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A Magazine for Sheffield

Either-Or: Fools of Choice

A friend once photographed me pretending to sit on a broken bench on Devonshire Green. The bench no longer exists, lost under a tract of stylised paving, but the gravity-defying moment is marked on my mental map. Some points on that map are marked not by buildings, but by conversations. Mix this up with everyone else's mental maps and you have a vast complexity that could never be ordered or explained, with one place cropping up unexpectedly in another place and time, like scenes from Quantum Leap. It might sound confusing, but it’s normal life - messy, complex, very few right or wrong answers. I'm waiting at St Pancras Station in a place that's "recapturing the essence of a typical French wine bar". I'm not sure if this claim is aimed at Parisians who've just shrugged off the Eurostar or British commuters who pass by every day and wish they were in Paris. Either way, it's out of place. It's a stripped-back glass and brick interpretation of the inside of a French brasserie, inside a station concourse. The contrast with The Sheffield Tap, a true railway station bar in loving technicolour, couldn't be greater. I'm sharing this sterile environment with a wonderful book, Architecture Depends by Jeremy Till. He's describing his profession's futile urge to banish chaos and impose order, most famously Le Corbusier trying to rid Paris of its festering street cafes. Suddenly the book, and me, are showered in red wine by a clumsy waiter. The waiter is full of remorse. "These things happen," I say. It's a messy world, and this bit of it is now covered in little splatters of wine, apart from the bit of table and floor that were sheltered by my body. I leave them to try and re-order the place, but we all know that it won't stay clean and tidy for long. Nothing ever does. We think we crave order and routine, but if things become too regimented we itch to mess them up, to hack, to 'pimp'. There's an equilibrium, a point where one illuminates the other, like a brilliant singer who throws in a duff note on purpose. You can't tell people how to use places, nor how to interpret them and explain them to other people. Most architects forget this, creating a static, idealised image of how their work will be seen and used. Returning to my book, I see that the biggest wine splatter has highlighted, in mauve, the word 'perfectionist'. An either-or choice is the act of a perfectionist fool, and the best thing we can do is throw our drink at him. This is why the EU referendum is such a wrong-headed idea. Personally, I'm staunchly European, but it’s also obvious that the EU is in need of improvement. When we elect governments, we don't expect them to bounce the difficult decisions back to us. If there were an 'it depends' box then almost everyone would tick it, and they'd be right to. A leap into the unknown is a dramatic plot device. A man suddenly quits his job, leaves his wife and kids, and sets off into the wilderness to 'find himself', but the only thing he finds is the madness of solitude. The idea that leaving Europe would give you or me more control over our own destiny is total nonsense and most of us must surely know that. Here’s one of many possible scenarios for the second half of 2016. Loss of faith in Cameron and Osborne encourages people to vote to leave the EU. The government is badly weakened and has to call a general election. The result is a coalition government that is broadly pro-EU, lumbered with trying to either implement or reverse the exit, and deal with the economic consequences of it. The only reason we ended up in this mess is that someone pretended to offer us a clear, simple choice. There is no such thing. @andrewthewood )

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