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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Structuralism

“You can examine a poem as a ‘structure’ while still treating each of its items as more or less meaningful in itself. Perhaps the poem contains one image about the sun and another about the moon, and you are interested in how these two images fit together to form a structure. But you become a card-carrying structuralist only when you claim that the meaning of each image is wholly a matter of its relation to the other. The images do not have a ‘substantial’ meaning, only a ‘relational’ one.”

Terry Eagleton

I don’t want to spend too much time trying to define what structuralism is for those that don’t know. I’m certain Wikipedia does a decent job. But it’s worth noting that it is no longer a commonly used or valued theory. As Eagleton suggests, it is primarily concerned with the structure of things. Its founder, Fernand de Saussure (1857-1913), has since come under a lot of fire, along with the structuralism itself. It is claimed it is hermetic, overly scientific, that it doesn’t account for history, that it is overly concerned with form, and so on. A lot of the criticism is fair, except it is characteristic of lazy and poor uses of structuralism, and less accurate with respect to Saussure’s development of the theory. Architects tried to turn structuralism into a design method, when its roots – in linguistics – were to describe and define. That is, it was an analytical device not a creative one. That’s the first point I’d like to make about structuralism. The other is that a good deal of its misuse came from people who never bothered to read Saussure. For example, he doesn’t ignore history; he is quite clear that it an axis of knowledge that is perpendicular to structure. That is, history is concerned with change over time whereas structure is interested in how parts relate at any given moment.

So what is so interesting about this theory? For me it has been the emphasis on relationships – that is, not so much on parts and/or their origin, but on how various parts are relationally structured and to what extend this generates a context for meaning. Put in architectural terms, form and space, if understood as something you experience (move through, use, absorb), can only be appreciated as a set or series of relationships. For example, solid to void, movement versus pause, open versus closed, heavy versus light. Now here we have one of the problems with structuralism in that it often sorts the world into a series of polar opposites. But this is not necessarily a given characteristic of the theory. When Saussure says that ‘dog’ has the potential for meaning because it is different from ‘cat’ it is also simultaneously different from ‘dot’ and ‘cog’ not to mention ‘asparagus’. Similarly, a wall is related simultaneously to the space in front and the space behind and any other elements surrounding it (another wall, opening, column). Yet, the fact that structuralists have tended to analyse the world in terms of binary opposites has been enough for some to dismiss the whole enterprise, lock stock and barrel. Seeing the world ONLY as a series of binary oppositions is problematic, to say the least, but seeing the world as containing binary oppositions is perfectly legitimate.

Although another critique suggests that structuralism separates the object of analysis from the world its emphasis on relational structure means I never look at a work of architecture on its own. No matter how iconic and unique a piece of architecture sits in relation to its surrounding context, and in fact, it is this way of looking at it that exposes the weaknesses of iconic architecture. But we can take the relational analysis further. A particular work can have structural relationships to its predecessors, that is, to a historical context. I need not stop at looking at the work as a physical thing either – I can look at the structural relationships of use or occupation or of the rhythms of practice in space. The important thing to keep in mind is that it is one way of looking at the world – a rather incisive one, but only one.

I said at the outset that structuralism doesn’t have much active currency today, supposedly because things like post-structuralism and deconstruction have superseded it. The idea that theories ‘replace’ one another in chronological succession, however, is suspect. Structuralism has its problems, as does phenomenology, but it doesn’t stop one from learning about your object of inquiry by looking at it from a particular perspective. What is the point of looking at a calendar and deciding that because one came after the previous one is now useless? Yet this is largely the reason for the lack of interest or understanding of structuralism. It is passé, its time has passed, and it has expired, gone sour. I believe that the current lack of understanding of, or interest in, architecture as a spatial discipline and as one which is concerned with dynamic relational issues is due to popularity of theories limited to those which are newest. The emphasis on materiality and technical experimentation of surfaces has largely taken us back to a way of seeing architecture as merely and exclusively symbolic. And overly relativistic interpretations too often end up saying that architecture (and film, art, culture, society, subjects and objects) is fluid, ever-changing, fragmented, and relational. To what effect and for what purpose is of no interest. Note I’ve used the term ‘relational’ just now – but this is in the sense that one says ‘everything is dynamically related to everything else and so there is no point in trying to make sense of it.’

In the hands of Roland Barthes structuralism became something that taught us that detergent advertisements were slippery, yes, but also ideological and one could unpick and describe some of the multiple meanings that images and words were carrying. Barthes never claimed such meanings were the ultimate or absolute ones, but his analysis of the structure of the advertisements were compelling because they revealed underlying structures. They were describable if not permanently fixable. In a lot of ways the way I use and think about structuralism sounds like what others call post-structuralism – but though they are related if also somewhat opposed in the world-views they engender, I never found post-structuralism satisfying. This is probably for the same reasons that structuralism itself fell out of favour; the lazy and sloppy misuse of its best ideas by too many critics, theorists and historians (not to mention architects). But even amongst its most talented advocates there was always a tendency to make things evaporate through post-structural analysis. Architecture becomes the fluid and constantly shifting sum of all its discourses (drawings, words, images, buildings, texts, experiences, memories). Yes, all of these are part of architecture, but they don’t all work in the same way all the time. There are moments when the physicality and thingness of a work of architecture has an impact and in which photographs and words and text have no bearing. Again, it is from Barthes that I learned to be very attentive to the detail, grain and texture of things, not because they contain truth or ultimate meaning but because there is content there. It does something.

For me structuralism simultaneously roots me in the real world while pushing me to see the invisible threads of the many relational vectors that pass through any object. It, in the least, provides me with the possibility of beginning to speak about things even if only to question the very words and ideas I am saying.

Other notes:

There is whole area of architectural semiotics and even a design school called ‘structuralism’. The first suffers a great deal from both a visual bias (what things look like rather than what they do) and a tendency to claim ‘absolutes’ (‘this is how it is’). The second is not without interest – there is much to admire in the work of Hertzberger, Candilis et.al., and others – but it’s easier for me to take it as a design approach that happens to share the same name. It is important to be attentive to the shifts in the theory when it moved from linguistics to anthropology to architecture. My interest and use of structuralism can be seen in my appreciation for Bois (see this) – for example, when he asks what it is that cubism does that no other previous art practice did before or when he does the same for de Stijl. This exemplifies both the relational approach and interest in specificity that I found valuable and illuminating. My understanding of structuralism also underlies my unease with the way subjectivity and unhinged notions of creativity are privileged today (see this) and are linked to my critical attitude towards interdisciplinarity (and this). It’s not a recipe and I don’t use it as a formula – Bois reflecting on Barthes death wrote: “I am indebted to him for what painters call ‘studio techniques.’ No, not a method, but a thousand practical formulations, which may eventually become ideas, but are general enough to address all contexts…”

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).

On Form: Under the Shadow of Postmodernism

This year’s Brighton Festival features an installation ‘Under the Shadow of the Drone’ by James Bridle. The installation consists of a full scale outline of a drone, reminiscent of the chalk outlines of murder victims we used to see in crime and detective dramas. Below is an image of a previous installation and text accompanying the work in the Festival catalogue.

 In the Shadow of the Drone

“The unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, has become one of the most potent weapons of contemporary warfare. Remotely controlled by operators thousands of miles away, drones carry out aerial attacks which leave hundreds of people dead. They are one of the most controversial weapons of war, and Under the Shadow of the Drone makes them visible on our streets.”

“The stark marking out in an unexpected public space of a drone’s silhouette forces us to consider the implications of a drone attack on our own community. It raises questions about how military technology can obscure, conceal and distance us from the political and moral responsibility. It also continues the long tradition of artists bearing witness to events that governments and the military would prefer we did not see.”

I have not yet seen the installation in Brighton; however, while I find the issue and timing pertinent, the first thing that struck me was the relationship between the text and the installation. The work relies on being stumbled upon and perhaps being surprised at the scale and form of the drone seen in the context of a familiar urban surroundings. Yet, the idea that it ‘forces us to consider the implications of a drone attach on our own community’ is a stretch. It may lead some observers to do so but I cannot see how it is implicit in the work through its specific form and execution. This work, like much artistic production today, does not take form seriously enough. The ideas that underlie artworks today are perhaps more political and critical than they have ever been yet it seems that too often it is the words describing the art that does most of the work. One could argue that seeing the drone outline could lead one to think about this or that specific idea, but only in the sense that word association games can link any one thing to another. I see the installation and think ‘drone’, then ‘scary’, then ‘could it happen here?’ and so on. But I could also think, ‘drone’, then ‘dome’, then ‘Brighton Dome’, then ‘Brighton Drone’ and enjoy the word play for its own sake. Maybe this makes the work that much more meaningful – each of us starts from the installation and ends up somewhere different. But this is a now an all-too-common postmodern red herring. Anything, constructed or not, is the starting point for a set of subjective associations (think of a cloud). Clouds, however, are not art, but this drone installation is. Note that I am not disputing whether this is or isn’t art, but trying to understand how its form relates to the generation of meaning. If we buy the word association game, then anyone can make anything and it would all be of equal value. But if making something, particularly art, implies the forming of something, a construction, organisation, and putting into specific relationships forms, spaces, materials and viewpoints, then the specific form of a work is decisive. This does not mean that it says one thing and one thing only; it does mean that it sets up specific parameters and suggestions about where you take your imagination. The drone, for me, is as minimal as it can possibly be and therefore as open interpretively as it can possibly be. It constructs the loosest of possible relationships and it leaves the least amount of room for the form of the thing to add other meanings or values. About the only thing that I can think of that makes use of the specific form is the relationship between the outline and the idea of the chalk outline, relating one form of murder to another. It is possible that its precise position and orientation suggest other ideas – but by now I have become too distrustful of art to imagine it does (not at all because of this particular work but because of the general culture of art). I keep imagining what the work would look like if it were actually rendered like a shadow. How would we react stumbling across it then? Would we look upwards to see what cast it? Could the cast shadow relate to the position of the sun at a particular time of day? What would it mean at night? Anything I imagine about this work only reveals how limited it is as conceived and executed. But I could live with that if it weren’t for the text – perhaps it was not written by the artist and not his fault. But we have to accept that artworks live amongst the words they generate though critics, academics, scholars, the press and Sotheby’s.

 

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“It raises questions about how military technology can obscure, conceal and distance us from the political and moral responsibility.”

No it doesn’t, it simply doesn’t. There is nothing in the way that the work is designed or executed that logically leads to such questions. If there is a link it is so weak and tenuous that if I stencilled the words ‘Drone Attack’ on the pavement I could lay claim to the same statement in exactly the same way. If such weak links are sufficient then it suggests that there is no real difference between the outline and the pair of words – any starting point can lead to any finishing point.

 

Consider this:

Disabled Parking

“This work compels us to consider the prejudices that disabled people face in everyday life.”

Or

“This work raises questions about soldiers wounded in battle and the poor treatment they receive by their governments once they have returned home.”

Or maybe

“This installation addresses the relationship between man and machine and the emerging bionic world that awaits us with continuing technological infiltrations into the body.”

 We can think these things; there is nothing to stop us. But as a graphic or physical installation there is no inherent motivation that links the design and execution to such statements. When certain of Picasso’s forms suggest the curve of a woman’s body, a violin and a bottle all at the same time, these are not free associations but part of a deliberate context set up by the artist. If we wish to speak about challenges to how we perceive art suggested by the work of Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings this supported by the material, structure and composition of the work.

Picasso Reinhardt

This may sound like a return to the idea that meaning is determined by the author or the work itself, but that is not what is meant here. The fact that forms set up interpretative conditions and delimit field of exploration and thought does not mean that it controls what the viewer takes from the work. It also does not mean that unintended interpretations or meanings are not possible. The idea that meaning is either determined by the author/maker or that it resides in the observer is a false choice that simplifies the way meaning is constructed. If we accept that both parts, form and viewer, play a role then we should be able to ask questions about the conditions set up by the form, technique and execution of a work of art.

What I see at play in the Drone installation is a method whereby an idea or concept, rich in allusions and layers, is reduced to an iconographic presentation. The iconic presentation acts as a pointer to content that it does not actually contain – that is, the allusions and layers of meaning are not actually embodied in the work; it does not emanate from the work but from its supporting documents.

Brighton Drone Madeira Drive Geographica Imaginatins WordPress

Image from http://geographicalimaginations.com

All of this is not really meant as a critique of this particular work. There may a rich set of allusions and meanings that are directly suggested by, or emanating from, the drone installation. What is being critiqued here is the implication made by the text – that one can simply ascribe thoughts and meanings and that we are completely free in this regard. This has never been the role or purpose of art. If anything, artists have always strived to say something and to speak about something through their work. But the choice to do so through a visual medium has been because it can speak in a way that is unlike written or spoken language. Thoughts are not reducible to language. A visual medium has the capacity to transmit content that eludes language; it can step outside the linear transmission of thought and act of coding and decoding. Because of this it is sometimes able to be more precise than language or deliberately less precise. But like a language, you must understand the medium, be able to manipulate it, contort it, and use its rules and limits to your advantage. This means taking form-making seriously and makes form serious business.

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Finally, my interest in form and the laziness with which it is treated lies in architecture. I use this particular installation because it is a conveniently clear demonstration of the problem. But imagine that most architecture today, as it is being taught and built is doing much of the same thing as contemporary art. Solutions are produced as iconographical exercises that bear no relation to place, use or inhabitation or form is simply a by-product of a process where meaning is said to reside in narratives, design processes or anywhere that is not the form itself. In both cases, close attention to, and care for, the physical thing as the place where body and building meet, where we meet the world physically and tactilely and in turn realise our own physicality, is avoided…and sometimes, I think, feared.

“…[T]he sort of individualism that scorns and fears connections with other people as threats to the self’s integrity, and the sort of collectivism that seeks to submerge the self in a social role, may be more appealing than the Marxian synthesis, because they are intellectually and emotionally so much easier.” Marshall Berman

Adrian Forty: Words and Buildings

If Roland Barthes teaches us (in his Mythologies) that language is always pointing somewhere else beyond the literal meaning of words, Forty reminds us that even the basic definition of common words is muddied simply through their constantly changing and evolving history. Words and Buildings, A Vocabulary of Modern Architecture is a reminder that even though we think we know what we mean by simple words such as space, form, order, function or user, there is, in fact, very little agreement on their use. Forty’s book is a very limited dictionary, comprising only 18 words, but these words are central terms in the discourse of modern architecture. And because they underlie much of the theory (and what we think we know about modern architecture) the fact that their meaning is muddled is problematic. What can we actually say we understand about modern architecture if the architects who proclaimed modernism base it on a new attitude towards space and form, when no actual agreement on what these terms mean exists? Forty does not just reveal subtle differences between different polemicists use of the word – he digs deep enough to demonstrate that in some cases the philosophical underpinning of the words are diametrically opposed.

Forty’s method is to take us through a etymological journey for each word, starting with its first appearance and often how its underlying premise is based on either Platonic or Aristotelian roots. Forty fleshes out the historical circumstances that lead to changes in the meaning of each word, and these are illuminating, as you become aware of how architecture and its language struggle to keep up with new ways of thinking about the discipline.

For me, the two most significant words Forty discusses are ‘form’ and ‘space’. These very central words have some of the most complex and difficult history. There are some interesting repercussions to this. One is that the dismissal of modern architecture of often based on the way in which modernism focused on space and form at the expense of other criteria. Yet, if what is meant by space and form is questionable, here narrow and there very wide, the basis of the critique of modernism comes under question. What we find is that despite the caricatural and simplified accounts of modern architecture and its interest in space and form we have in fact a much more complex history and variable meanings to the terms and hence what modernism itself was. A second repercussion is that some terms, particularly ‘form’ have in themselves come under a great deal of attack and negative connotation. Again, the complex history and less than clear and universal definition of what form means leads us to question what it was about the word or concept that was so offensive. Or was it that only a particular meaning and use of form was deemed negative and problematic, and if so, what do we lose when the word as a whole with all its variant meanings is denigrated?

It is realisations like these that make this one of the key books for any student or practising architect today. This is not a book that is going to date or age – many of the words continue to be used with yet new meanings and concepts applied to them and the book reminds us  that maybe we do not communicate clearly enough what we mean by them. The book challenges us to be clearer about words we take for granted and to understand their historical contingency. But it also raises the question of whether the various critiques we have had of this and that kind of architecture have merit when the words have never been recognised in all their complexity.

 It is worth noting that Words and Buildings does not only consist of the mini-dictionary, but also includes six essays dealing with words and language in various ways. One of the most significant is ‘On Difference: Masculine and Feminine’ which charts the history of the gendered meanings of architectural terms. This essay neatly gets around many of the more simplistic feminist critiques of architecture (all towers are phallic, etc.) and demonstrates how the very language we use to talk about architecture privileges derived terms associated with perceived male qualities over those that refer to stereotypical female attributes. We discover that women architects (Forty cites Zaha Hadid) may be no less guilty in propagating the idea that strength, clarity, angularity and muscularity are better than things which are ambiguous or indirect. This is not flawed because women are actually ambiguous or indirect but because the tradition of these and other qualities have picked up negative associations simply on the fact that they were once considered female traits. ‘Describing the Social’ is another key essay that shows how language lets down the attempt by architects to engage with the social side of architecture.

Though the book engages with many philosophical ideas and origins of concepts it is in general accessible to undergraduates, even if all that is gleaned on the first reading is that key concepts and words are not as clear cut as them seemed. Subsequent readings reveal more complexity making the book one that continues to challenge you as your understanding of architectural history and theory grow.