Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: narrative
March 16, 2012Posted by on
Me and the cat were watching TV news: something about the formal opening of the new concourse at Kings Cross Station. Up popped a familiar learned-by-the-client-proverb: ‘good design doesn’t cost more.’ Good boy, I thought: you’ve learned.
But what does this aphorism mean? To a large extent ‘good design’ is consensual: more intelligent-influential-manipulative-persuasive types might voice a sentiment, and others will follow. But this would be a cynical outlook that overlooks the soundness of the aphorism itself. But it begs a question: wherein lies the ‘goodness’ of a design? Ask an architect? No, possibly not … They’ll know, but are unlikely to be unable to elucidate by articulation. Perhaps it’s impossible.
In such circumstances Wotton is always a good standby but, in itself, what does ‘commodity, firmness and delight’ mean? It’s also a nice aphorism, a catch-all that we all agree embodies much truth, but how does it help in making a judgement? David Hume argued that the bottom-line is taste; all rationality can do is help determine means to ends. The implication was that a cultivated, characterful and aware determination of taste is all important. However, in the end, all he could do was refer such an education to acknowledged past achievements. The argument goes in circles.
The first point is that we have to differentiate between a goodness of professional expertise and goodness in two other senses: a more broad referencing to human endeavour; and a more focused sense making reference to a tradition of architecture. Goodness in a ‘professional’ sense is a genuine good, but its references to expertise and skill sometimes stand in grand isolation – to be admired, but perhaps pointless or otherwise drawing us into a discussion of utility and competence. This goodness is good of its kind; good as a best means to an end. But professional expertise applied to a building project – and here I use ‘professional’ in its more colloquial sense, embracing every kind of skill and talent employed – will never ensure that an outcome is ‘good.’ ‘Worthy,’ perhaps; sufficiently good to be valued by the historian, for example, but an architect will refer an appraisal to other than what concerns aspects of execution.
Such other criteria will be a ‘goodness’ internal to the tradition of architectural practice. This goodness is internal to the tradition and independent of the goodness served by the project, e.g., furthering an enterprise’s accommodative requirements which serve some long-term aim, perhaps status, wealth and power – which, in turn, will serve other ends … The latter are external to architecture and what it is (whatever it is), in itself.
The former, internal, goodnesses are a crucial feature of architectural discourse. This one enters into and learns, somehow. And, also somehow, architects tend to agree – certainly on the general principles (Wotton again), even though we might disagree about particular instances that accord with the general principles. On the other hand, anyone with teaching experience and knowledge of Degree assessments, etc., will have experienced a remarkably shared understanding of what ‘excellence’ is, and yet those concerned will have great difficulty in articulating their criteria and validating their judgement – it’s all know mutter-nod-wink and agreement, on the whole, is reached.
A second point takes us outside of such academic contexts: into a ‘real’ world where appraisals are meaningless when divorced from context. This is where a set of complexly interwoven goodnesses come together, overlap, intertwine, and subsume one another in an opaque dynamic. In particular, the architect’s ‘internal’ goodnesses are set in relation to a project’s ‘external’ goodnesses. Coherence amounts to their satisfying reconciliation.
Another (easily forgotten) point is that appraisals are intrinsically critical. This by no means implies they are rational and explicit, but they are always critical. And such critical appraisals concern actions: someone did this or that, with more or less constraint and intentionality, but it is always an action that is at issue.
Such actions illustrate two interacting considerations: an internal context of concerns, aspirations, motivations, values, dispositions and the like, and an external context that forms a ‘setting’ for the action. Goods do not float abstractly. They have these kinds of context and each has a history, i.e., we appraise actions and the goodnesses they exhibit as a fact manifesting the interaction of narratives.
The architect has such a narrative that is personal, concerns practice, and is a part of a tradition of architectural discourse. The client similarly deals with a project in terms of such layered narratives, particularly that of the commissioning organisation and its needs and intentions. And both of these are grounded within the temporal, physical and cultural narrative of a particular place where the project is being executed (whether this is a plot somewhere along a street, or a nation-wide programme does not alter this attribute of a project). A building is insinuated into a social context which brings together all kinds of individual and institutional narratives, each see inn terms of beginnings, middles and ends. And, upon its completion and occupation, a new narrative begins for that building.
Given this complexity, it is remarkable that we accept buildings as we find them, and we find them in very simple terms without constraint on a felt freedom of appraisal. Implicitly, we make a critical judgement that presumes a rich narrative context. And yet we seem to be able to readily handle this, without difficulty, as if it had been somehow distilled. But what is that narrative?
In addition, are we saying that the work, the building, has no intrinsic goodness to it that is independent of such narrative contexts? Self-evidently, the discourse internal to architectural practice strives to dissociate itself even as it seeks reconciliation. It has, as it were, its own agenda independent of client and project specifics. If this discourse were not there, in this manner, then the project could only have recourse to the goods of professionalised building expertise and a narrative concerning client needs, here now, in this place. And it is here, at the centre of all this, that we find the individual architect asking about his or her intentions, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’
So, what kinds of goods does this tradition of architectural discourse define for itself? (What does it define itself by?)
Henry Wotton, paraphrasing Vitruvius, thought he had the answer with ‘commodity, firmness and delight,’ as if this were itself a sound and satisfying heuristic distillation of the kinds of goodness that characterise architecture. And it has stuck, for nearly four hundred years (cf. the Pritzker Prize medal). But, as such, it tells us nothing and fails to be of assistance when confronted by any particular, situated challenge. Principle, as always, then has to find a meaningful and apt particularity of form and identity, i.e., as recognisable instances of commodity, firmness and delight. This particularity then enriches our understandings of Wotton’s aphorism and establishes a history (a narrative) of instances in which these criteria have been excellently realised. By shifting from one context to another the architect constructs an appreciation of what commodity, firmness and delight means. But, of course, just as such an understanding is bound to a discursive tradition, it is also and forever not only open to redefinition, but forced to redefine itself by every new generation.
So, is that it? Are the goods of architecture somewhere in between the principle and particularity of Wotton’s aphorism? Not quite, because we are still left with goodness and standards of excellence whose particularity will always be more or less unique. And yet, we have argued that the value cannot be in that uniqueness, as such. So, where is it? What enables us to make a judgement? Surely we are returned to Hume and the grounding of all such appraisal in operative standards of taste? Yes, but, as we have noted, simultaneously referencing a tradition of discourse and achievement.
But isn’t this a regressive argument? Not only that, but it bears similarities with Charles Peirce’s otherwise very plausible outline of ‘abduction.’ One confront a creative challenge; one enters into (kinds of) ‘musement’; ideas float about; ‘Eureka!’. Perhaps. But how does one recognise a more rather than less plausible idea? How is the apt excellence of an ostensibly ‘good’ idea to be differentiated from every kind of other idea? By exploratory testing, of course, but the essential difficulty still remains.
One pertinent issue here is that we have becoming increasingly aware that consciousness is a fraction of brain activity, that the unconscious is there taking care us all the time, helping us learn, survive and flourish. The workings of the unconscious free the conscious mind to be who we are. (Henri Bergson was right!) Peirce’s state of ‘musement’ has to be thought of as reason’s dispositional manner of interacting with the unconscious … That doesn’t answer the judgemental question we started with (one that concerns aptness as as well as pure ideational spontaneity), but does point toward a pathway linking these two modes of knowing. We may never get to the critical heart of architectural discursivity; however (and somewhat paradoxically), the dynamic factuality of interwoven contextural narratives appears to be crucial to the magic of spontaneity and a most peculiar judgmental capacity – a practical intelligence – that mysteriously characterises the scenes of musement.