19 July 2011

Review: The Architect

Inspired by real life events The Architect, by Charles Bancroft (2009), is a fast-paced thriller that tells the story of architect Rob Gilbert and the series of events that coalesce to potentially wreak his position in the pantheon of global architectural stardom. The story turns on the fatal collapse of a newly completed building that Gilbert has designed, to critical acclaim, with media swarm focusing on his role in the project. Whilst his career is unravelling his personal life is also coming apart, with deaths, affairs and the appearance of a mysterious woman adding an undercurrent of sexual intrigue. As the architect attempts to wrestle back control of his life he becomes embroiled in the sinister underworld of London, Russian gangsters, money laundering, computer hacking, people trafficking and prostitution, with the only constant being his constant level of intoxication.

The Architect (Raptor Press, 2009)

This is Bancroft’s first novel and the Brighton-based author, working under a pseudonym, draws on “25 years of service in construction and from the wealth of experiences, people and nightmares that exist in that industry”, to ensure the story stays grounded in the real nuances of the architectural profession. Familiar locations, such as Frank Gehry’s Serpentine Pavilion or The Building Centre, along with discussions about concrete testing and PI insurance, are though in stark contrast to the colourful characters. Gilbert, as main protagonist, is a character that could easily divide opinion, brazen in his arrogance he ticks every box one would expect from a self-obsessed, image consensus, individual. His relationship with the engineer, Alfred, is also stereotypical, and less about working in collaboration and more about the architect exploiting the professional services of his colleague (and friend) to enhance his own infamy.

The outlandish behaviour of Rob Gilbert has drawn
comparison to Will Alsop (Image: Sarah Lee)

As the story develops it begins to take on elements of a James Bond novel, with the short chapters lending the book a fast pace, quickly cutting between scenes in a cinematic style. In reality architecture is a secondary element, any number of other professions could have been chosen, and the real story lies in the complex character relationships and the consequences arising from the ethical dilemmas that lie behind professional and business decisions. The story is most interesting when these relationships are expanded upon and the stereotypes are not so heavily embellished.

Moving away from the methods of story telling utilised by Bancroft the book does raise some interesting issues for architects. The ethical dilemma facing architects (and other professionals) in who they accept work from is often debated, particularly in relation to the governments they choose to work for. Gilbert is happy to accept commissions from the Russian Mafiosi, turning a blind eye as to where the money is coming from, or the Chinese government, as long as it leads to projects that enhance his own image. The uneasy professional relationship this establishes is portrayed in the book although it seems unlikely that real life would take such dramatic turns. Similarly, posing the question as to who is to blame for the deaths from the building collapse, the architect, the engineer, the contractor or the client, raises questions about professional responsibility. Despite the act of building being a collaborative process it is often the architect who is singled out for a building’s success but this level of fame comes with a price when things go wrong, as Rob Gilbert discovers.

It is inevitable that any piece of architectural fiction is compared with Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, arguably the greatest novel with an architect as its main protagonist, and the character of Rob Gilbert presents a very different type of architect to Howard Roark. In many ways Gilbert draws more parallels with The Fountainhead’s Peter Keating, with an emphasis on wealth and image over morals. Both Roark and Gilbert though would seem to be uncompromising in the convictions of their designs, even if the motivations behind both are notably different. The two books present very different ‘images’ of architects that perhaps reflect the wider perception of the architect at their respective times. Whether or not Gilbert though is truly representative of architect’s today is highly questionable, the starchitect that he is obviously based on are in short supply, but if this is indeed the opinion of architects held by others it is worrying, particularly at a time when architects are being asked to justify their value.

The Architect then is an interesting read. I must admit that at first I found it difficult to get over some of the characterisations but once they had been established, and the characters were allowed to flourish in their own rights, I found the story thrilling, eager to see how the plot developed. If you approach it hoping to find a realistic account of the architectural profession you may find yourself disappointed. I recommend you take everything it says with a pinch of salt and remember that it is, after all, a work of fiction.


Bancroft, C. (2009), The Architect, 1st Edition, London: Raptor Press