Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Monthly Archives: December 2011
December 13, 2011Posted by on
(With apologies to Richard Hamilton for the title.) My last post was on the Central St Martins College of Art and Design at Kings cross – an impressive development. It reminded me of something similar: the Ravensbourne School of Art that opened on the Greenwich peninsula in 2010 – somewhere I visited earlier this year. There are parallels worth considering.
The GreenwichPeninsula is notably the home of the 2000 Dome designed by Richard Rogers (well, actually, his partner, Mike Davies, the obsessively ‘all-in-red’ partner). It’s still an amazing building. Although, in its guise as the O2 Dome, somebody has worked very hard to provide a dreadful interior that mocks what the Rogers team achieved. Next door there is a Foster bus station (same date) sitting over one of the better Jubilee Line stations, designed by Will Alsop (again, same date).
Toward the opposite, southern, edge of the peninsula is some hosting (etc) by Ralph Erskine, together with a school by Ted Cullinan. In between is … not a lot. The focus of current development is this housing area and around the Dome. So far, the latter has two new additions: a pretty dreadful office building by Terry Farrell (who claims responsibility for the peninsula master-plan) and the the Ravensbourne school, design by Foreign Office (before they split up).
Ravensbourne was a significant school located out in deepest Kent – an institution that thought a few daring moves would bring it additional prominence. There were two keys to this: a move toward central London and all that is happening there; and a dumping of the school’s craft basis in lieu of a turn to digitisation. The Greenwich peninsula was the chosen site; lots of computers facilitated the second aim. But there was more. The Director was keen on a ‘Ryanair’ principle of education: you give students a ticket into the school, provide them with a charged up credit card, and then deduct from that card for every move they subsequently make.
Foreign Office’s response to the proposal and the site (and a low budget) was simple: a raw concrete shell with two atria and a split-level divide – all meant to lend tough architectonic character to an otherwise simple interior – and an external ‘wrap’ of bold Penrose tiled panelling, complete with large circular windows letting light into the interior. Oh, all that plus a roof terrace. How this has been handled is very good, but the problem is the underlying ethos of the school and a divorce between that ‘wrap’ and an interior architecture. In fact, ‘divorce’ of one kind or another seems to characterise the whole place, including between educational aspirations and the realities of student life.
One approaches our exercise in Penrose tiling from the Alsop / Foster station, walking past acres of advertising telling us what a wonderful, thriving commercial and cultural area all this will one day be … Meanwhile its Dome+Ravensbourne+Farrell: three buildings with nothing to do with one another, juxtaposed with the pretension of engendering welcoming public spaces in between. Well, its’s OK on a sunny summer’s day, but … its gets pretty cold and windy out there during the rest of the year. Why, if Ravensbourne were serious about making London connections didn’t they get right into the heart of London. That was mistake no. One. Mistake no. two was awarding the design competition to what is, typologically, a dressed-up industrial shed – a nice dressed-up industrial shed, but not convincing as a place where young creative types will hang out, nor convincing in urbanistic terms, adding nothing to the area around the Dome. What a missed opportunity!
Overall, the similarities and disparities between the Farrell office building and the Ravensbourne School building are instructive. Both employ patterned wraps to a quite distinct interiority. One has portholes, the other has conventional rectangular windows; one is sophisticated, the other is not. Ravensbourne enjoys two internal atria; Farrell has none … But the sophistication of the art school’s gamesmanship is all there is. Otherwise, both share a fundamentally similar building typology: pavilions plonked down in a flat, wind-swept landscape. At least the Dome provides what could be considered to be a traditional arcade around its perimeter that provides shelter and a welcoming intermediate feature between inside and outside. Neither building has anything to do with Central St Martins, especially Ravensbourne. Admitedly, the latter’s site had none of the advantages of Kings Cross, but that was possibly the fundamental error in site selection. And then the School chose a scheme that strives to do what Herzog & de Meuron did at the Laban (a couple of miles away): provide a tight-skinned shed with a dramatic interior architectonic. It works beautifully at the Laban, but not here. Why do I feel that a pile of old containers might have been more appropriate?
December 13, 2011Posted by on
One of the more peculiar experiences in my life was sitting midst the Foster team at Kings Cross, sometime in the late ‘eighties. There were playing at being master-planners. I was playing at being an office building consultant … Yeah, well … Myself and another chap I was with came up with a way of approaching site potentiality issues which was meant to inform the design work. However, the Foster team lived in another, strange kind of universe. What was most intriguing was the politics of seeing Associates almost rip each other’s throats out in order to win some game of rivalry and get ahead with this week’s brightest idea that would impress The Man when he turned up.
Why do I tell you this? Well, it all came back to me a few week ago when I went to visit the first significant building to be completed in the new Kings Cross master plan (more than 25 years after the Foster experience, I might add): one of London’s most prestigious art schools housed in the very same early (and, of course, Listed) Victorian train sheds that had been a key feature of our consultancy all those years ago. These buildings were quite something: imagine multi-storey warehouses sitting above a canal that linked the metropolis to northern England and served as a monstrous transport interchange between the canal and the railway system. It had once been an incredible scene … Now, the complex of historic buildings formed the core to a schema put together by Stanton Williams for the Kings Cross developer (Argent) and its star cultural client: Central St Martins College of Art and Design. Once, developers turned to art pieces (think of somewhere like Broadgate and Canary Wharf); now, they wanted an whole art institution as the ‘strawberry’. (Sorry: Japanese concept from the ’90s. It is exemplified at More London, where the Shuttleworth / Foster City Hall is located and plays out the same role of ‘strawberry’ – in this case almost literally – to the commercial development.)
The day began well: breakfast in old St Pancras Station – now home to the Eurostar trains from Paris – midst crowding commuters and hungry travellers doing something similar to us on the lower concourse level … Then out past the new work on Kings cross Station (sorry, Mr McAslan, it doesn’t look promising!) and along a new pedestrian way that lead past a host of sites for new office buildings, straight to the front door of the newly opened CSM, now welcoming a fresh 2011 intake of enthusiastic students. Everywhere around us were men working, machines digging, concrete being poured, barriers channelling us … and midst it all was the historic complex of former industrial buildings, now supplemented by new accommodation that knit together, added to and occasionally took away some old bits (leaving intriguing ‘scarring’). Simply at that overall, master-planning level it is all rather impressive (and radically different from what Foster had proposed).
We met with the Job Architect who very kindly was giving up some two hours of his time to show us around: into reception and security checks, signing in, badging up … (‘who? why” … Oh, here: have a badge and go through there …’) and back out to public areas topped by an inflated pillow roof before entering through the CSM security barrier and into a large new atrium that serves as the centre of gravity of the new architectural schema.
All kinds of memories and references crowded in: particularly Neils Torp at Waterside, at Heathrow Airport, and Ron Herron at Imagination … Oddly, the Job Architect hadn’t experienced these … Ravensbourne?, I asked. Yes, he’d been there a few times and we all agreed we detested this 2010 exercise a few miles away on the Greenwich Peninsula – a most peculiar exercise in digitising craft traditions (‘fashion student? well, you can work it up on machine and print it – whatever it is – on a large printing machine; yes, sure, it all ends up 2D, but what the hell… Oh, and by the way this place works on the Ryan-Air principle of education: you pay to get in, pay to move about, pay for absolutely everything …) Yuk. Foreign Office had done a good enough job (although I’m not keen on their Penrose-tiled wrapping facade that has zero to do with internal arrangements), but the conceptual basis of Ravensbourne is depressing. Luckily, CSM isn’t anything like that. On that basis alone the place is profoundly impressive. I loved what Stanton Williams had sought to achieve and where that had succeeded …. However, this the 21st century: they were under the control of the main contractor and and had no influence over the fit-out. Pringle Brandon handled that. Now imagine: One of the UK’s most ‘creative’ organisations hands over the control of its new building to contractors and their value-engineers who then take on board two disparate architectural firms – one for shell and core, and the other for the ‘scenery’ of a fit-out (I told you I had an offices consultancy background). If SW were on target all the way through, PB were equally off-target. Their work wasn’t ‘bad’, it’s just that the ‘tone’ was utterly wrong for this kind of institution. Where SW offered gutsy but carefully considered detailing, PB gave us corporate furniture and effete detailing. Ultimately, it was depressing – I was back to living midst the Foster team. Such is life, such is predicament of today’s architects, such is the constraints upon what they can do … as Herman Hertzberger, the RIBA 2011 Gold Medal winner lamented. I was still bemused by the irony with which an institution like CSM could oversee such an equation and had, it seemed, exercised little taste or influence upon the fit-out. How on earth could an ostensibly ‘creative’ organisation of such repute allow this to happen?
And so we made out ‘thank-you’s’ and headed off – impressed, but only in a qualified way. If only SW had been allowed to follow through! God save us from the construction industry’s ‘practical men’ and the project managers and the client execs and … So, we were back at St Pancras station. And now it was other kinds of memories: of coming here to the renovated Midland Hotel of George Gilbert-Scott on a tour of its public and private spaces with a group of camera-clicking Russian interior designers … That was equally weird and redolent with the same keynotes of mismatch and corporate misses (this time between Scott’s amazing old hotel of the 1870s and how it had been turned into the Renaissance Hotel) … What is it about the corporate mind-set and how its screws up anything of worth? It’s not that they don’t try. Perhaps it has always been this way. But exactly what is it that offends? What is it that one values in a project potentiality and sees compromised? At CSM, SW had shown us the promos, but had given only a partial delivery – frustrated, compromised … Pringle Brandon had exhibited a crass insensitivity; their habits of taste were simply inappropriate … (Ah, I hear you say: the issues of taste, aptness, fit, etc!) And the SW Job Architect was most dignified about it all.
Anyway, before I forget: what a development going on! Kings Cross promises to be a huge improvement on whatever Foster and his team had been scrabbling to achieve all those years ago. I look forward to the construction unfolding and to finding CSM in a new setting … OK, well, I somewhat look forward and somewhat dread what I know will be another familiar exercise of the sacrifice of significant architectural talents to the Gods of project abstraction that are always a means to end that is somehow never achieved …
December 9, 2011Posted by on
Today is chilly, bright and sunny. Yesterday was chilly, grey, wet and miserable as I joined in with a coach-load of Open City / Open House volunteers on our annual Christmas jaunt – a ten hour escape from London. It was quite a mix, beginning with the suspect joys of rush hour commuting, exiting at Shoreditch Station in order to walk by the new BoxPark container development, ie.e., shops got together just in time for a mix of shoppers from the City and the the prowlers of Brick Lane. It’s rather boring (like the new station), a bit too neat and tidy, but well put together (although I could but help recalling the insanity with which its developer had recently threatened to sue a similar ‘pop-up’ construction in Christchurch, in new Zealand, claiming they had stolen a patented concept!). Anyway, having had ‘cappucci’ and croissants, and we set off from trendy Hoxton toward not-so-trendy Essex.
First stop: Silver End, a 1920′s ‘model village’ constructed by a local industrialist who invented and made the famous Crittall steel windows and built the village as both housing for his workers and showcase for what he evidently considered to be a very modernist, hi-tech kind of window that called upon being themselves housed in rectilinear, white houses, ala Le Corbusier. Well, interesting …. I had no idea the place existed, but it wasn’t exactly the Weissenhoff. OK, off again, this time toward a Feering Bury Barn, the conversion of a C16th barn that had recently featured on Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs. It’s the home of artist Ben Goode-Adams and his (artist) wife Freddie Robins – a daring couple who clearly had stretched a tight budget in order to create a terrific and very different kind of live-work habitat for themselves and their (not yet artist) daughter. It really was marvellous, having one reaching for non-existing English words that always seem to end up as ‘integrity’ and ‘authentic’. But what was as intriguing as the conversion itself (using Anthony Hudson as architect) and how Ben and Freddie lived in it was a crazy tale of architects and builder, conservation officers and building inspectors … a madness against which the clients had won out with a home that was, to say the least, idiosyncratic, loaded with witty inventiveness of the kind one expects from architects but only seems to get from artists such as Ben and Freddie. However, one can’t please all the people all, of the time and it was interesting to see that many of us tourists simply couldn’t handle it. And it was equally interesting to note how McCloud and his team had carefully edited all the filming! (Such is TV.) … Anyway: onward, toward olde-world Colchester and Rafael Vinoly’s very new, gold-coloured and ill-fated art gallery … But not before an old and sweet Blue Guide took us on a whistle-stop tour of the place. It’s nice: Roman ruins, medieval castle built from Roman bits and pieces, half-timbered cottages, umpteen aged churches (with art on show of course) and the rest (including, good grief, ghosts!) … But the nicest part of it all was Belcher’s amazing 1892 town hall: what a pile! Magnificent! Its 162ft high bell tower just keeps reaching up with all the baroque confidence those late-Victorians could muster (most taxes in those days were local, not national, hence all those wonderful town-halls). Staggering …
However, this (and some other intriguing stuff on the horizon) had to be quickly left behind as we rushed off through the central shopping mall (a mall is a mall is a mall …) to meet with the Director of the new FirstSite gallery. Well, to say this place has been (and remains) controversial would be a wild understatement. I didn’t know much about it, having merely read a newspaper review by Rowan Moore that was distinctly critical and down-beat (why the funny shape and the gold colour and the queer canted walls and ….) … so, it came as a pleasant surprise – as did soem of the questioning from a couple of local taxpayers in the group who were clearly pissed off at the three years over completion time and a budget that had leaped from some £16m to over £28m! I can’t blame them, but this was self-evidently a case of predatory builders winning a boom-period contract at high rates and then milking the project for all they could wring from it (I’ve been there, done that, seen it all before …!) … and then someone else has to take over and the costs just keep going up … and the value-engineers come in … etc. (you know the story, too) But I liked it (the place, that is). OK, there seemed to be a lot of building for not too much gallery space; the key, big curving wall that wraps the southern facade from entry foyer around to the cafe was a bit of a missed opportunity and Vinoly probably had little or nothing to do with the design (apparently he was like a kid in a sweet shop as he joyfully engaged with the place upo its completion) … But, hey, the determined Director (straight from the learning curve of Wembley Stadium) had no illusions about his challenges and appeared to be doing well. Good luck to him. Overall, this is exactly the kind of place somewhere like Colchester needs … Yes, I know: three years later and nearly at twice the budget, but there is nowhere else like this (anything more modern than Silver End!) for many a mile. Anyway, it had evolved into being only part art gallery and part community centre; and the skateboarders outside seemed to like the place (although there was the obligatory and dreary ‘no skateboarders allowed’ signage …. So, one Xmas meal and lots of wine later and we stumbled back into the coach and , hey presto, after a sixty mile journey in the dark, we were back in rainy Shoreditch, going the wrong direction from 19-year-olds heading to meat-markets in the clubs (the weekend seems to begin on a Thursday these days! Ah, old age is showing …) and back to Kentish Town and a bus toward village-like Highgate … a long way from the Essex countryside and just in time to hear about Prime Minister Cameron going off to milk the Euro crisis for what it was worth (God save us from City bankers and their massive contributions to the coffers of the Conservative Party… God, they must hate the Brits in Europe!). It had been a bright day … Thanks Open House, its organising team and, of course, my good wife Victoria (who founded and runs it and, coincidentally, hails from Essex!).
December 1, 2011Posted by on
Is London a creative city?
Ken, are you going mad? Of course it is – we all know the answer to that!
But doesn’t everyone say that about the city they live in – New York, Paris, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Hong Kong ….? I love the place, but … Perhaps people elsewhere don’t feel this way, but surely all inhabitants of metropoli live parochial lives? In London, we’re all in our little ‘villages’ – which once were real and are now a set of overlapping living zones within personal lives: part real, part virtual; where we eat, sleep, work, shop, have lunch, take the kids to play … My ‘village’ is real in being Highgate, virtual a possibly fewer ways than I like to flatter myself. When I head out it is usually to the West End: Soho, Covent Garden, Holborn … and, of course, to the dreaded land of bankers, the City, and to the East End. Why? Well, principally because this is where the architectural interest is. Most of West London – around and beyond Hyde Park – hardly interests me. In truth, I have to force myself to go there and see what has been going on (architecturally, usually, very little). …
I suppose much of that derives from the experiences of a 14 year old flaneur who, visiting London for the first time, was allowed to wander off on his own.
‘Good grief! What kind of parents were they?’
Ah, but what a gift to a son who could wander and wonder among the streets of Soho, peeking in at the exotic novelties of coffee bars and expresso machines … That’s when I learned the strange pleasure of just moving about, on my own, soaking it up, thrilled by the role I had cast myself in … And yet, of course, I had little or no idea what was going on! Anyway, come to think of it, yes, I used to do that in Newcastle … There’s just something about being anonymous in a thriving city …
‘Gosh, what a sad bugger you are …’
Sad? Hey, I still enjoy doing this … It’s all very ordinary. I recall a late sunny, summer evening a couple of years ago when, on a Friday evening, about 6pm, I left a group of Russian architects after visiting a Japanese ad agency located in Soho (behind that wonderful Amanda Levete facade off Oxford Street). The Russians wanted to hit Bond Street and shop … So I walked off through Soho down toward the River and across Hungerford Bridge to the SouthBank, where my dear beloved awaited me (well, not really: she’s always late …). It was glorious: a scene of people moving about, shopping, crowding the pavements outside pubs (a comparatively recent London fashion with only something incidental to do with smoking). shoppers, people coming out for the evening and having a pre-theatre meal … all that mix. It was nothing special. Nothing happened … well, London was happening! There was a buzz in the air – a buzz that begins to build up around then, after the summer holidays, when an Autumn ‘season’ is beginning. I was 14 again. Of course, it wasn’t the same London. OK, it was, but it wasn’t … We’re back to place, character and patterns again. God, I sometimes love the place …
Well, back to that question: is this a great place to live and is London creative? It used to be. it seemed to be when I was younger and has lived on that reputation ever since … I just keep coming across things happening elsewhere and thinking: hey, whey not in London? Do you know there were some ad agency awards in New York recently and London won zero – absolutely b=nothing from what I understand … And, architecturally … hell, the years from about 1994/5 to 2008 were boom years … There’s d been nothing like it: so much work, so many architects, such good salaries and project budgets … But look about … Sure, there’s lots of good stuff, but there should be more , lots more …
At which point in writing this I have been interrupted by a dear friend who lives in Cologne – a marketing man who is crazy about contemporary architecture! He makes me envious: he travels all over western Europe from Cologne. It is easy for him! Here, in London, we are strangely trapped. It can take 2 hours cross by car and always 45-60 minutes to go anywhere even around the corner! Ever since the Middle Ages the average speed of movement has been about 10-11 miles per hour. … So we talked, about Cologne and Dusseldorf, and Stuttgart, Berlin and Brussels and all those places and all the new architecture going on within some 500 kilometres of Cologne. Then we said good bye: it was time for each of us to get on. For me, it is time to use up that 45 minutes getting to a meeting in, of course, the West End … and to do so without having completed dealing with that question: is London a creative city? (What is a ‘creative city’ anyway?)
December 1, 2011Posted by on
I’ve lived in London all my life and love the place – well, we all say that, wherever we live. I like those world surveys of ‘the most liveable city’ and such like – the stuff of endless controversy which, in the past, have aroused such controversy in newspapers (the Financial Times, especially). And ‘all my life’ is quite a few years, so I’ve seen many changes. However, over that time I’ve become increasingly intrigued by all those comments that refer to London as some kind of ‘beast’ with a life of its own. No, was doesn’t have to get superstitious, wet-eyed or begin to whisper about the deep things we don’t understand about spiritual forces. I’m certain it’s all just about systemic laws of big numbers. That is: I’m almost convinced – certainty is a risky business. One of the things that intrigues me is London’s patterned urban geography and ‘how it wants to be’. ‘How it wants to be’? Well, yes, because how else does one start to grasp at the issue? There is, for example, a very particular patterning that was established and clear by the C12th, i.e., after the Normans had arrived to lay claim to the English crown and set themselves up on the edge of an already established trading town set on the banks of the River Thames. In brief: they settled around Westminster Abbey, a C7th monastery where the last english king had been crowned and this, over the centuries evolved from palace to court plus parliament, civil service and the rest: London’s governmental and royal district. If you’re a rich banker and are eager to invest your bonuses, you turn toward the backlands of this are, to Kensington and Chelsea. And where you will earning that bonus will probably be in the old trading town – now the financial district that is the City of London. That is the basic pattern: two focal points of power and influence. And so it goes on … pattern within pattern, a key aspect of which has been the East End and the West End. Interestingly, although the port of London sometime ago shifted from east to west (i.e., Heathrow airport), many people are lobbying to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary, thus returning the port to the east agin. The ‘beast’ thinks long-term…. Peter Ackroyd is possibly one of the more notable of a long line of historians who likes to nod and wink toward this beastliness, whilst architects mutter (in a neo-Hegelian language they don’t understand) about a ‘spirit of place’.
It sounds like nonsense, but the more one becomes familiar with London as a pattern urban complex, the more one opens one’s mind to such a notion…. When I (in my role as Architectural Dialogue guide) get foreign architects coming to London to see the work of this and that contemporary architect I try (as if I were following in the footsteps of Nairn and Sinclair) to interest them in this London, this pattern, characterful place.
They invariably have zero interest. I have to sneak the message in. And I do it performatively by gathering them at some suitable location and getting out a stick of chalk (not too easy to find in the shops these days!). And they love it. ‘Gosh, Ken, I’m so pleased you explained that ….’ ‘But isn’t this touching upon the basic reason why you came to London?’ ‘No, we came to see this and that building by those famous architects you have.’ ‘But this and that building only has meaning within this larger framework …’ ‘Oh, I suppose so… Where is that Rem Koolhaas building? And we do love Foster …’ Good grief … I sometimes suggest they walk, that they track the canals, that they wonder the backlands and allow themselves to be bemused by it all. They never do. And I suggest that the cities they live must be similar, that they also will exhibit some peculiar patterning – a comment guaranteed to draw a blank. I sometimes think about doing a book on the topic, but such a work would always miss the essential nature of the thing in itself, i.e., just what it is what is getting at. No, it’s better to do it out there, on the pavement, with the chalk, with in between comments. In other word: – I give hints, I point, suggest and hope the other person (or group) is awake and aware and attentive and has a brain that can recognise patterns when they are pushed into their faces … Sometimes they can, and one sees that familiar light in their eyes and they smile: ‘Yes, I get it …’ … Now, that is another topic: why is this the only way to teach but few do it and even fewer people talk about it? And that comes back to learning about the architecture of the beast – tracking how the beast grows, shifts its posture, twitches, scratches, sheds ‘skin’ … We’re like parasites on its back, blissfully unawares of the body we dwell upon – well, the body we create … We do create it, don’t we?
December 1, 2011Posted by on
I have just woken up to the fact that I haven’t looked at this blog in months! Apologies, but I’m trying to get Volume One (yes, two volumes!) of this book, Meetings With Buildings, completed and (as always) it’s taking longer than it should. In other words: I’m switching from Pages to InDesign, adding images, checking text and footnotes, correcting … It goes on. And then (again, as always) one adds and alters … and weeks go by. Strange.
I sat on a bus the other day and spoke with a PhD student who asked what I was up to. That’s always a question guaranteed to draw a defensive answer. ‘What am I up to? I wanted to say: I’ve little idea! … I’ll tell you when I complete the work!’ If I was also doing a PhD I perhaps could have given him something: some indication of the topic, line of argument, angle of approach, perhaps even an abstract (the work is, after all, almost complete). But it’s not like that. I’m not like most authors, certainly not the academic kind: we don’t want to discuss work in progress. We don’t know what we’re doing until we’ve done it. That’s the point of writing!
Defensiveness or superstition? … So, where am I? Well, nearing the end of Volume One, but I recently had to get my head around an aspect of Charles ‘Santiago’ Sanders Peirce’s work – wonderful, ill-fated character whom I imagine having been a great influence on Bucky Fuller (actually, I have no idea if that was the case; they were a generation apart …Peirce woud have had an explanation). Peirce: the latest hero. There has been one after the other. I become engrossed, fascinated … Peirce would probably turn to the word ‘Musement’. ‘Bemusement, perhaps’? There appears to have been a line of these characters: Gadamer, Aristotle, Falk, Eagleton, Dunn, Kant, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Wittgenstein and Heidegger, of course … Cassirer, Bataille … I loose track … I become enchanted, I pursue … and then I come to the same conclusion: they all say the same thing and avoid saying another same thing – all of which is OK. I’m, as they say, cool with that. It’s the academic that are the worst. Have you ever thrown yourself into batteries of academic journals? So many of them are merely fodder to a university ratings endeavour, focusing upon the minute differences between one doctrine of philosophical viewpoint and another, blind to the fact that the vast body of what is being examined is the same as … whatever. Ah, but that’s the point, Ken! … Is it? Is not the myriad of nuanced differences of viewpoint and articulation that is so fascinating, but rather the vast body of commonality. In any case, one always returns to a ‘So what?’ question: ‘What has this got to do with the price of eggs when one get out of bed in the morning?’ It should be a lot. It usually isn’t. Few philosophers get beyond the architectonics of their philosophical schema to such an obvious concern … As for the academics, well … It all takes me back to my days in the AA when private ruminations brought me to disclose these to a tutor … I was excited; he was bored: ‘Ken, so what …?’ Dreadful teaching technique, but at least I still remember the lesson learned. Of course, there is no answer to that particular interrogative … So what? For whom? In what situation?
Ah, now I’m being Aristotlian, bring it all down to earth! It always comes back to that … that, and my hang-up about neo-Platonism. They say one is either a Platonist or an Aristotlian.
In my youth I spent many a year under the tutelage of an ardent Platonist. I’ve met with him again – about three times in a year after some 25 years of no contact. How peculiar. How strange, too, to love someone and have the deepest respect for them, and yet to disagree with them – to profoundly disagree. He walks with princes-in-waiting in the gardens of stately homes. They whisper about ‘divine rights’ and other such things that arouse my republican sentiments. It’s terribly difficult to disgaree with such people. They laugh. They say one doesn’t understand. And they get upset. … It’s an argument one can’t win. Perhaps I don’t want to win. On the other hand, I must: he’s adopts a Platonisc viewpoint and I adopt an Aristotlian one. Actually, he dismisses all philosophy and I am like a hungry animal anxiously in search of … of what? Of, I suppose, an answer to that ‘So what?’ retort…. So what? How can an esoteric teacher dismiss philosophy? How could he not …
How many books has this man written? is it 12? 15? I don’t know …. Strangely, he reminds me somewhat of someone else who must have published about as many books, but works of self-promotion. he sent me yet another the other day. I wanted to politely thank him, sincerely congratulate him and wish him well. But, in truth, I felt disappointed by a man who, in his mid-seventies-plus, is still lost to a vain obsession with significance. How sad when the mature around one found to be locked into such concerns ….
Another recollection: it was on this architect’s desk that I once saw a note he had written to himself. It was three words: survival, success, significance … Architects struggle with the first, but one can get by on very little. There’s always the dole and the Big Issue keeping a lot of people going. Many are even content with that. Success is not so easy an appetite to satisfy. A lot more is at stake. Nevertheless, many people reach a point of relative satisfaction and ease off at some point. However, the pursuit of significance is different. It eats a person up. There can never be enough of it! And that is what this architect hungers for: yet more significance … How sad. Does he think it will give him credential at the Pearly Gates? I wanted to tell him that, sometimes, ‘less is more’ (he’d hate that!) and that (as Bataille might have advised) one’s concern should be with sovereignty. But he’s a knight of the realm. Who am I?… Like that teacher, he would retort: ‘Ken, you don’t understand …’ Perhaps I don’t. Perhaps that is why I get out of my bed in the morning and look at my screen and type away and read and type and revise and read …
What’s the itch I’m scratching? My own pursuit of significance? Ostensibly, it’s a concern with a simple interrogative: What is architecture all about? What a silly question. It’s like asking ‘What is cooking all about?’ Watch Masterchef and one might find out. Cook a few meals and learn. Experience a few buildings and you might come to know. Go to an architecture school and … (Just don’t sit looking at photographs. They lies!) … Will one learn? It’s intriguing: one learns in spite of … One reads between the lines. One’s best teachers nod and wink and point a finger … and they say ‘Do you get it? Now, do you … Do you?’ That Qaballa teacher is a bit like that. I imagine him asking, and laughing, like some mad Buddhist monk … He’s a mischievous bugger! I recall (yet again) an second-year tutor something like that, viz., saying ‘do you get it?’. He thought I did get it. ‘I turned you on, didn’t I?’ he said, in a self-congratulatory tone. ‘Turned me on’? What a wonderful phrase! Well, as it happened he hadn’t. I had just been temporarily shunted down a side track. Like most people, am still looking for the key that ‘turns me on’. If there has been any degree of ‘turning on’ it has been because of my wife. Her advice was always simple: ‘Look’, she’d advise, ‘get out there, walk the pavements … Find your own discourse and learn a degree of scepticism re the received architectural one.’ I suppose she taught me to distrust the mediated experience. It invariably lies.
But what is it that I experience? What is it that I find out there, on the pavements, that turns me on? … (No, not that – I’m an architect, remember? What’s that joke about the man bleeding to death and someone else needing a pencil in order to tighten a tourniquet? The latter asks an architect who answers: ‘Ehmm, would a 2B be good enough?’
I sometimes get excited when reading rather than looking – not always, but occasionally. Sometimes an author says something that connects, that somehow seems to make sense of some inarticulated inner feeling that is all garbled and mixed up and … and suddenly it is coherent and … it’s as if, as one philosopher said, one had walked into a lightened room. ‘Hey, who switched the lights on?’ It’s as if one already knew but didn’t know that one knew … and the book somehow les one know that one does know! How strange … But then it goes – rather quickly … Did architecture ever do that for me? Not a lot. But, yes, sometimes, and powerfully … What I catch I often refer to as masterful gamesmanship. I think Peirce would have known what I meant. Do I? Well, yes, of course … (I’m smiling …) The difficulty is not an lack of inner certainty but some way to articulate it – ironically, always knowing that such an articulation will always be somewhat off target: yet another pointing finger. ‘Look … see … Do you get it? Do you …?’
OK, so you still want to know what I’m writing about? In a nutshell: I’m asking ‘what is architecture?’ This can’t be answered except in the usual cliched terms. But one can, more usefully, ask ‘What is an architect?’ Then one returns the issue to its human basis and to what Geoffrey Scott referred to as ‘the world as man would have it’ – or rather to the endeavour which this entails. That’s all. I’m trying to avoid one of those Victorian phrenetic exercises that presume the pattern of bumps on someone’s head tells us something about that person’s character – that’s what most books on architecture do: this and building, this and that style, period, hero, etc…. Pevsner was a bit like that: ‘No, 27 cable Street: Doric columns, tall windows, four storeys, broken pediment …’ We can see that! So, I’m asking, looking, ruminating about what is going on when an architect gets out of bed in the morning, pointing like there is no tomorrow … It’s very Aristotlian. Plato wouldn’t be interested. …