Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: detail
March 20, 2012Posted by on
I have a friend who is putting together a Dictionary of Details, together with an app and a web and … whatever. He has a nice collection of lists from all kinds of architects, around the world. And he’s probably waiting to hear from you! I think this is an exciting project, but confess to a different curiousity about the topic as such.
Why are details interesting? Why are they significant? Charles Eames certainly thought they were all-important. Sherlock Holmes did. Elit Noyes Rem remarked about details that, “in them he should be able to read, or at least see reflected, the character and spirit of the entire building – as to see the universe in a grain of sand.” Koolhaas appears to have built a career on ignoring them, but that might be because his office doesn’t ignore them (as you may have noticed). For most architects details have a special quality. An otherwise good design with poor details is ruined. A poor design might blind us to its good details, but there is no reason why this should be a match of incompatibles. Or is there?
When Mies muttered about God and detail he may simply have been another significant architect voicing off, thereby exercising influence over others. So far as I am aware he never told us why God would be in the details. His ‘goodness’ had no basis. But you won’t (apart from Rem) find many architects who disagree. They positively get excited about details, as if these possessed a magical quality.
Ernst Cassirer was a rare philosopher fascinated by what he referred to as mythic awareness – a state of mind that engages the rational mind with a strangely fluid Other of qualities that have all the depth we associate with the unconscious, with all that is mysterious, all we don’t really understand. Before him, Charles Peirce actually addressed the prepredicative simply as Firstness, or Quality.
Both Peirce and Cassirer dealt with the door between these two realms as one of feeling, not conceptual thinking. One feels such things before one knows them, before one can articulate them intellectually. And, in the tradition of magic, there is no difference between part and whole. To possess a part (a lock of hair, a finger nail …) of your enemy is to possess something of them as such and give you access to exercising an influence over them.
The architectural version of this is the somewhat absurd tradition that, given a fragment, the whole of which it is a part can be reconstructed. But this isn’t so mad. Forensics are founded upon this principle. Archaeologists all over the world can take bone fragments and reconstruct whole beasts from them and tell you about their eating habits, how they gave birth, etc. DNA can be employed to bring the beast into being. Chickens may well be the means by which eggs reproduce themselves.
But there is another basis to this body of belief and sentiment. The architectural whole – conceived and constructed as a discrete entity – not only gives reference to the human body, as Vitruvius believed, but to all bodies. Every such architectonic entity is a body modeled on all of nature’s bodies, not just our own. And mankind has always marveled at nature’s reproductive capacity to give birth to such bodies, to grow them from infancy to maturity, to repair damaged parts, sometimes to reproduce whole missing parts, and especially to harmonise the disparate parts of a body into a harmonious whole. The unity of an architectural body, in other words, is simply modeled on who we are and what is around us, on how we comprehend nature as a whole and the universe as a whole. My body, his body, a Man’s body? Vitruvius and Leonardo were on target only in the sense that they identified mankind as a unique kind of body. But the real point is simply a body, as such.
While, at one level, this is the Greek Acropolis and Alberti’s churches (to which nothing could be added or taken away without detriment), at another level it is the witch doctor playing with that nail cutting. This is not to passage from the sublime to the ridiculous, but merely to move rationality toward a marriage with feelings and modes of awareness that are more open and permeable to a realm of knowing that was referred to by Henri Bergson as ‘dureé’: where there is no past, present and future, only a temporal fluidity, in which our mental filters weaken …
There is no mystery to this. But there is mystery within it, coursing through it. Mystery especially attaches to how a part seems to exist for itself, for other parts and for the whole they all make up. And from this it is a small step to the mathematics of number, ratio, proportion and even the magical attributes of such things. Number enables us to inform an architectural body with a unity that is at once real and symbolic, a simulacrum of a natural body … Except that it’s life is our life and not one of its own. The things we make our our ‘extensions’ and we dream of one day – like Doctor Frankenstein – producing a living artefact
Cassirer drew our attentions to our interface with this realm. In this, he was not so distant from a phenomenologist such as Merleau-Ponty. Like Peirce, they all pointed in the same direction, to a place where, as Wittgenstein put it, rationality hits a bedrock. It can go no further. Witch doctors know about it; Hollywood knows about it. Scientists are scratching away at the surfaces of the issue. Mathematicians have been dealing in this realm of paradox for some time. Product designers such as Eliot Noyes and Charles Eames considered detail to be all-important, as did Rams and Ives does. Architects get excited about the significance of details; they find God in them. And the witch doctor finds the devil in them!
So, next time you are designing a detail – not just to keep the rain out or make an apt interface, but to embody significance – be aware that you are in a strange territory. Personally, for me, that strangeness can never be found in what is merely beautiful. Such ‘beauty’ means so many different things (as on an ~Ives Apple product), but never ‘stangeness.’ Interestingly, I can only find it when I am confronted by paradox – such as the detail that is, at once, precise and yet casual, ordinary. It’s a cliché, but the Japanese have a long tradition in seeking out this quality. But turn away from all that. One sometimes finds this quality in ad hoc building rather than professionalised architecture. Now, that is a real parodox, isn’t it!
The personal reference near to me, here, is that of Richard Burton, a retired architect whose practice (ABK) has now just closed forever. He has a house in Kentish Town, just down the road, that is full of such detail. And he has an aged chalet in Switzerland even more full of such carefully considered, casual and seemingly ad hoc details. And yet you won’t find this in his firm’s work – or, not that I know of … and I’d love to be contradicted!
Meanwhile, my other friend is still collecting lists. Some are witty and shift away from artefacts to social situations, e.g. the feet that poke out beneath the curtain of a polling booth (from Jeremy Till), but such wit is a different concern to that of paradox and strangeness. You might laugh and chat about it. You don’t do that with strangeness: you nod, wink, smile … and probably stay quiet.
Anyway, on that note I thought I’d add another ‘living detail,’ arguably with a touch of magic and myth in its ingredients … (at Milan Cathedral):
By the way, if you want to send a set of ten favourite details to Wayne Head, use this email link: Wayne Head