In my school office I am surrounded by a colleague’s private library consisting of a couple of thousand books and available as a resource to anyone who teaches on the architecture course. The library grows at a regular pace, new releases being added every couple of weeks. As such it has a fair percentage of monographs on contemporary architects and artists, along with readers and journals. But because the library has grown over decades, one can also find Robin Evans’ Translation from Drawing to Building, Lewis Mumford’s The City in History, Manfredo Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia, or Walter Benjamin’s illuminations, among many other ‘classic’ texts. I put ‘classic’ in quotations because although they are considered classic by some, I find that they are largely ignored in the academic environment. Meanwhile all sorts of statements, ideas, methods, and approaches are trotted out in the design studios that are in some cases underpinned and other cases undermined by these texts. I am not suggesting that these texts contain eternal or absolute truths about architecture. They do not. But while Mumford’s understanding of cities has been surpassed by subsequent scholarship Walter Benjamin’s distinction between art and architecture remains compelling. Many historians, theorists and critics have gone to great lengths to demystify how architecture is made, what it is made of, how it works, and what it means. Yet we continue to teach according to a barely modified version of the Beaux Arts system of the late 18th century. As a result the myths around creativity, genius, invention, and novelty are propagated rather than deconstructed.
The issue here might be defined as being about historical awareness. I think it goes beyond that. A combination of post-modern individualist relativism, the loss of (or resistance to) collective architectural beliefs, the transformation of research into novelty finding and money-making exercises, and the turning of universities into not much more than businesses has redefined the architectural academic and scholar. So for example, in this new regime PhD graduates are no longer require to acquire general knowledge in their specialist area. Supposedly this is because there can no longer be agreed upon canons, meta-narratives or frameworks: everything is contestable, subjective and interpretable. So rather than read and learn about history and come to one’s own conclusion about what is relevant, whole areas of knowledge are ignored and bypassed when not directly declared to be irrelevant.
Meanwhile, practicing architects having been trained under this regime are fluent in the latest work of OMA, SANAA, MVRDV and dRMM but have never heard of Maaskant, think that Rietveld built only one house, and that all of Le Corbusier’s buildings are made out of concrete. They ‘know’ Deleuze but have never read Foucault. Knowing replaces understanding.
History, culture and knowledge evolve and change, but the necessity for understanding is constant. The definition of what to classify as essential or necessary knowledge will always be debatable and subject to change, but that doesn’t negate the importance of trying to establish one. In fact, it is the very act of trying, defending, shoring up, reading on, and digging deeper, that constructs the discourse which keeps a canon, general base or groundwork alive, evolving, and relevant. Simply put, if you don’t discuss something in the first place you can’t actually know if it is irrelevant or not.
The aim of this blog is to provide an outline of key figures, texts and buildings that have stayed with me over the course of my education, practice and teaching career. The intention is not to produce a list of ‘required reading’ or canonical figures; this is a personal list. I do, however, believe that some of what I’ll be covering is essential. I say essential because of the energy that I see wasted by students, academics and practicing architects pretending to invent what has already been invented. We put sustainability high on our agendas but think nothing of wasting time, effort, and resources in the mindless pursuit of individuality and originality. There are problems that have dogged architects, historians, and theorists for many decades and which are now ignored, not because they have been ‘solved’ but because architecture is a lot easier and more self-gratifying if you ignore them. This is why I started with the description of my colleague’s library. Sitting conveniently at hand is the hard labour of many great writers and thinkers who have tackled architectural problems in all their complexity. Yet, to see what gets written as a brief, taught as architecture, or discussed as ideas, is as if these books had never been written. To be clear, this is a general problem with the culture of architecture as it is taught and practiced today, and not confined to my or any particular institution. It is about the misunderstanding and misuse of contemporary notions of creativity, design, invention and experimentation. Other misconceptions and problems will be noted in the individual blog entries. However, I want to come back to and emphasis the personal side of this blog. That is, the selection of material and their interpretation is based on my understanding of architecture. You do not have to agree with this interpretation. However, I would be pleased if one or two readers picked up a copy of a book or essay by Benjamin, Kinross, Bois or Evans. Even if you come to other or different conclusions I would have succeeded in something.
“If I have seen farther than others, it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton
Blog entries will be added to a series of categories: Pillars – these are key historians, theorists, architects, and artists that have attacked problems or questions that I think are still worth pondering. Readings – books, essays, and quotes following the same criteria as pillars; and Projects – consisting of buildings, un-built things, and places that have addressed difficult problems or come up with solutions that still hold some relevance today. There will also be the occasional journalistic or editorial entries on current affairs and such.
It is hoped that the blog will become a useful learning resource for students of architecture. It is also meant as a support for BURG, a reading group of graduates of the school where I teach. Finally, it’s also a way of synthesizing some ideas that will hopefully underpin a book based on series of texts which are hosted elsewhere on the internet.