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World Building (excerpt from Common Sense)


World Building
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A building site is a four-dimensional crime scene, a mirror of

our fallen world.


The architect is a sleuth, doggedly uncovering malfeasance in

real time before the evidence is wiped clean with the next layer

of paint.


The crime might be petty -lax joints- or grievous -rot, mould

or leaks. These can be atoned for, if detected in due time.

Irreversible, murderous crimes can unfortunately occur: the

wrong finish can be applied, the wrong tiles can be glued into

permanent place, accepted by the client in a hurry, repudiated

by the progenitor of the building (Jean Nouvel did precisely this

-loudly and publicly- concerning his contested Philharmonie in

Paris, refusing to recognise the building as his own).


A building site can also resemble a reverse life arc: it

begins in violence and dissolution, travels through various

battles with dirt, disorder and the elements, and finally appears

as a perfect new-born, clean, resolved, fresh, ready. It then

immediately begins to decline again, patinated by time and use,

needing repair and renovation, until it eventually succumbs to

the lure of the earth from which it was born backwards.


Cradle to cradle, grave to grave.


My own in-depth sociological investigations into the subject

of construction malfeasance have produced a clear, objective

rule: the dodgier the builder, the bigger his car. Crime pays:

cut corners carry cash, substituted products spawn spondulicks,

migrant workers make hay. Beneath the Jag-driving mafiosi

lie myriad layers of petty crooks with varying degrees of

amorality. Opposite them, counteracting their entropy, there are

(mercifully) holy people, craftsmen whose ethos comes before

all, who are incapable -by principle- of doing a bad job.

In other words, a building site is a world in miniature

composed of dramatis personae of all possible kinds (largely

within the male gender, alas): heroes, villains, mediocrities,

paupers and plutocrats, all sharing the same portaloo. And that’s

not all: it’s actually one of the few places left in our cities where

you’re likely to come across people from all around the world

working side by side. The bathroom tile you touch could well

have been glued there by someone from Cameroon, Nepal,

Romania or Portugal, each with a vastly different life story to

tell and respective craft traditions which are all too often stifled

in the application of homogeneous, industrialised materials. If

these walls had been allowed to talk, what global story would

they tell?


As a well-educated bourgeois bohemian prone to a

certain smugness about life, it’s immensely important for me to

have regular contact with this colourful Shakespearean multitude:

they put my comfortable life in perspective and remind me that

polite society is often too, well, polite. I have fond memories

of a skilful east European jack of all trades whose common

language with me was limited to two phrases: ‘non-stop sex’ and

‘produit spécial.’ How marvellous -I thought- that everything

in his world is exceptional, there is no such thing as a ‘produit

ordinaire;’ and -moreover- that all sex is non-stop. Heading

away from his roots -and perhaps towards his own real murder

through heat exhaustion- my sherpa to Annapurna base camp

a few years ago was last heard of as potential cannon fodder on

a pharaonic Gulf State construction anthill, his passport taken

away, no contact with the outside world. He was uneducated,

from a yak farming family, a smart, empathetic, generous spirit.

Before guiding me he had been the world’s highest chef, boiling

noodles at camp three on Everest at 7,300 metres. He wanted to

graduate to being a climbing sherpa but couldn’t afford the gear;

think of him if you happen to be walking on a luxurious carpet

in Dubai or Riyad. He may have laid it for you.

His name is Ngima Sherpa.