested in the world.

When it comes to facades of distinction, it is the second, Firmness, that holds the key to success even with the most brilliant concept. The material from which it is built defines its longevity and resilience to the ravages of climate and time. The examples in Manchester and Dundee use precast concrete manufactured to exacting specification, in order to stand solid and proud in the extremely variable climate of the British Isles, coupled with the environmental challenges of pollutants in North Cheshire basin or exposure and salinity of the Tay estuary.

“To build sustainably, we should build for centuries”

This material is noble, robust and durable. Perfectly in tune with the requirements of the highest quality demanded by the public realm. It is axiomatic amongst architects that sustainable design, especially in buildings of such note, should be based not just on a sensitivity to embodied carbon, but also their resilience and longevity. We should, of course, leave no stone unturned in striving for low carbon materials and a healthy circular economy, but as a first principle, to build sustainably, we should aim to build for centuries. The architecture that means the most to our civilisation, has the quality that last many lifetimes. Is part of the fabric of our shared history.

That means paying attention to the creation of buildings of distinction, with facades of distinction.

Paul Iddon ARB RIBA,

Owner / Director 
Agency PSI Ltd
Vice President – Manchester Society of Architects
RIBA NW Council Member