Bois/Banham mashup on drawing

“A great modern attainment is to have found the secret of expression by colour, to which has been added, with what is called fauvism and the movements which have followed it, expression by design; contour, lines and their direction.” The problem lies in the phrase ‘expression by design’: not only is there no word in French corresponding to the concept of ‘design,’ but more importantly (since the term could have been used to translate a periphrasis), nothing could more alien to Matisse’s thought. Indeed, the concept of designing presupposes a kind of plastic grammar transcending all genres, all media, a kind of Esperanto allowing for a flatting out of all differences, and an escape from the dictates of materiality: for a ‘designer,’ scale does not count; he sketches a cigarette lighter as if her were dealing with a scale model of a skyscraper, or plans a skyscraper on the basis of a mock-up the size of a lighter. Design is an entirely projective practice (the designer, imitated all too frequently by architects, projects on paper in a priori fashion what others will go on to realise); for the designer, the formal idea is prior to the actual substance: all of Matisse’s art is violently opposed to such tawdry Aristotelianism. ‘Expression by design’ is impossible, a judgement confirmed at the end of the same sentence, where Matisse speaks of ‘contours, lines and their directions,’ in other words, drawing (dessin).”

 Yve-Alain Bois, ‘Matisse and ‘Arche-drawing’’ in Painting as Model

 

“While we await their eventual revelation, what are we to make of architecture? No longer seen as the mother of the arts, or the dominant mode of rational design, it appears as the exercise of an arcane and privileged aesthetic code. We could, perhaps, treat it as one of the humanities, trivial or quadrivial, since its traditions are of the same antiquity and classicist derivation as the others. We could stop pretending that it is ‘a blend of art and science’, but is a discipline in its own right that happens to overlap some of the territory of painting, sculpture, statics, acoustics and so on. And we could halt the vulgar cultural imperialism that leads the writers of general histories of architecture to co-opt absolutely everything built upon the earth’s crust into their subject matter.

To do so is to try to cram the world’s wonderful variety of building arts into the procrustean mould of a set of rules of thumb derived from, and entirely proper to, the building arts of the Mediterranean basin alone, and whose master-discipline, design, is simply disegno, a style of draughtsmanship once practised only in central Italy. I am increasingly doubtful that the timber buildings of northern Europe, for instance, or the triumphs of Gothic construction, really belong under the rubric of architecture at all. […]

Recognising the very straitened boundaries of architecture as an academically teachable subject, we might deceive and confuse ourselves less if we stopped trying to cram the whole globe into its intellectual portfolio. We could recognise that the history of architecture is no more, but emphatically no less, than what we used to believe it was: the progression of those styles and monuments of the European mainstream, from Stonehenge to the Staatsgalerie, that define the modest building art that is ours alone. […]

We might also be more securely placed to study the mysteries of our own building art, beginning with the persistence of drawing – disegno – as a kind of meta-pattern that subsumes all other patterns and shelters them from rational scrutiny. Even before architectural drawings achieved the kind of commercial value they can claim nowadays, they had such crucial value for architects that being unable to think without drawing became the true mark of one fully socialised into the profession of architecture.”

Reyner Banham, ‘A Black Box: The secret profession of architecture’ in A Critic Writes

 

I have nothing to add to this. Just think about it. There’s some seriously contentious shit here. Not so much to me, but to most of the profession (practicing and academic) out there.

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Presentism

“Presentism happens when any theory conforms its critical insights to the very theory late capitalism offers of itself. More specifically, presentism results when critics adopt decidedly even and indifferent models of the present, like networks, rhizomes, flat ontologies, vital materialisms, and object ontologies (to name but a few). These are all ontologies of the present. As such, they are the identities of our age—that is, the new philosophies of indifference tasked to elbow out the old philosophies of difference.
Networks, I admit, have a certain counterhegemonic, democratizing appeal. They are vast, interconnected in infinite ways, multi-nodal, decentralized, nonhierarchical and feature agency distributed to every actant, mediation for every action, translation for every relation, and so on. they are so resilient as to be eternal. Yet they are still systems in which a permanent interruption or systemic die off ends everything in a flash, if not a boom. And then what? Rhizomes, if you know anything about plants, grow by dying, the “node” being as much about death and disconnection as it is “life” or connectivity. Rhizomes also perish when the conditions around them aren’t supportive. Multiplicities—rhizomes by an-other name—exist only on the “plane of consistency” (after Deleuze and Guattari), which means that they are even and smooth through and through. I’m not confident that these formulations help us think our uneven and troubled present. Rather, they seem to stylize it.”
Andrew Cole, ‘The Function of Theory’
The interesting thing here is not the term, ‘presentism’ nor is it the critique of rhizomes but rather what it says about our relationship to theory. I have often argued that theories or bodies of knowledge, or for that matter, ways of doing things, aren’t automatically supplanted by what comes after. Yes, in some cases a new theory exposes such weaknesses or blind spots in a previous theory that make it difficult to persist with them. Often, however, a new theory is simply another way of seeing or offers another aspect into what objects are or can mean.
I have often found myself at the pointy end of discussions when it comes to architectural ideas, theories and methods; I am often seen as Luddite or just old-fashioned (I was once accused of the following: “you seem to believe architecture ended in 1975”). I’ve never claimed that structuralism offers a complete explanation of things, but it’s a damn good way to start thinking about things. The fact that all things can be identified by their opposition to other things, rather than by intrinsic and identifiable qualities, is a useful thing to know. The pressure to adopt new theory and reject the old is something the art historian Yve-Alain Bois has referred to as ‘theoretical blackmail’. Often accused of being a formalist and using only ‘outdated’ theory to talk about art, Bois in fact is happy to utilise deconstruction when the object in question suggests it might be a fruitful way to think about the work (for example, see ‘Matisse and arche-drawing’ in Painting as Model). If I can be accused of a particular tendency when it comes to contemporary theory then it is scepticism. Cole’s thoughts are one reason to be sceptical, though I wouldn’t dismiss (and I don’t think he does) contemporary theory outright.
Finally, the closing line suggesting that when theory sits too closely within the world-view it is attempting to analyse or critique (‘Rather, they seem to stylise it.’) is extremely powerful and perhaps goes some way to architects and architectural theorists tendency to treat theory as style.

Robin Evans: Mies van der Rohe’s Paradoxical Symmetries

Translations-from-Drawing-to-Building-and-Other-Essays-Evans-Robin-9780262550277Paradoxical Symmetries is not an essay that I come back to often. I’ve only read it, perhaps, three times. But it has something that has stuck with me, more as a model of writing and thinking about architecture and its history, than about the specific arguments or anything to do with Mies van der Rohe. Yes, it takes the Barcelona Pavilion as its object of study, but it puts more effort into challenging the various myths surrounding the building as well as reminding us that we can be rather sloppy in our thinking about concepts. To start with the first, Evans shows us how the building, praised for its asymmetry has a fair amount of symmetry in its architecture. Secondly, before doing this we are reminded (or chastised) that our architectural use of the term symmetry is rather limited and basic (reflective or mirror symmetry). This unraveling of complex concepts continues with the way Evans reads the relationship between the truth of structure and expressing the truth of structure. More, we are given an interesting reading of what is structural and what is not (is it the walls or the columns or both and if the latter, which is primary?). But Evans isn’t interested in any idea of an ultimate truth about the building but more in how it communicates various different things often at the same time. The critiques suggesting the walls should not have touched the underside of the roof or that the columns should have been left out miss the point. Yes, it might have made things clearer but that wasn’t what Mies was interested in. There is something wonderful about the way Evans suggests that various readings can make sense but don’t quite. This isn’t a flaw in the architecture and neither is it a flaw in wanting to read it a particular way. Just like my take on Peter Collins’ history of concrete – it is not entirely logical but it makes you think – the value is in the way the architecture (or a way of looking at it) makes you think, imagine or invent alternative concepts or explanations.

The deep message in this essay is about the assumptions we make when thinking about architecture – and how nonsensical they actually are, when you stop to think about them.

“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 to.”

This is, for me, one of the most beautiful and important passages ever written about architecture. Everyone thinks Mies is a rationalist because of this misconception and everyone thinks Gehry is an artist for the same reason. And in the case of someone like Le Corbusier or Rem Koolhaas you get either fans or detractors neither of which ever look at the work closely enough.

The essay continues to discuss issues of ‘appearance’ which is not to say ‘image’ and the role this plays in Mies’ architecture. And there is even a little phenomenological moment invoked by an understanding of how formerly blind people perceive space. It finally moves into a consideration of its materials and reflectivity. Along the way more conceptual traps and simplifications are exposed and exploded.

The final point I’d like to make about this essay is that it is somewhat academic in tone but not slavishly so. We have lost the ability to write this way. It is observant in an extremely precise way but it is not concerned with presenting itself as a piece of academic writing. That is, it is more interested in scholarship than expressing (the rules and tropes of) scholarship. This allows Evans to be very honest about the fact that a lot of what he is saying is simply about what he sees; yet it is all there, it is verifiable, it is subjective and factual at the same time. It is, come to think about it, very much like Mies’ architecture.

In fact, I wonder now why I don’t come back to this essay more often.

Richard Sennett: The Public Realm (Borders and Boundaries)

Image exploring the idea of boundaries

Image exploring the idea of boundaries

Richard Sennett’s work has been critical to my thinking about architectural and urban space. The Fall of Public Man (1977) remains a key reading for anyone wanting to understand the development of the contemporary public realm. Taken together with Flesh and Stone (1994) and The Conscience of the Eye (1990) they form a trilogy that is fundamental for anyone wanting to understand the relation between space and society. However, in the last few years, Sennett has revised his take on public space. His essay ‘The Public Realm’ revisits the origins of key concepts that informed his views on public space and finds that 21st century urban and socio-political development require a different approach. Sennett is critical of his earlier views (though I would note that the basis of his earlier thesis is wonderfully summarised in this essay) which focused or led to an emphasis on centralised open space as a meeting place of strangers. I would note that I always found Sennett’s criteria for public space as a space where strangers can be aware of each other potent in its simplicity and modesty. There is no idealistic imaginary vision of hand-holding or spontaneous irruptions of dialogue necessary. The simple condition of having spaces where people unlike you (the ‘other’) can co-inhabit (and not necessarily without friction) was all the more significant for the fact that such basic spaces were disappearing and being designed out of cities. Never mind the agora or forum, streets and spaces where anyone can feel they have a right to be there are disappearing and being replaced by versions (they look like streets, squares and plazas) that are either privately controlled or which exclude particular groups in subtle but powerful ways (see Iain Borden’s essay ‘Thick Edge’ in InterSections: Architectural History and Critical Theory, 2001, pp.221-46).

Rather than lament the loss of the open meeting ground or continue to defend its importance Sennett proposes that it is at the edges of territories that public space can exist or emerge. A distinction is made between borders and boundaries – boundaries being limits or edges which separate one territory from another and borders being a zone of interactive edge between territories. Boundaries are hard and borders are permeable. The shift in emphasis from an open space to a linear zone or edge represents a shift in the role of the public space conceived in each context. Whereas the former is about an area of congregation and a destination the edge is a place of movement from one area to another. Because so much of our urban landscapes have become encampments, territories utilised primarily by particular groups (tourist zone, shopping district, upper class residential, ethnic neighbourhood, etc.) it is where one territory touches another and the possibility of movement between them that any possibility of experiencing the other is possible. This does not necessarily mean that centralised or open spaces can never work as public realms but they have become limited in their capacity.

There other interesting concepts explored by Sennett in the essay, such as the difference between open and closed form, but the boundary/border distinction is, I think, a significant contribution to design thinking.

The importance of Sennett’s essay is in bringing to designer’s attention the role of the perimeter and to make them conscious of their participation in the creation of territories, boundaries and borders. They essay is also interesting in that it echoes, at a different scale, the ideas of Alejandro Zaera Polo in his essay ‘The Politics of the Envelope’. These essays, taken together, set up an interesting arena for considering the role of design in urban and social space and remind us of the political and social significance of spatial design.

Sennett’s essay is reproduced on his web site: here

Alejandro Zaera Polo: The Politics of the Envelope

Image

In this age of over emphasis on subjective approaches to forms of knowledge in the design disciplines Alejandro Zaera Polo’s essay is a refreshing counterpoint. This is not to say that the subjective aspects of both designing and experience of designed things is not important. However, the subjective and experiential dominates contemporary discourse while at the same time denigrating any forms of knowledge that have a hint of objectivity. In architectural design this has led to a lack of interest in form along with a decreasing lack of skill in manipulating physical and spatial form. Polo’s essay makes a clear and simple point – that the basic form of a building largely determines a host of outcomes that range from environmental to political and to social concerns. Although Polo’s focus is on the envelope of the building, this envelope is critical in determining the character or type of basic building form. Polo outlines four types – though he is clear in suggesting that these are not the only ones: spherical (represented by a cube*), vertical or tower block, vertical linear block (or slab block) and flat horizontal (flat slab). While this sounds like yet another reductive formalist categorisation of architecture the precision with which he outlines the implications of each make the socio-political content of these forms very evident. For example, the flat horizontal slab (think airport, mall, warehouse shed, etc.) results in the greatest expanse of roof area and as such present environmental challenges. On the other hand the form is adept at allow for flows of people and objects in a flexible and fluid manner which is critical for the functioning of certain program types. This can be contrasted with the other types which have varying degrees of roof exposure, footprint areas or overall surface area. Interestingly Polo finds possible explanations for the proliferation of certain types (bubbles and blobs) in a mixture of technological, symbolic and security concerns. Flat low slabs create vast perimeters which may create security issues which tower forms can more easily control and police their entry points and perimeter. Blobs (and spheres) contain a positive ratio of interior space versus exterior surface area and thus provide advantages in minimising the use of resources (heating, cooling, and ventilating).

What is critical about Polo’s essay is that he is very attentive a variety of effects and that these are not just about form, shape or morphology, but about the political and social effects of the form choices we make. For example, the undifferentiated facades and disappearance of roof-wall distinction presents problems in terms of what he calls ‘faciality’ or what might have been called in previous decades the ‘symbolic’ aspect or role of facades in communicating their program, use or role in the cityscape. Because the variety of affects exist in many spheres (technical, cultural, constructional, experiential) the choice of the basic form type is not an easy one. What Polo makes us aware of is that that choice is not just about architectural effect, construction or tectonics but that we are also determining more difficult conditions and issues.

What is fascinating and important about this essay is that reminds us that form is significant and not something to be ignored or left to chance. It offers another way of thinking about architecture – or more precisely, it reminds us about forgotten ways of thinking about it – that do not treat the architectural product as merely an outcome of a process, of context or a set of forces. In many cases we can decide the basic form and if we are informed about the political and social implications of form we can take these decisions more carefully and consciously rather than leaving them up to chance, fashion or the computer. Finally, I think that it is important that this essay was written by Polo, founder of Foreign Office Architects, a practice that is known for its experimental, challenging and inventive architecture. There are undoubtedly many others who understand the importance of spatial form but these voices are dismissed as ‘old school thinking’, reactionary points of view, or as the view of traditionalists. Form is there, whether traditional or avant-garde and when we ignore it we deny one of the few things of which we are truly meant to be specialists in.

*The use of the term ‘sphere’ along with the illustration of a cube often confuses students when I present them with this essay. The term sphere refers to a balanced relationship between the dimensions in the x, y & z axis. That is, it is roughly as high as it is wide and long. Cubes, spheres, and anything in between all produce the effects and possess the conditions that Polo describes.

The Politics of the Envelope is published in Volume, Issue 17, March 2008.

Link to essay: here

Roland Barthes: Mythologies

mythologiesThis book has become such a classic that it is quite difficult to write about in a number of ways. For one, it has garnered so much attention and analysis that it is difficult to say anything new about it. From another point of view it may be seen as dated and surpassed by post-structuralist theory and so is considered by some to be passé. Yet, we still find many people misunderstanding language, form and meaning. The book is known in design circles but not always read or studied. In advertising it is a standard text, the starting point for understanding their discipline, even if they then move on to more sophisticated techniques and theories. The book is a collection of reprints of a series of monthly essays with a theoretical overview (Myth Today) tacked on to the end. I’ve taught the book fairly often – it’s an ideal book for this for many reasons. The essays are very short, most are two to three paperback sized pages long (only one exceeds this at 11 pages, still rather short). The essays can be read in at least two ways, as critiques of their subject matter and as examples of a theory at work (semiotics). Their length makes them easy to re-read and examine his arguments and theory step by step, sentence by sentence. They are amazingly efficient essays and they have to be given their size. The only way in which I think the book is dated is in some of their references, common in their day (the mid-1950s) but obscure today. Each essay untangles the structure of a piece of writing, advertisement, film or object to demonstrate how its specific form means more than its surface message contains. Essays can be taken individually or as a whole. As a whole it is interesting in that the idea that myth construction – hidden or smuggled meanings – exist not just in texts but in designed objects. The idea of things as signs goes beyond those things we might normally see as signs, like advertisements, and extend into objects not normally assumed to be part of a sign system. It is also interesting to see the range of meanings that can be constructed, from militaristic ideology (Soap-powders and detergents) to cultural myths (Steak and Chips) to rhetorical sleights of hand (Operation Margarine) to race (Myth Today).

From a design standpoint it was significant to learn that forms can mean something beyond their visual content – what they look like or evoke visually – but that it is also how things are structured that constructs and communicates meaning. Here I’ll stick with simpler understanding of the 1950s and 1960s and say ‘constructs’ rather than ‘situates’ or ‘suggests’ and also use the singular ‘meaning’ rather than ‘meanings’. We know that meaning doesn’t reside entirely in the form with a passive interpreter and we also know there are multiple meanings (interpretations) rather than author determined single meaning. We too often pick up on the postmodern twist to all this and mistake it for a structure-less fog of meaning and interpretation. There is something useful in understanding the underlying structure that Barthes reveals in his little book – more, I think it is essential. The more complex language and meaning models we have at our disposal (e.g. deconstruction) make no sense if you don’t understand the basics. The recent history of architecture has proven what happens when ‘new’ theory is ingested without proper understanding of context and background (e.g the deconstructivist architecture that architects are too embarrassed to refer to now).

Barthes book is important in this way – as an entry level text – but it is also important in that it shows that these operations that construct meaning cut across many disciplines (even if the mechanisms must change). It therefore becomes a simple way of starting to connect design with ideology, economy, politics, culture, and so on. It is, as I say, an entry level text that too many people entering the field of design, unfortunately, never read.

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 I should say that this book was only the starting point, but maybe the most important starting point, for a journey into a whole set of other readings, not least of which were Barthes other wonderful books (Camera Lucida, Empire of Signs, The Eifel Tower). From here I could understand Eco, from there Derrida and Panofsky and on to Clement Greenberg, Alan Colquhoun, Hubert Damisch, Fredric Jameson and Henri Lefebvre, just to name a few. This is not to say that these authors are connected theoretically (some are) but that Barthes also taught me to read and to write (though that remains a struggle to this day).

Roger Connah: on cultural and architectural relativism

“The legacy of cultural and architectural relativism over the last three decades has proved devastating. So private are our worlds, critical practice struggles, as it must, to create any shared ground. Suffering, criticism then begins to carnivalize itself, repeating and replicating tired schemata. And when such free-for-all occurs, criticism so often seeks more than mere support from other disciplines.”

Roger Connah – How Architecture Got Its Hump

A recent reading group discussion focused on Reyner Banham’s classic essay on brutalism. After a lively debate I noted that such an essay would probably be impossible today. Impossible because there are no collective movements or shared beliefs against which one could propose an alternative view. The Smithson’s brutalism, whatever one may think of the movement and its legacy, had the benefit of making us see what was wrong with the status-quo. In a sense, it didn’t matter which side of the debate you stood on, at least you could identify the traits of the adversary and they could identify yours. Such engagements, which happened throughout the history of modern art and architecture (purism versus cubism, colour-field painting versus abstract expressionism, futurism versus dada versus surrealism, CIAM versus Team X, the Whites versus the Greys, etc.) enabled one to hone one’s position. When you go public with a critique of a large group you need to have done your homework. A reply from the opposing side often meant you had to refine your critique, respond to weaknesses, or clarify your intentions. This was good for both sides. It kept everyone sharp.

This kind of discourse seems absent today despite the fact that there are some rather contradictory practices out there. Even traditionalists escape criticism from those that are resolutely contemporary in the name of let’s-all-get-along pluralism. It’s a nice ideal but it makes you lazy and complacent. But the biggest problem is that of the ‘private worlds’ and private languages which serves to alienate more and more of the general public. The absence of shared languages means an absence of shared discourse. No discussion, no debate, no public.

If this self-imposed moratorium on critical discourse has a birth date, in the spirit of Charles Jencks (who dated the death of modern architecture), I suggest 15 November 1987. This is the date the Chicago Tapes was published (Rizzoli, ed. Stanley Tigerman). This book was a follow up to the Charlottesville Tapes, both of which consisted of a transcription of a super-crit among the leading architects of the time. The first event burned a number of well-known architects – in the introduction to the second volume Stanley Tigerman refers to participants being ‘bloodied’ in Chicago. Tigerman then describes the ‘carefully cordial’ behaviour and laments the absence of the ‘behavioural outbursts’ of the Chicago event suggesting that a kind of tacit truce had been established. Since then open debate and conflict has all but disappeared (rare exceptions exist like the Michigan Debates on Urbanism).

The latter part of the quote is a reference to inter- and multi-disciplinarity – the suggestion is that the absence of shared discourses has led criticism to seek support elsewhere. But in the rest of Connah’s book we see that this engagement with non-architectural fields has not always been (or mostly been) productive. The relationship between relativism and inter/multi-disciplinarity is an interesting one – one that is not often noted and one that I hadn’t quite picked up on. It’s encouraging that someone of the stature of Connah can say out loud that something has gone wrong in the last thirty years. Still, it’s a drop in the ocean; the quote is 12 years old now and not much has changed.