Henri Lefebvre

“The spatial practice of a society secretes that society’s space…”

“The everyday can therefore be defined as a set of functions which connect and join together systems that might appear to be distinct.”

The work of Henri Lefebvre looms large in my thinking, though I have to be honest and admit that it has not been easy engaging with his work. Though he has influenced the way I look and think about architecture and space, I cannot claim to have mastered his work or even to be able to confidently summarise what he has done. The lack of my ‘mastery’ means that his work is more of a continuous challenge rather than something that I have read and absorbed. Here I will simply outline two areas, perhaps his two most well-known contributions, which I have incorporated into my own thinking. The first is his well-known contribution to the theorisation and philosophy of space. It is worth noting that my engagement with Lefebvre on this topic came via the work of Michel Foucault. This unlikely connection stemmed from my interpretation of Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge as a highly spatialised thesis. In discussing knowledge Foucault often invokes terms like grids, vectors and fields and I found myself drawing spatial figures in the margins as I read this book. I brought this up with Ed Soja after a lecture he gave at the Architectural Association in London and he said ‘if you think Foucault is spatial you have to read Lefebvre.’

The key work on space is Lefebvre’s The Production of Space translated into English in 1991, seventeen years after its first publication in French. It is not an easy text to get through and I relied a good deal on Soja’s interpretations. The main contribution is his development of space into three categories; physical, mental and lived. These are shorthand categories extracted from his more elusive labels spatial practices, representations of space and representational spaces. And to be honest the shorthand labels are not very precise translations. In short, physical space is what architects are generally concerned with, space as a thing manipulated, organised, and portioned to become useful in some way. Mental space refers to the ways in which we think about and conceptualise space such as infinite space, abstract space, gridded space, and so on. Lived space is the space as practiced, lived by its users and inhabitants. More important than the precise or correct interpretation of the categories is the way in which these different dimensions interrelate and affect each other. The main lesson for me was to see that physical space was always in relation to the other categories. In fact, what is critically important is that these aspects of space are not easily separated from each other. And it is this inextricability that reminds one that we should always question the way we have conceptualised space in the first instance while we pretend to focus on space as a physical material that we manipulate.

Overlaid on this is the realisation that space (along with its conceptualisation and lived aspects) is historically determined and therefore something that has not remained constant or fixed. For someone trained in the formalist tradition (seeing the space of the Parthenon or St. Peter’s in the same abstracted manner as one might look at the space of the Villa Savoye) this was a challenge. Lefebvre’s text was a critique of this historical flattening of space but rather than seeing this as a negation of the role of space in the development of the history of architecture, it actually strengthens it. What changes is one’s understanding of how space was thought, how it operated and how it was perceived and lived. And this only adds richness to the one understands architectural history.

His second key concept was that of the everyday. Superficially, this can be seen as a focus on the lived aspect of space, the ways in which our routines, rituals and habits both derive and simultaneously create our spaces. The aspect of Lefebvre’s ideas on the everyday which has most resonated with me has to do with his diagnosis of its emergence – or rather, how the everyday became something invisible or of lesser value than the extraordinary. While I have been engaging with this text for over twenty years the analysis has only become more potent with the emergence of reality TV, binge culture, adventure holidays, extreme sports, Twitter and Instagram to name but just a few ways in which the extraordinary has eclipsed the everyday. To be clear, what is disappearing or being denigrated is the idea that the more mundane aspects of our lives (cooking a meal, playing with our children, reading a book, going for a stroll, having a conversation, etc.) are no longer places where we construct the meaningful aspects of our lives. Instead the pursuit of the Warholian ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ has become the dominant means by which we construct our individuality, our sense of self, our identity. A meal is not significant unless it is Instagrammed, preferably with a retro filter to lend it some aura. In the realm of architecture it’s not difficult to see how the pursuit of the extraordinary fuels the iconology of buildings at the expense of how its spaces respond, enable and support everyday life.

It’s worth pulling out two different ways of reading what Lefebvre has to say about the everyday. One the one hand he is critical of modernity and the way in which it carves our lives into bureaucratic and rationalised pieces that make its commodification easier. We buy packaged holidays, leisure is contained within the structure of the workweek and the weekend, holidays are parcelled out and codified in employment contracts, we buy lifestyle magazines to improve our homes, and so on. For Lefebvre, modernity is part of the process of emptying the everyday of its potential for spontaneity and meaning. But on the other hand, his analysis reminds us that everyday life is everywhere and that it cuts across the rationalised spheres we have constructed. We negotiate our way through contemporary bureaucracy with our personal routines, habits and rituals. And for architecture this offers a way to consider space and the design of buildings in a way that can resist the constant pressure to separate, label and commodify the messy fluidity of our lives.

Like his work on space, his writings on the everyday will not tell us how to design but it can change the way we think about what designs are for, how they might work, and how they can be absorbed into the fabric of lived and everyday life. It raises the possibility of producing architecture in which meaning can be constructed rather than represented.

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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.

Peter Collins

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

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

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

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

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…”

Willem M. Dudok

Dudok willemWillem Marinus Dudok (1884-1974) is one of the lesser known modern architects although he is referenced in nearly every history of modern architecture book for his town hall in Hilversum, Netherlands. Kenneth Frampton refers to him as ‘Wrightian’; William Curtis calls him a competent stylist and producer of ‘watered-down’ modernism; Manfredo Tafuri calls him ‘craftsmanly’ in his interpretation of Wright’s architecture and practitioner of ‘domestic romanticism’; Leonardo Benevolo suggests he did away with romantic and utopian tendencies and took ‘account of relations with the outside world’; nevertheless, Benevolo considered him a bit ‘stylistic’ though he was careful to note that the importance of his work did not lie with the outside of his projects. Though Tafuri and Benevolo are mildly complimentary and balanced on the whole it isn’t a glowing assessment.

It’s true that Dudok’s work appears Wrightian and it’s true that Dudok’s work inspired a lot of pale copies of his interlocked brickwork compositions. But my interest in him has come from studying the entry sequences into his buildings and after visiting over two dozen of his buildings in Hilversum and elsewhere. Particularly in the schools there is a kit of parts that Dudok continuously manipulates and evolves as a way of bringing people into the building and orienting them towards its various internal parts. The parts consist of rows of windows, partial or full window-walls, canopies, opaque and often brick walls, paving stones or tile, stairs and transparent doorways. These are composed so as to provide a transition from the perimeter of the site through to its internal organisational structure. If each is a sort of variation on a theme, the theme is the way in which a dark exterior sets up a light interior with a stair carefully placed and lit so as to make the directional choices in the interior clear. And these sequences operate both on a functional level (they make clear entry and circulation choices) and architectural levels (the play of light, surfaces and transparencies along with an orchestrated relationship among various elements).

catharina06This concern for surfaces, light and an understanding of the sequence and ritual of entry and arrival is also evident in the way Dudok detailed some of his windows. Whereas window-walls or transom windows are used to bring light in the entry spaces a composite window is often used in rooms or along corridors. The composite window consists of a lower window portion set back from the face of the exterior wall surface topped by a window portion in line with the external skin. The two portions are sometime used separately and sometimes stacked with a deep shelf set in between them. The effect is that the upper window, exposed to wind, rain and dirt ‘clouds’ over and after a short time acts like a translucent surface. This provides a glowing lighted effect at a high level on the interior. The lower window, set back and protected from the elements remains cleaner, and with the addition of a shadow cast by the shelf or thickness of the wall provides a clear view outwards.

In some buildings Dudok also incorporated projecting windows, so that a rich vocabulary of window types and window spaces was evolved. Though some of this experimentation can be found in the Amsterdam school work of de Klerk and others it is less whimsical and sculptural in Dudok’s work. That is, there are often considered effects produced by them rather than adopted for compositional purposes.

When you begin to look at his work in this way the ‘Wrightian’ massing of his work or ‘de Stijl-like’ language starts to look less like quotation and more like an original adaptation and meaningful contribution. This begins to raise questions about the way historians have come to their conclusions about what is original and important in the history of architecture. Did Dudok’s work need to be more visibly original and avant-garde for it to be taken more seriously, for it to be looked at for what it does rather than what it looks like? Or perhaps, adopting a ‘style’, i.e., Wright’s language, was a conscious decision in that he know what the spatial benefits were – or perhaps it allowed the aesthetic result to become secondary, something of less concern than the spatial, experiential and organisational propositions of his buildings.

Not all of Dudok’s buildings are great, but other architects have been canonised for fewer and less original contributions, but that is not the most important issue here. Dudok’s work stood out when I visited them – even though I went to see them not knowing much about them. In fact, not knowing that he was behind what some called a ‘Dudokian’ style, I thought I was looking at someone in the ‘style of Dudok’. I was struck by things that were beyond the ‘style’. For me, the buildings raised questions about history, the way in which architectural works are valued and about the relationship between image and spatial experience. For me Dudok’s work remains important because it questions the idea of visual or apparent newness. It is also about the careful and slow development of ideas rather than the conscious search for innovation. Yet his works are innovative because they propose something – not something that has never been seen before but a unique way of carrying out spatial propositions, in his case the sequence of arrival, orientation and the potential of light in a building. Concerning the last, it is also important that light is not treated as poetic material but as something that is instrumental and useful. This separates his work from everyone else that made work ‘in-the-style-of’ Dudok (e.g. Greenwich Town Hall).

Below are a series of images illustrating some of the above and also introducing other aspects that make Dudok a worthwhile architect to study.

De Vylder Vinck Tallieu

The work of De Vylder Vinck Tallieu has been occupying my attention now for some time. Initially drawn to their simple drawings and sober architectural resolutions, I have found that the work operates along a series of recurrent themes that are approached with utmost seriousness. Or so I think. It may be that they are having fun and simply following what interests them. This ambiguity is one of the fascinating things about their work. One of the recurrent themes is an interest in the roof as a space defining element (House Alexis at GB; Ordos 100; OVO II; Retirement House at H; House H at SML). There are various sub-strands within this particular investigation. One is an interest in the vernacular pitched roof along with the Flemish tradition of roof tiles. Drawings often refer to the pitched roof as a starting point for transformations that lead to non-traditional solutions. But most significantly, it is the way they use the underside of the roof to scale and articulate spaces on the interior that makes their work fascinating.

Another recurrent theme is the play of transparent walls (House BS at S; House DVH at G; House Jef at GB). The glass facade or glass wall is too often used as a default solution or one that simply bypasses the problem of exterior language, relationship to context or exterior material exploration. In DVVT the glass wall only appears when necessary – either when connecting to significant exterior spaces or in order to spatially open up a tight interior. An exception to this is in Ballet C de la B where a glass skin floats in front of brick walls, a stair and openings into the interior. It’s a trope that’s been used elsewhere but here the dialog between the normally abstract glass wall and the presence of ‘traditional’ brickwork fuses modern and traditional expression.

These two types, the roof and transparent wall, point to another recurrent theme – the interplay of new and old (the roof referring to tradition and the glass wall to contemporary). This is played out in projects, small and large, where new interventions are surgically inserted into existing buildings that take advantage of the contrast between old and new. Even in project where houses are gutted the resulting projects rarely erase the old in its entirety. The idea of adding layers to the existing built fabric as a way of contributing to the build up of memory or history is replaced by a strategy of juxtaposition and counterpoint. Their approach sidesteps the fashion for narratives in favour of stark contrasts that communicate the idea of the new, of the present, in a way that is non-linear, non-story like, and more direct and emphatic – more a kind of simultaneity of space, time and history. The projects are not stage sets; instead they question this common and oft-used notion of architecture and urban space.

The drawings of DVVT also operate in a direct and non-theatrical manner. Matter of fact, old-school, and sometimes deliberately naive, their drawings are fantastically ‘full’. They are never images but statements. The practices website also avoids the more commonly used tropes – there is no flash (in the technological and fashion sense). Projects are described in sequences, but avoid faked coherence and forced narratives. For me, the most significant aspect of their drawings is that they return meaningfulness to drawing. Drawings are never no more than what they are – they don’t create worlds, attempt to be complete or all-encompassing. They are also not about process in the way that many practices (at least those that publish in the extreme) wear process on their (drawing) sleeves. Drawings and process have become, too often, about process itself rather than about something ‘thought about’.

An interesting parallel and contrast suggests itself here with respect to process, self-referentiality and certain kinds of rationalism. A set drawings brought to mind the work of Peter Eisenman. The elevations of DVVT’s project, IVO:

The play of subtle grid shifts and structural misalignments are reminiscent of some of Eisenman’s earlier work. This recollection, however, highlights the uniqueness of DVVT in that the play is neither a game nor self-referential (though it may be playful). To understand we need to look at the way DVVT rationalise design decisions. For example, in their use of brick and block a relationship is found between the use of differently sized modules and the generation of a visual and finished wall surface. In the Veterinary Clinic Malpertus DVVT economise on both finishes and cut blocks by combining differently sized blocks that result in a constructed wallpaper effect.

“Building in bricks – but maybe different to what we are used to; but just laying bricks…so that it will maybe be like wallpaper. As if it was ornamental.”

The ‘as if’ is decisive. There is always an ambiguity, no, that suggests that things are fuzzy; instead there are always indirect and multiple reasons for the choices DVVT make. This is despite the appearance of a dry and pragmatic approach to problem solving. This is where a distinction can be seen between the grid games of Eisenman and DVVT. Although Eisenman was never a believer in functionalism or pragmatism his grid games were based on a strict and legible set of rules. And through these rules and the game Eisenman hoped to attain something beyond language, something that challenged the presumed notions of what architecture was supposed to be. After Eisenman’s Chomskian phase the deconstructivist work sought to destabilise architectural meaning and purpose. Again, a curious parallel with DVVT emerges. See for example:

In some of their details DVVT destabilise solid mass or expected limits of space. But these are not philosophical games or illustrations of theory – the latter of which Eisenman’s work too often succumbs to.

There is therefore rationalism in Eisenman’s work which is not about rationalism (and which seeks to transcend it) but also in DVVT’s work. But here the similarities end. DVVT’s ideas and games (I prefer ‘play’) is always based on how things are made, rooted back to place, and always with reference to space rather than image.

The reason for bringing up Eisenman is that, whatever one may think of Eisenman, his work has always been a paradigm of seriousness with respect to the foundations of architecture and architectural thought. I believe DVVT to be no less serious despite a deliberate absence of theory or layering of words, ideas, content or philosophy on their work. This is significant because the highly challenging aspects of their work and its inventiveness come not from extra-architectural concerns but from its most basic premises (e.g. construction).

I’ve suggested elsewhere that DVVT are the most avant-garde practice today and I suggest that because they innovate by understanding that innovation does not mean that process or drawings have to be innovative. It is what results that matters and perhaps the most important aspect of their work is that this result is architecture, that is, built things – not drawings, not models, not books, not philosophy. At a time when I have nearly given up hope that architecture as such could exist, DVVT have made it evidently clear that it has legs in it yet. If only anyone were listening.

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De Vylder Vinck Tallieu can be found here. It’s an unassuming site, frustrating at first but ultimately refreshing in its straightforwardness. Projects are listed by (cryptic) name tags and you have to click an image to get to the next – no jumping to the end. Impatience is not rewarded.

Marshall Berman: All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

BermanIn many of the posts so far there has tended to be an implicit if not explicit critique of postmodernism. This does not come from blind denial of postmodernism as a valuable way to view theory, if not the world, but rather from impatience with the way in which modernism is portrayed in many early postmodern treatises. Open critiques of modernism have tended to fall away in recent years as postmodern views and methods become more and more commonplace. Despite this, the foundations of many postmodern approaches lie in a flawed critique of modernism and as such it handicaps the value of what postmodernism has to offer (see my entry on ‘Under The Shadow of Postmodernism’ for an example). My critique of postmodernism should not be taken for an uncritical defence of modernism – rather, I see much of what is valuable in postmodernism to be already present in modernist thinking. Marshall Berman’s book ‘All That Is Solid Melts Into Air’ is one of those texts that cemented my understanding of a much less monolithic, objective and self-referential modernism. Berman’s writing on early modernist writers reveals an open, vibrant, lively and uncertain modernism that is very much focused on human concerns, feelings and emotions. There are other key texts that have given me a view of a much more flexible and ambiguous modernism – David Harvey’s ‘The Condition of Postmodernity’ for example. Berman’s book is fascinating in that it focuses a great deal on literature, yet it is very much literature that focuses on the city and how people came to grips with an emerging modern metropolis. Its key figures are Goethe’s Faust, Marx, Baudelaire, various writers in St. Petersburg, and ends with Robert Moses and modernism in New York during the 1960s and 1970s. In the process I became a fan of Gogol and Dostoevsky. It is a rare thing for a writer to use references in such a way that not only do you pick up and follow the point being made through them but also develop an appetite to devour their work directly. This is due to Berman’s enthusiasm for the characters he writes about. Berman is a self-declared and open Marxist (Marxist Humanist, according to him) which might suggest a good deal of theory and political/economic critique. Yet, even the chapter on Marx is all about dazzling prose, metaphor and a dynamic vision of modernism, which far from dismissing capitalist or bourgeois ingenuity, celebrates it more than its proponents. When Berman writes about Marx we understand him as a person, coming to grips with something complex, admiring its strengths while being insightful enough to see its dangers. Berman verges on making reading Marx fun! It is, perhaps, a view taken by Berman and few others, but it’s invigorating. Berman in turn takes our contemporary condition in a similar way – describing the difficult, violent and frightening reality of our current world order, while seeing within it the possibilities for coping, creating and finding meaning within it all. Berman followed up ‘All That Is Solid’ with ‘Adventures in Marxism’ and despite the more overt interest in Marx is actually a more personal book. We get a sense of Berman the teacher, son, father and husband and see how he himself has navigated through his own life as an unrepentant modernist.

While Berman teaches us a lot about the potential of the modernist mindset – and I have drawn much from him – I could never attain the optimistic outlook he has. The fact that he can remain optimistic, however, is sometimes enough. If he can manage it, despite his much deeper understanding of how difficult and destructive our situation is, then somehow I can trust in it, even if I can’t quite see it yet.

I’ve been cryptic about exactly what it is that Berman says in his books – but this isn’t a book review and this is one of those books where it’s best to retreat to the cliché – ‘You have to read it for yourself’. What I can say is that these early characters that Berman describes, along with their ideas, demonstrate that the problems of identity, belonging, plurality and fitting into a world that is radically changing at such a pace that it never stands still enough for you to figure it out are not new problems but now more than a century old. The relationship between objectivity and subjectivity is not one of opposition (modernism was objective and postmodernism is subjective) but of evolving interrelation. Rather than insisting on seeing postmodernism as some erasure of modernism it is more productive to understand the close parallels between the two. In this way we can learn from the past and its experiments (failures and successes alike) and see where we stand as part of history. This provides us with the capacity to be critical about what we do – it is the absence of this critical self-reflection, by overemphasizing the subjective, the contingent and the present, that most disturbs me about postmodern practices. Believing that we share nothing with our early modernist explorers means we have nothing to compare ourselves to, resulting in ahistorical, formalist and self-referential results – the very characteristics that were used to damn modernist thinking in the first place.