Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: Eliot Noyes
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
February 10, 2012Posted by on
The remarkable architect and product designer, Eliot Noyes, once wrote: “… details must play their part in relation to the overall concept and character of the building, and are the means by which the architect may underline his main idea, reinforce it, echo it, intensify or dramatize it.” (Arch. Record, 1966)
And then there was, of course, the more succinct Charles Eames, who adopted a more pragmatic and less intrinsically symbolic attitude to the issue: “The details are not the details. They make the design. The connections, the connections, the connections.” (ECS film, 1961).
Noyes’ comment begs a question: how do details dramatise, underscore, etc.? The reference to ‘relation’ is perhaps the hint. But Eames is suggesting that the ambiguous whole that a part relates to is only defined bythe parts. One is reminded of an old conundrum: is the egg a way to make chickens, or vice versa?
Any similarity between how Noyes and Eames construed the product has to do with a subtle pragmatism that adopted a tentative (and even surreptitious) approach to a symbolic content of the kind outlined by Heidegger when he discussed the jugness of a jug in terms that gave emphasis to functionality as a ritualistic gifting pertaining to this intersubjective intentionality (The Thing, a lecture of 1950 published in Poetry, Language, Thought (1971)). This is where Eames’ plywood leg splints differ from his later furniture – we slip across a boundary into a sphere where utilitarianism of the kind we we associate with tools becomes the usefulness of a kind more explicitly mired in meaningfulness. Eames knew this when he muttered about the beauty and ‘naturalness’ of an axe handle, and Loos surely had the same unsettling truth in mind when he referred us to the ‘naturalness’ of a peasant’s roof which no architect could imitate. Axe handle, jugs and peasant roofs (and iMacs and the rest) are oriented to ‘a need’ that is ever rooted in impenetrable ambiguity that has some degree of symbolic value at its core.
But to the extent that tools and housings are a significant aspect of a discourse concerning parts and wholes, we must also acknowledge that most ambiguous neo-mythic awareness and neo-magical attitude that recognises no essential differentiation between part and whole: someone’s toe-nail clipping, for example, embodies the whole person. There is here no difference between the essentiality of whole and part. And so the part can be magically employed. The archaeological version of this is the whole animal constructed from a few bone fragments. We witness something similar in recent genetics. And the architectural version is a similar ability to ostensibly read the whole from the Classical part simply because of the presumed harmonics and correspondences one expects to prevail – correspondences founded upon the commensurability of those numbers serving as a common denominator unifying part with whole.
Notions of part and whole, in other words, presume some form of commensurability which informs their unity, facilitates organicity and, ultimately, defines a particularity of identity. (Your heart and my heart might be the same, but a transplant is impossible with out the aid of immunosuppressant drugs.) It is a powerful notion, one that can as easily be qualitative as quantitative. The underlying sentiment reveals an outlook on the world – including its architectural housings – that construes all of nature as a more-or-less integrated and harmonised design – except that mankind is ‘fallen’ into delusion and discord. Alberti – for whom a restorative ideal was defined as that unity to which nothing could be added or taken away without detracting from its beauty – would not have been surprised by the remarks of Noyes and Eames, or have been in disagreement with them. On the other hand, one can’t imagine them so easily subscribing to his neo-Platonic cosmology.
Noyes again (emphasis added): “[D]etails must play their part in relation to the overall concept and character of the building, and are the means by which the architect may underline his main idea, reinforce it, echo it, intensify or dramatize it. [...] I like details [...] to be simple, practical, efficient, articulate, appropriate, neat, handsome, and contributory to the clarity of all relationships. The converse of this is that the spectator may observe and enjoy details, and find in them an extension of his experience and understanding of the architecture. 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.” (Architectural Record, Jan., 1966)
There is, of course, a degree of paradox in all this: to identify a ‘detail’ one must already have identified its particularised wholeness, just as one must also have synthesised the whole of which it is a part and to which it contributes. Every detail – simply to be a part or detail – must have a degree of wholeness about it. Either way, there is, in phenomenological terms, a similar gestalt foregrounding of figure (part or whole) against a more or less diffuse background.
It must also be added that, oddly, it is rarely principles – ‘the whole’ – but rather the detail – the particularised application of principal – about which we heatedly disagree. We more easily agree upon the fundamental generality of goods than we do about particularised forms of their realisation. Details, as particulars rather than generals, are intrinsically and symbolically significant – a significance underscored by the daily particularity of the lives we live and experience. Meanwhile, the whole – as diffuse background – is a mystery to us. (An important point that illustrates the difference between a Socratic escape route out of a cave of illusions and Aristotle’s acceptance of a phenomenological world of ‘appearances’.)
But there is something else to consider – something engendered by an outlook that locates satisfaction and finds an acceptable coherence within the heterogeneous framework of Aristotlian realities: that artefacts such as architectural housings can exhibit kinds of ‘detail’ that are peculiarly semi-autonomous in a manner that finds correspondence only in the likes of humans whose prosthetic extensions are fundamental to their everyday thriving and thus constitute a restoration of their organicity (the prosthetic bears a restorative intentionality). Within a neo-Platonic cosmology, all of mankind’s ‘works’ serve such a restorative purpose that has a Garden if Eden as an implicit sacred goal. (Although it is unlikely we shall agree on the content of that Garden!)
In the realm of practical architecture (if not biology, where the underlying teleological issue remains a contentious and obscure issue), details can legitimately enjoy an architectural strength of being that subverts and can even approaches the supervention of the whole in which it participates. (‘Approaches’ because to supervene the whole is to negate and replace it.)
To consider how this might be, it might be useful to refer to Noyes again (the preceding part of the above quotation; notice how he broadens out the notion of ‘detail’): “I think of details in two senses. There are first the details of joints, connections, the attachment of different materials to each other, the turning of corners, the physical relating of parts of the building to each other. But I also think of larger special elements as details — such as stairs and fireplaces — in which there are of course numerous details in the other sense. In each case the architect has a useful and expressive architectural device. In a way, such architectural details are the architecture, but details alone — no matter how thought out or how consistent — cannot make architecture.”
Noyes is less ambiguous than Eames: an architecture is, by definition, a schematic set of relations that is ever other than its particularised details. Eames tells us that the details ‘make’ ‘the design’. But he is also right: the details facilitate and constitute the realisation of a design concept which otherwise floats, less meaningfully, in an intangible fantasy realm.
Rather than ‘details’, perhaps we need to refer think in terms of Noyes’ elemental features. We could also refer to ‘fragments’, but then a fragment is, implicitly, already broken off – as with the prosthetic whose design can reveal much about our conception of the whole it serves. These details / features / fragments, can sometimes tell you more than examination of a whole ever can. They can exhibit more, manifest more, represent more … be more meaningful. Their soul doesn’t have to have to be mortgaged to the whole, but can subsist as detail that yet, strangely, possesses a wholeness that is ‘semi-autonomous’.
Let me offer an example that recently arose out of a conversation with a former student fresh from Vancouver. It was a conversation about the architect’s current predicament, about the apparent emasculation of their power and influence and import that runs in parallel with swelling numbers and the celebratory status of a tiny few (and, incidentally, about thriving midst the Chinese invasion over there and the cultural change this brings into the profession). It wasn’t the most upbeat and optimistic of discussions.
Do you recall, I asked, the old Jim Stirling exercise at the Tate Britain, how he was asked to add a pavilion extension to house the Turner collection, how the job was a proverbial ‘walk across a ploughed field’, how the Gallery curators homed in on detail and squeezed the architect into a delirium of contention and tedium … ? So what was Big Jim’s answer? He metaphorically left the room and literally gave his attentions to the exterior. That was OK wasn’t it? So long as he was respectful and courteous toward what existed, then surely he should be allowed to get on with ‘his thing’ out there? What harm could there be in that? And so Big Jim indulged himself in an exercise of external gamesmanship, particularly on the river-facing facade. It possesses a peculiar quality of being a personal indulgence or game, into which we are invited as welcome spectators. The project enabled this gamesmanship, facilitated it and tolerates it. It has little to do with the interior and it is not slightly forlorn. Even the principal connection of an oriel window that was to be a secretive sitting area, away from the paintings and overlooking the pond has lost its role long ago. And the joke ‘dropped’ stone in the corner (as at Stuttgart) is now meaningless and idiosyncratic to most visitors.
A not untypical criticism of such works is that they are ambiguous toward the inter-relations of whole and major part: denigrated as being of a lessor value than a neo-organic, Albertian kind of integrated and harmonised unity. But should it be? Big Jim didn’t appear to think so (he indulged in this strategy on a number of occasions). Perhaps some aggregations constitute a peculiarity that is simultaneously a valid whole?
One of my favourite examples is Kenwood House, on Hampstead Heath – one of Robert Adams houses from the late C18th. The house is a strange aggregation of body parts: a central ‘trunk’, two ‘leg’ wings, and two additional pavilion extensions (the Orangery and the Library), together with an addition on the eastern flank, discreetly half-hidden from view: the kitchen and former stabling wing (a neo-Kahn served and servant concept, now belonging to the late C18th).
The aerial photo below has the latter wing concealed behind the tree (you can just see its roof, far right). One experiences it as a kind of supplementary ‘prosthetic’ serving the main body of accommodation and, on a day to day basis, it has always possessed a quite independent existence that, nevertheless, is meaningless apart from the main body of Adam’s work.
The overall mix is a commodious one of formality and informality, preciousness and pragmatism to which Modern architecture (which still refers itself to Platonic ideals) is arguably alien. One can imagine altering any part of Kenwood (with sensitivity, of course!) whilst still maintaining an overall coherence – a rationale that, of course, presumes the organic whole which is subsequently prosthetically restored to wholeness – or even has the potentiality of that organicity extended. But the interesting point is that Adam’s original schema has this implicit potentiality and remains tolerantly coherent and commodious within an ambiguous status somewhere between oranicity and aggregation…. Hmmm, this begins to distinctly sound like Transformer country! (But notice that where we’re not: in the sleek and sanitised territory of parametric form and its implicit Platonic idealism.)
A note: Much of the debate about parts and wholes, unity and identity goes back to Aristotle (e.g., Metaphysics), who notes that a whole contains things in a manner that forms a unit, and the unit is a characteristic property of natural things. Some wholes (a pan) are aggregates in which the position of parts is insignificant (as when we metaphorically refer to water as a whole), but the parts of other wholes (a holon) are otherwise significant (e.g. the hand or face). Clearly, the organism is an example of the latter, in which the component parts exist soley for the whole of which they form a functional part.