Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Monthly Archives: March 2012
March 20, 2012Posted by on
I have a friend who is putting together a Dictionary of Details, together with an app and a web and … whatever. He has a nice collection of lists from all kinds of architects, around the world. And he’s probably waiting to hear from you! I think this is an exciting project, but confess to a different curiousity about the topic as such.
Why are details interesting? Why are they significant? Charles Eames certainly thought they were all-important. Sherlock Holmes did. Elit Noyes Rem remarked about details that, “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.” Koolhaas appears to have built a career on ignoring them, but that might be because his office doesn’t ignore them (as you may have noticed). For most architects details have a special quality. An otherwise good design with poor details is ruined. A poor design might blind us to its good details, but there is no reason why this should be a match of incompatibles. Or is there?
When Mies muttered about God and detail he may simply have been another significant architect voicing off, thereby exercising influence over others. So far as I am aware he never told us why God would be in the details. His ‘goodness’ had no basis. But you won’t (apart from Rem) find many architects who disagree. They positively get excited about details, as if these possessed a magical quality.
Ernst Cassirer was a rare philosopher fascinated by what he referred to as mythic awareness – a state of mind that engages the rational mind with a strangely fluid Other of qualities that have all the depth we associate with the unconscious, with all that is mysterious, all we don’t really understand. Before him, Charles Peirce actually addressed the prepredicative simply as Firstness, or Quality.
Both Peirce and Cassirer dealt with the door between these two realms as one of feeling, not conceptual thinking. One feels such things before one knows them, before one can articulate them intellectually. And, in the tradition of magic, there is no difference between part and whole. To possess a part (a lock of hair, a finger nail …) of your enemy is to possess something of them as such and give you access to exercising an influence over them.
The architectural version of this is the somewhat absurd tradition that, given a fragment, the whole of which it is a part can be reconstructed. But this isn’t so mad. Forensics are founded upon this principle. Archaeologists all over the world can take bone fragments and reconstruct whole beasts from them and tell you about their eating habits, how they gave birth, etc. DNA can be employed to bring the beast into being. Chickens may well be the means by which eggs reproduce themselves.
But there is another basis to this body of belief and sentiment. The architectural whole – conceived and constructed as a discrete entity – not only gives reference to the human body, as Vitruvius believed, but to all bodies. Every such architectonic entity is a body modeled on all of nature’s bodies, not just our own. And mankind has always marveled at nature’s reproductive capacity to give birth to such bodies, to grow them from infancy to maturity, to repair damaged parts, sometimes to reproduce whole missing parts, and especially to harmonise the disparate parts of a body into a harmonious whole. The unity of an architectural body, in other words, is simply modeled on who we are and what is around us, on how we comprehend nature as a whole and the universe as a whole. My body, his body, a Man’s body? Vitruvius and Leonardo were on target only in the sense that they identified mankind as a unique kind of body. But the real point is simply a body, as such.
While, at one level, this is the Greek Acropolis and Alberti’s churches (to which nothing could be added or taken away without detriment), at another level it is the witch doctor playing with that nail cutting. This is not to passage from the sublime to the ridiculous, but merely to move rationality toward a marriage with feelings and modes of awareness that are more open and permeable to a realm of knowing that was referred to by Henri Bergson as ‘dureé’: where there is no past, present and future, only a temporal fluidity, in which our mental filters weaken …
There is no mystery to this. But there is mystery within it, coursing through it. Mystery especially attaches to how a part seems to exist for itself, for other parts and for the whole they all make up. And from this it is a small step to the mathematics of number, ratio, proportion and even the magical attributes of such things. Number enables us to inform an architectural body with a unity that is at once real and symbolic, a simulacrum of a natural body … Except that it’s life is our life and not one of its own. The things we make our our ‘extensions’ and we dream of one day – like Doctor Frankenstein – producing a living artefact
Cassirer drew our attentions to our interface with this realm. In this, he was not so distant from a phenomenologist such as Merleau-Ponty. Like Peirce, they all pointed in the same direction, to a place where, as Wittgenstein put it, rationality hits a bedrock. It can go no further. Witch doctors know about it; Hollywood knows about it. Scientists are scratching away at the surfaces of the issue. Mathematicians have been dealing in this realm of paradox for some time. Product designers such as Eliot Noyes and Charles Eames considered detail to be all-important, as did Rams and Ives does. Architects get excited about the significance of details; they find God in them. And the witch doctor finds the devil in them!
So, next time you are designing a detail – not just to keep the rain out or make an apt interface, but to embody significance – be aware that you are in a strange territory. Personally, for me, that strangeness can never be found in what is merely beautiful. Such ‘beauty’ means so many different things (as on an ~Ives Apple product), but never ‘stangeness.’ Interestingly, I can only find it when I am confronted by paradox – such as the detail that is, at once, precise and yet casual, ordinary. It’s a cliché, but the Japanese have a long tradition in seeking out this quality. But turn away from all that. One sometimes finds this quality in ad hoc building rather than professionalised architecture. Now, that is a real parodox, isn’t it!
The personal reference near to me, here, is that of Richard Burton, a retired architect whose practice (ABK) has now just closed forever. He has a house in Kentish Town, just down the road, that is full of such detail. And he has an aged chalet in Switzerland even more full of such carefully considered, casual and seemingly ad hoc details. And yet you won’t find this in his firm’s work – or, not that I know of … and I’d love to be contradicted!
Meanwhile, my other friend is still collecting lists. Some are witty and shift away from artefacts to social situations, e.g. the feet that poke out beneath the curtain of a polling booth (from Jeremy Till), but such wit is a different concern to that of paradox and strangeness. You might laugh and chat about it. You don’t do that with strangeness: you nod, wink, smile … and probably stay quiet.
Anyway, on that note I thought I’d add another ‘living detail,’ arguably with a touch of magic and myth in its ingredients … (at Milan Cathedral):
By the way, if you want to send a set of ten favourite details to Wayne Head, use this email link: Wayne Head
March 20, 2012Posted by on
Rem Koolhaas’ references to ‘Junkspace’ (2002) were memorable. We knew what he meant and have our own, everyday experiences of such places. But he failed to outline what constituted the implied contrast: non-junk spaces. The character of non-junk has to be read in between his lines, as something other, but it remains ever undefined. What was he implicitly advocating? Why can’t it be spelled out?
The non-junk, one presumes, embraces the ‘goods’ of architectural practice; it embraces its best achievements – those embodying and exhibiting excellence and quality. But what does that mean? It’s as if we had to follow a via negativa, critically appraising junkspace variants in order to define a contrary field of the non-junk. But to do this we have to be able to taste the difference, recall its palpable qualities and then articulate these.
One difficulty with any kind of ‘goodness’ is that we forget. How many times, for example, has one tasted the good wine (beer, tea, whatever) only to be immediately reminded of the plonk one has been recently drinking? Bucky Fuller summed it up as entropy: systems run down. To some degree this seems to include our own systemic differentiations of taste and cultivation, our mental constructs, beliefs, endeavours. As Lord Shaftesbury knew, only an architectonic of character cultivation can cope. All too often we satisfice, forget there might be a sharper needle in the haystack and settle for whatever is close at hand and sharp enough to sew with. Sensible and economic? Perhaps. Anyway, we always end up with an operative cultural spectrum that stretches from on-the-road-toward-entropy to those strivings we like to label as more genuinely anti-entropic, although it might take a very wise man to say which end of the spectrum is which, because goodness, as kinds of excellence (the goods we excel at), is a devilishly opaque and nuanced concept.
Anyway, we know where Koolhaas would locate Junkspace on this spectrum: somewhere like where I am now.
I am writing this sitting in the public waiting area / cafe of a recently constructed PFI (‘public finance initiative‘) hospital. Everywhere I look I see junk in the guise of a layered superfluity of bad taste and irrelevance making claim to the provision of delight as well as commodity and firmness.
Taste, good or bad? Yes, I know: it’s a taboo word. A long time ago, as the long-term enfants terribles of the art scene, Gilbert & George were asked about their favourite whatever (I forget). They answered: “We don’t have taste. We’re artists.” Silly boys.
What I find interesting about bad taste is that bad taste is frequently cultivated (and, who knows if you include G&G’s works in that category). It might usually result from neglect or crassness, but often results from positive effort – go to shops and street markets all over Europe and its there: Stoff catering fro people who like that kind of thing. Many manufacturers work hard to produce it. Junk. And so the case is easily proven: good design needn’t cost more. It’s true. But good for whom? In what situation and circumstance? According to whose values and which moral outlook?
One has to remember that junk sometimes gets turned around and bad taste transmogrified into good taste – witness Venturi going down-market to cruising the tackiness of the Las Vegas strip in the 1970s. At least he was admitting to the genuine novelty and excitement of the place. And then there is the likes of Alan Hess’s Googie books, celebrating LA’s coffee houses that were often remarkable, as when designed by the likes of John Lautner and Lloyd Wright. Interestingly, these examples of bottom-up refinement were disappearing just as architects were striving to draw it all into their top-down outlook or get historically nostalgic. (If only one could only get a decent coffee and meal in such places, the story might have been different, but the Law of Conspicuous Consumption determines that this could never be.)
God, how I detest everything about this hospital! I want to bring back Loos and Corb, with their anxious concerns to sanitise. But no, this is not really true – that tradition of health & well-being led to eugenics and became politicised as ethnic cleansing.
To my discomfort I realise that what I can’t stomach about the place is that none of it seems necessary; almost all of it is bad design and all of it is tastelessly pretentious. The superfluities are a massive parody of the real thing. I feel an anger: Which ignorant idiots ‘designed’ this? Which stupid client body approved it? … But I quietly sip my tea whulst a voice whispers: ‘OK, Ken, but what is ‘the real thing’?’
The ‘real thing’? ‘Good’? ‘Bad’? ‘Necessary’? ‘Superfluities’? I smile. I’ve perhaps cornered myself. We’re back to Pevsner’s bike shed and cathedrals, his absurd concern with aesthetic intent and its absence; Loos and his hatred of the ‘academics’ and tatoos; Corb and his supercilious attitude to uncouth engineers; Rem and his erudite but ultimately vacuous condemnation of Junkspace: the rationale of a mad house … and I’m on the inside, behind a locked door. And how do the mad and non-mad look upon one another and know who is sane?
Whatever, it’s true: good design needn’t cost more. The problem is that this simply means: ‘Trust me, I’m an architect.’ In other words, the good – which is ostensibly an end in itself – becomes manipulatively employed as means to an end … Anyway, it’s time to go up to the ward and search out other kinds of goodness buried somewhere within this sick building …
March 18, 2012Posted by on
There was a reference to Howl’s Moving Castle in a previous blog – Hayao Miyazaki’s animation (2004) based upon Diana Wynne Jones’ Wizard Howl’s Moving Castle. (1986). I was then pleasantly surprised to receive an enthusiastic email from an old colleague: “I LOVE Howl’s Moving Castle!’ And I love the sentiment.
The remark came from an architect who, like me, probably spent too much time designing office ‘sets’ – except that one can’t call them this, thus constraining one’s imagination into all kinds of dubious rationale along the lines of furthering occupant interactions, their productivity and the like. It’s a office-factory design scenario peculiarly distinct from, and yet co-existing with, other habitational scenarios, each enjoying its own criteria. Weird. Be that as it may, this architect belongs to a younger generation to myself, but is still part of a cohort that had Ron Herron’s ‘Walking City’ (originally ‘Cities:Moving’) drawings as a fundamental part of the architectural discourse in which he was trained.
Herron was born well before either of us – in 1930 – and died too early in 1994. He left school and started work in a one-man architect’s office (copying drawings and making tea) at the age of fifteen, then studying at evening school and serving in the RAF from 1948-50 (interestingly, during the Berlin blockade and its airlift). It was a tough, character-forming background that must have set him well ahead of today’s average twenty-year old.
I don’t know how the Cities: Moving concept came about but, being a child of the late Machine Age and relatively new media such as radio, Hollywood films and transatlantic comic strips, Herron’s childhood background has to be associated with the likes of Buck Rogers (1929) and Flash Gordon (1935). Further back there is the likes of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds (1898) and films such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Perhaps Ron even introduced his children to Dan Dare, first published 1950, two years before he married Pat, the girl-friend he had been with since he was sixteen. Coincidentally, this was the year the BBC put on a six-part War of the Worlds series; later, in 1953, Hollywood came out with a film version. And, of course, Futurism (as well as Corbusier) probably figured large in Herron’s youthful and hungry absorption of the architectural discourse.
Herron started the ‘Cities:Moving’ series in 1964, when Archigram 4 and 5 were published. The ‘group’ was then one year old and, as Peter Cook remarked in the fourth edition, their ‘space-comic’ (Archigram 4 included a comic-strip) and its content was characterised by a “search for ways out from the stagnation of the architectural scene,” from a self-satisfied profession and its mediocracy. One wonders: has it ever been any different?
Influences upon the Cities:Moving / Walking City concept must surely have included nascent space flight (Gagarin went up in 1961, and NASA made the first Mercury orbital flight in 1962), Cold War military hardware such as aircraft carriers and the also the high-profile transatlantic liners turned into a bulbous form (from Mike Webb’s student ‘Bowelist’ projects?) and added hydraulic legs. There is also an element of ‘megastructure’ projects of the kind that were so popular in the late ’50s and early ’60s of the Architectural Association and which excited Reyner Banham – a building type then being designed for London’s Alexander Road and Brunswick Centre projects. These, in turn, have to be construed within the framework of visionary urban replanning stretching from Wren’s replanning of the City of London after the Great Fire to Charles Holdens’s vision of Georgian Bloomsbury, reinvented with new buildings for London University.
All this condensed in ‘Cities Moving’: the building as robot; the robot as housing, restlessly striding around the globe and organistically linking up with others of its kind.
Of course, a fantastical discourse in architecture goes back a long way. One immediately thinks of Piransei’s prison drawings, the drawings of Joseph Gandy for John Soane, Sant’Elia (whose texts are actually far more inspirational than his drawings), etc. However, Cedric Price remarked that, while Piranesi’s drawings communicated despair and oppression, Herron “recreates the glamour of hope and chance.” They were, to use, a key word of those years, ‘cheerful.
Despite my enthusiasm for this beast, it has always been limited: a degree of awe at its inventiveness, combined with a restrained emotional engagement. In truth, such fantasies usually have a shallow impact on me, failing to penetrate into the depths of an emotional body.
For example, as an expression of Enlightenment freedoms the walking city lumbers away from binding contexts in a remarkable pursuit of individuality, self-determination and freedom of choice, literally having wresting itself from any roots and, in the process, rendering all its operative criteria as arbitrary. Purpose has deliberately become an irrelevant criterion. But why inhabit such a beast, lumbering here, lumbering there … Why? What for? What was the nature of the freedom found within this alien, lost thing? I didn’t and still don’t get it.
In contrast, Wizard Howl’s Moving Castle as envisaged by Miyazaki has always filled me with joy and delight. It is decrepit, not pristine; DIY rather than an industrial product; an expression of all-too human values, endeavours, dreams, foibles and similar marks of habitation. This is no reinvented technological monstrosity from Mars. It is not pristine, fresh off the ship-yard’s production line and quality-control filters. It perhaps qualifies as what Geoffrey Scott had (in another context) referred to as an ‘architecture of humanism’ (although I can’t imagine him agreeing): a lumbering beast cranking and creaking itself across the landscape. It has a history: some obscure beginnings, a middle life, and even an end. Even its energising hearth has to be fed and is deeply symbolic – rather different to a tank of stank diesel fuel. One can’t imagine Howl’s moving home rudely obtruding – ‘intervening’ – into this or that habitational setting.
Romanticism? Of course. But it is more than this, something to do with humanised technologies, tools and settings. Aesthetically, it is the expression of a preference for vague edges, blurriness, weathered details, the distressed over the pristine … No, you can have your hybrid neo-Martian aircraft carrier-transatlantic liner suited to some bourgeois dream-life, a machine as formalist as any Beaux-Arts palace, relative to which Wizard Howl’s castle is a shanty town.
The paradox here is that architectural works have traditionally aspired to a pseudo-organicity in terms of their integrated and harmonised relations between part and whole – a whole to which, as Alberti had it, nothing could be added or taken away, a whole in which parts exist for the sake of one another and for the whole they make up – a whole like a walking city. In truth, such things are symbolic parodies of true organicity. (Which is OK, but …)
Howl’s Castle isn’t anything like that. And yet to deride its architectonic as a comparative aggregate of component parts incapable of achieving any kind of organic unity of being would be way off mark. The Castle is redolent with a more true organicity. That’s the point! … But all that sounds like another blog.
In sum, I don’t know if my emailing friend agrees with all this, but I suspect we share a similar evaluation of what ‘commodity, firmness and delight’ mean, and this is more likely to come in the form of a moving castle than a walking city.
March 16, 2012Posted by on
… of Jean Henri Gaston Giraud (8 May 1938 – 10 March 2012). Very sad.
… Who joins another great continental artist, the Venetian artist Dino Battaglia ((1 August 1923 – 4 October 1983).
Yes, there are lots more to add to such a pair. My favourites include Edward Gorey (February 22, 1925 – April 15, 2000) and Georges Remi (or Hergé, 1907–1983) and Howard Chaykin (b.1950) and Katsuhiro Otomo (b.1954) and Dave McKean and Quentin Blake (b.1932) and … the list could get rather long.
But what is it about the neglect of illustration and comic art – especially the latter’s inherent theatricality and page by page architectonics – as if these were disqualified from being ‘art’? What makes the theatre so much more (intrinsically) architectonic than films can ever be, and yet architects get excited about the latter and not the former? OK, perhaps that is easy to answer: the cinema costs a fraction of the average theatre production (certainly in London, but not always). But there is much more to it than that. It is the dynamics of theatre as well as the set design which, together, as a whole, make it so appealing. And, oddly, this comes through even when a play is turned into a film. For example, my lifetime favourite movie has been Robert Aldrich’s version of the Clifford Odets play, The Big Knife (1955). I haven’t even seen a real theatre production of it, and yet this film has been watched by me over and over again.
And what such marvellous mixes of animation and film such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, Pixar’s WALL-E, Up, Ratatouille, and The Illusionist?
Form and content and the manner in which these insinuate their way into one’s thought, and the way one insinuates oneself into such works … There’s even a small village in the French part of Switzerland called Champeray that even uses comic strip art to illustrate boards, dotted around the village, that tells visitors about the place’s history. I find them remarkably effective, but then I would, wouldn’t I …? I think we’re back to narrative!
March 16, 2012Posted by on
Me and the cat were watching TV news: something about the formal opening of the new concourse at Kings Cross Station. Up popped a familiar learned-by-the-client-proverb: ‘good design doesn’t cost more.’ Good boy, I thought: you’ve learned.
But what does this aphorism mean? To a large extent ‘good design’ is consensual: more intelligent-influential-manipulative-persuasive types might voice a sentiment, and others will follow. But this would be a cynical outlook that overlooks the soundness of the aphorism itself. But it begs a question: wherein lies the ‘goodness’ of a design? Ask an architect? No, possibly not … They’ll know, but are unlikely to be unable to elucidate by articulation. Perhaps it’s impossible.
In such circumstances Wotton is always a good standby but, in itself, what does ‘commodity, firmness and delight’ mean? It’s also a nice aphorism, a catch-all that we all agree embodies much truth, but how does it help in making a judgement? David Hume argued that the bottom-line is taste; all rationality can do is help determine means to ends. The implication was that a cultivated, characterful and aware determination of taste is all important. However, in the end, all he could do was refer such an education to acknowledged past achievements. The argument goes in circles.
The first point is that we have to differentiate between a goodness of professional expertise and goodness in two other senses: a more broad referencing to human endeavour; and a more focused sense making reference to a tradition of architecture. Goodness in a ‘professional’ sense is a genuine good, but its references to expertise and skill sometimes stand in grand isolation – to be admired, but perhaps pointless or otherwise drawing us into a discussion of utility and competence. This goodness is good of its kind; good as a best means to an end. But professional expertise applied to a building project – and here I use ‘professional’ in its more colloquial sense, embracing every kind of skill and talent employed – will never ensure that an outcome is ‘good.’ ‘Worthy,’ perhaps; sufficiently good to be valued by the historian, for example, but an architect will refer an appraisal to other than what concerns aspects of execution.
Such other criteria will be a ‘goodness’ internal to the tradition of architectural practice. This goodness is internal to the tradition and independent of the goodness served by the project, e.g., furthering an enterprise’s accommodative requirements which serve some long-term aim, perhaps status, wealth and power – which, in turn, will serve other ends … The latter are external to architecture and what it is (whatever it is), in itself.
The former, internal, goodnesses are a crucial feature of architectural discourse. This one enters into and learns, somehow. And, also somehow, architects tend to agree – certainly on the general principles (Wotton again), even though we might disagree about particular instances that accord with the general principles. On the other hand, anyone with teaching experience and knowledge of Degree assessments, etc., will have experienced a remarkably shared understanding of what ‘excellence’ is, and yet those concerned will have great difficulty in articulating their criteria and validating their judgement – it’s all know mutter-nod-wink and agreement, on the whole, is reached.
A second point takes us outside of such academic contexts: into a ‘real’ world where appraisals are meaningless when divorced from context. This is where a set of complexly interwoven goodnesses come together, overlap, intertwine, and subsume one another in an opaque dynamic. In particular, the architect’s ‘internal’ goodnesses are set in relation to a project’s ‘external’ goodnesses. Coherence amounts to their satisfying reconciliation.
Another (easily forgotten) point is that appraisals are intrinsically critical. This by no means implies they are rational and explicit, but they are always critical. And such critical appraisals concern actions: someone did this or that, with more or less constraint and intentionality, but it is always an action that is at issue.
Such actions illustrate two interacting considerations: an internal context of concerns, aspirations, motivations, values, dispositions and the like, and an external context that forms a ‘setting’ for the action. Goods do not float abstractly. They have these kinds of context and each has a history, i.e., we appraise actions and the goodnesses they exhibit as a fact manifesting the interaction of narratives.
The architect has such a narrative that is personal, concerns practice, and is a part of a tradition of architectural discourse. The client similarly deals with a project in terms of such layered narratives, particularly that of the commissioning organisation and its needs and intentions. And both of these are grounded within the temporal, physical and cultural narrative of a particular place where the project is being executed (whether this is a plot somewhere along a street, or a nation-wide programme does not alter this attribute of a project). A building is insinuated into a social context which brings together all kinds of individual and institutional narratives, each see inn terms of beginnings, middles and ends. And, upon its completion and occupation, a new narrative begins for that building.
Given this complexity, it is remarkable that we accept buildings as we find them, and we find them in very simple terms without constraint on a felt freedom of appraisal. Implicitly, we make a critical judgement that presumes a rich narrative context. And yet we seem to be able to readily handle this, without difficulty, as if it had been somehow distilled. But what is that narrative?
In addition, are we saying that the work, the building, has no intrinsic goodness to it that is independent of such narrative contexts? Self-evidently, the discourse internal to architectural practice strives to dissociate itself even as it seeks reconciliation. It has, as it were, its own agenda independent of client and project specifics. If this discourse were not there, in this manner, then the project could only have recourse to the goods of professionalised building expertise and a narrative concerning client needs, here now, in this place. And it is here, at the centre of all this, that we find the individual architect asking about his or her intentions, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’
So, what kinds of goods does this tradition of architectural discourse define for itself? (What does it define itself by?)
Henry Wotton, paraphrasing Vitruvius, thought he had the answer with ‘commodity, firmness and delight,’ as if this were itself a sound and satisfying heuristic distillation of the kinds of goodness that characterise architecture. And it has stuck, for nearly four hundred years (cf. the Pritzker Prize medal). But, as such, it tells us nothing and fails to be of assistance when confronted by any particular, situated challenge. Principle, as always, then has to find a meaningful and apt particularity of form and identity, i.e., as recognisable instances of commodity, firmness and delight. This particularity then enriches our understandings of Wotton’s aphorism and establishes a history (a narrative) of instances in which these criteria have been excellently realised. By shifting from one context to another the architect constructs an appreciation of what commodity, firmness and delight means. But, of course, just as such an understanding is bound to a discursive tradition, it is also and forever not only open to redefinition, but forced to redefine itself by every new generation.
So, is that it? Are the goods of architecture somewhere in between the principle and particularity of Wotton’s aphorism? Not quite, because we are still left with goodness and standards of excellence whose particularity will always be more or less unique. And yet, we have argued that the value cannot be in that uniqueness, as such. So, where is it? What enables us to make a judgement? Surely we are returned to Hume and the grounding of all such appraisal in operative standards of taste? Yes, but, as we have noted, simultaneously referencing a tradition of discourse and achievement.
But isn’t this a regressive argument? Not only that, but it bears similarities with Charles Peirce’s otherwise very plausible outline of ‘abduction.’ One confront a creative challenge; one enters into (kinds of) ‘musement’; ideas float about; ‘Eureka!’. Perhaps. But how does one recognise a more rather than less plausible idea? How is the apt excellence of an ostensibly ‘good’ idea to be differentiated from every kind of other idea? By exploratory testing, of course, but the essential difficulty still remains.
One pertinent issue here is that we have becoming increasingly aware that consciousness is a fraction of brain activity, that the unconscious is there taking care us all the time, helping us learn, survive and flourish. The workings of the unconscious free the conscious mind to be who we are. (Henri Bergson was right!) Peirce’s state of ‘musement’ has to be thought of as reason’s dispositional manner of interacting with the unconscious … That doesn’t answer the judgemental question we started with (one that concerns aptness as as well as pure ideational spontaneity), but does point toward a pathway linking these two modes of knowing. We may never get to the critical heart of architectural discursivity; however (and somewhat paradoxically), the dynamic factuality of interwoven contextural narratives appears to be crucial to the magic of spontaneity and a most peculiar judgmental capacity – a practical intelligence – that mysteriously characterises the scenes of musement.
March 13, 2012Posted by on
As people in Sydney, Athens and Bejing will already know, living in an Olympic city is quite an experience. Well, it would be an experience if one could, in fact, locate the palpable realities rather than the fog of spin. But, of course, most of us, most of the time, don’t get near to that reality – especially architects.
Architects get excited by their own stuff: money, glamour, buildings … fees and publicity. They easily loose focus upon what is really going on.
For example, I’ve mentioned somewhere in these blogs how Ron Herron once won an international ideas competition simply by turning in upon himself and tapping into the sentiments of an East End boy who left school at about 15 and got to be an architect the hard way – by part-time study. The theme of the competition was ‘a home fit for a superstar’ and Ron’s superstar had to be, of course, the Queen. And where was her home? Or rather what was it? It gave itself up as Ron’s other love: Hollywood – the Queen’s home was a studio, filled with apt sets for a monarch’s life.
I always related to this scheme in personal terms until my own design experiences began to be concerned with actual ‘sets’ that could never be called that. But they were. And now I am a citizen of London, a metropolis in which, over in East London again, now at Stratford, another ‘set’ has been constructed for an event to be watched on TV by a global audience. And, just as with normal TV studio, there is a vast background support structure: most of central London will be arranged so that it can properly service the Olympic Games and, in its own way, also become a set.This especially includes the allocation of special road lanes that are just for those hi-end BMW’s that will cruise from central hotels out to the Olympic Park with some 40,000 Olympic bureaucrats, administrators, corporate sponsors and the like – and woe betide anyone else who dares to try and use these lanes!
At the ‘studio’ itself there is the aquatic sports set stage (Hadid) and the bike riding stage (Hopkins) and the water sports stage and the basket-ball stage … and the this and that stage, in between which are comforting invited audience zones where people can move about among the freshly planted vegetation, mingle and get excited about their participation in the various stage events. It’s all rather like the Jools Holland show or the old Top of the Pops, or any run-0f-the-mill games show on which laughter and applause is digitally added (as the BBC used to do for the Henley Regatta – at which, as a BBC audio-engineer once informed me, the sound of the oars is digitally added in). The Olympic Park is a TV studio. A large, crudely sanitised and expensive one. For some three weeks many Londoners are going to be in a version of the Truman Show.
It also appropriates whatever established money-making strategems it can – such as a brand-new shopping centre that serves (as any major airport) as a way to milk the audience-in-transit of a few sheckles. And what a shopping mall – it is apparently the first in the world to have explosives scanners at the entrance doors.
Londoners (and that includes its architects) think of it all as a fun summer party. Perhaps it is, but it’s an expensive party. The original budget was £2.37bn is now (at least) £11bn – and that is the part being admitted to. But, hey, this is an austerity Olympics – security for each of the 17,000 athletes will cost £3500 per competitor per day, much less than in Bejing ($142,000 per athlete). And the Quatar royal family has already consolidated its London basis by purchasing the Olympic Village for £557m (to add to ‘the Shard’, Harrods, etc). That’s about the same as the security budget for the Games. Apparently there will be 13,500 troops maintaining security, while the police have already installed extra security cameras in Islamic parts of London and drones will cruise the skies. Terror has been taken into the mix like some heart-rate increasing sub-plot in a Hollywood drama.
So, the London Games will be witness to the biggest ever crack-down on drugs, but meanwhile, out there, London itself is on steroids.
See the Guardian newspaper ‘piece’ entitled ‘Welcome to Fortress London.’ (Guardian 13.03.12). For the Olympics site go to: (Go to: http://www.london2012.com/)
March 12, 2012Posted by on
Meetings With Buildings is a work punctuated by subjective pieces that say something the main body of text cannot. They are attempts to bring a philosophical text out onto the pavement and everyday experience. This example – Intermède dans la Cathédrale – is not only typical, but sums up some recurrent concerns, particularly with regard to the architectural experience.
The idea that exceptional architecture is something ‘going on’ seems true to me. The work is, as it were, ‘in play.’ If it has an aura of ‘charge’ it is because one knowingly participates in this ‘play’ with body as well as mind, feelings as well as reason. The work is, as Gadamer argues, a structure in active presentation and what one experiences is to be differentiated from any traditional notion of aesthetic differentiation. With regard to buildings that structure is its architecture. But strangely – and this is a common experience – the seen or felt presence of the work in these terms is merely glimpsed before it vanishes. Otherwise there is simply that peculiar aura that we simply denominate as ‘quality’ (which, of course, can disturbing as well as consoling). One must also note that not all architectural works have anything ‘in play’ that is worth talking about, presenting or experiencing, and the difference between a powerful work and a worthy work of ‘well-building’ constitutes an intriguing dichotomous construct. From this perspective familiar notions of extraordinary art and architecture are turned upside down, shifting them to a neo-mythic status always dependent upon one’s subjectivity as a mode of attunement and reception. The following passage outlines an instance of my own experience of an architecture being found as ‘in play’, as present in a manner quite at odds with common aesthetic experience (the notion of subjectivity confronted by an alluring formal thingness of a work). It is a minor instance of work and play as part of everyday experience, followed by a dream whose hermeneutic dimensions only made some sense to me after reading Gadamer.
“You cannot see architecture. You can only be in it, as in music.” (Erno Goldfinger)
She was pointing out the car window toward a small town peculiarly islanded upon a salient plateau set midst the vast, hedgeless rolling fields of latter day French agri-business. And so an impromptu decision was made on an otherwise tedious journey south, cruising empty motorways under cold and grey skies: we’d make a detour.
We swung off in that direction, wound our way up and entered the town through aged ramparts now bereft of anything but touristic purpose, and entered into what turned out to be narrow cobbled streets coping with speeding delivery vans, prowling police cars and the honking, gift-packed vehicles of shoppers. It was merely a few days to Christmas.
In the heart of the town, we found our target: a grand but dour edifice host to the recurrence of yet another festive celebration (how many hundreds was it now? eight hundred?) to which its reason for being was so profoundly and irrevocably bound. We had found Laon Cathedral.
Then we found somewhere to park. But now a chilling wind bearing harsh waves of rain had begun to lash at us and we quickened our pace back toward the Cathedral as a sanctuary from winter’s assault. Gratefully stepping over the high threshold of a weathered wooden side door we found ourselves within the south transept, directly opposite the crossing into what little daylight was left soaked gently downward as a more kindly downpour than the seasonal inhospitality outside. There had been no chance to gaze upon the exterior. Now, relieved, our mood changed and, initially with respectful trepidation, we looked about. As ever, it was familiar; but one never knows quite what to expect of such places … or how to deal with them. It’s so difficult to ‘see’ such works. However, it was self-evidently true: something, as she had said, was ‘going on.’
With mild but still uninspired interest we made a tourist’s promenade: down and around, along aisles, traversing the crossing, occasionally looking up to the clerestorey windows and soaring stone vaults. It was quite a volume. I imagined Geoffrey Scott muttering about massing, contours and lines. Nevertheless, although it was impressive we both admitted to an absence of the tingle factor – a disappointment underscored when we came across a presentation lined up between two of the massive nave piers: story-boards obtruding their explanations, tales of distress and inevitable requests for money. Necessary, one presumed, even informative. But their dissections somehow worked against an appreciation of the thing to which they referred, reducing its substance to a set of clever but now distressed tectonic moves symptomatic of the building’s purported historical novelty and status.
We turned attention back to the work and strove to look, listen and feel. But it wasn’t easy. Our mood had been literally dampened; we were chilled and suffering keen appetites … or was that an excuse? Somewhat disgruntled, we turned away; all that could wait. We felt a more basic urgency … Coffee and gateaux perhaps?
Then we became aware of a peculiar voice obtruding from somewhere at the west end. A tourist lecturer? We perambulated in that direction – toward where we knew the exit would be. No, it was a large LCD screen, located in the middle of the nave, pressing an insistent pedagogic banter upon an audience notable for its absence. It was time to withdraw, any nascent aura having been fractured. In any case, there had never been long to stay: this was merely the impatient architectural tourist’s quick fix on a long journey to somewhere else. Caffeine!
We moved toward the west door but, just before exiting, I turned to silently submit an inner apology to some metaphorical presence constructed within my imagination . . . And then I hesitated, caught in a sudden web of admiration: there at the east end, terminating the choir, was the most enormous rose window. How amazing! What kind of minds would do this? How on earth had I overlooked it? But that wasn’t all: in that moment, for an instant, it seemed as if there was an encounter: My God, it was still here, even now … It was present, briefly: this architectural quality that was ‘going on’ … still, even now …
Self-consciously, even as I became aware of all this, I dismissed it as an absurd sentiment and made to exit through an enormous curtain and the main west door beyond. Nevertheless, that acknowledgement momentarily lingered, like an echo, and I realized – even now: chilled, still damp, still hungry, impatient and definitely ill-tuned – that I had momentarily met with something … A kind of architectural gamesmanship? Whatever. The stuff of the encounter had evaporated in the moment of its acknowledgement. Resignedly, we drew the heavy curtain aside and stepped out through another inset in one of the huge timber doors to find we were now in a compact urban square (the cathedral parvis) and bizarrely confronted by a contrasting Christmas cheer entangled in a robust but losing battle with the elements: stalls, roundabouts, lights, decorations … but only a small gaggle of excited children and their parents, refusing to be daunted by the relentless, haranguing wind and chilled downpour that indicated no sign of merciful abatement. Off to one side a van arrived with a cargo of loudspeakers and a gaggle of vociferous Santa Clauses singing and ringing bells. It was mad: cheerful, naïve and simple, wonderful and bizarre. Perhaps it had been this absurd eight hundred years ago.
And then, as we walked away, I turned and looked up. There: two jagged, stark grey towers soared up and almost touched the low cloud, indomitably setting heavily articulated and punctuated faces against centuries of such assaults. They were actually rather ugly … and aggressive … but what a pile … what an indomitable spirit of enterprise they represented! It was their salience we had noticed from the motorway.
I had to smile, now pleased we had made this impromptu stopover. I was again with that echo, but the whole thing had become self-conscious, inauthentic … Some other, contrary aspect of reality had closed in: that same ill-attunement. It was time to join the retreating, multiple iterations of Santa Claus, leaving the cathedral, its gutters and monstrous spluttering gargoyles witness to their own lonely struggle with what God threw at it. Time for that coffee.
Midst choking cigar smoke and the chatter of a local café we sipped café crème and brandy whilst reflecting upon the forlorn life of a cathedral in a secular age: a reality that was architecturally impressive, yet oddly hollow – void, like some cadaver artificially awakened by incongruous digital prompts whose human minders would pull the plug and announce the building was closing: “could all tourists now take leave and would the last one out please switch off the lights?” For centuries the building had been contemporary in the sense of being relevant and alive. Now, it had become a shell, a curiosity for spectators who appeared to be more comfortable with LCD screens … And yet, something about this building had briefly sparkled, evincing a profound, if momentary, pleasure. I was certain, something had, indeed, been ‘going on’ …
By now it was late and we decided to book into a local hotel.
That night I experienced a weird dream. I was witness to the occasion of an incongruous pageant – seemingly a re-enactment of the crucifixion. It was all deeply serious, but in a casual way, and no one appeared to be directing what was somehow unfolding of its own accord. Somehow everyone, without orchestration, seemed to know what was to fatefully take place and how it was to end; some of the players even silently wept as they worked, made the props and constructed the scenery – all of which was as devoid of formal accuracy as the tears were empty of trauma. This was simply the way things can be: ordinary and yet miraculous. The props were indicative; that was sufficient. The tears made themselves. And while the scenography was put being in place on this almost ad hoc basis, a man playing the part of the Messiah – complete with crown of thorns and cross – sat nonchalantly to one side and patiently awaited the beginning of the next act: time off for a fag …
These were players as living witnesses to something that had once happened. Its nature was being ritualistically re-presented, but as if variances of time and custom were at once real and yet irrelevant. It was all very ordinary and yet peculiar: play and players resonated with the impassioned nature of who this man was and what had happened to him, but I couldn’t escape the enactment’s bizarre note of casual improvisation, as if what was passionate was also completely devoid of sentiment. This was no histrionic pastiche.
Now, with recollection and hindsight, I can look back upon it as a characterisation in the sense that Merleau-Ponty referred to living events as other than survivals or some “hypocritical form of forgetfulness”, but “a noble form of memory.” How could one be in such a state of mind: to be here, now, and yet be re-living a past event?
Then, I awoke abruptly. Outside, the rain still lashed at the hotel window. The dream’s fresh resonance still grasped my imagination. There were even tears streaming from my eyes. Why? What was going on? I struggled to understand … and I grabbed at a pen and note-pad even as the dream’s reality began to rapidly fade. It had a religious content, and yet it didn’t seem to concern religion in any form I recognised. Significance appeared to reside in the fact that the players were, above all, a living empathetic witness to something whose nature and essential meaning was being re-lived. The passage of time had evaporated. Curiously, beauty of form or historical exactitude were also secondary; customary factors neither helped nor hindered – they were merely situated features of the site of enactment. And the resonance embodied within the players’ witnessing was a knowing that could only be appreciated as acknowledgement of some Kierkegaardian faith: a kind of encounter, at once of the moment and yet transgressing temporal and spatial constraints. It wasn’t in them; they were in it. The players were ‘being played,’ enacting a knowledge that possessed them: somehow indifferently yet at once passionately … How odd.
And then my thoughts returned to the cathedral and forms of indifferent stonework erected as mute witness to faith in action. Was the shaped particularity of the architecture a similar performative reality? Beautiful? Ugly? Did it matter? On the other hand, to encounter this architecture – to catch its gestural sparkle, at the edge of language – seemed as if to meet with a deeply human content as the presented fullness of the cathedral’s reasons for being. It was a devotional work, an end in itself. It was as if the abstract lineaments of the cathedral’s coherent order had become curiously ‘charged’ … that was the ‘going on.’
‘Charged’? ‘Going on?’ I was rambling. The momentum of the dream had withdrawn. Attempts at retention had become contrivance. And sleep was gently taking over. With closed eyes I dozily but sceptically ruminated about the cathedral and the prompting of such a dream as I curled up against a still sleeping partner and pulled the duvet in tighter.
It was some time later that I came across Kierkegaard’s notion of the ‘claim of faith’ as a mediation between past and present – a phenomenon engendering an authentic contemporaneity characterising what has its origins in the past. The task for the religious believer is “to bring together two moments that are not concurrent, namely one’s own present and the redeeming act of Christ, and yet so totally to mediate them that the latter is experienced and taken seriously as present (and not as something in the distant past).” Hans Gadamer developed this concept of claim with regard to art by suggesting: “A claim is something lasting. […] Because a claim lasts it can be enforced at any time. […] A claim is the legal basis for an unspecified demand. […] It belongs to the permanence of a claim that it is concretised in a demand.” The peculiarity of art is that it makes a claim to permanence and has the permanence of a claim. And this claim becomes, at some time, concretised as a demand – a demand constituted as the work ‘being present,” as experience. In art’s presentation “this particular thing that presents itself to us achieves full presence, however remote its origin may be. Such a contemporaneity is not a mode of given-ness in consciousness, but a living task for consciousness and an achievement demanded of it.” Only then does a work achieve full presence, without mediation.
Yes, I reflected: that sounds right – then it might truly be ‘architecture going on,’ when the thing is felt as a structured thinging … Gosh: what a lot of feeling and chatter had been prompted by that interlude in the rain.
March 11, 2012Posted by on
The following is the Prologue to the current book I am finalising, Meetings With Buildings.
Thus, the prose writer is a man who has chosen a certain method of secondary action which we may call action by disclosure.
It is therefore permissible to ask this second question: What aspect of the world do you want to disclose?
In attempting a distillation of this essay’s locus I find myself drawn toward an architectonic scenario of dramatic interplay drawn by Clifford Odets. In this theatrical tragedy ‘Smiley’ Coy, a supreme pragmatist and confessed amoral cultivator of sentimental hygiene – an artful epitome of instrumental thinking in the service of a Hollywood studio – proffers advice to a compromised hero, an actor-idealist called Charlie Castle, a man characterised by our realist as a “warrior minstrel of the forlorn hope” “Don’t study life”, Smiley instructively admonishes Castle, “Get used to it.”
Theatrical utterances are rarely so succinct and yet philosophically profound. To deconstruct the sardonic pragmatism of this wry comment is to touch upon an inherent to-and-fro between polarities seeking to draw the dramatic player in one of two directions. On the one hand is a purposive rationale underlying the calculated instrumentality of our actions: a knowing, unsentimental and reflective way of looking that may even judge all value to be, as Terry Eagleton puts it, “a cultural fiction arbitrarily projected onto the blank text of the world.” All, for the likes of Smiley, except the abstractions of affluence, power and status. At our contrasting pole is the turmoil of a search for that supposed cultural fiction as a profoundity of poetic meaning possessing an elusive substance, significance and value, that which underlies and informs the haunting shadows and colours the anxieties characterising creaturely existence.
This is a duality with which many architects will be familiar, within whose dynamics they strive to understand their predicament and shifting stance.
In Odets’ drama the ‘warrior minstrel’ ultimately looses the inner struggle he experiences as an imposed battle of demanding choices and commitments. In prompting the cornered movie star to renew a contract condemning him to commercial reels, a confrontational studio boss (the artfully drawn ‘alpha male’ and philistine of the drama) pushes General MacArthur’s pen toward him and says, “I can’t force you to sign, can I? … Can I?” Our artistic hero must take responsibility for himself. And he finally does so: resignedly scratching his name, retaining the pen so that he “might remember the war had been fought.” He has entered the final stages of what, for him, will be a suffocating scenario entailing an acknowledgement that he can no longer breathe. The living particularities in which his own version of the issue of ‘ought’ is entangled will defeat his better intentions. A clutch on autonomy and freedom will elude him. Our ‘warrior minstrel of the forlorn hope’ can’t have his cake and eat it.
At one point in the play our hero reaches out to art, contemplating it and lovingly running his fingers along the reassuring painted forms of a poignant clown – a work by Rouault that is redolent with ironic humour. “It broods… ,” he affectionately ruminates: “a player who waits in the wings, who has done it all a thousand times …” Our hero then returns to the realities of life’s conflicted entanglements and problematic choices. The flicker of the painting’s solace has been extraordinarily brief and adversarial forces again draw him into a bleak situational torment charged with the issue of ‘ought.’ The knife digs deeply and our hero suffers an exaggerated Kierkegaardian sickness of anxiety that eats away at him on the inside. Like Hamlet, he sees himself killing his better selves, one by one. Outer self and inner self have failed to be reconciled or secure a mercifully forgetful divorce. Such a divorce can only be realised in a different manner. In desperation he slices his wrists – a tragic deed prompting his estranged wife’s pained reflection that dying was the only way he knew how to live. In the immediate absence of his warm breath she can only cry ‘Help!’ into a deep void somewhere between stage and audience.
In the face of this hopeless and ironically brave exit strategy the ‘pragmatic realist’ of the drama is disconcerted but remains supremely cool, cynically but masterfully rewriting the facts as narrative spin for the rapacious, dream-sustaining representatives of the Hollywood media. He is only prevented from doing so by the one still, floating figure of the drama: a peripheral but significant character who plays a background role in the architecture of the unfolding dramatic schema by comporting as a neutral observer, like some keystone to the edifice’s dynamics – implicitly a figure of authenticity set in contrast to the fraught, sometimes cowardly and all too often disingenuous entanglements of the other players. Clearly representing the presence of the playwright himself, this quiet and philosophical author was, in real life, soon to face his own tormented questions of ‘ought’ in front of the House Unamerican Activities (HUAC), adopting the role of a ‘friendly witness’ that left Odets blacklisted and, like the hero of The Big Knife, psychologically decimated. The troubles and thorns of real life had strangely mirrored dramatic fiction.
This drama has always intrigued me. The play’s essential polar construct seems to mirror the voices of the realist and ‘warrior minstrel of the forlorn hope’ in each of us. Their interplay is a rich sphere of motivated action and experience, a place where the dawn illuminates inexorably relentless themes we know as variations on absurd and anxious struggles to win survival, hang on to success, realise significance and establish historical salience. And make sense of it all. It is a place, to continue the alliteration, of shifting sands and hardly one of lasting comfort and resolution, a rough terrain reminding one of Esther Harding’s considered words of advice that might have been (but weren’t) tailor-made for architects:
“We rarely reflect how essential it is that all things should wear out and decay. We forget that it is not in our creations, the things we make, the order we establish, but in our functioning that life is fulfilled in us.”
In the midst of Harding’s ‘functioning’ – at a place of Miesian ‘living tasks,’ where minstrels seek meaning within the shadows and pragmatists duck and dive in order to accommodate themselves to life – are the recurring echoes of fundamental questions concerning architecture and architects. These are hardly unfamiliar, but suffer commonplace answers invariably contenting themselves with explorations of the formal manifestations of the subject. Like phrenological exercises striving to discern inner content from external modulations these purported answers construct their own architectures of meaning in the form of a history of canons, styles and masters that manifest obsessions with kinds of archaeological validation, whether this be in the form of Roman or Gothic precedent, Modernist heroic gesture or post–Modernist obfuscation – answers that make all manner of claims to authenticity and intellectual truthfulness. And hegemony.
These ruminations attempt to be other than such inquiry, not as a denial of its validity or intrinsic interest and reward, but as a contribution to an alternative path seeking to query and explore the nature of architecture and being an architect, one seeking no dispute with a simple reflection of Vitruvius (ever the pragmatist in the feined guise of warrior minstrel):
“[A]rchitects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow and not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both […] have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them.”
Vitruvius’ criterion of ‘thorough’ is daunting. But while hesitating to align myself with his fawning and world-weary comportment that feigns modesty, I claim at least sufficient experience to know the limits of my inexperience in order to proceed with a degree of tentative audacity, without which one may as well stay in the shadows and in bed. In other words, I am aware that theory and commentary – like this – bear the paradoxical nature of only being meaningful within a stream of action, i.e., they must, to employ one of Kierkegaard’s phrases, be “critically situated in existence”, either born of it and destined to return to it, or left on the wayside as an irrelevant conceit. They must be oriented to the living nature of their focus of attention, drawing upon personal experiences, perhaps adopting the voice of a proverbial side coach who is at least as deeply engaged as the most enthusiastic spectator and almost as equally as those upon the field of play. Such an author must be empathetically appreciative of the strategic dimension of what is going on, as well as the intimate and intricate moves improvised by those on the muddy field, having one eye on what it means to vocationally sweat and perform at the heart of it all, and the other mindful of those in the stands and the Board of Director’s box. And, while comporting reflectively and standing back within the confinement of a discursive sphere of action and play, the theorist must – as excited and tearful as any soccer fan at the beauty of play – emotively attend to the action on the field.
To confess to being carried away – that is, to a love of architecture and, rather like Hilda Wangel, to occasionally hear harps and wave a shawl – is something with which I have no difficulty. However, in comporting as a enthusiastic and declaratory side-coach one not only engages Satre’s question concerning disclosure, but also his comment that, “If you name the behaviour of an individual, you reveal it to him; he sees himself.” Such naming and revelation is by no means unproblematic. One must dare to throw prickly harangues at those on the field of play – what is partly an adoption of charge, partly the pretence that one can see or one knows – and also the conceit of having a significant point to make. One is challenged to articulate the content of this conceit and, at the very least, to lend it rough sense. But not everyone welcomes purported disclosures. One is reminded of Lethaby’s reference to ‘eyes which do not see,’ no doubt adopted from biblical and esoteric sources within which it serves as reference to those ‘asleep’ to reality – a metaphorical expression hermeneutically rooted in Aristotle’s concept of matter being asleep and form (the obsessive focus or architectural endeavour) awake, or of sleep as an idleness of that aspect of the soul in which people can be said to be good or bad, as if a person were living the life of a plant. Disturbance to mental constructs can arouse hostility. Furthermore, one is sensitive to the fact that any attentive seeing and hearing – the coach’s included – is hardly a faculty that can be depended upon: everyone suffers a propensity to fall soundly ‘asleep,’ encountering the difficulty of realising an openness to experience which overcomes convenient opinion and prejudice in order to intuit what Henri Bergson characterised as the illuminating ‘fringe’ beyond habituated, editorial habits of mind. Even then, one is confronted by the interpretative problems that accompany a striving toward understanding: perhaps listening to the inner voice of one’s daemon, always fearful that one might not hear or, perhaps worse, mishear.
Such challenges easily engender a feeling of being lost in the woods, mindful of the dark fairy tales of childhood, concerned one might never find the pathways noted by Martin Heidegger – a man who, like Ibsen’s master builder, Solness, appears to have been all too aware of having possibly misheard his daemon, to have mistaken the Devil for a Muse. One also has to be wary, like Adolf Loos, of unexpectedly stumbling upon some emotively disturbing fresh mound of earth that disrupts one’s sojourn in the woods and architectonically underscores that existential necessity of mortality of which Heidegger insists we must always be mindful. How, on such an occasion, might one ensure the wakefulness and perspicacity to know, like Loos, that “This is architecture!”?
As if aware of Loos’ emotive pointer, Bruno Zevi argued that all commentary on architecture is, “no more than allusive and preparatory to that moment in which we, with everything in us that is physical and spiritual and, above all, human, enter and experience the spaces we have been studying. That is the moment of architecture.” It is in that moment – and only in that moment – that one finds it and knows it: that one meets with architecture. This is indubitably true and, midst media bombardment, easily forgotten. However, in the manner Zevi makes this claim he perhaps betrays a philosophical game called ‘looking for the essence.’ From his perspective it was space itself that bore the burden of architecture – a peculiarly reductionist concept already with a relatively long history but, in more ways than one, a vacuous contention until literally animated by reference to the perambulations of a situated human body. But it is a concept attractive to even the most perspicacious thinkers in architecture. Koolhaas, for example, bitterly complains that: “As if space itself is invisible, all theory for the production of space is based on an obsessive preoccupation with its opposite: substance and objects, i.e., architecture. Architects could never explain space; Junkspace is our punishment for their mystifications.”
However, there are alternative ways of looking. Reyner Banham, for example, one of the more notable of post-war architectural historians, whose works already gather too much dust, once made sardonic reference to much current architecture as “buildings in drag” – a pained remark made in the context of emerging Postmodernism, but formulated with reference to architecture as a whole, perhaps as a shot across the bows of his former mentor, Nikolaus Pevsner and the latter’s classic differentiation – rooted in a differentiating ‘aesthetic intent’ – between ‘buildings’ and ‘architecture.’ On a note of weary exasperation and resignation, Banham turns to the metaphor of architecture as an enigmatic black box housing a western European tradition of doubtful value or utility; what is architecture certainly has little to do with whether it is good design. One imagines such a device to be well-travelled, scratched and dented, yet nevertheless buzzing with a resilient functionality, perhaps bearing a distressed sticker on its side reading: “Authentic building occurs so far as there are poets, such poets as take the measure for architecture, the structure of dwelling.” And, on the other side, another sticker: the Realist’s scrawled and weary rejoinder that, “It is hard enough to make sense of the simple things without discovering they are really not as simple as they look.”
Had he lived another thirty years Banham might have reconfigured the black box as a version of WALL–E: Pixar Animation’s obsolete but sentient robotic garbage-compacter that continues to absurdly, but with dumb contentment, labour in the lone task of bringing a desolated spaceship-Earth to a semblance of architectonic order and coherence. As a ghost-in-the-machine, the personality of WALL–E enjoys a Rousseau-like childish innocence and, accompanied by a pet roach, inhabits his own rusting version of the primitive hut, happily living a life marred only by hints of loneliness and mild emotional deprivation: even a robot, made by man, is elevated above a mere insect. But then EVE arrives – a extra-terrestrial robot whose sleek form belongs to a realm of Apollonian refinement where Hadid has mated with Calatrava to given birth to an algorithmically derived child of architectonic beauty. WALL–E then re-enacts the myth in which art is created by Butades when his daughter draws the outline of her lover on a wall: infatuated, he employs junkspace debris to create a sculptural portrait of his beloved EVE. Like some single-minded anthropologist on a field trip our purposeful femme fatale dismisses this gesture as both bizarre and naïve rather than endearing.
While our labouring robotic ‘Waste-Allocator’ courts his ‘Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator,’ humanity lives intergalactically in a commodious but overly refined and ironically vegetative dystopia where biological reversion has been accompanied by psychological cushioning created as a state of somatic innocence overseen by covertly dictatorial Guardian machines characterized by Platonic arrogance and presumption. Rousseau would have construed this as a story confirming civilisation’s corruption and, like his philosophy, the animated narrative envisages the need to source human salvation by means of reference to more primordial sensibilities. However, the latter state – now romantically sanitised of civilisation’s vulgarities – is simply the other side of the same coin. The architectural sophistications of the Ancien Régime are counter-pointed by a cottage that is refined as well as simply rustic; the artificialities of architecture are complemented as well as contrasted by simple well-building and the moral example the latter lends to the former.
But this dualism filters out a third consideration: not of one kind of taste set against another, but a category of the customary in which taste is wholly absent and the vacuum left is prone to appropriation by barbarity. Apollo’s pained reflections upon the relative merits of a considered balance between this and that, between feelings and reasoning, between authenticity and artifice, are then swiped away by unpredictable Dionysian heterogeneity, whether its causal properties are natural, human or artificial: WALL–E is exposed to devastating dust storms; humanity has to address its own problematic awakening; and the islanded inter-galactic idyll is revealed as masking a will to power.
Less fantastically, on Odet’s stage, his idealist hero knows of good and evil in the sense of being haunted by choices that gnaw at his very being. The painfully entangled imperatives of necessity and freedom tear at his flesh and he turns to his Rouault as if to a sphere of respite: that expressivity of the artist in which such conflicts enjoy self-determined horizons of concern and a satisfying inner resolution. How, at the very least, can our hero follow a via negativa that avoids inauthentic action? But nature, as everyone knows, abhors vacillation and procrastination as much as any vacuum and our hero merely wakes to find himself in his own version of a black box against whose self-imposed confines he rages as a confused and disoriented prisoner. He suffers a Schoperhauerian ride – as a weak form of ‘acquired character’ sat upon the shoulders of the ‘innate character’ to which he is coupled – that allows of no release: he cannot improvise ways to wakefully act with a modicum of audacity, inventiveness and improvisation, if only ironically, in order to facilitate escape from the blinkered confines of his entrapment on the shoulders of the beast he rides.
Architecture seeks to escape all this – to serve as a beacon, much like the church erected in the tumultuous eleventh century by the monks of Cluny as “a dwelling place for mortals that would please the inhabitants of heaven.” Latter day secularists may construe such pleasures in terms of dwelling places in the guise of Koolhaasian Junkspace, but the point is that what architecture is – what architects, as a result of their concerns, do when they get out of bed in the morning and strive to satisfy Hilda Wangel’s longing to hear the defiance that brings to her the sound of ‘harps in the air’ – depends less on the problem of what a master builder is, than the recurring challenge of how to be one. When, with gruesome inevitability, Ibsen’s master builder crashes to the ground from the tower of his newly constructed home, Hilda admonishes the horrified onlookers: “But he mounted right to the top. And I heard harps in the air [the master builder’s defiant and joyful song].” Our femme fatale doesn’t give a damn. All that matters is the heroism of Solness’ daring breakthrough.
March 11, 2012Posted by on
The following post is the Prologue of ‘Meetings With Buildings’, the book I am currently working on. It begins with a quote from Ibsen’s Master Builder – a work that wraps its tragic theme around some truths about architects (in this instance, a master builder who comes under the influence of a femme fatale and subsequently plunges from the ‘topping out’ ceremony of a tower to his death).
[As if in quiet spell-bound triumph.]
“But he mounted right to the top.
And I heard harps in the air.”
[Waves her shawl in the air, and shrieks with wild intensity.]
“My . . . my Master Builder!”
There is an engaging beginning to John Summerson’s ‘Georgian London‘ in which this historian imaginatively takes us up in a balloon, high above the River Thames Valley; he wants to show us something. As if now cast in the unlikely role of Master of the Time Machine, Summerson asks us to look down upon what he has to demonstrate: an accelerated historical view of London, from its beginnings up to the present day. We peer down and observe – in quick-time – what is now a metropolis unfold from its beginnings as a Roman fort, then as twin historic foci along the banks of a broad, meandering river, finally as a heaving urban metabolism. We have witnessed the formation of a distinctive urban patterning, an apparently organic growth that, over time, engulfs the landscape and reaches out tentacles to the furthermost ends of a kingdom. One now appreciates the informing basis of London’s architectural topography. There is a pattern. It has coherence. Now it makes sense, even if, alarmingly, one suspects that this supposedly artefactual beast appears to have a life entirely of its own.
It is with Summerson’s ‘time-accelerator’ model in mind that I imagine a traversal across the cultivated fields of occidental master building – navigating a surprisingly variegated landscape of architectural endeavour. Like our ballooning historian, I am also alert to meaningful patterns. But this is a textural journey. Literally. I’m on the ground, where I want to be, traversing pavements, not one mile in the air. I try to meet with distinctive buildings, to sample the delights of those metaphorical cultivations of husbandmen like Halvard Solness in Ibsen’s dramatic fiction … It’s my own Grand Tour and, like the young William Chambers, I even enjoy diversions to other, exotic architectural cultures. The principal part of my journey takes me from the dauntingly massive, sun-bleached trabeations of Egypt and Greece, past the self-celebratory, vaulted splendours of Rome toward ethereal Gothic tracery and walls of glass kissed by soft grey northern skies. I come across the morning glories of Renaissance exuberance and find a smile elicited by Baroque dynamism basking in the heat of an Italian summer … But, already, the sun is clouded by intermittent gritty fogs and the portend of violent storms: I find myself among the edifices of an awesome Machine Age, where an elusive cosmopolitan flåneur can be spotted slinking though the diversity of a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes brutalised landscape of building works. And then: an astounding and multifarious architectural bloom spreads across a contemporary landscape in every direction, into all kinds of nooks and crannies …
Finally, I reach an impenetrable haze. A way-sign nailed to a wretched tree points forward, toward the promise of ‘a mix of the present plus enhanced features and options’. But the cranky hand of some contrary sentiment has aggressively employed white graffiti in an attempt at obliterative censure. Perplexed, I pause to reflect upon my journey. Indubitably, like Hilda Wangel, the femme fatale of Ibsen’s drama, I confess to having sometimes heard the air bear a melodic song … And the familiar simile of culture as cultivation comes to mind. However, it occurs to me that the work of each generation of husbandmen (and, until recently, they invariably are men) enjoys a peculiar structural similarity: circumstances and conditions alter, often dramatically, but the fundamental creative challenge peculiarly endures. The metaphorical methods of this husbandry might change and the crops might vary, but core issues and challenges appear to subsist as familiar considerations struggling for unrelenting reinvention and redefinition. Everything mutates, but it is the continuities that now intrigue me.
And then an obtrusive voice penetrates my reflections: “Architecture is the will of the epoch translated into space. Until this simple truth is clearly recognized, the new architecture will be uncertain and tentative. Until then it must remain a chaos of undirected forces. The question as to the nature of architecture is of decisive importance. It must be understood that all architecture is bound up with its own time that it can only be manifested in living tasks and in the medium of its epoch. In no age has it been otherwise.” 
I wonder: would our balloonist historian have disagreed with Mies’ pronouncement? Would anyone disagree with such common sense? … Strangely, I can’t recall anyone referring me to this comment when I was at architecture school, or when teaching … But is it so obvious, and what does it mean: that architecture “can only be manifest in living tasks …”? At which point I am distracted by a distressed piece of newspaper tossing listlessly in the breeze. I snatch at it and find it bearing a headline referring to the Chairman of the Pritzker Prize Committee applying Mies’ words to a latter-day prizewinner. Apparently a Californian architect has been witness to a latterday fulfillment of this Modernist heroe’s aphorism …
My mood has altered. Somewhat dissatisfied and peculiarly irritated, I let the newsprint free upon its random drift that no doubt accords with the obscure mathematical necessities to which sweeping air currents conform … for now I feel a chill. Menacing clouds have cancelled the sun’s warmth and I am mindful of a pervasive indifference that imbues the draft. And then, nearby: a wretched figure who squats, gently rocking, quietly moaning a lament about a flowing river, being too tired to live and too fearful to die. Had this caricature a place in Mies’ orderly epochal scripting of ‘living tasks’? Did he give a damn about the decisive importance of architecture? … And there, beyond, as twilight approaches, I notice darkening background woods: what appears to be a dense place bearing an air of wildness and neglect, but apparently penetrated by a narrow, twisting pathway threatened by relentless vegetative growth … My feeling is one of disorientation as well as discontent. Harps are notable for their absence from this scenario. Anyway, it’s getting late and I have an invitation to join some local master builders for supper.
To my relief this turns out to be a jolly, laid-back affair that counters my lingering melancholy. We munch, sip decent wine and scribble upon the tablecloth … Afterward, I tentatively ask about the woods. With mock seriousness tinged by terror someone draws close and tells me that tradition refers to a clearing within its depths where there stands a charismatic house of origin to which people have been known to be drawn by a Siren song of bewitchment … Only the most brave and witful come back from such a place! … Is it inhabited? My hosts enjoy my incredulity. We laugh, I feel silly and the conversation drifts elsewhere. As an aside, a neighbour whispers to me about an adventuresome husbandman who actually did enter the forest. Apparently he came across a fresh mound of earth that disturbed him so much he quickly hurried back, muttering to all who would listen that he now understood architecture … I smile, but I’m not sure that I understand. Is this reference to Loos another joke at my expense? And then my acquaintance makes an inquiry: ‘So, across a broad terrain, harps in the air and all that, eh? What was your favourite building?’
Favourite? For what? When? In what circumstance? Had I neglected to garner an orderly baggage of congenial architectural experiences? I felt cornered. What ‘goods’ had I found within my tour through architecture’s grand tradition of works?
Then, to my own surprise, I find myself responding in eagerness and without more hesitation or reflective forethought: yes, there are two buildings that come to mind. Unsurprisingly, these are London buildings with which I am habitually familiar and I have often found to be deeply satisfying … “The first is a gloomy, High Victorian edifice for once radical forms of worship, still reeking with incense and deft architectonic virtuosity, a dense and masterful work in which the dynamics of place are, palpably and paradoxically, orchestrated into a quiet and affective equipoise in a location just around the corner from the contrasting appetitive clatter of Oxford Street and originally set amongst some of the poorest of London’s inhabitants. The architect’s accommodational insertion is masterly – squeezed into an impossibly small place. It embodies what I can only denote as architectural gamesmanship – what is, I submit, in the final analysis is simply a love of life as an improvisational construct nevertheless informed by concerns of lasting value …”
My response was turning into a lecturette, but I breathlessly continued: “And my second favourite – equally redolent with gamesmanship – was once the family home, office, gallery and personal architectural museum of a man who, rather bizarrely, courted the Spirit of Architecture as if he were in dialogue with a fearsome and reluctant lover: a femme fatale! Perambulating this house – on those rare occasions when, as with the church, the place is empty – I must confess to the experience of a special kind of tingle, as if architecture was ‘going on” – there’s no other way to describe what I mean – as if I have met with it … with Her … I have felt her presence. It is as if, for an ever-so brief moment, one has entered into a strangely aestheticised dialogue … Or is it a dance of courtship? But, damn it, she withdraws the moment she is acknowledged! … My point is not the aesthetic formalities of this architecture – much as I admire such stuff it is mere fall-out from that authoring master builder’s love of the architectural game. No, it’s as if the architect’s courtship had formed itself into a Heideggerian kind of ‘setting up’ and a ‘setting forth’ that is, at once, an utterly improvisational, committed and considered love of architectural play … Oddly, I suppose that this, too, is a place of worship …”
Others have been listening, but glazed eyes meet my enthusiasms. My interlocutor stifles a yawn. I feel alone. Gamesmanship; architecture ‘going on.’ Courtship? Did they understand? Did I? With a considerate smile another neighbour sympathetically remarks that, sometimes, such issues shouldn’t be discussed at the end of the day, at dinner. Perhaps I had drunk too much … We decide to retire.
While the master builders dreamt, my own slumbers were disturbed. I anxiously tossed and turned. A dark mountain loomed over us; in the distance there were soft, flickering lights. The reflection of a full moon snaked across the gently lapping waters of a deep nearby lake. Crickets lent a gentle chorus to the air, interrupted by the occasional whoosh of an unseen speeding car. Ducks, uneasily, now and then quacked; a meandering cat slunk by … All this against the background of a more profound silence with more depth than that lake … And then something startled me: a shriek of horror, perhaps? And, somehow, somewhere, I was convinced, I could hear a muted sound in the air, but something tortured rather than the melody of harps, something inter-mingled with that wretched man’s lament, a sound painfully grating as if a violin were being achingly played in the middle of a slow motion train crash. And then another voice: spectral and crazed … Mies: enraptured, bewitched and quite out of his mind after a sojourn in the woods? … I drew my blanket more tightly around me; soon a dawn would arrive.
 Hilda Wangel – a veritable femme fatale – upon the tragic triumph of Solness, the master builder who falls from a tower, in Henrik Ibsen’s, The Master Builder, (1892).
 John Summerson, Georgian London, (first published 1945). Interestingly, his ‘air-view’ was written at a period when London was exposed to the nightmare of bombing, during the Second World War. Since that time, the strategic geography has continued to evolve, but Summerson’s fundamental patterning remains in place.
 Chambers (1722-96), one of England’s more famous eighteenth-century architects, made a fortune by sailing to China before going to Paris to learn architecture, then turning to London to seek fame and significance.
 Mies van der Rohe, quoted in Zukowsky, J., (ed.), Mies Reconsidered: His Career, Legacy, and Disciples, (1986).
March 11, 2012Posted by on
Jonathan Ive, born in 1967 and recently referred to by the Financial Times as “Apple’s invisible aesthete” and “the architect of the iPad and the iPhone” received a well-deserved knighthood for services to the design industry in the 2012 News year Honours list. Shy Johnny had made it, from Newcastle Polytechnic to a being co-founder of a London consultancy (Tangerine) that had Apple as a client, to Apple itself (in 1992). Now, the FT was celebrating him as ‘emerging from Jobs’ shadow.’
Discussing the design of the iMac, Ive ( interestingly, a confessed ‘bad drawer’ saved by machines) reflected that, “One of the problems we encountered was that you could adjust it, but the screen would wobble slightly. It was really frustrating. We architected an entire system to iron this wobble out.” (Emphasis added.)
Ive describes his Newcastle years as “a pretty miserable time; I did nothing other than work.” But he made it through. I suppose one could call that ‘Survival.’
By 2003, the Power G5 had been launched and the London Design Museum had named Ive ‘Designer of the Year.’ About the G5 Ive commented: “There’s an applied style of being minimal and simple, and then there’s real simplicity,” he said. “This looks simple, because it really is.” Ive had made it to Success and the frontiers of vocational Significance.
By 2012, when Ive was honoured with the KBE (Knight Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth, who had already confessed to being an iPod owner, Ive had achieved a different kind of social Significance legitimated by the powers that govern Great Britain in the name of Divine Right.
Survival, Success and Significance.
The first, Survival, is mostly (not entirely) a biological state of being. Without it there will (rather obviously) never be the Success that, for Ive, brought an invitation to join the Apple design team and which, in turn, was the foundation of further success and the recognition of Significance.
Most people cope with survival, even though far too many don’t. Huge numbers enjoy a relative success; and most settle for that. And some others – sometimes merely the right person in the right place at the right time – find themselves in the spotlight (managers and bankers, in particular). For Ive, his status gathered pace with the Design Museum award, was followed by an CBE in 2006 and the knighthood in 2012. This is the way it’s done in Great Britain (even if, in this instance, the significant success is US based).
One presumes that Ive is doing fine in a few other departments of ‘S’ as well: undoubtedly, he has security, most likely enjoys full sanity, probably has plenty of sex, perhaps even hopes for salvation … But the first three ‘S’s’ cover the spectrum soundly enough. Perhaps he has even reflected upon the fact that, while the biological needs are satisfied relatively easily and huge numbers of people settle for that, quite a few find success and coast along from that point, within its security. However, Significance is, by definition, for a minority and, while many recipients are content with that, some discover an insatiable appetite for even more honour. As one moves through the spectrum of ‘S’s’ a hunger of a peculiar kind can take hold. The CBE is OK, but why not a knighthood, then a Lordship and some of the other honours that exist at that level are are focused upon service to the Monarch? How many can be accummulated? It’s as if, oddly, Significance turns back on itself, perversely returning to the edgy and hungry anxieties of Survival.
But while the Significance of, for example, a knighthood, reflects a contribution to the nation and its well-being, the vocational basis to such honours is important to all those who are not civil servants, managers in state quangos, or the Queen’s part-time gardener and the like. Ive received his honours from the reigning monarch for ‘contributions to design’; others of the above mentioned for services to architecture. But one imagines that what truely pleased Ive about a rewarding career was the praise offered by his hero, Braun’s Dieter Rams.
Architects will recognise this. The social (economically underscored) honour is one thing, but celebration among one’s peers is something else, relative to which the former is merely an elevated version of Success. What, one wonders, do the likes of Sir Terry Farrell, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, Sir Jeremy Dixon, Sir Richard MacCormac, Lord Foster (Baron Foster of Thames Bank) and Lord Rogers (Baron Rogers of Riverside) and similar living establishment architects (most some 30-odd years older than Ives) feel about the relativity of this issue, i.e., social honours as opposed to, for example, the Stirling and Pritzkter Prizes, the French Legion d’Honneur and RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal (enjoyed by Rogers and Foster)?
The test comes when the Significance of honour gets sacrificed for the materiality of Success. Where is the trade-off? It is interesting, for example, that, in 2006, the left-wing posturing Baron Rogers hosted the establishment of the Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) but, within weeks, was under pressure from pro-Israeli pressure groups and the threats of the withdrawal of American commissions, forcing him to distance himself from the organisation whilst muttering about ‘terrorist Palestine’ and ‘democratic Israel.’ The apolitical Baron Foster gave up his seat in the House of Lords (where, in any case, he was reported to be a stranger among fellow peers) so that he could enjoy a non-domiciled status in Switzerland, thus avoiding UK taxes.
This convenient fracturing of roles and identities into an equation of multi-aspected trade-offs between career means-to-ends in which Success features as more real and significant than social and professional Significance is as fascinating as it is depressing. (And would have been incomprehensible to Aristotle.) It is not something that appears to feature in Ive’s character or career. Hopefully, it never will.
To place all this in context we have to note a differentiation between two kinds of sometimes tensionally interlocked honours referencing the goods of excellence: those internal to a practice such as architecture and those external to it. Take, for example, the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. because a person’s works are celebrated by those within the tradition of architectural practice the institution honours that person. But the giving of any institutional honour is, by definition, a ritual serving an external end. The notion that RIBA serves architecture rather than architects (as it claims) is a sham (although the pretense serves everyone). To the extent it does, this celebration is entirely subservient to the larger institutional aim and its acquisitiveness. This is common to all institutions, including that of government and the monarchy. When the Queen bestows an hour for ‘services to design or ‘services to architecture’ she is acting as the monarch of her subjects and of the nation. It is the interests of the monarchy and her government that she is serving; only in a secondary sense is she serving the interests of design or architecture by celebrating practicing individuals with honours.
It is the intermediate space where these internal and external interests come together and become mutually entwined that we find a fascinating dynamic that arguably binds significance to success whilst pretending that it is the latter which enjoys priority. This applies to the Pritzker and Stirling Prizes as well as to the RIBA Gold medal. (It certainly applies to the proliferation of awards now given out to any architect who stands still long enough.)
So where is true Significance within architectural practice? Ironically, it can only be found within the body of practitioners as a quiet celebration of reference and respect that becomes a feature of the continuous and active renewal of that practice. It is a part of the ongoing discourse of practice rather than the hubbub of ritualistic, institutionalised celebration.