Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: Henrik Ibsen
May 14, 2012Posted by on
The arrival of a femme fatale
I can’t recall when I first came across Henrik Ibsen’s Masterbuilder … It was as a script rather than a performance; and somehow performances that I’ve seen will never quite fit my image of the central characters: the weepy, damaged and fragile housewife; the young, discontent and ambitious architectural apprentice; a groin-stirring vivacious femme fatale; and the central character: a philandering, middle-aged architect whose career success is coloured by anxiety.
Halvard Solness’s discontent is on every front: with his disturbed wife, his ambitious employee, and with a career that, although successful, is as middling as his class status and his own age: an architect who has ‘been there; done that,’ seen it all and is yet cursed with an inferiority complex: he didn’t go to the academy. Survival, yes; success, yes, significance, perhaps not.
Into the life of this provincial story steps a fateful young woman – not only a femme fatale, but an enchantress and a muse. And she comes to make a claim.
It seems that, some years ago, when this woman was a precocious fourteen-year old girl, she watched Solness climb to the top of a newly-constructed church steep and shout his success – and, as she put it, she heard ‘harps in the air.’ Somehow, in what one imagines to be the alcohol-fueled celebratory aftermath of this exhilerating experience, Solness meets with the girl and, hints Ibsen, enjoys a sexual adventure that ends (or begins?) with a promise to one day build for her ‘castles in the sky.’
When Hilda eventually turns up to make her claim, Solness, of course, has no recall of the escapade. However, he is soon utterly capitivated. They plan to elope; his life is to be turned upside down and she is to get her castles in the air.
In essence, this is a not unfamiliar story, played out in a thousand and one variations in many an architectural office every day. However, before you blush, let me complete this tale.
Hilda issues a challenge. She wants Solness to prove the recovery of a re-found manhood and, more especially, his valour and daring: she wants him to climb the tower of his nearly completed new house. The occasion is a traditional topping-out ceremony, as at the church steeple, but Solness is terrified. He has accomplished this once and didn’t intend doing it again. However, Hilda is insistent and Solness rises to the challenge. (Sorry, it’s difficult to avoid the sexual symbolism.)
The point in all this is not just daring or foolhardiness, but that, when Solness climbed the church steeple he had, high up there, shouted angry defiance at his God. This is what Hilda heard as ‘harps in the air.’ Now, he was to do it again, but instead of renouncing church building in lieu of secular work, he is renouncing his bourgeois existence.
And so he climbs. Wife and community are horrified; the architectural apprentice can’t believe it; Hilda is exultant. As he reaches the top and shouts, she waves he shawl in the air and there is a hint that this is what makes him fall from the scaffolding … Meanwhile, Hilda remains exultant midst expressions of horror all around her: “But he mounted right to the top. And I heard harps in the air.”
The import of Fortezza
It has always seemed to me that, when Solness shouts, he is protesting at fateful determinations. And, in turn, I imagine his God shouting back: ‘Right on, my man … Way to go!,’ and then winking at Hilda: ‘Job well done, girl …’ This is not, in other words, a scenario such as that painted by Michelangelo, in which God benignly reaches across a loving and helpful hand to a laid-back Adam. Gamesmanship is involved.
And this brings me to a similar kind of tale that belongs to the Italian Renaissance. In 1501, Lucrezia Borgia married Alfonso d’Este and, at their marriage, a pageant was performed called a Battle between Fortuna and Hercules. In this, Juno send Fortune to do battle with her enemy Hercules, but she is overpowered and chained up. Juno has to plead for her freedom, which is finally given on the promise that the houses of Borgia and Este will henceforth be favoured.
Apparently many variations on this scenario were played out during the Renaissance. In a story from Giordano Bruno, for example, Fortuna is allowed to go anywhere she pleases, but she is denied her claim of Hercules’ place among the Olympian gods. Hercules is Valour, and where truth, law and right judgement are to reign, Valour (Fortezza) must be present. It is, as Ernst Cassirer puts it (cf. The Individual and The Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy), “the palladium of every other virtue, the shield of justice and the tower of truth.”
Well, Solness hadn’t quite got there yet, but at least he had discovered the daring upon which valour is premised. Without that daring, Ibsen implies, there can be no ‘castles in the air.’
This has always seemed to me to be a simple truth of architectural practice. We censor our own potentialities, we gate ourselves off from true creative daring, indulge in substitutes and parodies, and bind ourselves with a thousand tiny entwined ropes.
One has to dare to be creative. But one can’t do so abstractly; one does so as a situational response, as if to respond to a call or claim that is being made upon one. Such a claim may be laid upon us at any time and place – Fortuna pops up, slaps down a claim and, usually, we’re too sleepy to notice; too habit bound and witless to be able to aptly respond, at that moment; too afraid to break out and dare to think and do. Nor is one talking about dramatic situations; Hilda’s claims might be laid down quietly, surreptiously, slid into the familiar everyday situations with a mischievous grin …
And perhaps there is another, rather obvious message in Ibsen’s drama. Our Muse, the bearer of the claim, is given to us as a femme fatale. She is dangerous. She has the task of seducing us out of our slumbers and timidity, of stirring us into a territory of potentially that, however, should bear a health-warning sign. In the case of Solness, arousal leaves family devastation, career neglect and communal shock behind him. And for what? Pointedly, for ‘castles in the air.’ He has exercised a death wish and the outcome is predictable. On the other hand …
A lesson learned?
In my own re-write of The Masterbuilder, Aristotle would, at this point, enter from stage left, probably accompanied by a spontaneous groan from the audience. The spell would have been broken. And he’d turn to it and condescendingly ask, “Well, what do you think the lesson was? What do you think Solness should have done?”
And the audience would collectively moan: ‘The Mean … He should’ve taken the Mean …’
Aristotle would be surprised and somewhat disconcerted, but he’d be pleased. “Ehmm, quite. Very good … Yes, exactly: he should have taken the Mean … But what does that mean? Sorry, ehmm, you know what I mean … I mean …” And everyone would groan again and start muttering to one another and shifting about.
“No, no, seriously: what should he have done? It’s important.”
The audience would start to break up and leave. And the actor playing Solness would come forward and shout angrily at the Aristotle and the Director, ‘I told you this wouldn’t bloody work. I told you!”
Meanwhile, Aristotle would be still muttering to a receding audience: “But it’s a serious question: what should he have done? Bourgeois life on the one hand and castles in the air on the other … Grumpy ageing wife or vivacious femme fatale …”
Much later, in an empty theatre, he would be found disconsolately sitting on a darkened stage, head in hands, while an aged cleaner applied a broom to the boards around him … And he would still be muttering, now to himself, ‘What should he have done …? Valour, on its own, isn’t sufficient … What …what should he have done?”
And then perhaps a young woman would silently enter upon the stage … Who is she? Who is this strange woman whose beauty and vivacity would make men shudder if they but knew her game?
A postscript: Both the Greek Muses and Sirens were enchanting songresses, However, while the former (the daughters of Zeus by Mnemosyne) were divine inspirers of posey, the latter charmed only to destroy. This leaves Hilda Wangel in a strange role characteristic of noir fiction: the coincidental meeting; love at first sight; tragedy in the offing … As one academic puts it: “She [the femme fatale] knows all along that she is fated and can, therefore, turn what is inevitable into a source of power. Indeed, the classic femme fatale has enjoyed such popularity because she is not only sexually uninhibited, but also unabashedly independent and ruthlessly ambitious, using her seductive charms and her intelligence to liberate herself [...] Furthermore, though she gains power over the noir hero by nourishing his sexual fantasies, her own interest is only superficially erotic. She entertains a narcissistic pleasure at the deployment of her own ability to dupe the men who fall for her, even as she is merciless in manipulating them for her own ends. Duplicity thus emerges as her most seminal value, insofar as she is not simply willing to delude anyone in order to get the money and the freedom she is after, but because she will never show her true intentions to anyone, especially not the hero she has inveigled, even if this entails not only his death but also her own. [...] [H]er desire for freedom as attainable only in death. At the same time, in that she uses her seductive to lead the noir hero from the sunlit exterior into a nocturnal world of transgressions, betrayals, and, ultimately, his demise, she also embodies the death drive, albeit in a highly ambivalent manner. On the one hand, one could speak of her as a figure of male fantasy, articulating both a fascination for the sexually aggressive woman, as well as anxieties about feminine domination. [...] On the other hand, the femme fatale is more than simply a symptom of the hero’s erotic ambivalence. She sustains his self delusion, but also gives voice to a feminine desire that may include him in order to attain its aim, but also exceeds his fantasy realm. [...] [S]he can be understood as moving towards an ethical act meant to radically undercut the blindness of self-preservation her lover seeks to entertain at all costs.” Etc. (Elisabeth Bronfen, Femme Fatale: Negotiations of Tragic Desire, 2004)
But Hilda Wangel is more than this. She is a figure who returns us to myth and the play of the gods, as if a messenger and teacher who lifts the life of Solness from out of its own deceptions and, at the price of death, brings him a redemption and salvation for which, peculiarly, she also pays a heavy price (what next …?). Strangely, valour is not an issue for her. But, for Solness, the practical judgment that one imagines Aristotle calling him to practice demanded that he should first learn to exercise this virtue.
March 11, 2012Posted by on
The following is the Prologue to the current book I am finalising, Meetings With Buildings.
Thus, the prose writer is a man who has chosen a certain method of secondary action which we may call action by disclosure.
It is therefore permissible to ask this second question: What aspect of the world do you want to disclose?
In attempting a distillation of this essay’s locus I find myself drawn toward an architectonic scenario of dramatic interplay drawn by Clifford Odets. In this theatrical tragedy ‘Smiley’ Coy, a supreme pragmatist and confessed amoral cultivator of sentimental hygiene – an artful epitome of instrumental thinking in the service of a Hollywood studio – proffers advice to a compromised hero, an actor-idealist called Charlie Castle, a man characterised by our realist as a “warrior minstrel of the forlorn hope” “Don’t study life”, Smiley instructively admonishes Castle, “Get used to it.”
Theatrical utterances are rarely so succinct and yet philosophically profound. To deconstruct the sardonic pragmatism of this wry comment is to touch upon an inherent to-and-fro between polarities seeking to draw the dramatic player in one of two directions. On the one hand is a purposive rationale underlying the calculated instrumentality of our actions: a knowing, unsentimental and reflective way of looking that may even judge all value to be, as Terry Eagleton puts it, “a cultural fiction arbitrarily projected onto the blank text of the world.” All, for the likes of Smiley, except the abstractions of affluence, power and status. At our contrasting pole is the turmoil of a search for that supposed cultural fiction as a profoundity of poetic meaning possessing an elusive substance, significance and value, that which underlies and informs the haunting shadows and colours the anxieties characterising creaturely existence.
This is a duality with which many architects will be familiar, within whose dynamics they strive to understand their predicament and shifting stance.
In Odets’ drama the ‘warrior minstrel’ ultimately looses the inner struggle he experiences as an imposed battle of demanding choices and commitments. In prompting the cornered movie star to renew a contract condemning him to commercial reels, a confrontational studio boss (the artfully drawn ‘alpha male’ and philistine of the drama) pushes General MacArthur’s pen toward him and says, “I can’t force you to sign, can I? … Can I?” Our artistic hero must take responsibility for himself. And he finally does so: resignedly scratching his name, retaining the pen so that he “might remember the war had been fought.” He has entered the final stages of what, for him, will be a suffocating scenario entailing an acknowledgement that he can no longer breathe. The living particularities in which his own version of the issue of ‘ought’ is entangled will defeat his better intentions. A clutch on autonomy and freedom will elude him. Our ‘warrior minstrel of the forlorn hope’ can’t have his cake and eat it.
At one point in the play our hero reaches out to art, contemplating it and lovingly running his fingers along the reassuring painted forms of a poignant clown – a work by Rouault that is redolent with ironic humour. “It broods… ,” he affectionately ruminates: “a player who waits in the wings, who has done it all a thousand times …” Our hero then returns to the realities of life’s conflicted entanglements and problematic choices. The flicker of the painting’s solace has been extraordinarily brief and adversarial forces again draw him into a bleak situational torment charged with the issue of ‘ought.’ The knife digs deeply and our hero suffers an exaggerated Kierkegaardian sickness of anxiety that eats away at him on the inside. Like Hamlet, he sees himself killing his better selves, one by one. Outer self and inner self have failed to be reconciled or secure a mercifully forgetful divorce. Such a divorce can only be realised in a different manner. In desperation he slices his wrists – a tragic deed prompting his estranged wife’s pained reflection that dying was the only way he knew how to live. In the immediate absence of his warm breath she can only cry ‘Help!’ into a deep void somewhere between stage and audience.
In the face of this hopeless and ironically brave exit strategy the ‘pragmatic realist’ of the drama is disconcerted but remains supremely cool, cynically but masterfully rewriting the facts as narrative spin for the rapacious, dream-sustaining representatives of the Hollywood media. He is only prevented from doing so by the one still, floating figure of the drama: a peripheral but significant character who plays a background role in the architecture of the unfolding dramatic schema by comporting as a neutral observer, like some keystone to the edifice’s dynamics – implicitly a figure of authenticity set in contrast to the fraught, sometimes cowardly and all too often disingenuous entanglements of the other players. Clearly representing the presence of the playwright himself, this quiet and philosophical author was, in real life, soon to face his own tormented questions of ‘ought’ in front of the House Unamerican Activities (HUAC), adopting the role of a ‘friendly witness’ that left Odets blacklisted and, like the hero of The Big Knife, psychologically decimated. The troubles and thorns of real life had strangely mirrored dramatic fiction.
This drama has always intrigued me. The play’s essential polar construct seems to mirror the voices of the realist and ‘warrior minstrel of the forlorn hope’ in each of us. Their interplay is a rich sphere of motivated action and experience, a place where the dawn illuminates inexorably relentless themes we know as variations on absurd and anxious struggles to win survival, hang on to success, realise significance and establish historical salience. And make sense of it all. It is a place, to continue the alliteration, of shifting sands and hardly one of lasting comfort and resolution, a rough terrain reminding one of Esther Harding’s considered words of advice that might have been (but weren’t) tailor-made for architects:
“We rarely reflect how essential it is that all things should wear out and decay. We forget that it is not in our creations, the things we make, the order we establish, but in our functioning that life is fulfilled in us.”
In the midst of Harding’s ‘functioning’ – at a place of Miesian ‘living tasks,’ where minstrels seek meaning within the shadows and pragmatists duck and dive in order to accommodate themselves to life – are the recurring echoes of fundamental questions concerning architecture and architects. These are hardly unfamiliar, but suffer commonplace answers invariably contenting themselves with explorations of the formal manifestations of the subject. Like phrenological exercises striving to discern inner content from external modulations these purported answers construct their own architectures of meaning in the form of a history of canons, styles and masters that manifest obsessions with kinds of archaeological validation, whether this be in the form of Roman or Gothic precedent, Modernist heroic gesture or post–Modernist obfuscation – answers that make all manner of claims to authenticity and intellectual truthfulness. And hegemony.
These ruminations attempt to be other than such inquiry, not as a denial of its validity or intrinsic interest and reward, but as a contribution to an alternative path seeking to query and explore the nature of architecture and being an architect, one seeking no dispute with a simple reflection of Vitruvius (ever the pragmatist in the feined guise of warrior minstrel):
“[A]rchitects who have aimed at acquiring manual skill without scholarship have never been able to reach a position of authority to correspond to their pains, while those who relied only upon theories and scholarship were obviously hunting the shadow and not the substance. But those who have a thorough knowledge of both […] have the sooner attained their object and carried authority with them.”
Vitruvius’ criterion of ‘thorough’ is daunting. But while hesitating to align myself with his fawning and world-weary comportment that feigns modesty, I claim at least sufficient experience to know the limits of my inexperience in order to proceed with a degree of tentative audacity, without which one may as well stay in the shadows and in bed. In other words, I am aware that theory and commentary – like this – bear the paradoxical nature of only being meaningful within a stream of action, i.e., they must, to employ one of Kierkegaard’s phrases, be “critically situated in existence”, either born of it and destined to return to it, or left on the wayside as an irrelevant conceit. They must be oriented to the living nature of their focus of attention, drawing upon personal experiences, perhaps adopting the voice of a proverbial side coach who is at least as deeply engaged as the most enthusiastic spectator and almost as equally as those upon the field of play. Such an author must be empathetically appreciative of the strategic dimension of what is going on, as well as the intimate and intricate moves improvised by those on the muddy field, having one eye on what it means to vocationally sweat and perform at the heart of it all, and the other mindful of those in the stands and the Board of Director’s box. And, while comporting reflectively and standing back within the confinement of a discursive sphere of action and play, the theorist must – as excited and tearful as any soccer fan at the beauty of play – emotively attend to the action on the field.
To confess to being carried away – that is, to a love of architecture and, rather like Hilda Wangel, to occasionally hear harps and wave a shawl – is something with which I have no difficulty. However, in comporting as a enthusiastic and declaratory side-coach one not only engages Satre’s question concerning disclosure, but also his comment that, “If you name the behaviour of an individual, you reveal it to him; he sees himself.” Such naming and revelation is by no means unproblematic. One must dare to throw prickly harangues at those on the field of play – what is partly an adoption of charge, partly the pretence that one can see or one knows – and also the conceit of having a significant point to make. One is challenged to articulate the content of this conceit and, at the very least, to lend it rough sense. But not everyone welcomes purported disclosures. One is reminded of Lethaby’s reference to ‘eyes which do not see,’ no doubt adopted from biblical and esoteric sources within which it serves as reference to those ‘asleep’ to reality – a metaphorical expression hermeneutically rooted in Aristotle’s concept of matter being asleep and form (the obsessive focus or architectural endeavour) awake, or of sleep as an idleness of that aspect of the soul in which people can be said to be good or bad, as if a person were living the life of a plant. Disturbance to mental constructs can arouse hostility. Furthermore, one is sensitive to the fact that any attentive seeing and hearing – the coach’s included – is hardly a faculty that can be depended upon: everyone suffers a propensity to fall soundly ‘asleep,’ encountering the difficulty of realising an openness to experience which overcomes convenient opinion and prejudice in order to intuit what Henri Bergson characterised as the illuminating ‘fringe’ beyond habituated, editorial habits of mind. Even then, one is confronted by the interpretative problems that accompany a striving toward understanding: perhaps listening to the inner voice of one’s daemon, always fearful that one might not hear or, perhaps worse, mishear.
Such challenges easily engender a feeling of being lost in the woods, mindful of the dark fairy tales of childhood, concerned one might never find the pathways noted by Martin Heidegger – a man who, like Ibsen’s master builder, Solness, appears to have been all too aware of having possibly misheard his daemon, to have mistaken the Devil for a Muse. One also has to be wary, like Adolf Loos, of unexpectedly stumbling upon some emotively disturbing fresh mound of earth that disrupts one’s sojourn in the woods and architectonically underscores that existential necessity of mortality of which Heidegger insists we must always be mindful. How, on such an occasion, might one ensure the wakefulness and perspicacity to know, like Loos, that “This is architecture!”?
As if aware of Loos’ emotive pointer, Bruno Zevi argued that all commentary on architecture is, “no more than allusive and preparatory to that moment in which we, with everything in us that is physical and spiritual and, above all, human, enter and experience the spaces we have been studying. That is the moment of architecture.” It is in that moment – and only in that moment – that one finds it and knows it: that one meets with architecture. This is indubitably true and, midst media bombardment, easily forgotten. However, in the manner Zevi makes this claim he perhaps betrays a philosophical game called ‘looking for the essence.’ From his perspective it was space itself that bore the burden of architecture – a peculiarly reductionist concept already with a relatively long history but, in more ways than one, a vacuous contention until literally animated by reference to the perambulations of a situated human body. But it is a concept attractive to even the most perspicacious thinkers in architecture. Koolhaas, for example, bitterly complains that: “As if space itself is invisible, all theory for the production of space is based on an obsessive preoccupation with its opposite: substance and objects, i.e., architecture. Architects could never explain space; Junkspace is our punishment for their mystifications.”
However, there are alternative ways of looking. Reyner Banham, for example, one of the more notable of post-war architectural historians, whose works already gather too much dust, once made sardonic reference to much current architecture as “buildings in drag” – a pained remark made in the context of emerging Postmodernism, but formulated with reference to architecture as a whole, perhaps as a shot across the bows of his former mentor, Nikolaus Pevsner and the latter’s classic differentiation – rooted in a differentiating ‘aesthetic intent’ – between ‘buildings’ and ‘architecture.’ On a note of weary exasperation and resignation, Banham turns to the metaphor of architecture as an enigmatic black box housing a western European tradition of doubtful value or utility; what is architecture certainly has little to do with whether it is good design. One imagines such a device to be well-travelled, scratched and dented, yet nevertheless buzzing with a resilient functionality, perhaps bearing a distressed sticker on its side reading: “Authentic building occurs so far as there are poets, such poets as take the measure for architecture, the structure of dwelling.” And, on the other side, another sticker: the Realist’s scrawled and weary rejoinder that, “It is hard enough to make sense of the simple things without discovering they are really not as simple as they look.”
Had he lived another thirty years Banham might have reconfigured the black box as a version of WALL–E: Pixar Animation’s obsolete but sentient robotic garbage-compacter that continues to absurdly, but with dumb contentment, labour in the lone task of bringing a desolated spaceship-Earth to a semblance of architectonic order and coherence. As a ghost-in-the-machine, the personality of WALL–E enjoys a Rousseau-like childish innocence and, accompanied by a pet roach, inhabits his own rusting version of the primitive hut, happily living a life marred only by hints of loneliness and mild emotional deprivation: even a robot, made by man, is elevated above a mere insect. But then EVE arrives – a extra-terrestrial robot whose sleek form belongs to a realm of Apollonian refinement where Hadid has mated with Calatrava to given birth to an algorithmically derived child of architectonic beauty. WALL–E then re-enacts the myth in which art is created by Butades when his daughter draws the outline of her lover on a wall: infatuated, he employs junkspace debris to create a sculptural portrait of his beloved EVE. Like some single-minded anthropologist on a field trip our purposeful femme fatale dismisses this gesture as both bizarre and naïve rather than endearing.
While our labouring robotic ‘Waste-Allocator’ courts his ‘Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator,’ humanity lives intergalactically in a commodious but overly refined and ironically vegetative dystopia where biological reversion has been accompanied by psychological cushioning created as a state of somatic innocence overseen by covertly dictatorial Guardian machines characterized by Platonic arrogance and presumption. Rousseau would have construed this as a story confirming civilisation’s corruption and, like his philosophy, the animated narrative envisages the need to source human salvation by means of reference to more primordial sensibilities. However, the latter state – now romantically sanitised of civilisation’s vulgarities – is simply the other side of the same coin. The architectural sophistications of the Ancien Régime are counter-pointed by a cottage that is refined as well as simply rustic; the artificialities of architecture are complemented as well as contrasted by simple well-building and the moral example the latter lends to the former.
But this dualism filters out a third consideration: not of one kind of taste set against another, but a category of the customary in which taste is wholly absent and the vacuum left is prone to appropriation by barbarity. Apollo’s pained reflections upon the relative merits of a considered balance between this and that, between feelings and reasoning, between authenticity and artifice, are then swiped away by unpredictable Dionysian heterogeneity, whether its causal properties are natural, human or artificial: WALL–E is exposed to devastating dust storms; humanity has to address its own problematic awakening; and the islanded inter-galactic idyll is revealed as masking a will to power.
Less fantastically, on Odet’s stage, his idealist hero knows of good and evil in the sense of being haunted by choices that gnaw at his very being. The painfully entangled imperatives of necessity and freedom tear at his flesh and he turns to his Rouault as if to a sphere of respite: that expressivity of the artist in which such conflicts enjoy self-determined horizons of concern and a satisfying inner resolution. How, at the very least, can our hero follow a via negativa that avoids inauthentic action? But nature, as everyone knows, abhors vacillation and procrastination as much as any vacuum and our hero merely wakes to find himself in his own version of a black box against whose self-imposed confines he rages as a confused and disoriented prisoner. He suffers a Schoperhauerian ride – as a weak form of ‘acquired character’ sat upon the shoulders of the ‘innate character’ to which he is coupled – that allows of no release: he cannot improvise ways to wakefully act with a modicum of audacity, inventiveness and improvisation, if only ironically, in order to facilitate escape from the blinkered confines of his entrapment on the shoulders of the beast he rides.
Architecture seeks to escape all this – to serve as a beacon, much like the church erected in the tumultuous eleventh century by the monks of Cluny as “a dwelling place for mortals that would please the inhabitants of heaven.” Latter day secularists may construe such pleasures in terms of dwelling places in the guise of Koolhaasian Junkspace, but the point is that what architecture is – what architects, as a result of their concerns, do when they get out of bed in the morning and strive to satisfy Hilda Wangel’s longing to hear the defiance that brings to her the sound of ‘harps in the air’ – depends less on the problem of what a master builder is, than the recurring challenge of how to be one. When, with gruesome inevitability, Ibsen’s master builder crashes to the ground from the tower of his newly constructed home, Hilda admonishes the horrified onlookers: “But he mounted right to the top. And I heard harps in the air [the master builder’s defiant and joyful song].” Our femme fatale doesn’t give a damn. All that matters is the heroism of Solness’ daring breakthrough.
March 11, 2012Posted by on
The following post is the Prologue of ‘Meetings With Buildings’, the book I am currently working on. It begins with a quote from Ibsen’s Master Builder – a work that wraps its tragic theme around some truths about architects (in this instance, a master builder who comes under the influence of a femme fatale and subsequently plunges from the ‘topping out’ ceremony of a tower to his death).
[As if in quiet spell-bound triumph.]
“But he mounted right to the top.
And I heard harps in the air.”
[Waves her shawl in the air, and shrieks with wild intensity.]
“My . . . my Master Builder!”
There is an engaging beginning to John Summerson’s ‘Georgian London‘ in which this historian imaginatively takes us up in a balloon, high above the River Thames Valley; he wants to show us something. As if now cast in the unlikely role of Master of the Time Machine, Summerson asks us to look down upon what he has to demonstrate: an accelerated historical view of London, from its beginnings up to the present day. We peer down and observe – in quick-time – what is now a metropolis unfold from its beginnings as a Roman fort, then as twin historic foci along the banks of a broad, meandering river, finally as a heaving urban metabolism. We have witnessed the formation of a distinctive urban patterning, an apparently organic growth that, over time, engulfs the landscape and reaches out tentacles to the furthermost ends of a kingdom. One now appreciates the informing basis of London’s architectural topography. There is a pattern. It has coherence. Now it makes sense, even if, alarmingly, one suspects that this supposedly artefactual beast appears to have a life entirely of its own.
It is with Summerson’s ‘time-accelerator’ model in mind that I imagine a traversal across the cultivated fields of occidental master building – navigating a surprisingly variegated landscape of architectural endeavour. Like our ballooning historian, I am also alert to meaningful patterns. But this is a textural journey. Literally. I’m on the ground, where I want to be, traversing pavements, not one mile in the air. I try to meet with distinctive buildings, to sample the delights of those metaphorical cultivations of husbandmen like Halvard Solness in Ibsen’s dramatic fiction … It’s my own Grand Tour and, like the young William Chambers, I even enjoy diversions to other, exotic architectural cultures. The principal part of my journey takes me from the dauntingly massive, sun-bleached trabeations of Egypt and Greece, past the self-celebratory, vaulted splendours of Rome toward ethereal Gothic tracery and walls of glass kissed by soft grey northern skies. I come across the morning glories of Renaissance exuberance and find a smile elicited by Baroque dynamism basking in the heat of an Italian summer … But, already, the sun is clouded by intermittent gritty fogs and the portend of violent storms: I find myself among the edifices of an awesome Machine Age, where an elusive cosmopolitan flåneur can be spotted slinking though the diversity of a sometimes exhilarating, sometimes brutalised landscape of building works. And then: an astounding and multifarious architectural bloom spreads across a contemporary landscape in every direction, into all kinds of nooks and crannies …
Finally, I reach an impenetrable haze. A way-sign nailed to a wretched tree points forward, toward the promise of ‘a mix of the present plus enhanced features and options’. But the cranky hand of some contrary sentiment has aggressively employed white graffiti in an attempt at obliterative censure. Perplexed, I pause to reflect upon my journey. Indubitably, like Hilda Wangel, the femme fatale of Ibsen’s drama, I confess to having sometimes heard the air bear a melodic song … And the familiar simile of culture as cultivation comes to mind. However, it occurs to me that the work of each generation of husbandmen (and, until recently, they invariably are men) enjoys a peculiar structural similarity: circumstances and conditions alter, often dramatically, but the fundamental creative challenge peculiarly endures. The metaphorical methods of this husbandry might change and the crops might vary, but core issues and challenges appear to subsist as familiar considerations struggling for unrelenting reinvention and redefinition. Everything mutates, but it is the continuities that now intrigue me.
And then an obtrusive voice penetrates my reflections: “Architecture is the will of the epoch translated into space. Until this simple truth is clearly recognized, the new architecture will be uncertain and tentative. Until then it must remain a chaos of undirected forces. The question as to the nature of architecture is of decisive importance. It must be understood that all architecture is bound up with its own time that it can only be manifested in living tasks and in the medium of its epoch. In no age has it been otherwise.” 
I wonder: would our balloonist historian have disagreed with Mies’ pronouncement? Would anyone disagree with such common sense? … Strangely, I can’t recall anyone referring me to this comment when I was at architecture school, or when teaching … But is it so obvious, and what does it mean: that architecture “can only be manifest in living tasks …”? At which point I am distracted by a distressed piece of newspaper tossing listlessly in the breeze. I snatch at it and find it bearing a headline referring to the Chairman of the Pritzker Prize Committee applying Mies’ words to a latter-day prizewinner. Apparently a Californian architect has been witness to a latterday fulfillment of this Modernist heroe’s aphorism …
My mood has altered. Somewhat dissatisfied and peculiarly irritated, I let the newsprint free upon its random drift that no doubt accords with the obscure mathematical necessities to which sweeping air currents conform … for now I feel a chill. Menacing clouds have cancelled the sun’s warmth and I am mindful of a pervasive indifference that imbues the draft. And then, nearby: a wretched figure who squats, gently rocking, quietly moaning a lament about a flowing river, being too tired to live and too fearful to die. Had this caricature a place in Mies’ orderly epochal scripting of ‘living tasks’? Did he give a damn about the decisive importance of architecture? … And there, beyond, as twilight approaches, I notice darkening background woods: what appears to be a dense place bearing an air of wildness and neglect, but apparently penetrated by a narrow, twisting pathway threatened by relentless vegetative growth … My feeling is one of disorientation as well as discontent. Harps are notable for their absence from this scenario. Anyway, it’s getting late and I have an invitation to join some local master builders for supper.
To my relief this turns out to be a jolly, laid-back affair that counters my lingering melancholy. We munch, sip decent wine and scribble upon the tablecloth … Afterward, I tentatively ask about the woods. With mock seriousness tinged by terror someone draws close and tells me that tradition refers to a clearing within its depths where there stands a charismatic house of origin to which people have been known to be drawn by a Siren song of bewitchment … Only the most brave and witful come back from such a place! … Is it inhabited? My hosts enjoy my incredulity. We laugh, I feel silly and the conversation drifts elsewhere. As an aside, a neighbour whispers to me about an adventuresome husbandman who actually did enter the forest. Apparently he came across a fresh mound of earth that disturbed him so much he quickly hurried back, muttering to all who would listen that he now understood architecture … I smile, but I’m not sure that I understand. Is this reference to Loos another joke at my expense? And then my acquaintance makes an inquiry: ‘So, across a broad terrain, harps in the air and all that, eh? What was your favourite building?’
Favourite? For what? When? In what circumstance? Had I neglected to garner an orderly baggage of congenial architectural experiences? I felt cornered. What ‘goods’ had I found within my tour through architecture’s grand tradition of works?
Then, to my own surprise, I find myself responding in eagerness and without more hesitation or reflective forethought: yes, there are two buildings that come to mind. Unsurprisingly, these are London buildings with which I am habitually familiar and I have often found to be deeply satisfying … “The first is a gloomy, High Victorian edifice for once radical forms of worship, still reeking with incense and deft architectonic virtuosity, a dense and masterful work in which the dynamics of place are, palpably and paradoxically, orchestrated into a quiet and affective equipoise in a location just around the corner from the contrasting appetitive clatter of Oxford Street and originally set amongst some of the poorest of London’s inhabitants. The architect’s accommodational insertion is masterly – squeezed into an impossibly small place. It embodies what I can only denote as architectural gamesmanship – what is, I submit, in the final analysis is simply a love of life as an improvisational construct nevertheless informed by concerns of lasting value …”
My response was turning into a lecturette, but I breathlessly continued: “And my second favourite – equally redolent with gamesmanship – was once the family home, office, gallery and personal architectural museum of a man who, rather bizarrely, courted the Spirit of Architecture as if he were in dialogue with a fearsome and reluctant lover: a femme fatale! Perambulating this house – on those rare occasions when, as with the church, the place is empty – I must confess to the experience of a special kind of tingle, as if architecture was ‘going on” – there’s no other way to describe what I mean – as if I have met with it … with Her … I have felt her presence. It is as if, for an ever-so brief moment, one has entered into a strangely aestheticised dialogue … Or is it a dance of courtship? But, damn it, she withdraws the moment she is acknowledged! … My point is not the aesthetic formalities of this architecture – much as I admire such stuff it is mere fall-out from that authoring master builder’s love of the architectural game. No, it’s as if the architect’s courtship had formed itself into a Heideggerian kind of ‘setting up’ and a ‘setting forth’ that is, at once, an utterly improvisational, committed and considered love of architectural play … Oddly, I suppose that this, too, is a place of worship …”
Others have been listening, but glazed eyes meet my enthusiasms. My interlocutor stifles a yawn. I feel alone. Gamesmanship; architecture ‘going on.’ Courtship? Did they understand? Did I? With a considerate smile another neighbour sympathetically remarks that, sometimes, such issues shouldn’t be discussed at the end of the day, at dinner. Perhaps I had drunk too much … We decide to retire.
While the master builders dreamt, my own slumbers were disturbed. I anxiously tossed and turned. A dark mountain loomed over us; in the distance there were soft, flickering lights. The reflection of a full moon snaked across the gently lapping waters of a deep nearby lake. Crickets lent a gentle chorus to the air, interrupted by the occasional whoosh of an unseen speeding car. Ducks, uneasily, now and then quacked; a meandering cat slunk by … All this against the background of a more profound silence with more depth than that lake … And then something startled me: a shriek of horror, perhaps? And, somehow, somewhere, I was convinced, I could hear a muted sound in the air, but something tortured rather than the melody of harps, something inter-mingled with that wretched man’s lament, a sound painfully grating as if a violin were being achingly played in the middle of a slow motion train crash. And then another voice: spectral and crazed … Mies: enraptured, bewitched and quite out of his mind after a sojourn in the woods? … I drew my blanket more tightly around me; soon a dawn would arrive.
 Hilda Wangel – a veritable femme fatale – upon the tragic triumph of Solness, the master builder who falls from a tower, in Henrik Ibsen’s, The Master Builder, (1892).
 John Summerson, Georgian London, (first published 1945). Interestingly, his ‘air-view’ was written at a period when London was exposed to the nightmare of bombing, during the Second World War. Since that time, the strategic geography has continued to evolve, but Summerson’s fundamental patterning remains in place.
 Chambers (1722-96), one of England’s more famous eighteenth-century architects, made a fortune by sailing to China before going to Paris to learn architecture, then turning to London to seek fame and significance.
 Mies van der Rohe, quoted in Zukowsky, J., (ed.), Mies Reconsidered: His Career, Legacy, and Disciples, (1986).