Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: London
May 21, 2012Posted by on
(No, don’t get excited – this is about architecture, not whatever other kinds of wonderful Irish feelings that come to mind.)
When one meets with architectural quality there not much to say. In fact, saying much – anything at all – can ruin the experience. It just is … and one resorts to nods, winks, muttering, etc. Which is a good reason to go to buildings with a friend – one might similarly ‘meet with’ them in this language of nods, winks, hints and mutterings … Otherwise: shut up.
It’s the not-so-good that arouses verbose commentary on whether it is good or not, or what the balance is of good and bad and an inbetween. One is talking about feelings and, by definition, that is problematic. How does one communicate what is felt in terms of intelligible concepts? No, mutter grunt, … whatever; save the words.
Why does all this come to mind? Because the Photographer’s Gallery in central London (at the northern edge of Soho, just around the corner to a very nice facade by Amanda Levete and not far from the Apple store on Regent Street) has just reopened after extensive rebuilding works. And it’s terrific … That is, I feel it is … and I then rationalise this feeling.
OK, so what did I like about it?
I have no idea and yet every certainty. The moment I saw the work I knew this was ‘quality’ and I went forward hoping I wasn’t going to be contradicted. I wasn’t. Sure, apparently it has lots of budget problems, but it doesn’t show. Perhaps it will when I visit again.
What do you want me to say? It has presence. It rewards examination and a walk-through experience. It feels as if its flourishing and that visitors are enjoying it. It has fascinating linkages between the interior and what is outside, especially on the upper gallery. I really enjoy the facade treatment. I like the equation of old and new. I like the building’s features (e.g. the ground floor set against that upper gallery, the one with the tall window). I like the detailing (e.g. on the stairs). The whole building exudes that mysterious quality of an acute architectural sensibility of caring.
Not every building one suspects will exhibit an architectural kind of goodness does this. A discriminating judgement is made before one is consciously aware of it and one can only hope that the sensuous reality will live up to first impressions. I wish I could explain this, but it’s impossible. One ‘smells’ it, one senses it, feels it…roughly, yes, sometimes incorrectly, yes, but one is usually on-target. Yes, I know this is weird: to celebrate a building by referring to one’s own feelings and implicit judgements, but that’s the point … It’s on this basis that one ‘meets with’ a building. There’s a connection at a prepredicative level. And if the building is genuinely good and withstands a more rational criticism, then this felt basis of appraisal holds itself in place. If it doesn’t, well … And it’s true: one’s feelings are sometimes contradicted, one is disappointed by a full experience. (Philosophically, you have to refer to Ernst Cassirer. He’s the only philosopher who attempts to properly address this topic. also, Peirce, a bit; Merleau-Ponty, almost …)
In the words of the architects (O’Donnell & Tuomey, of Dublin): “The [original] brick-warehouse steel-frame building is extended to minimise the increase in load on the existing structure and foundations. This extended volume houses large gallery spaces. A close control gallery is located within the fabric of the existing building. The lightweight extension is clad in a dark rendered surface that steps forward from the face of the existing brickwork. The street front café is finished with black polished terrazzo. Untreated hardwood timber framed elements are detailed to slide into the wall thickness flush with the rendered surface. The composition and detail of the hardwood screens and new openings give a crafted character to the façade.”
Why was I mildly gobsmacked? In part because there is a lack of such quality in London, especially at a publically accessible level. And – blessed relief – it’s not some grand corporate exercise by yet another ‘starchitect’ working for a City bank or developer. On top of which, the Gallery currently has a fine exhibition of photos by Edward Burtynsky!
All in all it was a terrific and quick architectural outing. I can’t wait for their LSE building to be completed.
(Incidentally, the director of the Gallery, Brett Rogers, apparently claims that a cross-section of London art and photography students was recently calculated to be looking at 6,000-7,000 images each day on phones, laptops, iPads etc.)
May 17, 2012Posted by on
I like the way that Arthur Schopenhauer charactertises mankind as a lame child sat upon the shoulders of a blind man, stumbling along … I thought I’d try and draw this, but it turned out to be, ‘Hey, Dad, is that architecture over there …?’
But it reminded me of a what I believe was one of the last piece Reyner Banham wrote, when he was ill with cancer. It was published over two years after his death, in late 1990, in New Statesman & Society, entitled A Black Box: the secret profession of architecture.
It’s a peculiar piece, pained and confused. He opens it by telling us that Hawksmoor created great architecture, but Wren, his teacher, did not. He then remarks that a commonplace reliance upon architectural erudition, as practised by the likes of Jencks, Venturi, et al, (this was 1990, remember), “leaves postmodernism in the same relation to architecture as female impersonation to femininity. It is not architecture, but building in drag.”
Ouch. Literally pained he may have been, but Banham had lost none of his usual wit and bite. He then pointed out that good architecture has nothing to do with good design, but this raises an issue: So what is architecture? And wherein lies its goodness?
Architecture, Banham, quips, is a prestigious modo architectorum, a strangely privileged cultural entity. It certainly has nothing to do with what it does (there is nothing special or unique in that quarter), and everything to do with how it does it. For example, they nobly take full responsibilty for the whole of a building design. What makes an architect is best revealed by an anecdote – and here Banham repeats an old joke about : “the architect who, when asked for a pencil that could be used to tighten the tourniquet on the limb of a person bleeding to death in the street, carefully enquired ‘Will a 2B do?”‘Architects are weird. And they have weird values, as exhibited by an attitude to engineering that (as with Rogers’ Lloyds building) exhibits a “pickiness over details that shows up in engineering only when a total stranger wanders in from another field, as did Henry Royce or Ettore Bugatti the the early days of the automobile.”
Banham then quotes something he once overheard in a pressured office, during the early 1970s: someone was told to “forget all that environmental stuff and get on with the architecture.” Get on with it? With what? What is this ‘architecture’ that the man in the office was asked to ‘get on with’? To confront architecture and architect, in other words, is akin to being faced with a proverbial black box.
Looking for clues to what goes in inside this box, he argues that a key to student success has always been to draw in the right manner; drawing improperly will ensure failure. Drawing, decides Banham, is a clue: being unable to think without drawing is “the true mark of one fully socialised into the profession” and “submission to the unspoken codes of a secret society.” Wren knew this and “tried to teach himself architecture out of books, like a postmodernist, but never gained entry to the inner sancta of its art or mystery.”
He then turns to Christopher Alexander and his ‘pattern language’ (it was then quite fashionable). Significant form, Alexander had argued, not only exhibits knowledge of what it is, how it is used and made, etc., but “there is an imperative aspect to the pattern … it is a desirable pattern … [the architect] must create this pattern in order to maintain a stable and healthy world.” ‘A desirable pattern’? It has moral force; it is the right way to do this kind of thing. Hawksmoor appears to have understood; Wren did not. The west front of St Paul’s is marvellous urban scenography, but it is not architecture.
So what, one wonders, does Banham think that architecture is? How does one recognise it? What value does it have? Surely, Banham argues, what makes his work valuable can be demystified. Surely the code can be broken and its inner truths exposed? Here, as with Hawksmoor, we are offered Mies – a ‘true insider’ whose genius is buried under rationalisations that obscures his skills as an architect. But what do we mean? Banham has no idea; architecture is an arcane code, a tradition bound to the Mediterranean basin and its classical traditions. Gothic and the Hi-tech appear to be on its fringes, if classifiable as ‘architecture’ at all. And, certainly, cramming the whole of the globe’s ordinary building practices within its categorical tradition appears to be misguided.
So, should we open the box to ‘the profane and vulgar’? This, suggests Banham, might risk destroying what architecture is. It might lay architecture open to the suspicion that “there may be nothing at all inside the black box except a mystery for its own sake.” And he gives up.
It’s a strange piece. Building is contrasted to architecture, but the difference is not defined. Wren is contrasted with Hawksmoor, but that difference is also not defined. It’s all a bit like Koolhaas condemning Junkspace without explaining what the implied contrast is.
As a value, Banham seems able to recognise something and praise it (as authored by Hawksmoor and Mies). But he has no idea what ‘it’ is. And, whatever it is, it is distinct from good (intelligent) design. He seems persuaded that this value is, as once famously argued by Clive Bell, something to do with ‘significant form,’ but he remains suspicious. He suspects drawing has something to do with the creativity involved, but is not sure … He accepts that a process of initiation is important, but can’t identify what is going on there any more than he can get into the black box. He acknowledges the importance of a tradition of discourse, and yet sees it as anachronistic.
Overall, it is a rather sad essay. At the end of a life given over to architecture and having expressed huge enjoyment in this play, Banham was confessing to a core exasperation. That, in itself, is remarkable. It is also interesting that Banham frames the issue of what architecture is in terms of what it means to be an architect – to be that kind of individual who, inarticulate as he or she might be, is expressively within a certain discourse …
And that brings me to a worthy current ‘campaign’ running in the Architectural Review entitled The Big Rethink (written by Peter Buchanan). No, don’t rush to it. It’s interesting, but is familiar territory that underscores the above point: architecture has little to do with what it does, and everything to do with how it does it. And that brings us to the character of the architect as well as his or her professional skills.
For example, Buchanan laments that, “architects seem to have become incapable of producing the cheap, plain buildings with a quiet, unobtrusive dignity that were once commonplace …” (Was it?) Citing the likes of Foster (!) the contrast is what he refers to a ‘mature modernism’ whose author’s works “display an admirable breadth of design concerns, responding to history and context, and are aptly inventive (without being contrived) formally and technically as well as in social organisation and environmental strategies.” What he dislikes is the opposite: works that, in effect, he deems to be inappropriate, ill-judged, crass, insensitive, philistine … etc.
In sum, what Buchanan celebrates and criticises are the products of character, outlook and values as the key informants of architectural form. Like Banham, he wants the ‘real’ thing and not a parody, not ‘building in drag.’
One is not in disagreement. However, an anxiety arises from the feeling that Buchanan fails to take on the challenge that sits upon our faces: the cliché of the digital revolution that has overtaken the profession during past twenty to thirty years (complemented by a corresponding constructive capability facilitated by digital technologies). Computers (affordable desktops weren’t around until the late ’80s and not ubiquitous in offices until the mid ’90s) and decent software packages are still relatively new (I know: the later remains an issue, but gets hugely better all the time). We keep forgetting all this, and yet grey-beards such as Buchanan (and me) should be acutely aware of it all.
These changes have made formal plays with complex geometries (of the kind pioneered by Mark Burry et al) into something relatively easy to handle (Mark, I am sure, would hesitate before agreeing with that comment, perhaps muttering about the importance of scripting experiences …). Architects are no longer bound to Euclidian geometries and neo-Platonic derivatives of the kind that fascinated the likes of Le Corbusier, or the more simple non-Euclidian derivatives such as the hyperbolic paraboloids garage forecourt roof recently listed in the UK.
One senses that Buchanan fails to direct his attentions to the core of these current issues and to locate those human failures of discrimination, judgement and commitments which concern him within a current body of discourse and education. He longs for reasurances, but finds too much indiscriminate, neglectful and egocentric playfulness. He’s probably right. However, as ever, we all agree upon the generalities of principle but find ourselves in contention when it comes to particulars.
Perhaps Banham would not have made the same error. He might still have muttered sceptically and acerbically about a tradition of secrets and black boxes, but would surely have surprised, amused and engaged us with anecdotes concerning a current vitality that has no more or less silly aspects to it than the grand neo-Platonic tradition on which European architecture founds itself and is still haunted by.
“Numbers, they tell me: numbers, as ratio or parametrics or whatever … it’s all the same: architecture, son, architecture … Chuck in a a bit of Veblen and Bataille and you’ve caught the generality of the thing … Put the Black Keys on the headphones, will you?”
May 15, 2012Posted by on
I thought someone might like this (courtesy of UCL, Centre For Advanced Spatial Analysis):
Source code: https://github.com/jawj/pigeonsim
And here’s another, this time using the notion of city flows as the blood streams of a pulsing beast …It depicts the London Underground network as a set of arteries that thicken as passenger volumes passing through the network increase.
Here is another mapping of traffic flows (you will find you need full screen to see anything much):
This is a nice one showing Boris Bike activity (click on ‘animation’ when the page opens, then on ‘start animation’)
And how about Tokyo growth in terms of slime mould?
April 21, 2012Posted by on
Having lived in London most of my life the experience of mountains has, until recently, been rather occasional.
Now that it is less occasional I’m more aware of that strange and disturbing quality that can creep into one’s mind as the tree-line is approached and crossed – into, that is, a distinctly more forbidding realm where people more courageous than myself venture upward into the snows.
In truth, I don’t much like that experience. It’s daunting. The absence of evident life disturbs me.
The contrast is a central London street: walking through Soho, for example, on an early Friday summer’s evening: that in between period when daytime hasn’t completed itself and the evening has hardly begun – crowed pubs, equally overflowing pavements … This is not quite the ‘buzz’ that a now aging chief planner of the City of London, Peter Rees, celebrates and promotes (“People don’t come to London for the buildings; they come for the buzz!” No, this is a different kind of buzz …
But, to return to mountains: Caspar David Friedrich‘s famous painting has an iconic status that self-evidently connects with something many people empathise with. They recognise something. This is sometimes written up as sublimity in the sense this refers to a certain fearsome awe of the kind defined by Kant and others. But Friedrich’s figure is more bemused than disturbed: calm and contemplative; comfortable, not fearful, calmly drinking in the distant view rather than being over-awed by it. Fearfulness is over the horizon; the view can be contemplated as distant exposed peaks. This isn’t about sublimity; just the opposite, in fact … It’s also evident that this is an urbanite on an outing.
But it it’s perhaps more to the point that our man on the mountain top is peculiarly inbetween. I like to think of him as a flaneur midst Nature at its most raw and comprehensive. … And as I write this I, too, am strangely cast as an inbetween urbanite: sitting at the window bar of an everyday Pret-a-Manger, looking out at this morning’s commuters, passing stuffed double-decker buses, vehicles with screaming sirens, bicycle riders on their fold-ups or an ungainly Boris Bike, painters off to some building site, joggers heading toward some refreshing office shower, prancing women wearing incredulously high heels, suited middle-managers with equally inapt back-packs, others bemused by whatever is issuing from their headphones and ear-pieces … And, midst it all, I’m in a relatively still place while all this going on in front, behind, and even while Amy Winehouse belts out on the cafe Muzak system as the commuters rush in for their take-away caffeine hit …
This is home – not as a place, but as a state of being … It’s in between, just for a while, for a few still moments … And then the interruption: Oh, my God, she was attractive! … Inbetweeness had been obtruded upon … I put my pen down … Time to pack up and depart. God, how I love this city. But how odd: the silence of an inbetweenness up a mountain , the cacophony of noise in the city … And yet there is a sameness … Is that what Caspar’s figure was up to: listening to The Silence? Can I, too, hear this absence, even here, in central London … ?
(And the photo? My wife, somewhere up around 1600m, striking a familiar pose, but entirely unconsciously … honest.)
April 19, 2012Posted by on
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).
February 7, 2012Posted by on
New York Times piece (09.12.2012): climbers clinging to the sheer granite face of a rock in the Yosemite Valley, some 365 meters up, used their iPhone (charged by small solar panels) to tell the world of what was going one, live. An editor of an alpine climbing magazine lamented that, “instead of actually having the experience be the important part, it’s the representation of the experience that becomes the important part – something is lost.” Another alpinist complained that such a media-driven exercise engendered ‘Kodak courage’: the idea that people tend to push harder when being filmed or photographed; its gets dangerous. But there was another side to all this. Worried about the risks in poor winter conditions, the climbers tweeted the universe and asked about the wisdom of what they were doing. The consensus was that they were being imprudent, so they backed off and climbed back down.
Yesterday, I should have been hurtling (if one can actually do such a thing) from one end of London to another with 55 Spanish students and their tutors, but it snowed last night, rather heavily (for London) … As you might guess, the city comes to a halt when snow falls. The coach company thought we were pushing our luck. We cancelled. (Perhaps I should have tweeted the universe for advice.)
So, there I was taking photos out of the window and furthering corrections on the first part of Meetings With Buildings inbetween episodes of Boardwalk Empire. And the Spaniards were doing whatever very cold Spaniards do in a snowy London on a Sunday when the temperature is zero degrees and the sky is grey. Even London’s architecture needs sunshine.
Their lost opportunity to see some architecture in the flesh reminds me of a conversation with someone who has suggested that I give a short talk on ‘representation.’ They think I have a hang-up about architectural photos, and this might add up to a bit of controversy.
And its true. My problem is that photographs can be wonderful as photographs and as architectural sales spin, but they rarely (if ever) tell one what the experience of a building really is all about.
See? Experience? ‘All about’? I get fed up making that complaint to magazines and award bodies: ‘Why do you presume no one wants to see the building you have illustrated? Why haven’t you given its address?’ They never reply. But I do admit to a rare and brief period when the Architects Journal experimented with some new photographers and I had to write and congratulate them. What was different?
To deal with that question I have to refer to the number of times I have seen a photo and then been to the real thing, only to find myself muttering, ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me that …?’ This ‘that’ can be a host of contextural factors that lend meaning to the experience and the facticity of the building, as it really is, warts and all. However, architectural discourse has become a photographic medium. Even awards are often based on photographs.
I have been locked into this wary attitude of mind for so many years that I take it for granted and simply look upon photos and the real thing as disparate realities. I don’t think about.
I recall discussing this difficulty with an ‘art photographer’ who was spending two years (!) combing London streets looking for photographs that captured the essence of … of something about London. Admirable. I showed him one of my guide books and asked him to comment, thinking he might say something like, “Well, if I was you I’d perhaps try and …” . But no. He paused, smiled condescendingly, put the book down and remarked that the photos were ‘descriptive’. Ah: the ultimate put-down. Oddly, I felt a perverse pleasure – well, not entirely, but (apart from a gulf in skills) I realised we were on different wave-lengths. That was what the short-lived interlude on the AJ briefly communicated: photographic descriptions that were simultaneously artful and moving. My photos were simply not very good, but to denigrate their ‘descriptiveness’ was to entirely miss the point.
But here I have to hesitate … What do I really mean?
My answer has nothing to do with an everyday factuality. No, it shifts toward some ambiguous charge, some quality of feeling that the photo connects to the building and its situation and the time of day and …. ‘Charge’? Yes: a shift toward what Ernst Cassirer dealt with as a felt mythic awareness and Charles Peirce dealt with as Firstness (or Quality). The language is one of feelings. We are shifted into that arena. This is not what most architectural photos are about. They give us artful form, but aesthetics are quite different from this primary ‘charge’ …
Do you know what I mean?
OK: perhaps this calls for another post on Cassirer and the deep waters of mythic awareness. But not now. Maybe never, because it’s so difficult to talk about; it eludes conceptual thinking … One ends up pointing: Do you get it? … Even then, to ‘get it’ depends upon the state of mind of those perceiving, as well as upon the work … It’s a difficult topic to handle. Yes, that would be ‘descriptive’, but not in any manner the above art photographer could ever appreciate.
December 1, 2011Posted by on
I’ve lived in London all my life and love the place – well, we all say that, wherever we live. I like those world surveys of ‘the most liveable city’ and such like – the stuff of endless controversy which, in the past, have aroused such controversy in newspapers (the Financial Times, especially). And ‘all my life’ is quite a few years, so I’ve seen many changes. However, over that time I’ve become increasingly intrigued by all those comments that refer to London as some kind of ‘beast’ with a life of its own. No, was doesn’t have to get superstitious, wet-eyed or begin to whisper about the deep things we don’t understand about spiritual forces. I’m certain it’s all just about systemic laws of big numbers. That is: I’m almost convinced – certainty is a risky business. One of the things that intrigues me is London’s patterned urban geography and ‘how it wants to be’. ‘How it wants to be’? Well, yes, because how else does one start to grasp at the issue? There is, for example, a very particular patterning that was established and clear by the C12th, i.e., after the Normans had arrived to lay claim to the English crown and set themselves up on the edge of an already established trading town set on the banks of the River Thames. In brief: they settled around Westminster Abbey, a C7th monastery where the last english king had been crowned and this, over the centuries evolved from palace to court plus parliament, civil service and the rest: London’s governmental and royal district. If you’re a rich banker and are eager to invest your bonuses, you turn toward the backlands of this are, to Kensington and Chelsea. And where you will earning that bonus will probably be in the old trading town – now the financial district that is the City of London. That is the basic pattern: two focal points of power and influence. And so it goes on … pattern within pattern, a key aspect of which has been the East End and the West End. Interestingly, although the port of London sometime ago shifted from east to west (i.e., Heathrow airport), many people are lobbying to build a new airport in the Thames Estuary, thus returning the port to the east agin. The ‘beast’ thinks long-term…. Peter Ackroyd is possibly one of the more notable of a long line of historians who likes to nod and wink toward this beastliness, whilst architects mutter (in a neo-Hegelian language they don’t understand) about a ‘spirit of place’.
It sounds like nonsense, but the more one becomes familiar with London as a pattern urban complex, the more one opens one’s mind to such a notion…. When I (in my role as Architectural Dialogue guide) get foreign architects coming to London to see the work of this and that contemporary architect I try (as if I were following in the footsteps of Nairn and Sinclair) to interest them in this London, this pattern, characterful place.
They invariably have zero interest. I have to sneak the message in. And I do it performatively by gathering them at some suitable location and getting out a stick of chalk (not too easy to find in the shops these days!). And they love it. ‘Gosh, Ken, I’m so pleased you explained that ….’ ‘But isn’t this touching upon the basic reason why you came to London?’ ‘No, we came to see this and that building by those famous architects you have.’ ‘But this and that building only has meaning within this larger framework …’ ‘Oh, I suppose so… Where is that Rem Koolhaas building? And we do love Foster …’ Good grief … I sometimes suggest they walk, that they track the canals, that they wonder the backlands and allow themselves to be bemused by it all. They never do. And I suggest that the cities they live must be similar, that they also will exhibit some peculiar patterning – a comment guaranteed to draw a blank. I sometimes think about doing a book on the topic, but such a work would always miss the essential nature of the thing in itself, i.e., just what it is what is getting at. No, it’s better to do it out there, on the pavement, with the chalk, with in between comments. In other word: – I give hints, I point, suggest and hope the other person (or group) is awake and aware and attentive and has a brain that can recognise patterns when they are pushed into their faces … Sometimes they can, and one sees that familiar light in their eyes and they smile: ‘Yes, I get it …’ … Now, that is another topic: why is this the only way to teach but few do it and even fewer people talk about it? And that comes back to learning about the architecture of the beast – tracking how the beast grows, shifts its posture, twitches, scratches, sheds ‘skin’ … We’re like parasites on its back, blissfully unawares of the body we dwell upon – well, the body we create … We do create it, don’t we?