Meeting a celebrity is something worth doing just for the anecdote. When I shared a trough urinal alongside one of the Proclaimers back in 1989, I was later able to tell my friends that I told him I was a twin. I don’t know which one I spoke to; it was bit awkward to offer a handshake and a formal introduction, but I guess he didn’t know which twin I was either. The actual meeting was mundane and underwhelming (especially for him) - it’s the opportunity to gild the lily in the pub that makes it worthwhile.

I thought my twin and I sharing a stage in Inverness during the 6 Cities Design Festival with the designer and erstwhile TV celebrity northerner Wayne Hemingway would be worthy of conversation.  This is the guy who founded the Red or Dead label, and has contributed to TV programmes such as the Premiership’s top 100 goals Scored by Foreigners. Unfortunately, none of my mates had ever heard of him. And without a celebrity, there is no anecdote.

But I’ll persevere on the blog, as the discerning reader(s) (being optimistic here) will realise that not only is Mr Hemingway a TV pundit, he is a fashion designer who now designs buildings. As someone in the media spotlight, Mr Hemingway's tirades against the quality of new housing estates spreading across Britain, did not go unnoticed.

Mr George Wimpey, growing increasingly upset, publicly challenged him to design something much better and make Wimpey Homes more money.  A few years later, Mr Wimpey is even wealthier, and Wayne Hemingway's housing designs are going from strength to strength. Apparently some architects think that he’s got some cheek.  He never went through the seven years of study and the boredom of contract law and administration.  And he doesn’t have the protected name of architect.  But Wayne, designer of glasses, T-shirts and other items that architects may sniff at as “accessories”, has achieved more in affordable housing design than all the Will Alsops and Norman Fosters of this world put together. So why is this?

The first thing you notice about the guy is his unquenchable enthusiasm, not just for design, but for people. When he designs housing, such as his development in Gateshead, he’s not trying to create great architecture, but great places.  Putting out the rubbish isn’t just waste disposal, but a chance for a lady in her dressing gown to meet a nice young man who becomes her second husband or her secret lover.  When residents hang their curtains or build their shed, they’re not spoiling the architect’s vision, but making the place their own, a place that has vibrancy and personality. Try looking at the locked-gate housing of Norman Foster’s on the Thames, and tell me if you see any joy and humanity amongst the glass, steel and earnest precision.

Wayne Hemingway wants kids to get dirty, build dens and kick balls against walls.  When a Health and Safety committee expressed concern that babies may eat the sand in his proposed play area, his answer was, don’t worry, we can get more sand. He urges people to keep <em>on</em> the grass, he wants us to experience beauty and joy in the most mundane tasks, like going to work or fetching the messages.

Before his presentation, he spent the day photographing Inverness, as he does with all towns he visits.  He showed slides of a new street where no resident was allowed to plant a flower or place a gnome, as it was in violation of the purchaser’s contract.  There was the terrace of housing, with the potentially wonderful vista to the Highland glens, which looked on to a ten feet high fence.  And a modern, beautifully detailed church sitting in an American-style parking lot, where you had to worship not just God, but the motor vehicle. It was, self evidently, dreadful. No developers, no planners, no councillors had turned up to the meeting.  They were to blame, and we waited for the knife to be twisted. But Wayne held his ire for the architects, many of us who were sitting complacently in the room.  He told us we weren’t doing enough, that we were complicit.  What sort of designers don’t go back and ask their clients what they did wrong and how they could improve?  Architects.  What was it with us guys? In fact, I sensed he was staring straight at me when he said this, and I might have replied if I had had an answer.

But I’ve been thinking about it.

Firstly, most practices aren’t lead by millionaires like Wayne – we have a constant worry about fee income and paying wages, so are compromised by the bullying client, who wants the same service for his buck.  When we ask, how can we improve, we’re told – cut your fees.  But secondly, a lot of architects are doing great housing in Scotland.

It’s just swamped by the mundane and the dead hand of Roads Department technical standards, where development money is frittered away on roundabouts and streetlights. But it’s pretty lame. What are architects doing about it?

We have to speak to planners and seek common cause – they should be our comrades in battle against mediocrity, not the enemy. We should enthuse about good design to our clients, backing it up with historical precedents, examples from abroad, and evidence that it makes financial sense.  We should challenge our politicians at council level and above to aspire to create better communities, to visualise themselves as civic leaders who can leave a legacy to their community and country.  We should become developers and civic leaders ourselves, rather than leaving it to the moneymen and jobsworths, who lack the flair and aspiration that comes with being a designer.

We should be more like Mr Hemingway.

Fortunately, to ease the gloom that had descended on his audience, he also showed slides of a beautiful Inverness, of grand Victorian buildings in vibrant streets, a beautiful pedestrian suspension bridge over the Ness, and a fallen tree, where council workers had chiselled eyes and a mouth to transform it in to a snake.  There was even some beautiful modern architecture.

But what about the star twin attractions you may ask, the people that everybody had come to see?  Well, Ali pointed out that we were invited as a pair, and that since the age of two he had been trying to forge his own identity, but he was obviously failing. A bit like Craig.....or is it Charlie?

Next Post
Playing a Blinder by Neil Stephen