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Haxted Thinking is a monthly newsletter for anyone interested in how buildings are designed, made and used.
Take the current
In last month’s newsletter I discussed the anxiety that Covid-19 creates in our lives. We are faced with great uncertainty. Knowing what calls to make and when to make them is getting increasingly difficult. There is a parallel here with the confusion Brutus and Cassius were faced with in deciding their next moves in opposing Julius Caesar:
 
“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads onto fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
 
‘Julius Caesar’ (Act IV, Scene 3) by William Shakespeare
 
Shakespeare’s genius lay in his incomparable ability to articulate our most complicated thoughts and feelings. He seems to have understood what modern psychology now tells us – that as humans we tend to make decisions based on emotion and intuition rather than complex cognitive reasoning. So as we float on the sea of uncertainty brought by this novel coronavirus, like Brutus and Cassius we need a bias for decisive, intuitive action. 
 
We are being bombarded daily with new data about Covid. There is so much conflicting information being produced. It pays to be careful because a fixation with data can only ever be a look backwards. And we need to look forwards. We have an opportunity to be more imaginative than we ever dreamed of, in thinking about how we choose to live and work. The possibilities are endless.
 
However there are so many complex and weirdly interconnected things going on. It's overwhelming. To see things clearly right now is a superpower. I think one way to get the clarity we need is to try and strip down all the complexity. To use more intuition and to not to get hung up on too much analysis. So this month I want to focus on the importance of simplicity. 
Less is better
I'm a big fan of Dieter Rams. Famous for revolutionising industrial design at Braun, and the genius behind the beguilingly simple, beautiful and effective 606 Universal Shelving System for Vitsoe he said: 
 
“My goal is to omit everything superfluous so that the essential is shown to best possible advantage.” 
 
The ten principles of good design he formulated are a veritable ten commandments for product design. You’ll find them here: Vitsoe
 
The Rams suite of Braun products were the original design inspiration for Steve Jobs when he started Apple. Jony Ive took them to the next level of clarity and sophistication with his product designs in the late 1990's following his elevation to Apple’s Chief Design Officer. These principles are as perfect a template for how to do things well today, as they were when he conceived them in the late 1970’s. 

I’ve always been fascinated by how the principles can be translated into the design of spaces. I think they can be. His mantra of “less is better” has long been a philosophical principle that guides what we do at Haxted. Anyone involved in design and construction should simply start by asking, as Rams did “is my design good design?” In principle 6 he suggests:

 “Good design is honest. It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.”

And in principle 10:

“Good design is as little design as possible. Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.”
 
In essence Dieter Rams was advocating for simplicity not just in the way we design, but in the way we live. Like the great architect Mies van der Rohe before him, who used the phrase “less is more” time and again to reinforce his modernist design principles, Rams knew all about resolving complexity.  Where Mies was the master of reducing and distilling buildings and their components into simple forms in which art and technics were beautifully and seamlessly integrated, so too was Rams with household products. It’s what the writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was getting at when he said:
 
“Perfection is attained, not when no more can be added, but when no more can be removed.”
 
Adopting the principle that less is better is a simple way to navigate through the confusion of the current time. Reducing the scope of our focus onto what really matters in our lives is more helpful now than ever before. Less isn’t less. Less is more. Less is better.
Simplicity beyond complexity
Developing buildings is complicated. It's difficult to do well. To make really good buildings requires many things - skill, creativity, passion and resilience amongst other things. Every opportunity to make a new building, or to renovate an existing one, provides a unique set of challenges and constraints. Every site is different. The topography, geology, ecology, all uniquely different. And marrying inspiring design with pragmatic construction solutions is a complex balancing act. Everywhere bountiful complexity. 
 
The ultimate obligation of a developer should be the satisfactory resolution of this complexity. But because it's really difficult it's often ignored. And that's why so much of our built environment is so bad. 
 
Making spaces for living is science and art in broadly equal measure. First, the numbers need to work, and the engineering needs to work. And because the way spaces are designed has a fundamental effect on our mental and physical health, the scientific process behind it is key. But there is a subtle art to making good spaces too. Marcus Vitruvius, the great Roman architect, suggested that good architecture must deliver firmitas, utilitas, venustas - firmness, commodity, delight. Or, if you prefer, a building has to be solid, useful, beautiful. Architecture has clearly failed if a building lacks structural integrity and durability or if it fails to properly fulfil its function. But it has also failed if it does not provide aesthetic pleasure. It’s in this venustas that things get funky. For me great architecture has to deliver delight because great architecture is about optimism. And it should lift the spirits, and it should stimulate all of the senses. Done right it’s an art. The art of creating a building.
 
It’s an immense responsibility to create spaces where people can flourish, and doing it well is a joy. I find it hard to accept that living and working spaces can be ill considered, badly designed or poorly executed. The spaces we build should be well thought out, durable, and easy to use. Ideally they will be flexible and adaptable too. The best architecture means legible, elegant buildings that work for their users. There is a simplicity to them that belies the complexity that has been diligently managed behind the scenes. It’s the same way that an iPhone effortlessly resolves immense engineering complexity and provides a gorgeous and simple user experience. 
 
Looking for ways to simplify things always helps. Starting with a clear process driven approach is not sexy but it's sensible. That way things don’t get forgotten and budgets don’t get blown. Da Vinci suggested that "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." He was right of course. Make the goal not simplicity that ignores complexity but simplicity the other side of complexity. What I like to call simplicity beyond complexity.
Building Forever
“When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for.” John Ruskin - The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849

There is a simplicity to John Ruskin’s sage words which have guided me for many years. The notion that when we build we should think not of today, but of tomorrow, of future generations, is generous, responsible and necessary. The buildings we make are the fabric of society.

“We shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us” said Sir Winston Churchill in his brilliant and rumbustious speech to parliament in 1943, where he proposed the re-building of the House of Commons. We do well to remember Churchill’s words because they are soundly backed up by a weight of research in the emerging field of environmental psychology. Good buildings have the capacity to make our lives better, poor buildings the capacity to cause misery and depression. 
 
At our Cane Hill project we are juxtaposing new structures with retained Victorian buildings. 7 years in the making, the project has tested everything I’ve learned about property over the last 32 years. Built in 1882, the chapel, water tower and administration building have a rich and complex history. It’s because those that came before us paid homage to Ruskin’s words that we are able to reinvent these buildings 138 years later. It is imperative that we do justice to the history we have inherited and try hard to leave a good legacy. In Ancient Greece there was a thing that the young men of Athens joining the military college had to swear called the Ephebic Oath. They promised that they would leave the city better than they found it. Yes.
 
There is always something to gain from distilling a project down to one or two core principles. It provides a clarity and simplicity that can prevent overwhelm. To my mind it’s less important to get the principles exactly right than it is to ensure there are not too many of them.
And finally…..
An update on our friend Nick Cave, who I wrote about in newsletter 01. He’s had quite a month. On 3rd September he announced that Idiot Prayer - Nick Cave Alone at Alexandra Palace, his sublime, recent solo performance, will be in cinemas from 5th November with an album to follow on 20th November.  Then on 15th September he sadly lost his beloved mother who died aged 93. She seems to have been a constant source of beautifully
simple advice

To cap it all he was 63 on 22nd September. And weirdly as I listened to music executive Don Was in conversation with Rick Rubin on Nick Cave's birthday, the secret of why his music is so deeply moving was revealed to me. Don Was explained that the neurological significance of music may come from the primitive brain connection that provides comfort to babies. Where many synaptic channels shut down as we mature, the music one doesn’t: 
 
“We keep the music one open. Why is that? I think it's because conversational language, no matter how particularly deep you get with it, still fails to convey the full depth of our inner emotional lives. That's why we have art, because you have to convert these emotions to another medium in order to communicate that to somebody. And great art is made by someone who is willing to dig deep inside and take something, even stuff that makes them really uncomfortable. And really, it tears them up, and then they bring that out in some way, and share it with other people so that when they receive it, it puts them in touch with their lives.”
 
So that's it. If you want to experience a man digging very deep indeed and sharing in a way that tears you open and reveals all, you need Nick Cave like this.  And if you’re old enough to remember Don, and you need cheering up afterwards, then get out there and walk the dinosaur…..
One last thing…..
Stellar architect, and all round top banana, John Pardey has a new book out. 20/20 - Twenty Great Houses of the 20th Century is compulsory reading for anyone interested in the architecture of dwellings. It's wonderful. Get on it.
Who is Haxted? 
Haxted is a real estate development company passionate about creating beautiful homes and workspaces at a fair price. Our business is grounded in the visceral belief that well-designed and crafted buildings can massively enhance the quality of peoples’ lives. Haxted came into existence during the 2008 global financial crisis, a time of great turmoil.  Our thinking was that property needed less business-as-usual and more imagination. Less stuff and more soul. A little less conversation, a whole lot more action.  It felt like the tectonic plates of how to do development were shifting. We needed to be nimble and ready to change shape at short notice. 
 
The next few years are going to test us all. The decisions that we make about the buildings we choose to live and work in have never been more important. At Haxted we are fueled by curiosity and the art of the possible. If you’d like to see what we’re up to, or discuss doing something together please email me at cnavato@haxted.com.  I’ll generally respond within 24 hours.

http://www.haxted.com

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