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21 September 2022

Deyan Sudjic Q&A: “Anybody who isn’t in a state of anxiety isn’t paying attention”

The design critic and curator on Charles Dickens, Roman London and why simple language is often best.

By New Statesman

Deyan Sudjic was born in London in 1952. An author and architecture critic, he was also the director of the Venice Architecture Biennale and of the Design Museum in Kensington, west London.

What’s your earliest memory?

The moment that I, a small and painfully English child, realised that my parents, migrants with a tenuous grip on the right to residency in Britain, spoke a version of English quite unlike anybody else’s.

Who are your heroes?

Dan Dare and Tintin both turned out to have feet of clay, but were very helpful in inoculating me against hero worship.

What book last changed your thinking?

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. Rereading it helped me realise that a fictionalised account can be a more powerful way of understanding the structure of a city than any amount of scientific analysis.

Which political figure do you look up to?

That line-up of the late Queen’s living prime ministers in St James’s Palace made the tragic state of contemporary politics so clear. Gordon Brown – whom I worked with when we were students – and John Major emerge as the serious figures.

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What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

London. It’s a city founded by Romans that is older than anything that could conceivably be described as England, and a place where I have lived most of my life.

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In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Vienna in 1900. It was the capital of an empire on the edge of oblivion, yet was busy inventing modernity.

Who would paint your portrait?

I would love to persuade Michael Craig-Martin to do it. I know he would be great to talk to in the studio, and I could be sure that he would make my warts disappear.

What’s your theme tune?

For a long time I had to see Hitchcock’s North by Northwest at least every six months. Bernard Herrmann’s theme is as brilliant as Saul Bass’s opening titles.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I worked as the architecture critic at the Sunday Times, the sub-editor who sometimes struggled with my copy suggested never using the word “fenestration” when “window” was perfectly good. I have done my best.

What’s currently bugging you?

Anybody who is not in a continuous state of anxiety about the world isn’t paying attention. Focusing on the particular rather than the general makes things a little more bearable. I focus on the mindless aggression that passes for debate, summed up by Nadine Dorries’ Twitter feed.

What single thing would make your life better?

Patience.

When were you happiest?

Celebrating the achievements of my wife and my daughter.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I set out to be an architect, but realised that I was hopelessly unsuited to the task of turning an idea into a physical reality.

Are we all doomed?

Looking at burning suburbs from Melbourne to Essex and floods from Pakistan to China, I try to comfort myself by remembering that Extinction Rebellion’s antecedents include the many apocalyptic millenarian movements who believed that the world would end from the year 1000 onward. It doesn’t really help.

“Stalin’s Architect” by Deyan Sudjic is published by MIT Press. It is shortlisted for the Pushkin House Prize, which will be announced on 28 September

[See also: Kathy Reichs Q&A: “I worry every time my grandkids go out”]

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This article appears in the 21 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going for broke