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Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
One of the DVD’s I watched over Christmas was Secret Beyond The Door, a rather dreadful Fritz Lang movie of 1948. The villain of the piece is an architect who manages to implausibly fill a mansion with rooms in which people have been murdered. Lang’s concern was with Freudian release from repressed feelings and entirely misses the point of something far more interesting: this architect’s fascination with the ‘charge’ of certain designed settings. Design, asserts our architect-with-murderous-intent , can affect behaviour.
Well, maybe; maybe not – or perhaps not in terms of murderous intent. The film doesn’t explain how the architect’s hangups (as a child, he was once locked in a room, watching his mother drive off to a night on the town with her boyfriend) become correlated with room settings and their affects, never mind the notion of purchasing whole rooms from wherever and reinstalling them into one’s home – a wonderful notion that is pure Ron Herron. No Fritz, the real issue here is our hero being locked up in the House of Architecture.
Anyway, here I am at 4am in the morning: an insomniac in a silent, very dark gasthof bedroom in the middle of the Black Forest, starkly lit from the screen of his Apple laptop, a cat prowling the room and hungry for attention, and a wife snoozing beside me … I love these places. This one is almost a parody of itself, right down to the family running it, the locals who come to dinner, the social mix … and, of course, the almost kitsch decor. But it isn’t kitsch; it’s the real, authentic thing, through and through!
I’m reminded of an architect acquaintance who, some years ago, decided to switch careers and get a job in designing film and TV sets. I commented on how difficult I thought this would be and later found out he thought I was just being cynical about the architect’s proverbial ‘transferable skills’, or his personal ability to break out of an architect’s mind-set. In fact, I was simply and genuinely impressed; he was making a reinvention of himself and his design abilities of which I was envious. If my Fairy Godmother would give me a choice of having my life all over again, one of the career choices that would be high up on the list is set-designer in TV, films, theatre … Do you know what I mean? Do you appreciate the skill of being able to assemble design motifs that are right on target, which epitomise a certain character of place and life style?I take my hat off to anyone who can do that.
So why can’t architects do this? Why don’t they value such a design capacity? What is it about their mind-set that finds it necessary to denigrate this kind of inventiveness and, instead, go for … For what?
I was reminded of this earlier today as we cruised up through Switzerland, past Lucerne and Basel (yes, and Weil am Rhein, home of Vitra (another story)), through snow piles to either side and rain pouring down. We dropped into a Marché road-side stopover, ran through the rain and cold, and found ourselves in interior wonderland: welcome to Rue Marché and its street market stalls and varied dining room settings and vegetables piled high and the theatrics of staff ostensibly preparing food (a real kitchen was hidden away) … and a funny mix of high-tec ducting and rustic tiles and gigantic ne-classical vases and Italian Hi-design over-sized light fittings and curtains at the windows and … Hey, it was impressive.
Impressive? Yes. Sortof. One of the first jobs I ever had was working with a corporate identity agency. We were tasked with creating an identity for an underground Parisian shopping mall and, suddenly, I found myself in a conversation that five years at a school of architecture hadn’t prepared me for (even after working with Ron Herron). I recall one meeting in which the architect got rather hot under the collar: “Je suis le architect!”, he shouted. Yeah, well … Nowadays shell-and-core approaches to just about everything are taken for granted. Then, they weren’t. Yes, he was the architect and the notion of cosmetic character, branding, identity creation and the like was light years from his mind set … Yes, and from mine until I met with the bunch of graphic designers on steroids who constituted Wolf Olins.
So, I enjoyed Rue Marché, somewhere on a motorway between the Goddhard Tunnel and this Bavarian village somewhere east of Freiburg. I loved the theatre of it, and of this gasthof and the rest … OK, not ‘loved’ but was ‘impressed by …’ Qualifications? I’m an architect for Godsake! I can’t like all that, can I…? I’m not supposed to … I’m sinning, I know. Oh, God, where’s the psychotherapist when I need her? Haven’t years being locked up in the House of Architecture freed me from the misguided desires of an outside world?
Ah, yes, well, the House of Architecture … It’s interior can do things to you, you know … It can affect your behaviour …