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Antwerp: A Creative City



The world is at a difficult juncture now as we enter the autumn of 2011.

If you are of the view that architecture, an art when at its best, expresses the hopes of people for the future - in practice usually the next few years - then what might be read from its current state?

Firstly, that it is very pluralistic; that you can have any style of architecture that you want.

Secondly, that it is a little bland, a little dominated by the available building materials and construction techniques.

Both are reassuring in their way. There are no ominous cultural overtones as in the architecture of the thirties in the European Axis power countries. So although the world is replaying some of the domination by finance and monopoly found in the thirties in America, the cultural solutions people are seeking to those problems do not appear to be the same.

Thirdly, and most important of all, architecture is non-hierarchical and is not moving towards more hierarchy (for an example see Antwerp's Museum Aan De Stroom, opened in 2011).

If it were it would indicate a wish to ossify social structures around existing institutions and wealth distribution.

There are no trends towards collectivist architecture either - another good sign.

Though architects are usually accepting of some hierarchy, it is rarely in their interests to enter a chain of elaborate hierarchy (though designing hierarchical looking buildings is fine).

This relates partly to the traditional positioning of the older liberal professions - architecture, medicine, law - in society.

Once qualified and with a practice, the members of these professions were substantially independent of feudal, religious and political hierarchies for their bread and butter, if not for eye-catching commissions, positions and honour.

Liberal professionals could not be ordered about in a way that others could. They were consulted for their knowledge.

Every hour commissions would walk through the door of physicians.

For architects it was much less often (but on the compensating side, the profession came early to full competence. Ask who in the seventeenth century you would have trusted most to get it all right - Sir Christopher Wren or the most eminent physician?)

For lawyers it was something in between in terms of frequency but for them positioning in hierarchies was more beneficial - seniority counted and many advocates aspired to become judges.

Veterinary medicine and dentistry are perhaps closer to architecture in harbouring some reservations about the usefulness to their professions of hierarchies.

A horse's colic is not going to be treated any better by the vet entering a hierarchy.

Professions do not necessarily take kindly to non-professionals establishing hierarchies above them. The fury of part of a generation of general practitioners in Britain, now mostly retired, at being handed down instructions from bureaucracy for over a decade in the National Health Service ought not to be underestimated. Their subtle influence nearly delivered them total triumph as the first proposals to abolish regional health authorities and primary health trusts and hand all commissioning to GPs emerged.

The use of marketing techniques in the surgery, imposed from on high, has hardly endeared general practice to patients either.

For the architect as professional hero, try the eighteenth-century Scottish architect, Robert Adam.

His father, William Adam, also an architect, owned land and sent Robert and his brother James to do the Grand Tour before becoming architects. Robert emerged as perhaps the greatest of all Neoclassical architects. Although the classical orders are intrinsically hierarchical, his exquisite designs attenuate the architectonic and only when he designed exteriors did he much use hierarchical elements.

If insulation from having to take orders is a part of liberty somewhat under-treated by philosophers, Robert Adam had it in triple form - by having a liberal profession, by being a member of the minor gentry and by being an entrepreneur - though his professional handling of aristocratic clients must have been first class given that he and William Chambers became the most fashionable architects of his generation in Britain.

Though the lives of Adam and Chambers can be post-rationalised as very successful careers, most liberal professionals did not view their lives as a careers (careers were for people who had to stick with their employer, often for life) but as a series of commissions or projects that they undertook.

Careers are often now a post-rationalised construct of a jumble of jobs, a concept of the last 20 years.

Though one would hesitate to push the old liberal professional model as one for others, we are entering a world where the material needs of the advanced economies (and it is a pity it is not all economies) can be met without employing everyone, or at least full-time.

So a life viewed as a series of projects may be the better, more rewarding, construct.

If great economic change is under way, part of the solution to problems has to be to change the way people work.

We do not know if Robert Adam derived most of his income as an architect, from land or as an entrepreneur (we do know he had difficulties in the latter capacity but one can be grateful for the elegant buildings he built speculatively with his brother in the Adelphi and Portland Place) but more people are going to have to be like him, deriving money from one source to support what they want to do in another.

(It is worth noting that schools of architecture now quite often pay for all of a cohort of students to make a field trip together to places like Rome for their own equivalent of a Grand Tour.)

Being a liberal professional is a state of being, like being a cat or dog. It is not a position or office granted to you. The vet does not stop being a vet when she retires or when she does not practice though the banker may cease being a banker when he leaves a bank.

So not too seriously, in the spirit of cat and dog fighting, liberal professionals could take issue with John Rawls' social contract argument that:

1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others. (The Liberty Principle)

2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be everyone's advantage and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all. (The Difference Principle)

2(b) is outrageous gatekeeping.

Why must positions or offices be held to qualify for differential social and economic advantages?

Why cannot the lottery winner (apart from the incredible odds against doing such a double) or the man in the street buy a horse that wins the Derby, conferring no position or office upon him, but delivering social and economic advantage to him?

No institution or country conferred the title of architect on Robert Adam and if one had it is not a position or office.