Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
April 4, 2013Posted by on
Well, kindof…The man I want to draw your attention to was called Stephen Pepper (http://people.sunyit.edu/~harrell/Pepper/Index.htm) – an American philosopher who died in 1972, some thirty years after he published a remarkable work called World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence. (And some seventy years after I discovered this notable work.) Such semi-totalistic theory has been unfashionable for some time, but watch for this one coming back (or just listen to any astro-physicist).
I no longer recall how I came across Pepper – one thing leads to another and one wakes up in another context – what is actually a rather Pepperian notion on the dangers courted by analyses. As ever, I was working on my ongoing book, Meetings With Buildings – a work ever in pursuit of its last edit. In this book one of the themes of my concerns is the comparative rarity of theory that doesn’t just analyse found phenomena but, inversely, seeks to address the mysteries of creativity. Pepper doesn’t quite do this, but he does provide sometime interesting theoretical handles that can be appropriated and used to advantage. Anyway, Stevie has become a current hero populating my personal Hall of Fame.
In a nutshell, Pepper offered us a review of four fundamental ‘root metaphors’ that we commonly employ as filters to look upon the world and in terms of which we construe what is before us. Four? Why not three or six? Because, argued Pepper, this is simply what this discourse seems to come down to: these four are, at the moment (still, in 2013), as good as it gets.
I found myself not only trying to understand Pepper but to translate what he contended were four ways of ‘seeing as …’ and ‘seeing that …’ into an architectural frame. So, here, for what it is worth, are my draft thoughts – taken out of context, as it were (sorry, Steve – I know that is an important issue), but hopefully thought provoking. Apologies in advance for the way the piece simply starts and ends, and is without accompanying notes. The mention of Aneurin Bevan refers to the ‘architect’ of the UK’s national Health System (discussed in the missing context of what I give below). And any vague references to phenomenology are deliberate, hinting at a later section of the book. The point I am making is that whatever an architecture is and however many varieties of architectures we can validly identify, the ways in which we ‘see as…’ and ‘see that …’ are what is most truly arché in the game. You can shift your theoretical and inclinational stance as much as you want, but to alter your ‘ways of seeing’ takes a heroic effort. We owe Pepper a debt for reminding us. As ever, considered comments are welcome.
Such notions of organism and mechanism were taken up by Stephen Pepper as two of what he contended were four fundamental and commonplace metaphors with which we construe the world and frame our actions. He calls these ‘root metaphors’ or “basic concrete standards of judgement and evaluation” enjoying “the highest available degree of structural corroboration,” viz., mechanism, formism, organicism, and contextualism. The inference we can draw is that architectures have disparate foundational levels of meaning preceding any particular action we take in forming them in particulars. However, I hope to indicate that Pepper’s scepticism toward the eclecticism of mixed metaphors may be less justified than he supposes, and that this is a commonplace of architectural endeavours. Whether this hobbles the discipline or not is a moot point.
To avoid rehearsing his entire argument but to illustrate its relevance to our enquiries we might begin by noting that the tradition of a concern with essences, typologies and the notion of necessity derives from a formist outlook rooted in an analytical but ‘dispersive’ metaphor of similarity. The notion that every doughnut participates in a class called doughnuts that exhibits a certain set of characteristics and, in turn, participates in a class called pastries (etc.) is formist. Similarly, architects often think in terms of formist typologies informing a set of building characteristic and their relations (tower-and-podium, or tower-and-piazza, for example). The underlying root metaphor is that of similarity and the hypothesis employed is analytical.
Neo-Platonic architecture takes up participation in similarity in a slightly different way: as a synthetic and integrative, organistic notion of correspondence that has a morphological and teleological basis. The neo-Platonist appreciates the illuminating informants of geometry and harmonised ratios constituted as a canon of re-membrance with eternal Ideas from which particularity has unfolded, step by step. In a neo-Platonic architectural work materiality brought into an essential kind of exhibitory correspondence aims to be an exemplary and disclosive manifestation of what is truly lawful within an existential region otherwise lacking in such evidence. The achievement is now a less compromised and more knowing particularity that more fully participates in the universal laws of geometry, number, ratio, harmony and hierarchy to which everyday ways of seeing are blinkered. Materiality has been lifted out of contingency and into the realm of law; cognitive understanding is lifted out of its temporally-bound historicity. An added degree of material coherence (as positive organic relatedness) is brought into the world.
A prime example is Christopher Wren’s design concern with what is Naturally and eternally lawful set against what is Arbitrary (can be this or that) in being Customary and bound to unreliable belief and opinion. In seeking to realise works as a form of shining corrrespondence between the truth of an ‘aboveness’ and a flawed ‘belowness’ Wren sought to effect an aspirational congruence. Unlike the issue of the essence of an oak tree and the manifold variants constituting particular examples resulting from the influences of history, location, soil type, etc., his endeavour was more akin to the tradition of portraiture in which the work purportedly ‘captures’ and discloses the essence of its referent in another, uniquely truthful particularity (the art-work). In Wren’s case that referent is Natural law, now made manifest in its truth and beauty. But, of course, there is an inherent difficulty involved: materiality is peculiarly resistant to being other than what it essentially is, just as a given sphere of action is not ony Customary, but subject to Fortuna’s whim. The achievements of Wren’s Classical edifices may be real but, as Bataille would have appreciated, their true reality and meaning is symbolic and authoritative. The work is raised up as a particularised holding pattern, but forever demands maintenance and renewal which merely underscores its apartness from that naturalness in which, as Pepper notes, “facts are not organised from without; they organise themselves.” However, the organicist‘s comprehenson is all too limited and existentially bound.
A degree of accommodation to this discomforting reality is facilitated by the formist notion of a ladder of comprehensible Ideas, Forms and essences: a ‘chain of being’ enabling the understanding to lend coherence to orders of difference and similarity, character and individuality. This notion of coherence as layered, interwoven and hierarchical ‘saves’ appearances by enabling us to bracket discrete sub-unities and address the issue of their external and internal relations whilst still clinging to the notion of a full and proper resolution in the Absolute. If we could ‘see’ the true coherence of a sub-unities then apparent ambiguities, inconsistencies and contradictions among the parts would be sufficiently resolved, even though our bracketing must also refer to issues contextural regions and horizons of phenomena. By looking to the whole and, to the degree we apprehend it, we are able to predict the characteristics of sub-system parts – as the educated eye does when it properly experiences a Palladian architecture. In referring to a beautiful architecture to which nothing could be added or taken away, Alberti was describing the ideal of an organistic whole.
However, the experience of a work is different to that work’s creation and organicism here creeps back in as the belief is that the channels of integration, “like the spouts of a fountain, serve best when they [individuals] interfere least and let the materials take the form implicit in them.” One hears an echo of this belief when Louis Kahn stood before a student body and asked what the brick he held in his hand ‘wanted to be.’ Project challenges are similarly dealt with: What, the creative enquirer sometimes asks, does the design solution ‘want to be.’ What it ‘should be’ or ‘is meant to be’ comes into being as a fusion of possibilities in a schematic nexus brought into being through the channelling agency of a human author. As Heidegger noted, we have to learn to ‘listen’ and to respond with ‘called thinking.’ Once there is an essential idea that appears as if it can serve as the root and foundation of further endeavours, it can be developed as an unfolding scheme that ‘naturally’ seeks particularity as a textural truth relative to the informing idea. This will reflect the organicist instinct that the significance of a fragment derives from knowing that part’s place within an overall, coherent system. It follows that most architects will seek to develop a scheme so that all its parts possess a participative integrity participating in and contributing to an overall qualitative coherence. Just as the whole gives meaning to the part, the latter will bear within itself some dimension of the qualitative whole (or, at least, not introduce a note of contradiction).
Other architects –perhaps in exasperation and acceptance at the limitations of their role and the limited comprehensibility of their understanding – might be inclined to move toward other metaphors. Like Peter Ackroyd they might write about cities such as London as if they possessed an animal life of their own; or perhaps they will turn to system dynamics and the self-organising patterns that emerge from complexity theory. Like Cedric Price they might embrace organicity in negative terms, dismissing all deliberative planning endeavour as delusory and doomed to miss its intended targets.
In contrast to Plato’s concern with Forms that are more real than real, Aristotle shifts concern with the experience of value away from the product at issue and focuses upon the human act of achievement. His version of Platonism is also synthetic, but now dispersive. It effects an interaction of Nature and the Customary, truth and contingency, as an existential ‘mean’ bound within its own historical situatedness and circumstantiality. That mean manifests as an agent’s deliberativeness and is embodied in a committed act now bound to contextural and circumstantial particulars as a more subtle form of necessity. If one reads into this a useful broadness of scope but an intrinsic lack of precision, Pepper would say that this is the point: dispersive ways of seeing suffer this difficulty. With regard to Aristotlian practical wisdom, for example, ‘the rule’ is everywhere and, exasperatingly, nowhere. It is more contexuralist than formist or organicist.
Translated into a decisional field of action Aristotle’s phronetic ‘rule’ manifests as a resolutional practical wisdom intrinsic to a challenging situation and circumstance. The integrative quality of this found-and-applied rule is effected as a vitalistic kind of ‘golden mean’ that is at once apt and accommodational, intended to be effective here and now but with reference to superordinate values. The point is not a formist canon of values that is found ‘Above’ and applied ‘Below,’ but an inversion that locates the qualities of that canon as an investment in the temporalised texture of situation and circumstance.
One of its key aspects is its mediation between a duality that is fundamental to the contexturalist experience: an event’s quality and its texture. Every event quality has texture and all textures have quality (the overall meaning of an event or its intuited wholeness), but quality is a categorical unity whereas an event’s texture is made up of what Pepper refers to as its constitutional ‘strands.’ Architecturally, these can be considered to be an architecture’s features, details and relations between these properties which are more or less fused together into a qualitative wholeness, but we must be careful in what we mean by these terms.
It is also important to note that the texture of a qualitative whole also lies within a context. And one can say much the same about a texture’s ‘strands.’ Thus contexturalism’s danger is that its analytical references will be endless:
“[T]here is no final or complete analysis of anything. The reason for this is that what is analysed is categorically an event, and the analysis of an event consists in the exhibition of its texture, and the exhibition of its texture is the discrimination of its strands, and the full discrimination of its strands is the exhibition of other textures in the context of the one being analysed – textures from which the strands of the texture being analysed gain part of their quality. In the extended analysis of any event we presently find ourselves in the context of that event, and so on from event to event as long as we wish to go, which would be forever or until we got tired.”
In order to offset this danger – and contrary to formism and mechanism, which proceed from the presumption that any event can be endlessly analysed – contexturalism is synthetically and integratively mindful of the need to impose limitations maintaining the quality of the event at issue. Otherwise we might sheer off, away from that event, its textures and strands. As Pepper notes, in contexturalism “The qualitative structure of an event is for that event final, whatever potentialities for the qualities of other events it may have within it.” This is an important aspect of architectural design that concerns attention to what is arché with respect to the discrete qualitative wholeness of a tectonic (found or intended). The alternative is to be drawn into all kinds of non-essential concerns and distractions – perhaps into ambiguities that good design avoids.
Being synthetic and integrative contexturalism looks for textural fusion among its strands. What Pepper sardonically refers to as an ‘aesthetic seizure’ is an example. However, it is more usual that we experience an architecture in terms of degrees of tightening and loosening that enables us to distinguish a texture’s strands. The contexturalist’s focus will be upon the event as what is historically going on now – what entails the presumption of constant change and novelty, but what also adumbrates a pertinent past and future around about and within the wholeness of a qualitative presentness. For example, experience of an architectural work will continually shift from the qualitative whole to the textural strands: a to-and-fro ‘spread’ from the qualities of parts to the quality of the whole, so that one’s experience will recall the immediate past and anticipate the immediate future. In phenomenological terms the dimension of an experience at hand will anticipate ‘fulfilment’ rather than contradiction in other aspects of the phenomenon. Usually, one expects non-contradiction between the strands of the quality at issue, or the kind of contradiction that in fact reinforces fusion.
However, just as experience might be ‘spread’ across a textural field as moment-to-moment, continually shifting between the qualitative whole and stranded aspects of texture, the receptive contexturalist might also be open to the event’s contextural ‘spread’ in historical terms that can extend far beyond immediate project boundaries. Take, for example, the seminal Lloyd’s ‘86 building, designed by Richard Rogers and his team. This was the third custom-designed Lloyd’s building over a fifty-year period and the brief was for a building that could last 125 rather than the 25 years. Built on the site of the first building, complimenting the adjacent second building and designed to address and adapt to constant change, the building unfortunately it got stuck in its own novelty because the organisation could not afford to make changes. In fact, as a remarkable act of hubris, Lloyd’s had to sell the building eight years after they occupied it. The unanticipated happened – something that would be of no surprise to a contexturalist.
Such underlying aspects of the Lloyd’s design make critical associations with North Sea oil rigs less than inapt but still superficial, missing the above points and others such as the dilemma of a blue-chip client body bound to conservative hierarchical values being caught out by an inability to appreciate their designer’s left-wing orientation and interest in designing a non-hierarchical building. Similarly, one could also easily miss the fact that the design may appear radical, but actually replicates core typological tropes of the previous two buildings, as well as the design’s ironic attempts to service an age-old culture maladapted to change. An architecture may be frustratingly mute about such matters, but to attempt a critical appraisal ignoring such matters – as Roger Scruton is inclined to do – may be to miss the truth of what is ‘going on’ and reduce a work to monodimensionality. For this critic an architecture, in its present facticity, ‘works successfully’ or it does not; a spread of past situational, circumstantial challenges and contingent project issues are dismissed as irrelevant.
One could say that such a not unreasonable stance is mechanistic. Being analytical and integrative, it is deeply concerned to contain analysis and counterpoint contexturalism’s dispersive tendencies. It seeks to consolidate a structured cosmic whole within which a manifold of particulars become the particular. Discrete entities without specific location in the universals of space and time have no existence (a key difference to formism). As it has been summarised:
“Any common-sense machine is composed of discrete parts related to other parts in some systematic way. Relations among the parts do not change the nature of the parts, however, because the parts exist independently of those relations. Further, in any commonsense machine, some sort of force or energy is exerted on or transmitted through the system to produce predictable outcomes. [...] Because mechanism is integrative, all the parts are assumed to fit together. Order is categorical. Thus, mechanists do not simply describe parts in the common-sense world; rather, they seek to discover the true nature of a given event by specifying what kind of part it really is and by placing it properly in the machine.”
As Pepper summarises: “The primary qualities and the laws must become structural features of the spatiotemporal field as intimately involved in it as the dimensions of space with one another.” A mechanist will deal with time in a schematic manner that emphasises this or that moment of presentness; the accidental is pushed into a background of irrationality – all of which can engender a consolidated viewpoint always in danger of becoming dogmatic. Illustratively, Pepper turns to Laplace, who claimed: ‘let me know the configuration of masses in the spatiotemporal field at any one time, and the laws which operate upon these masses, and I will describe the configuration of the field at any other time past are present.’
The architect’s emphasis on the abstract extensivity of space is already profoundly mechanistic. Mass set in space is a primary quality, as are the discrete configurational and relational qualities of size, shape, solidity and number that are attributable to mass which, taken together as a structural field, describe and differentiate a particular architecture which, like any discrete machine part, is subject to law, has identity and purpose and, importantly, is an internally determined entity.
Mechanism’s operative truth criterion concerns the order in which relations between discrete and independent parts does not alter the nature of those parts. Mechanists will “seek to discover the true nature of a given event by specifying what kind of part it really is and by placing it properly in the machine.” Forces – which, in architecture, includes human habitation – are applied as energy exerted within the overall system so that predictable outcomes can be produced. Thus the mechanist architect’s limitation on analysis and concern with integration will be expressed by a tendency toward rational precision of internal determination and a clarity of expression. Lethaby, for example, may have been mixing mechanistic concerns with an organicist sentiment concerning ‘the known and imagined facts of the universe’ when he overlayed this with references to houses like bicycles. But it was Le Corbusier, with his famous reference to houses as machines and the radical expression given to his work during the 1920s that more explicitly intermixed Platonic sentiment with a mechanistic outlook.
Importantly, mechanism differentiates between its primary (effective) and secondary (ineffective) categories. Pepper illustrates the first by the example of the laws that apply to leverage; he illustrates the second by referring to the qualities of the object levered and the experiential exertion of effort to exercise leverage. Our knowledge of the first category is dependent upon our experience of the second, just as an appreciation of the latter depends upon a contrast with the former, but neither category is reducible to the other. What we sense and feel is interpreted as indicative of operative law, but ordinary perception has to be constantly corrected in relation to constantly emerging lawfulness. Even then, our understandings of the universe are always an approximation or abstraction one step removed from the laws themselves. We realise that “the effective underlying cosmic machine is quite out of sight of all its working.”
Thus mechanism’s underlying problematic concerns a correlation between what is intelligible and what is sensible. Sound and colour can be discussed in all kinds of physical terms, but they remain irreducible experiential qualities. Research into creativity and improvisation can correlate behaviourial phenomena will all kinds of symptomatic brain activity. While this is useful knowledge associating secondary categories with primary ones, it is a one-way street and explains nothing, failing to consolidate the unpredictabilities of the second category into the predictabilities of the first. Medical research is rife with such hit-and-miss correlational strategies – and these, in turn bear correspondence with the notion of eudaimonia and our difficulties in lending this very real notion definition.
Perhaps as a reflection of this issue many architects not only have a tendency to ‘bracket’ formist and organicist notions without entirely rejecting them, but to adopt a mechanistic notion of project challenges that brackets its secondary qualities within more instrumental concerns. For example, Foster’s best work has the simplicity of a diagram that is self-evidently successful here and now, with is little tolerance of ambiguity attaching to the qualitative facticity of a work. ‘Spread’ is contained in a schematic notion of temporality focused upon immediate presentness and the instrumental workability of the design as an integrated and elegant architectonic leverage from a less to a more satisfactory state of affairs. Not untypically, the rationality of the design process is underpinned by an array of nuanced prototypical models that prompt the bemused contexturalist to say: Why? What is the point?
In comparison, the better works of Rogers – with whom Foster is often paired – are typically more textural and symbolic, exhibiting their participation in lawfulness as a play of ‘served and servant’ primary strands supplemented by a variety of secondary and tertiary strands enriching textural qualities. Overall, there will be an intrinsic branding to the work deriving from critical contextural considerations, signatory features and an informing concern to exhibit an aggregative tectonic robustness.
What may be common to both these approaches to architecture is illustrated by Pepper’s remark that the contexturalist outlook views phenomena in terms of spatio-temporal contiguity, i.e., “in terms of contact and transitive sequences in a system of determinations without a regulating sense of purpose,” whereas mechanists “seek to discover the true nature of a given event by specifying what kind of part it really is and by placing it properly in the machine.” To the degree this entails a separation of primary and secondary categories it is Foster’s work that critics sometimes focus upon, attributing his work with a ‘soulless’ quality neglecting secondary qualities, burying them within a minimal aesthetic corresponding to the deft simplicity of the project solution.
Perhaps a better example illustrating this issue is the Californian Case Study house designed by Charles and Ray Eames as an exemplification of what can be done with ‘as found’ industrial components. This mechanism is saved by modes of habitation emphasising ‘secondary’ qualities exhibited in oriental rugs, Mexican trinkets, oriental rugs, musical instruments and the like, including a joyful view to the Pacific Ocean. The fascination we experience derives from this interplayed overlay of sensual textures with abstract rationalistions. At one moment we simply celebrate the satisfactory resolution of an intrinsic modernist issue, as a qualitative unity. In another, we experience the event of the work texturally, with its various strands becoming more or less salient. To a contexturalist – for whom facts are related when they are found to be so, not by assumption – Pepper notes: “The qualitative structure of an event is for that event final, whatever potentialities for the qualities of other events it may have within it.” When it comes to dealing with the strands of that experience the contexturalist is wary of being drawn into kinds of non-essential concerns and distractions – perhaps into ambiguities that good design avoids.
In order to offset the earlier mentioned danger of ‘sheering off’ into tertiary contexts there is a need to impose a limitation maintaining the synthetic quality of the principal event at issue. But limitation according to which criteria? At its simplest this is whatever conserves ‘the qualitative structure of an event.’ But the principal constraint is pragmatism in its various guises. Pepper again: “Serious analysis is for him [the contexturalist] either directly or indirectly practical [...] analysis has an end, and a direction, and some strands have relevancy to this end and others do not, and the selection of strands to follow are determined from stage to stage, and the enterprise becomes important in reference to an end.” The significance of a strand and its references “lies in [the satisfaction of] some purpose we are pursuing.” And more than one strand might converge upon a similar purpose or end.
There is an somewhat regressive issue of discrimination and judgement hidden in Pepper’s contention, just as the unrecognised proverbial elephant in the room of an experience of the qualitative whole is an admirableness that draws and holds our attention. Here, bracketing these issues, I should like to attend to what is the inverse of experiencing the qualitative whole and its strands. Creatively, the texture of a scheme with developmental potential emerges and unfolds from the interweaving of situational strands whose references are blocked: by what is inappropriate, incongruous, unintegrated, in conflict with another strand, what simply fails to function properly, is made redundant, obtrudes as the novelty of the unanticipated or lies before one as an irresistible potential to be unfilled. What is going on, whether very particular or as a general state of affairs, is construed architectonically as less than satisfactory or having an enhanced architectonic potentiality. The creative author will seek to institute reformed or new architectonic textures, locally or more generally, but always contexturally, i.e., they will amend given strands to complement them with new ones. But they will do so by employing architectonics as a cognitive as well as artefactual means to deal with blocking and to move forward, whether this be in the guise of an initial framing that facilitates analysis, an intended end of accommodative housing or something like Bevan’s NHS. More simply, we search for an overall relational fusion of textural strands that can be appreciated as a satisfying event quality. Without a sufficient degree of fusion it is arguable that there can be no qualitative wholeness (experienced as simplicity and unity). In other words, integrity appears to be a ‘natural’ concern facilitating an architecture’s identity and developmental unfolding. It is as if coherent unity has a value for us and, in its empirical finding, as Kant puts it, we rejoice because it is as if we had been “relieved of a want.” Kant’s rationale is that a finality of nature, in all its multiplicity, is presumed: “For, were it not for this presupposition, we should have no order of nature in accordance with empirical laws, and, consequently, no guiding-thread for an experience that has to be brought to bear upon these in all their variety, or for an investigation of them.” In this explicitly teleological perspective particular empirical laws, Kant assures us, are “regarded […] according to a unity such as they would have if an understanding (though it be not ours) had supplied them for the benefit of our cognitive faculties, so as to render possible a system of experience according to particular natural laws.” Thus, although a dauntingly “endless multiplicity of empirical laws” might appear contingent, we nevertheless presume unity, “otherwise we should not have a thoroughgoing connection of empirical cognition in a whole of experience.” The manifold of sensation produces doubt and the understanding searches for unity within this multiplicity. Without this presumption regarding “nature’s formal finality” there could be no way the understanding could “feel itself at home in nature”. Without such a feeling nature would seem opaque, problematic and discomforting.
The above mentioned blocking to the references of strands is just such a discomfort, often experienced as the obtrusion of novelty and the unanticipated. However, this is exactly what the creative architect seeks to cultivate and introduce into the project situation – not, of course, novelty as rude intervention or mere entertainment (what is tediously instituted as a suspicious variant on ‘the shock of the new’), but as an arché-tecture facilitating and simultaneously giving expression to a more felicitous state of affairs.
On the other hand, as we know, it is quite likely that the new will be a parody bound to the tropes of customary fashions and abstract goals (such as money, power and status) reflecting the weaker aspects of contexturality. Works might pretend to a teleological intentionality, but are more usually teleonomic in purpose. They will sometimes pretend to be anagogic in character, but are more likely to be a parody of such belief or works whose signifying surfaces are less likely to be hermeneutically symbolic than allusions to a hidden code extending no more deeply than enchantment with an otherwise concealed mathematical underpinning to reality.
Pepper makes the point that the maintenance of any order can be considered in terms of teleonomics or teleology. Teleonomy requires us to think in terms of a programme that constitutes a final end and thus engenders an economy of directionality. Teleology refers us to a programme whose goals are determined by an originating author. Whereas, for example, a builder tends toward the adoption of a mechanistic and teleonomic viewpoint toward architecture, architects often lean toward organicist aspirations and a teleological interpretation of the creative challenge. But not all of them. Cedric Price, for example, was an architect who adopted a mechanistic outlook in which nothing is final or ultimate about our knowledge of the world and his ends were always open-ended. In Pepper’s terms he complemented mechanism with the exercise of a formist understanding referring phenomena to a teleonomic “regulating principle that informs observed reality with a specific finality and activates feedback loops” seeking to maintain essential properties regardless of any kind of perturbation – except that, for Price, the purposive end of his architectonics was to invite the unanticipated. In his aim to extend the available range of choice he denied a determinate conclusion.
Although this sounds rather peculiar and at odds a Kantian value given to coherent unities, it is not dissimilar to Bevan’s aim of servicing the generality of well-being as a removal of obstacles to an indeterminate life-potentiality. In both instances we are witness to the virtue of a paradoxically precise ‘inadequacy of precision.’ Formality as a valid end is denied and merely tolerated as means. Mechanism’s secondary qualities are foregrounded as the experiential validation of the primary means (our ‘lever’). Similarly, Bevan’s architecture may have been less concerned with the gods, arcane, measured dimensions and symbolic correspondences with what is more purportedly real than real than with the vision of a more secular angelic being in the form of a life-saving nurse muttering, “Don’t worry, dear, we’ll take care of you; and it’s all free …”
Nevertheless, there is something problematic in Price’s attempt to frame ‘fun’ in instrumental and productive terms that elide static formalities of the kind that has always characterised architecture, replacing all this with ‘indeterminant’ architectonics focused upon its own temporality and intrinsic concern with managerial dynamics. Bataille would be concerned that the good of architecture had become another victim to the encroachments of technē and an instrumental mind-set bound within conventional expectations. This, it must be admitted, appears to be a not uncommon outcome of a divide between architecture as a generic ‘shell’ overlaid by ‘secondary category’ concerns sufficient to engender temporary satisfaction and serve the priority of instrumental purpose. Here, ‘charge’ shifts to the short-term interiors, the public spaces between buildings, to ‘pop-ups’ and what is entirely incidental at any point in time – a whole series of shifting scenarios that make up their own dynamic architecture. What Price totally missed was the importance of dressing the generic frame i.e., its role as a branded public face.
It could be argued that all of this is itself secondary to superordinate issues of ‘ought,’ of the problematic incommensurability of goods, of exposure to tuché and the ineluctable nature of phronetic challenges – to which one should add the mysteries of abduction and discriminatory judgements. While these issues apply to many kinds of practice, not just that of being an architect, the point is that it is only within the frame of particular practices that we can begin to appreciate their character. Being an architect rather than a software engineer or doctor is simply one preferred way of doing this. All talk of line, contour, light and shade, space and the rest is all that is available to us and yet, oddly, not the point of what is happening. Above all, we stand before an architecture’s perceived thingly goodness as witness to our own, as authors, and to the purported goodness of what we value. We forget all this. Instead, we strive to achieve artefactual form into a peculiar kind of harmonised and perfected state of being: an artfulness indirectly attending to a superfluity exhibiting the peculiar depths of our own humanity – as what Sophocles referred to as deinon, i.e., ever out of place, out of keeping with its surroundings – and as what a perplexed Banham more simply referred to as a ‘black box.’
March 22, 2013Posted by on
It’s been a while since I posted anything … Blogging takes up so much time and life’s too short! So I gave up for a while. But a friend recently died – actually the first architect I ever worked for … OK, I confess: after a few months in this first job after graduating with a Diploma I had to confess to my boss that this wasn’t quite for me (converting London terrace houses by the dozen for a housing association). Yes, stupid, but there you go, and I lived to regret the arrogance of youth …. Anyway, John Winter (1930-2012) cropped up again and again in my life. My wife and I would sometimes go around to the family house of him and his wife, Val, or go to one of his parties there, or we’d bump into him at an Royal Academy Summer Show opening (he projected photos onto a wall, drew over them and presented them for the Show!), or perhaps walking in Waterlow Park, adjacent to Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx is buried. My wife even organised an architectural trip to Egypt in the mid-90s and John came with his entire family – who ended up all sleeping in one room in a problematic Luxor hotel as my wife fought what we came to call the utterly unpredictable ‘Egyptian Factor.’ (The family were luckier than one participant who literally had to sleep in a broom cupboard.) No one grumbled, not even John: everything was terrific … architecture was the issue; that’s why we were all there. Not so long ago we missed one of his last house parties, getting the day wrong and turning up the day afterward when, instead of a gathering of London’s notable architects come to celebrate John, it was a large and private family gathering. John didn’t bat an eyelid, or query why we were there, now, rather than the day before … “Have a drink, sit down …” Carry on as normal, unfazed …
As he aged, John never stopped working. He played the role of stereotypical ageing architect: grumpy, disillusioned … and still madly, stupidly, enthusiastic about architecture. “Hi John… How are you? … And have you seen …?” “Bah, humbug: architecture is a craft …. (Mutter, mumble ….)”
Architecture is a craft. There you have it. I never did get to the bottom of what he really meant by that. It was more of a denial and rejection rather than a positive assertion – something of a Loosian creed, sensa the pretensions and strange interiors behind blank facades. But if you didn’t quite get it, John didn’t give a damn. As he aged, he gave the impression he didn’t much give a damn about anything or what anyone thought. But, of course, he did. It’s just that he didn’t need to show off his cares and concerns, opinions and beliefs. So you agreed or disagreed … So what? He’d been there, seen it, done it … Maybe life was too short…
John belonged to a generation – nearly one of the last – that finished their time at the Architectural Association and immediately set off for the USA (instead, as more latterly, to the USA, or wherever a long-haul flight now gets one to) – in his case to study under Louis Kahn, then heading off on a North American version of the C18th grand Tour, coast-to-coast, as one did, ending up to San Francisco, working for SOM and then briefly with Charles and Ray Eames. On his return (and after a less brief stint with Erno Goldfinger) he was soon in private practice and finding the odds and sods of housing sites that were once so much more available in London – ends of gardens and the like, just the place for a young family. His first was immediately north of Regent’s Park – quite an address, hidden away in a mews. From there he somehow graduated to a site up Swains Lane, directly opposite the entrance gates to Highgate cemetery. What a site: a couple of Victorian houses next door, a few more houses up the hill, toward Highgate Village (where he later designed a rather remarkable house, now demolished) … and lots of graves and ghosts as the principal body of neighbours. It was the former garden of the superintendent of Highgate Cemetery and the pavilion John plonked down upon it was a classic Modernist box – now in Cor-ten and looking very early SOM-meets-Saarinen. The garden had a geodesic greenhouse and the upper piano-nobile was as it was should be: overlooking the cemetery, complete with large plate-glass windows, white net curtains, Mies Barcelona chairs, an Eames plywood chair and a grand piano …
I regularly walk through Waterlow Park, missing the image of John hobbling toward me up the hill, probably carrying a roll of drawings, back deeply bowed, his head gazing at the ground one metre ahead …. “Morning John, how are we today?” “How are we? Just the same, getting worse, I suppose – what can I tell you? … (mutter, mumble).” At the end of the day he didn’t achieve very much – not compared to the likes of Hopkins and Foster and Rogers, who were of his generation. But what a man, what a character, what an architect …
I was walking past the house the other day and met with Robert Dye, another local architect. He’d just been to look at the empty house – now up for sale – with an agent from Modern Houses (Modernism is ‘in’, you know). And so we reminisced and Robert told me how the double-glazing was blowing and any new owner would have to throw quite a bit of money at the (now listed) dwelling, demolish the shed-like extension John had simply slapped up for the convenience of his beloved but disabled wife … But gosh: imagine living in John Winter’s house! Robert had some eager clients. Well, nice idea but, for me, it would be haunted … One ghost too many. We’ll miss you, John …
(The poorly scanned photos below are by the rather brilliant late photographer John Donat.)
September 20, 2012Posted by on
The following came about upon reflecting on another visit to Ravensourne art school. My first visit was within the London Open House weekend, just after it had been completed; the second was being taken around by the former Director; this last visit was with a member if staff (with 20 architects in tow). It’s a strange place, and worth thinking about …
It was the third time I’d been taken around Ravensbourne art school, in Greenwich: same place, different guides, this time with a bunch of Swedish architects in tow. My affable and animated new host introduced himself. looked at us and remarked, “Well, its a steel and concrete box with a decorative, Penfold-tiling wrap – you’re architects and can see that … So, what can I tell you …?” He smiled, engagingly and enigmatically. And then, for almost two hours, he proceeded to entertainingly ‘tell us.’
What this affable course leader was trying to communicate was that Ravensbourne’s architecture is intangible. It’s different. The architectonic we had come to find and explore was organisational and about the people who use the building – forming, negotiating and articulating programmatically founded intersubjectve relations with one another
As a visitor, I had come looking for something else – something bearing an expressively concrete form: a visible, tangible and readable architectonic. But I now had to accept that this was a conventionalised and perhaps inappropriate way of seeing, that I had to open my mind … But to what?
As a housing, Ravensbourne strives, on the outside, to assert its presence – although, as a decorated shed it could have been located anyway on the globe rather than here, on an exposed riverside site in east London. However, on the inside it strives hard to deny its own placeness as well as an associated tradition of academic space-ownership now construed to be pernicious to a contemporary university’s organisational well-being. Spaces and places within this particular austere and unrelenting housing are concerned with instrumental values, a pragmatic character and what, at any and every moment in time, is simply facilitory. They are, in a word, ‘generic.’
Generic space is an ideality concocted by space planners and facility managers, by proverbial bean-counters and similar experts of measure seeking to economise and justify budgetary allocations in terms of a thoroughly quantified world-view. Generic space is allowed to be characterful only to the extent this latter value – what can, in itself, in no way be quantified – does not compromise or obtrude upon utility and its sister criterion, flexibility. You can use the generic for this, for that, and for the other; at root, it aims to be anything and everything to everyone. Oddly, it strives to be the fulfillment of what all artists have historically aspired toward: what is of unchanging value: what is for every time and thus all time, ahistorical to the degree that it, in itself, is devoid of a sentiment of taste. Wren simply referred to this as what is Natural as opposed to what is Customary; Kandinsky referred to it as what is constant rather than in flux and making every artist a child of his epoch.
Typologically, the generic place-as-non-place achieves a peculiar kind of ideality actualising an abstractive non-being that fascinates the modernist mind-set whilst, oxymoronically, accommodating the relative superficiality of customary concerns. As a species of Heideggerian ‘called-thinking’ it is a universalised response to every kind of situated and particularised appeal – all of which makes Ravensbourne an intriguing place. It is not a car park taken over on a temporary basis as a wrapped, pop-up educational facility. No, this is it, as a fulfillment of a modernist way of dwelling that would horrify this lover of tBlack Forest cottages and the purported authenticity of peasant life.
The implication of the generic notion is that naked spaces are allowed to be non-generic to some degree or another only as instances of careful, value-engineered superfluity. Such value is prudently supplementary to a basis that is otherwise deliberately bereft of such qualities. This entails the need for a strong, legitimising rationale – even for designer wit and inventiveness. The point is that genericality is to be respected and never compromised by overlaid, superstructural scenarios of daily life. What is arché to the overall equation is not just what is, at once, principal and principled, but includes what has been found to be eternal within the Customary: its ever-becoming. However, there is another implicit and significant issue: each instance of situated accommodation between these dualistic considerations is called upon to be peculiarly balanced and apt in the sense that Aristotle called for actions that were phronetically ‘on-target.’ The principled and the pragmatic, the ethical and the convenient loose their differentiation – except that things rarely work out this way, singing with a keynote that characterises quality action.
Interestingly, at Ravensbourne there exists a large executive suite (open-plan, of course) where the enemy of the generic – taste – has a comparatively strong presence offsetting the concrete and seemingly random pattern of giant perimeter portholes that serve as vehicles of light in (upper portholes) and views out (the lower portholes): colour, designer chairs and light fittings, and chandeliers … It is a minimal but quite definite and literally comforting expression of power: some of the organisational membership are, self-evidently, of less generic character and more value than others.
In sum, one attributes esteem to what is generic as the celebration of an absence; what has no value is valued for that very reason. To our guide around the building it was all veritably awesome, amazing, wonderful … Except that his pained two-hour talk was in the manner of a confessional search for legitimation, for personal identity and elusive meanings within an organisational architectonic that strove to negate such concerns even as it asserted them. As Heidegger warned, staff like him had become another abstracted kind of measured resource; our guide was a cypher; he was, Heideggerian terms, veritably equipmental. And he knew it. Like the rest of the staff and students he sought a modicum of identity, role, purpose, and self-esteem, and his suffering was the worse because he was a robust and creative character.
But now look about you at the average workplace, at where you make purchases, get on trains, eat and drink in public … It is, all too often, a version of the same equation: a generic basis onto which has been overlaid a characterful and satisfying kind of superstructure sustained merely by its own economic justification. A generic basis is branded – as this or that, and for a while – as a thin, always shifting overlay of identity that, at its most artful, is for a while convincing. What is constant is this peculiar, artefactual and generic substructure to the ever-becoming nature of life. The Natural and Customary have found a way to lie together. But the challenging Aristotlian issue of phronetic action still overshadows all that is going on. Do experienced instances of the authored architectonics exhibit phronesis? A call upon quality never leaves the scene of action.
That’s the way it is now. And, at its best, it is sometimes more than Koolhaas’ ‘junkspace’: it is something more clever, subtle and demanding of design authors. This is where varieties of Bataille’s sovereignty and meaning are made and found – situatedly, personally, for everyone, even in the most minor and mundane of ways – rather like Bataille’s worker with his occasional glass of wine. And yet, in terms of a tradition of architectural concerns, this accommodation between Wren’s Natural and Customary comes at a cost. What is thin has attained a convincing semblance of substance, meaning and lasting value. Here, in a place where, as Hannah Arendt once put it, the employment of means to ends has become and end in itself, the goodness of every end must be framed in the shallow terms of a managed disaggregation of Wotton’s firmness, commodity and delight. Many of us wallow in material well-being whilst entertaining ourselves to death, but the issue of quality as a superordinate goodness constantly nags at our coat-tails as another version of Heideggerian appeal.
Unfortunately, Ravensbourne’s economic realities force its own kind of substantiality to stay mostly at the generic level, viz., as a barely concealed nakedness that sustains a relational architectonic of lost souls oriented to a future that is always fulfilled by never fulfilling itself. Or that might just be the fate of full-timers who are there indefinitely. Others – including an annual intake of foundation students – are sold on the idea of training to become graduate entrepreneurs and perhaps find celebrity as a new wave of designers of a better, more entertaining kind of junkspace.
As the man said: in conventional terms the Ravensbourne shed is a car park enjoying a decorative wrap which Foreign Office, its authors, have tried to legitimise in terms of a Semperian garb, but which remains a simple steel and concrete box with an attractive Penfold-tiling wrap: a facilitory architectonic in a gift-wrapping … What could he tell us? Actually, he told us quite a lot about architecture today … and something about our need for identity and coherence. To students, the Ravensbourne building was a bit like the Excel exhibition and conference centre across the river, or the petrol station down the road – it was a servicing point. For those who worked here every day and sought to determine a meaningful academic existence, it was self-evidently something less than satisfactory.
Interestingly, the obvious way out of this dilemma is to lend what is generic a satisfying ‘customary’ character – in other words its necessary components are given aesthetic consideration. Lights, ventilation ducting, the finish on the concrete and the rest are considerately detailed. We are then back with Lethaby, Muthesius, Loos and Le Corbusier celebrating the ostensible authenticity of objectified ordinariness. We are back to the topic of an aestheticised minimalism and obfuscation regarding the values at issue – which is all very well for a pipe, cup, bowler hat, ship’s propellor and gentleman’s luggage or cigar case, but hardly rises to the occasion of a Heideggerian challenge to address the issue of dwelling – here, now, in this location. Ravensbourne is a familiar could-be-anywhere shed that substitutes a not-unpleasant decorative wrap of arcane meaningfulness for annunciatory signage. Its incomplete roof deck – the only feature to acknowledge an inside-outside relationship – is an impoverished device mediating between life in the art school and what lies all around in this somewhat bleak part of London’s former docklands. As someone else sarcastically remarked: “Architecture? Because an architect designed it? Really? …” Certainly, this was Heidegger’s point: that our architecture is indicative of just how far we are from appreciating what ‘architecture as the structure of dwelling’ is all about. However, it would be wrong to be pessimistic. What he valued is here and there, all around us. The issue is that it rarely get photographed and given a celebratory place within a professionalised tradition of practice. It isn’t sexy.
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?”