Column: Roger's Soapbox

Function Over Form

By: | December 1, 2013

Roger Crombie is a United Kingdom-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at [email protected]

The most illustrative business story of 2013 was about a new 37-story skyscraper in the financial district of London, nicknamed the “Walkie Talkie.” It was built to resemble the shape of a handheld communicator, circa 1950. Apparently, building it to resemble an attractive and functional edifice was out of the question.

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When the sun shone, the building focused the fiery orb’s beams into a death ray that “buckled” a parked Jaguar in the intense heat the building created. It allegedly melted the car’s mirrors, emblem and bodywork panels.

The row that followed was as funny as it was unseemly, but first, some background. London has two centers: the West End, where government largely sits, and the City, where global finance is headquartered. Lloyd’s, for example, is in the City; its building is also an “architectural statement.”

The West End features some of the loveliest architecture made by human beings over the past several hundred years. Those in the City, to show their thrusting power, relevance, sense of innovation and financial muscle, have taken to putting up only buildings that are meant to be ironically humorous.

Thus, the “Gherkin,” a pickle-shaped building. Thus, the “Shard,” a tall building that comes to a jagged point. Etc. And thus, the Walkie Talkie, which comes with its own death ray. All are unforgivably ugly.

A London news report on the heat generated by the Walkie Talkie building.

Older, classically designed buildings killed only interested parties: some who built them and those who jumped off them. The new buildings can kill innocent passers-by and warp Jags.
Good going, eh?

To render the death ray neutral, a specialist team of consultants was assembled. Asked why his building had a death ray, architect Rafael Viñoly blamed the superabundance of consultants and sub-consultants that British law requires. Architects aren’t architects anymore, he said, but he had already proved that.

Insurers should adopt a similar line. “High premiums,” they should snort, “are entirely the fault of consultants, and cannot be blamed on anyone employed by our industry.”

One is reminded of the New Yorker cartoon in which two detectives survey a corpse. “From the frequency and severity of the wounds,” the senior policeman remarked, “I’d say he was a management consultant.”

Measures to stop the Walkie Talkie from melting cars are only likely to cost around $1.6 million, the building’s developer has said. Another knowledgeable party estimated the repair cost in the “low single digit millions [of pounds].” So that’s alright then.

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Here’s a revolutionary idea: Accept that we can’t design attractive buildings by making them look ironic and concentrate on putting up something less iconic and more functional. Focus on context: skyscrapers in New York, good; death ray buildings in London, bad.

We all know that when an insurance company erects its own building, it’s a sign that the company’s demise is at hand. Now when a city puts up buildings that can melt passers-by, it’s a sign that civilization’s demise is at hand.

We fear the new because it is untested. When the new turns out to be inimical to human life, our fears are revealed to be sensible. Come on, people, this isn’t rocket science; wise up.

The barbarians are at the gate, armed with death rays. Sheesh.

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