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
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
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.