Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
A Prologue: Harps in The Air (Meetings With Buildings)
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).