Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Monthly Archives: May 2011
May 28, 2011Posted by on
Writing books on London’s contemporary architecture brings up all kinds of criterial difficulties. For example, I’m not comfortable with conventional notions of what is ‘contemporary’. Whilst also arguing that it is important to experience buildings ‘in the flesh’, as what they are in themselves and subject to an immediacy of judgment that opposes the notion that I need some conceptual basis for the mediation of my appreciation, I learned long ago that buildings are , almost invariably, deeply mute about their reasons for being. Scratch the surface and their is a narrative underneath. An appreciation that ignores such narrative is short-changing the fact of the thing – as a human endeavour, a work. There seems to be no easy answer to this conundrum, but it gets to the roots of some deeply psychological issues pertaining to issues of judgement, taste, quality and why Aristotle was so opposed to the Socratic philosophy. Here, below, and in the context of considering a new edition of a guidebook to contemporary architecture in London, I am adumbrating what that is all about.
“By the way, I’ve begun putting together the new guide book and have the usual Lloyds ’86 problem: over twenty-five years since Rogers completed it, thirty-five since they won the competition – is it contemporary? … What do you think?”
She didn’t look up from her newspaper. “Not really. We’ve been there. Your audience wants what is ‘now’ … How on earth can Lloyds be ‘contemporary’?”
“I know. But isn’t Lloyds ‘now’ in the sense of being a vital part of the City … In any case, visitors still want to see it and know about it … It’s still important to what is going on, isn’t it?”
“It’s up to you, but I think you’re clouding the issue. It’s modern, but not contemporary. Not any more.”
I paused before starting again. “Has it occurred to you that …” Now she was looking up, over her spectacles, but had that look in her eye. “No, it’s a quicky. I promise. Listen: both the good and the bad – what excels and what is abominable – surprise you that they could happen. Meanwhile, the main body of what’s done, what we experience and what people daily struggle with, is ordinary and, at best, worthy.”
“Brilliant, Holmes. So what’s new?”
“This mainstream: it’s life. This is architectural practice. This is the angst and everyday pleasures, the grind and the glory that everyone cares about and obsesses over – the home of tears and smiles, of hubris and pretension and the rest … It’s a tree and wood conversation: the ugly and the exceptional stand out, but they both draw our attention away from the body of what matters: the mass. But we keep being told the mass isn’t interesting, that it succumbs to a law of large numbers, that it’s is merely the realm of a slumbering Volk and the They and … and it is, isn’t it / aren’t they?”
Her head remained lowered. “The who is what …?,” she distractedly mumbled.
I carried on. “OK: Lloyds is unique, impressive, admirable, exceptional … if you like that kind of thing. But it has had negligible impact on the mainstream. It’s a contradiction, isn’t it? The celebrated and admirable is meant to be deeply influential – we’re told that. We’re told to reference what excels, what the masters and heroes have brought about. But, oddly, they don’t seem to matter … It’s weird. I want to write about it and visitors want to see it – it’s what we rush to see. Its important, but only as an exception to the mainstream of practice. Do you think we’re discussing quality or novelty?”
“The Masters of the Universe don’t matter? What they do isn’t important? … And ‘quality or novelty’? Why do I feel a Loosian moment coming over the horizon?”
“Well, actually, this is more Aristotlian … sortof … The value is in the principal body of energy and lived experience … the flesh, m’dear, the flesh … but we’re constantly told to look away.”
“And with good reason: what did happen to your diet? … Anyway, are you telling me that salvation lies with dumbed down bad taste? Come along: you’re always muttering about the deliberation and resourceful effort that goes into bad taste; you know the bottom-line is that this fact irritates you …”
“OK, sure … but I also know it’s not that simple. These judgements and categories, these … I feel unsettled by it all. I don’t believe it. I feel – it’s like having a proverbial itch needing to be scratched – that it’s all another kind of soporific state of mind – not as dumbing down this time, just a diversion down some alluring side track – like that thirtieth birthday practice party we went to the other day: a bunch of affable architectural worthies intoxicated with the ostensible significance of what they’ve done … It goes with the territory, I suppose.”
“Ah, the philosophical voice of the young Quabalist as old man …” The sarcasm was palpable.
“C’mon, not quite – that was strictly neo-Platonic: an escape route on a Socratic express train to God knows where. I got off at an early station, remember?” I pause, and then more quietly remark: “I’m told there’s no return ticket, no refund …”
“Ahh: now the Byronic train-spotter, stuck on some siding, somewhere? So, you don’t believe in the express train, nor the heroes on it, nor the rubbish by the tracks or the masses you pass by … But you’re still in pursuit of good architecture, eh?”
I perk up. “Yep, true: ‘good architecture’ … But what do I mean by that?”
“If you don’t know by now, darling … I keep waiting for you to spell it out. Isn’t this where we came in? Anyway, Lloyds has been influential: as an aspirational bench-mark within the profession – demonstrating what can be achieved ; as an historical reposte to Post-Modernism; and also as a brand image that has lent novelty and glamour to the City – for those, that is, who didn’t mock it as a grounded oil-rig …”
“Ah, yes, the look of the thing: the single factor that, ironically, is of lesser import – a focus of judgements indulged in by those who haven’t appreciated the underlying story to this mute beast …”
This prompted a quizzical look: “When people read about ‘contemporary architecture’ they aren’t interested in a narrative along the lines of ‘three mute and different architectural guises of the same essential typology’ … Where are you going with this?”
“But that’s the most interesting dimension of Lloyds: 1927, ‘58, ‘86 … a new building every twenty-five years … Instead, we refer ourselves to short-hand judgements: ‘I like; I don’t like’ … You know, I’m convinced: there is no such thing as ‘good architecture’, just a manifold of situational ‘goodnesses’. We keep pursuing this mythical quality – a distinctive commensurable – and worrying that we can’t find it. It’s a game that misses the point … OK, two points. First, on branding: you can brand chocolates and cars and clothes, but not an individual building. At best, it’s given character and novelty, but the real branding is that of the architect who does things in this way – they’re the brand . Buildings themselves are poor subjects for branding – perhaps as a feature of a larger branding exercise at the MacDonalds and Starbucks level – but hardly brands in themselves … Anyway, secondly, quality has to be contexturalised and situationalised. Appreciating this may be inconvenient, but that’s the way it is … Yes, I know: so where is that universal Quality we all claim to smell out and subscribe to? It’s there, but its paradoxically localised in a dozen overlapping ways: this geography, this culture, this architect, this building type, this time and place, this more or less masterliness … There is no other way to find it. One roots the goodness of what is exemplary within boundaries … and someone who can’t sense this is disabled. This way a work is not only more or less unique, but profoundly humanised – at once as what is authored, inhabited and appreciated in the particularity of the lives we lead – entangled in Miesian ‘living tasks’ – not entangled in some floating abstraction …”
She didn’t seem to be listening anymore. However, I persisted. ”Human life and a humanised architecture constitute a strange middle ground – an interface between principle and particularity, the one defining, modifying, the other. Quality is always an elusive mean, a moving target, an exposure … Lloyd’s – let’s go back to that – was about left-wing architects working for a right-wing, blue-chip London culture of aged tradition, creating a cake that is the same every way you cut it for people who hunger after a lived symbolism of hierarchy and difference. And then the masters of oil-rig design come along, together with oblique references to the Maison de Verre … And there’s that monumental aim at 125 years – married to hubris and an inability to pay for changing any aspect of a ridulously expensive edifice … OK, its excellence is a bench-mark. But, frustratingly, only in an abstracted sense that has to be situationally grounded next time around. Certainly, a parody is ridiculously pointless and hollow …”
“So you deny reiterations such as the branded shop outlet a possibility of ‘quality’?”
“Well, not quite … the contextural references are a different set of corporate concerns – ones that deny a whole body of particularity – otherwise the brand is potentially compromised … And if so, then the brand has to be embodied in something else – quality of service, or whatever … The Lloyds building is a brand in terms of the City of London as a whole being branded by quality buildings, and as the kind of thing the Rogers team does over and again – two branding exercises, overlapping … Then with Lloyds having their own cultural brand frustrated by Rogers’ lefty ideology of ‘it’s–the-same-anyway-you-cut-it’ Ayn Rand couldn’t make it up.”
“Sortof … “ And then quickly: “It reminds me of T.S. Eliot – that wakeup call he experienced: that Culture is bound to culture …”
“Quite. Now tell me, after that: is Lloyds contemporary? Are you putting it into the new edition?”
Below: the three Lloyds buildings are roughly 25 years apart and – simply because of the same client and the strength of its aged culture – the design typologies are fundamentally the same – although the buildings look quite different. The 1928 and the 1986 buildings are on the same site (enlarged for the ’86 building). The 1958 building was recently demolished to make way for the Willis Building designed by Foster … All of which is another blog post.