I have never visited Paris, but I have just last night visited a fantastic exhibition of excellent buildings and spaces, right here at the grand old Athenaeum in Central Port Elizabeth, called “100% Paris”
Visiting exhibitions and events of this sort always gets me thinking and this time was no exception. It got me thinking about “Excellence” and especially excellence in the built environment. What is it? What is its purpose? Has its time passed? Is excellence a means to an end? Or is excellence an end in itself?
Because, I am quite sure, if you were to ask anyone who ever visited, Paris, or London or any other beautiful city, to speak of what was most memorable of their visit, they would speak of the built environment. They would speak of the bridges, the steeples and the spires. They would speak of the parks, the walkways and the avenues.
I am pretty confident, that after having returned from London or Paris, you would not speak of how neatly the accountants prepare their balance sheets, or with what precision the doctors sew up their stiches after an appendectomy. Yes, of course these disciplines are indispensable to our civilisation, but we must confront the truth that there is something very significant and lasting about the impression that the built environment makes on us
So, what about Port Elizabeth? Yes, we have some beautiful places. We have the Donkin Memorial, City Hall and Feather Market Centre. We have an extraordinary collection of buildings, parks and spaces in Central. There are some parts of our city that are truly excellent, but many of these are all very old buildings and places. So, I ask: are we still able to create excellent spaces? Or, have we moved into and era beyond ” the end of excellence”?
I ask this because, excellence is under threat. Around the world it is being beaten up and kicked in the teeth. Excellence is being bludgeoned simultaneously by a gang of three thugs.
I am not afraid to name them.
Thug number 1 – “Mediocrity”: “Mediocrity” is a politically correct thug. “Mediocrity” says that perusing excellence is unfair because then not everyone gets a chance. “Why should people that are un-talented, unmotivated and generally useless not also get a chance?”
Thug Number 2 – “Competition”: “Competition” is dressed like a respectable accountant, but still very much a thug. “Competition” says that “if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed”. “What makes Central better than Charlo? What makes the North End Stadium better than the Boet Erasmus? What makes Architect A, better than Architect B? Show me the calculation! Is it longer? Is it heavier? Does it have more light bulbs?”
Thug Number 3 – “Compliance”: “Compliance” is a mouse-like, lawyer-like, thug? Compliance says “excellence” what is this? Where in the rules does it say we have to create an excellent city? “Compliance” says, we have made rules designed for stopping corruption and thievery, “What more do you want?”.
The sad news is that these three thugs have taken over public and private sector property developers. The people that build our cities are now controlled by these thugs or have become their agents. Where excellence still happens, it happens because of the super human efforts of isolated individuals in the public and private sectors, who, in spite of the odds being stacked against them, see to the delivery of excellent buildings and spaces. Even today. Even in our city.
The private sector routinely delivers mediocre buildings and spaces because it appeals only to the mediocre tastes and expectations of you and I, the people who frequent their mindless malls, rent spaces in their sterile office parks. The public sector routinely delivers a mediocre built environment, for the same reason as the public sector, but they are also absolutely determined to see each and every individual participant in the long sequence of events that leads up to anything getting built, is equally as mediocre, “So that everyone can get a chance.”
The private sector explains that it has no choice, it must remain competitive. It explains that the stock market will punish it if it were to waste money on creating an excellent built environment. “So as long as our competitors can get away with building poor environments, then so will we.” The Public sector, explains that “We are dealing with tax payer’s money here. There must be competition, to show that we paid bottom dollar.”
The private sector says to the public. “I have done everything you have asked of me. I have got the EIA, the TIA and the HIA. I am exhausted. I have complied. Where does it say I have to develop excellent buildings?” The public sector says pretty much the same, but is even more exhausted by the complex internal compliance procedures required to so much as move a pencil from one desk to another. There really is no time and energy left to champion such niceties as “excellence”.
Yes, it is sad. Yes, it is demoralising. But it is the brutal truth. Excellence everywhere is under attack and none so more than in the built environment. But, I ask: Is it the End of excellence?
My attempt is to convince you that it is not the end. Yes we are under attack from these three mindless thugs. Yes we are bleeding. But there are things we can do.
And while there are still things that can be done, it cannot be the end.
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Article source: http://mype.co.za/new/2014/07/the-end-of-excellence/