Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Feeling the quality of Irish imports …
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.)