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


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

Iain Borden – Stairway Architecture: Transformative Cycles in the Golden Lane

“The concrete interior staircase is a menace and a source of noise from my next-door neighbours.” Golden Lane Resident

“We don’t think enough about staircases. Nothing was more beautiful in old houses than the staircases. Nothing is uglier, more hostile, meaner, in today’s apartment buildings. We should learn to live more on staircases. But how?” George Perec

This is a short and unassuming essay that hasn’t made many waves in the history and theory world. Nevertheless I have found it to be unique in the way in treats the relationship between the physical facts of architecture and the experiential and subjective experiences of users. When researching for my PhD I had to cover a lot of ground in the worlds of ‘the everyday’, anthropology and phenomenology. I encountered many fascinating and useful texts on these subjects but more often than not they were overwhelmingly theoretical. When they did attempt to apply theory to architecture they relied on generalised examples and demonstrations. If the details of the space and form of architecture matter then surely it must be possible to examine this in concrete terms. Borden’s essay manages this while also working as demonstrative text of how one can study architecture. He begins by running through the various ways in which we can speak about architecture. He outlines how a historian would look at it, what a technical study might look like, and how a typological genealogy might be made, among other approaches. All of these seem to leave the experience of the architecture aside. They are not un-useful, Borden argues, but they miss something crucial. His analysis takes in the rituals and rhythms of using the stair as well as its symbolic status. But it isn’t done through generalities – we understand how the detailing, selection of materials, placement of the stair and construction all contribute to the various experiential interpretations (physical and visual). This is where hard objective knowledge meets intuitive and subjective experience. We are sometimes led to believe that such a link is not possible or too difficult. There is nothing spectacularly novel about what Borden says – we only just happen to be very un-used to thinking about architecture in this way. It is a synthetic analysis that doesn’t attempt to fix the meaning of the stair nor arrive at a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ verdict. Rather, we are shown the way in which the stair oscillates between visual and tactile meanings, between problematic outcomes (noise) and celebratory ones (enhancing rituals). Whereas some find the noise transmitted a nuisance (opening quote) others find the sounds something that links them to their neighbours. There is no final declaration about whether this bit of architecture succeeds or not. Instead we see how the stair (and by extension, any piece of architecture) carries with it complex relationships. We also see how it is insufficient to speak exclusively about either form or experience. The complexities and challenges of architecture and designing it emerge from the interaction of these two worlds.

Walter Benjamin – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This is another essay that I’ve been regularly re-reading for a couple of decades. Its importance to me comes down to a specific and limited quote which I’ll come to at the end. The essay’s main point concerning the effect of reproducibility on the status of works is straightforward. It’s easy enough to see how this essay may have inspired Roland Barthes, Guy Debord’s idea of the spectacle, later notions about the simulacrum and so on. However, it’s in the detail of the argument that Benjamin demonstrates his depth of perception. One of its central ideas is the loss of ‘aura’ that accompanies reproducible artworks. Benjamin links this aura to the idea of what he calls ‘cultic’ value. Cultic value is present when the existence or presence of something is more important than its actual display – as in religious artefacts. This is the first of a pair of oppositions that Benjamin articulates – cultic value versus display value. Benjamin makes a clear case for how photography upsets the notion of the original and the aura of art. But his best insights are reserved for his analysis of film. In particular, one of his most beautiful metaphors – and another oppositional structure – is in the way the magician versus the surgeon parallels the relationship between a painting and film. This is worth quoting in detail:

“The surgeon constitutes one pole of an arrangement in which the other is occupied by the magician. The stance of the magician healing an invalid by laying-on of hands differs from that of the surgeon performing an operation on that invalid. The magician maintains the natural distance between himself and the patient…the surgeon does the opposite: he reduces the distance to the patent a great deal (by actually going inside him)…Magician and surgeon behave like painter and cameraman. The painter, while working, observes a natural distance from the subject; the cameraman, on the other hand, penetrates deep into the subject’s tissue.”

What Benjamin is describing is how film is surgical in that it is a series of chopped up fragments – camera edits, changes in zoom, differing levels of detail, etc. all the while remaining invisible. It moves in and out, can alter the duration of time, and alter space and points of view. The painter’s painting is by contrast synthetic and always about that particular view held by the painter regardless of whether it is a landscape or abstract work of art.

The camera is such a potent force that the aura of the actor has no chance of surviving, the way it still does on a theatre stage. Hence, “[f]ilm’s response to the shrivelling of aura is an artificial inflation of ‘personality’ outside the studio.” This is Benjamin in 1936 describing the cult of celebrity we now accept as natural.

 There are also interesting hints about the way film creates the possibility behind Warhol’s famous statement about everyone getting their ’15 minutes of fame’, that is, about the logic behind the appetite for reality TV shows (the lack of any shortage of people aspiring to claim their quarter-hour). There is also an interesting analysis of how film provides us with the idea that we are all experts of some sort when it comes to appraising what we’ve seen; the opposite of what most people feel in front of art, which is generally a sense of inadequacy.

My interest in this essay is in one of the oppositions that he sets up in order to demonstrate the conceptual differences between things normally seen as fairly similar. Without further ado:

“Distraction and concentration form polar opposites which may be stated as follows: A man who concentrates before a work of art is absorbed by it… In contrast, the distracted mass absorbs the work of art. This is most obvious with regard to buildings. Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.”

This has, for me, settled the debate as to whether architecture is art. The difference isn’t utility, as is often suggested. Art has its use as well although we know that there is a big difference in what use and function mean in architecture as opposed to art. Benjamin’s focus on the mode of reception – what our frame of being is when we experience something – allows us to invoke use, but not make it central. That is, the state of distraction that is present when we experience architecture is caused by use. The way we are aware of the architecture of a kitchen is mediated by the fact that we are making toast and thinking about catching the bus so as not to be late for work. When in front of a work of art, we generally choose to concentrate on it, to examine it, thereby giving it its space and our attention fully. You might, however, cease to concentrate on your original Matisse hanging in your living room after several weeks or months. And you choose to stand before a building and consider it as art in a fully attentive and concentrated manner. However, these latter two examples are not how they are primarily meant to be apprehended. So while architecture may be taken in as art that is not its essential mode of reception. Now think back to Duschamp’s urinal installation and you’ll understand why it is a work of art and the one in your neighbourhood pub isn’t.

 This is a very simple observation and way of delineating a difference between two types of production (and consumption) – yet without saying one is better than the other. They are simply different. Nevertheless, breath and ink are still wasted over debating whether architecture is art or a fine art practice. We can accept, however, that not everybody on the street would have read Benjamin. What is bothersome is the extent to which architectural criticism and journalism continues to treat architecture from a purely concentrated state never considering its quality by the masses who use it in distraction every day. Segue my piece on the everyday (forthcoming).

Edit 4 Sept 2012

I’ve realised that I didn’t make any negative remarks about practice or education! How negligent of me. There are serious implications in the confusion or deliberate blurring of the distinctions between art and architecture. An obvious one is the design of buildings with an emphasis on ‘art’. To some extent, if a client wants to go down this route there is nothing terribly wrong with that. However, when it involves public buildings or buildings that impact on the urban landscape it becomes potentiall problemmatic. But, for me, the biggest concern is the treatment of architecture-as-art in education. The critique and assessment of work is generally based on evaluating the work from a ‘concentrated’ point of view. That is, it is reviewed and interrogated as something to be focused on and in terms of a resolution which is clear, communicable, blatant and self-consciously evident. That is, students are trained to make their ideas so legible that they tend towards wearing their concepts on their sleeves – emphatic if not aesthetic. If we follow Benjamin’s distinction, some evaluation should be made on the basis of more subtle effects. How, for example, might the design be taken in while distracted, or how would the meaning of the project build up for inhabitants as they repeatedly used and experienced the project, or what kinds of meanings, communications, and experiences are deliberately meant to be revealed slowly and almost imperceptibly? But the worst offence occurs in the area of design and presentation drawings. These have become so self-consciously artistic that they almost become incommunicable to clients (and in fact, many of the drawing methods favoured in academia are rarely seen in practice). And again, the evaluation is based not on how they carry ideas or how a non-architect could glean the design ideas or benefit of the project, but rather by how they challenge the architects’ own expectations for drawings. We have come to draw in order to intrigue our own curiosity. Through this the drawing has become more and more something to be ‘concentrated’ on, something that requires skill in reading, something that critiques established values and so on, in short, an artwork. You should, on your own, be able to see the parallels in model-making and the design process in general and hopefully with respect to the final design itself.

This is not to say that concentrated reflection has no place in architecture. Theoretical projects do exactly this and this is what makes them valuable. There is also nothing wrong with deciding to take the most pragmatic drawing or building and performing a ‘concentrated’ analysis. This is what critique is. What is problematic is a reversal of the horse and cart of Benjamin’s formulation – making every aspect of architecture under a concentrated mode and for concentrated consumption.

Notes: Benjamin’s essay changes dramatically depending on which translation you read. Given that it is not terribly long, it’s worth trying out a few different translations. I recently bought the Penguin Great Ideas version, which is a new translation, and was disappointed. It may be that it is closer to the original, but some of the passages I am familiar with come across awkwardly, specifically the one on distraction and concentration. The translation I used above is from