Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Monthly Archives: April 2012
April 24, 2012Posted by on
It was either Goethe and Schelling who gave expression to the notion that architecture was ‘frozen music.’ No one is certain. In any case, the origins of this aphorism appear to lie with Pythagoras. It is, in other words, an ancient notion.
We are told that, while travelling the ancient world sometime in the sixth century BCE and experiencing initiation into ‘the Egyptian mysteries’, Pythagoras heard the sound of hammers upon the anvils of a blacksmith’s shop and, upon examining the different sizes of these anvils, noticed there was a correlation between their mass and the notes emitted. From this he was inspired to enigmatically remark: “A rock is frozen music.”
Pythagoras intended us to understand that upon being worked, a material’s hidden, intrinsic musical sound – its math – is revealed. Base materiality partakes of an elemental harmonic unity of the universe and that all discrete and visible phenomena depend upon a hidden substratum and result from the imposition of numerical limits upon a infinite continuum – a concept with which, in essence, twenty-first century physicists might not disagree. They might even accept Pythagoras’ contention that, upon being worked, a material form’s hidden, intrinsic musical sound – its math – is revealed.
It is also to this philosopher that we attribute the practice of employing a basic module of fundamental measure for an architectural schema: a practice rich in intellectualised neo-mythic undertones that know of no essential difference between fragment and whole, in which the overall dimensions of that whole are small integer multiples of a basic length.
Parametrics, in other words, is not so far removed from Pythagoras and neo-Platonism – a point that many architects are disinclined to ruminate upon.
Charles Peirce was convinced that the number three was peculiarly important. He repeatedly referred to a ‘law of threeness’ and often constructed his theories in these terms (most notably, Firstness, Secondness and Thirdness).
Buckminster Fuller had similar obsessions, but referred threeness to the remarkably stable structural characteristics of the tetrahedron. This exhibits a three-fold unfolding, but has four faces and four vertices, although one can only ever see three faces of a tedrahedral solid at any one time (and, more usually and conveniently, it is two). In other words, the forth facet is hidden, although easily disclosable by merely switching viewpoint (or rotating the tetrahedron). This ‘fourness’ corresponds to the inherent structural unity of the tetrahedron, now construed in terms of four viewpoints which, together, give us a conceptually true picture of the whole. This understanding is, in itself, a fifth principle.
Peirce dealt with the latter understanding as a Thirdness of universe. The causal and relational characteristics of the tetrahedron would have been appreciated by him as a Secondness. Firstness, however, was prepredicative and could not be conceptualised.
Kabbalistically, threeness is (to put it crudely) manifest as the principle of three pillars of the universe. Two of these can be considered as contrasting (not as opposites), corresponding to complementary but quite different principles. Creative idea (abduction) and a form given to it (Peirce’s all-important ‘schematic diagram’) are an example. However, the central pillar is different, typically being correlated with consciousness that is appreciated as a fourness, viz., four natures, manifestations, kinds of understanding and the like which – and, again, I am putting these principles very crudely – corresponds to Peirce’s notion of a Firstness. If you prefer, this fourness can be considered in terms of four parallel universes.
Another way to appreciate this Firstness – what Peirce imply denominated as Quality – is in terms of what, in turn, Ernst Cassirer referred to as a mythic awareness. We experience this as a field of feelings before we know it in derived, conceptual terms. Heidegger would have simply framed his in terms of Being and what he termed ‘called thinking.’ Wittgenstein even more simply muttered that it was all very ‘queer.’ Cassirer was less concerned with determinations of what was mythic than with mythic awareness as a mode of what Heidegger might have said was a behavioural way of ‘being with’ Quality. This ‘being with, Kabbalistically, is ‘the work’.
Like Peirce, Bucky construed the universe in teleological terms. Life was an antientropic principle in a universe that was otherwise entropic. But ‘life’ is yet another problematic term whose difficulties are focused upon a crucial issues: mankind’s conscious awareness and, qua man, his teleological intentions that serve his / her flourishing. What is entropic is not merely what, in Newtonian terms, ‘runs down’, but is a resistance that the antientropic meets with. The notion of ‘work’ implicitly embraces this concept and introduces another key differentiation: between a tendency toward what is vegetable in contrast with what tends toward enhanced consciousness. At the balance point is the age-old issue of animality, viz., instinct, desire, impulse, sociality and the like – an issue dealt with at length by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (3rd ed. 2007). The notion is ancient and fundamental to all esoteric traditions and is perhaps most explicitly dealt with by George Gurdjieff. However, it is fascinating to examine how this issue is framed at the beginning of the modern, secular period, e.g., with someone like Lord Shaftesbury, who is concerned with an ‘architecture of the soul’ and how a more rather than less desirable architecture is to be cultivated. MacIntyre, too, is deeply impressive in how he frames the issue in terms of morality and virtue whilst avoiding religious concerns.This ‘work’ is a fifth principle attributable to our tetrahedron that is subtley different from the fourth. It belongs to Peirce’s Thirdness and, at this point, all potentially confusing notions of first, second or whatever have to be dumped. We reach a point of concern with what one does after getting out of bed in the morning. It’s that simple.
We dream and awake to face the day. During that day the architect frames this entire body of concerns within a discursive tradition whose principal concerns are largely pragmatic. But that tradition has its ghosts who stand over one’s shoulder, subliminally influencing values, concerns and decisions made. And the notion of ‘frozen music’ is highly likely to arise, in one manner or another, as number, ratio or algorithm, as proportion, flow, harmony, elegance of form …
All too often, however, the ghost is an umpteenth-hand voice influencing prejudice and superstition. Numbers, symmetries and ratios (such as the Golden Mean) are introduced as a form of naive magic: ‘If I employ these, they might give me access to harmonious beauty, impact, success …’ There is a failure to recognise that one is merely dealing with hollow symbols, not active substance. The outcome may be impressive, but remains a mix of parody and perhaps farce, especially since, if we live in a universe of number, we are already, phenomenologically and by definition, of number as well as in it. To knowingly use number within the framework of Miesian living tasks almost certainly makes more sense than to merely represent it – in which sense the meaning of harmony and accord is enabled to penetrate deeply into the depths of one’s being. It’s not enough to symbolically express the belief that ‘all discrete and visible phenomena depend upon a hidden substratum and result from the imposition of numerical limits upon a infinite continuum’; one has to explore and live that reality. Otherwise, so what …?
It is here that we meet with another kind of threeness of a kind that Shaftesbury might have recognised: the mystery of abductive creativity resulting from musement; the equal mystery of a discriminatory capability rooted in obscurity overlaid by sentiment and prevailing tastes coloured by a tradition of conspicuous consumption (cf. Veblen) and potlatch (cf. Bataille), yet able to make judgments regarding relative goodness; and the problematic of character.
One can’t give direct symbolic form to these issues. Kabbalistically, they are simply references to the three pillars – a knowledge that, in itself, is interesting but, again, hollow. Architecture, in other words, may be interesting, but it might be that being an architect is a more intriguing and challenging topic of concern.
April 23, 2012Posted by on
This was an early post, now redrafted.
“ … Isn’t that a negative way of thinking, m’dear?”
“Well, yes, but so much of architecture is driven by negative imperatives. They are simply the flip side of your positive coinage.”
“Indeed; however, I’d rather you tried to stick with positives … I find a via negativa rather dreary.”
“Think of it this way: setting up a good in one’s life, aiming toward a goal, having an aspiration – this is as likely – most likely, in fact – to be a movement away from something rather than toward some positive aspiration. We move away from less satisfactory states of affairs toward more satisfactory states of affairs. Most of what we do concerns negative prompts given a positive wrap. ”
“Then why not say that we do move toward a more satisfactory state of affairs? Why state the issue negatively?”
“OK, but this is merely an ancient bit of philosophy turned into management research: we tend to move from states of dissatisfaction to an absence of dissatisfaction, not to the opposite, i.e. some genuine state of satisfaction … This absence we desire is a hygiene factor in our lives. Fourishing is usually no more than a comfort zone … Look: take Wotton’s triadic aphorism of commodity, firmness and delight. The first two criteria, are more easily understood as the removal of dissatisfaction. It’s simple, and economical … That’s how most people, most of the time, think and express need. The goodness we aim for is a state of avoidance and obviation. I eat because I want to obviate my hunger … Even delight can be considered as the avoidance of non-delight. … Most conversations with clients and builders are in terms of avoiding dissatisfactions and attaining and then satisficing at some minimal cut-off point. That’s their value engineering.”
“So, you denying more positive aspirational aims? You’re eating that tarte in front of you because this removes a hunger, not because you really fancy the goodness of a tarte tatin with ice cream? You go into the studio and all your design aspirations are in terms of moving away from some negative?”
“Ehmmm, not quite … But that’s how it often seems. We’re merely moving away from a discomforting truth into some more reassuring comfort zone … We move from problematic conditions to less problematic states of affairs. It’s fundamental. We define solutions as schemes that tick the boxes telling us a ‘problem’ has been avoided, obviated … And we stop striving once we meet with some vague whatever that constitutes dissatisfaction-absence. And then we might add that surplus dressing of ice cream to a purportedly wonderful tarte tatin …”
As I dip in she makes a retort: “OK, so Wotton’s ‘delight’ is really a negative, an avoidance of some non-delight? What is this non-delight?”
“It can be as disagreeable as any other negative. It’s flat, without sparkle and uplift: zero kerb appeal … I quite like the idea of architecture as a tarte tatin with ice cream: Bataille’s surplus – buildings in drag, as Banham put it …” I grinned; she wasn’t amused.
“Buildings in drag …? Doesn’t architecture deliver a valued superfluity which gives it meaning – the good you keep telling me doesn’t cost more? Are you implying that those long queues at Open House are just that weekend’s titillation?”
I was in dangerous territory. Did I really want to get into Bataille, conspicuous consumption and potlach? “But don’t you agree that we inhabit cacoons of orderly coherence whilst seeking out these entertainments or sometimes titillations of mild exposure that are carefully managed as benign experiences: on the beach, in the art gallery, at the lecture, in the cinema, at the table, on the web, on the bungee jump, watching the horror movie … ? We construct these enculturalised edgey goods that are comforting zones of consumption and we kid ourselves we’re breaking out of the box, but these are actually very safe coves of reassurance on a journey along an otherwise dangerous coastline …”
“How poetic. So, it’s all just entertainment and reassurance?”
“I suppose so … You know, there was a nice line in a novel I once read – some tale in which the hero sits on a ship and reflects upon the beauty of the ocean. A co-passenger then refers him to the presence of a shark’s fin. A conventional aesthetic, sensibility sanitised of life’s darker and more disturbing aspects is rudely re-oriented by a remark that is exemplary in its interlacing of beauty and the sublime: ‘If it’s beauty I feel, then it must be under the surface, because beauty is always under the surface. […] True beauty has terror in it […] The water, the surf, the colours on the shore. You think they make the beauty of the tropical sea, aye, lad? They do not. ‘Tis the knowledge, as you call it, that carries death with every move that it makes. So it is, so it is with all beauty.’ The voice of admonition continues by reflectively lending this notion an awful primordial undercurrent: ‘You can drop a stone into Beethoven, and you will never hear it strike bottom. The eternities and the infinities are in it, and they strike at the soul, like death’.”
April 23, 2012Posted by on
“For years now we said no to ‘design,’ but suddenly work on a smaller-than-architectural scale becomes fascinating. Is the fatigue of decades of unrepeatable architectural prototypes, the attraction of a true democracy of the marketplace, or the repetitive surfeit of the salone … a boat, a light, displays; they now seem pregnant with a radical potential for reinvention.” (Comment from OMA at their Barbican exhibition, 2011-12)
I woke up late yesterday, listening to the distinctive voice of Will Self. He was commenting on ‘difficult’ words and the dumbing down of prose. Apart from the general interest of the piece I liked his notion of ‘obese culture’: “we are in danger of becoming morbidly obese through the consumption of such fast culture.” We’re already there, Will; as someone 0nce remarked to MacIntyre, ‘The barbarians aren’t at the gates, Alasdair; they’re already inside and have there for some time.’
Self’s comment touched a note. Only yesterday I had been chattering with my wife about a culture of twittering and what Michel Foucault had referred to as those ‘epistemes’ which constrain the discourse of an epoch, producing what has been termed as homologous forms of discourse in unrelated domains. In what ways, we wondered, was architecture an instance of such an ‘epistemes’?
A principal trope of the current phase of whatever epoch we’re in is tweeting. As you know, we currently inhabit a ‘Twittersphere.’ (don’t worry: it’ll pass). That knowledge keeps coming at us from all directions: twitter appeals, twitter votes, twitter comment, twitter this and that … A policy for this, a policy for that … This event, another event … News and more news … Consume, engage, exhaust yourself …
But I should confess (if I need to): I find the social media dimension of this current homologous state of affairs to be a painful experience. Dangerous talk, I know … Sorry, but life is too short. Short – get it? OK, that was banal too, but you see my point? Some time ago, Neil Postman simply referred to this phenomenon as ‘amusing ourselves to death’. I can still vaguely recall waking up to this decades ago: ‘Why,’ this young man asked himself, “am I reading the likes of Rolling Stone from end to end? Wake up!” But now I am tempted to do the same with a daily copy of Guardian or a radio programmes featuring Will Self or some current Scandinavian TV thriller or this week’s movie or book or gallery event or …
So, given all this homology, is there a twittitecture?
Surprisingly, when I ask this question I suddenly and inexplicably become more positive about the whole phenomenon. I turn toward young architects stuck somewhere between a student role and nascent professionalism – in a zone where one finds creative initiatives largely absent from the cultural mainstream of professionalised architecture. Interestingly, by their nature, these endeavours have to come and go rather quickly, if only because small young practices become larger mainstream practices … and creators and consumers move on to the next tweet. Meanwhile, it isn’t all happy consumerism – there’s some horrendous architectonic tweeting out there making pretentious claims to fame.
Here’s three enterprises (among many dotted around east and south London) that immediately come to mind … (things to visit and experientially taste, not to look at and visually savour) … But then perhaps we have to note the OMA comment (above) and look at the truly small and incidental, possibly as a bottom-up cultural phenomenon that implicitly protests. But all that may also be simply more of Will Self’s cultural junk-diet (OMA’s “repetitive surfeit of the salone”).
April 21, 2012Posted by on
Having lived in London most of my life the experience of mountains has, until recently, been rather occasional.
Now that it is less occasional I’m more aware of that strange and disturbing quality that can creep into one’s mind as the tree-line is approached and crossed – into, that is, a distinctly more forbidding realm where people more courageous than myself venture upward into the snows.
In truth, I don’t much like that experience. It’s daunting. The absence of evident life disturbs me.
The contrast is a central London street: walking through Soho, for example, on an early Friday summer’s evening: that in between period when daytime hasn’t completed itself and the evening has hardly begun – crowed pubs, equally overflowing pavements … This is not quite the ‘buzz’ that a now aging chief planner of the City of London, Peter Rees, celebrates and promotes (“People don’t come to London for the buildings; they come for the buzz!” No, this is a different kind of buzz …
But, to return to mountains: Caspar David Friedrich‘s famous painting has an iconic status that self-evidently connects with something many people empathise with. They recognise something. This is sometimes written up as sublimity in the sense this refers to a certain fearsome awe of the kind defined by Kant and others. But Friedrich’s figure is more bemused than disturbed: calm and contemplative; comfortable, not fearful, calmly drinking in the distant view rather than being over-awed by it. Fearfulness is over the horizon; the view can be contemplated as distant exposed peaks. This isn’t about sublimity; just the opposite, in fact … It’s also evident that this is an urbanite on an outing.
But it it’s perhaps more to the point that our man on the mountain top is peculiarly inbetween. I like to think of him as a flaneur midst Nature at its most raw and comprehensive. … And as I write this I, too, am strangely cast as an inbetween urbanite: sitting at the window bar of an everyday Pret-a-Manger, looking out at this morning’s commuters, passing stuffed double-decker buses, vehicles with screaming sirens, bicycle riders on their fold-ups or an ungainly Boris Bike, painters off to some building site, joggers heading toward some refreshing office shower, prancing women wearing incredulously high heels, suited middle-managers with equally inapt back-packs, others bemused by whatever is issuing from their headphones and ear-pieces … And, midst it all, I’m in a relatively still place while all this going on in front, behind, and even while Amy Winehouse belts out on the cafe Muzak system as the commuters rush in for their take-away caffeine hit …
This is home – not as a place, but as a state of being … It’s in between, just for a while, for a few still moments … And then the interruption: Oh, my God, she was attractive! … Inbetweeness had been obtruded upon … I put my pen down … Time to pack up and depart. God, how I love this city. But how odd: the silence of an inbetweenness up a mountain , the cacophony of noise in the city … And yet there is a sameness … Is that what Caspar’s figure was up to: listening to The Silence? Can I, too, hear this absence, even here, in central London … ?
(And the photo? My wife, somewhere up around 1600m, striking a familiar pose, but entirely unconsciously … honest.)
April 19, 2012Posted by on
April 17, 2012Posted by on
This post was originally. in the posts. It’s been updated and put out here as a post.
There is something depressing about architecture as a self-referential discourse.
Equally, there is something exhilarating about the masterful ‘gamesmanship’ this closed discourse elicits.
The latter notion of ‘gamesmanship’ has unsavoury associations in sport, but in architecture it exhibits such a wit, inventiveness and cunning in order to overcome obstacles as something admirable. Somehow it epitomises what architecture is all about. Interestingly, it is easier to identify this witfulness in older buildings from which we now stand apart – easier, too, in details, fragments … And yet it is also by means of such an appreciation that we can (paradoxically) find ourselves meeting with buildings – what, in itself, is a difficult notion, something one has to experience to understand. Oddly, too, such an engagement only comes about through a peculiar kind of familiarity that is difficult for tourists to grasp. This phenomenon sometimes reminds me of those disturbing ‘living statues’ that suddenly, engagingly, can come back, as it were, to life. Meetings with buildings can be like that.
In the heart of the City of London, the historic core and now the financial district, just east of Bank (where, you guessed it, the Bank of England is located, there is a simple archway. Designed, about eighty years ago, in suitable bank’s style by the once-famous Curtis Green, this archway sits at one side of a typical but slightly ‘stripped’, late Grand Manner façade that leads off Cornhill, down what was once a medieval alley (appropriately called Change Alley) and into the backlands of the urban block.
In many ways this is an ordinary City building – one of those side-by-side works that we rarely design anymore – and it’s an ordinary archway … Well, not quite. I frequently slink by, casually giving it a quick sideways glance: “Hello, old friend – still here? Haven’t they got to you yet?’ There’s a demolition ball with your name on it … !”
My friend is deep set and comprises two parts: an outer arch that relates to the overall symmetry of Green’s Portland stone façade, raking back onto an inner, corresponding part whose geometry is deftly shifted to one side in order to align with the contingent and inconvenient location of the existing alley. Deep radiating rustication binds inner and outer arches together and into the façade design.
As a minor architectural incident on streets crowded with good architecture by long-forgotten notables this 1935 archway goes unnoticed: a minor street performance most people don’t even see. Why should they? It’s a detail, no big deal; but for me its tells me a lot about an architect who was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in 1942. And that was how I introduced the topic to my wife.
“So, we have a headline: architect gets excited by an archway leading into sunlight-deprived City alley, eh?”
It was the usual sarcasm. “Well, yes. You see, it’s deft: a tiny, relaxed exhibition of architectural extemporisation within an overall street game going on … was going on – it’s a bit more confused nowadays. It’s quite a London location, you know: Soane, Tite, Dance, Wren, Foster, Grimshaw, Koolhaas, Hawksmore, Stirling, Baker, Lutyens, Cooper, Parry … and Green – they’re all around this road junction. And there is this Curtis Green thing: it’s not big deal, I know, but that’s the point … Perhaps I , too, shouldn’t care, but I do. And if I am ever with someone who I feel might, in the slightest way, be aroused by such things (pretty rare, I admit), I eagerly whip them through the arch, into that alley and along a backlands route to nearby Leadenhall.”
“Leadenhall ? …The market?”
“Yes … all that history: the Middle Ages, 1881; Horace Jones and all that … current scene of liquid lunches for obese City cats. I get people there and begin a little act of disclosure: Let me show you this. Look, see, over there: we have significant depth behind the façade … Then … Here, follow me … further along: now, it’s peculiarly shallow … and gets progressively more shallow. Come this way …It get more shallow because Jones has to … See the building behind, the one that looms over it? Jones has now run out of depth behind his façade! He has no option: the room behind the window has to be very small … Now, continue long. . . The façade continues to march on, but now there is no space behind at all! The façade is merely a screen. And now Jones fills the window with metalwork so that we can see this, so that we see the other building beyond. The game is declared …”
“Yes, fascinating …”
“OK, sure, it’s mundane – it’s all about landownership and rights of light … But that misses the improvisational wit: Jones stretches the façade game – one of place and character given to the market, especially in its central parts – out to the surrounding streets. It’s a problematic site and he reaches out, playing the game for all he’s worth … Yes, it’s all ridiculously minor . . . But it’s masterfulness! Isn’t it? You’ve seen it …”
She looked at me. Quietly. Then. after a moment: “Well, to be truthful … Clever, perhaps. But isn’t your head well and truly up your proverbial architectural arse?”
“Always, m’dear: it’s stuck there. … But listen: occasionally, you know, someone smiles … They’ve got it. Like Green’s arch, they are witness to a piece of quiet street performance that most people take for granted, don’t see, possibly never saw or can’t see any more … And, yes, I quickly move them on – Foster and Rogers are around the corner. But, even while I do so my eyes will ever so quickly glance around … because the whole market has this character that signals itself as something grand and formal … And yet even a superficial observation shows this isn’t the case, that the architecture is asymmetric and opportunistic and improvisational, adapting itself and yet somehow holding onto its essential identity and character, as an idea: a tensed holding pattern, fragile but still here, inevitably to be one day eroded, its tensions relaxed and evaporating … I don’t all mention this – they’d get bored.”
What I meant was that it – the Market, as well as Green’s arch – is ‘architecture going on’ – as gamesmanship, in ordinary, everyday ways.
“You know: I get reminded of those ‘living-statues.’ One ‘meets with’ them when they suddenly stop performing, give up, relax, wink at some kid, light a cigarette, relocate, possibly in another guise … On the other hand, it’s peculiar: I respect those kinds of performance, but they fail to arouse much interest in me. It’s just that, weel, that gamesmanship: I worry that we’ve lost it …”
“Yes: offset arches and empty façade windows … God, you architects are weird. Are they all like you?”
April 17, 2012Posted by on
This is part of the original version of Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci, written in 1819. The poet may have been referencing love in general, or perhaps his affair with ‘poesy.’ I like to think of it as the tale of many an architect and his or her love affair with the subject of their vocation.
I particularly imagine it as the voice of someone like Sir John Soane, an architect deeply in love with architecture, a man who spent some thirty years (until the mid-1820s, when Keats died) converting three Georgian terrace houses (then, of course, contemporary) into a temple to his Muse: at once home, office, art gallery, and architecture museum (and then left to the nation upon his death).
But Soane was also somewhat mischievous. He once wrote a rather odd piece that concerned a fantasy concerning some future date when archaeologists would undercover the ruins of his house and, finding pieces of ancient architecture – Greek and Gothic, etc – would speculate that there had been a temple or a church on this site. Having read this, I was amused one day to find myself in the basement of the Soane Museum, standing by his ‘Monk’s Parlour’ (which includes stone pieces that Soane had pinched from his works on the old House of Lords (etc.), at Westminster) when I overheard an up-market tour guide telling her two bemused guests how Soane had, when building the house, found the ruinous parts of a Gothic building. I suppose it made a good story.
Soane’s sometime assistant, Joseph Gandy – who drew so many famous illustrations of Soane’s works in ruinous and neo-mythic condition – was equally romantic. Soane was not. He was, at once, too experienced in public affairs and privately embittered. Nevertheless, he gave expression to the notion of vocation as an obsession – which, of course, it isn’t. It’s a love affair in which one or the other of those involved will be all too aware of the tragic potentialities accompanying courtship of their Muse.
Why should I think of the architectural Muse as a heart-breaker? Just accept the notion as a romantic indulgence …
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Oh what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful – a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said -
‘I love thee true.’
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep
And there I dreamed – Ah! woe betide! -
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried – ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
April 17, 2012Posted by on
As a rather large reality TV studio the 2012 London Olympic Park is pretty impressive. However, that simple fact gets obfuscated by all the talk about legacy and architectural set-pieces.
The legacy commitment is impressive, but let’s not kid ourselves: first came the Olympic bid, then came the strategic notion of a legacy in order to secure that bid against competitors such as Paris. Given enough wriggle room, this legacy may yet become another victim to commercial spin. And the degree to which Newham Borough locals believe in the legacy of an ‘urban entertainment’ area is debatable.
But, who knows, Stratford may yet become one of London’s desirable residential locations, particularly with a cleaned-up River Lea and the adjacent canal that links down to the River Thames. Perhaps. But London has, historically, been oriented westward from its original core, the City of London (now the financial district). Bankers seeking somewhere to invest their annual bonus have always followed the historic crowd: to places such as Kensington and Chelsea, not to the former Docklands and associated eastern areas. Certainly, the images of the future Queen Elizabeth Park are distinctly upbeat and, given such an amazing transport interchange that has been created, it makes sense create a new high-density centre here. However, one wonders whether it will all end up as another development island, like Canary Wharf, with minimal impact of surrounding existing areas except as an opportunity for absentee landlords.
While we await all this happening (and you’ll have to wait until late 2013 and into 2014 for anything much to see) there is the reality of the 2012 Games park itself. And it’s a weird place.
Every time I read about the architectural events, especially the Hadid Aquarium and the Hopkins Velodrome (two utterly disparate projects, reflecting starkly different design attitudes and values) I wonder what the whole thing would have been like if the the project teams involved had really taken a hold of this reality TV-set notion and run with it.
(Ironically, as if to rub in the point, the old Big Brother house is located just south of the perimeter of the Olympic Park.)
As it is, the Aquarium is rather incongruous. No doubt it will be one of the jewels in the legacy crown (the other being the Velodrome), if only because it is the UK’s first Zaha design that feels like it came out of her office. The school in Brixton is worthy enough, but can hardly be described as an exercise in parametrics, no what how hard Patrik Schumacher strives to persuade us otherwise; and the Roca showroom in west London illustrates the dangers of becoming trapped into parodying one’s one stylistic tropes (which is also what the proposed branding exercise for the Serpentine Gallery extension in Hyde Park feels like).
The Aquatics building may be incredibly non-green, sporting a 3000 tonne ‘wave-shaped’ steel roof, but it is elegant. And, I’m told, it is currently very impressive on the inside (although test events gave the audience the sauna treatment). However, the boils-on-the-nose of the beast (which make-up artists have failed to conceal) are the two temporary banks of seating stacked up on either side of the pool and its sweeping, tongue-like roof. Like the rest of the building, these temporary structures have been keenly value engineered somewhere between the original CGI’s and the built fact. And, like so much within this TV-set, these extensions are less than beautiful on the exterior.
This issue of image is obviously crucial to the two-week event. But why not go all the way? Why not design the whole park as a huge studio, complete with event-sets rather than real buildings (if there is, in fact, a difference)?
Anyone tuned into the notion of ‘sets’ would have ensured that whatever was on show to the global TV audience would have been dressed up to give the desired effect …. Perhaps it will be, but we’ll probably get interior shots no better managed than the Games logo (designed by that long-term London corporate identity pioneer, Woff Olins) and Games mascots (the somewhat cringe-prompting Wenlock and Mandeville, who look like some sorely-tested designer at the ‘iris’ agency was desperately striving to mimic Hadid’s formal sensibilities).
This criticism runs to everything about the Park. The planting that has been going in is the real thing and, in twenty years time, will no doubt look very good – so why not plastic in the meantime and the real thing as a legacy replacement, once the pressure of a Games timetable is off? (There is some perfect landscaping at Canary Wharf, just down the road. Bits of it are too perfect – they’re plastic.)
The stadium (designed by Populous, an HOK spin-off) makes more sense, but even this 80,000 seat endeavour has been sucked into the legacy mire. Will two-thirds of it be demolished after the Games, as originally intended? Will a football club take it over? Will the pitch-surrounded-by-track issue get resolved? Will the minimal roof keep the rain off the reality-TV audience?Who knows; the story changes every month and is currently under wraps.
Perhaps what we needed was a cross between the Otto tents of the Munich Games, now on a Bucky Fuller scale and covering a vast area, enabling the event structures and the in between bits to be made in stud-work and plaster. Instead, we have the likes of a peculiar exercise in camouflage executed near the main Park entrance, at Stratford, as if waving about in order to distract attention away from the old shopping mall that the new Westfield-shopping-centre-entrance-filter-into-the-Games has effectively replaced (what, by the way, is claimed to be the largest indoor shopping mall in Europe). The architects, Egret West, are very good, but their brief has been somewhat ridiculous. Why not, for example, more tensile fabric forms that, at least, would have supplemented the existing bus station and thus inflate their presence? (A degree of otherwise absent coherence might have resulted.) Why not a total structuring of the arrival-by-car-Underground-Overground-Eurostar-bus (etc.) mall entrance areas so that every viewpoint and possible camera shot was taken care of? It’s fascinating: the demands of a found reality and a mediated reality mixing up our mind-sets. What is ‘real’ – the CGI’s, what one sees on TV, or what is built? It’s all real, one supposes … real in different ways, for different people and purposes, at different times …
Nevetheless, there may have been a lost opportunity here that will have to be fulfilled by some other, subsequent Games city. Whereas movie industry scene-designers might have been the team leaders we might have had too many architects and master planners (often the same firms) on the London team. But you know it’s coming: scene-setting-and-augmented-reality Games that complements the general hype and media spin. We’d just have to avoid the kind of authenticity-testing ostensibly applied to the athletes, because that really will mess with our brains. Meanwhile … we have Wenlock and Mandeville, who aptly sum it all up.
April 13, 2012Posted by on
(This was a page written some time ago, up-dated and now dragged over to posts.)
Writing guide books on London’s contemporary architecture brings up all kinds of criterial difficulties and prompts rambling conversational interludes. This is a not untypical example. More images will be added once I am out of Italy and have access to my image bank.
“By the way, I’ve begun putting together the new guide book – a sixth edition – and have the usual Lloyds ’86 problem: over twenty-five years since Rogers completed it, thirty-five since they won the competition and now it’s Listed and can hardly be altered – is it ‘contemporary’? … What do you think?”
She didn’t look up from her newspaper. “Not really. We’ve been there. Your audience wants what is ‘now’, you know that … 1986 is hardly ‘now’.”
“OK, I do know … but isn’t Lloyds ‘now’ in the sense of being a vital, living part of the City, as it is ‘now’ … In any case, London visitors still want to see it and know about it … It’s still important to what is going on, what the City is currently about … Isn’t it? Or is it something merely lingering on, embodying lost design values and concerns?”
“Well, it’s up to you, but I think you’re clouding the issue. It’s modern, but not contemporary.” And then, more condescendingly: “You know that.”
I paused before starting again. “Has it occurred to you that …” Now she was looking up, over her spectacles, but had that look in her eye, irritated at the persistent intrusion. “… No, it’s a quicky. I promise. Listen: both the good and the bad – what excels and what is abominable (but especially the former) – surprise one that they do happen. It’s amazing that anything truly good is ever realised. Meanwhile, the main body of architectural work, what we experience and what people daily struggle with is ordinary and, at best, worthy.”
“Brilliant, Holmes. So what else is new?”
“… A this ‘worthy’ mainstream: it’s life. This is architectural practice. This is the angst and everyday pleasure, the grind and the glory that everyone cares about and obsesses over – the true home of tears and smiles, of hubris and pretension and the rest. … “
“And so …?”
“And it’s a ‘tree-and-wood’ conversation: the ugly and the exceptional stand out whilst drawing our attentions away from the mass body. We keep being told the mass isn’t interesting, that it merely accords with some law of large numbers, that it’s belongs to the realm of a slumbering Volk and a Heideggerian They and … Well, perhaps that is correct, isn’t it?”
That look again: “The who is what …?”
I almost had her attention, so I carried on. “OK: Lloyds is unique, impressive, admirable, exceptional … if you like that kind of thing. But it has had negligible impact on the mainstream. Is’t there a contradiction there? What is celebrated is meant to be deeply influential – we’re told that. We’re told to reference what excels, what the masters and heroes who have brought about. But, oddly, in another sense, such works don’t seem to matter … It’s all a weird game: the bench-mark is an utterly unique instance of what excels and too unique to replicate because each situated design challenge is unique one can only mimic its forms and features as a form of parody … There are no general rules that govern what excellence is – either as a form or an action-achievement. If there were, then we’d need another rule in order to know when the first kinds of rule were applicable … So what are we learning? … Isn’t this strange? Do people actually look at Lloyds in those terms and really know what is at issue?”
“Why do I feel a Loosian moment coming over the horizon?”
“Well, didn’t he have a point? Value has to reside in the principal body of a society’s energies and lived experiences … the flesh, m’dear, the flesh … But we’re constantly told to look away and learn from the exceptions – which can’t be emulated except in some obscure manner as a ‘work,’ an achievement … There’s a paradox in all this. The mags are filled with issues of form, but neglect this underlying issue of ‘work’.”
“I’m lost. You started off with the contemporary and have ended up with issues of excellence … You keep doing this. Anyway, on the latter, are you telling me that salvation lies with dumbed down worthy taste – which is mostly poor taste? C’mon, you’re always muttering about the scandalous deliberation and resourceful effort that goes into bad taste; you know it’s a bottom-line that irritates you …”
“Sure, sure: bad taste is a carefully cultivated cultural phenomenon … That’s weird too. It’s weird at either end of the spectrum. … It’s just that I feel unsettled by it all. I don’t quite believe it. I feel that I’m bound in a soporiferous state of being – not as a dumbing down, but as a diversion along some alluring side track.”
Now sarcastically: “Ah, the voice of the young kabbalist as ageing grey beard …”
“C’mon, not quite – that was an adolescent neo-Platonic adventure – an escape route on a Socratic express train to God knows where. I got off at an early station, remember?”
“Ah, the Byronic train-spotter, stuck on some siding, somewhere? So, you don’t believe in the express train, nor the heroes on it, nor the rubbish by the tracks or the masses you pass by … But you’re still in pursuit of ‘good’ architecture, eh?”
I perk up. “Si, mia tesoro, that’s the point: architecture as a goodness … But what do I mean by that when I also qualify it as ‘contemporary’?”
“You’re supposed to know by now … Isn’t this where we came in? Lloyds has been influential – as an aspirational bench-mark within the profession, demonstrating what can be achieved; historically, it was a notable riposte to Post-Modernism; and it persists as a brand image that lends novelty and glamour to the City – for those, that is, who don’t mock it as a grounded oil-rig.”
“Ah, yes, the look of the thing: the single factor that, ironically, is of least import – a focus of judgements indulged in by those who haven’t appreciated the underlying story to this mute beast … The final Lloyds irony.”
This prompted a quizzical look: “Are you sure that when people read about ‘contemporary architecture’ they are interested in a narrative along the lines of ‘three mute and different architectural guises of the same essential typology’? … Where are you going with this?”
“But that’s the most interesting dimension of Lloyds: the 1927, ‘58, ‘86 versions … a new building every twenty-five years … And then one designed for 125 years and everything about it has turned out to be ironic. … Instead, we refer ourselves to shorthand judgements: ‘I like; I don’t like,’ as if each of us had a bench-mark in our minds of what constitutes the formalities of good architecture – a distinctive but ever obscure commensurable that everyone pursues but never gets to …. There is no such thing as ‘good architecture,’ just a manifold of situated goodnesses … and how does one extract the ostensible commensurable from the particularities?”
“Terrific. You’re going to write a guide book oriented around new street-experiences and you’re not only worried about what constitutes the contemporary, but want to argue that, oddly, there’s no such things as good architecture, and yet there are instances of it out there. Fascinating.”
“All I mean is that the purported universal Quality we all claim to smell out and subscribe to is perhaps / maybe there, but it’s paradoxically localised in a dozen overlapping and very siuated and particularised ways … One find this goodness of excellence as something rooted … and someone who can’t sense those intertwined boundaries is disabled. It’s this that makes a work not only more-or-less unique, but profoundly humanised: at once as what is authored, inhabited and appreciated within the lives we lead – entangled in Mies’ ‘living tasks’ … It’s not some floating abstraction – as presumed by bloody Design Quality Indicators and the like. It’s human lives and humanised architectures constituting an interface between principle and particularity, the one defining, modifying, the other – Quality as an elusive Aristotlian mean, always a moving target …”
“So tell stories, but that doesn’t sound like a guide book … and I still fail to see what that has to do with identifying what is contemporary.”
“Well, you say that, but … Lloyd’s – let’s go back to that – was about left-wing architects working for a right-wing, blue-chip geriatric culture, creating a cake that is the same every way you cut it for people who hungered after a lived symbolism of hierarchy and difference. And then the masters of ever-adaptable oil-rig design come along, together with oblique and obscure references to the
Maison de Verre … and then there’s the monumental aim at 125 years – married to hubris and an inability to pay for changing any aspect of a ridiculously expensive edifice … Ayn Rand couldn’t make it up. OK, the work’s excellence is a bench-mark; however, frustratingly, it’s only iconic in an abstracted sense that endeavour must be again situationally grounded next time around.”
“Done? Because you still haven’t said why that makes it contemporary.”
“Sortof done … But I quite like the idea of framing Lloyds in terms of a branding issue … You can brand chocolates and cars and clothes, but hardly an individual building. At best, it’s given character and novelty, but the real branding concerns the architect who does things in this way – they’re the brand and that, at root, is why developers are into a celebrity game … That’s very contemporary, surely?”
“So, are you denying reiterations such as the branded shop outlet a possibility of ‘quality’?”
I hesitate. “Hmmm, no, not quite … the contextural references are then are a different set of corporate criteria, ones that deny a whole body of particularities – otherwise the brand is potentially compromised … On the other hand, your chain shop – MacDonald or whatever – has some degree of general brand quality which, nevertheless, always has to be instantiated and sustained as a local form of particularity … Lloyds, on the other hand, is a brand not only as the kind of thing the Rogers team does over and again (thus branding them), but as a contribution to the branding of the City of London as a whole … Meanwhile, Lloyds itself has had their own cultural brand frustrated by Rogers’ lefty ideology of ‘it’s–the-same-anyway-you-cut-it … See: Lloyds is the ultimate ironic building!”
“On this hand, and on the other hand … Are you arguing that, if we can frame a building in terms of branding experiences, it’s ‘contemporary’?”
April 11, 2012Posted by on
As a Professor of Architecture at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts, Otto Wagner pointedly directed his students to ‘the need.’ It was admirable pedagogic advice, succinct and considered, and advice that has echoed through the history of Modernism in a variety of equally succinct interpretations that have framed ‘need’ in terms of utility, functionality, instrumentalism and the like – core concerns of a more epochal kind of modernism that we have lived with for some hundreds of years, but particularly since the Enlightenment. ‘Need’ becomes ‘brief’ – not only a legalistic term, but perhaps one that gives expression to how attention to the operational needs of professional servicing quickly shift to issues of form and process. This is the inverse to instances such as that when Louis Sullivan (of about the same generation as Wagner), was called into some mid-west town to design a new bank and sat on the kerb by the site for a couple of days before rushing into the client’s premises, grabbing some office paper and setting down the entire scheme and its principal details in one go.
Every architectural project is answerable to this good of ‘need,’ but its situated identification and service often serves as an intermediary to a focus upon other, more abstract goods such as money, power and status – which can then be re-particularised, according to inclination. It’s a fascinating game which, depending upon your viewpoint, can be construed in terms of harvesting or redistribution, but which invariably leaves Wagner’s ‘need,’ in itself, as peculiarly stripped of a certain pregnancy he had intended to acknowledge. The focus shifts to the character of need as prompt to effecting means to ends which become ends in themselves … and so it goes around. However, this not only leaves ‘the need’ (whatever it might be) somewhat dangling in the breeze, as if it were an incidental consideration, but continues neglect of a third consideration lying in the shadows to which it has been already confined: a corresponding aspect to this issue of ‘need’ focused upon those individuals appraising, evaluating and determining what the need is and how it should be addressed.
Wagner, in other words, was implicitly referring us to what concerns our flourishing – here, now, in this situation and circumstance. Like so many principles, it is one that we are likely to readily agree with; however, we are almost certain to disagree upon its particular, interpreted character and upon how it should be addressed, if only because the identification of ‘the need’ is not only a situated issue, but because its determination is crucially dependent upon the character of the architects Wagner was himself addressing.
Just as we are unlikely to disagree about flourishing, we are unlikely to disagree about the virtue of architectural modes of understanding that are perspicacious and penetrate to the essential issues at hand. This is what arché-tectonics are all about (those premises in which architecture grounds it legitimations). However, we are in dangerous territory if we neglect to attend to how this perspicacity is framed and informed.
Of a younger generation than Wagner and Sullivan, Le Corbusier once dealt with this in terms that they would have found familiar: of ‘eyes that see’ – eyes which, by implication, are set in contrast to eyes which don’t ‘see.’ Obviously, he included himself in the former privileged grouping. However, a student of architecture might be expected to retort: How do we learn to ‘see’? Who sees? According to which set of values and concerns?
As we know and will, no doubt, also agree upon, Wagner and Sullivan and Corbusier belonged to a class of genius peculiarly adept at playing this game. Another architectural genius, Adolf Loos, followed in the footsteps of Wagner and became notable by expressing ‘need’ in terms of a via negativa that scandalously stripped away ‘ornament’ – a word that needs to be hermeneutically appreciated, referring to all that is inessential. Loos thus turned attentions toward what Reyner Banham equally scandalously declared to be the primacy of a kind of intelligence over and above stylistic concerns.
By framing the issue of need in these terms we move the centre of gravity of the discourse, enabling us to acknowledge it as a variant upon an age-old issue Aristotle denominated as phronesis, or practical wisdom (another term as simple and succinct as ‘need,’ that is similarly in need of exegesis). For an educationalist addressing his or her students (whether this be a Soane at the Royal Academy, Wagner in the Viennese Academy of the Hapsburg Empire, or any of thousands of design tutors in contemporary schools of architecture around the world) the concern shifts to inculcating a sensibility that is genuinely more perspicacious whilst served by professional expertise and a sensitivity toward what (rather ill-advisedly) Wren sought to sideline as Customary concerns.
The issue is inherently ultimately one of character and what Alasdair MacIntyre called the capabilities of the architect as an ‘independent practical reasoner’ (who is, simultaneously, always conscious of his or her social dependencies). In other words, Wagner’s ‘need’ can only be properly dealt with by competent architects who have matured in accord with a deep appreciation of human needs, now mediated through a specific body of vocational concerns.
Such a virtue can only be inculcated indirectly and, self-evidently, only by those already possessing it.
Wagner may have been ostensibly orienting his students to something out there, something raw and exciting and a stimulus to a novel and genuine creativity, but one hopes he was looking them directly in the eye whilst he proffered this advocation.