My route into architecture was not a direct one. Being conscious, for some time, of not being an architect has made me, I think, more conscious of being an architect. More aware, perhaps, than others of the things that only architects see and the things that only architects know. More tuned in to the long, drawn-out procedure that is required to become an architect.
At this time of year, we start to think about taking on young architect graduates when they leave university in June – a process we take very seriously, as we do their transition from student to practising architect. I am always heartened by their enthusiasm and dedication, but I’m also intrigued by how much they have yet to learn, despite their extensive education.
Take, as an example, the threshold at the entrance to a building. What will they know? They will be aware of the importance of ‘entrance’, and they will have some knowledge of materials and building construction. They will most likely be able to refer to some memorable examples by 20th-century masters such as Le Corbusier or Carlo Scarpa. And they will be aware of some notable ancient ones too in, for instance, English cathedrals or Greek temples.
They will know that when man first wandered into a cave, or erected that first shelter in the woods, he inadvertently invented the concepts of ‘inside' and ‘outside' and simultaneously, by implication, the line separating one from the other. This line that is both literal and metaphorical and that has been used down the ages in literature and poetry, to denote the transition from one state of being to another. One world to another.
However, and not to put too fine a point on it, will our young architect be able to design the threshold of a building in sufficient detail that someone else will be able to construct it satisfactorily and with sufficient quality that the client will consider it delightful? Or, to use that other test of architectural success, not notice it? Answer: Unlikely.
But let’s not be too hard on our ardent young architect. Even with an intensive course like architecture, it is impossible to pick up the sheer weight of skill and knowledge required to design every building element down to the finest detail on day one. The threshold to a building may well be considered to be of fundamental importance and therefore worthy of concentrated attention. But then again, what element of a building is not of fundamental importance?
And anyway, you would have thought that after 5000 years of building, the profession would have figured out the ultimate threshold solution by now! But there are no ultimate solutions in architecture because mankind is drawn to novelty as much as it is drawn to consistency. As soon as something is perfected, it is time to move on and reinvent it, regardless of whether the reinvention is an improvement or not.
While our relationship with continuity is ambivalent, we also find that technology, materials, regulations and society’s expectations of performance are also, always on the move. So our poor young architect will soon realise, if they hadn’t already, that the world that they aspire to join is in a constant state of flux. (I have spent the whole of my career to date working with the transition from British to European Standards. No prizes for guessing what the rest of my career is going to involve)!
And when you think more deeply about the design of the external threshold to a modern building you quickly conclude that it is a complex junction. Not only does it need to allow for the safe passage of those with walking difficulties or wheeled transport, but it also has to keep out the wind and the rain. Increasingly, it needs to be air-tight. The thermal continuity has to be maintained between floor and walls and door. There can be no gaps. And while it is somewhat simpler to design the threshold of an outward-opening door, most entrance doors are inward-opening for reasons of welcome and protection, and this makes things much more difficult.
So, I have every sympathy for our young architect. On leaving architecture school and starting work, they may think they’re about to step across a threshold as if it were something of narrow, finite and constant width. But if this particular threshold had dimensions, they would be as deep and as broad as an entire career, and they would change over time. It’s a threshold that will never finally be crossed. But its probably best not to let on just yet.
"…..a threshold is a line which separates two territories of spirit, and very often how we cross is the key thing” - John O’Donohue
This article was written by Andy Foster for the May 2018 edition of the Sherborne Times.