Any broad-minded property folk who suspect the industry’s jaundiced stereotype of architects is outdated should download Amanda Levete’s appearance on Desert Island Discs. She was straight out of Central Casting.
The principal of Stirling Prize-winning AL_A sprinkled her 45-minute slot with adages that sounded like rich pickings for Private Eye’s “Luvvies” or “Pseuds’ Corner”. For instance, “I was a very heady, romantic adolescent; and I wanted to be French; I smoked Disques Bleus. I listened to French music. I read a lot of French literature,” mused the native of Bridgend, Wales.
Somewhat predictably, most of her chosen discs were foreign language (but incongruously, included ‘Uptown Girl’ performed by Irish boyband Westlife).
She revealed a “fairly bohemian and sometimes chaotic” upbringing. Mother was a performance artist, who among other things brought dance therapy to prisons; father dreamed of a career as an actor but settled grudgingly for merchant banking - presumably on realising the school fees weren’t going to pay themselves.
Levete was asked not to return to the £7,671-a- term St Paul’s Girls’ School after sunbathing naked on the roof of the science block rather than attending her biology lesson below. “When I look back at myself, I think ‘yeah, that was pretty cool’.”
This was clearly the right stuff for the Architectural Association, the incubation unit for generations of British ‘starchitects’, which waved through the young Levete despite not being in possession of a maths A-level or, indeed, any drawings of buildings at the interview. “I think they probably saw that I was quite an independently minded, free-spirited character.”
Somewhat predictably, most of Amanda Levete’s chosen discs were foreign language
There followed stints with AA alumni Will Alsop and Richard Rogers before she joined and married celebrated ‘neofuturistic’ architect Jan Kaplický at Future Systems. Bankruptcy threatened, then the firm won the RIBA’s top accolade for its globular Lord’s Media Centre and the rest is history.
The marriage, however, failed to survive and Levete now heads her own minimalistically titled practice. A strange quirk is shoes are frowned on - even for clients.
“When you come into our office and there’s this big messy pile of shoes, it speaks of the individuals in the office. But it also speaks of a sense of common endeavour and collaboration.”
At that point, the dial on my tosh-ometer went off the scale.
Industry’s ‘great divide’
Before I start to sound too much like the definition of a well-balanced Scotsman (a chip on both shoulders), there’s a broader point to this rant. It’s not about her, it’s about the industry’s ‘great divide’. (And I’d like to point out that some of my best friends are architects, but they manage not to sound teeth-grindingly pretentious).
I analysed the castaways over the past 75 years. A total of 11 architects or architectural historians made it to the island. Only two property leaders have appeared (although it’s debatable whether the Duke of Westminster or Arts Council chairman Lord Palumbo were chosen entirely for their development prowess). That’s a bit shocking given that there’s a rich vein of larger-than-life characters and stirring tales of human triumph over adversity in the property and construction sectors.
Take, for instance, Berkeley Group’s Tony Pidgley, brought up by gypsies before going on to reshape London’s housing market. Or Heron’s Gerald Ronson, a titan of the industry. Or the late Sir Frank Lampl, who survived a concentration camp, formed Bovis Construction and then turned architectural castaway Lord Rogers’ designs for the Lloyd’s Building into reality.
As telling as the general absence of property’s great unwashed is the Desert Island Discs website’s categorisation of architects under “arts, fashion and design”, while the lone brace of developers appear under “business”. Did the Duke and the peer have to enter Broadcasting House via the tradesman’s entrance?
Given this ‘upstairs, downstairs’ view of the industry, is it any surprise, therefore, that talented school leavers queue up for architectural colleges while other professions struggle to attract talent? The reality is architectural colleges churn out too many graduates even in the good times, but they often face penury before anyone else in each downturn (a situation Levete endured before winning the Stirling Prize).
Here’s an idea for a racy property saga to start to redress 75 years of hurt for the rest of the industry. Invite the Candy brothers - currently titillating the national papers, not just the property press. They would share the distinction of becoming only the second duo (after Ant and Dec) to spend time on the tropical island. Imagine the development potential.