I take up my position on the bench. The desk in front of me stretches out left and right, almost to the full length of the warehouse. On either side of this long, plain table there are architects and assistant architects on full production. A very human silence permeates every corner of this post- industrial void, wrapping itself around the cold steel beams, seeping into the porous painted clay of the internal brickwork, and pushing up to the metal framed windows. Maybe it’s not the eternal silence of a mausoleum; nor that of prayer in the cavernous half- light of a medieval cathedral, but to the ears of an ex bricklayer it’s pretty close. With each tap of the keys, each click of the mouse, the dream of becoming another Denys Lasdun* leaks into the ether. I am a ‘Cad Monkey’*.
Behind me there’s an alcove. It is still part of the free flow of space, the same material, the same white paint but set back from the main room. In this niche the polite, rounding figure of Hilary Flotsam, the Director, sits. Solitary wisps of blond hair remain on the predominately bald landscape of his head. His soporific tones, like a distant boys’ choir flow into the telephone all day. They burble and caress, it’s a sound from an out of reach echelon, a hollow somewhere in Arcadia, a cantata too refined to decipher. Apart from the tapping of the keys it’s the only sound that compromises the silence but I’ve no idea what it means.
I get up and free flow through an opening to the kitchen. The same white, the same original metal Bauhaus but not quite Bauhaus windows look out across the panorama of mixed- use buildings. It could be viewed as bleak but this is one of London’s most celebrated backyards. A solid brick tenement block reminds me of a previous era when public housing had value. I can feel the texture of the multi- hued common brick, slightly darker and more considered than the usual industrial staple. I sense the brick in my hand, I can measure its weight, like a spin bowler with a new ball. I twirl and flip then press it down to the building line, just a millimetre away, the mortar pushes out and before it can offend the brick’s face a swift stroke takes the excess and butters the next brick: rhythm; skill; order; and so these little entities, these units of fired earth find their purpose. I can finely judge each movement brick after brick until Victorian London stands – church, school, factory, pump house, dwelling, sewer, brick on brick.
A band of creatives flutter by, dressed down and tidy. Light, bright new Edwardians, they pass a leftover wall, whitewashed, sprayed expertly in thick flecks of black to form a giant rat. Ah,there’s Nadja avoiding the pulse of cycles, (bygone lovelies rattling their way to broadway). She’s late for work, her hair is platted today and she’s wearing one of those traditional Belarusian gypsy dresses. It’s held to her with all the vitality of the present. She can’t see me so I can stare with impunity at the particulars of her form. I’m jealous of the light fabric that complements and caresses her.
Terry is in the kitchen, he’s washing up. He offers me some wisdom. ‘I find if you’ve done the washing up then you have done something with the day.’
He’s a good mate of Flotsam, well they hang out together, but he’s the opposite in his manner, hewn stone straight. He’s a dedicated climber, knows the unforgiving extremes of nature. He’s been to the highest, most difficult peaks and senses danger in compromise. His tone is didactic like I imagine the greats were. We have casual political arguments and brief architectural discussions. He thinks Albert Speer* was misunderstood. Maybe he was. Sometimes he goes to Africa on business.
When I get back to the long desk Joseff is sat almost directly opposite me. Nadja, a little flushed sits next to him. He gives me a smile as if to say what’s all this bullshit about. We go drinking together. He’s always got this hang-dog look of the benignly discontent. He has a slight stoop as though his general good humour and wit has begun to buckle under the increasing weight of his melancholy and disappointment. His drawn handsome face is made more credible by the cigarette he frequently draws on.
-You can’t have a job you love, a decent place to live and a girl you’re happy with all at the same time. Not in London, It’s not allowed!-
He would say, with his fag, his sparrow’s frame, (don’t hug him too tight he’ll turn to dust), yet his burning Catalonian eyes are like the roar of a bonfire writhing against the free- fall night – he twitches with a brave kind of energy. And I would reply:
-Yeah, but you’re fucked on all three counts.-
I was given a break. It was tiny, just an extension to a refectory at the back of a Further Education college. The space backed on to the ugly end of the college, old shed spaces where building craft was taught and a dead end service entrance. I went to see the School to do an architectural survey, get the sizes, see where the services were, maybe get some ideas about design. And I did get some ideas.
When I return brandishing a roll of tracing paper Joseff gives me a look of feigned surprise which says: Do you know what you’re doing with that?
I smiled back and gave him my gormless look.
I rip at the roll of tracing paper and begin drawing thick dusty lines, bold mark making, the masters are going to be proud, this is where it begins! I was moulding myself in their image. I was burning, enjoying the exquisite conflagration of my energies, until there was a snag and I could smell the fire dampen. Another coffee and I was away again, swaying between a sickening sense of glory and hard sobering reality: I started to work with the function then I went on rising, flowing, surfing on the timeless river of form. I imagine Nadja is looking at me, looking at the hands of a real Architect. Some hours later I look up and catch Joseff’s raised eyebrows. There’s an alarming amount of overlaid drawings piling up and spreading well beyond the confines of my portion of desk. This time his smile says ‘steady on it’s only a refractory extension.’
I was happy with the rhythm of my scheme, I’d created a balanced contrast between the solid and clear spaces. The aesthetic looked good, classical but with a modern twist. I ran my ideas by the young whiz kid Associate Director. He was third in command. He liked my little design but then it was casually mentioned that I’d have to run it by the Big Boss, the man in the alcove. It wasn’t anything to stress about. He was hugely experienced, I’d be able to get some ideas about the finer details.
I stepped into the alcove at the appointed time with my tracing paper renditions and early computer drawings. About a third of the way through my explanation of the scheme he cut me short. He’d lost his caressing velvety tone, he seemed angry. I had made him angry? He dismissed the permeability of the layout as unsuitable. The outside area I designed would apparently encourage bad behaviour by the students; within seconds he had traced over my main plan, sketching a traditional cavity wall with a double door in the middle. He wanted me to replicate the details for the roof and fascia from another one of his designs. I just had to feed his idea through the machine. Job done he got back on the phone.
Joseff gave me a shrug which said ‘never mind mate it happens to the best of us’. I left work early and walked towards Shoreditch. Occasional tall towers stood like giant concrete and masonry stubs, silent sentinels overlooking the uneven low blocks that made up most of the terrain beneath them. Figures appeared at regular intervals as if on timed release, making their way with quiet resignation. I walked within the shadow of a tower, it was one of Lasdun’s. As the light began to fade it had lost its texture and delicacy of form.
Denys Lasdun* most notably designed the National Theatre and the Royal College of Physicians. He was one of the greatest modernists.
Cad monkey *Somebody who has gone through years of difficult and strenuous education in engineering, architecture, or a similar field only to wind up with a mindless and repetitive job where they do one task on a computer drafting drawings over and over again.
Albert Speer* was Hitler’s Architect
I attempt to craft my stories around work. I’m interested in how work in a city forms us. Most of my material comes from my own experiences in the building trade both as a Bricklayer and Architect.