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.

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.

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.

Rules and Restraints: Valle & Allen

“Simply put, within literature, constraints are no more than a voluntary instrument in a process of moving from the structure language to the expression of writing…our acceptance of rules and constraints – traditionally viewed as limited devices – could be the unlikely passage to liberating our work.”  Giancarlo Valle, Luis M. Mansilla + Emilio Tunon, From Rules to Constraints, ed. Giancarlo Valle

“[T]he hardest thing to communicate to students is the confidence that you will discover things through the process of working itself. You don’t have to figure it out beforehand…students have this idea that if they think hard enough, work the idea out in advance, somehow the pieces will magically fall together. I have two issues with this way of working. First, it’s a completely false way of thinking about ideas, as if they were abstract entities floating out there in a void; ideas are always the product of something concrete – an object or a text, something in the world – and second, the implied linearity of this process seems to me false: the idea that you could ever go in a straight line from idea to project. There is always a detour, and it’s precisely in the course of the detour that you discover things. Ironically, setting more rules actually makes the process more open. When you give the students total freedom to explore, they tend to retreat, but when you add more definition there is more opportunity for exploration.”  Stan Allen, Luis M. Mansilla + Emilio Tunon, From Rules to Constraints, ed. Giancarlo Valle

Contemporary architecture and its education too often misconstrues what creativity means. Whatever architecture is, it is for certain a design discipline, yet a mythical and fictional notion of artistic creativity predominates – that is, the idea that artistic creativity is something that must be free of bounds, constraints, limits or rules. Yet, most artists would tell you this is a ridiculous notion. Under the premise that the practice of architecture has radically changed in recent years (for example, clients require substantial help understanding the potential of sites, briefs may be vague or unknown) and that therefore architects must be vastly more flexible and imaginative students are given few constraints in their design projects. They are regularly asked to find their own sites, develop a brief, imagine or invent a client, and sometimes even invent cultural and societal scenarios* within which they set their project. This approach ends up becoming a kind of educational gesamptkunstwerk** (total work of art) that curiously smuggles back in the idea of unity that postmodern thought had apparently dispensed with. That is, students are encouraged to create air-tight narratives that seamlessly move from conceptualisation to program to resolution. Conflicts, paradoxes, contradictions and difficulties are airbrushed out of the design process. The more airtight, the better the project. Yet the constraints that face architects – economic, regulatory, environmental, social and cultural, to name a few – are not in any way unified or seamless. If anything, they are often contradictory and difficult to manage without compromises and – here it comes – creativity. That is, the kind of creativity, exploration and invention suggested by Valle and Allen.

*This particular approach is odd in that it often relies on a version of social engineering – a concept that is normally used to discredit ideas such as ‘progress’, ‘improvement’ or ‘making better’.

**Gesamkunstwerk is a design philosophy that encourages the design of all aspects of an environment in order to ensure the unity of the environment. One exponent, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the architecture, the furniture, tableware and in a few instances the clothing for clients.

Adrian Forty on Design

“Nearly ever object we use, most of the clothes we wear and man of the things we eat have been designed. Since design seems to be so much a part of everyday life, we are justified in asking exactly what it is, what it does, and how it came into existence. In spite of all that has been written on the subject, it is not easy to find the answers to these apparently simple questions. Most of the literature from the last fifty years would have us suppose that the main function of design is to make things beautiful. A few studies suggest that it is a special method of solving problems, but only occasionally has design been shown to have something to do with profit, and even more rarely has it been seen as being concerned with the transmission of ideas. This book developed out of my realisation that, especially in its economic and ideological aspects, design is a more significant activity than has usually been acknowledged.

“Particularly in Britain, the study of design and its history has suffered from a form of cultural lobotomy which has left design connected only to the eye, and severed its connections to the brain and to the pocket. It is commonly assumed that design would somehow be soiled if it were associated too closely with commerce, a misconceived attempt at intellectual hygiene that has done no good at all. It has obscured the fact that design came into being at a particular stage in the history of capitalism and played a vital part in the creation of industrial wealth. Limiting it to a purely artistic activity has made it seem trivial and relegated it to the status of a mere cultural appendix.

“Just as little attention has been given to design’s influence on how we think. Those who complain about the effects of television, journalism, advertising and fiction on our minds remain oblivious to the similar influence of design. Far from being a neural, in-offensive artistic activity, design, by its very nature, has much more enduring effects than the ephemeral products of the media because it can cast ideas about who we are and how we should behave into permanent and tangible form.” Adrian Forty, from the introduction to Objects of Desire

This passage by Adrian Forty is both typical and atypical of his writing. The first paragraph has a beautiful directness and simplicity that easily goes unnoticed. This is one of my favourite characteristic of his because he is able to take complex material and present it in a way that is accessible. The premise of the book is put forward without needing difficult language or theoretical jargon, yet, the questions and issues at stake are extremely serious and complex. If the first paragraph is typical of his writing in general the second paragraph has to be the most fiery piece of writing I have come across by Forty. All of a sudden there is a kind of pent up anger being released, and no wonder, given the claims he is making. This was written in 1980 and published in 1986 and times have changed. I can vouch for the fact that design history (especially architecture history) was really that straight-jacketed back then. But although we have had some historians and critics fill in the gaps that Forty has identified I think that largely his criticism still holds. I also think that a lot of the nods to cultural inputs into design are just so much lip-service. Architects and educators mention ‘users’ all the time now and go on about ‘inhabitation’ but the methods and results don’t really demonstrated that it is taken seriously.

The most important paragraph, for me, is the last – particularly the last sentence. If we agree that design is involved the “transmission of ideas” and that this is then cast into “permanent and tangible form” then the seriousness of discipline becomes clear. One can then understand the anger that emerges when it is treated as a “mere cultural appendage”. The sloppiness around design in general and architectural design specifically betrays the very serious implications of form. Forty continues after the quoted passage to discuss the problem of confusing design with art and of focusing on the creative act as the most significant aspect of design. Our obsession with creativity, invention, and pushing of boundaries, especially during a student’s education simplifies what is an immensely complicated affair. All design projects come with clients who not only have particular needs but also preconceptions about how the problem should be addressed.  All design projects also come with budgets which significantly restrict the range of possibilities (and not necessarily for the worse). All projects, if they are going to be realised, have to deal with regulations, fabricators, and suppliers. You as the designer must work with colleagues, employees and consultants. The most creative thing that an architect does is negotiating all these areas.

“Whatever degree of artistic imagination is lavished upon the design of object, it is done not to give expression to the designer’s creativity and imagination, but to make the products saleable and profitable. Calling industrial design ‘art’ suggests that designers occupy the principle role in production, a misconception which effectively severs most of the connections between design and the processes of society.”

To be clear, Forty is writing about industrial design, not architecture, but architecture is certainly closer in spirit to industrial design than it is to art. Seeing your work, expression and design contribution as part of the “processes of society” and as emerging from the limits of those processes is a more honest way of understanding what we do as designers. It would make us aware of the difficulty and complexity of design but also treat it as serious business. Small achievements could then be seen with an elevated sense of accomplishment.

 

Beatriz Colomina and the critic-architect.

“Greek legend insists that Daedalus was the first architect, but this is hardly the case: although he built the Cretan labyrinth, he never understood its structure. He could only escape, in fact, by flying out of its vortex. Instead, it may be argued that Ariadne achieved the first work of architecture, since it was she who gave Theseus the ball of thread by means of which he found his way out of the labyrinth after having killed the Minotaur.” Beatriz Colomina, ARCHITECTUREPRODUCTION, p.7

I’ve recently rediscovered this passage which comes from the second book of the Revisions study group – a group of academics and architects who met to discuss, debate and write about the changing nature of architectural theory and practice in the 1980s. The two books, Architecture Criticism Ideology and Architectureproduction, have fallen out of visibility but contain essays which are still benchmarks in the fields of architecture, politics and representation. This passage marks one of the earliest instances of a major shift in thinking about what constitutes architecture. The message is clear: the person who conceives or makes the building is not the architect, but rather the person who understands it, that is, the critic. It sounds outlandish when put so bluntly, but this idea is widespread, common and still extremely influential. Architecture has shifted from being about or focused around buildings to being writing itself, drawings, its representation or only in the mental and psychological experiences of the user or inhabitant, that is, it is anything but bricks, mortar, concrete, steel and glass; it is not walls, spaces, forms, sequences or anything so ‘banal’.

Architecture is very obviously a cultural product and as such it is useful to see how we speak about it and how that affects how we understand it. To see architecture as only the physical object detached of any cultural, social or political significance is reductive. But what has happened is that the object has been left far behind. If the thing, the building and its physical space, is of no importance then that lets architects off the hook. That might explain why this view has been embraced to such an extent. Architects do not make buildings; they construct critiques, enable events, and allow activities to emerge. And if such things do not work, you can always point the finger at the users for not making it happen.

Although extremely anecdotal I had heard long ago that the view that drawings and writing was architecture was propagated by critics and theorists who wanted to be architects but had no capacity for actual design. The solution was to redefine architecture in such a way that what you did was architecture. It’s far-fetched and maybe just a metaphor or vague quasi-psychoanalytic notion but then I think Colomina’s quote is also far-fetched. When I first read it, back in the early 90s, I went along with it because I believed that critical abilities and insight was crucial in making good architecture. So she wants to argue that Ariadne’s analytical take is an important aspect of doing architecture I think that’s fair. But it’s not what she is saying. The language is unequivocal in its denigration of the maker. But let’s dig into this legend a bit more – could it be just an accident that Daedalus conceived and made such a complex structure? It’s a bit disingenuous to think so. But even if Daedalus did not fully comprehend the complexity or meaning of the thing he made, this does not necessarily strip him of the title architect. The idea of the theorist-architect or critic-architect is a recent one. Manfredo Tafuri has argued that architects should just ‘do’ and ‘make’ and leave the historical and theoretical work to historians and theorists. This sounds a little too much perhaps, but the reason behind this is because of the way that architecture was turning into pictures of theory or critical sculpture rather than fully engaged socio-spatial objects.

I can’t say for certain that this specific quote or that this particular book was responsible for the shift in what architecture became. It is, however, very typical and indicative of the emerging discourse around the end of the 80s and early 90s. And, like many other statements and arguments along the same lines, it is deeply flawed.

Edit 21 February 2013

“The house, in a certain sense, is immaterial. That is, the house is not simply constructed as a material object from which certain views then become possible. The house is no more than a series of views choreographed for the visitor…”

Beatriz Colomina, Where are We? in Architecture and Cubism

Yet another example of the attempt to downplay, even deny, the physical existence of architecture. In this case she is speaking about the Villa Savoye, a project she has written about several times. What is wrong with accepting that the Villa Savoye actually exists as a physical things that takes up space in the world? And that it exists as a record of a series of concrete decisions taken about the brief, how one should move and what is seen? It is there, a material fact whose solids and opacities open up to allow the passage of individuals and which frame views. It quite easy enough to say that Savoye is primarily a house for choreographing views for visitors without insisting that there is no actual house there.

This critique of mine may seen utterly silly and pointless. You might counter: ‘Of course there is a building there, she doesn’t literally mean it doesn’t exist.’ I would agree. It is not that there is a serious assertion that things do not exist, it is that by continuously repeating it and shifting the emphasis to everything that is not material and physical (while simultaneously denigrating the physical) we stop asking questions about the role that the physical plays in architecture. We no longer see it as essential, necessary, certainly not of any importance. Yet, change any detail in Savoye and it ceases to be Savoye. Remove the cantilevers or regularise the irregular grid. Remove all the colour from the interior or change the materials, scale and grids of the various paving materials. Change the strip windows to more traditionally proportioned ones. Alter any of this and large swaths of what has been written about it falls away, is no longer true or relevant.

Architecture is a fascinating discipline because it can contain ideas and give rise to questions that have nothing to do with architecture. Architecture can be generated from concerns that ignore or downplay architectural interests. That is, it can be a theoretical or philosophical object, a mode of thought in itself. But what is it that contains those ideas? What provokes the questions? A thing, a building, a space and a configuration. And if it is able to evoke or ‘speak’ of such complex things then it’s physical ‘factness’ and the specific relationships and organisations made among all its elements cannot be irrelevant.

Reyner Banham and Technology

“Throughout the present century architects have made fetishes of technological and scientific concepts out of context and have been disappointed by them when they have developed according to the processes of technical development, not according to the hopes of architects. A generation ago, it was ‘The Machine’ that let architects down –  tomorrow or the day after it will be ‘The Computer’, or Cybernetics or Topology.”

Reyner Banham, The Architectural Review, March 1960

This was quoted in the August edition of AR. I might amend Banham’s first sentence to read “…and have been disappointed by them when they have developed according to the processes of technical or economic development…”

We’re still too enamoured of the computer to notice when we are let down by it.