Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Homes and houses
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/)