Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Monthly Archives: February 2012
February 28, 2012Posted by on
There’s an interesting part of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue in which he takes issue with the modernist cult of the expert and his or her means-to-ends mind-set. The topic is rooted in MacIntyre’s overall thesis regarding modernism and the manner in which it employs words and concepts that have become disconnected with their sources and past meanings. In these terms he leaps back and forth from Plato and Aristotle to Hume and Weber, and to his own contemporaries. In this instance it is Weber’s disclosure of the nature and character of modern bureaucracies and their ultimate criterion of effectiveness that intrigues him. If we leap forward again from Weber we are in a familiar territory of now semi-professionalised managers (yes, I Know: we’re all ‘professional’ these days), their more recent fads, their self-justification, their denial that right-time-and-place has anything to do with their success and, for architects, the obtrusion (made some 20-30 years ago) into architectural affairs of project managers muttering about planning, monitoring and control and the quantitative measures that make this triad of concerns feasible.
MacIntyre, no doubt, would immediately locate this foregrounding of the project manager into the context of the emergence of property developers such as London’s infamous late C17th Dr Nicholas Barbon (1640-1698) and, some one hundred years later, of the general building contractor who sub-contracted other trades (Thomas Cubitt, for example (1788-1855)). Barbon was an original Swinging-Dick, making the most of London’s expansive Restoration status, building streets of houses all over central London, replacing what had been timber with brick (the requirement of building regulations after the Great Fire of 1666). London was booming and Barbon – an economist, Member of Parliament, advocate of free trade and the inventor of modern fire insurance as well as physician and land speculator – made the most of it in a thoroughly modern manner. Cubitt wasn’t quite the same kind of ‘swinging-dick’, but he did build much of Bloomsbury and other parts of central London. Their portraits say it all.
The latter-day versions of men like Cubitt now mutter about BIM and carry iPads in trendy protective casings and their current impact upon the architectural profession has become a sore point of low fees, scrabbling for jobs, globalised clients and a general air of disillusionment that gets on with the job, but rarely looks forward to a bright future for the profession. A disenchantment begun when the like of the ‘ancients’ and ‘moderns’ of c17th France (people such as Perrault and Blondel) would debate the canonic measures of the Orders – to later have all their notions of what the Romans and Greeks were all about thoroughly undermined by a mix of secular values and the archaeological researches that revealed the wide variations within what has supposedly been a consistent set of values – has now reached new depths of despair. Architects still provide upbeat spin, but there is sometimes a grey, tired and fearful look in their eyes. The future is lost in thick mists that don’t appear to bode well.
MacIntyre questions whether managerial expertise actually exists to the extent these people like to claim. He might have referred us to those researches indicating that the performances of contemporary Swinging-Dicks of finance rarely match the standard market indices for more than 2-3 years; they may have high intelligence, skill and drive, but they as well have sat back in their leathered chairs and had another glass of something sparkling whilst they throw dice determining their gambles. Instead, he refers us to a gap between the long-term corporate strategies that, from another viewpoint, Henry Mintzberg used to look back upon as the wisdom of hindsight, and short-term measures riddled with ad hocism and inconsistency.
Architecture is rather like that.
Its ‘long-termism’ is all that pertains to its claims for a kind of supercedent value that Wren would have referred to in terms of those eternals that are forever the same, standing in contrast to those customary variables that can ever be this or that. Such, in essence, has always been the underlying character of the architect’s claim to legitimacy. The ‘short-termism’ is, of course, the daily realities of practice endeavours, the perennial struggles of this and that project which draw one to the awesome conclusion tat it is a marvel that anything excellent ever gets built.
MacIntyre’s view upon managerial expertise focuses upon the claim to effectiveness as a manipulative concern which deals with others as means to ends who are to be made subject to one’s will. To what end? Well, that is the problem. Modern man, lacking any values or basic principles that can be made rationally justifiable, formulates goals that have become commensurable givens to the extent they are mostly reducible to the abstractions of power and money, and the ambiguous and aim of happiness. Employing means to ends long ago became, as Hannah Arendt once noted, an end in itself. What one does with power and money is a self-defined, private goal of goods justified in terms of one’s own unique individuality. The this and that of such means is contrasted with the abstracted goals; the gap inbetween is a sphere of life-styles struggling toward self-defined notions of happiness through a complex jungle of hedonistic concerns. We’re all aesthetes these days, fragmenting life’s concerns into discrete fire-walled categories. Not untypically, these are divided between a sphere of 9-5 in which unquestionable goals are given, and a realm outside this in which we seek to identify and attain the removal of personal dissatisfaction (a hygiene consideration which is not the same as pursuing satisfaction) – a sphere that may even allow us to play out the role of principled ethicist, attending church or protesting on the streets. From Kierkegaard’s point of view (Either / Or) it all came down to much the same thing and was always devoid of a sound rational basis.
Architects often strive to integrate these two realms into a fulfilling practice that pays the mortgage whilst it provides a degree of autonomy with regard to a play with uniquely architectural goods, perhaps even to see this role flower as the cultural status of ‘celebrity’ – what MacIntyre calls society’s ‘characters’ who become figures of peculiar moral status and guidance. MacIntyre deals with this in terms of a life lived with an aim of predictability with regard to others and to events, but not with regard to our own secretive and creative selves which extol the virtues of a ‘freedom of choice.’ Between these two sits the figure of Fortuna – what the ancient Greeks dealt with as tuché, or luck; what, today, an architect simply summarises as Sod’s Law or, if you were Nassim Taleb, would be the arrival of a ‘black swan’. Shit happens – as the gap of reality in between the long-termism and short-termism, a sphere in which a rather Aristotlian kind of practical wisdom is called upon.
When MacIntyre offers criticism of this state of affairs he is not seeking to be nostalgic. He can be equally critical of Aristotle, Hume and their respective cultural epochs. He is allied to neither Modernism nor post-Modernism. He is simply fascinated by the shifts and the continuities, the transferences, translations and disjunctions, but particularly with modernism’s loss of a moral compass. He identifies a variety of aspects to this disorientation and dislocation, collecting them all under the rubric of an ‘emotivism’ which has, at its core, an inability to rationally justify the foundational principles upon which individual standpoints are founded and which sits at the core of utilitarianism. Here, Hume serves as a convenient focus: a philosopher who was irritated that an ‘is’ argument that always seems to eventually arrive an a groundless ‘ought’ which is merely expressed opinion: my opinion his, hers, theirs … expressions opinion that becomes the basis of a persuasive effect upon others – a universal game played out in terms of treating others as means to ends. Reason can never motivate and define goods; it can merely serve to provide means to ends. It is the passions and desires that are the sources of motivation.
One of MacIntyre’s favoured contrasts is between Aristotle’s notion of goods and an implicitly presumed, role-based social framework which provides a telos for any man or woman and his or her adopted role and status in society. It is practices that provides a situated telos to our endeavours. Only of the basis of such teleological presumption could Aristotle provide a moral foundation to his philosophical outlook. Goodness is functional in the sense that a watch is a good watch because its is good of its type (rather than, as he remarks, for throwing at the cat!). Similarly, a man is good to the extent he lives a virtuous life which furthers the fulfillment of any man’s telos. To say something was ‘good’ was to make a factual statement.
The scholars of the middle ages held to such Aristotlian teleology (now supplemented by the Christian ideal of life’s fulfillment in another realm, of God’s commandments and of grace). What linked Aristotle to the medieval scholars – and which continues today – is the notion of man-as-he-happens-to-be (an untutored state of being) and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realised-his-essential-nature (MacIntyre’s phrases). Ethics is the mediating science that effects such a transition. What was more-real-than-real is ever over the horizon (or outside the Platonic cave) and the express train or ladder getting us there is ever the same, whether it be Socratic contemplation or Christian worship, Kabbalah, Sufism, or whatever.
Emerging modernism, however, sought to effect a disconnect which became the celebrated freedoms of the Enlightenment. Now, reason can no longer provide a sound argument that defines man’s true end. The model of reasoning is to be a scientific one. There is no longer an ‘ought’ to be derived from an ‘is.’ The difficulty is that a morale code seeking to educate, correct and improve human nature is now deprived of a natural telos and must turn to the passions. But, self-evidently, these are a suspect basis for a new morality – one that most of us have been looking for ever since (what MacIntyre refers to a current ‘interminable’ debate). And here utilitarianism steps forward and lays claim to satisfactory guidance.
Against this kind of background, it is interesting to find that architect’s still make a teleological presumptions; the modernist disconnect has never been complete. Faced with a state of dissatisfaction and desires to move toward a future more satisfactory state of affairs they, in effect, ask: ‘What does this situation want to become as a form of affairs that removes the causes of dissatisfaction and perhaps adds in new and genuine satisfactions?’ Otto Wagner, as a Modernist, urged his students to address ‘the need’ – what is a Classical notion of teleological, efficient causation. The likes of Loos and Le Corbusier furthered this sentiment as acts of purified thought – free of decoration for the former, and laden with the essentials of Platonic form swathed in the mists of freemasonry for the latter. Louis Kahn could hold up a brick and ask, ‘What does it want to be?’
In fact, the teleological approach makes a lot of sense to the designer. To ask, in contrast, ‘What can I transformatively do in this situation?,’ or ‘What potential does it offer for me create ostensibly novel and original forms?,’ or ‘How can I intervene?’ locates the creative author in a groundless realm of arbitrary egocentric concerns. To the extent these insinuate themselves into the client’s agenda they are arguably predatory and go to the heart of what an ethos of professional service is purportedly all about. But this does happen and is, to some degree, inevitable: the architect seeks to put forward valued autonomous goods into a context of concerns otherwise entirely focused upon quantified abstractions dealt with as means to ends, sprinkled with a superfluous dash of vanity. He or she is the champion of a good that is celebrated in itself and for itself.
Ironically, this means that they, too, are treating the project as means to an end; however, theirs is the only good in this equation that can serve as a foundation the the manager’s translation of a visionary idea and aspiration into what is planned, monitored and controlled, to be brought in on-time-and-to-budget. But the latter procedural exercise will, of course, value-engineer the proposition in accord with performative criteria that address the architect’s scheme as nothing more than a presentational form: “Listen, son, don’t worry about how we do it, just tell us what you want it to look like.” The scheme has, of course, to functionally satisfy performative criteria but, beyond this, the architect’s principal concern is a presentational branding exercise. The architecture is a mask to what is really going on – which brings us back to MacIntyre’s criticism of managerial expertise.
Wasn’t it ever thus? Although, I doubt that it was – which also brings us back to the recall of Reyner Banham’s well-worn adage that we should consider dumping the baggage. But what should we replace it with? What is it being replaced with? And do we really want such an unmasking? Banham once referred us to architecture as an impenetrable black box , concluding that it might be better not to query what goes on inside. Stay in the cave; it’s cosy in there.
February 15, 2012Posted by on
Sitting through a two-hour investiture programme at Buckingham Palace is plenty of time to soak up the relationship of architecture to power. It was my Georges Bataille moment – admittedly, a long moment.
The Palace team are smooth, professional operators. Whilst being official they can be courteous, affable and entirely firm in how they handle a gaggle of plebian subjects who are about to enjoy the ritual of investiture and whose over-awed guests are ready to sit there quietly and take it all in whilst playing out the role of rent-a-crowd. It’s impressive, even to an senior republican like myself.
The investitures take place in the Buckingham Palace Ballroom (1854): an ornate, multi-purpose room, complete with gallery, upon which a military orchestra professionally manages to seamlessly move from Mozart to a ‘Beatles medley’ without pause.
An obvious thought inevitably comes to mind is: What would such a place of ritual be in Modernist guise? The simple answer is that the interrogative is a contradiction in terms and misses the point.
A neo-Classical language (of whatever nuance) is (as you know) not only about order, but about hierarchy, ratio, propriety, proportionality, symmetircal balance and what was once called convenance. Commodity and delight are made entirely subject to firmness – now a represented, enacted and policiticised firmness. All is well in the kingdom and, at an investiture, those participating give implicit subscription to their role in the prevailing order of things, helping to solidify and ever-renew its vital stability. ‘The King is dead. Long live the King.’ (Well, Prince Charles in this instance – a man who believes that Divine Right is the very substance of his Destiny. It must be because of Divine Right that he is the Prince of Wales, heir to the throne. And, being Prince, son of his mother the Queen, manifestly shows the reality of Divine Right. Whichever way one looks at it the outcome is the same. And if you disagree it is because you simply don’t understand.)
To sit there for two hours is to have plenty of time to reflect upon such matters. It is also where the quiet voice of Georges Bataille enters into one’s head, muttering about architecture’s authoritative purposes. And, one admits, if that is the game, then it has, of course, to be the language of the ancient Romans.
The obvious counterpoint to this aged tradition is another notion of order: one that construes the social cake to be the same however one slices it, in which hierarchy has little place, in which equality, justice, meritocracy and democracy are key words of value, in which suffrage is universal, all political representatives are to be elected and the very notion of royalty and monarchs is deeply suspect.
Perhaps this is a very English topic, but I doubt it. We are discussing a world thoroughly explored by the erudite Thorstein Veblen, inventor of the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ – which is not merely a matter of what royalty gets up to, nor its court and layers of those who hang about. It is eagerly taken up by the masses: the petit bourgeoisie who (like me, I suppose) turn up in outrageous sartorial attire. Save me, Lord, from those women in their hats and satin and high heels and … Lord, save me! But what does one do? It’s especially difficult for those women who want to be women and not mindless Veblen-esque trophies: do they bow (as Barbara Hulanicki did for her OBE) or curtsey, like most. I confess to being most impressed by the balls of the obvious dyke in the room: short, overweight, cropped hair, in a man’s suit … but I otherwise failed to notice how she handled matters. Royalty, of course, was utterly unmoved by any of it (one never shows one’s distaste for these lessor mortals), as were the ever courteous attendants whose role was to facilitate the event and mediate relations by their control of an invisible in-between zone that separated the hoi polloi.
So, there I patiently sat: all the while very conscious of architecture’s complicity in it all. And, no, I still didn’t have an answer to what it would all be in Modernist guise – as I said, the very notion misses the point. To an extent that fades into the distant background of everyday life, one was being quietly reminded of the social realities in which one participates.
I shall leave the last few words to Alisdair MacIntyre: “The ways in which transactions are structured in the social orders which are their bearers both presuppose and give expression to claims to truth and rationality.” And “… theoretical standpoints may be presented, argued for, may provide a framework for debate internal to them and the like, not only in the form of the book, the article and the lecture, or dramatically in the dialogue or the play, but in the form of those solid dramas which are at one and the same time historical segments of the life of a community and enacted theory.” Hegel was wrong to deal with history in terms of the Idea, but he was correct in seeking to understand it in terms of a series of ideas.
February 13, 2012Posted by on
Met? With a building? Yes, it’s a silly idea isn’t it? But there only two facets to architecture – the two proverbial sides of the same coin: authoring it and appreciating it.
And there two aspects of these two facets that interest me.
The first concerns the spontaneity of ideas – what the remarkable Charles Peirce referred to as ‘abduction’. Ideas happen, but only if one is prepared for them. Peirce dealt with that engagement in terms of inducement and a state of mind he referred to as ‘musement’.
The second aspect of concern is a correlative experience that similarly flashes up and is gone the moment once focuses upon it. It is aesthetic only in terms of ‘a dialogue of the body’. That is, one feels and senses something quite contrary to what a contemplative state of mind can induce, although such contemplation may be the correlative of Peirce’s ‘musement’.
This appreciative woman (above) isn’t capturing that quality on her camera. However, she may be striving to lay a hold upon something in the in the same manner that an architectural author strives to capture an the flash of abduction in a diagram (that all-important schematic sketch).
Such ‘diagramming’ was very important to Peirce, a scientist and logician as well as philosopher. It’s important to architectural authors, too: how do they know what they are thinking until they draw it? Only then is what is gong on subject to contemplation. It’s the same with But his kind of musement is musement-in-action.
That’s not what architectural authorship is about? If you say that, then you are too focused upon what 95% of that authorship entails: a focus upon the inductive and deductive elaborations upon that initial formal capturing (the diagram). But, in another sense, you’re right: that 95% is frequently ‘contemplative’ in the sense of rational problem finding and solving; it is abductive only in a subsidiary sense relative to the initial schematic idea put in place.
It’s possible that architectural appreciation is also ‘in-action’ – that, as with Pollack, ratiocintation is backgrounded until one stops, looks and, like the woman above, takes out the camera, perhaps only then contemplating the best way to represent what is at issue.
And what is at issue? Well, what flashed by, caught one’s imagination, evinced a positive judgement and prompted the taking of the photo. That was the ‘meeting’. Many people have spoken of this strange aspect of appreciation: the judgement of taste has been even before one is aware of it. (One is reminded of those cognitive experiments that have indicated decisions are made well before we are consciously aware of having made them.) What is really going on is sub (supra?) conscious, and that is itself a disturbing notion.
The common denominator of all this – these two facets of our coin – is the substance of the thing: something strangely impenetrable except in terms of a receptive state of mind. Heidegger referred to ‘called thinking’. Merleau-Ponty referred to all that is ‘sedimented’ in thought and cognition. Cassirer referred to kinds of ‘mythic awareness’ that manifest a subjectivity caught in the currents of the prepredicative. In similar terms, Georges Bataille turned toward a Dionysian heterogeneity. Peirce referred to a ‘Quality’ of ‘Firstness’. For Kant this was the ‘thing-in-itself’. Plato abstractly dealt with it as what was ‘more real than real’. Wittgenstein simply found himself dealing with all this as a ‘bedrock’ beyond which rationality cannot penetrate.
However, mythic awareness does find ways to mediate between the thinking mind and the strangeness of the prepredicative. Authors speak of inspiring Muses. Those being appreciative of architecture speak of ‘meeting with the building’. It’s as if we stood within castle walls whilst, all around, there was a deep mist that defied understanding. It is, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, a queer state of affairs.
The point? It’s hardly original: lovers of technique have difficulty with all this.
February 12, 2012Posted by on
As Adolf Loos knew, there is something inherently depressing about architecture as a self-referential discourse. Equally, there is something exhilarating about the masterful ‘gamesmanship’ this closed discourse is capable of engendering.
This notion of ‘gamesmanship’ (defined by Stephen Potter as “The art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating”) has unsavoury associations, especially in sport, but in architecture gamesmanship alludes to the admirable exhibition of wit, inventiveness and cunning in order to overcome obstacles to the realisation of an autonomous architectural good. There is a sense in which it epitomises what architecture is all about. ‘The art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating’ just about sums that up.
Interestingly (obviously?), it is easier to identify this inventive witfulness in older buildings from which we now stand apart – easier, too, in the particularity of details, fragments, not wholes. This is simply because gamesmanship is exercised in discrete (as well as discreet) acts, i.e., tactically, if within a strategic intentionality. Also, gamesmanship is distant from the conceptualisation that accords with an overall schema – its grounded particularity is essential to its nature.
It is by means of an appreciation of gamesmanship (if it is present) that we find ourselves more easily ‘meeting with a building’ and surreptitiously coming, as it were, face to face with an architectural author. There is something deeply personal in what it is all about. There is also a felt, non-conceptual character to the experience that has little to do with aesthetics.
Oddly, too, I suspect that such an engagement only comes about through a peculiar kind of familiarity that is difficult for tourists to grasp. One notices, as if out of the corner of one’s eye. The ‘architective’ has to be open to the experience, ready to acknowledge it, to see within an overall architectural those quiet little instances where the architect escapes into a peculiar kind of freedom and practices what they are good at – often humorously, irreverently, just like one of Potter’s characters. And, of course, the moment the ‘meeting’ into a conceptualising recall and rumination.
Rare examples are like those of Jim Stirling’s façade to the Clore gallery – a curious bit of escapism from a contentious and tedious debate concerning the interiors – escape into a zone of tolerated indulgence in personal concerns. However, more usually, examples are minor details, features and fragments.
One of my favourites is in the heart of the City, just east of Bank, at 28-30 Cornhill. Here, there is a simple archway – merely one feature within an overall façade designed some eighty years ago by the once-famous Curtis Green. It sits to one side of this typical but slightly ‘stripped’, late Grand Manner façade, leading off Cornhill, down into what was once a medieval alley (appropriately called Change Alley) and into the neglected backlands of the urban block.
Although designed by a skilled, Gold Medalist, this is an ordinary City building – one of those shoulder-by-shoulder works we rarely design anymore (individuality demands a stand-alone stance). And, until one pauses to look, it is an ordinary archway. I frequently slink by, casually giving it a quick sideways glance: “Hello, old friend – still here? Haven’t they got to you yet?’ There’s a demolition ball with your name on it …!”
The arch is deep, comprising two parts: an outer arch that relates to the symmetry of the overall Portland stone façade, and rakes back onto an inner, corresponding part whose geometry is deftly shifted to one side in order to align with the contingent and inconvenient interruption of an alley (and right of way) that obtrudes upon the façade. Deep, radiating rustication binds inner and outer arches together and into the overall façade design. What intrigues me about this small gesture is resolution of the problem this alley had presented Curtis when sorting out the symmetry of the façade. He does so deftly, with little effect upon the overall scheme except to maintain rather than compromise its order.
As a minor architectural incident on nearby streets crowded with good architecture designed by long-forgotten notables (Lutyens, OMA, Hawksmoor, Stirling, Wren, Rogers, Dance, Soane … ) this 1935 archway goes unnoticed: a minor performance most people don’t see. Why should they? It’s a detail. It’s no big deal. But for me its tells me something about the architect.
There is a similar deftness exhibited in a second example to be found further east: Leadenhall Market, as redesigned and completed in 1881 by Horace Jones, the City Architect.
A market since the Middle Ages, Leadenhall is now the scene of liquid lunches for rather City fat cats – a fine example of how the City’s neglected backlands could have been better utilised.
It fascinates me that the plan of the market has been conceptualised as a formal cruciform which simply doesn’t fit. This schema has been twisted, distorted and had some limbs amputated in order that it might be forced into its awkward site. And yet the strength of that conceptual schema has a palpable presence.
The central octagonal domed feature, for example, fixes and holds the contrary architectural dynamics of what takes place to north and south, east and west. These four ‘arms’ of the design – striving to reach out to the perimeter streets – cannot do what was intended. If there is a failure it is most noticeable on the northern side, where the ‘arm’ is, as it were, amputated; it doesn’t exist. Sadly, the Po-Mo buildings erected here in the late 1980′s (incidentally, at the same time Lloyds was being completed) ignore Jones’ intentions. Similarly, although the eastern arm establishes some presence, Lloyds ignores it except in the sense that its lower-level ‘concourse’ was conceptualised as drawing a retail content down and into it, around the base of the building (an ambition frustrated from the beginning, leaving a rather meaningless, moat-like area surrounding the building). Only on the west side do we see the fullness of what Jones intended. But it is the southern arm that is the most interesting in the manner that it strives to reach out to the perimeter street.
It is here that I have practiced a little disclosure to those who care to give attention. “Let me show you this. Look, see, over there: we have significant depth behind the façade … Then … here, follow me … further along: now, it’s peculiarly shallow … And it gets progressively more shallow. Come this way … It get more shallow because Jones has run out of depth behind his façade! He has no option: the room – up there, behind the window – has to be very small. He has no choice, but the facade carries on, as before … Now, continue long … The façade continues, but now there is no space at all behind it … The façade is now a mere screen. And Jones fills the window with metalwork so that we can see this – we can see the other building beyond. The game is declared, self-satisfyingly, as if a sleight-of-hand …”
There is not only a deftness to how Jones has stretched the façade out in this manner, but an obvious delight in declaring his game. The architectural gamesmanship almost wears a self-satisfied grin, declaring a capability and awareness that, by implication also informs the whole scheme – an instance of part and whole informing one another. We rarely do this anymore. And yet it is details such as this that proclaim an architectural goodness as well as the author’s delight in his gamesmanship. Yes, there is an element of ‘look at me’, but one executed in the manner of ‘nod-wink, do-you-get-it? Yes? It’s fun, isn’t it? I sneaked this in …’ It is a superfluity that can’t be explained to men of a practical frame of mind, people who don’t already value the values at issue and their reliance upon an author’s caring, wit and inventiveness: ‘The art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating’. It’s something today’s architects desperately need, but haven’t identified and can’t incorporate except as blatantly poor architectural ‘jokes’, or a shallow ‘look-at-me’ irreverence that misses the point of what Potter is getting at: the gamesmanship is, at once, within and outside the game.
February 10, 2012Posted by on
The remarkable architect and product designer, Eliot Noyes, once wrote: “… details must play their part in relation to the overall concept and character of the building, and are the means by which the architect may underline his main idea, reinforce it, echo it, intensify or dramatize it.” (Arch. Record, 1966)
And then there was, of course, the more succinct Charles Eames, who adopted a more pragmatic and less intrinsically symbolic attitude to the issue: “The details are not the details. They make the design. The connections, the connections, the connections.” (ECS film, 1961).
Noyes’ comment begs a question: how do details dramatise, underscore, etc.? The reference to ‘relation’ is perhaps the hint. But Eames is suggesting that the ambiguous whole that a part relates to is only defined bythe parts. One is reminded of an old conundrum: is the egg a way to make chickens, or vice versa?
Any similarity between how Noyes and Eames construed the product has to do with a subtle pragmatism that adopted a tentative (and even surreptitious) approach to a symbolic content of the kind outlined by Heidegger when he discussed the jugness of a jug in terms that gave emphasis to functionality as a ritualistic gifting pertaining to this intersubjective intentionality (The Thing, a lecture of 1950 published in Poetry, Language, Thought (1971)). This is where Eames’ plywood leg splints differ from his later furniture – we slip across a boundary into a sphere where utilitarianism of the kind we we associate with tools becomes the usefulness of a kind more explicitly mired in meaningfulness. Eames knew this when he muttered about the beauty and ‘naturalness’ of an axe handle, and Loos surely had the same unsettling truth in mind when he referred us to the ‘naturalness’ of a peasant’s roof which no architect could imitate. Axe handle, jugs and peasant roofs (and iMacs and the rest) are oriented to ‘a need’ that is ever rooted in impenetrable ambiguity that has some degree of symbolic value at its core.
But to the extent that tools and housings are a significant aspect of a discourse concerning parts and wholes, we must also acknowledge that most ambiguous neo-mythic awareness and neo-magical attitude that recognises no essential differentiation between part and whole: someone’s toe-nail clipping, for example, embodies the whole person. There is here no difference between the essentiality of whole and part. And so the part can be magically employed. The archaeological version of this is the whole animal constructed from a few bone fragments. We witness something similar in recent genetics. And the architectural version is a similar ability to ostensibly read the whole from the Classical part simply because of the presumed harmonics and correspondences one expects to prevail – correspondences founded upon the commensurability of those numbers serving as a common denominator unifying part with whole.
Notions of part and whole, in other words, presume some form of commensurability which informs their unity, facilitates organicity and, ultimately, defines a particularity of identity. (Your heart and my heart might be the same, but a transplant is impossible with out the aid of immunosuppressant drugs.) It is a powerful notion, one that can as easily be qualitative as quantitative. The underlying sentiment reveals an outlook on the world – including its architectural housings – that construes all of nature as a more-or-less integrated and harmonised design – except that mankind is ‘fallen’ into delusion and discord. Alberti – for whom a restorative ideal was defined as that unity to which nothing could be added or taken away without detracting from its beauty – would not have been surprised by the remarks of Noyes and Eames, or have been in disagreement with them. On the other hand, one can’t imagine them so easily subscribing to his neo-Platonic cosmology.
Noyes again (emphasis added): “[D]etails must play their part in relation to the overall concept and character of the building, and are the means by which the architect may underline his main idea, reinforce it, echo it, intensify or dramatize it. [...] I like details [...] to be simple, practical, efficient, articulate, appropriate, neat, handsome, and contributory to the clarity of all relationships. The converse of this is that the spectator may observe and enjoy details, and find in them an extension of his experience and understanding of the architecture. In them he should be able to read, or at least see reflected, the character and spirit of the entire building – as to see the universe in a grain of sand.” (Architectural Record, Jan., 1966)
There is, of course, a degree of paradox in all this: to identify a ‘detail’ one must already have identified its particularised wholeness, just as one must also have synthesised the whole of which it is a part and to which it contributes. Every detail – simply to be a part or detail – must have a degree of wholeness about it. Either way, there is, in phenomenological terms, a similar gestalt foregrounding of figure (part or whole) against a more or less diffuse background.
It must also be added that, oddly, it is rarely principles – ‘the whole’ – but rather the detail – the particularised application of principal – about which we heatedly disagree. We more easily agree upon the fundamental generality of goods than we do about particularised forms of their realisation. Details, as particulars rather than generals, are intrinsically and symbolically significant – a significance underscored by the daily particularity of the lives we live and experience. Meanwhile, the whole – as diffuse background – is a mystery to us. (An important point that illustrates the difference between a Socratic escape route out of a cave of illusions and Aristotle’s acceptance of a phenomenological world of ‘appearances’.)
But there is something else to consider – something engendered by an outlook that locates satisfaction and finds an acceptable coherence within the heterogeneous framework of Aristotlian realities: that artefacts such as architectural housings can exhibit kinds of ‘detail’ that are peculiarly semi-autonomous in a manner that finds correspondence only in the likes of humans whose prosthetic extensions are fundamental to their everyday thriving and thus constitute a restoration of their organicity (the prosthetic bears a restorative intentionality). Within a neo-Platonic cosmology, all of mankind’s ‘works’ serve such a restorative purpose that has a Garden if Eden as an implicit sacred goal. (Although it is unlikely we shall agree on the content of that Garden!)
In the realm of practical architecture (if not biology, where the underlying teleological issue remains a contentious and obscure issue), details can legitimately enjoy an architectural strength of being that subverts and can even approaches the supervention of the whole in which it participates. (‘Approaches’ because to supervene the whole is to negate and replace it.)
To consider how this might be, it might be useful to refer to Noyes again (the preceding part of the above quotation; notice how he broadens out the notion of ‘detail’): “I think of details in two senses. There are first the details of joints, connections, the attachment of different materials to each other, the turning of corners, the physical relating of parts of the building to each other. But I also think of larger special elements as details — such as stairs and fireplaces — in which there are of course numerous details in the other sense. In each case the architect has a useful and expressive architectural device. In a way, such architectural details are the architecture, but details alone — no matter how thought out or how consistent — cannot make architecture.”
Noyes is less ambiguous than Eames: an architecture is, by definition, a schematic set of relations that is ever other than its particularised details. Eames tells us that the details ‘make’ ‘the design’. But he is also right: the details facilitate and constitute the realisation of a design concept which otherwise floats, less meaningfully, in an intangible fantasy realm.
Rather than ‘details’, perhaps we need to refer think in terms of Noyes’ elemental features. We could also refer to ‘fragments’, but then a fragment is, implicitly, already broken off – as with the prosthetic whose design can reveal much about our conception of the whole it serves. These details / features / fragments, can sometimes tell you more than examination of a whole ever can. They can exhibit more, manifest more, represent more … be more meaningful. Their soul doesn’t have to have to be mortgaged to the whole, but can subsist as detail that yet, strangely, possesses a wholeness that is ‘semi-autonomous’.
Let me offer an example that recently arose out of a conversation with a former student fresh from Vancouver. It was a conversation about the architect’s current predicament, about the apparent emasculation of their power and influence and import that runs in parallel with swelling numbers and the celebratory status of a tiny few (and, incidentally, about thriving midst the Chinese invasion over there and the cultural change this brings into the profession). It wasn’t the most upbeat and optimistic of discussions.
Do you recall, I asked, the old Jim Stirling exercise at the Tate Britain, how he was asked to add a pavilion extension to house the Turner collection, how the job was a proverbial ‘walk across a ploughed field’, how the Gallery curators homed in on detail and squeezed the architect into a delirium of contention and tedium … ? So what was Big Jim’s answer? He metaphorically left the room and literally gave his attentions to the exterior. That was OK wasn’t it? So long as he was respectful and courteous toward what existed, then surely he should be allowed to get on with ‘his thing’ out there? What harm could there be in that? And so Big Jim indulged himself in an exercise of external gamesmanship, particularly on the river-facing facade. It possesses a peculiar quality of being a personal indulgence or game, into which we are invited as welcome spectators. The project enabled this gamesmanship, facilitated it and tolerates it. It has little to do with the interior and it is not slightly forlorn. Even the principal connection of an oriel window that was to be a secretive sitting area, away from the paintings and overlooking the pond has lost its role long ago. And the joke ‘dropped’ stone in the corner (as at Stuttgart) is now meaningless and idiosyncratic to most visitors.
A not untypical criticism of such works is that they are ambiguous toward the inter-relations of whole and major part: denigrated as being of a lessor value than a neo-organic, Albertian kind of integrated and harmonised unity. But should it be? Big Jim didn’t appear to think so (he indulged in this strategy on a number of occasions). Perhaps some aggregations constitute a peculiarity that is simultaneously a valid whole?
One of my favourite examples is Kenwood House, on Hampstead Heath – one of Robert Adams houses from the late C18th. The house is a strange aggregation of body parts: a central ‘trunk’, two ‘leg’ wings, and two additional pavilion extensions (the Orangery and the Library), together with an addition on the eastern flank, discreetly half-hidden from view: the kitchen and former stabling wing (a neo-Kahn served and servant concept, now belonging to the late C18th).
The aerial photo below has the latter wing concealed behind the tree (you can just see its roof, far right). One experiences it as a kind of supplementary ‘prosthetic’ serving the main body of accommodation and, on a day to day basis, it has always possessed a quite independent existence that, nevertheless, is meaningless apart from the main body of Adam’s work.
The overall mix is a commodious one of formality and informality, preciousness and pragmatism to which Modern architecture (which still refers itself to Platonic ideals) is arguably alien. One can imagine altering any part of Kenwood (with sensitivity, of course!) whilst still maintaining an overall coherence – a rationale that, of course, presumes the organic whole which is subsequently prosthetically restored to wholeness – or even has the potentiality of that organicity extended. But the interesting point is that Adam’s original schema has this implicit potentiality and remains tolerantly coherent and commodious within an ambiguous status somewhere between oranicity and aggregation…. Hmmm, this begins to distinctly sound like Transformer country! (But notice that where we’re not: in the sleek and sanitised territory of parametric form and its implicit Platonic idealism.)
A note: Much of the debate about parts and wholes, unity and identity goes back to Aristotle (e.g., Metaphysics), who notes that a whole contains things in a manner that forms a unit, and the unit is a characteristic property of natural things. Some wholes (a pan) are aggregates in which the position of parts is insignificant (as when we metaphorically refer to water as a whole), but the parts of other wholes (a holon) are otherwise significant (e.g. the hand or face). Clearly, the organism is an example of the latter, in which the component parts exist soley for the whole of which they form a functional part.
February 7, 2012Posted by on
New York Times piece (09.12.2012): climbers clinging to the sheer granite face of a rock in the Yosemite Valley, some 365 meters up, used their iPhone (charged by small solar panels) to tell the world of what was going one, live. An editor of an alpine climbing magazine lamented that, “instead of actually having the experience be the important part, it’s the representation of the experience that becomes the important part – something is lost.” Another alpinist complained that such a media-driven exercise engendered ‘Kodak courage’: the idea that people tend to push harder when being filmed or photographed; its gets dangerous. But there was another side to all this. Worried about the risks in poor winter conditions, the climbers tweeted the universe and asked about the wisdom of what they were doing. The consensus was that they were being imprudent, so they backed off and climbed back down.
Yesterday, I should have been hurtling (if one can actually do such a thing) from one end of London to another with 55 Spanish students and their tutors, but it snowed last night, rather heavily (for London) … As you might guess, the city comes to a halt when snow falls. The coach company thought we were pushing our luck. We cancelled. (Perhaps I should have tweeted the universe for advice.)
So, there I was taking photos out of the window and furthering corrections on the first part of Meetings With Buildings inbetween episodes of Boardwalk Empire. And the Spaniards were doing whatever very cold Spaniards do in a snowy London on a Sunday when the temperature is zero degrees and the sky is grey. Even London’s architecture needs sunshine.
Their lost opportunity to see some architecture in the flesh reminds me of a conversation with someone who has suggested that I give a short talk on ‘representation.’ They think I have a hang-up about architectural photos, and this might add up to a bit of controversy.
And its true. My problem is that photographs can be wonderful as photographs and as architectural sales spin, but they rarely (if ever) tell one what the experience of a building really is all about.
See? Experience? ‘All about’? I get fed up making that complaint to magazines and award bodies: ‘Why do you presume no one wants to see the building you have illustrated? Why haven’t you given its address?’ They never reply. But I do admit to a rare and brief period when the Architects Journal experimented with some new photographers and I had to write and congratulate them. What was different?
To deal with that question I have to refer to the number of times I have seen a photo and then been to the real thing, only to find myself muttering, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me that …?’ This ‘that’ can be a host of contextural factors that lend meaning to the experience and the facticity of the building, as it really is, warts and all. However, architectural discourse has become a photographic medium. Even awards are often based on photographs.
I have been locked into this wary attitude of mind for so many years that I take it for granted and simply look upon photos and the real thing as disparate realities. I don’t think about.
I recall discussing this difficulty with an ‘art photographer’ who was spending two years (!) combing London streets looking for photographs that captured the essence of … of something about London. Admirable. I showed him one of my guide books and asked him to comment, thinking he might say something like, “Well, if I was you I’d perhaps try and …” . But no. He paused, smiled condescendingly, put the book down and remarked that the photos were ‘descriptive’. Ah: the ultimate put-down. Oddly, I felt a perverse pleasure – well, not entirely, but (apart from a gulf in skills) I realised we were on different wave-lengths. That was what the short-lived interlude on the AJ briefly communicated: photographic descriptions that were simultaneously artful and moving. My photos were simply not very good, but to denigrate their ‘descriptiveness’ was to entirely miss the point.
But here I have to hesitate … What do I really mean?
My answer has nothing to do with an everyday factuality. No, it shifts toward some ambiguous charge, some quality of feeling that the photo connects to the building and its situation and the time of day and …. ‘Charge’? Yes: a shift toward what Ernst Cassirer dealt with as a felt mythic awareness and Charles Peirce dealt with as Firstness (or Quality). The language is one of feelings. We are shifted into that arena. This is not what most architectural photos are about. They give us artful form, but aesthetics are quite different from this primary ‘charge’ …
Do you know what I mean?
OK: perhaps this calls for another post on Cassirer and the deep waters of mythic awareness. But not now. Maybe never, because it’s so difficult to talk about; it eludes conceptual thinking … One ends up pointing: Do you get it? … Even then, to ‘get it’ depends upon the state of mind of those perceiving, as well as upon the work … It’s a difficult topic to handle. Yes, that would be ‘descriptive’, but not in any manner the above art photographer could ever appreciate.
February 6, 2012Posted by on
Remember this? If you do, you’re old. Still, it is around – at bottom, you’ll find a latter day version from the rather talented, comic-mad ‘Klaus’.
Banham’s notable drawing was published in Art in America, in April, 1965 (illustration by the French architect, Francois Dallegret, not Banham), betraying Banham’s deep suspicion of architectural form by stripping firmness, commodity and delight down to a technological support system, suggesting a novel version of the primitive hut and a radically implicit celebration of a new kind of noble savage whose nakedness underscores his dependencies.
Banham introduces his piece in characteristic manner: “When your house contains such a complex of piping, flues, ducts, wires, lights, inlets, outlets, ovens, sinks, refuse disposers, hi-fi re-verberators, antennae, conduits, freezers, heaters -when it contains so many services that the hardware could stand up by itself without any assistance from the house, why have a house hold it up. When the cost of all this tackle is half of the total outlay (or more, as it often is) what is the house doing except concealing your mechanical pudenda from the stares of folks on the sidewalk?”
Why indeed. Technology was the new Platonic commensurable.
The drawing bears reference to Buckminster Fuller’s house designs of the late 1920s, with the technology now distilled into a transitorised singularity (a ‘standard of living package’) that satisfies all needs (of the kind then being also drawn by David Green, of ‘poet’ of Archigram). Combating tuché (the Greek term for luck, fortune, vulnerbility) is now dependent upon a magical device, a technological Holy Grail.
Looking back, it’s hard to know how this kind of post-war technological optimism arose, but its roots are definitely a bottom-up cultural enthusiasm entangled with the wireless, TV, vacuum cleaner, radio, car engine and a mass of military hardware that had won the war, was coping with the Russians and putting someone onto the moon with little more computing power than we now have in (a rather old fashioned) hand calculator. ‘And cheap air conditioning,’ Banham would add. Indeed. In other words, it was all very Yankee and Banham was soon to fulfill his dream of becoming an inhabitant of the great US of A, where he could cruise LA’s highways and go to the drag-strips and cosy up with a copy of Playboy magazine. (Come to think of it, Bucky used to be quite the booz and women loving man about town when he was young.)
The great architectural monument to this technological optimism is loaded with ironies: a hugely expensive monument in the City of London, intended to last forever and designed by a part-Italian architect from an affluent background who ended up knocking a couple of C18th Georgian houses together, gutting them, but retaining their concealing role from those folks on the sidewalk: Richard Rogers. Yes, Pompidou in Paris came first, but it was the Lloyds building that fulfilled the promise and exposed its ironies.
(As Banham put it: “Once or twice recently there have been buildings where the public was genuinely confused about what was mechanical services, what was structure-many visitors to Philadelphia take quite a time to work out that the floors of Louis Kahn’s laboratory towers are not supported by the flanking brick duct boxes, and when they have worked it out, they are inclined to wonder if it was worth all the trouble of giving them an independent supporting structure.”
In brief, the Lloyds organisation was (is?) blue-chip, historic and crammed with City Club types who went to similar schools and colleges. The did business on gut instinct and gentleman’s hand-shakes. Their building marked a major monument to their affluence and conceit: the third custom designed building they had commissioned – a new one every 25 years. This one, they declared, was to last 125 years! And it was to be designed by a young London architect with left-wing sentiments, a man opposed to symptoms of hierarchy and was to design a palace for Lloyds that was the same whichever way you sliced it. Whether you were a flunk in the basement or a cigar-smoking Chairman on the top floor made no difference to the environment you inhabited. It was to be a wonderous internal realm and a shocking exterior one: the latter made up of Banham’s pipes and ducts and cables and other technological stuff that celebrated a dependency at the same time as it ostensibly made it all accessible to rapid, constant change.
The trouble was, no sooner was the building completed – in 1986 – than Lloyds went into a an historically novel period of financial scandal and drain on its resources. The change that mattered wasn’t technological at all. Within eight years the building – their treasured palace which they could not afford to touch – was sold to a German developer. And now, some thirty years on, the building has been Listed. It’s untouchable.And, whilst original and unique, it has never served as a successful building typology. Nor did the Banham inspiring proposition for a ‘home’, nor Bucky’s inspiring Dymaxians.
Banham’s polythene wouldn’t have lasted through that eight year building period. And it was cheap. And, certainly, the insurance brokers of Lloyds were not noble savages. Pretensions to nobility. perhaps, but not as savages. No, they would go into the empty basement of the old 1958 building across the road (which they still used at that time; since then it has been replaced by an Foster design) and practice shooting, so they could be ready for the weekend.Meanwhile, all around them, just as the building was being completed, an new era was dawning: City de-regulation. The yanks were coming back – and bringing their architects with them (SO, KPF, HOK, Cesar Pelli …)
In any case, Lloyds necessarily backed off from Banham’s attempt to strip architecture of its very substance and therefore its content. Rogers returned the conversation back to the formalities of Louis Kahn’s labs (with their elemental served + servant equation) crossed with the exposed aesthetics of North Sea oil rigs. Georges Bataille would, no doubt, have enjoyed the Banham drawing, but Lloyds would have been, to him, yet another example of architecture’s symbolic authoritarianism.
Anyway, the ironies go on and it’s a story i like to tell. But well come up to date with that Klaus drawing – in which one of the noble savages is cynically depicted as looking for somewhere to plug-in the dome. (go to: http://klaustoon.wordpress.com/category/reyner-banham/)
February 6, 2012Posted by on
Today’s headline in Building design: Zaha’s company return for last year and a disclosure of her income! Hey, it’s down! The group accounts show that she had to make do with a mere £524k in ‘personal expenditures’. (That’s a high calorie intake in fancy restaurants.)
Meanwhile, I have been speaking with a shocked ex-student, Director in a large office, who has suddenly been made redundant (as have another 800 people in his international practice; and he didn’t see it coming … : ‘You don’t want to ship your family off to China? Well …’)
Anyway, here’s a minor a history lesson as a diversion from mindless idle gossip: in 1990 architects were divided between disreputable ‘commercial’ practices and the others. Then we went into a recession. When we emerged, some 4-5 years later, everyone (without saying a word!) knew the reality: they were either in business or out of practice.meanwhile, Joe Public suddenly discovered Modern and wanted a penthouse by the River Thames, with a large balcony, sliding glass patio doors, open-plan living and the rest … Again, no one said a word. I still find that quiet shift fascinating. Yes, newspapers then had architectural correspondents and architecture was on TV … but these things don’t account for the sudden and massive shift in tastes.
Now, as a matter of course, we overtly drool over headlines about the income of starchitects and how they maximise income: ‘Arab Spring hits Zaha Profits’!
And yet, I’ve noticed that a hangover of the us / them attitude did persist through the boom years from the mid-’80s to the later noughties. Perhaps the current global recession (which makes 1989-94 look like a picnic) will again shift into another boom period and yet another alteration of attitudes. To what, one wonders? (Which reminds me of an old conversation with a city mining investor: ‘Ken, why do architects take a percentage commission? I don’t understand – why don’t they go for a stake in the project?’ Indeed.
It’s all very interesting, and much to do with how people practice these days, the public accounts of limited companies, etc. One supposes it was ever thus, except that, then, in days of olde, unlimited partnerships were the norm and accounts were private – then along came the ability to practice as a limited company, as a limited partnership, and the rest. I wonder why architects are so slow in putting these structural dynamics down as everyday aspects of pedagogic course structures? How many schools of architecture have courses in branding and the dynamics of celebratory stataus? (Ever hear of Thorstein Veblen and his theory about the ‘leisure class’? … another post …) How many teach teach … this and that and the other that is pertinent to this discourse?
The joke used to be that the Firsts at a school would end up teaching and the Thirds would be giving you job interviews. The latter were intrinsically grey and interested in the ‘commerciality’ of it all. Ugh, one had to shake hands with them as they joyfully gloated! Now, the young enter the courts of celebratory status and beg for an internship at the feet of the celeb … Reminds me of Veblen again: a part of his theory about conspicuous consumption (he invented the term) was a history of social status rooted in a division between the Alpha Male Tigers who went out there into battle and, meanwhile, lazed around the camp watching obese females slave over the cooking-fires (etc.), whilst adorning themselves with sleek, high-maintenance trophy women who enhanced their standing. Now the talk at the Architecture Club is: ‘How many interns do you have?’ It’s the same equation, its just that we are as likely to see men as women in this state of ‘domestic’ enslavement. OK, I know: how much does Zaha pay (or not)? Let’s not go there, darling … If you have to ask you can’t afford to work for her.
What I find remarkable about so many Hadid-type commercial success stories is the way these people foster a culture that has staying power whilst workers stream through. The Foster and Rogers offices are exemplary in these terms. It used to be Braun, now Apple or Dyson or whomever … but architectural practices can exhibit the same cultural stasis behind the brand image. Perhaps it’s not a mystery. Perhaps it’s simply an issue of control and power. Remember how Ken Shuttleworth had to leave the Foster scene, stage left, after having been interviewed by Building magazine re his role in designing the Gherkin and City Hall? The Evening Standard published ‘family’ before and after some Stalinesque air-brushing. Veritably amazing.
One can’t blame him: the celeb has to have all the kudos or else the enterprise will collapse. It’s surely always been that way.
But such cultures can be strange places to be. Twenty years ago I recall sitting with the Foster team for a couple of months when they were doing the Kings Cross project. Amazing!Such pervasive fear and politics! It was something like that a few years ago when I took some German architects to the Hadid office. We stood outside the ‘Boys’ entrance to the old school building that serves as their office and were later taken around. Everywhere we went were young architects, packed in like rabbits in a hutch and – equally like rabbits – clearly terrified to raise their heads from the tiny LCD screens they quietly stared into. There were no job photos, sketches, models … Just files on shelving. (Actually, on a later visit, some models did appear in the reception area.)
No one really talks about such cultures, even though it is a piece of conventional wisdom that, to be a starchitect, you have to be … let’s just say ‘dominant’. So, perhaps nothing is really new. Architectural practice is architectural practice. Celeb culture is as old as the hills … except now we learn how much they cream off for ‘personal expenditures’ and the like. Welcome to the Hello magazine of architecture. (You’re about to tell me that it already exists. I don’t want to know, thanks.)