Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Monthly Archives: May 2012
May 27, 2012Posted by on
All around, people looking half dead
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head…“
It’s weird in London at the moment. I’ve just finished reading a Sunday newspaper whose news ranges from ‘toxic conditions’ on UK high streets to more UK politicians up to their necks in corruption (‘Whoops – apologies: it was merely an oversight …’) to how truly bad the economy is, the imminence of another bout of ‘quantitative easing,’ anti-monarchist protests regarding next week’s Jubilee celebrations, the Greek issue and thousands of Germans not going there this year for their holidays … and, of course, endless Olympics hype …etc….
And then there is this week’s trade papers telling us that the average UK architectural practice is making a profit of 23%. Pretty good, eh? Not 3%, but 23%. Average. However, talk to architects and you’ll probably find them universally sobbing into their proscecco. Mutter about ‘design and build,’ and they roll their eyes, tears rolling down their cheeks at the humiliation and lost opportunities …
Whatever … the sun is shining and it’s hot and Hampstead Heath has been packed this weekend. So, we did our bit out there and, as it headed for late afternoon, got guilty about the sun cancer and climbed into our car in order to whip down to south London and see some housing.
Housing. Yes, London has an enormous shortage. Developers who can get their hands on the capital are it it wherever they can. Those who can’t are still cobbling together sufficient funds enabling them to employ architects to get planning permission. They moan about fees levels, but one can;t feel sorry for them with profits at an average of over 20%.
Where to? Two schemes: one by a firm I hadn’t heard of until recently and another by a firm that is a quite familiar name: respectively, Metaphorm and Egret West.
Metaphorm’s housing scheme is located in the Elephant & Castle area, as a feature of a broad programme that includes the demolition of something called the Heygate Estate. If you’ve got social problems then the answer is simple: ship them out, demolish the bugger’s housing (all 1260 units), replace it … with 3.330 new homes, of which (only) a quarter will be ‘affordable.’ Their site is at the end of a block and has given the opportunity to extend the existing typology of standard Victorian terrace houses with twinned, five-storey apartment blocks. And they’ve done it well.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this standard budget, design ‘n’ build scheme is that the architects have managed to introduce some unorthodox features , notably a wavy street edge that enables some some trees and the provision of some concrete sitting for the locals. Simple but nice.
Not only that, but they have faced this facade in hexagonal tiles that grade across a sunny colour spectrum.
It’s all rather nice, if perhaps a little excited and overworked.
What is also refreshing is to see that the plans provide only two apartments per floor in each block, accessed from a central ‘cleavage’ that leads to the lifts and stairs. One wishes that more London developments were of this scale – relatively dense, yes, but still of a size that fits relatively comfortably into the existing urban fabric (unlike the Heygate Estate).
Refreshing, on a hot day in the summer in the city …
(It’s hot. I need a drink. I’ll deal with the Egret West Library building in another blog!)
May 21, 2012Posted by on
(No, don’t get excited – this is about architecture, not whatever other kinds of wonderful Irish feelings that come to mind.)
When one meets with architectural quality there not much to say. In fact, saying much – anything at all – can ruin the experience. It just is … and one resorts to nods, winks, muttering, etc. Which is a good reason to go to buildings with a friend – one might similarly ‘meet with’ them in this language of nods, winks, hints and mutterings … Otherwise: shut up.
It’s the not-so-good that arouses verbose commentary on whether it is good or not, or what the balance is of good and bad and an inbetween. One is talking about feelings and, by definition, that is problematic. How does one communicate what is felt in terms of intelligible concepts? No, mutter grunt, … whatever; save the words.
Why does all this come to mind? Because the Photographer’s Gallery in central London (at the northern edge of Soho, just around the corner to a very nice facade by Amanda Levete and not far from the Apple store on Regent Street) has just reopened after extensive rebuilding works. And it’s terrific … That is, I feel it is … and I then rationalise this feeling.
OK, so what did I like about it?
I have no idea and yet every certainty. The moment I saw the work I knew this was ‘quality’ and I went forward hoping I wasn’t going to be contradicted. I wasn’t. Sure, apparently it has lots of budget problems, but it doesn’t show. Perhaps it will when I visit again.
What do you want me to say? It has presence. It rewards examination and a walk-through experience. It feels as if its flourishing and that visitors are enjoying it. It has fascinating linkages between the interior and what is outside, especially on the upper gallery. I really enjoy the facade treatment. I like the equation of old and new. I like the building’s features (e.g. the ground floor set against that upper gallery, the one with the tall window). I like the detailing (e.g. on the stairs). The whole building exudes that mysterious quality of an acute architectural sensibility of caring.
Not every building one suspects will exhibit an architectural kind of goodness does this. A discriminating judgement is made before one is consciously aware of it and one can only hope that the sensuous reality will live up to first impressions. I wish I could explain this, but it’s impossible. One ‘smells’ it, one senses it, feels it…roughly, yes, sometimes incorrectly, yes, but one is usually on-target. Yes, I know this is weird: to celebrate a building by referring to one’s own feelings and implicit judgements, but that’s the point … It’s on this basis that one ‘meets with’ a building. There’s a connection at a prepredicative level. And if the building is genuinely good and withstands a more rational criticism, then this felt basis of appraisal holds itself in place. If it doesn’t, well … And it’s true: one’s feelings are sometimes contradicted, one is disappointed by a full experience. (Philosophically, you have to refer to Ernst Cassirer. He’s the only philosopher who attempts to properly address this topic. also, Peirce, a bit; Merleau-Ponty, almost …)
In the words of the architects (O’Donnell & Tuomey, of Dublin): “The [original] brick-warehouse steel-frame building is extended to minimise the increase in load on the existing structure and foundations. This extended volume houses large gallery spaces. A close control gallery is located within the fabric of the existing building. The lightweight extension is clad in a dark rendered surface that steps forward from the face of the existing brickwork. The street front café is finished with black polished terrazzo. Untreated hardwood timber framed elements are detailed to slide into the wall thickness flush with the rendered surface. The composition and detail of the hardwood screens and new openings give a crafted character to the façade.”
Why was I mildly gobsmacked? In part because there is a lack of such quality in London, especially at a publically accessible level. And – blessed relief – it’s not some grand corporate exercise by yet another ‘starchitect’ working for a City bank or developer. On top of which, the Gallery currently has a fine exhibition of photos by Edward Burtynsky!
All in all it was a terrific and quick architectural outing. I can’t wait for their LSE building to be completed.
(Incidentally, the director of the Gallery, Brett Rogers, apparently claims that a cross-section of London art and photography students was recently calculated to be looking at 6,000-7,000 images each day on phones, laptops, iPads etc.)
May 20, 2012Posted by on
I want someone out there to tell me something: is it true that the Brits are truly dreary when it comes to actually looking at architecture, at experiencing the thing in itself?
I don’t know that anyone has properly researched this topic, but many European offices are keen to take their offices out and about. The reasons are obvious and, of course, include team-bonding and the like. But simply experiencing architecture elsewhere and learning from other works and other architects in other countries is fundamental.
I know this. I’ve met with hundreds of them.
However, if you asked my opinion I’d have to say that the Brits are truly mean when it comes to such things. They don’t do it. Yes, sure some do, sometimes, but most don’t for most of the time. (By the way, I am English!)
They’ll give you plenty of excuses, but there was a period in the UK between about 1994/5 and 2008/9 when the profession and its members had never had it so good. Work came in through the door and architects were well-rewarded. The profession had never known such a prosperous period. But offices still didn’t cultivate a habit of regularly heading off with their staff to somewhere else out there … Or perhaps I just didn’t hear about it. (They didn’t produce a surfeit of good works in London, either!)
There are exceptions. I’ve heard of them. Rumours get around. I even experienced dRMM in Porto. They were most embarrassed to find other Londoners on the same beach as them, looking at an old Siza building. We sized one another up, exchanged grunts and moved on … There was even an occasion when we met with a couple (rather than the whole office) in Zumthor’s swimming baths at Vals … Can I think of a third example outside of Venice during the Biennale or at the Milan furniture Fair or at Mipim at Cannes … ? Not really. Mind, I did once take a large group from a London office around … yes, London! Or perhaps I have a poor memory; who knows …
Certainly, schools of architecture have developed a tradition of doing it over the last few decades, but when the UK student has such hefty fees, Mum and Dad aren’t likely to keep forking out money to pay their son or daughter’s tutors to get a freebie abroad. And, somehow, the habit doesn’t stick.
My wife, Victoria Thornton, used to regularly take British architects abroad, but she started because, after working at the RIBA, she had learned that they simply don’t do it. So she set up regular tours all over the world … Hell, I even got to Cairo as a birthday present, except there had to be 25 other people with me (and most of them were the same ones that had come to Vienna a few months earlier)! Her first guide was Bob Allies (Allies & Morrison) and a later regular was Mark Burry (at RMIT), both taking architects to see the works of someone no on had heard of: Gaudi. And it could be fun (e.g., with Monica Pidgeon, former notable editor of Architectural Design, knocking on office doors in California and Switzerland, to then find the red carpet rolled out for her (and us) …
So you tell me: is it true that the Brits prefer a mediated experience, i.e., photos in magazines and books? And what about offices in other countries– what’s your experience?
May 20, 2012Posted by on
Just to add to the previous blog: another Olympic viewpoint …. I empathise with the sentiment.
May 20, 2012Posted by on
Bridget who? She’s an ageing and famous English artist known for he ‘optical’ productions and, to tell the truth, they don’t interest me that much. Nevertheless, it was interesting to come across the entrance to her studio when prowling around a place nick0named ‘Fish Island,’ a place adjacent to the Olympic Park (on its west side and now, believe it or not, designated as a Conservation Area).
It’s industrial and was cheap ‘n’ cheerful. Artists moved in a few years ago and, predictably, the developers have followed, especially give the Olympics and the general regeneration policy in the area. And so, it’s changing around there …
The nicest part of this area is called Old Ford Lock – a lock on the River Lea, which runs from somewhere way out north of London, down through the Lea Valley to the River Thames.
I can’t even recall why were were there. I hate going anywhere near the Olympics Park … On the other hand, this fringe area is sane, human, where real life is … Yes, I know its odd to refer to such a place in such terms, but the Olympics hype drives me mad.
Anyway, here we were, seeing what new works had taken place in order to sanitise the area for the odd Olympics visitor who might stray over in this direction, and we discovered that one of the warehouses next to the Lock had already been tackled.
OK, the rents will go up, many of the artists will be driven out, etc., but at least there was wit to this particular redevelopment. To me, it was a breath of fresh air (yes, again, I know, a weird thing to say about this part of London )… but London is very short on decent architecture.
The Planning Application told me that: “The site itself is dominated by a three storey Victorian stable block and a mid-twentieth century warehouse extension. Within the site, a triangular courtyard contains various informal lean-to structures and a storage building. The site fronts the River Lea downstream of Old Ford Lock and has a direct viewline to the Olympic Stadium. … The application seeks planning permission for a temporary change of use to a sui generis hospitality venue for the duration of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The capacity of the venue is proposed for up to 3750 people over a period from 0800 to 0400. Works to the buildings involve the restoration of historic structures and some works to facilitate new openings in buildings for access and viewing.
3750? ‘Hospitality venue’? Well, OK, I don’t know what that means, but it will have “340 staff at any one time and it is expected that the venue will attract a maximum of 6,470 visitors per day.” And it seems there will be a 24hr water taxi (‘Water Chariots’) from the Limehouse Basin, on the Thames (a 40minute ride). No, don’t rush to book: it will cost something like £90 for that ride.
Meanwhile, I quite like what the developers are doing with the building. Who’s the architect. We think it is Bob McDonald’s firm RMA. Certainly, they did all the planning applications.
So what should we get excited? Well, I’m bored with all that ‘bog project / star architect’ stuff. London is supposed to be a creative city, but you wouldn’t know it by chasing up its architecture. However, I do admit: this project is a peculiar mix of to-down / bottom up thinking. The scheme is meant to be a magnet for Olympic Park visitors, but sounds as if the intention is going to be a much longer life as a late-night destination. Hell, whatever: I just like Bob’s retention of this absurd projecting steel structure… And then he told me that the whole thing is an eight-week pop-up just5 for the Olympics period!
May 17, 2012Posted by on
I like the way that Arthur Schopenhauer charactertises mankind as a lame child sat upon the shoulders of a blind man, stumbling along … I thought I’d try and draw this, but it turned out to be, ‘Hey, Dad, is that architecture over there …?’
But it reminded me of a what I believe was one of the last piece Reyner Banham wrote, when he was ill with cancer. It was published over two years after his death, in late 1990, in New Statesman & Society, entitled A Black Box: the secret profession of architecture.
It’s a peculiar piece, pained and confused. He opens it by telling us that Hawksmoor created great architecture, but Wren, his teacher, did not. He then remarks that a commonplace reliance upon architectural erudition, as practised by the likes of Jencks, Venturi, et al, (this was 1990, remember), “leaves postmodernism in the same relation to architecture as female impersonation to femininity. It is not architecture, but building in drag.”
Ouch. Literally pained he may have been, but Banham had lost none of his usual wit and bite. He then pointed out that good architecture has nothing to do with good design, but this raises an issue: So what is architecture? And wherein lies its goodness?
Architecture, Banham, quips, is a prestigious modo architectorum, a strangely privileged cultural entity. It certainly has nothing to do with what it does (there is nothing special or unique in that quarter), and everything to do with how it does it. For example, they nobly take full responsibilty for the whole of a building design. What makes an architect is best revealed by an anecdote – and here Banham repeats an old joke about : “the architect who, when asked for a pencil that could be used to tighten the tourniquet on the limb of a person bleeding to death in the street, carefully enquired ‘Will a 2B do?”‘Architects are weird. And they have weird values, as exhibited by an attitude to engineering that (as with Rogers’ Lloyds building) exhibits a “pickiness over details that shows up in engineering only when a total stranger wanders in from another field, as did Henry Royce or Ettore Bugatti the the early days of the automobile.”
Banham then quotes something he once overheard in a pressured office, during the early 1970s: someone was told to “forget all that environmental stuff and get on with the architecture.” Get on with it? With what? What is this ‘architecture’ that the man in the office was asked to ‘get on with’? To confront architecture and architect, in other words, is akin to being faced with a proverbial black box.
Looking for clues to what goes in inside this box, he argues that a key to student success has always been to draw in the right manner; drawing improperly will ensure failure. Drawing, decides Banham, is a clue: being unable to think without drawing is “the true mark of one fully socialised into the profession” and “submission to the unspoken codes of a secret society.” Wren knew this and “tried to teach himself architecture out of books, like a postmodernist, but never gained entry to the inner sancta of its art or mystery.”
He then turns to Christopher Alexander and his ‘pattern language’ (it was then quite fashionable). Significant form, Alexander had argued, not only exhibits knowledge of what it is, how it is used and made, etc., but “there is an imperative aspect to the pattern … it is a desirable pattern … [the architect] must create this pattern in order to maintain a stable and healthy world.” ‘A desirable pattern’? It has moral force; it is the right way to do this kind of thing. Hawksmoor appears to have understood; Wren did not. The west front of St Paul’s is marvellous urban scenography, but it is not architecture.
So what, one wonders, does Banham think that architecture is? How does one recognise it? What value does it have? Surely, Banham argues, what makes his work valuable can be demystified. Surely the code can be broken and its inner truths exposed? Here, as with Hawksmoor, we are offered Mies – a ‘true insider’ whose genius is buried under rationalisations that obscures his skills as an architect. But what do we mean? Banham has no idea; architecture is an arcane code, a tradition bound to the Mediterranean basin and its classical traditions. Gothic and the Hi-tech appear to be on its fringes, if classifiable as ‘architecture’ at all. And, certainly, cramming the whole of the globe’s ordinary building practices within its categorical tradition appears to be misguided.
So, should we open the box to ‘the profane and vulgar’? This, suggests Banham, might risk destroying what architecture is. It might lay architecture open to the suspicion that “there may be nothing at all inside the black box except a mystery for its own sake.” And he gives up.
It’s a strange piece. Building is contrasted to architecture, but the difference is not defined. Wren is contrasted with Hawksmoor, but that difference is also not defined. It’s all a bit like Koolhaas condemning Junkspace without explaining what the implied contrast is.
As a value, Banham seems able to recognise something and praise it (as authored by Hawksmoor and Mies). But he has no idea what ‘it’ is. And, whatever it is, it is distinct from good (intelligent) design. He seems persuaded that this value is, as once famously argued by Clive Bell, something to do with ‘significant form,’ but he remains suspicious. He suspects drawing has something to do with the creativity involved, but is not sure … He accepts that a process of initiation is important, but can’t identify what is going on there any more than he can get into the black box. He acknowledges the importance of a tradition of discourse, and yet sees it as anachronistic.
Overall, it is a rather sad essay. At the end of a life given over to architecture and having expressed huge enjoyment in this play, Banham was confessing to a core exasperation. That, in itself, is remarkable. It is also interesting that Banham frames the issue of what architecture is in terms of what it means to be an architect – to be that kind of individual who, inarticulate as he or she might be, is expressively within a certain discourse …
And that brings me to a worthy current ‘campaign’ running in the Architectural Review entitled The Big Rethink (written by Peter Buchanan). No, don’t rush to it. It’s interesting, but is familiar territory that underscores the above point: architecture has little to do with what it does, and everything to do with how it does it. And that brings us to the character of the architect as well as his or her professional skills.
For example, Buchanan laments that, “architects seem to have become incapable of producing the cheap, plain buildings with a quiet, unobtrusive dignity that were once commonplace …” (Was it?) Citing the likes of Foster (!) the contrast is what he refers to a ‘mature modernism’ whose author’s works “display an admirable breadth of design concerns, responding to history and context, and are aptly inventive (without being contrived) formally and technically as well as in social organisation and environmental strategies.” What he dislikes is the opposite: works that, in effect, he deems to be inappropriate, ill-judged, crass, insensitive, philistine … etc.
In sum, what Buchanan celebrates and criticises are the products of character, outlook and values as the key informants of architectural form. Like Banham, he wants the ‘real’ thing and not a parody, not ‘building in drag.’
One is not in disagreement. However, an anxiety arises from the feeling that Buchanan fails to take on the challenge that sits upon our faces: the cliché of the digital revolution that has overtaken the profession during past twenty to thirty years (complemented by a corresponding constructive capability facilitated by digital technologies). Computers (affordable desktops weren’t around until the late ’80s and not ubiquitous in offices until the mid ’90s) and decent software packages are still relatively new (I know: the later remains an issue, but gets hugely better all the time). We keep forgetting all this, and yet grey-beards such as Buchanan (and me) should be acutely aware of it all.
These changes have made formal plays with complex geometries (of the kind pioneered by Mark Burry et al) into something relatively easy to handle (Mark, I am sure, would hesitate before agreeing with that comment, perhaps muttering about the importance of scripting experiences …). Architects are no longer bound to Euclidian geometries and neo-Platonic derivatives of the kind that fascinated the likes of Le Corbusier, or the more simple non-Euclidian derivatives such as the hyperbolic paraboloids garage forecourt roof recently listed in the UK.
One senses that Buchanan fails to direct his attentions to the core of these current issues and to locate those human failures of discrimination, judgement and commitments which concern him within a current body of discourse and education. He longs for reasurances, but finds too much indiscriminate, neglectful and egocentric playfulness. He’s probably right. However, as ever, we all agree upon the generalities of principle but find ourselves in contention when it comes to particulars.
Perhaps Banham would not have made the same error. He might still have muttered sceptically and acerbically about a tradition of secrets and black boxes, but would surely have surprised, amused and engaged us with anecdotes concerning a current vitality that has no more or less silly aspects to it than the grand neo-Platonic tradition on which European architecture founds itself and is still haunted by.
“Numbers, they tell me: numbers, as ratio or parametrics or whatever … it’s all the same: architecture, son, architecture … Chuck in a a bit of Veblen and Bataille and you’ve caught the generality of the thing … Put the Black Keys on the headphones, will you?”
May 15, 2012Posted by on
I thought someone might like this (courtesy of UCL, Centre For Advanced Spatial Analysis):
Source code: https://github.com/jawj/pigeonsim
And here’s another, this time using the notion of city flows as the blood streams of a pulsing beast …It depicts the London Underground network as a set of arteries that thicken as passenger volumes passing through the network increase.
Here is another mapping of traffic flows (you will find you need full screen to see anything much):
This is a nice one showing Boris Bike activity (click on ‘animation’ when the page opens, then on ‘start animation’)
And how about Tokyo growth in terms of slime mould?
May 14, 2012Posted by on
The arrival of a femme fatale
I can’t recall when I first came across Henrik Ibsen’s Masterbuilder … It was as a script rather than a performance; and somehow performances that I’ve seen will never quite fit my image of the central characters: the weepy, damaged and fragile housewife; the young, discontent and ambitious architectural apprentice; a groin-stirring vivacious femme fatale; and the central character: a philandering, middle-aged architect whose career success is coloured by anxiety.
Halvard Solness’s discontent is on every front: with his disturbed wife, his ambitious employee, and with a career that, although successful, is as middling as his class status and his own age: an architect who has ‘been there; done that,’ seen it all and is yet cursed with an inferiority complex: he didn’t go to the academy. Survival, yes; success, yes, significance, perhaps not.
Into the life of this provincial story steps a fateful young woman – not only a femme fatale, but an enchantress and a muse. And she comes to make a claim.
It seems that, some years ago, when this woman was a precocious fourteen-year old girl, she watched Solness climb to the top of a newly-constructed church steep and shout his success – and, as she put it, she heard ‘harps in the air.’ Somehow, in what one imagines to be the alcohol-fueled celebratory aftermath of this exhilerating experience, Solness meets with the girl and, hints Ibsen, enjoys a sexual adventure that ends (or begins?) with a promise to one day build for her ‘castles in the sky.’
When Hilda eventually turns up to make her claim, Solness, of course, has no recall of the escapade. However, he is soon utterly capitivated. They plan to elope; his life is to be turned upside down and she is to get her castles in the air.
In essence, this is a not unfamiliar story, played out in a thousand and one variations in many an architectural office every day. However, before you blush, let me complete this tale.
Hilda issues a challenge. She wants Solness to prove the recovery of a re-found manhood and, more especially, his valour and daring: she wants him to climb the tower of his nearly completed new house. The occasion is a traditional topping-out ceremony, as at the church steeple, but Solness is terrified. He has accomplished this once and didn’t intend doing it again. However, Hilda is insistent and Solness rises to the challenge. (Sorry, it’s difficult to avoid the sexual symbolism.)
The point in all this is not just daring or foolhardiness, but that, when Solness climbed the church steeple he had, high up there, shouted angry defiance at his God. This is what Hilda heard as ‘harps in the air.’ Now, he was to do it again, but instead of renouncing church building in lieu of secular work, he is renouncing his bourgeois existence.
And so he climbs. Wife and community are horrified; the architectural apprentice can’t believe it; Hilda is exultant. As he reaches the top and shouts, she waves he shawl in the air and there is a hint that this is what makes him fall from the scaffolding … Meanwhile, Hilda remains exultant midst expressions of horror all around her: “But he mounted right to the top. And I heard harps in the air.”
The import of Fortezza
It has always seemed to me that, when Solness shouts, he is protesting at fateful determinations. And, in turn, I imagine his God shouting back: ‘Right on, my man … Way to go!,’ and then winking at Hilda: ‘Job well done, girl …’ This is not, in other words, a scenario such as that painted by Michelangelo, in which God benignly reaches across a loving and helpful hand to a laid-back Adam. Gamesmanship is involved.
And this brings me to a similar kind of tale that belongs to the Italian Renaissance. In 1501, Lucrezia Borgia married Alfonso d’Este and, at their marriage, a pageant was performed called a Battle between Fortuna and Hercules. In this, Juno send Fortune to do battle with her enemy Hercules, but she is overpowered and chained up. Juno has to plead for her freedom, which is finally given on the promise that the houses of Borgia and Este will henceforth be favoured.
Apparently many variations on this scenario were played out during the Renaissance. In a story from Giordano Bruno, for example, Fortuna is allowed to go anywhere she pleases, but she is denied her claim of Hercules’ place among the Olympian gods. Hercules is Valour, and where truth, law and right judgement are to reign, Valour (Fortezza) must be present. It is, as Ernst Cassirer puts it (cf. The Individual and The Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy), “the palladium of every other virtue, the shield of justice and the tower of truth.”
Well, Solness hadn’t quite got there yet, but at least he had discovered the daring upon which valour is premised. Without that daring, Ibsen implies, there can be no ‘castles in the air.’
This has always seemed to me to be a simple truth of architectural practice. We censor our own potentialities, we gate ourselves off from true creative daring, indulge in substitutes and parodies, and bind ourselves with a thousand tiny entwined ropes.
One has to dare to be creative. But one can’t do so abstractly; one does so as a situational response, as if to respond to a call or claim that is being made upon one. Such a claim may be laid upon us at any time and place – Fortuna pops up, slaps down a claim and, usually, we’re too sleepy to notice; too habit bound and witless to be able to aptly respond, at that moment; too afraid to break out and dare to think and do. Nor is one talking about dramatic situations; Hilda’s claims might be laid down quietly, surreptiously, slid into the familiar everyday situations with a mischievous grin …
And perhaps there is another, rather obvious message in Ibsen’s drama. Our Muse, the bearer of the claim, is given to us as a femme fatale. She is dangerous. She has the task of seducing us out of our slumbers and timidity, of stirring us into a territory of potentially that, however, should bear a health-warning sign. In the case of Solness, arousal leaves family devastation, career neglect and communal shock behind him. And for what? Pointedly, for ‘castles in the air.’ He has exercised a death wish and the outcome is predictable. On the other hand …
A lesson learned?
In my own re-write of The Masterbuilder, Aristotle would, at this point, enter from stage left, probably accompanied by a spontaneous groan from the audience. The spell would have been broken. And he’d turn to it and condescendingly ask, “Well, what do you think the lesson was? What do you think Solness should have done?”
And the audience would collectively moan: ‘The Mean … He should’ve taken the Mean …’
Aristotle would be surprised and somewhat disconcerted, but he’d be pleased. “Ehmm, quite. Very good … Yes, exactly: he should have taken the Mean … But what does that mean? Sorry, ehmm, you know what I mean … I mean …” And everyone would groan again and start muttering to one another and shifting about.
“No, no, seriously: what should he have done? It’s important.”
The audience would start to break up and leave. And the actor playing Solness would come forward and shout angrily at the Aristotle and the Director, ‘I told you this wouldn’t bloody work. I told you!”
Meanwhile, Aristotle would be still muttering to a receding audience: “But it’s a serious question: what should he have done? Bourgeois life on the one hand and castles in the air on the other … Grumpy ageing wife or vivacious femme fatale …”
Much later, in an empty theatre, he would be found disconsolately sitting on a darkened stage, head in hands, while an aged cleaner applied a broom to the boards around him … And he would still be muttering, now to himself, ‘What should he have done …? Valour, on its own, isn’t sufficient … What …what should he have done?”
And then perhaps a young woman would silently enter upon the stage … Who is she? Who is this strange woman whose beauty and vivacity would make men shudder if they but knew her game?
A postscript: Both the Greek Muses and Sirens were enchanting songresses, However, while the former (the daughters of Zeus by Mnemosyne) were divine inspirers of posey, the latter charmed only to destroy. This leaves Hilda Wangel in a strange role characteristic of noir fiction: the coincidental meeting; love at first sight; tragedy in the offing … As one academic puts it: “She [the femme fatale] knows all along that she is fated and can, therefore, turn what is inevitable into a source of power. Indeed, the classic femme fatale has enjoyed such popularity because she is not only sexually uninhibited, but also unabashedly independent and ruthlessly ambitious, using her seductive charms and her intelligence to liberate herself [...] Furthermore, though she gains power over the noir hero by nourishing his sexual fantasies, her own interest is only superficially erotic. She entertains a narcissistic pleasure at the deployment of her own ability to dupe the men who fall for her, even as she is merciless in manipulating them for her own ends. Duplicity thus emerges as her most seminal value, insofar as she is not simply willing to delude anyone in order to get the money and the freedom she is after, but because she will never show her true intentions to anyone, especially not the hero she has inveigled, even if this entails not only his death but also her own. [...] [H]er desire for freedom as attainable only in death. At the same time, in that she uses her seductive to lead the noir hero from the sunlit exterior into a nocturnal world of transgressions, betrayals, and, ultimately, his demise, she also embodies the death drive, albeit in a highly ambivalent manner. On the one hand, one could speak of her as a figure of male fantasy, articulating both a fascination for the sexually aggressive woman, as well as anxieties about feminine domination. [...] On the other hand, the femme fatale is more than simply a symptom of the hero’s erotic ambivalence. She sustains his self delusion, but also gives voice to a feminine desire that may include him in order to attain its aim, but also exceeds his fantasy realm. [...] [S]he can be understood as moving towards an ethical act meant to radically undercut the blindness of self-preservation her lover seeks to entertain at all costs.” Etc. (Elisabeth Bronfen, Femme Fatale: Negotiations of Tragic Desire, 2004)
But Hilda Wangel is more than this. She is a figure who returns us to myth and the play of the gods, as if a messenger and teacher who lifts the life of Solness from out of its own deceptions and, at the price of death, brings him a redemption and salvation for which, peculiarly, she also pays a heavy price (what next …?). Strangely, valour is not an issue for her. But, for Solness, the practical judgment that one imagines Aristotle calling him to practice demanded that he should first learn to exercise this virtue.
May 11, 2012Posted by on
I mentioned my friend Chall in an earlier mail (Open House Roma). Well, as his train heads northward through Europe our occasional email correspondence has continued. Milan, it seems, has been an unexpected pleasure. The Academy let him drop into life-drawing class … Happiness is …
In between that kind of chit-chat we discursively fenced with one another regarding some familiar old topics. Some were rather old. Very old.
As a young post-grad artist from St Martins, sucking on the blue Gauloises (which, I confess, we both enjoyed), Chall made a notable photograph for Keith Critchlow that is still reproduced, usually accompanied by contention: five Neolithic Scottish stone balls.
The claim (made in Critchlow’s's book, Time Stands Still: New Light on Megalithic Science (1979)), was that neolithic culture may have been more advanced than had been previously appreciated. In Chall’s words: “… it’s the finding of the dodeca stone ball that’s caused the fuss … It implies the discovery of the golden mean and ‘irrational’ numbers – like pi and root 2 and 3 – that occur in the form and behaviour of all living organisms in the universe from galactic spirals to the Fibonacci series, which are considered integral to our definition of Life … All living organism number is expressed in the dodecahedron as all of space can be defined by only 12 Great Circle divisions. Five Platonic solids – all symmetrical and all described by the intersection of twelve equal circles that transcribe a sphere are all the elements required to describe and understand how space works. … If we wanted to understand the nature of how space behaves then these are the building blocks. And these are controlled by a numerical sequence that cannot be resolved – another way of describing infinity.”
To say Keith and Chall’s claim has been contentious would be an understatement. Becasue of issue concerning the last of the two balls in the photo they have been accused of concocting a hoax – not a possible misreading, but a hoax.
If you knew these two characters you would appreciate that the fabrication of a hoax is not merely unlikely, but so offensive that their blood boils in indignation. When the accusation was first made – to their faces – it was a long time ago and much time has passed … Except that the contention continues on web pages. Why, it is argued, did Chall not record the catalogue numbers of the balls? where are they now? Why? Because Chall has never claimed the pretension of being a scholar rather than an enthusiastic co-worker who had a background in performance art at St Martin’s, someone assisting his mentor in a fringe arena of enquiry. It’s a familiar story: someone sees things in a different way, breaks out of the orthodoxy … It happens all the time, but there are always a lot of vested interests at stake.
Within the deep dark heart of this discourse is, of course, the search for meaning: an anxiety concerning the most fundamental aspects of that meaning and an aspiration to ‘come home’ in the sense of concocting, not a hoax, but a place of deliverance, resolution and reassurance. Of peace. In this syndrome something is lost: God, self, knowledge of the underlying patternings of a designed universe … and is to be refound. In Platonic terms, this is a re-membering: we are reunited, made into a whole body again. In Christian terms we are saved. We all suffer this malady, and there isn’t any cure. Collectively, we stand on the station platform, getting onto this or that train, wondering which one to board, wondering why the intended one is late … and we watch sometimes bewildered passengers (occasionally with entourages) alighting in bemusement that this is where they started a long time ago.
Anyway, that is not my real point here.
My bottom-line is that, believe it or not, although I am intrigued, I’m relatively indifferent to this debate. For me, it comes too close to an even older pretension: access to an otherwise concealed knowledge and the benefits thus to be derived. Most of architecture’s historic icons are embodiments of this value, viz good architecture as works of reassurance as well as commodity and delight. Thus the true, underlying issue within the discourse is possibly not knowledge per se but active intersubjective relations and power structures, especially in the guise of a priestly class among bodies of hunters and their women (the true bearers of culture!). Thorstein Veblen again comes to mind, referencing the meaning of conspicuous consumption, and also Bataille, with his references to the ritualistic principle of potlatch (though these outlooks upon creative endeavour hardly figure in discourse upon geometry in architecture).
My interest is particularly aroused by how such disclosures were played out during the European Renaissance, at the beginnings of modernism, when the likes of Copernicus and Kepler were manifesting a transition to new kinds of world-view that never quite left the old ones behind. (Yes, I am as intrigued by the notion of ‘roots’ to what we believe as anyone else …)
From this viewpoint I am, personally, not convinced that my friend Chall and his life-long mentor have really left this historic space of action, that they aren’t still rattling around in it (much to the delight of Critchlow’s biggest fan HRH Prince Charles, who walks in the gardens of Highgrove with courtiers who not only assure him of his Divine Right, but also that the masses are a herd suffering the laws of large numbers and awaiting his reign as a neo-Platonic philosopher king). Critchlow speaks, for example, of a lost inner (hermeneutic) knowledge and its replacement by exterior forms of knowledge, but this is really a way of contrasting what others have discussed in terms of a horizontal enquiry as opposed to a traditional vertical (or anagogical) enquiry. In fact, I doubt if his belief has altered since 1979, when he wrote of archetypal images as an a priori patterning which man should imitate: “Mankind confirms his own grounds for being by his capability of conceiving this archetypal pattern, and sustains his world by re-creating it in that world.” This is, in itself, a paradoxical message, as if mankind somehow stood outside of Creation or genuinely is ‘fallen’ and suffers a blindness which confirms a need to go ladder-climbing.
Well, I can be witness to my own irrational beliefs as well – a conviction that, much as I respect, this tradition and those who work in it, they’ve got it wrong. My preference is for Aristotle rather than Plato (philosphers tell us we all seem to end up on one side of the fence or the other). Whilst never denying the import of contemplation of the divine, to aristotle the Platonic notion of a reality beyond or outside of experience was rather absurd: being and becoming intermix and ultimately elude a definitiveness of rational grounding – that, for us, is the point. A realm of the Customary (as architects such as, in the C17th, Perrault and Wren termed it) may seemingly bind us and frustrate reason’s ‘freedoms’, but every lived freedom must forever determine solid ground for its feet and necessity (what the Renaissance dealt with as the principle of ‘sufficient reason’) as its telos. Even for the mature Plato of Phaedrus the intellect must be counterbalanced by Eros, by the passions and the actions inspired by them. As Martha Nussbaum puts it, “[w]e advance toward understanding by pursuing and attending to our complex appetitive/emotional responses to the beautiful; it would not have been accessible to the intellect alone.”
Etymologically, the word truth means ‘what is revealed or brought out from concealment’ and, as employed by Plato, referred to stable and privileged, unhypothetical viewpoint to be contrasted with normal human experience. For Aristotle, the latter, as phainomena or ‘appearances’, was a body of observed facts and opinions outside of which it is humanely impossible to stand. This may worry the Platonist, but Aristotle was referring us to the need, through intellectual habituation, to develop the nous, or perspicacity, which enables us to appreciate truth as what is inside the circle of experience, not outside, behind or beyond language and life. It is nous that enables us to get to the arché (root) or secure starting point, of how we must live with appearances and their challenges. The point was not to purchase a ticket on some express train to where things are more-real-than-real, but to stay on the platform and flourish by addressing demands for the exercise of practical wisdom. It was, as it were, to get horizontal and therein find whatever is vertical … Or whatever.
This vertical / horizontal juxtaposition was what the life and work of Johannes Kepler, for example, was all about. Unlike Fludd, Kepler was convinced that God’s design had to be verifiable: “What he [Fludd] borrows from the Ancients, I derive from the Nature of things, and I constitute it from its very foundations.” Nevertheless, this was quite a disturbing issue, one that Copernicus had instigated: a challenge to ‘speculative’ inquiry deriving from the implication that idealistic presumptions (usually anagogical, i.e.’ vertical’) might never correspond to what horizontal enquiry disclosed to be the case. Kepler, unfortunately, may have been stretching himself in both directions at once, but he was determined to proceed “according to the laws of Nature.” In place of Fludds’s neo-Kabbalistic ‘play’, Kepler commented that, “I play in such a way that i do not forget that i am playing. For we can prove nothing by symbols, we can discover no secret in natural philosophy by geometric symbols, unless they agree with established facts.” Ultimately, this (as pointed out by Fernand Hallyn, in The Poetic Structure of the world, a book I highly recommend) became a dissociation between form and image, between the tangible and the intelligible. Suddenly, it was as if the ‘monstrosity’ of the seen and experienced world could no longer be ‘saved.’ Fludd could no longer have the earth at the heart of a geocentric universe (earth, water, air, fire, etc, upward toward the angels and the divine); the sun was apparently at the centre. As Panofsky put it, “that which in the past had seemed unquestionable was thoroughly problematical: the relationship of the mind to reality as perceived by the senses.” How was one to deal with the semiotics of this new universe?
It is possible that we can no longer appreciate how disturbing all this was. As MacIntyre laments, we have swung to some opposite pole of belief, expressing (especially moral) beliefs that can find no rational foundation. Meanwhile, infinity is evermore important; it is crucial, for example, to the maths that keeps data flying around the internet. As with Levinson, even sceptical old Marxists such as Terry Eagleton now turn us toward an intersubjective caring for the Other in the form of another kind of infinity: love (cf. The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction).
Meanwhile, while mathematicians simply accept infinity and employ it, my friend finds his own kind of consolation in geometry and, in that, number and the mysterious incommensurables for which the ancient Greek who discovered them was reportedly taken out on a ship and thrown overboard … or was it some Neolithic genius? Infinity as geometry, love or a feature of some complex mathematical equation – I’m not sure it matters. We take different trains, leaving from different platforms .. and all seem to end up in the same place.