Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: Norman Foster
April 4, 2013Posted by on
Well, kindof…The man I want to draw your attention to was called Stephen Pepper (http://people.sunyit.edu/~harrell/Pepper/Index.htm) – an American philosopher who died in 1972, some thirty years after he published a remarkable work called World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence. (And some seventy years after I discovered this notable work.) Such semi-totalistic theory has been unfashionable for some time, but watch for this one coming back (or just listen to any astro-physicist).
I no longer recall how I came across Pepper – one thing leads to another and one wakes up in another context – what is actually a rather Pepperian notion on the dangers courted by analyses. As ever, I was working on my ongoing book, Meetings With Buildings – a work ever in pursuit of its last edit. In this book one of the themes of my concerns is the comparative rarity of theory that doesn’t just analyse found phenomena but, inversely, seeks to address the mysteries of creativity. Pepper doesn’t quite do this, but he does provide sometime interesting theoretical handles that can be appropriated and used to advantage. Anyway, Stevie has become a current hero populating my personal Hall of Fame.
In a nutshell, Pepper offered us a review of four fundamental ‘root metaphors’ that we commonly employ as filters to look upon the world and in terms of which we construe what is before us. Four? Why not three or six? Because, argued Pepper, this is simply what this discourse seems to come down to: these four are, at the moment (still, in 2013), as good as it gets.
I found myself not only trying to understand Pepper but to translate what he contended were four ways of ‘seeing as …’ and ‘seeing that …’ into an architectural frame. So, here, for what it is worth, are my draft thoughts – taken out of context, as it were (sorry, Steve – I know that is an important issue), but hopefully thought provoking. Apologies in advance for the way the piece simply starts and ends, and is without accompanying notes. The mention of Aneurin Bevan refers to the ‘architect’ of the UK’s national Health System (discussed in the missing context of what I give below). And any vague references to phenomenology are deliberate, hinting at a later section of the book. The point I am making is that whatever an architecture is and however many varieties of architectures we can validly identify, the ways in which we ‘see as…’ and ‘see that …’ are what is most truly arché in the game. You can shift your theoretical and inclinational stance as much as you want, but to alter your ‘ways of seeing’ takes a heroic effort. We owe Pepper a debt for reminding us. As ever, considered comments are welcome.
Such notions of organism and mechanism were taken up by Stephen Pepper as two of what he contended were four fundamental and commonplace metaphors with which we construe the world and frame our actions. He calls these ‘root metaphors’ or “basic concrete standards of judgement and evaluation” enjoying “the highest available degree of structural corroboration,” viz., mechanism, formism, organicism, and contextualism. The inference we can draw is that architectures have disparate foundational levels of meaning preceding any particular action we take in forming them in particulars. However, I hope to indicate that Pepper’s scepticism toward the eclecticism of mixed metaphors may be less justified than he supposes, and that this is a commonplace of architectural endeavours. Whether this hobbles the discipline or not is a moot point.
To avoid rehearsing his entire argument but to illustrate its relevance to our enquiries we might begin by noting that the tradition of a concern with essences, typologies and the notion of necessity derives from a formist outlook rooted in an analytical but ‘dispersive’ metaphor of similarity. The notion that every doughnut participates in a class called doughnuts that exhibits a certain set of characteristics and, in turn, participates in a class called pastries (etc.) is formist. Similarly, architects often think in terms of formist typologies informing a set of building characteristic and their relations (tower-and-podium, or tower-and-piazza, for example). The underlying root metaphor is that of similarity and the hypothesis employed is analytical.
Neo-Platonic architecture takes up participation in similarity in a slightly different way: as a synthetic and integrative, organistic notion of correspondence that has a morphological and teleological basis. The neo-Platonist appreciates the illuminating informants of geometry and harmonised ratios constituted as a canon of re-membrance with eternal Ideas from which particularity has unfolded, step by step. In a neo-Platonic architectural work materiality brought into an essential kind of exhibitory correspondence aims to be an exemplary and disclosive manifestation of what is truly lawful within an existential region otherwise lacking in such evidence. The achievement is now a less compromised and more knowing particularity that more fully participates in the universal laws of geometry, number, ratio, harmony and hierarchy to which everyday ways of seeing are blinkered. Materiality has been lifted out of contingency and into the realm of law; cognitive understanding is lifted out of its temporally-bound historicity. An added degree of material coherence (as positive organic relatedness) is brought into the world.
A prime example is Christopher Wren’s design concern with what is Naturally and eternally lawful set against what is Arbitrary (can be this or that) in being Customary and bound to unreliable belief and opinion. In seeking to realise works as a form of shining corrrespondence between the truth of an ‘aboveness’ and a flawed ‘belowness’ Wren sought to effect an aspirational congruence. Unlike the issue of the essence of an oak tree and the manifold variants constituting particular examples resulting from the influences of history, location, soil type, etc., his endeavour was more akin to the tradition of portraiture in which the work purportedly ‘captures’ and discloses the essence of its referent in another, uniquely truthful particularity (the art-work). In Wren’s case that referent is Natural law, now made manifest in its truth and beauty. But, of course, there is an inherent difficulty involved: materiality is peculiarly resistant to being other than what it essentially is, just as a given sphere of action is not ony Customary, but subject to Fortuna’s whim. The achievements of Wren’s Classical edifices may be real but, as Bataille would have appreciated, their true reality and meaning is symbolic and authoritative. The work is raised up as a particularised holding pattern, but forever demands maintenance and renewal which merely underscores its apartness from that naturalness in which, as Pepper notes, “facts are not organised from without; they organise themselves.” However, the organicist‘s comprehenson is all too limited and existentially bound.
A degree of accommodation to this discomforting reality is facilitated by the formist notion of a ladder of comprehensible Ideas, Forms and essences: a ‘chain of being’ enabling the understanding to lend coherence to orders of difference and similarity, character and individuality. This notion of coherence as layered, interwoven and hierarchical ‘saves’ appearances by enabling us to bracket discrete sub-unities and address the issue of their external and internal relations whilst still clinging to the notion of a full and proper resolution in the Absolute. If we could ‘see’ the true coherence of a sub-unities then apparent ambiguities, inconsistencies and contradictions among the parts would be sufficiently resolved, even though our bracketing must also refer to issues contextural regions and horizons of phenomena. By looking to the whole and, to the degree we apprehend it, we are able to predict the characteristics of sub-system parts – as the educated eye does when it properly experiences a Palladian architecture. In referring to a beautiful architecture to which nothing could be added or taken away, Alberti was describing the ideal of an organistic whole.
However, the experience of a work is different to that work’s creation and organicism here creeps back in as the belief is that the channels of integration, “like the spouts of a fountain, serve best when they [individuals] interfere least and let the materials take the form implicit in them.” One hears an echo of this belief when Louis Kahn stood before a student body and asked what the brick he held in his hand ‘wanted to be.’ Project challenges are similarly dealt with: What, the creative enquirer sometimes asks, does the design solution ‘want to be.’ What it ‘should be’ or ‘is meant to be’ comes into being as a fusion of possibilities in a schematic nexus brought into being through the channelling agency of a human author. As Heidegger noted, we have to learn to ‘listen’ and to respond with ‘called thinking.’ Once there is an essential idea that appears as if it can serve as the root and foundation of further endeavours, it can be developed as an unfolding scheme that ‘naturally’ seeks particularity as a textural truth relative to the informing idea. This will reflect the organicist instinct that the significance of a fragment derives from knowing that part’s place within an overall, coherent system. It follows that most architects will seek to develop a scheme so that all its parts possess a participative integrity participating in and contributing to an overall qualitative coherence. Just as the whole gives meaning to the part, the latter will bear within itself some dimension of the qualitative whole (or, at least, not introduce a note of contradiction).
Other architects –perhaps in exasperation and acceptance at the limitations of their role and the limited comprehensibility of their understanding – might be inclined to move toward other metaphors. Like Peter Ackroyd they might write about cities such as London as if they possessed an animal life of their own; or perhaps they will turn to system dynamics and the self-organising patterns that emerge from complexity theory. Like Cedric Price they might embrace organicity in negative terms, dismissing all deliberative planning endeavour as delusory and doomed to miss its intended targets.
In contrast to Plato’s concern with Forms that are more real than real, Aristotle shifts concern with the experience of value away from the product at issue and focuses upon the human act of achievement. His version of Platonism is also synthetic, but now dispersive. It effects an interaction of Nature and the Customary, truth and contingency, as an existential ‘mean’ bound within its own historical situatedness and circumstantiality. That mean manifests as an agent’s deliberativeness and is embodied in a committed act now bound to contextural and circumstantial particulars as a more subtle form of necessity. If one reads into this a useful broadness of scope but an intrinsic lack of precision, Pepper would say that this is the point: dispersive ways of seeing suffer this difficulty. With regard to Aristotlian practical wisdom, for example, ‘the rule’ is everywhere and, exasperatingly, nowhere. It is more contexuralist than formist or organicist.
Translated into a decisional field of action Aristotle’s phronetic ‘rule’ manifests as a resolutional practical wisdom intrinsic to a challenging situation and circumstance. The integrative quality of this found-and-applied rule is effected as a vitalistic kind of ‘golden mean’ that is at once apt and accommodational, intended to be effective here and now but with reference to superordinate values. The point is not a formist canon of values that is found ‘Above’ and applied ‘Below,’ but an inversion that locates the qualities of that canon as an investment in the temporalised texture of situation and circumstance.
One of its key aspects is its mediation between a duality that is fundamental to the contexturalist experience: an event’s quality and its texture. Every event quality has texture and all textures have quality (the overall meaning of an event or its intuited wholeness), but quality is a categorical unity whereas an event’s texture is made up of what Pepper refers to as its constitutional ‘strands.’ Architecturally, these can be considered to be an architecture’s features, details and relations between these properties which are more or less fused together into a qualitative wholeness, but we must be careful in what we mean by these terms.
It is also important to note that the texture of a qualitative whole also lies within a context. And one can say much the same about a texture’s ‘strands.’ Thus contexturalism’s danger is that its analytical references will be endless:
“[T]here is no final or complete analysis of anything. The reason for this is that what is analysed is categorically an event, and the analysis of an event consists in the exhibition of its texture, and the exhibition of its texture is the discrimination of its strands, and the full discrimination of its strands is the exhibition of other textures in the context of the one being analysed – textures from which the strands of the texture being analysed gain part of their quality. In the extended analysis of any event we presently find ourselves in the context of that event, and so on from event to event as long as we wish to go, which would be forever or until we got tired.”
In order to offset this danger – and contrary to formism and mechanism, which proceed from the presumption that any event can be endlessly analysed – contexturalism is synthetically and integratively mindful of the need to impose limitations maintaining the quality of the event at issue. Otherwise we might sheer off, away from that event, its textures and strands. As Pepper notes, in contexturalism “The qualitative structure of an event is for that event final, whatever potentialities for the qualities of other events it may have within it.” This is an important aspect of architectural design that concerns attention to what is arché with respect to the discrete qualitative wholeness of a tectonic (found or intended). The alternative is to be drawn into all kinds of non-essential concerns and distractions – perhaps into ambiguities that good design avoids.
Being synthetic and integrative contexturalism looks for textural fusion among its strands. What Pepper sardonically refers to as an ‘aesthetic seizure’ is an example. However, it is more usual that we experience an architecture in terms of degrees of tightening and loosening that enables us to distinguish a texture’s strands. The contexturalist’s focus will be upon the event as what is historically going on now – what entails the presumption of constant change and novelty, but what also adumbrates a pertinent past and future around about and within the wholeness of a qualitative presentness. For example, experience of an architectural work will continually shift from the qualitative whole to the textural strands: a to-and-fro ‘spread’ from the qualities of parts to the quality of the whole, so that one’s experience will recall the immediate past and anticipate the immediate future. In phenomenological terms the dimension of an experience at hand will anticipate ‘fulfilment’ rather than contradiction in other aspects of the phenomenon. Usually, one expects non-contradiction between the strands of the quality at issue, or the kind of contradiction that in fact reinforces fusion.
However, just as experience might be ‘spread’ across a textural field as moment-to-moment, continually shifting between the qualitative whole and stranded aspects of texture, the receptive contexturalist might also be open to the event’s contextural ‘spread’ in historical terms that can extend far beyond immediate project boundaries. Take, for example, the seminal Lloyd’s ‘86 building, designed by Richard Rogers and his team. This was the third custom-designed Lloyd’s building over a fifty-year period and the brief was for a building that could last 125 rather than the 25 years. Built on the site of the first building, complimenting the adjacent second building and designed to address and adapt to constant change, the building unfortunately it got stuck in its own novelty because the organisation could not afford to make changes. In fact, as a remarkable act of hubris, Lloyd’s had to sell the building eight years after they occupied it. The unanticipated happened – something that would be of no surprise to a contexturalist.
Such underlying aspects of the Lloyd’s design make critical associations with North Sea oil rigs less than inapt but still superficial, missing the above points and others such as the dilemma of a blue-chip client body bound to conservative hierarchical values being caught out by an inability to appreciate their designer’s left-wing orientation and interest in designing a non-hierarchical building. Similarly, one could also easily miss the fact that the design may appear radical, but actually replicates core typological tropes of the previous two buildings, as well as the design’s ironic attempts to service an age-old culture maladapted to change. An architecture may be frustratingly mute about such matters, but to attempt a critical appraisal ignoring such matters – as Roger Scruton is inclined to do – may be to miss the truth of what is ‘going on’ and reduce a work to monodimensionality. For this critic an architecture, in its present facticity, ‘works successfully’ or it does not; a spread of past situational, circumstantial challenges and contingent project issues are dismissed as irrelevant.
One could say that such a not unreasonable stance is mechanistic. Being analytical and integrative, it is deeply concerned to contain analysis and counterpoint contexturalism’s dispersive tendencies. It seeks to consolidate a structured cosmic whole within which a manifold of particulars become the particular. Discrete entities without specific location in the universals of space and time have no existence (a key difference to formism). As it has been summarised:
“Any common-sense machine is composed of discrete parts related to other parts in some systematic way. Relations among the parts do not change the nature of the parts, however, because the parts exist independently of those relations. Further, in any commonsense machine, some sort of force or energy is exerted on or transmitted through the system to produce predictable outcomes. [...] Because mechanism is integrative, all the parts are assumed to fit together. Order is categorical. Thus, mechanists do not simply describe parts in the common-sense world; rather, they seek to discover the true nature of a given event by specifying what kind of part it really is and by placing it properly in the machine.”
As Pepper summarises: “The primary qualities and the laws must become structural features of the spatiotemporal field as intimately involved in it as the dimensions of space with one another.” A mechanist will deal with time in a schematic manner that emphasises this or that moment of presentness; the accidental is pushed into a background of irrationality – all of which can engender a consolidated viewpoint always in danger of becoming dogmatic. Illustratively, Pepper turns to Laplace, who claimed: ‘let me know the configuration of masses in the spatiotemporal field at any one time, and the laws which operate upon these masses, and I will describe the configuration of the field at any other time past are present.’
The architect’s emphasis on the abstract extensivity of space is already profoundly mechanistic. Mass set in space is a primary quality, as are the discrete configurational and relational qualities of size, shape, solidity and number that are attributable to mass which, taken together as a structural field, describe and differentiate a particular architecture which, like any discrete machine part, is subject to law, has identity and purpose and, importantly, is an internally determined entity.
Mechanism’s operative truth criterion concerns the order in which relations between discrete and independent parts does not alter the nature of those parts. Mechanists will “seek to discover the true nature of a given event by specifying what kind of part it really is and by placing it properly in the machine.” Forces – which, in architecture, includes human habitation – are applied as energy exerted within the overall system so that predictable outcomes can be produced. Thus the mechanist architect’s limitation on analysis and concern with integration will be expressed by a tendency toward rational precision of internal determination and a clarity of expression. Lethaby, for example, may have been mixing mechanistic concerns with an organicist sentiment concerning ‘the known and imagined facts of the universe’ when he overlayed this with references to houses like bicycles. But it was Le Corbusier, with his famous reference to houses as machines and the radical expression given to his work during the 1920s that more explicitly intermixed Platonic sentiment with a mechanistic outlook.
Importantly, mechanism differentiates between its primary (effective) and secondary (ineffective) categories. Pepper illustrates the first by the example of the laws that apply to leverage; he illustrates the second by referring to the qualities of the object levered and the experiential exertion of effort to exercise leverage. Our knowledge of the first category is dependent upon our experience of the second, just as an appreciation of the latter depends upon a contrast with the former, but neither category is reducible to the other. What we sense and feel is interpreted as indicative of operative law, but ordinary perception has to be constantly corrected in relation to constantly emerging lawfulness. Even then, our understandings of the universe are always an approximation or abstraction one step removed from the laws themselves. We realise that “the effective underlying cosmic machine is quite out of sight of all its working.”
Thus mechanism’s underlying problematic concerns a correlation between what is intelligible and what is sensible. Sound and colour can be discussed in all kinds of physical terms, but they remain irreducible experiential qualities. Research into creativity and improvisation can correlate behaviourial phenomena will all kinds of symptomatic brain activity. While this is useful knowledge associating secondary categories with primary ones, it is a one-way street and explains nothing, failing to consolidate the unpredictabilities of the second category into the predictabilities of the first. Medical research is rife with such hit-and-miss correlational strategies – and these, in turn bear correspondence with the notion of eudaimonia and our difficulties in lending this very real notion definition.
Perhaps as a reflection of this issue many architects not only have a tendency to ‘bracket’ formist and organicist notions without entirely rejecting them, but to adopt a mechanistic notion of project challenges that brackets its secondary qualities within more instrumental concerns. For example, Foster’s best work has the simplicity of a diagram that is self-evidently successful here and now, with is little tolerance of ambiguity attaching to the qualitative facticity of a work. ‘Spread’ is contained in a schematic notion of temporality focused upon immediate presentness and the instrumental workability of the design as an integrated and elegant architectonic leverage from a less to a more satisfactory state of affairs. Not untypically, the rationality of the design process is underpinned by an array of nuanced prototypical models that prompt the bemused contexturalist to say: Why? What is the point?
In comparison, the better works of Rogers – with whom Foster is often paired – are typically more textural and symbolic, exhibiting their participation in lawfulness as a play of ‘served and servant’ primary strands supplemented by a variety of secondary and tertiary strands enriching textural qualities. Overall, there will be an intrinsic branding to the work deriving from critical contextural considerations, signatory features and an informing concern to exhibit an aggregative tectonic robustness.
What may be common to both these approaches to architecture is illustrated by Pepper’s remark that the contexturalist outlook views phenomena in terms of spatio-temporal contiguity, i.e., “in terms of contact and transitive sequences in a system of determinations without a regulating sense of purpose,” whereas mechanists “seek to discover the true nature of a given event by specifying what kind of part it really is and by placing it properly in the machine.” To the degree this entails a separation of primary and secondary categories it is Foster’s work that critics sometimes focus upon, attributing his work with a ‘soulless’ quality neglecting secondary qualities, burying them within a minimal aesthetic corresponding to the deft simplicity of the project solution.
Perhaps a better example illustrating this issue is the Californian Case Study house designed by Charles and Ray Eames as an exemplification of what can be done with ‘as found’ industrial components. This mechanism is saved by modes of habitation emphasising ‘secondary’ qualities exhibited in oriental rugs, Mexican trinkets, oriental rugs, musical instruments and the like, including a joyful view to the Pacific Ocean. The fascination we experience derives from this interplayed overlay of sensual textures with abstract rationalistions. At one moment we simply celebrate the satisfactory resolution of an intrinsic modernist issue, as a qualitative unity. In another, we experience the event of the work texturally, with its various strands becoming more or less salient. To a contexturalist – for whom facts are related when they are found to be so, not by assumption – Pepper notes: “The qualitative structure of an event is for that event final, whatever potentialities for the qualities of other events it may have within it.” When it comes to dealing with the strands of that experience the contexturalist is wary of being drawn into kinds of non-essential concerns and distractions – perhaps into ambiguities that good design avoids.
In order to offset the earlier mentioned danger of ‘sheering off’ into tertiary contexts there is a need to impose a limitation maintaining the synthetic quality of the principal event at issue. But limitation according to which criteria? At its simplest this is whatever conserves ‘the qualitative structure of an event.’ But the principal constraint is pragmatism in its various guises. Pepper again: “Serious analysis is for him [the contexturalist] either directly or indirectly practical [...] analysis has an end, and a direction, and some strands have relevancy to this end and others do not, and the selection of strands to follow are determined from stage to stage, and the enterprise becomes important in reference to an end.” The significance of a strand and its references “lies in [the satisfaction of] some purpose we are pursuing.” And more than one strand might converge upon a similar purpose or end.
There is an somewhat regressive issue of discrimination and judgement hidden in Pepper’s contention, just as the unrecognised proverbial elephant in the room of an experience of the qualitative whole is an admirableness that draws and holds our attention. Here, bracketing these issues, I should like to attend to what is the inverse of experiencing the qualitative whole and its strands. Creatively, the texture of a scheme with developmental potential emerges and unfolds from the interweaving of situational strands whose references are blocked: by what is inappropriate, incongruous, unintegrated, in conflict with another strand, what simply fails to function properly, is made redundant, obtrudes as the novelty of the unanticipated or lies before one as an irresistible potential to be unfilled. What is going on, whether very particular or as a general state of affairs, is construed architectonically as less than satisfactory or having an enhanced architectonic potentiality. The creative author will seek to institute reformed or new architectonic textures, locally or more generally, but always contexturally, i.e., they will amend given strands to complement them with new ones. But they will do so by employing architectonics as a cognitive as well as artefactual means to deal with blocking and to move forward, whether this be in the guise of an initial framing that facilitates analysis, an intended end of accommodative housing or something like Bevan’s NHS. More simply, we search for an overall relational fusion of textural strands that can be appreciated as a satisfying event quality. Without a sufficient degree of fusion it is arguable that there can be no qualitative wholeness (experienced as simplicity and unity). In other words, integrity appears to be a ‘natural’ concern facilitating an architecture’s identity and developmental unfolding. It is as if coherent unity has a value for us and, in its empirical finding, as Kant puts it, we rejoice because it is as if we had been “relieved of a want.” Kant’s rationale is that a finality of nature, in all its multiplicity, is presumed: “For, were it not for this presupposition, we should have no order of nature in accordance with empirical laws, and, consequently, no guiding-thread for an experience that has to be brought to bear upon these in all their variety, or for an investigation of them.” In this explicitly teleological perspective particular empirical laws, Kant assures us, are “regarded […] according to a unity such as they would have if an understanding (though it be not ours) had supplied them for the benefit of our cognitive faculties, so as to render possible a system of experience according to particular natural laws.” Thus, although a dauntingly “endless multiplicity of empirical laws” might appear contingent, we nevertheless presume unity, “otherwise we should not have a thoroughgoing connection of empirical cognition in a whole of experience.” The manifold of sensation produces doubt and the understanding searches for unity within this multiplicity. Without this presumption regarding “nature’s formal finality” there could be no way the understanding could “feel itself at home in nature”. Without such a feeling nature would seem opaque, problematic and discomforting.
The above mentioned blocking to the references of strands is just such a discomfort, often experienced as the obtrusion of novelty and the unanticipated. However, this is exactly what the creative architect seeks to cultivate and introduce into the project situation – not, of course, novelty as rude intervention or mere entertainment (what is tediously instituted as a suspicious variant on ‘the shock of the new’), but as an arché-tecture facilitating and simultaneously giving expression to a more felicitous state of affairs.
On the other hand, as we know, it is quite likely that the new will be a parody bound to the tropes of customary fashions and abstract goals (such as money, power and status) reflecting the weaker aspects of contexturality. Works might pretend to a teleological intentionality, but are more usually teleonomic in purpose. They will sometimes pretend to be anagogic in character, but are more likely to be a parody of such belief or works whose signifying surfaces are less likely to be hermeneutically symbolic than allusions to a hidden code extending no more deeply than enchantment with an otherwise concealed mathematical underpinning to reality.
Pepper makes the point that the maintenance of any order can be considered in terms of teleonomics or teleology. Teleonomy requires us to think in terms of a programme that constitutes a final end and thus engenders an economy of directionality. Teleology refers us to a programme whose goals are determined by an originating author. Whereas, for example, a builder tends toward the adoption of a mechanistic and teleonomic viewpoint toward architecture, architects often lean toward organicist aspirations and a teleological interpretation of the creative challenge. But not all of them. Cedric Price, for example, was an architect who adopted a mechanistic outlook in which nothing is final or ultimate about our knowledge of the world and his ends were always open-ended. In Pepper’s terms he complemented mechanism with the exercise of a formist understanding referring phenomena to a teleonomic “regulating principle that informs observed reality with a specific finality and activates feedback loops” seeking to maintain essential properties regardless of any kind of perturbation – except that, for Price, the purposive end of his architectonics was to invite the unanticipated. In his aim to extend the available range of choice he denied a determinate conclusion.
Although this sounds rather peculiar and at odds a Kantian value given to coherent unities, it is not dissimilar to Bevan’s aim of servicing the generality of well-being as a removal of obstacles to an indeterminate life-potentiality. In both instances we are witness to the virtue of a paradoxically precise ‘inadequacy of precision.’ Formality as a valid end is denied and merely tolerated as means. Mechanism’s secondary qualities are foregrounded as the experiential validation of the primary means (our ‘lever’). Similarly, Bevan’s architecture may have been less concerned with the gods, arcane, measured dimensions and symbolic correspondences with what is more purportedly real than real than with the vision of a more secular angelic being in the form of a life-saving nurse muttering, “Don’t worry, dear, we’ll take care of you; and it’s all free …”
Nevertheless, there is something problematic in Price’s attempt to frame ‘fun’ in instrumental and productive terms that elide static formalities of the kind that has always characterised architecture, replacing all this with ‘indeterminant’ architectonics focused upon its own temporality and intrinsic concern with managerial dynamics. Bataille would be concerned that the good of architecture had become another victim to the encroachments of technē and an instrumental mind-set bound within conventional expectations. This, it must be admitted, appears to be a not uncommon outcome of a divide between architecture as a generic ‘shell’ overlaid by ‘secondary category’ concerns sufficient to engender temporary satisfaction and serve the priority of instrumental purpose. Here, ‘charge’ shifts to the short-term interiors, the public spaces between buildings, to ‘pop-ups’ and what is entirely incidental at any point in time – a whole series of shifting scenarios that make up their own dynamic architecture. What Price totally missed was the importance of dressing the generic frame i.e., its role as a branded public face.
It could be argued that all of this is itself secondary to superordinate issues of ‘ought,’ of the problematic incommensurability of goods, of exposure to tuché and the ineluctable nature of phronetic challenges – to which one should add the mysteries of abduction and discriminatory judgements. While these issues apply to many kinds of practice, not just that of being an architect, the point is that it is only within the frame of particular practices that we can begin to appreciate their character. Being an architect rather than a software engineer or doctor is simply one preferred way of doing this. All talk of line, contour, light and shade, space and the rest is all that is available to us and yet, oddly, not the point of what is happening. Above all, we stand before an architecture’s perceived thingly goodness as witness to our own, as authors, and to the purported goodness of what we value. We forget all this. Instead, we strive to achieve artefactual form into a peculiar kind of harmonised and perfected state of being: an artfulness indirectly attending to a superfluity exhibiting the peculiar depths of our own humanity – as what Sophocles referred to as deinon, i.e., ever out of place, out of keeping with its surroundings – and as what a perplexed Banham more simply referred to as a ‘black box.’
March 11, 2012Posted by on
Jonathan Ive, born in 1967 and recently referred to by the Financial Times as “Apple’s invisible aesthete” and “the architect of the iPad and the iPhone” received a well-deserved knighthood for services to the design industry in the 2012 News year Honours list. Shy Johnny had made it, from Newcastle Polytechnic to a being co-founder of a London consultancy (Tangerine) that had Apple as a client, to Apple itself (in 1992). Now, the FT was celebrating him as ‘emerging from Jobs’ shadow.’
Discussing the design of the iMac, Ive ( interestingly, a confessed ‘bad drawer’ saved by machines) reflected that, “One of the problems we encountered was that you could adjust it, but the screen would wobble slightly. It was really frustrating. We architected an entire system to iron this wobble out.” (Emphasis added.)
Ive describes his Newcastle years as “a pretty miserable time; I did nothing other than work.” But he made it through. I suppose one could call that ‘Survival.’
By 2003, the Power G5 had been launched and the London Design Museum had named Ive ‘Designer of the Year.’ About the G5 Ive commented: “There’s an applied style of being minimal and simple, and then there’s real simplicity,” he said. “This looks simple, because it really is.” Ive had made it to Success and the frontiers of vocational Significance.
By 2012, when Ive was honoured with the KBE (Knight Commander of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth, who had already confessed to being an iPod owner, Ive had achieved a different kind of social Significance legitimated by the powers that govern Great Britain in the name of Divine Right.
Survival, Success and Significance.
The first, Survival, is mostly (not entirely) a biological state of being. Without it there will (rather obviously) never be the Success that, for Ive, brought an invitation to join the Apple design team and which, in turn, was the foundation of further success and the recognition of Significance.
Most people cope with survival, even though far too many don’t. Huge numbers enjoy a relative success; and most settle for that. And some others – sometimes merely the right person in the right place at the right time – find themselves in the spotlight (managers and bankers, in particular). For Ive, his status gathered pace with the Design Museum award, was followed by an CBE in 2006 and the knighthood in 2012. This is the way it’s done in Great Britain (even if, in this instance, the significant success is US based).
One presumes that Ive is doing fine in a few other departments of ‘S’ as well: undoubtedly, he has security, most likely enjoys full sanity, probably has plenty of sex, perhaps even hopes for salvation … But the first three ‘S’s’ cover the spectrum soundly enough. Perhaps he has even reflected upon the fact that, while the biological needs are satisfied relatively easily and huge numbers of people settle for that, quite a few find success and coast along from that point, within its security. However, Significance is, by definition, for a minority and, while many recipients are content with that, some discover an insatiable appetite for even more honour. As one moves through the spectrum of ‘S’s’ a hunger of a peculiar kind can take hold. The CBE is OK, but why not a knighthood, then a Lordship and some of the other honours that exist at that level are are focused upon service to the Monarch? How many can be accummulated? It’s as if, oddly, Significance turns back on itself, perversely returning to the edgy and hungry anxieties of Survival.
But while the Significance of, for example, a knighthood, reflects a contribution to the nation and its well-being, the vocational basis to such honours is important to all those who are not civil servants, managers in state quangos, or the Queen’s part-time gardener and the like. Ive received his honours from the reigning monarch for ‘contributions to design’; others of the above mentioned for services to architecture. But one imagines that what truely pleased Ive about a rewarding career was the praise offered by his hero, Braun’s Dieter Rams.
Architects will recognise this. The social (economically underscored) honour is one thing, but celebration among one’s peers is something else, relative to which the former is merely an elevated version of Success. What, one wonders, do the likes of Sir Terry Farrell, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, Sir Jeremy Dixon, Sir Richard MacCormac, Lord Foster (Baron Foster of Thames Bank) and Lord Rogers (Baron Rogers of Riverside) and similar living establishment architects (most some 30-odd years older than Ives) feel about the relativity of this issue, i.e., social honours as opposed to, for example, the Stirling and Pritzkter Prizes, the French Legion d’Honneur and RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal (enjoyed by Rogers and Foster)?
The test comes when the Significance of honour gets sacrificed for the materiality of Success. Where is the trade-off? It is interesting, for example, that, in 2006, the left-wing posturing Baron Rogers hosted the establishment of the Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine (APJP) but, within weeks, was under pressure from pro-Israeli pressure groups and the threats of the withdrawal of American commissions, forcing him to distance himself from the organisation whilst muttering about ‘terrorist Palestine’ and ‘democratic Israel.’ The apolitical Baron Foster gave up his seat in the House of Lords (where, in any case, he was reported to be a stranger among fellow peers) so that he could enjoy a non-domiciled status in Switzerland, thus avoiding UK taxes.
This convenient fracturing of roles and identities into an equation of multi-aspected trade-offs between career means-to-ends in which Success features as more real and significant than social and professional Significance is as fascinating as it is depressing. (And would have been incomprehensible to Aristotle.) It is not something that appears to feature in Ive’s character or career. Hopefully, it never will.
To place all this in context we have to note a differentiation between two kinds of sometimes tensionally interlocked honours referencing the goods of excellence: those internal to a practice such as architecture and those external to it. Take, for example, the RIBA Royal Gold Medal. because a person’s works are celebrated by those within the tradition of architectural practice the institution honours that person. But the giving of any institutional honour is, by definition, a ritual serving an external end. The notion that RIBA serves architecture rather than architects (as it claims) is a sham (although the pretense serves everyone). To the extent it does, this celebration is entirely subservient to the larger institutional aim and its acquisitiveness. This is common to all institutions, including that of government and the monarchy. When the Queen bestows an hour for ‘services to design or ‘services to architecture’ she is acting as the monarch of her subjects and of the nation. It is the interests of the monarchy and her government that she is serving; only in a secondary sense is she serving the interests of design or architecture by celebrating practicing individuals with honours.
It is the intermediate space where these internal and external interests come together and become mutually entwined that we find a fascinating dynamic that arguably binds significance to success whilst pretending that it is the latter which enjoys priority. This applies to the Pritzker and Stirling Prizes as well as to the RIBA Gold medal. (It certainly applies to the proliferation of awards now given out to any architect who stands still long enough.)
So where is true Significance within architectural practice? Ironically, it can only be found within the body of practitioners as a quiet celebration of reference and respect that becomes a feature of the continuous and active renewal of that practice. It is a part of the ongoing discourse of practice rather than the hubbub of ritualistic, institutionalised celebration.
February 6, 2012Posted by on
Today’s headline in Building design: Zaha’s company return for last year and a disclosure of her income! Hey, it’s down! The group accounts show that she had to make do with a mere £524k in ‘personal expenditures’. (That’s a high calorie intake in fancy restaurants.)
Meanwhile, I have been speaking with a shocked ex-student, Director in a large office, who has suddenly been made redundant (as have another 800 people in his international practice; and he didn’t see it coming … : ‘You don’t want to ship your family off to China? Well …’)
Anyway, here’s a minor a history lesson as a diversion from mindless idle gossip: in 1990 architects were divided between disreputable ‘commercial’ practices and the others. Then we went into a recession. When we emerged, some 4-5 years later, everyone (without saying a word!) knew the reality: they were either in business or out of practice.meanwhile, Joe Public suddenly discovered Modern and wanted a penthouse by the River Thames, with a large balcony, sliding glass patio doors, open-plan living and the rest … Again, no one said a word. I still find that quiet shift fascinating. Yes, newspapers then had architectural correspondents and architecture was on TV … but these things don’t account for the sudden and massive shift in tastes.
Now, as a matter of course, we overtly drool over headlines about the income of starchitects and how they maximise income: ‘Arab Spring hits Zaha Profits’!
And yet, I’ve noticed that a hangover of the us / them attitude did persist through the boom years from the mid-’80s to the later noughties. Perhaps the current global recession (which makes 1989-94 look like a picnic) will again shift into another boom period and yet another alteration of attitudes. To what, one wonders? (Which reminds me of an old conversation with a city mining investor: ‘Ken, why do architects take a percentage commission? I don’t understand – why don’t they go for a stake in the project?’ Indeed.
It’s all very interesting, and much to do with how people practice these days, the public accounts of limited companies, etc. One supposes it was ever thus, except that, then, in days of olde, unlimited partnerships were the norm and accounts were private – then along came the ability to practice as a limited company, as a limited partnership, and the rest. I wonder why architects are so slow in putting these structural dynamics down as everyday aspects of pedagogic course structures? How many schools of architecture have courses in branding and the dynamics of celebratory stataus? (Ever hear of Thorstein Veblen and his theory about the ‘leisure class’? … another post …) How many teach teach … this and that and the other that is pertinent to this discourse?
The joke used to be that the Firsts at a school would end up teaching and the Thirds would be giving you job interviews. The latter were intrinsically grey and interested in the ‘commerciality’ of it all. Ugh, one had to shake hands with them as they joyfully gloated! Now, the young enter the courts of celebratory status and beg for an internship at the feet of the celeb … Reminds me of Veblen again: a part of his theory about conspicuous consumption (he invented the term) was a history of social status rooted in a division between the Alpha Male Tigers who went out there into battle and, meanwhile, lazed around the camp watching obese females slave over the cooking-fires (etc.), whilst adorning themselves with sleek, high-maintenance trophy women who enhanced their standing. Now the talk at the Architecture Club is: ‘How many interns do you have?’ It’s the same equation, its just that we are as likely to see men as women in this state of ‘domestic’ enslavement. OK, I know: how much does Zaha pay (or not)? Let’s not go there, darling … If you have to ask you can’t afford to work for her.
What I find remarkable about so many Hadid-type commercial success stories is the way these people foster a culture that has staying power whilst workers stream through. The Foster and Rogers offices are exemplary in these terms. It used to be Braun, now Apple or Dyson or whomever … but architectural practices can exhibit the same cultural stasis behind the brand image. Perhaps it’s not a mystery. Perhaps it’s simply an issue of control and power. Remember how Ken Shuttleworth had to leave the Foster scene, stage left, after having been interviewed by Building magazine re his role in designing the Gherkin and City Hall? The Evening Standard published ‘family’ before and after some Stalinesque air-brushing. Veritably amazing.
One can’t blame him: the celeb has to have all the kudos or else the enterprise will collapse. It’s surely always been that way.
But such cultures can be strange places to be. Twenty years ago I recall sitting with the Foster team for a couple of months when they were doing the Kings Cross project. Amazing!Such pervasive fear and politics! It was something like that a few years ago when I took some German architects to the Hadid office. We stood outside the ‘Boys’ entrance to the old school building that serves as their office and were later taken around. Everywhere we went were young architects, packed in like rabbits in a hutch and – equally like rabbits – clearly terrified to raise their heads from the tiny LCD screens they quietly stared into. There were no job photos, sketches, models … Just files on shelving. (Actually, on a later visit, some models did appear in the reception area.)
No one really talks about such cultures, even though it is a piece of conventional wisdom that, to be a starchitect, you have to be … let’s just say ‘dominant’. So, perhaps nothing is really new. Architectural practice is architectural practice. Celeb culture is as old as the hills … except now we learn how much they cream off for ‘personal expenditures’ and the like. Welcome to the Hello magazine of architecture. (You’re about to tell me that it already exists. I don’t want to know, thanks.)
December 13, 2011Posted by on
One of the more peculiar experiences in my life was sitting midst the Foster team at Kings Cross, sometime in the late ‘eighties. There were playing at being master-planners. I was playing at being an office building consultant … Yeah, well … Myself and another chap I was with came up with a way of approaching site potentiality issues which was meant to inform the design work. However, the Foster team lived in another, strange kind of universe. What was most intriguing was the politics of seeing Associates almost rip each other’s throats out in order to win some game of rivalry and get ahead with this week’s brightest idea that would impress The Man when he turned up.
Why do I tell you this? Well, it all came back to me a few week ago when I went to visit the first significant building to be completed in the new Kings Cross master plan (more than 25 years after the Foster experience, I might add): one of London’s most prestigious art schools housed in the very same early (and, of course, Listed) Victorian train sheds that had been a key feature of our consultancy all those years ago. These buildings were quite something: imagine multi-storey warehouses sitting above a canal that linked the metropolis to northern England and served as a monstrous transport interchange between the canal and the railway system. It had once been an incredible scene … Now, the complex of historic buildings formed the core to a schema put together by Stanton Williams for the Kings Cross developer (Argent) and its star cultural client: Central St Martins College of Art and Design. Once, developers turned to art pieces (think of somewhere like Broadgate and Canary Wharf); now, they wanted an whole art institution as the ‘strawberry’. (Sorry: Japanese concept from the ’90s. It is exemplified at More London, where the Shuttleworth / Foster City Hall is located and plays out the same role of ‘strawberry’ – in this case almost literally – to the commercial development.)
The day began well: breakfast in old St Pancras Station – now home to the Eurostar trains from Paris – midst crowding commuters and hungry travellers doing something similar to us on the lower concourse level … Then out past the new work on Kings cross Station (sorry, Mr McAslan, it doesn’t look promising!) and along a new pedestrian way that lead past a host of sites for new office buildings, straight to the front door of the newly opened CSM, now welcoming a fresh 2011 intake of enthusiastic students. Everywhere around us were men working, machines digging, concrete being poured, barriers channelling us … and midst it all was the historic complex of former industrial buildings, now supplemented by new accommodation that knit together, added to and occasionally took away some old bits (leaving intriguing ‘scarring’). Simply at that overall, master-planning level it is all rather impressive (and radically different from what Foster had proposed).
We met with the Job Architect who very kindly was giving up some two hours of his time to show us around: into reception and security checks, signing in, badging up … (‘who? why” … Oh, here: have a badge and go through there …’) and back out to public areas topped by an inflated pillow roof before entering through the CSM security barrier and into a large new atrium that serves as the centre of gravity of the new architectural schema.
All kinds of memories and references crowded in: particularly Neils Torp at Waterside, at Heathrow Airport, and Ron Herron at Imagination … Oddly, the Job Architect hadn’t experienced these … Ravensbourne?, I asked. Yes, he’d been there a few times and we all agreed we detested this 2010 exercise a few miles away on the Greenwich Peninsula – a most peculiar exercise in digitising craft traditions (‘fashion student? well, you can work it up on machine and print it – whatever it is – on a large printing machine; yes, sure, it all ends up 2D, but what the hell… Oh, and by the way this place works on the Ryan-Air principle of education: you pay to get in, pay to move about, pay for absolutely everything …) Yuk. Foreign Office had done a good enough job (although I’m not keen on their Penrose-tiled wrapping facade that has zero to do with internal arrangements), but the conceptual basis of Ravensbourne is depressing. Luckily, CSM isn’t anything like that. On that basis alone the place is profoundly impressive. I loved what Stanton Williams had sought to achieve and where that had succeeded …. However, this the 21st century: they were under the control of the main contractor and and had no influence over the fit-out. Pringle Brandon handled that. Now imagine: One of the UK’s most ‘creative’ organisations hands over the control of its new building to contractors and their value-engineers who then take on board two disparate architectural firms – one for shell and core, and the other for the ‘scenery’ of a fit-out (I told you I had an offices consultancy background). If SW were on target all the way through, PB were equally off-target. Their work wasn’t ‘bad’, it’s just that the ‘tone’ was utterly wrong for this kind of institution. Where SW offered gutsy but carefully considered detailing, PB gave us corporate furniture and effete detailing. Ultimately, it was depressing – I was back to living midst the Foster team. Such is life, such is predicament of today’s architects, such is the constraints upon what they can do … as Herman Hertzberger, the RIBA 2011 Gold Medal winner lamented. I was still bemused by the irony with which an institution like CSM could oversee such an equation and had, it seemed, exercised little taste or influence upon the fit-out. How on earth could an ostensibly ‘creative’ organisation of such repute allow this to happen?
And so we made out ‘thank-you’s’ and headed off – impressed, but only in a qualified way. If only SW had been allowed to follow through! God save us from the construction industry’s ‘practical men’ and the project managers and the client execs and … So, we were back at St Pancras station. And now it was other kinds of memories: of coming here to the renovated Midland Hotel of George Gilbert-Scott on a tour of its public and private spaces with a group of camera-clicking Russian interior designers … That was equally weird and redolent with the same keynotes of mismatch and corporate misses (this time between Scott’s amazing old hotel of the 1870s and how it had been turned into the Renaissance Hotel) … What is it about the corporate mind-set and how its screws up anything of worth? It’s not that they don’t try. Perhaps it has always been this way. But exactly what is it that offends? What is it that one values in a project potentiality and sees compromised? At CSM, SW had shown us the promos, but had given only a partial delivery – frustrated, compromised … Pringle Brandon had exhibited a crass insensitivity; their habits of taste were simply inappropriate … (Ah, I hear you say: the issues of taste, aptness, fit, etc!) And the SW Job Architect was most dignified about it all.
Anyway, before I forget: what a development going on! Kings Cross promises to be a huge improvement on whatever Foster and his team had been scrabbling to achieve all those years ago. I look forward to the construction unfolding and to finding CSM in a new setting … OK, well, I somewhat look forward and somewhat dread what I know will be another familiar exercise of the sacrifice of significant architectural talents to the Gods of project abstraction that are always a means to end that is somehow never achieved …