Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: The Big rethink
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?”