An architect who was invited to design a kitchen extension for a married couple spent an evening with them to discuss their (conflicting) needs and aspirations for the work. At the end, he gave them this valuable advice. “You don’t need a kitchen,” he said, “you need a divorce.”
This story brings us to the announcement that Boris Johnson’s idea of building a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland would be, at £335bn, absurdly expensive. Such was widely suspected as soon as the plan became public given, among other things, that it would have to cross the 300m-deep Beaufort’s Dyke, which is filled with up to a million tonnes of dumped munitions. But it has required a government feasibility study by a team of “world-renowned technical advisers” to conclude that bears do, after all, shit in the woods.
It might save the taxpayer a 12-figure sum if a therapist could help the prime minister explore his compulsion to inflict heavy engineering on large expanses of water. (See also: the Thames garden bridge, the Emirates Airline cable car, the “Boris Island” airport). More obviously, Northern Ireland would benefit more from a resolution of its border issues than from a structure completed decades in the future but, as with the couple and their kitchen, it’s easier to fantasise about construction than sort out a fractious relationship.
Imagine that you were given a truly repulsive Christmas decoration, a sculpture of coagulated ectoplasm, its finish gritty, like something from a seaside gift shop. On its summit is a big pointy glow-in-the-dark star that goes jarringly with the rest. Imagine then that you had to live with it, 365 days a year, forever. And that it was more than 140m high. This is the fate of the citizens of Barcelona, who have to watch the endless rising of the Sagrada Familia church, 139 years after construction started. It is, of course, a famous project of the celebrated architect Antonio Gaudí, but it resembles his spirit only in the realm of parody. It is paid for, to add insult to injury, with the help of a tax exemption on the enormous income the church makes out of tourists. So you have to pay for the gift, too.
This week, the case of Fearn v Tate Gallery reaches the supreme court. Here, some residents of a glass-walled block of luxury flats called Neo Bankside are complaining about the fact that a viewing gallery on top of Tate Modern’s Blavatnik Building allows the public to see into their living rooms. Their case seems to be weakened by the fact that it was never a secret, through the time that Neo Bankside was designed, built and marketed, that Tate wanted to erect a large public building next to the Neo Bankside development. In which case, you might think something other than all-glass walls might have been a good idea. Regular windows, perhaps? But then the developers and home owners would have been denied value-enhancing panoramic views out.
The high court and court of appeal having rejected the residents’ claim, it has gone to the highest court in the land. So what is going on is this: a small group of property owners, with the resources to hire expensive lawyers, are trying to work the full majesty of the British legal system against a hugely popular public institution, the proximity of which, by the way, also increases the value of their properties. It would be easier to put up curtains, you would have thought, except that apparently a clause in their lease forbids this. Maybe they could use their legal muscle to sort that out, then.
Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture correspondent