PERSONAL STRUCTURES: TIME SPACE EXISTENCE Simon Allford
Our practice, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, is an organisation whose defining purpose is the construction of ideas focused around the making of architecture. Our idea of collaborative practice was invented in academe. So in real time our collaboration has lasted over thirty years. First as an idea in the Space within both our heads and those of our many fellow travellers; and then, on the occasions when we build, our collaboration defines the Space of Architecture. Ours is a collaboration founded on the idea that Architecture can offer at least an Existence, but potentially more to those who think, make and use it. It is a particular to and founded upon our relationship. Increasingly through time, as everyday life is ever more recorded as history, architecture and architects have become indistinguishable. To the point now when that most horrific theory of celebrity culture (if the two words can be combined without paradox) has created the term ‘starchitects’. A reaction to his part in this mess no doubt contributed to the Director’s invention of the theme of this Biennale: Fundamentals. When Jonathan Hall, Paul Monaghan, Peter Morris and I studied at the Bartlett, London in the early nineteen eighties we were interested in both the aesthetic, technological and social history of architecture and its authors. But also in the idea of a project’s life in use, a life that existed beyond that envisaged by its author. This was an early reaction to the then emerging idea of the cult of the architect. But paradoxically this shared suspicion of fashion and trends was allied to a seemingly contradictory interest in people. But to us, then as now, an interest in the lives of people includes an interest in the lives of architects! So we enjoyed our Professor’s tales of both his intellectual and social engagement with Aldo Rossi and the city. Our project The Fifth Man was built around the idea that architecture was the product of individual authors consumed by the common ground. Our conclusion was that the city was more important than the building, the building more important than its many authors and that life was more important than any artificial invention such as programme. Of course as together, with many others, we have designed and built many different buildings to different programmes for different clients in different countries these views have been tested, but never yet to destruction. We still discover, however assured we may have become, that the architectural ‘author’ is not just our practice, but our client, consultants, those we consult (both statutory and self-proclaimed), those others with whom we engage and the place and moment in time in which we are presented with the opportunity. The opportunity being to first think and then build or indeed, to decide not to build at all. So we are a product of our time. Steeped in history, pre and post celebrity. Engaged in paper from a distance by Rossi and Rowe but also at close quarters in conversation with Cedric Price. Price was the London iconoclast who loved objects, ideas and paradox and whose legacy I can best summarise as the framing of the most critical question: if architecture is the answer what was the question? And this is a question we seek to ask of ourselves at the beginning, during and at the ‘end’ of a project. Particularly because, it is all too easy to forget, that when a project comes to an end for us, its life as a building is just beginning.
And of course the ‘anonymous’ architects of the past, forgotten now, were actually giants of their unrecorded day. We personally knew at least three of the considerable international talents and personalities that were published in OMA’s contribution to the last Biennale. So ours is a tale of conversations and collaborations with other infrastructures, architectures and architects, (known and unknown); and different ideas of use. Of projects that have direct connections back to seventeenth and eighteenth century conditions. Indeed we delight in the fact that we can engage with the architects from the past who have passed on projects from the past. We can also explore these architects’ links as émigrés, interlopers and establishment figures who passed through or stopped in London. The architecture reflects tales of chance encounters and extended conversations. Of how the ‘now anonymous’ but once revered, and the ‘still celebrated’ engaged with each other in discussion of the ‘Fundamentals’, as we do today. From Price to Stirling to Archigram; from Yorke and Breuer and Korn to YRM; from Banham to Summerson to Pevsner; from Chamberlin Powell & Bon to Bicknell and Hamilton. These projects are a social history of overlapping engagements and conversations, in which we participate sometimes very directly or through a network of degrees of connectivity. Many, if not all, of these very particular personalities are of the post war generation and were dedicated to rebuilding a Brave New World, focused on architecture over self-image. In their utopian world existence the pursuit of the cult of personality was to compromise architecture’s potential. It is for these reasons that we have chosen to present twelve very particular yet ‘anonymous’ architectures. Each is photographed in its current state. But the accompanying notes and sketchbooks reflect on the different architectures many histories of design and of designers; of construction and constructors; of inhabitants and passers by; of freeholds and leases. A history and future of the financial, political and legal inventions that have always commodified these (and all) architectures. Each reflects the impact of its predecessors and, ever increasingly, retains fragments of the same. Each project is the architecture of many hands and so exists somewhere between architectural merzbau, palimpsest and collage. These twelve architectures, all located in the ancient yet dynamic city of London, show that there is another ‘Fundamental’: that of a physical and cultural continuum. Physically we build new footings on, through and over the archaeologies that we find. We retain and rework fragments, facades and whole buildings assessing each on its pragmatic, commercial, cultural, and aesthetic merits. So, just as a city is a found yet ever changing whole, the architecture that we inherit becomes the found piece that engages us in discussion. A discussion with the many histories of architecture, each of which reflects changing societies changing attitudes to changing architecture over time. So we realise now that we inherit academic architectural history in a collaged continuum very much as we inherit the footings. Which is very much just as architects always have. The overwhelmingly important Fundamental is that the history of the globalisation of architecture is an ancient essential history. One that continues, as always, to inform the very particular characteristics of very particular architectures in very specific places. In our case in London where the history of architecture continues to be of making different Architectures for a Unique City. As use is always uncertain and ultimately, in time, unknown, we continue to be intrigued by an architecture that offers an existence in Space over Time. An architecture that is universally ‘of use’ but no more anonymous than the larger than life personalities and events that called it into being. So as architects designing now in London, and elsewhere around the world, we continue to be engaged in conversations about both an understood distant and more recent global architectural history. It is clear to us that the trend towards globalisation in architecture is no more a twentieth century tradition than architecture itself is. Globalisation in architecture is at least a second Millennia tradition.
In England, since the building of the great Romanesque, Norman, and Gothic Cathedrals, and no doubt before, as since, ‘national’ architecture has clearly reflected both local and international influences. For those who we now call ‘architects’, who we once referred to as ‘masons’, have forever travelled hopefully to new locations in search of ideas and opportunity. In England this idea of a continuum is demonstrated by the influence of the ‘Grand Tour’ on English architecture, where books, art, objects, ideas and architects were imported and then made or re-made locally. One only has to look more closely at the classical Holkham Hall to see its rustication, columns and entablature are made of local Norfolk brick! So our contribution to this Biennale’s conversation is to use a number of our current projects to respond to the theme of ‘Fundamentals’. These demonstrate our contention that globalisation has a long, noble tradition; that situation and place has always localised the global and thus constructed what we now look back on as ‘national’ architecture. All of which can be presented in an annotated visual record of our experience of making architecture in London in the twenty first century. These related but different architectural histories, illustrated by a suite of twelve photographs, reflect the constant and continuous importance of time, inherited ideas, occasional insights and the collective spirit on architecture. Only those who pursue the concept of innovation for novelty value and their own vanity would fail to recognise that the fundamental architectural continuum is one of merzbau, palimpsest and collage: all three constructed in the context of the recent past yet also rooted in the memory of the distant past. An architectural history awaiting the judgement of use.
An essay by Simon Allford