Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Street Performances on the sly
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.