Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: Meetings With Buildings
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.