Erik Spiekermann on 30 years of Blueprint

Looking back at Blueprint after 30 years provides a reminder both of what has been achieved over the past three decades and just how slow progress can be. But then Rome — or should that be London — wasn’t built in a day

Photo: Steve Carty

BP

Buildings here in Germany are planned to be written off within 20 years. Not written off as in 'forgotten' or 'destroyed', but the initial construction and the cost of financing and maintaining it over those 20 years should have been paid for by then. If investors had paid for the building, they should have their money back, plus whatever profit margin they had calculated. From now on, with the cost of financing gone, the building could return a much higher profit. Or it could be destroyed, having fulfilled its purpose as an investment.

Unfortunately, a lot of these buildings show that they were built as investments rather than as real contributions to the fabric of our cities. They were designed and constructed to the principle of length-by-width-by-dollars (or pounds, or euros). If it wasn't for the cost of demolition, a lot more of those financially written-off buildings would be written off physically and a lot of them deserve to be. But they still exist -- they are monuments of thoughtlessness, obstructing our views of a better city.

In Britain, private mortgages can run for 30 years because 'owning' a home (or more accurately, owing money on a mortgage) is the default rather than the exception. So, if you manage to come up with an initial payment before you're 30, you may actually be the home's owner by the time you're ready for retirement. At least this is how it used to be and how the system is still set up. Mobility isn't really its main purpose and only works as long as property values go up. They still do, but not equally across the country, so we end up with a country divided not so much by rivers, mountains and local dialects, but by the affordability of property. The expensive places become more so, while the cheap ones become impossible to sell and thus to finance.

If publishing Blueprint had been an investment in order to return a profit, it could be written off this year. I know the people who started the magazine, and none of them has so far become a publishing magnate, let alone a millionaire -- as far as I know. What they have achieved, instead, is to provide a record of the designed environment, the buildings and other artefacts that were planned by architects, engineers and designers from many disciplines. I have them all on my shelves, adding to the clutter in my home but also aiding my memory.

Not only do the old issues of Blueprint remind us of what has been done, they also show us what has not been achieved. Progress has been painful, often totally absent. Thirty years ago we thought that traffic in our cities had become unbearable. It is still unbearable today. Investment in the infrastructure only happens when things literally fall apart. It took a fire in the Tube back in 1987 to prompt a serious look at the state of the London Underground. While wooden escalators were gradually replaced and signage improved to better guide passengers, the Tube is still aching under the strain of too many users and not enough services.

Thirty years is not a long time to rebuild a city that has been growing for almost 2,000 years (Emperor Hadrian visited in 122 and London Wall was built around 200 AD). Publishing a magazine for 30 years, however, offers a great look at our successes as well as our failures. Publishing it on paper means that I can find all the issues quickly. No hard drive, DVD, magnetic tape or CD would have survived as long as that. And even if the data were still there, how would I access it? How would
I even know what's there?

I am celebrating Blueprint's birthday by spreading dozens of magazines (remember the tabloid format?) across the floor and looking at my 30-year investment. Well worth it and more valuable than ever. No write-offs needed.

Erik Spiekermann






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