Health & Safety

March 1st, 2004

Will the destruction of the World Trade Centre give a new impetus to Health and Safety regulations?

I do not see this as a good thing. It will not be possible to build a fire-proof, bomb-proof, terrorist- proof building, any more than it is possible to lead a fire-proof, bomb-proof, terrorist free life. Risk is everywhere; the only way to eliminate risk is to eliminate life – something Fundamentalists round the world would enjoy. It is not only death we have to fear, it is the living death of a life regulated by fear.

I had an email from architect Cornelius Kavanagh, asking, ‘if I can buy a car that does 170mph, why can’t I buy a flat with no handrails?”

Once we begin to log the absurdities of our present obsession with safety, we find ourselves netted and sealed and sprayed and inspected, put behind special glass, smoke controlled, tested for load, caught on camera, emission free, non-plastic lined, no GM foods knowingly consumed, and only three units of alcohol a day.

None of this makes us safe, none of it ever will. There is no safety without risk, and what you risk reveals what you value.

What do we value in the twenty first century? Not human life, though we claim it as our priority. What’s the point of safety features on a Council Estate so hideous that it’s very existence is a threat?

I am heartened by the ‘Building for Life’ initiative. Soulless architecture is not bland; it is pernicious. Its effect is to deaden sensibility and coarsen our relationships with one another. The natural world is beautiful, and the natural world is our inheritance. I believe that humans are made for beauty – we respond to it and we need it. The bombed out wastelands of Afghanistan and the smashed heart of the inner cities of the West are places where terror and violence rule. We cannot make such places safe, not for the people who live there, and not for the rest of us.
We could start again…

Why does Health and Safety sound serious, while Health and Beauty sounds like an article in a women’s magazine?

Beauty is serious. I don’t mean ornament or prettiness. I mean harmony of line and form, arrangement of shapes, significant use of space, coherence between inner and outer – all the things you guys spend your lives thinking about. (don’t you?), and then the volume house builders come along and tell us that Boxes are what people want to buy.

Can people be educated about architecture? The difficulty is that so much of life is about turning away, trying not to notice things, getting through the day in a blur and collapsing at the other end. Good buildings ask for a response. When the environment is in dialogue with us, we can’t pretend there is nothing to say.

My agent in New York tells me that in the city of no eye contact, people are talking to each other all the time. Strangers are sharing taxis, stopping on street corners – all the talk is about the WTC.

Could we build a world where such exchanges would be commonplace, without war and disaster?

‘Build’ is the verb we use. Our language thinks in terms of bricks and mortar, steel and glass. If our imaginations are not aided by our environment, we must work in contradiction to it. Creative tension is useful, but what we need now is a coherence of thought and vision and design to make a better world possible. Safety is not enough.