Adrian Forty

Adrian Forty’s writing – more, his approach to writing and research – stands in stark opposition and resistance to our contemporary attitudes towards research, writing and history. Forty, a historian and academic, recently retired after 40 years, has ‘only’ written three books: Objects of Desire, Words and Buildings, and Concrete and Culture). The first two have become classic texts and the third is destined to become one as well. Along the way there has been a small clutch of journal articles. If he were starting out today it is doubtful that he would be a ‘successful’ academic given the various pressures on research today: publish often, pushing towards interdisciplinarity, demonstrating impact, and generating income through research grants. Forty is one of the last great classic academics. He publishes only when there is something to say, and therefore, nearly everything he has written is worth reading (certainly the three books are required reading in my view). Forty demonstrates the worth of quality over quantity. If the majority of academics today took his lead we would probably have one-quarter to one-third the number of journal articles and books published, but they would be worth publishing and worth reading. Libraries, journals and bookshops are now bursting with wordy texts that say very little by using vague and suggestive language, with barely disguised previously-published work (sometimes three to four incarnations), or rehashed readers with poorly translated or yet-again-republished versions of ‘key’ texts. And it now makes our job harder sifting through all this to find relevant, carefully researched and well-written work.

Apart from Forty’s ethos, there is the writing and the way he handles topics. His prose is always clear and careful (not to mention precise) with its language. And language, in fact, was the topic of his second book, which demystifies a number of terms that too many of us were willing to use without questioning their meaning. My reading of Forty always saw his work as political, but never in a straightforward or obvious manner. His article ‘Europe is no more than a nation made up of many others: thoughts on architecture and nationality’ reads like a classic historian’s text, uncovering and using archival process drawings and correspondences to carefully place the genesis and rational behind two particular designs (The Taylor Institute and Martyrs Memorial in Oxford). It discusses the different takes on architecture’s relationship to nationality, but it did so at a point (1996) when this type of conversation was becoming popular once more in Europe. Forty didn’t just randomly pick the topic but carefully used history to warn us of the problems and possible mistakes that can be made when going down this trodden road. He does a similar thing in ‘Being and Nothingness: Private Experience and Public Architecture in Post War Britain’. Here the questions are around the value and possibility of public space and of public ownership and it is, again, published at a time (1995) when we are seeing a critical shift in the definition, make-up and discussions around urban public space.

A good deal of his work does this, without ever coming out and saying – “this is an argument for….” There is no need for this because the writing is more of a warning, a warning about how ignorance of history (yes, here comes the cliché) condemns us to repeat it. And it is also a lesson: that history isn’t just marginalia and trivia about the past but that is can teach us things about ourselves in the present. And it is also a lesson that this kind of history and writing only works when it is done with care, un-rushed and without the pressure of artificial targets or outcomes. It is written because it needs to be. So if it takes seven years between books, then that’s what it takes. The wait is worth it because what he has to say is worth it.

Unfortunately for the rest of us the academies, governments and modern economic principles will not tolerate waiting when it is much more profitable to churn out words and buildings.

There are two reasons for reading the work of Adrian Forty. It should be said that Forty’s work doesn’t tell you what to think yet it informs you in a way that makes you more knowledgeable. Forty’s work demystifies things rather than make them more mysterious (which for some curious reason is what some academics think their role is). It gives you deep knowledge because it often focuses on where ideas came from and how we use language to talk about them. You get to the bottom of things and from here you can make your own individual progress. But you should also read it as an example of how to do good history – from both the writing perspective and from an ethos that resists the commodification of this beautiful and important discipline.

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Peter Collins

Peter Collins Changing IdealsThe relative obscurity of Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture is one of those facts that exemplifies the historical amnesia we so carefully nurture today. If you are picking up a history of modern architecture book, this is far from the easiest one, but the fact that it is so utterly unlike the others (Frampton, Curtis, Benevolo, Tafuri, Scully) means it fills a gap no one else has filled. The clue is in its title – changing ideals. This is not a history book that trots out a chronological catalogue of modernist icons (either in the popular or esoteric sense). In fact, there are precious few images. Le Corbusier and Wright get mentioned, of course, but Rietveld and Schindler do not. This is because it is not a history of notable architects or buildings, but a history of the ideas that underpinned them. It is not a book that I have absorbed. That is, I haven’t read it and kept a shorthand ‘copy’ of it in my head. It is a book that I struggle with each time I dip into it because it is challenging. One of the parts that struck me the most is the one on ‘Functionalism’. Having read through so many regurgitations of the same definition of this idea, Collins breaks down this part into four chapters titled: The Biological Analogy, The Mechanical Analogy, The Gastronomical Analogy, The Linguistic Analogy. All of a sudden the concept of functionalism opened up and became more complex – but I also felt as if finally someone had illuminated the subject. The first thing to note is that all four categories are analogies. We find that all the talk about function were based on believing that because things worked (functioned) in a certain way in another field that they could (or should) work the same way in architecture. Bodies function in a particular way, so why not attempt to make architecture work this way? But then machines also work in a particular way, and we have yet another kind of functionalism. This is fascinating not just because it debunks a lot of nonsense about functionalism in modern architecture but because it actually makes one realise how rich it can be if it hadn’t been taken so literally. And who knew that there were architects who actually argued for gastronomic functionalism in architecture?

When I mention historical amnesia, I do so because of the revival of biological metaphors in architectural theory today. Though, again, those adherents don’t realise that it cannot be anything more than a metaphor, and in the end nothing more than an applied or illustrated narrative. The mechanical analogy is also alive (reanimated) and well, as machines (particularly prosthetics) are quite popular again. This time it might be more in the realm of digital machinery and software but nevertheless, it’s just another analogy. And so, although I see student after student make attempts at biomorphic architecture, they remain blissfully ignorant of Collins’ text in the belief that they are novel creators, innovators and inventors. And at best they will reinvent the biomorphic wheel (how many have taken a close look at Keisler’s Endless House?) but this time rendered in photorealistic glory.

concreteI am not suggesting that Collins got everything right in his summary of the development of modernist ideals. His other important book, Concrete, is flawed in some of its historiography and arguments, but they are nonetheless worthwhile reading. The flaws do not render everything incorrect, nor do they stop one from thinking about the questions asked. There is something perversely beautiful about the idea that classical architecture was invented by the Greeks but with the intention that it needed concrete to render it complete. It’s a beautiful yet obviously wrong argument that is full of things that make you understand both concrete and classical architecture more deeply. And given that Collins give so much space to August Perret the book is sometimes criticised for being an homage to the architect rather than a history of concrete. Maybe, but what an homage it is. This is perhaps an illustration of my belief that fiction is sometimes better at saying something essential about things and ideas than history is.

Don’t pick up Collins expecting to be given the latest and most complete understanding of the history of modern architecture. That’s not the point of any classic text. Like I said at the outset, his history does something none of the others do and it’s something that takes aim at a good deal of architectural thought today.

Yve-Alain Bois

Bois is the most influential figure on the way I think and write about architecture. Yet, Bois himself rarely writes about architecture – he is an art historian specialising on 20th century abstract art. He has written extensively on Mondrian, Picasso, Matisse and Barnett Newman among others. The fact that he does not write about architecture means that his work is taken as a model rather than a reference for findings or results that I happen to agree or disagree with. In Bois I also find an ally for certain topics that I have been investigating: an interest in the role of form, a desire to understand the definition or specificity of things, a sceptical and critical approach to postmodern theory and methods, and an interest in modernism as more complex, fluid and open idea than is generally accepted.

Before going further, a clarification is in order. If you have read the entry on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ you might suspect a contradiction in my use of art theory to inform ideas about architecture. The short explanation is that it is possible to turn to art, science, sociology, literature, music or anything else, in order to test ones understanding of architecture without having to believe that architecture is any of those things. If you accept that architecture (like any other field) has its own intrinsic properties then you must remain attentive to its specificity when you compare it to work or theories in other fields.

This involves a certain amount of ‘theoretical borrowing’ which Bois warns against. Bois’ method relies on paying close attention to the object of inquiry, its specific form, in order to determine what theoretical approach is most productive [1]. This is the opposite of what many believe about theory, which is that you adopt one and arrive pre-armed with it to all your objects of inquiry. The theoretical borrowing Bois critiques refers to borrowing and applying without adaptation and without first consulting the object under scrutiny. So for example, one decides that deconstruction is a rather cool way of analysing texts and that it should produce interesting results if applied to architecture. The two pitfalls are 1) not allowing for the differences in literature and architecture and 2) assuming that deconstructing an object will tell you the most important things about that object. It will tell you something, but it may not be the most significant or meaningful aspect of the object. This is, in fact, what happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s in architectural discourse [2]. This does not mean that you can never borrow, adapt or translate theory developed in one area to another. Bois arrived at a reading of Matisse’s work that showed how it operated very close to some of Derrida’s deconstructive tenets. That is, it was ‘close’ and mimicked ‘some’ aspects. This is very different than simply applying deconstruction ‘to’ Matisse’s work or suggesting he was a deconstructivist.

The most important aspect of Bois’ work, for me, is his attention and interest in form. Depending on your background, experience and age, you may not be aware of the extreme negative connotations associated with the term ‘form’ and ‘formalism’. If your work is called formalist it is shape making, self-referential, and made without reference to history or other external factors. It is another way of saying something is meaningless. There are differences in the use of the term in art history as compared to architectural discourse. In art history it is largely to do with a way of reading art such that you focus on the object without reference to anything outside it (biography, history, technique, culture, site, etc.). In architecture it generally refers to the work itself. That is, in the first it is a fault in the way something is analysed and in the second it is a fault in the object itself. In both cases there were never really many practitioners of formalism in that strict sense [3]. Instead, what is really being critiqued is an interest in form. What Bois does, however, is more than just be interested in form; he is concerned with how the thing produced by the artist contains the ideas that the artist is interested in. This is where the battle lines are drawn. Bois is often at odds with those that claim that the meaning of artworks resides somewhere besides the object itself – in personal biography, in purely subjective arenas, in observation, or processes, for example. These areas may matter, but ultimately, if an artist chooses to make something, that thing has a role to play in what it means. To deny that the product matters or suggest that it is of minor importance is problematic.

Bois’ approach does not mean that things outside the object are not taken into consideration. For example, his work on Picasso looks at his relationship with Braque and his take on Pollock doesn’t ignore the process behind the paintings (dripping paint rather than application with a brush). What the formalist approach entails is a close reading of the product to see how it embodies, represents or otherwise results in various meanings. In the case of Pollock, we discover how the paint drippings are woven to create not just contradictory optical results (different spatial interpretations) but physical ones (dripped lines that go over and under other dripped lines). Such analysis does not lead to closed and absolute findings, as is often claimed, but explain how it is that multiple interpretations are actually possible (optical, material, compositional, technical, etc.).

Nor does this approach treat everything in the same way, as suggested by the stance against ‘theoretical borrowing’. As a result, Bois has developed various models that explain the significance and distinctness of artists normally thrown together under stylistic labels. One is the ‘technical’ model, where the process plays a signifying role in the final product (e.g. Pollock) and another is the ‘perceptual’ model which makes work which relies on how the viewers optically take in the work (e.g. Newman). These models, generated from the work itself, cut across the stylistic and historical categories of ‘abstract expressionism’ that normally encapsulate Pollock and Newman.

What is interesting is that this approach goes beyond what things look like despite being about close observation. Bois argues that the negative connotations associated with form and formalism is not to do with being intrinsically bad ideas, but with having been practiced so poorly. That is, what has passed for formalist critique has simply not been rigorous enough, it has not looked closely enough at its objects [4].

Now I have not said much about architecture. I think that the value of what Bois is doing with regard to art history is obvious for architecture. If the form of an artwork can be shown to play a central role (this is not the same as saying it is the most important) then surely the form of architecture, the building and its spaces, must be equally if not more significant? Yet architectural production and pedagogy has shifted largely to a focus on design process, when not devote solely to its representation. Concepts have become more important than design results. Creativity in coming up with ideas is celebrated over resolution. Presenting your work in new and innovative ways trumps the content of the proposal itself. For some, there is a belief that a ‘correct’ process guarantees a ‘correct’ outcome. In all of these, form – in our case, a drawn proposition for a building form, but form nonetheless – is secondary when not irrelevant.

I don’t have the room and time here to go into how and why the form of architecture is significant – see the entry on Michel de Certeau’s ‘Everyday’ for a taster. This is not, specifically, what Bois helps me with. The surprising outcome is the number of ideas that can be contained within, pass through or be evoked by form. For many, the idea in being interested in the problems of proportion, spatial relationships, specific dimensions, material resolution, joints, details, surface articulation and so on is seen to be an interest in empty things. That is, they are seen as disconnected artefacts that cannot produce meaning in themselves. To design with these things in mind is to leave the world behind. Yet, isn’t this a kind of naïve utopian belief? Who really believes that one can operate entirely within a vacuum? Robin Evan’s has shown how the formal arrangement of rooms reflects the societal structure of its time (see ‘Figures, Doors, and Passages’). To work with shapes, articulations, configurations and hierarchies of a plan is to work on the structure and order of a society. To be interested in the composition of a façade is to engage with the representational and symbolic systems (and beliefs) of your culture. To put it another way, I believe that to work on form is to work on representations, beliefs, structures, orders, and hence society and culture itself. What then, does it mean to be disinterested in form?

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Bois’ work is quite extensive so for those interested in reading further below are short introductions to some key texts.

Painting As Model

This is Bois’ first book – a collection of previously published essays. My copy is nearly falling to pieces, with only one or two essays not getting frequent re-reads. The introduction called Resisting Blackmail sets out Bois methods and position with respect to postmodern theory as fashion. Matisse and ‘Arche-drawing’ looks at the relation between Matisse’s drawings and paintings suggesting an investigation that parallels some of Derrida’s propositions about the relationship between speech and writing. The De Stijl Idea is probably the best essay on De Stijl anywhere. It pursues one of three definitions possible for the movement – De Stijl as an idea (the other two are De Stijl as a journal and De Stijl as a group of persons). The distinction sounds simple but once you read it you realise that everything else muddles up the categories and hence any understanding of the movement. Strzeminski and Kobro: In Search of Motivation is a fantastic overview of two unknown Polish artists from the 1930s who define some rather interesting parameters for architecture. This has been a very influential essay and I will be writing on this separately. Piet Mondrian, New York City looks at one painting by the artist and is a masterclass in detail formal analysis. Perceiving Newman uses the ‘perceptive’ model to show how Newman’s work toys with our sense of seeing. This particular essay uncovers how the (simple) surface image of things can often mask complex structures, processes and meanings. Ryman’s Tact does a similar thing for this artists who has only ever painted white canvases. Painting: The Task of Mourning looks at the then current post modern fashion for pronouncing the death of ‘X’ (painting, capitalism, authorship, etc.). It is fairly theoretical but a good overview of early postmodern thought. Painting As Model is based on a review of a book by Hubert Damisch and provides a kind of overview of both Bois’ and Damisch’s approach to painting (and form).

A Picturesque Stroll Around Clara-Clara

This is masterpiece of research and writing that takes in theories of the picturesque, the work of Robert Smithson and Le Corbusier, and the idea of parallax, all in the development of an analysis of one sculpture by Richard Serra. It is, I believe, the best overview of Serra’s work in general. This essay also demonstrates the complexity of formal analysis and dispenses with any ideas that it is ahistorical, limited, closed off and non-contextual.

Piet Mondrian and the Theory of Architecture

This essay was a revelation as I had no idea when I first read it that Mondrian had theorised about architecture. It is wonderfully detailed and brings out the fine complexities of his thought – not always consistent or perfectly formed.

The Semiology of Cubism

This is one of Bois’ ‘definition’ essays – that is, where he attempts to define a term, concept or thing (The De Stijl Idea is another). This essay demonstrates the benefit of formal analysis in trying to understand what makes something unique. Whereas many historians fall over themselves trying to define what the earliest cubist painting is, or what is transitional, and so on, Bois answers the question by asking: ‘What does cubism do that no other type of painting did before it’. So while some paintings ‘look’ cubist, they in fact do little more than Cezanne had already done. Once the underlying characteristic is found we learn that the first cubist work isn’t even a painting.

Notes:

[1] In some cases objects defy existing theoretical categories and lead to the development of new theories. These objects are called ‘theoretical objects’, a term borrowed from one of Bois’ mentors, Hubert Damisch. Theoretical objects are said to emanate theory that redefine our understanding of an area or mode of production. Photography is an example of a type of production that generated its own theoretical models.

[2] There was also a fatal flaw in the way deconstruction was adopted by architects. Developed by Derrida as a method of analysing texts for the complexities of meaning, architects turned it into a method for designing. Worst of all, they assigned it the role of communicating directly one particular set of beliefs: that the world was fragmented, irrational, fluid, contradictory, and indeterminate.

[3] In art history, Clement Greenberg is the main culprit although Bois has shown how he wasn’t really a formalist, i.e., he wasn’t very attentive to the specific conditions of the object but rather focused on what it appeared to be. In architecture it’s harder still to identify such formalists. One might suggest that the paper projects of Peter Eisenman and John Hejduk of the 1960s and 1970s fits the description, but their projects were always self-consciously theoretical or pedagogical.

[4] Bois picked up this ethos of ‘looking closely’ from his teacher Roland Barthes, who advocated looking at things in their ‘fine grain.’ Roland Barthes and his book ‘Mythologies’ is in the queue for a future entry in this blog.

Robin Evans

“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.”

TranslationsI 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.