“The whole matter resides in recognition. I recognize plant life when I see it, and I recognize rationality in architecture when I see it, because I begin to understand, after much practice, what the word is applied to. I am then tempted to think that all things bearing the same name, whether or not they are architecture, must share an essential property, but this is not necessary, nor, in this instance, is it likely. We may choose to believe that squarish, simple things are tokens of rationality in some wider sense, and that curvaceous, complicated things are tokens of irrationality, but our highly developed powers of visual recognition are exercising no more than a prejudice when we go out hunting for items to pin these terms on to.”
I have always considered Robin Evans’ writings to have contributed a great deal to my way of thinking about architecture. However, I have to admit that until recently this consisted of only two of his essays. These are ‘Rookeries and Model Dwellings’ and ‘Figures, Doors and Passages’. Both of these dealt with the way that architectural form engages with, or is related to, social structures. The first looks at how the idea of social housing was built out of a particular interpretation of what was happening in slums and the supposed causes of ill-health. The second shows how the plan of residences echo the way in which social relations are conceived by societies. Both of these are important essays and I won’t say more here because I am likely to devote individual pages to each one later on. My interest in his work was based the way he outlined the close relation between spatial forms and societal forms. For me, it the fact that he neither privileges forms or social structures as having the upper hand is important. Few scholars manage this balancing act well.
The essays are historically detailed yet not overly long and the scholarship is of the highest order. I was familiar with a third essay, ‘Not To Be Used for Wrapping Purposes’, which reviewed an exhibit of Peter Eisenman’s at the AA back in the day. It’s not an essay I referred to often, but it shored up my belief that Eisenman’s work was somehow not as rigorous as it appears. Evans demolishes Eisenman. What I also found significant about this essay is that it takes a very critical (and negative) view of a major international figure. I find that our major players (Foster, Gehry, Hadid, Koolhaas, and so on) are treated with kid gloves. It’s not to say that their work is bad, but that the assumption is that their work is golden simply because there is a lack of critical analysis of their work by equally significant critics, historians, or theorists. If Evans had not died I am certain we would have seen something by him on some of these characters (good, bad, or otherwise).
My admission to having only really engaged with only two of Evans’ essays is not a bad thing, except that having read nearly the whole of Translations from Drawing to Building and a fair bit of The Projective Cast, I’ve realised that Evans is even more astonishing than I previously thought. The reason for never having gone further with his work was that a great deal of his other writings had to do with drawings, representational systems, geometrical system, and such. These areas fell well outside my interest in the relationship of spatial form to spatial practices – or so I thought.
The quote at the start of this entry is typical of how I see Evans’ work now. Evans is writing about the rationality, or lack thereof, in Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. In an essay that is apparently about a building what we actually have is an unpacking of myths, stereotypes, rules of thumb, and other shortcuts, that plague the written history, and hence our understanding, of architecture. In this quote Evans is challenging the idea that things look like what they are or mean. I’ve never believed in verisimilitude or isomorphism – fancy names for what I’ve just described – but I’ve learned this from art history. In Evans I’ve come across the most lucid dissection of this idea from an architectural writer. This is a cental idea in my thinking about architecture – that the way that architecture works and communicates is too complex for it to be able to ‘picture’ ideas or even contain them in a way that is immediately obvious and legible.
So, where I thought his essays on drawing, geometry, and etc., were about just that, they turn out to be about how and what we think about architecture. What appear to be two separate worlds – geometry and social issues – the two areas that interested Evans, are in fact linked in a complex and admittedly difficult manner. It’s not easy reading. You can just read his essay on the Barcelona Pavilion as being about the building and his essays on geometrical projection as being about geometry, and that’s fine up to a point. It does, however, miss what makes him one of the very top thinkers and writers of the 20th century.
I’ll throw out a few more quotes that I think can be pondered outside of their original context:
“The way that architecture is divided between geometric drawing and building may be compared to the division between writing and speech. And has it not been demonstrated that there is a tremendous philosophical prejudice against writing that encourages us to think of speech as authentic, with writing a questionable copy of speech, secondary, second-hand, second-rate despite its universal currency? Has not this prejudices been challenged? And are we in architecture not just as prejudiced against geometric drawing? Yes, on all counts.”
“Likeness is not identity; orthographic projection is not orthography; drawing is not writing and architecture does not speak.”
“Why is it not possible to derive a theory of architecture from a consideration of architecture? Not architecture alone, but architecture amongst other things. If we take the trouble to discriminate between things, it is not just to keep them apart but to see more easily how they relate to one another. Architecture can be made distinct but it cannot be made autonomous. ”
I’ll say a few words about the last one, because this touched on something I feel very strongly about. There is tremendous ‘peer pressure’ to do architecture (all of it, teaching, making, researching) from inter- and multi-disciplinary points of view. This is not bad in itself, except for the way in which architecture itself, taken on its own, is not considered appropriate. That is, the problem is not with the activity of the inter-multi agenda, but with the coercion to do it that way and only that way. So we have film and architecture, photography and architecture, cybernetics and architecture, bio-genetics and architecture, and so on, but not architecture. The reason that some people (at least a few) need to think about architecture itself is that without that you get the kind of nonsense that has been written about the Barcelona Pavilion, about rationality versus irrationality, or geometry and architecture, which Evans has so brilliantly laid bare. He looks at architecture or its drawings and asks if it does what its authors, historians, critics or apologists say it does. Often it doesn’t.
“The language of architects is notorious for its imprecision, pretentiousness, and addiction to cliché” Peter Gay, quoted by Evans
Notes: I’ve not referenced the quotes on purpose. I’m only taking you part of the way on this journey. The rest is up to you.