Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: Fletcher Priest
When was it for you? For me, it wasn’t at architecture school but immediately afterward, when I was working for a London corporate identity firm. They had a vaguely architectural commission: a corporate identity for a huge new underground shopping mall in the heart of Paris, at Les Halles, where the glorious old structure were being demolished and replaced by a park and this shopper’s paradise designed by Claude Vasconi (Forum des Halles). The key idea was to try and derive an identity from the street language of Paris. So, entrances from subways and from the streets to banks of escalators became ‘gates’ and signage copied Parisian street signs, etc., etc. Issues I had never met before suddenly became salient: orientation, addressing, way-finding and, above all, identity of place. Anyway, midst breakfast discussions with a frustrated architect pointing to his chest and proclaiming that, ‘Je suis le architect!’ I gained a half-conscious introduction to a blind-spot in the architect’s awareness of the world of which I, myself, had not been aware. I suppose Vasconi was on a learning curve as well, but I doubt if he appreciated this.
Perhaps I was also learning how quickly architectural values change. For example, I recall Venturi being in town, lecturing at the AA about cruising the Las Vegas strip with his students. He was doing what the likes of Archigram and others (even Reyner Banham) had hardly dared to do: he really was looking at the street and bottom-up culture. Not long after came another play with narrative – or what Geoffrey Scott (in The Architecture of Humanism) had famously referred to as ‘the Romantic Fallacy’ – in the guise of a combination of influences: Terry Farrell, Charles Jencks (then excitedly mapping the emergence of Po-Mo – yet another narrative) and Lord Rothschild (whose family name immediately prompts an historical narrative), the latter now being a patron of an up-market garden centre incongruously located in Paddington, next to a large mixed-use scheme by Farrell (still standing, and rather good), a large post-war housing scheme by Lubetkin and Tecton, behind which sits a notable Denys Lasdun school, (Hallfield).
Anyway, Rothschild was supporting an upgrade to Clifton Nurseries (in which he had a stake) and Farrell was appointed architect (how could he refuse?). Thus came another introduction to narrative, one closer to home: Farrell sketched the façade to a greenhouse, looking like a tree. Somehow I managed to slip out of this and end up with a more hi-tech design whose wavy section had the merest of thin references to a tree, and then only if you knew the inside story.
Terry was soon gung-ho into narrative, particularly the sun-rise facade of TVAM, in Camden (later marred; recently demolished). I suppose it was around then that I learned to cringe any time I heard an architect attempting to justify and legitimate a design proposal by employing narrative.I love stories as much as the next person, but not as a substitute for architectural tactility.
Recently, a design for a Titanic Museum was announced; it’s forms are derived from icebergs. There’s a large office building recently completed on the banks of the River Thames whose southern façade features heavy timbers because there was once a timbered wharf on the site (and the cladding panels are in shades of grey derived from samples of mud from the river bed). When Libeskind designed his graduate Centre in the Holloway Road (it looks like a ship that has broken its back, or some outcome of an earthquake) he says that, upon visiting the site, he could find no significant reference. Then, looking up, he saw Orion and this ‘inspired ‘ him to design the lights in the ceiling of the lecture hall in that
pattern – all of which is along the lines of his rationale for the Holocaust Museum in Berlin, and other works (such as the Imperial War Museum in Salford, which possesses a particularly incongruous narrative rationale). Another example is from an architect I greatly admire, Niall McLaughlin, who, a few years ago, designed two small apartment blocks in Silvertown (east London), adjacent to the Royal Docks, that feature
wood cladding and glitzy reflective panels bearing ostensible reference to the the wooden crates bound with heat-treated steel bands that had once been unloaded here.
My problem with all such examples is that the narratives seeks to mediate the experience. It clownishly obtrudes itself. One’s comprehension is meant to be significantly unappreciative until thus mediated. In the Silvertown housing example I doubt that the young families inhabiting these contemporary apartments have any meaningful sentiment regarding a dock life that died some forty years ago. It’s a point I have taken up with Niall who, up to a point, admits there is an issue: “I say to students if your scheme is no good you can say the cleverest things and no one will listen. If your scheme is brilliant you can talk garbage and they will be enthralled.”
So why the ‘garbage’? Because it sells schemes to clients, planners and the like who are otherwise on the outside of architectural discourse and looking for a way in.
When I visited the Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum in Salford and went through the entrance lobby, reading a panel that explained his fractured globe concept, I had to grin in defensive submission. In truth, to take McLaughlin’s point, itthe Museum is not a bad design; however, it is, before being a globe shattered by warfare, a Venturi shed surrounded by a large car park, possessing an interior whose impact (apart from Libeskind’s rake to the floor) is a rather good narrative media show designed by other people. He simply packaged the show.
Instead of a large readable sign on the outside, such an architecture seeks to make a symbolic substitution and the visitor is asked to unnecessarily engage with the riddle of its semiotics. Instead of being a utilitarian shed that, as Venturi puts it, wears a sign saying, ‘I am a Monument,’ it is a Venturi ‘duck’ whose symbolism pertains to an underlying conceptual narrative rather than programmatic and structural distortion (as Venturi used to argue).
One is reminded of Libeskind’s earlier Berlin museum: a beautifully poetic concept that had no need of a building – the latter then having its forms painfully contrived to vaguely resemble Libeskind’s diagrams. It’s the conceptual art problem: if the concept is that good, who needs its referential material product? Save-a-lotta-bovver: leave it to two-dimensionality and the richness of the imagination. Libeskind as poet and Libeskind as architect enjoy merely tangential relations.
Of course, Venturi’s story-boarding was never that convincing. By arguing that Le Corbusier’s La Tourette and its Brutalist derivatives were equivalent to the 1931 egg-farmer’s shop in Long Island (i.e., a ‘duck’) he was mixing metaphors. But it is all rather intriguing. The duck shop is a representative sign for illiterates; it is provocative and witty, even apt; and it could be argued to neatly exhibit its structure and internal spatial form. La Tourette merely does something similar in a more esoteric, intellectually ambitious and hermeneutic language. But narrative overlays to a work not only shunt the materiality of the shed+sign experience to an imaginatively aesthetic level, but simultaneously invites one to mediate the experience in terms of a supervening mediation that lays claim to priority. The shed-sign doesn’t have a narrative; you get it or you don’t. It’s the same with La Tourette and with the duck-shop. But it’s not the same with the likes of Libeskind’s holocaust museum or McLaughlin’s housing.
I protest: give me the thing-in-itself, and not an obstrusive narrative. But the issue is not that simple.
I was recently cruising down the M1 listening to a radio programme deconstructing Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street. I was given a multi-faceted narrative: where, when, how, whom with … And my appreciation was significantly enhanced. This is no different to how one’s appreciation of architecture can be enhanced. However … such narrative is round and about the thing in itself and its making, and only indirectly tackles the work itself and the tingle factor it induces. The mystery of approbation and disapprobation of that remains at the dark heart of the whole affair.
Narrative. We’re surrounded by it. We feed upon it. We greedily take it up. TV, Hollywood, books, even social media, supply us with endless narratives. What I am writing is narrative. It sometimes seems that we prefer narrative to real life.
Alasdair MacIntyre makes the point that one’s life narrative was once deeply rooted in both a societal context from which liberal individuality has sought to break free, and a notion of mankind’s telos. The Enlightenment marked the emergence of a certain freedom from such roots; however, a price has been paid. You’ve seen it: as a TV ad, as a sign of the metro train, as an ad in the newspaper … the state teaching you morality, legislating your life in minute detail. And, for, Nigel Coates, it’s all a big performance: “Style comes out of the situation, and turning it on it’s head. Your environment can, and must, expand rather than tighten, stimulate rather than pacify. It should unleash a unique sense of identity that keeps on evolving. Convention and authority are the enemy; individuality and expression the goal. Even when hiding behind a relatively conventional facade, spaces, interiors and buildings can so easily reward the real you. You cannot reach this with a style book or a coordinated set of products; your designer is the right co-pilot on this most important of journeys, and will help you enjoy the trip.” As Coates puts it, he has ‘consistently looked at architecture as a total dynamic field that holds together events, cultures, time and space, as if it were a continuous performance.” Who would disagree? Form, as he says, follows fiction, not function.
Coates is here putting his finger upon an important point: to speak of narrative (as above) is a crude way of addressing a much more complex issue of figurative language usage. What we are really dealing with is particularly metaphor, sometimes metonymy, and occasionally irony. For example, McLaughlin’s attractive glitzy panels and Libeskind’s shards populating a car park are deeply metaphorical – if, that is, you can interpret the riddle of the semiotic intentionality. They ask us to make a figurative correspondence.
However, this is problematic territory (cf. The Poetics of Mind, Raymond Gibbs, 1994). McLaughlin is metaphorically referring the inhabitants of his apartment block to their community history, but perhaps he is also metaphorically referring us to social housing as a home as housing crate, i.e., that life was once all about shifting wooden boxes with metal straps and also that your landlord is now treating you as the content of such a crate. And should the observer be treating the glitzy panels as a metaphor referring to the future possibility of replacing their decorative role with photovoltaic panels (which is how most people interpret them)? Is the wooden cladding in a context of old and new brick houses and apartment blocks to be read as a criticism of their absence of metaphoric language? Or perhaps MacLaughlin construes wooden, steel-strapped crates as containers of wonder and promise?
Gibb’s point is that, “our basic metaphorical conceptualisation of experience constrain how we think creatively and express our ides in both everyday and literary discourse. … The constraints on how we speak and write are not imposed by the limits of language but by the ways we actually think of our ordinary experiences. … What is frequently seen as a creative expression of some idea is often only a spectacular instantiation of specific metaphorical entailments arising from a small set of conceptual metaphors shared by many individuals within a culture.” Metaphor, claims Gibbs, “is the main mechanism through which we comprehend abstract concepts and perform abstract reasoning.” Metaphor puts the body back into the mind: “metaphorical understanding is grounded in nonmetaphorical preconceptual structure that arise from everyday bodily experience.” Come back Merleau-Ponty.
So, try stewing on that … or should that be: in your pipe and smoke it? (And perhaps go back to Geoffrey Scott’s famous theory of subliminal motor responses felt as aesthetic experience … Reality? Metaphor? Both? … )