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7 Dysart Tom de Paor 15 Palas: A conversation Tom de Paor and Patrick Lynch, April 2018 27 Decorum: Tentative notes on its contemporary relevance and use Johan Celsing 33 Plečnik’s Žale: an architectural autobiography Indra Kagis McEwen 41 The Architect Simon Walker 47 Remembrances, Reality and Imagination Laura Evans 53 Competition Project for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral 1959 Joseph Rykwert (with Brian Housden) 56 The Conundrum of the Workshops: Form and Matter, Craftsmanship and Industry, Concept and Technique Luisa Collina and Cino Zucchi 68 Edgar Wood and the abnormal Andrew Crompton 77 Force-field Michael Badu 82 Poems Geraldine Clarkson
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Editor’s Letter Patrick Lynch
The term Civic Architecture occurred to me one day towards the end of my PhD research, as a perfect description of creative work that is oriented towards city life. The epithet civic, immediately distinguishes architecture that is not civic. We live in a period of intense opinions, but, arguably, of very weakly developed subjectivity. Christopher Nash memorably described late 20th century America as The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and Saul Bellow referred to “the moronic inferno” of modern life (Humboldt’s Gift, 1975) even before the rise of the internet. The Journal of Civic Architecture is going to be a refuge from all that: a place for writing and imagery that is reflective, serious, and I hope, insightful and pleasurable. This first issue, published on Midsummer’s Eve 2018, somewhat deliberately brings together a series of themes that might be loosely described as portraiture. The question of architecture as autobiography reveals in fact that the civic character of Pleznik’s cemetery is the fruit of a profoundly emotional and empathetic imagination. Tom de Paor’s Palace cinema is not only the work of a powerfully situational memory, but also, I think, somewhere where the extreme atmospheric character of Galway merges with the dream world of film: an expanded threshold that frames the town as a subject of contemplation. These, and the other projects, poems and essays in issue 1, locate creative energy in the city, in the everyday world of work and human meaning; suggesting I believe, that communicative cultural expression emerges from these common conditions, revealing them to us anew. There are other connections between the contributors that have emerged rather obviously from my own experiences and interests: Ireland, Galway in particular; religious architecture; poetics; nature; technology, etc. My hope is that this developed subjectivity is sufficiently interesting to make you want to become a regular reader of the JoCA. Issue 2 will be published on the Winter Solstice in 2018, and will concern landscape. Alberti described ornament as a form of “second nature”, an essential aspect of civic culture. Similarly, Hans Georg Gadamer convincingly argued (in Truth and Method, 1960) that art is essentially ornament. Art experience is a mode of sharing in the natural conditions of human imagination, the ornamentation of reality. JoCA seeks to further this dialogue.
© 2018 Canalside Press and the authors. All rights reserved.
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is an architect based in London whose interests include European mosque design, the architecture of Michelangelo and the thought of John Ruskin. He studied at University of Sheffield and London South Bank University. He has been a contributer for titles such as The Architectural Review, The Funambulist and Building Design.
All opinions expressed within this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily of the publisher. Editor: Patrick Lynch Designed by Emma Kalkhoven Printed by KOPA, Lithuania British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data. A CIP record for this book is available from the British Library. ISSN 2516-9165 No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior permission of the publisher. Every effort has been made to trace the copyright holders, but if any have been inadvertently overlooked the necessary arrangements will be made at the first opportunity. Photographs of Palas by David Grandorge and Peter Maybury (p17); Dysart by Peter Maybury; The New Crematorium by Ionana Marinescu; Žale by Geoffrey James, The Architect by John Donat. Thanks to all the contributors, and to Alexandra Smith for invaluable help with this publication. Thanks to Jay Merrick for his editing skills.
is an architect and academic based in Stockholm. He is professor of Advanced Design at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. He is an elected member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine arts as well as of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. Celsing is an International Fellow of the RIBA and has lectured at universities in Europe, the Americas and in the Middle East. His works has been nominated and shortlisted for the Mies van der Rohe award. geraldine clarkson
is a poet living in the UK Midlands and has two poetry chapbooks: Declare (2016), selected as a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet choice, and Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament (2016), which was a Laureate’s Choice. Her poems have been broadcast and published widely in the UK, and have also appeared in the U.S. in Poetry magazine. She is a former winner of the Poetry London and Ambit competitions, as well as the Poetry Society Anne Born and Magma Editors’ prizes. A new chapbook, No. 25, is forthcoming from Shearsman Books in June 2018.
is an architect and academic based in Milan. She studied at the Politecnico di Milano, where she is currently a Professor and Dean of the School of Design. Luisa’s research has been widely published, and she was a member of the Scientific Board of the Milan Trienniale, 2016.
is a teacher and researcher at Liverpool School of Architecture who is interested in the material culture of interfaces. He studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge and then Architecture at Manchester. As a by-product of an long running and unsuccesful attempt to define what a tune is, he has created a model of all the tunes in the Western musical canon as a single solid object which will be published in 2018. t o m d e pao r
Previous spread: Detail of Palas Cinema in Galway. Photograph by David Grandorge.
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is an architect and academic based in London. She studied Art History at Trinity College Dublin and Architecture at SAUL and The Cass. Until recently she was an associate at Lynch Architects. In 2016, she was awarded the RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship for a research project investigating the innovative approaches taken by architects working in Cuba when faced with an extreme scarcity of resources following the revolution of 1959 and the imposition of the US economic embargo. She is a lecturer at Kingston University, and in 2017 she co-founded Howland Evans Architects with Joe Howland. i n d r a k ag i s m c e w e n
is an architect and affiliate professor in the art history department at Concordia University in Montreal. A graduate of Queen’s University and McGill, Dr. Indra Kagis McEwen is the author of Socrates’ Ancestor: An Essay on Architectural Beginnings (1993), and Vitruvius: Writing the Body of Architecture (2003), as well as translator of Claude Perrault’s Ordonnance for the Five Kinds of Columns (1993). Current projects include collaboration with the Canadian photographer Geoffrey James on a book about the mid-20th century Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik and a study of Vitruvius and the Renaissance tentatively called All the King’s Horses. pat r i c k l y n c h
Cover images: dePaor, Palas Cinema in Galway. Photographs by David Grandorge.
University College Dublin where he also taught for a number of years. He is a Design Critic in Architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Tom practices at Greystones, County Wicklow, Ireland.
is an elected Fellow of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland, international Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and member of Aosdána. He studied at Dublin Institute of Technology and
is an architect based in London. He studied at Liverpool and Cambridge universities, completing his PhD at The Cass with Peter Carl, Joseph Rykwert and Helen Mallinson in 2015. He has taught at The Architectural Association, Cambridge University, The Cass, University College Dublin, Liverpool University, etc. He established Lynch Architects in 1997. Recipient of numerous awards, their projects have been widely published and exhibited, including The Venice Biennale in 2012, the Irish pavilion at Venice in 2008, and the Milano Triennale in 2017. He is the author of Civic Ground (2017), Mimesis (2015), and The Theatricality of the Baroque City (2011). joseph rykwert cbe
is Paul Philippe Cret Professor of Architecture Emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, born in Warsaw, he emigrated to England in 1939. Following architectural studies at the Bartlett School of Architecture and the Architectural Association, he taught at the Hochschule für Gestaltung, Ulm before becoming Librarian and Tutor at the Royal College
of Art in London. In 1967 he became Professor of Art at the newly-created University of Essex where he remained until 1981, when he was elected Slade Professor in the Fine Arts at the University of Cambridge and later Reader in Architecture. He took up his appointment in Philadelphia in 1988. Joseph Rykwert has lectured or taught at most major schools of architecture throughout the world and has held visiting appointments at Princeton, the Cooper Union, New York, Harvard Graduate School of Design, the University of Sydney, Louvain, the Institut d’Urbanisme, Paris, the Central European University and others. He has held several research and fellowships; his publications include: The Golden House (1947); The Idea of a Town (1963 On Adam’s House in Paradise (1972); The First Moderns (1980), The Necessity of Artifice (1982); The Brothers Adam (1984), a new translation of Alberti’s architecture treatise, On the Art of Building in Ten Books (1989, with Robert Tavernor and Neil Leach), The Dancing Column (1996) and The Seduction of Place (2000)and The Judicious Eye (2008). In 1984, he was appointed Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Joseph holds a number of honorary degrees and is a member of the Italian Accademia di San Luca and the Polish Academy. He has been president of the international council of architectural critics (CICA) since 1996 and was awarded the 2014 Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects. s i m o n wa l k e r
is an architect, designer and academic based in Dublin. He studied at University College Dublin, and represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 2008. Simon is a design studio tutor at the School of Architecture, University of Limerick and at the School of Architecture, University College Dublin. He is currently Chair of the Irish chapter of DoCoMoMo International, an organisation dedicated to the conservation of buildings and sites of the Modern Movement. In 2015 he received the Arts Council Reel Art Award, to make a film “Talking to My Father”, about the life and career of his father Robin, which has been widely shown internationally and won the International First Prize at the Society of Architectural Historians, 2017. cino zucchi
is an architect and academic. He studied at M.I.T. and the Politecnico di Milano, where he is currently a Professor. Cino has taught in many international design workshops and has been Visiting Professor at the Harvard GSD. Author of articles and books on matters of architectural and urban theory, he participated in various editions of the Milano Triennale and of the Venice Biennale of Architecture, where he was the curator of the Italian Pavilion in 2014.
Dysart Tom de Paor
A derelict farmyard at Greystones, south of Dublin, is reworked as a paradise garden. The foreshortening is exacerbated between the yard and the field pattern, pushing views between the mountain and the sea. The forced perspectives are multiplied through the cut and fill of building, and making ground to walk around. Bank, hedge andÂ wall make smaller fields Â and climates, some are ponds. Trees are planted. Material is arranged, mineral or vegetable as a collection of rooms. All in concrete; there is no distinction made between the constructions, some are roofed. Glazing, insulation and services are applied with an eye for tolerance. Inside becomes outside as room and yard become interchangeable and compounded, like a small town. Inhabitation becomes a question of degree.
Photographs by Peter Maybury
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Palas A conversation between Tom de Paor (Cambridge, Mass.) and Patrick Lynch (London), April 2018
“If you haven’t contributed to and improved the network of communications and atmospheres of a place, but simply disrupted it, then your work isn’t creativity, it’s just production.” –Dalibor Vesely, Seminar at Eric Parry Architects, London, October 21st 2014 2 ap r i l pat r i c k ly n c h : I’ve just spent the day (a rainy Bank Holiday) with David Grandorge, looking for the first time at his photographs of your kino-palace at Galway. I’m curious to know how you reacted to photos of the building made in the extreme weather of the place? Obviously these are unusual photos of a newly opened project, and it’s clearly not often that rain is allowed to pour in to parts of a civic building. Or is it so unusual? Medieval cathedrals were remarkably porous, in every sense I think. Before we get on to Dalibor Vesely’s comment, and in order to do so directly, I’m very interested to know more about your interest in the presence of the natural world in architecture. I remember the deep glee that we experienced swimming in Siza’s concrete pools at Leca: it seems that Galway was an ideal spot for your imagination, liminal, ruinous, cinematic, over-run with cars, in profound need of some cultivated wilderness?
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There is one picture by David—a three quarter view, where there has been a shower earlier high on the building, like a watercolour. Sometimes, after rain, the façade around the corner dries to leave a wet drawing of the stairs behind, as the moisture is retained longer through the section. Recent pictures of the Pump House in Clontarf show how the staining has made the north façade more three dimensional as I had hoped, as it throws off the rain to the occasional pool, but now, up close, the canted concrete has an under storey of yellow lichen, which is lovely. I notice that in Galway too where the south façade seems to blur and become greenish blue over the winter and bloom before being burned away in the first sunny days. The convolutions of the old town behave, of course, as microclimates. To prop Merchants Road up was essential for continuity, which forced the gable, and placed great pressure on the program—too big for the back garden site. With no room for a foyer for the cinema proper, a staggered gap between tower and house allowed light and air and
views deep and high into the section, producing the effect of an object building in the town and making a place. It brings with it the weather, and the ticket kiosk becomes a corner shop, with all its colour. From this, the staircases are extensions of the street, to wrap around the tempered rooms within. A species of outside, atmospherically, is allowed in as far as the cinema lobby, right to the top of the building; when the environment becomes artificial, in a door-swing. There is condensation of course, occasionally, which is beautiful. I feel that it is all manmade, or all natural, at best; and so, our pleasure of swimming in Siza’s drawing. 12 a p r i l pl:
I’m not sure why, but the prevalence of programmatic issues— or rather, everyday life, use, reality, you know, whatever terms we like to use as architects to talk about the practical demands that life places on design—always seems to lead to richer and weirder solutions. I think you noticed this quite early in your career, no? 13 a p r i l tdp:
Yes, Paddy. Buildings are weird. They inevitably mirror and distort their need. There are so many everywhere, always in play in the alibi of use—private, commercial, or public. Early on, in the rough and tumble of making small things, a sign, a stair, a shop the idea was realized in the problematisation of technique. It still is. What is the problem? “Complexity and Contradiction”, I suppose, which on re-reading, makes a long apology for the picturesque; giving license towards richer and weirder solutions, a widening of the subject to capture a larger audience, elevating compromise to science, rather than art. So, the building regulations extrapolate to become aesthetic order, and if applied judiciously, generate architecture, as we know. Ordinary buildings do this effortlessly, to become extra-ordinary in many small ways, but not Architecture. Of course, compounded, we can be taken by surprise in this unusual space—the type people go to on their holidays, richer and weirder, and yet legal—where the logics of landscape, structure and use are compounded with, and produce, a typology of experience. It is no wonder that Alice in Wonderland was written by a mathematician. Whether a hair salon, gallery, or cinema, all involve scrutiny, and all have the theatre of servant and served. The amplification of these positions—the plan, its lighting, whether artificial or natural, the 15
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section, etc.—makes the space, for me, often, an arts and crafts sci-fi. The slight adjustment of very ordinary effects, an amplified vernacular—whatever that is—is enough. A picturesque-vivid, which is the job really, in terms of comfort—with all that means—with an emphasis on pictures. I use symmetry if available, even momentarily, but to the end of its opposite; and look for deep space, hard against the flat. I paint in little details when I get the chance, like the red shadow gaps in the sculpture factory, or the leading edges of the doors in the house at North Circular Road. Do you remember? They made a lovely arc in the too-ing and fro-ing: romantic. 13 ap r i l p l : I’m not sure that it’s scientific as such, as a question of logic? The picturesque, in Pevsner’s formulation anyway, is a sort of naieve irrationalism, a jump to formalistic poetics missing out on the weirdness of life? You once said—in an email, but also at various reviews and lectures—that architecture is primarily spatial, but then recently you observed that “all of my problems are essentially problems with language”. The thing that links spatiality and language is geometry of course; it’s manifestation of logic. I don’t know if you know about Heidegger’s teacher’s Husserl’s essay The Origin of Geometry? He demonstrates that geometry operates not only like logic, but also (as logos) like analogy i.e. A is to B as B is to C, etc., is the same logical formulation in geometric and poetic terms. As far as I can tell, everything in your work has logic, has its reasons, even if they are linguistic and geometrical, as much as functional. Peter Carl once remarked to me that architectural imagination is fundamentally analogical, but that you can’t teach someone to think analogically. Having studied poetry at school, I’m not sure that Peter is completely correct—you can learn to analyse
analogically, I believe. How do you go about teaching architecture students to try to deal with—to mention again something that Peter said recently—“the strange circumstances that only Praxis throws up”? 14 a p r i l tdp:
“Space Construction”, I suppose, is what I mean—what these myriad decisions add up to, their consistency, and what kind. I tend towards primitive geometry, from which I remove. Circles, when I can, triangles, squares. I have made a number of square houses for instance, in the country or suburbia because it is the strongest form, with a pyramid roof—it has only two points of view, the front and the oblique—and so becomes quickly a registration on the landscape, as well as familiar, and value for money. It is logical, and serial, which allow the one-off nature of this work to speak larger: each inhabitation become specific and efficient, as the square exacerbates the bicker of form and function. Back and front places the stairs quickly. I do not think that school is a simulation: I think it is a thing in itself, and practice another. PS Paddy I hope I am doing justice to your question, I fear not. Analogy helps to open out what the problem is or could be with colleagues and students. A collage communication, often in humour, and an invitation to the imagination: though in public I realize, like most jokes, one must keep them to one’s self.
14 a p r i l p l : I don’t know if “primitive” is correct (sorry, I sound like a pedant); for most of the past 3,000 years or so, squares and circles were seen as the most refined and symbolic geometric forms. At certain points I’m very conscious of making work in an almost entirely intuitive mood, but I’m conscious of a background of cultural
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meanings that my work will almost inevitably be received within. The trick seems to be to at once work unconsciously, and with selfknowledge, but most importantly, to allow the language of a particular project to evolve. A lot of creative work is like this for people working in other disciplines I believe, tensions between dream-like decisions and more conscious control of the work, reflexive work and reflective. This is something everyone has to learn, so my question remains, how do you communicate the character of imaginative work to students? Can it be taught, or only learnt? Kahn suggested the latter. I’d like to hear a bit more about symmetry and asymmetry too at some point, as, like flatness and depth, and pure forms and distortions, you seem attracted to quite sudden and extreme juxtapositions, albeit often in such subtle combination that the difference is almost imperceptible at first, and only remarkable after a while; even perhaps, only retrospectively, in recollection. 14 ap r i l tdp:
How to communicate the character of imaginative work to students? Play is very important as we know, and a playground is necessary. Drawing from the shoulder, with a soft pencil on greaseproof paper; fluent as part of speech, automatic and throwaway helps. I made a teaching exercise last week: darkened room, with an bombardment of precedent pictures, drawings, texts and a talk overhead—quite a good one, emerging from Venturi’s reverse epiphany on Michelucchi’s Chiesa della Autostrada (in the second edition of Complexity and Contradiction) about encounter and proximity. How we learn, as categorized by Hyneks’ dubious sighting, evidence, effect and transformation. How do we receive spatial information, consume and regurgitate it, from the mashed potato to the model, and bigger, to the screen, to become real life devils’ mountain of our close encounters?
How do we learn? When the lecture stopped, and the images played out (to Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, obviously), I asked the audience to make a quick drawing of what they had in their heads of the space; for this is what we do, for a pin up as we do, for review, of course. It was remarkable how many were of the same thing, at slightly different proximities. The sudden juxtapositions come I think from my early love of Corb. I watch for the deepest space I can see, in a site, or a house, or a room; for its compaction, and then release—cross cut, like to the river in Galway—allowing momentary reorientation in a long view, which is nice for the eye. Symmetry is again, counterpoint. In the Doherty House, all the facades are exactly the same. The game lies in the resolution behind, and a kind of placeless-ness, which is thrilling, but often impractical. I try not to force it: local symmetries are often offered, and I accept them. More often though, in the tail ends of town where I get to work, the face is fragmentary, an episode: which I try not to allow to become a figure, preferring coincidence, where the participant is with the author. A very vernacular thing, where intention is smothered in hapticity. 15 a p r i l pl:
This sounds very much like a form of phenomenology, Tom: an attempt to retain the freshness of perception within a visitor’s experience of a place via your buildings, and also an acute sensitivity to how someone perceives them as things via their facades. This brings us close to discussing Dalibor’s observation that prefaces this discussion. I know what you mean about working at the tail end of towns; it’s sort of what’s left for our generation, to try to deal with road engineers’ left overs, to try to stitch these moments back into some kind of meaningful, or at least powerful experience of the world?
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I’m convinced that this is a type of post-modernism, and arguably something that captures the fragmented state of the modern world today. I say this because the neo-classical mode of 1980s Pomo architecture was arguably too academic and conservative in comparison to the music, literature and cinema being made then e.g. Talking Heads, Paul Auster, David Lynch, etc. I guess Venturi’s Main Street is more or less vernacular, whereas Las Vegas is quite specific to itself? Or, perhaps, they were really just attempts to get us to look, without prejudice; and thus a kind of contextual, observational phenomenology? Anyway, a house on the edge of a town is obviously a different urban phenomenon than a cinema. At your talk at The Architecture Foundation in London last autumn, you concluded with a photograph of Palas from the sea’s edge, where its pyramid roof became visible as a figure. For me, this image is a very powerful form of imaginative empathy, an offering to the town, a form of discrete decorum. It’s also a homage to Aldo Rossi I believe: you’ve inverted and reproduced the famous photograph of his floating theatre, glimpsed like a tanker through the streets of Venice, reborn as its negative at Galway—a house-ship in the town. It makes me think also of his comment about Connecticut churches seen from the sea, appearing as an elision of a church steeple and ship mast: an example of the architectural unconscious? This is what you’re after I think, memorable spontaneity? 15 ap r i l
Things we love, or recognize as familiar, and can collage, which is Venturi’s contribution. Weirder. Top-down of course, with silhouette, form and facade, typology is implied, and geometry. You are perceptive on the picture from the river. I like it for that reason too. I was very aware of that echo early in the massing, and amplified it with the weathervane. It only has that look from there, but yes, of course, a wink. 15 a p r i l pl:
One of the mysteries of the imagination seems to be how archetypal architectural forms pop into the mind unprompted, and make themselves at home on a site. A problem with academic formalism, I think, is that whilst these types constituted a form of public language in the past, unadjusted, they now seem just a private game, a form of cultural and political conservatism. But spatiality alone doesn’t lead to communicative civic architecture. What I admire about what you’re doing Tom is that unlike most architects, you’re concerned with both the inside and outside at once. That might sound ridiculously simplistic—and you’d expect all architects to see their work as the reconciliation of spatiality and language, an expressive language that can contribute to urban life— but it’s almost unique today. You mentioned Corb and Venturi (and Siza, Michelucci and Rossi), is there anything else you’ve been looking at recently?
Yes it is. And control, enough that the network of communications and atmospheres of the place, to borrow from Dalibor’s challenge, are at least underlined. Whether motorway, or town centre, the sedimentations of endless pragmatics produce place as found objects, which read bottom-up.
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I have been reading Van der Laan, for sobriety. His idea of space— as vertical division only—is shocking: no object.
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This page and overleaf: The New Crematorium at The Woodland Cemetery, Stockholm by Johan Celsing
Decorum: Tentative notes on its contemporary relevance and use Johan Celsing
“The greatest glory in the art of building is to know what is appropriate.” –Leon Battista Alberti1 We can all probably agree that some brilliant projects possess great, perhaps even sublime, beauty. How that helps us in our practical endeavours to ensure the standards of what we build is less clear. And is beauty our goal? These reflections spring from highly concrete experiences as a practitioner. But also from a peculiar feeling of resignation, almost of tedium, that while it seems to be possible to realise so much, almost everything, in buildings in the market economies of the west, on the other hand remarkably little of all that is built seems desirable, or even important. Formal inventiveness exists but frequently it seems to conceal the absence of any sustaining, fundamental approach to the discipline, the task or the world around us. That the answer to the question of what makes a project beautiful or important cannot solely be found in the aesthetic categories is becoming increasingly clear. It seems as if the tools to which we can resort are to be found in reflection or wisdom. After all architecture is also described as an old man’s profession. As with really sublime matters, it seems as if we can only approach the answer by making detours outside our own professional domain. One famous and genuinely inspiring document that touches on these issues in our discipline and our concrete practices was written by Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) and even today his ideas remain useful. Although Alberti is famous in architecture, he was in fact a scholar whose erudition and close study of both classical and mediaeval texts enabled him to develop an approach to some of Europe’s central moral concepts. Such advanced study of philosophy was as unlikely then as it is today for the majority of practitioners. If in those days it was the building traditions passed down within the guilds that were most esteemed and handed on to following generations, today’s market prefers a glib visual approach that corresponds to the image of today’s prevailing trends. It is in De re Aedificatoria, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, that Alberti discusses in a memorable and inspiring way both theoretical and practical aspects of architecture. Although his starting point in this book is Vitruvius’ De architectura, it is in fact a more multifaceted text explicitly grounded in both Classical Roman and Greek learning and authors such as Cicero, Aristotle and Thucydides. Less explicit but important is also the way in which the text merges Classical maxims with concepts advanced by the encyclopaedists of the Middle Ages.2 For most of his life Alberti was closely linked to the Catholic church. As a young man he studied at famous seats of learning in Venice and
Padua, where one of his fellow-students was Tommaso Parentucelli, later Pope Nicholas V. His comments on architecture are objective and often deal with elementary practical factors but fundamentally they offer a philosophical consideration of the discipline viewed from an intellectual and cultural perspective. For this reason the work has been seen as a survey of the subject intended more for an aristocratic cultural élite than for practising architects or master-builders. One senses that Alberti balanced his classical pre-Christian discoveries with the prevailing mediaeval Christian world view. I am not referring to Alberti here to offer some kind of historical background. Alberti’s treatise has an idiosyncratically personal but also moral tone. Important concepts in his work seem to me to be particularly relevant and useful for us today as well. One of these is Decorum, the appropriate. This concept has become somewhat suspect today, in Scandinavia at least, as the term has come to suggest the conventional and the discreet. But if one explores the sources of the concept, one discovers instead some ageold western moral concepts that still today impinge upon our ethical attitudes. In actual fact, the term derives from elucidation of the virtues. And these, I claim, are also worth consideration by architects. Originally the term was used in literary contexts, one of which was Aristotle’s Poetics. Cicero, one of the Latin authors Alberti repeatedly cites, refers to it in De Officiis, which in its turn invokes classical Greek philosophy. Aristotle himself writes about the virtues in their different forms in The Nichomachean Ethics. The cardinal virtues are: Courage, Justice, Wisdom, Restraint. In his discussion about what constitutes the moral virtues Aristotle claims that courage, for instance, is a middle course between fear and blind confidence. Generosity, he asserts, is the middle course between close-fistedness and extravagance. Where and how the balance between the extremes will be found is not predetermined but has to be understood from case to case. What is fitting, what is appropriate. As with questions about laws and ordinances, Aristotle says that these must always take the form of simplified generalisations that have to be specified in individual cases. Aristotle claims that we acquire the virtues by repetition as we do other forms of knowledge. The relevance of the virtues is, in my opinion, just as great today as it used to be. In some respects we express ourselves differently, however. Is courage an out-of-date virtue belonging to the military realities of the Hellenistic period when Athens was at war with Sparta, the Persians and other peoples? A wise colleague pointed out that courage is no less important today. But for battles of a different kind. The challenges facing humanity such as the climate question, overpopulation and inequality will undoubtedly demand our courage as well. 27
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In his treatise Alberti elegantly incorporates Decorum into Christian Italian architecture in the 15th century. He describes building according to the prevailing hierarchies. What applies for private dwellings, houses, is possibly some liberty in design but above all the building must not vaunt itself and transgress its social role. Even the dwellings of princes should be subordinate to the supreme, the house of God, the Temple. If one frees oneself from this socially hierarchical use of the concept, it can instead offer a tool to help us to make our own scrutiny of the content of our architectonic dispositions and their results. In what follows I comment on a few contemporary and, in my view, impressive examples that spontaneously and without any manifest theoretical superstructure embody memorably judicious architecture. One can of course also point out that virtuous architecture is not created because one has studied the right authorities… On the other hand ‘practice maketh perfect’. Moreover I claim that it is inspiring and impels reflection about our alleged contemporary unicity to see how relevant a work written five centuries ago can be for the age in which we now live. To see that many of the questions our predecessors encountered are those we face today, albeit in another guise. Being trained to see that it is not style, perhaps not even appearance, but the underlying approach that is really decisive. a stone in the forest
Repeatedly in my own practice the question arise of what is fitting, appropriate, at every level in the conception of a project. In the current project on the new crematorium at Stockholm’s Woodland Cemetery the diversity of the aspects has meant that striking the balance of what seems appropriate has been particularly multifaceted. These questions have not been made less demanding by the cemetery administration’s stringent budget. How can the new crematorium with its ritual subordination be incorporated into the cemetery’s ensemble of landscape and chapels? How can the mourners be given a fitting framework for their attendance in the building while at the same time the operations of the crematorium are made as rational as required? How can decent premises be offered for the daily work of the staff and not just ceremonial use? When finances are under pressure, how can costly genuine materials be evaluated in comparison with cheaper ones that are almost indistinguishable? Should the greatest expense be devoted to the public sections of the building to enhance its dignity or the separate working areas in which most people actually spend their time? As in every building project, there seem to be untold questions that are difficult to balance, How can completely different parameters be weighed against each other, technology versus spatial qualities, the long-term view against financial realities. But in the end it is the concrete qualities of the building that count. How successfully does it weld rationality with the poetic? The new crematorium is situated in a clearing in an untouched section of woodland. The corpus of the building is very compact and is characterised by its asymmetric volume, which is linked to the uneven topography of the terrain. Both the facades and the roof are in uniform hard-fired dark-brown bricks. The coarse surface of the brickwork 28
and its disposition are intended to anchor the building to the typically Scandinavian undulating pinewoods. In pronounced contrast to the austere exterior, the structure and the interior are in white concrete cast on site (white Danish cement with Dolomite cross as ballast). Once the form-work has been dismantled there will be no further treatment of the surface of the concrete so the casting will demand a great deal of care. The all-embracing roof covers very different spaces that house the building’s various functions. Next to the great furnace room, its ceiling tracing the external shape of the building, lies a smaller Ceremony Room. In the light shed by a slit in its barrow-vaulted ceiling the mourners can here bid farewell by the coffin. An atrium has been carved out of the building to enable the employees to gather beneath the open sky for rest and recreation without encountering any mourners. The atrium, surrounded by sliding glass doors with white concrete passages behind them, provides a source of light and enables the staff to keep an eye on what is going on in other parts of the building. The entrance for the public and for mourners is marked by a canopy inside of the perimeter of the building block. Located under a generous roof, this open area provides a link between the interior and the surrounding woodland. This is where people assemble or wait, surrounded by delicate brickwork and a massive granite column. In my view, both now and in the past there is an architectural tradition that is rooted in what decorum and the virtues invoke. Alberti's concept of decorum may at first sight seem a long way from the spirited everyday settings created by the French architects Lacaton Vassal (Anne Lacaton 1955–, Jean Philippe Vassal 1954–). But I claim that in them it is possible to perceive more clearly than in the work of most other architects the unerring ability to develop what is fitting, appropriate, for each specific task. One of their early projects from 1996 in Bordeaux provides considerable food for thought. The task assigned to the architects was part of a programme through which the city intended to embellish a number of existing squares. Their square was triangular, bordered by trees that framed an open area with park benches where people played pètanque. It resembled a village square. The architects visited the square and their impression was that: “On our first visit we get the feeling that this is already very beautiful because it is authentic, lacking in sophistication. It possesses the beauty of the obvious, necessary, right. Its meaning emerges directly. People seem at home here in an atmosphere of harmony and tranquillity formed over many years. We’ve spent some time watching what happened there. We have conversed with a few of the local inhabitants… Embellishment has no place here. Quality, charm, life, exist. The square is already beautiful.”3 The proposal the architects finally made to the city was as follows: “As a project we have proposed doing nothing apart from some simple maintenance work—replacing the gravel, cleaning the square more often, treating the lime trees and slightly modifying the traffic—of a kind to improve use of the square and to satisfy the locals.”
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This temperate response to the task seems as serious as it is unusual in our age, when competition for commissions and media attention most frequently means that architects act opportunistically and affirm their clients’ perhaps ill-considered formulations of their problems in the hope of being awarded yet another new design or something even worse—a new landmark. A related argument, although it involves other questions, characterised Lacaton Vassal’s project for the completion of the renewal of the Palais de Tokyo art museum in Paris in 2001. Until 1974 the building, originally built for the World's Fair in 1937, housed Paris's Museum of Modern Art. In 1999 it had become a building site after work on a film centre had been cancelled, so that in its interior the character of the original sophisticated concrete structure had been exposed to offer a contrast with the monumental nature of the facades. The new project was intended to create an art museum with room for experimentation and free discussion of aesthetics. It was to be open from noon to midnight. The architects’ response to their task: “Behind the monumental facades, the interior of the building resembled a magnificent industrial wasteland: the volumes are astonishing, the natural light is omnipresent and fulsome and knowingly implemented by the great overhead skylights and wide bays set out on the facades: To utilize what exists, not to transform it. To make the most out of the building’s physical and aesthetic qualities. To preserve the enormous freedom of the spaces without partitioning them off so as to permit a maximum spatial freedom and fluidity. To create porosity, to hear the rain, see the sunshine come in, see the city, to increase the number of entrances so as to be more open and welcoming.” The Palais de Tokyo has undoubtedly become a living milieu for art and culture and apparently at no great expense, which in the future will be an advantage as there will be nothing to stop the building from being developed once again when new demands and desires have evolved. Some of the most important work by Lacaton Vassal can be seen in their commitment for residential settings for both singlefamily households and more large-scale projects.
Above: Lacaton and Vassal public square, Bordeaux
One of the practice’s significant contributions in the housing sector concerns the development of a group of 16-storey apartment blocks from the early 1960s at Porte Pouchet in Paris’s 17e arrondisement. The architects managed to persuade the authorities to cancel the demolition that had been planned because of the poor condition of the buildings and the unsatisfactory social circumstances. Instead, the architects demonstrated how it was possible to develop the buildings and extend the apartments by adding generous balconies that could be glassed in to the existing facades. These additions were self-supporting and could therefore be made without requiring support from the existing structure. Then the existing facades with their small windows could be demolished. The apartments could be extended and provided with fantastic views. What was particularly valuable was that the solution they proposed meant that the tenants could go on living in the blocks while the building work needed to develop them was taking place. The new additions were constructed of prefabricated units. In case the references above to the works of Lacaton Vassal are misunderstood as suggesting that what is virtuous in their approach only concerns social and economic features, other projects demonstrate the opposite. Their project in Vienna for Architektur Zentrum’s café in what used to be a 19th century stables involved the artistic transformation of the interior. The completed project retains the interior vaults and pillars of the original structure but the surfaces have been finished with colourful faience from Istanbul. This lively interior, only partly visible from outside, provides an elegant and above all forceful contrast to the grave architecture of the imperial stables. Decorum therefore decouples to some extent the question of appearance from what we like personally. What is fitting can obviously take many different forms, provided that it serves the purpose demanded by the task. Once the fitting, the appropriate, has been adopted as an approach, it is difficult to abstain from the possibilities it offers or the questions that then ensue. It opens up for a freer gaze in which aesthetic expression is subordinated to how well what is appropriate meets each specific case. Developing one’s judgement to enable understanding of what is fitting, just or appropriate in an architectonic commission is the central task for every architect and, in my opinion, every individual. Judgement is trained naturally in the concrete task that we are given to solve. In our era, perhaps in every era, individual judgement is an act of defence, deliberate resistance, against many of the dogmas or concepts imposed by the age if it contradicts them—Authoritarianism, Functionalism, Green building, or whatever they may be. The trained and reflective process of judgement in which an individual, or a group of individuals, intellectually and intuitively consider an architectonic issue embodies such a gigantic diversity of aspects that can be combined—cultural, technical, ethical, personal, historical and economic—and in themselves have invincible wealth and depth. The fact that the social order also requires regulations poses no contradiction but they are a necessity when, as is often the case, there is neither the possibility nor the scope for the close study that
is in itself desirable. Much of our contemporary architecture seems to be have been designed according to current formulae to fulfil the demands of some economic trend. And a great deal is already embedded in the digital software and production lines provided by industry. Seeking for the appropriate is not, I claim, denial of the industrial progress without which the world would undoubtedly be a harsher place to live in. What appears to me to be important and inspiring is to take advantage of the opening provided by the concept of Decorum, the appropriate, in our practical work. It is obvious that the fitting, the just, the appropriate, does not provide any immediate architectonic guidance about how buildings should be designed and shaped. This is useful and opens up for an approach in which the idea of appropriacy is a corrective that enables an idea or a solution to be tested only when it has been formulated or expressed in drawings. In addition, is it interesting that appropriacy does not in itself favour any particular style or aesthetic approach. Finally it is worth remembering what Aristotle says in The Nichomachean Ethics about equity offering appropriate correction of the deficiencies of the universality of law when he goes more
Clockwise from top left: Lacaton and Vassal projects Palais De Tokyo, Architektur Zentrum’s café in Vienna, Porte Pouchet apartments
deeply into aspects of Justice as a moral virtue. He writes that all laws are general while in certain matters it is impossible to make true generalisations. In cases where general regulations are necessary but they cannot be worded correctly, the law lists the most common occurrences without therefore being unaware of the risk of mistakes. What is more he seems to believe that it is impossible to make laws on certain matters. And that is why we need official judgements. In a famous passage that touches on our subject Aristotle writes: “For when the thing is indefinite the rule is also indefinite, like the leaden rule used in making the Lesbian moulding; the rule adapts itself to the shape of the stone and is not rigid, and so too the decree is adapted to the facts.”
Leon Battista Alberti, On the Art of Building in Ten Books, (translation by J Rykwert, N Leach R Tavenor) MIT, Press 1990.
Bearers of Meaning, John Onians, Princeton University Press 1990.
2G Books: Lacaton & Vassal¸ Barcelona 2002
Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle,V. 10. (Translation by David Ross, revised by J. L. Ackrill and J. O. Urmson) World’s Classics, Oxford 1980). Translators are unsure whether the reference is to building with polygonal stones, which was not in itself restricted to Lesbos, or Lesbian mouldings, which had a twofold curve.
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Plečnik’s Žale: an architectural autobiography
Indra Kagis McEwen
In the Slovenian architect, Jože Plečnik’s native city of Ljubljana, the tradition had been that when a person died, mourners on foot would accompany the body, borne on a horse-drawn hearse, from the deceased’s home, through the city and on to the cemetery at the outskirts for burial. By the mid 1920’s, however, Ljubljana’s growth in size and importance led civil authorities to judge such rustic processions disruptive, and to plan for a large, new central facility for funeral services, so as to put an end to them. Jože Plečnik (1872-1957), by then de facto city architect and a deeply religious man, countered the plan by proposing, as an alternative to the impersonal efficiency of a modern funeral parlour, to turn the park in front of the cemetery into a “Garden of All Saints.”2 The garden would consist of small funerary chapels, named for the patron saints of Ljubljana’s parishes of which these chapels would be analogues: a kind of sacred grove whose bucolic setting would preserve the rusticity of traditional rituals while providing intimate enclosures for the bereaved to mourn in private. For those with no parochial attachment, there would be a generic chapel of “Adam and Eve.” Financial constraints made the funerary complex eventually built between 1937 and 1940 smaller than the one originally planned and in the end it was called “Žale,” an old Slavic word for “sorrow,” or “place of mourning,” instead of the more celebratory “Garden of All Saints.” Economic necessity further dictated extensive use of brick and reinforced concrete for construction, rather than the costly cut stone Plečnik would have preferred. With some reluctance, he eventually agreed to the inclusion of prosaic facilities such as a dissecting room, offices, vestries for priests and public washrooms. Transcending such compromises was Plečnik’s commitment to what he upheld as the solemn, high purpose of the project which, undertaken after forty years in practice when the architect was almost seventy, made Žale his summa—a testament, just as Carlo Scarpa’s Brion cemetery near Treviso would be thirty years later, or Aldo Rossi’s “City of the Dead” at Modena. Žale was their precursor. Moreover, Žale is particularly explicit as a testament – much more than either of these later works – and that makes it a good place to look into the complex narrative of Jože Plečnik’s life and work. Which, for someone who once claimed never to have married because “a man cannot serve two masters, and architecture remained (his) beloved,” were emphatically one and the same.3 Of the work that is at once the story of the man’s life, Žale is the epitome. It is also an epitome of western architecture
Photography by Geoffrey James
into whose history Plečnik has inserted himself—a cultural epic of which, presented as architectural autobiography, the architect has made himself the hero. Modesty was never Plečnik’s strong suit. West-facing, like the propylaea of the ancient Athenian Acropolis which Žale was meant to evoke in other ways, its monumental entrance—a high archway, flanked by two-storey porticos of giant Tuscan columns—signals the gateway to a sacred precinct, and separates, it has been suggested, the city of the living from the city of the dead. But Plečnik’s “Garden of All Saints” is not, strictly speaking, a “city of the dead,” because no one is actually buried there. The burial ground, the cemetery proper lies outside the enclosure, to the east of it. The garden is for the living. Fourteen small chapels reflect in their number the fourteen stations of the cross and signpost the way to salvation, yet there is nothing lugubrious about their installation, solemn though it may be, all white against the hopeful green of the thoughtfully landscaped groves and hedges that shelter them, with free-standing columns as punctuation, a fountain, and benches to sit and rest or talk. That the human person is central was, for Plečnik, an article of faith as unshakeable as his Catholicism. At Žale, this centrality is forecast even before we enter the garden by the colossal, crisply fluted Doric column visible beyond the central archway, visually bisecting it and taller even than the great Tuscan columns of the entrance portico. This single column fronts the main chapel (an oratory, or prayer hall) and its Doric order almost exactly replicates the Doric of the Parthenon in Athens. But the column is no exercise in neoclassical pedantry. To begin with, view of the column is sliced in half by the canopy of the catafalque directly in front of it, and its Athenian perfection contested, yet paradoxically enhanced, by the precariously undersized block above the capital, and further compromised by the strange mannerism of the heavy broken pediment it supports. Beyond this, the body of the Oratory is situated between two Egyptian pylons, its exterior walls pigeonholed to contain, in openings also designed to admit light to the interior, slender urns meant to evoke ancient Egyptian embalming practices. The archaism of the central column and its humanist symbolism together reiterate an essential Plečnik theme. Familiar, too, from earlier work is the seemingly idiosyncratic conjugation of antique forms: column, urn, pediment, pylon. Such forms are seldom arbitrarily assembled however and, the Athenian Doric column notwithstanding, rarely just copied from ancient models. Ancient models were only the beginning: Plečnik continually re-imagined and reworked them, often in startling ways, and in unexpected contexts. His project was one of tireless renewal and the surprise, discomfort, 33
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mystification, even shock such operations generate opens a window on the possibility of grasping once again the ageless symbolic power of architecture to conjure against oblivion; against death. Late 20th century post-modern architects sought to make similar unexpected juxtapositions, often with ironic “quotations” from ancient sources, and referred to Plečnik as their model and mentor. But they sidestepped this, the essential, defining seriousness of his quasimystical purpose and, not surprisingly, his work has outlasted theirs.4 In its overview of the western architectural tradition, the most literal and indeed the only openly funereal reference at Žale is the Etruscan tumulus tomb. This circular vaulted chapel, shaped like a mound and overgrown with vegetation, is dedicated to the fourthcentury Byzantine martyr, St. Acacius, patron saint of the province of Carniola, which was the name of part of the area now known as Slovenia before it became a nation. Plečnik meant his tumulus to invoke that nation’s alleged Etruscan origins, for indeed nationbuilding was a constant among the his aims, and is another of the narratives epitomized at Žale. Like the urns and pylons of the Oratory, the facetted, octagonal columns fronting the entrances of the otherwise rather Byzantine back-to-back chapels of St. James and St. Mary have their source in ancient Egypt—but not only Egypt; also Vienna, and a church Plečnik designed there early in his career. In Vienna, the entrance portico of his Church of the Holy Spirit consisted of precisely such columns, cast in concrete, just like the ones here, their shape along with their rough exposed surfaces relocated to Žale where columns are otherwise smoothly finished. The autobiographical point could not be more 34
deliberate, and it is far from the only one. Viennese recollections— this time of Plečnik’s youthful masterpiece, the Zacherl House of 1905—recur in the cornice and surface articulation of the Chapel of St. Francis, whose semi-circular windows he modeled on the windows of ancient Roman baths. The Roman theme is further exploited in the Chapel of St. Christopher and in the barrel-vaulted Chapel of St. Andrew, a chapel named, exceptionally, not for any local saint, but for the architect’s beloved older brother Andrej, a priest, who had died in 1931. One of the starkest, most moving of Plečnik’s works is his brother’s tomb at Vodice near Ljubljana: a thick low-lying rectangular slab with a very tiny cross and chalice lightly sketched in relief above Andrej’s name and date of death spelled out in oversized characters chiseled deep into the rough stone’s unforgiving mass. ANDREJ PLEČNIK 1931. There is no date of birth. With the Chapel of St. John, at the very back of the north side of Žale’s roughly trapezoidal site, Plečnik again revisits the architecture of the Athenian Acropolis, this time the exquisite Ionic temple of Nike Apteros, “Wingless Victory.” There is a photograph of the architect on the steps of the Nike temple, taken during a visit to Athens in 1927.5 In this chapel, no less exquisite in its own way than its ancient Greek precedent, Plečnik has reduced the four Ionic columns fronting his Athenian model to (once again) a single, central one, reinvented the order, and cast it in concrete. His way with Ionic columns, for which he had a special affinity, was never short of remarkable. To the left of this central column is the dark void of a recessed doorway. To the right, below a high window with a grey concrete frame, a tall grey amphora stands in speechless witness to the finality of death. The rest is silence.
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The amphora is a smaller version of one displayed in an alcove just inside the entrance to the Paradise Garden at Prague Castle—the “Slav Acropolis” Plečnik redesigned for the Czech president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk in the1920’s and 30’s. The Nike temple on the Acropolis in Athens is what is known as amphiprostyle, facing two ways, with two identical fronts. Because of its corner site, with all but its west front virtually hidden, Plečnik made his Chapel of St. John essentially nothing but front, leaving its unarticulated back and sides to be simply whitewashed. Since his earliest days in Vienna, he had maintained that a façade could be independent of the building it fronted: that a building’s face, its appearance was what counted—an essential point and one of many that put him at odds with his functionalist contemporaries. Like many of the Žale chapel interiors, the interior of the Chapel of St. John is white and spare, containing only a stone catafalque for the deceased’s body and, above, a crucifix—here a rather a startling painted wooden one, with six-arms. The largest chapel at Žale after the Oratory is the Chapel of St. Nicholas, analogue of St. Nicholas Cathedral in Ljubljana city centre, a domed baroque church which the double height flat-roofed chapel resembles only in name. Inside the St. Nicholas chapel, the masonry walls of the lower level are clad in red brick with prominent white mortar joints that replicate those of the virtuoso brickwork in the stair vault of the presidential apartments at the Castle. The upper level of the chapel is transparent with, front and back, identical rose windows that further evoke Plečnik’s work in Prague—not the Castle this time, but the back-to-back transparent twin clocks of the bell-tower of his
extraordinary Church of the Most Sacred Heart, built in the suburb of Vinohrady and completed in 1932. By then, Plečnik was also working in Ljubljana where the so-called Flatiron Building, completed two years later in 1934, was designed for a narrow, pointed site not far from St. Nicholas Cathedral. The elegant glassed-in third floor loggia of the Flatiron Building reappears, turned inside out, in the side walls of the upper level of the Chapel of St. Nicholas bringing Plečnik’s architectural autobiography almost up to date. In front of the chapel a large, bowl-shaped concrete fountain also recalls Prague Castle where the massive granite bowl he designed for the site balances on two supports over the centre of the Paradise Garden’s lawn. The Paradise Garden had been Plečnik’s earliest foray into garden design. He made Žale—the Garden of all Saints—its counterpart in Ljubljana, with this among other markers, and its Chapel of Adam and Eve. Southeast of the Chapel of St. Nicholas, are five more, all white like the rest. The back-to-back chapels of St. Joseph and St. Anthony shelter under a tent-like canopy that translates as masonry the 19th-century German theoretician Gottfried Semper’s belief in the textile origins of architecture. Beyond this, also doubled up, are the chapels of Saints Cyril and Methodius and of St. George, designed on a cruciform plan typical of the Renaissance. To the right, is the last of Plečnik’s chapels, the Chapel of Adam and Eve, whose classical motifs articulate a complex, uniquely asymmetrical design reflecting perhaps what the architect, a lifelong bachelor, came to regard as the inveterate complexity, the intractable asymmetry of relations between women and men. 35
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The propylaea at the western end of Žale signaled entry into a sacred precinct. Plečnik’s initial plan for an exit that would bring to an end the garden’s funereal avocation at its eastern limit had been another monumental gateway meant to play out, as the recessional concluding a funeral service is meant to do, a retreat from the sacred, back to the working world of everyday life. But there was no money left for anything monumental. So instead, Plečnik ended Žale with a woodworking shop for making coffins—a building whose workaday purpose and colourful exterior, reached after all the pale, white chapels make it far more effectively and genuinely “recessional” than anything grander might have done. It is no ordinary woodworking shop. With round rock masonry at its foundations and corners, intricately patterned panels of clinker bricks and pebbles between the windows of the main floor and, above, frescoed pillars supporting the overhanging timber roof of the upper storey—a loft left open for air-drying wood—it is nothing at all like the other buildings on the site. What is it about? It is in every way an anomaly in the context of Žale where the other works play, albeit in unexpected ways, with essentially known quantities from the western architectural tradition, from the Etruscan tumulus and the Egyptian pylon to the column orders of classical Greece and the centralized plans of renaissance churches. Into his retelling of this story, Plečnikwove his own. And his own story began, in fact, in a woodworking shop in Ljubljana, where his father made and repaired furniture, and where the unruly young Jože, a high-school dropout of fourteen, began his working life as an apprentice cabinet-maker. Thus, the workshop at Žale is about the architect’s beginnings. As a craftsman, it should be noted. 36
But that is just one strand of the narrative. Another concerns the beginnings not of the architect but of architecture itself. In the late 19th century, it was commonly held that, foundering in vapid historicism, architecture and the other arts, but particularly architecture had taken a wrong turn, lost their direction, and so must return to their origins in order to start over and find a new, meaningful path. All well and good, but what were those origins? The most extensive, profoundest and most influential—particularly in Vienna where Plečnik studied with Otto Wagner—treatment of the question was by the German architect and theoretician, Gottfried Semper. It is, inevitably, a grossly reductive oversimplification to sum up in a single statement Semper’s long and complex dissertation, which stretches over several books of writings, most notably his multi-volume Der Stil of 1860-63.6 But so be it. According to Semper, the origins of architecture lay in craft.7 There were, he claimed, four primitive kinds of making, to which he later added a fifth, metalworking. The original four were moulding, which produced ceramics, carpentry or joinery, masonry born of the process of mounding, and most especially weaving. This last, for Semper was the Urkunst, the first art and its very source. The process of producing textile, from knots and braid to baskets, woven mats and silken canopies, was the beginning of all artistic beginnings. The organizer of these ageless craft processes was the primitive hut, an ur-building as it were, whose avatar Semper identified in the so-called Caribbean hut, an indigenous dwelling from Trinidad he saw displayed in London at the Great Exhibition of 1851 which, he later wrote in Der Stil, “shows all the elements of antique architecture
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in their pure and most original form:” a fireplace, raised floor, a roof raised on columns and walls made of woven mats.8 Translation into other materials of these basic elements (Stoffwechsel, or metabolism, he called it) allowed for historical developments in architecture, such as timber roof structures becoming the entablatures of ancient Greek temples, whose ornament was the expression in stone of the joinery required by wood construction. Ornament—appearance—superseded structure in Semper’s view. Semper’s theory and his primitive hut go some distance toward explaining the workshop at Žale, a building both for and about craft as the source of the very developments Plečnik reviewed over the rest of the site. Most notable are the clinker and pebble panels between the windows: intricately patterned transpositions into ceramic and masonry of the woven mats that walled Semper’s hut, hanging here like rugs below the frescoed pillars that support the workshop’s timber roof. The pillars demand attention. The monochromatic frescoes on their surfaces, executed in an austere vaguely Byzantine manner by the Slovenian painter Slavko Pengov, include ten scenes from the New Testament, which illustrate episodes from Christ’s ministry. One, from the Gospel of St. Matthew, shows Jesus in a boat with the fishermen Simon Peter and his brother Andrew. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,” reads the legend on the panel.9 Behind these two of Jesus’ future disciples who grasp the edge of a net full of fish sits an elderly man with a long white beard: the architect Jože Plečnik, holding a roll of drawings. For Plečnik, who here makes himself part of the Gospel narrative, architecture was a sacred calling,
a form of discipleship in which sacred architecture inevitably took pride of place. And if, as many in the late19th century believed, art and architecture were in desperate need of renewal, so much more so, for someone like Plečnik, were religious art, and religious architecture, not to mention the liturgy itself. This, once again, demanded a return to origins—the simplicity of early Christian worship; the revival of Gregorian chant; the cleansing of religious painting of sensuality and cloying emotional excess. The monk, Peter Desiderius Lenz, co-founder of the so-called Beuron School of Art, named for the Benedictine monastery at Beuron in Southern Germany of which he was a member, was concerned with precisely these issues, artistic reform in particular. Plečnik had come to know and admire Lenz when he organized an exhibition of religious art that included work from Beuron at the Vienna Secession in 1905. The austere, geometrical style of religious painting Lenz developed, grounded he claimed in the rigour of ancient Egyptian precedent when, as he wrote, “God was worshipped truly,” was to sweep away 19th-century sentimentality, and replace it with pure, objective dogma.10 The austere Pengov frescoes at Žale (executed, it goes without saying, under Plečnik’s direction) are a tribute to the intentions of Beuron. Notwithstanding its debt to Gottfried Semper, so is Plečnik’s design for the woodworking building itself. If, for Semper, the ground of all architecture was the primitive hut, the Beuron School had its own, specifically Christian paradigm, one that Plečnik much admired. Desiderius Lenz’s only built work was a small “primitive” chapel, completed in 1868 at Beuron and dedicated to St. Benedict’s first follower, the 6th-century saint, St. Maurus. In Beuroner Kunst (“The 37
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Art of Beuron”) by one Josef Kreitmaier, a book in Plečnik’s personal library, the author calls the chapel Der Urtyp—“the prototype.” “Neither Gothic, nor Romanesque, nor Greek nor Egyptian,” he writes, “the chapel is entirely without precedent.”11 The visible joinery of the timber roof and square corner pillars of Plečnik’s workshop building pay homage to the chapel at Beuron, as does the integration throughout of painting and architecture, not to mention, of course, the archaism of the paintings themselves. Transcending specific similarities, however, is the dignity, one might even say monumentality, vested in what, both at Beuron and at Žale, are simple structures devoted to ostensibly humble purposes—prayer in the one case; the work of the craftsman in the other. Laborare est orare instructs the Rule of St. Benedict, “to work is to pray.”
I am grateful to Boris Podrecca for suggesting the autobiographical dimension of the funerary complex to me.
On the funerary complex, Damjan Prelovšek, Žale architekta Jožeta Plečnika, Ljubljana: Mesto, 1992; id., Jože Plečnik, 1872-1957: architectura perennis, translated from the German by Patricia Crampton and Eileen Martin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997, pp. 302-309; Peter Krečič, Plečnik, the Complete Works, New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1993, pp. 140-145; Noah Charney, Eternal Architect: the life and art of Jože Plečnik, Ljubljana: Taliateta Publishers, 2017, pp. 178-183.
Prelovšek 1997, p. 57.
Ákos Moravánszky “Toward a Mythic Language: Plečnik and the reinvention of epic form in central European Architecture,” in Zdĕnek Lukes et al, Josip Plečnik: an architect of Prague Castle, Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 1997, pp. 179-188.
Prelovšek 1997, p. 150.
Gottfried Semper, Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts, translated from the German with an introduction by Harry Francis Mallgrave, Los Angeles: The Getty Centre, 2004.
Joseph Rykwert, “Semper and the Conception of Style,” in The Necessity of Artifice, New York: Rizzoli, 1982, pp. 122-130.
Semper 2004, p. 666.
10 Desiderius (Peter) Lenz, The Aesthetic of Beuron and other writings, translated by John Minihane and John Conolly, London: Francis Boutle, 2002, p. 19. 11 Josef Kreitmaier, Beuroner Kunst: eine Ausdrucksform der christlichen Mystik, Freiburg: Herder, 1923, p. 21. My thanks to Ana Porok, Curator of Architecture and Design at the Plečnik House in Ljubljana, for sending me an inventory of the books in Plečnik’s library.
The Architect Simon Walker
He fasted on the doorstep of his gift, Exacting more, minding the boulder And the raked zen gravel. But no slouch either Whever it came to whiskey, whether to Lash into it or just to lash it out. Courtly always, and rapt, and astonishing, Like the day on the beach when he stepped out of his clothes And waded along beside us in his pelt Speculating, intelligent and lanky, Taking things in his Elysian stride, Talking his way back into sites and truths The art required and his life came down to: Blue slate and whitewash, shadow-lines, projections, Things at once apparent and transparent, Clean-edged, fine-drawn, drawn-out, redrawn, remembered.... Exit now, in his tweeds, down an aisle between Drawing boards as far as the eye can see To where it can’t until he sketches where. –Seamus Heaney, An Architect My father, the architect Robin Walker, gave me, my brothers and sisters, every privilege in life—now I am helping to look after his legacy in the critical space. None of this has any meaning for people unless it is about life—the impact, the attitude, the reconciliation, the value of architecture with respect to life. That is the point—and that was his point, the example constituted by his own life. He wasn’t trying to build monuments, he wasn’t trying to change the world in that sense. He was searching for truth—via St. Augustine’s maxim “beauty is the splendour of truth”1. Walker’s story is that of an architect working during the Modernist era, who begins to develop an indigenous response to it, due to, among other factors, the prevailing local conditions for work, and the societal attitudes pertaining to architecture. He was a complex person who came from an Anglo-Irish background—at a certain remove from the majority of Irish society, a background of rattled certainties and
Photography by John Donat
obsolete allegiances. The values espoused by that minority were somewhat confused—between a desire to work hard and ethically from the point of view of a personal morality, and a simultaneous desire to deny the cultural aspirations of those with an opposing political legacy. This resulted perhaps in a certain arrogance, but that was conflicted with self-consciousness, alienation and ultimately, loneliness. Yet the rigour of his Protestant ethos ensured that, in the intervening years, work of great scale and ambition was brought to fruition (although in fact Robin became a Roman Catholic in middle age). Such an outcome could never have arisen from a predetermined attitude, nor from the application of a previously deduced set of architectural formulae. It could only have emerged from a long and painstaking process of trial and error, elimination, rejection and failure, interspersed with occasional insight, opportunity or event. Robin and Dorothy Walker were a couple in private and in public, who were both deeply engaged in the project of developing a culture of Modernism in Ireland—Robin in architecture, Dorothy in art criticism and curation—from the mid-1950’s to the mid-1980’s (and established friendships with artists and poets, including Heaney, who wrote An Architect in remembrance of Robin). But their immersion in the broader cultural struggle to achieve this was never understood by them to mean a turning-over or a replacement of traditional Irish culture. It was, in contrast, much closer to the philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s description in an essay written in 1955 and first published in English ten years later as “Universal Civilisation and National Culture”2, of a ‘balance’ or a mutual exchange between universal and national cultures, which would save the former from mediocrity and the latter from reactionary impulse. Following graduation from the School of Architecture, University College Dublin, in 1946, Walker went to Paris, where he worked at le Corbusier’s studio in the rue de Sèvres in 1947. Later as a postgraduate, in 1956, he was awarded a scholarship to the post-graduate programme in architecture and urban planning at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which was Mies van der Rohe’s base in America. Here, he was tutored by several former Bauhaus professors, including Mies, Ludwig Hilberseimer and Walter Peterhans. After completing his thesis, he stayed in Chicago for a further year to teach at Crown Hall and to work in the Skidmore Owings and Merrill office. He is therefore unique in that he is the only Irish architect to have encountered both Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe directly in a professional capacity. It is clear that there were certain statements of Mies that provoked a reaction in him, and were the catalyst for a lifelong enquiry into meaning in architecture. The question is whether we can read Robin Walker’s work as “derived” from Mies in the sense that it is taken to 41
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start with a diagram from Mies, and is then “informed” by “local values” as a kind of secondary concern. I think we cannot—the work is highly original, it is predicated on a response to context, and anyway while its ideological search might derive its method from the teachings of Mies, it does not end with his philosophical insights. That said, I believe Walker wanted to formulate, like Mies, his own position with regard to architecture, and was deeply impressed by the clarity of Mies’ thought. It is evident from Mies’ own writing that any discussion of his architecture does not start with appearance, nor technology, nor structure, nor form. It starts with an attitude to life and the creative process. “We should judge not so much by the results as by the creative process. For it is just this that reveals whether the form is derived from life or invented for its own sake. That is why the creative process is so essential. Life is what is decisive for us. In all its plenitude and in its material and spiritual relations.”3 That whatever breakthrough in Walker’s career had to come from within his own response to the Irish context, and could use his foreign experience only indirectly in his work, made his task no easier. However, after his return from Crown Hall, Walker turned the corner from naive internationalist to concerned citizen. From then on his work develops into a transcendent mode, the revelation of Mies’ ‘structure-as-truth’ was worked through a process of original, native creation. Walker and his colleague Ronald Tallon became partners in Michael Scott and Partners, and from the early 42
‘60’s until the late ‘70’s, the practice enjoyed a prolific period of work. Among the Walker buildings that were part of this movement were Wesley College, St. Columba’s College Science Building, Maynooth Arts Faculty, Leeson Park Wesleyan complex, PMPA headquarters, and the Restaurant Building at U.C.D., for which he won the Triennial Gold Medal of the RIAI for the period 1967-’70. Later, in 1974, the name of the practice was changed to Scott Tallon Walker, with Niall Scott also joining as a partner. That same year the practice, in the name of Michael Scott, was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal. Since then Modernism has suffered a dying of the light... possibly a neat shorthand for describing a kind of loss of vision—not vision as it applies to modes of design or method, but a vision of a world which is understood in a spatial continuum, an essentially utopian idea which throws light into the darkest corners and opens up the space for communication of ideas and values between peoples. However, I believe that in the decades following the 1960’s, Irish architects, perhaps as a reaction to this, rather than seeking a unified linguistic resolution, one ‘grammatically’ correct, began to accept that by embracing diversity, as a function of life, by reconciling the lived [the social] with the practiced [the professional], a sort of rehabilitation of culture might become possible—in this case the establishment of a genuinely Irish culture of architecture. It is worth remarking on the fact that architects, like Mies, of the modern period obsessively refer to notions of ‘era’, ‘age’, ‘period’ and
any number of historical subdivisions and categories. Perhaps it is because their work stood in such apparent contrast to its immediately preceding context. Ironically, however, it tends to lock the reading of architecture into a linear, chronological analysis—which is partly the driver of Walker’s search—but which is confounded by the very originality and place-specificity of his own best work. This idea is behind what emerges as a ‘critical regionalist’ sensibility—to use Kenneth Frampton’s well-worn term—‘object’ buildings such as the Church at Burt , or Walker’s O’Flaherty House , combine setting, material, craft and structure into a complete work. In this sense, these buildings were way ahead of their time in the Irish context. It is intriguing that there has been a parallel search for an ‘architecture of place’—embodied in these buildings in very different ways—which is essentially a postmodern concern. Here we are witnessing architecture which is a furtherance and, in its own way, a conclusion to the modern project, where it comes up against the specificity of place and tradition. What is surely interesting to people, whether they identify with an aesthetic or not, is the range of architecture, its ability to address things, to capture things, to reflect things. We see ourselves in architecture— not just our past or a given moment, but, because of its address, because it is an open-ended creative process, a quest, it asks the question of the future too. In the preface to the publication of Kenneth Frampton’s “Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance” essay
in 1983, Ricoeur is concerned to understand the Modern as not just international style but the response of newly democratic, ex-colonial, countries to problems of identity: “There is the paradox: on the one hand [the nation] has to root itself in the soil of its past, forge a national spirit, and unfurl this spiritual and cultural revendication before the colonialist’s personality. But in order to take part in modern civilisation, it is necessary at the same time to take part in scientific, technical and political rationality... How to become modern and to return to sources, how to revive an old, dormant civilisation and take part in universal civilisation?”4 As a reaction, the term, or more accurately the stylistic overturning, of Postmodernism obscured that culturally sensitive part of Modernism alluded to by Ricoeur, by emphasising technology as the only cultural achievement or preoccupation. Interestingly, the origin of ‘universal’ is ‘catholic’, as in the Greek word for universal ‘kathalou’5. Thus, to have a post-modern view of time and of history is to be eclectic and catholic, not solipsistic and teleological, which is either too personal or too dogmatic.... which might mean simply having catholic tastes as opposed to narrow preoccupations. Robin Walker’s 1961 Bord Fáilte headquarters building, located in Dublin’s city centre, is in that sense Postmodern, not in so much as that refers to the style of its architecture (it’s not ‘neo43
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classical’ in a cosmetic sense), but as a way of thinking about time and of the city, of the value of the city as a whole over the individual built artefact. Unfortunately, a planning application to demolish the building is now under consideration by Dublin City Council. “Change no more means regress than it means progress. This demands from us a degree of tolerance which is foreign to western culture; foreign because we subscribe to the existence of a dualism, we accept quite naturally an exclusive dualism of material and spiritual things, a philosophy of mutually exclusive objective and subjective substances and thought, reality and surreality. You discuss things in terms of their immediate appearance or you discuss them in terms of their underlying form, and with these modes of discussion you get involved in what could be called a platform problem. You have no platform from which to discuss them, other than the modes themselves”.6 The platform for discussion that finally emerges in Walker’s philosophy is Quality, which stands above the immediate appearance and the underlying form, above this dichotomy, which is more properly the dichotomy of the classic and the romantic. “A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance... We have a dualism, a dichotomy between the theoretic and the aesthetic, whereas I am searching for the true relation between intuitive, aesthetic... and scientific doctrine, which is one of mutual supplementation. By postulating an indeterminate aesthetic continuum, an intervening medium, within which the person and the object rotate, and outside of which the theoretic and aesthetic components reciprocate, it becomes possible to see how there is, in fact, as all architects in their practice know, no conflict between reason and intuition.”7 Bord Fáilte is a Modern masterpiece—not something at the scale of BDP’s Preston Bus Station, nor even the Smithsons’ Economist Building—it is in contrast a small, humble, unobtrusive but perfectly 44
formed office block, built at the edge of Dublin’s historic southside Georgian quarter. But Walker was convinced that there was a clear and incontrovertible link between both the ’underlying form’ and the ‘quality’ of his Bord Fáilte building and the town-houses of Georgian Dublin. At this point in the story, the architecture public in Ireland are somewhat weary of referencing Frampton’s critical regionalism as the sole validation of their efforts—there is even a reaction against the idea that Ireland should be content to be described as a ‘region’ at all, or in Ricoeur’s formulation a ‘national culture’, given its openness and interconnectedness with global society. And it might well test the ennui of the LJA readership to ask for engagement with yet another struggle to save a neglected work of Modernism from extinction. But there are aspects to this fight to conserve the building which rely on neither of those two positions— the argument that this work of modernist architecture may be understood more correctly as a work of postmodern architecture, that, given the right conditions of scale and location within the fabric of the city, a work of mid-twentieth century architecture may be reappraised as part of an environmental, cultural and spatial continuum. In the various published descriptions of Bord Fáilte, it has been claimed that it is the first core-plan office building adopted in Ireland, and that it was the first use of fair-faced concrete in an Irish office building. And undoubtedly there are other devices also derived from Mies, in particular his buildings at IIT. But here, a simple reading of Bord Fáilte as a re-working of modernist language or form in an Irish context, an ‘importation’ of American Modernism, is, I think, incorrect. Essential characteristics of the building are derived from its immediate context. The building is located at a natural node-point at the end of the Baggot Street terrace where it meets the Grand Canal, and in terms of the Georgian Neo-Classical urban plan, fulfills the requirement for a stand-alone object or building at this point. The treatment of the ground plane is derived from the immediate Georgian precedent, and is radically different from Mies’ understanding of a new “ground”. The raised ground floor and the projecting entrance steps correspond exactly to that of the Georgian house, and the basement storey, with
its extended courtyard to the rear, is predicated on the Georgian basement ‘area’, which provides a quiet, private, exterior space for the building’s occupants, away from the street. Walker often talked about how the “basement trench” surrounding the Georgian squares made the entire space of the square “resonate”. Most significantly however, Bord Fáilte acts as a cipher for us in understanding Walker’s appreciation of the Georgian vernacular. In his own words, was concerned to build, at low-cost, in the same spirit as the Georgian terrace—as the load-bearing front wall of the Georgian is flat and unadorned, so Walker exposes the plain load-bearing concrete frame of the modern, finely detailed; as the proportion of the Georgian bay is vertical and glazed to the maximum limit of what the structural wall could allow, so Walker uses the essential defining proportion of modern structure, the fully-glazed horizontal bay afforded by reinforced concrete; as the Georgian terrace culminates at its top in a single course of plain granite subtending the sky, so Walker sets his parapet straight and flat and aligns it with the Baggot Street terrace; as the Baggot Street terrace uses basic bricks made on site with local material, so Walker uses the humblest of all modern, local materials—the grey stock brick. I wonder if the lessons of the past decade might not have taught us something about the value of things generally, beyond subjective notions of appearance or style. DoCoMoMo Ireland—the Irish chapter of an international voluntary organisation which documents and keeps watch on the buildings and sites of the Modern Movement— has had some success in recent years protecting modernist buildings from threatened demolition on environmental, historical and cultural grounds. Once again, we are called to intervene. Bord Fáilte has been referred to in the press as a “run-down development site” and by the ‘conservation’ officer of Dublin City Council as “dated and in need of a face-lift” ! Its imminent demolition is currently under planning consideration. While in some limited, superficial respects the building is in need of some repair—it has been vacant for the past 8 years—the structure and the façade, and its beautifully detailed concrete, are still in excellent condition. And yet the description reveals a widely-held misconception about Dublin’s architecture of the mid-20th century.
Of course, buildings must evolve over time—in the case of Bord Fáilte, it would be a relatively simple and inexpensive matter to remove the non-structural internal partitions, upgrade the heating system and install double-glazing. But the current planning application on the site is for complete demolition—to wipe away all trace of this defining moment in Irish architectural history. It is to be replaced by a poorquality perimeter-type block in order to maximise rentable floor area on the site—a crude approach that takes no account of other options to achieve even that result, never mind placing no value at all on architectural heritage. Arguably it is even more important to question the sustainability of knocking down a concrete frame building, which could undoubtedly stand up for the next thousand years, and replacing it with another one on the same site. If we were to adopt that attitude to our Georgian heritage, much of which is unremarkable architecturally and in a much poorer condition physically, our cultural environment would suffer disastrous levels of erosion, not to mention the legacy of destruction we leave for future generations. One does not have to be a learned academic to appreciate mid-twentieth century architectural heritage—it requires no more than a passing interest to see many of these buildings, to make the mental connection to a world of thinking and design. It is not always an easy point to get across—that modern architecture is so close to Georgian architecture, and in turn to Gothic architecture. All are predicated on notions of “enlightenment”, all are about maximising the area of glass—yet modern architecture has lazily and mistakenly been characterised as “functionalist” and “utilitarian”, while, equally mistakenly, Georgian architecture has been described as “decorative” and “ornate”. We are now seeing a renewed interest, particularly among younger architects and students in Robin Walker’s work, but it is not simply a matter of embracing a style. On the contrary, it seems more like a kind of emptying out of all of the architectural conceits by which such notions operate. This space for appreciation of Modernist architecture may, paradoxically, now be afforded in a society which no longer sees architecture as containing any kind of solution to the problems of conurbation, exploding populations and climate chaos. Development itself is the problem, no longer the way in which it is done. 45
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Conversely, the idea that property speculation is purely the operation of the market ignores the role for the public good that such speculation might play. Daniel Burnham’s White City plans for Chicago in 1909 were more than just a case of, in his own words, “make no little plans”. It was a complete urban vision of a future city, which included vital infrastructure, transport, and an integrated version of work and life which it was intended ordinary people, as well as investors, would relate to. No such grand urban designs trouble Dublin’s future—no, Dublin City Council officials are wholly complicit in the perpetration of, in the truest sense, a scam. A pattern has established itself over the past decade, typically involving investment in a targeted site within Dublin’s minutely small ‘business district’, i.e. the central areas of Dublin 2 and 4. Usually this means the demolition of a mid-C20th building. But the idea of demolishing a perfectly fit building and replacing it with a larger one on the same site is simply not defensible as economic policy, when there are so many other parts of the city which could benefit enormously from such inward investment, including when it is coming from foreign-based property speculators— the north inner city is an obvious candidate. By facilitating aggressive speculation within this small corner of the city, by pandering to such corrosive snobbery and greed, the paradoxically-named Department of Planning and Economic Development [there is no Plan] has adopted a policy which is not sustainable in either planning or economic terms. Apart from that, I think people would actually be interested to know what is meant exactly by Ireland’s modern architectural legacy? While Walker was an interesting architect, one among many, whose legacy as a creative practitioner is limited, but of high quality— nevertheless it might be said that his work represents an esoteric pursuit, not particularly significant in the bigger picture. ‘Architecture never changed the world’... but then, architecture is the world. What a change indeed it would be if the conservation of modernist architecture, and DoCoMoMo’s role in that, were to be re-evaluated as a tool and a catalyst for urban regeneration? It might help if people were to appreciate the difficulty of architecture—that it is not an arbitrary selection of styles, nor a case 46
of “coming up with” ideas in some sort of divinely-inspired process of the imagination. It is a search, for some a reductive process of elimination on the journey to the centre of an idea, a voyage of intense difficulty which has no guarantee of success. Walker embarked on this journey for our sakes—he wasn’t doing it for himself. That is why his work is important. It is not about some personal expression, some kind of interiority transposed onto architectural form. It is about truth—and beauty—and the unwavering dedication to the search, the intensity of which is the hallmark of great work. What used to be within the purvey of the architect is now drastically reduced by comparison to the heroic period of the twentieth century. Architects must still assume the role of environmental protector, of social advocate, of resourceful genius, but ironically, the commitment of architects now to these roles can result in talking themselves out of a job. Instead, I am hoping that we might have a debate about the value of things—in public. Architecture contains, in buildings, the resonance of life. In this reading, the practice of architecture can achieve a redemptive status. Architecture is background to life and yet it is also a way to open up a gap on time, to expand time. As Hannah Arendt says, “the longevity of things gives them a kind of independence in the world”8.
Mies Van der Rowe was quoting St. Augustine’s The City of God at his inaugural address as Director of Architecture at the Armour Institute of Tecnology (later the IIT), Chicago, 1938
4 “Universal Civilisation and National Cultures”, Paul Ricoeur. 5
Observation on etymology of the word ‘catholic’, noted in an email from Patrick Lynch to the author.
2 “Universal Civilisation and National Cultures”, essay in History and Truth, Paul Ricoeur, trans. Charles A. Kelby, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1965 
6 “Reason and Intuition”, unpublished paper by Robin Walker, presented to Dartmouth College, March 1982.
3 “Introduction”, Die Form 2 magazine, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Berlin, September 1927.
7 Ibid. The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt, Chicago, 1958.
Remembrances, Reality and Imagination Laura Evans
‘Environment unifies society, individuals, and their surroundings. Life stems from an environmental system that incorporates the past, the present and the future through remembrances, reality and imagination.’ –Fernando Salinas1 Christopher Columbus first came ashore on the Caribbean island of Cuba on October 28th 1492, allegedly declaring it to be ‘the loveliest land ever beheld by human eyes’. Columbus is commemorated everywhere on the island—in place and street names, sculptures and monuments, even today his presence is ubiquitous. With him he brought Spanish rule, and from here the European tradition took root in Cuba. Havana was planned according to the Laws of the Indies, ordinances set forth by the Spanish crown to guide colonists in the establishment of settlements. The urban structure we see in Havana Vieja today—narrow streets opening out into grand squares (plazas) fringed by colonnaded buildings of the rough local limestone piedra jaimanitas, houses with verdant interior courtyards (patios) glimpsed from the street outside—has persisted from this time, and has proven to be remarkably well adapted to the local climatic conditions; abundant vegetation and shaded streets mitigate high temperatures, and overhanging roofs and covered colonnades provide shelter from the frequent sudden downpours of rain (Fig 1). The years following the establishment of the Republic of Cuba in 1902 gave rise to new considerations of national identity, of what it meant to be Cuban in a post-colonial world. These ideas were encompassed in the Spanish word cubanidad or ‘Cubanity’, a term which comes from the writings of the Cuban revolutionary poet José Martí. Elsewhere, architecture has often become a visible manifestation of these ideas, a spatial signifier of the change within society. However, the stable influence of Cuba’s tropical climate— hot and wet throughout the seasons—and the persistence of human habit and custom tempered this change by grounding modernity in recognisable and familiar architectural types and human situations, ensuring the continuity of particular architectural and spatial devices in the work of a number of practitioners during this period. In a 1934 speech to the Academia Nacional de Artes y Letras, Cuban architect Leonardo Morales reflected on the often misguided eclecticism that characterised the early experiments of this time, saying ‘…we have utterly lost sight of what the appropriate atmosphere for the ideal house of the tropics should be… Our problem is to modulate light, lessen its glare, soften its brightness. Hence the old louvers (persianas), and awnings, the porticos… The portico and the patio are the two pillars on which all our architecture was built for centuries.’2 Morales’ views
gained some traction, notably in the work of Eugenio Batista in the 1940s and 50s, whose position, as summarised by Gabriel Fuentes, was that ‘...to be “modern” in Cuba was to ground its past—to spatialise its Cubanness—in the present without resorting to nostalgic historicism. Put differently, Modern Cuban architecture would have to transcend the historical object of style in order to reinterpret, reconstruct and re-objectify the essence of place.’3 After the Revolution of 1959, Cuba’s relationship to the rest of the world was upturned. With the trade embargo imposed upon the island by the United States of America on October 19th 1960 (el bloqueo), severe shortages of most goods—including fuel and construction materials such as steel and concrete—became commonplace.4 Additionally, by this time the island’s forests had mostly been replaced with sugar cane, so timber too was in short supply.5 Simultaneously, the ideology of the Revolution demanded the construction of new homes, schools, universities and other public buildings such as sports complexes and, unusually, ice cream parlours. These unique conditions gave rise to a brief but intense flourishing of architectural ingenuity. At a time when cities in Europe and America began to be dominated by curtain-walled, air-conditioned office buildings with vast basement car parks for the hordes of workers arriving from the suburbs each day, a number of Cuban architects began to experiment with a gentle, tropical modernism adapted to conditions of climate and place, city and memory, all constructed with remarkable material economy. The predmoninantly unfinished Escuelas Nacionales de Arte (National Art Schools) were constructed between 1961 and 1965 in a neighbourhood to the west of the centre of Havana. Formerly a country club, the playground of wealthy Americans, the site was earmarked by Fidel Castro during a round of golf with Che Guevara in January 1961 (itself a political act—allegedly a snub to Dwight D. Eisenhower, then President of the United States, who had declined to meet Castro on a visit to the USA in favour of a round of the sport) for an international centre of the arts that would educate, for free, thousands of students from across the Third World.6 There were five schools in total—the Plastic Arts, Music, Modern Dance, Ballet and Dramatic Arts. Three architects, led by the Cuban Ricardo Porro, took responsibility for the complex; Porro to design the schools of Modern Dance and Plastic Arts, and two Italian architects, Roberto Gottardi and Vittorio Garatti, to design the schools of Dramatic Arts and Music and Ballet respectively. Although each school is different in its expression, there are a number of spatial and tectonic commonalities which unite them all; a genetic footprint shared by different members of the same, architectural, family. 47
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The rolling, grassy landscape of the golf course has been retained, and the schools are dispersed around the periphery of the site, each taking advantage of the local topographic conditions. On the flat meadow between the surviving buildings of the country club and the road beyond sit the rusty-red vaults and cupolas of Porro’s School of Plastic Arts, its main entrance denoted by a tripartite vaulted portico. Sinuous colonnades of canted brick piers topped with Catalan vaults—an ancient structural system with its origins in Mediterranean civilisations—lead to the patio at the centre of the scheme, an undulating brick-paved expanse with a mosaic-lined pool and a fountain at the entrance to the exhibition space (Fig 2). Lush, tropical vegetation flourishes in the interstitial spaces between the edges of covered colonnades and the oval-shaped art studios beyond (Fig 3). At the time when this project was conceived, Porro had been grappling with the notion of ‘tradition’ in the Cuban context for some time, as evidenced by his 1957 essay ‘El Sentido de la Tradición’ (‘The Meaning of Tradition’), in which he writes:
Fig 1 Fig 2 Fig 3 Fig 4
The colonnade of the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, Plaza de Armas, Havana Vieja The plaza of the School of Plastic Arts by Ricardo Porro, Havana A colonnade at the School of Plastic Arts by Ricardo Porro, Havana Plaza de la Catedral, Havana Vieja
‘The word ‘tradition’ requires definition. Tradition does not mean the copying of the past; the result would be archaeology, not architecture… Tradition is not contrary to creation… It is the expression of a reciprocal action between man and the place in which he develops, the sum of his experiences, the expression of the spiritual characteristics common to a people… We are a product of the Spaniard, above all the Spaniard of the southern part of the peninsula, and of the black African. From here comes forth our character.’7 He described the School of Plastic Arts as an arquitectura negra, a ‘black’ architecture that consciously aligned itself with the culture of the paintings of the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, with whom Porro had struck up a friendship in Paris, but in fact, it appears far more culturally synthetic than that, much like Cuba itself.8 The plan of the school mimics certain formal aspects of a particular type of African settlement, such as those at Mokoulek and Logone-Birni in Cameroon, where circular or oval shaped buildings are strung out along curved pathways. However, the abundant presence of traditionally European spatial devices— albeit re-imagined—such as colonnades, porticos, domes and fountains, undeniably situate the building in the western cultural tradition.
r e m e m b r a n c e s , r e a l i t y a n d i m ag i n at i o n
The School of Modern Dance, also by Porro, is located on the other side of the original country club building upon a ridge which overlooks the rest of the grounds. A vaulted entrance portico echoes that of the School of Plastic Arts, and from here, the plan fragments to create administrative offices, dance pavilions, classrooms, a library and a theatre, interspersed with plazas and linked by colonnades. The white stucco walls help to reflect the intense heat of the sun, and brise soleil shade the interiors from direct light. The concrete structural frames for the Catalan vaulted domes are thickened to create planters so that vines may grow along the roofs and at the bases of the walls. In his 1964 essay ‘El Espacio en La Arquitectura Tradicional Cubana’9 (‘Space in Traditional Cuban Architecture’), Porro writes about the buildings and urban spaces of Havana Vieja, revealing a deep interest both in the Baroque architecture of the cathedral (Figs 4, 5) and the basilica of San Francisco and in the influence of the particular Cuban landscape and climate upon architecture, fascinations which are reflected in his built work here. Located on the south-eastern periphery of the complex, Gottardi’s School of Dramatic Arts is a hermetic community that turns its back Fig 5 The roofscape of Havana Cathedral Fig 6 The domes of the School of Ballet by Vittorio Garatti, Havana Fig 7 The performance pavilion at the School of Ballet by Vittorio Garatti, Havana
on the rest of the campus, but in doing so creates an intensely urban experience. Reminiscent of a Southern European or North African hill town, the school is composed of small buildings sat upon a terraced landscape that steps down towards the river, with a plaza and amphitheatre at its heart. The surrounding circulation is open to the sky, an allusion to the narrow, shaded streets of the city. The partially completed School of Music sits on the opposite bank of the river, snaking along a ridge for over three hundred metres; a vast, undulating ribbon of a building, nestled into the contours of the land on which it finds itself. The brick and terracotta school contains classrooms, lecture rooms, individual and group practice spaces and a concert hall which deforms itself to curl around an ancient jagüey tree. Garatti’s second project on the site, the domed Ballet School, sits on low-lying land in a deep bend of the Rio Quibú with long, serpentine steps—bisected by a channel to carry rainwater—forming the approach from higher ground. The school is almost hidden from afar, but as one draws closer the terracotta domes of the dance pavilions and the performance hall begin to appear against a backdrop of verdant jungle growth, seemingly floating above the ground on impossibly slight pendentives (Fig 6). An arc of classrooms is built into the earth, lit from above by strange concrete pipes that protrude from the grass like the stumps of calcified trees. As elsewhere, here roofs are built up of layers of thin terracotta tiles (Fig 7). 49
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Fig 8 The lobby of the School of Medicine at the University of Oriente by Rodrigo Tascรณn, Santiago de Cuba Fig 9 The School of Medicine at the University of Oriente by Rodrigo Tascรณn, Santiago de Cuba Fig 10 The School of Medicine at the University of Oriente by Rodrigo Tascรณn, Santiago de Cuba
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Work on the schools was abandoned in 1965. The ideological tide was turning; as the island aligned itself more and more with the Soviet Union, they increasingly came to be seen to represent an image of ‘Cuba as sensual and indulgent, an amoral tropical paradise.’10 Influential architects and critics, including Roberto Segre, increasingly spoke out against the project and its young architects. As pre-cast concrete became the ‘solution’ to the problem of the provision of housing, the materials and construction techniques of the art schools were lambasted as outmoded, and even unsafe.11 Those who had worked on the projects were swiftly dispersed within the Ministry of Construction (MICONS), where Porro was stationed under Antonio Quintana—one of his greatest critics—for whom he worked on projects such as the design of a cage to house an eagle at the zoo.12 Meanwhile, at the eastern extreme of the island, a new school to educate medical professionals was under construction in Santiago de Cuba. The Escuela de Medicina at the Universidad de Oriente (1964) by Rodrigo Tascón is situated on the fringes of the city, close to the Plaza de la Revolución. It sits on an elevated site, cut off from the rest of the university campus by Avenida Las Américas, one of the principal traffic arteries of the city. The building houses a lecture theatre, offices, classrooms, laboratories and a canteen, all arranged around a principal patio at the heart of the plan (Fig 8). The remarkably thin roof, composed of hyperbolic paraboloid vaults, minimised the amount of reinforced concrete required to construct it and maximised column-free space beneath, and the central planted patio allows for natural ventilation and helps to minimise internal temperatures. The overhang of the roof on all sides provides shelter from sun and rain (Fig 9), and a (now dry) water feature on the western side of the building would have cooled the air that passed over it. The windows of the classrooms and offices are louvered, often at high level, allowing staff and students to control the passage of air from the exterior. The building appears as an imaginative reinterpretation of a monastery, the building type that gave rise to some of the first universities (Fig 10).
Following the implementation of el bloqueo a closer political relationship was forged with the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of Hurricane Flora—which decimated the eastern provinces of the island in 1963—and in an attempt to alleviate the housing crisis highlighted by Castro in his Moncada declaration, Nikita Khrushchev donated a large-panel KPD precast concrete factory which was erected in Santiago de Cuba. This led to the nowcentralised MICONS largely abandoning tradition methods of construction and deploying architects to work on the introduction of French, Yugoslavian, Scandinavian and Canadian prefabricated systems, both for housing and for public buildings.13 From the outset, technological advancement had been a key principal of the Revolution14, but ultimately a nascent technocracy emerged in Cuba. The political climate rapidly became hostile to the earlier work—and, some would argue, to the profession of architecture as a whole—and it wasn’t long before countless ill-adapted Khrushchyovka apartment buildings and banal, panelised schools sprang up on the outskirts of Cuban towns and cities. In light of the contemporary environmental crisis and emerging scarcity of resources, it may be that the low-tech, humane, placespecific, ecological architecture of this period in Cuba offers us a glimpse not just of a fleeting utopian past, but also of a possible future. Like some of their contemporaries elsewhere, such as Josep Antoni Coderch in Spain, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry in Africa, Luigi Moretti in Italy, the Cuban architects synthesised architectural and cultural traditions with fundamentally modern concerns borne out of their rapidly changing world, creating an architecture which was grounded in a specific place and time yet also highly inventive; an architecture of remembrances, reality and imagination.
As quoted in Coyula, Mario, Scarpaci, Joseph and Segre, Robert, Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis, (Chapel Hill, 2002) p.196.
10 Fraser, Valerie, Building The New World: Studies in the Modern Architecture of Latin America 1930 – 1960, (London, 2000), p.249.
Morales, Leonardo, as quoted in Rodriguez, Eduardo Luis, ‘Theory and Practice of Modern Regionalism in Cuba’ in Docomomo Journal, No. 33.
Fuentes, Gabriel, Between History and Modernity’ in Cuban Intersections of Literary and Urban Spaces, (Albany, 2011) p.73. Anonymous, ‘Ponencia Cuba’ in Arquitectura Cuba 353-4, pp 28 -38.
Perez, Guillermo De La Paz, ‘Ecological Architecture in Cuba’ in Eco Design, Vol 6 No 2, p15.
Loomis, John A, Revolution of Forms, (New York, 2011), p.20.
Porro, Ricardo, ‘El Sentido de la Tradición’ as published in Loomis, John A, Revolution of Forms, (New York, 2011), p.163.
Garcia, Universo, interview with the author (Havana, 2016).
Porro, Ricardo, ‘El Espacio en La Arquitectura Tradicional Cubana’ in Arquitectura Cuba No. 332, pp. 27-36.
This research was supported by the RIBA Boyd Auger Scholarship 2016.
11 Ibid. 12 Garcia, Universo, interview with the author (Havana, 2016). 13 Coyula, Mario, Scarpaci, Joseph and Segre, Robert, Havana: Two Faces of the Antillean Metropolis, (Chapel Hill, 2002) p.212. 14 Ibid, p.210.
Competition Project for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral 1959 Joseph Rykwert (with Brian Housden) The Catholic Archdiocese of Liverpool declared a competition for a new cathedral in 1959. It was problematic on two counts. Liverpool already had a grandiose, dominating and very gothic Anglican Cathedral designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and built over the years from 1902 onwards. In 1933 Sir Edwin Lutyens, then President of the Royal Academy, was commissioned to design a competing ‘classical’ and red-brick Catholic cathedral on a site a little lower than that of the Anglican one. Yet it was to be even more ambitious, if anything—with a dome larger than that of St Peter’s in Rome. No sooner was the first instalment of the crypt complete but the war stopped construction. When the war finished, it was clear that the funds for completing Lutyens’ building were inadequate. In 1953 a scaled-down version was prepared by Adrian, Gilbert Scott’s younger brother, but even that was abandoned and a competition for a completely new building (to incorporate that crypt rump) was declared in 1959. It was won by Sir Frederick Gibberd with a project dominated by a huge lantern—nicknamed ‘Paddy’s wigwam’— which was built in the next few years and now stands on the site. The project shown here was prepared by Joseph Rykwert (recently returned from a stint of teaching at the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm) with the help of Brian Housden. As neither of the competitors
were qualified it was submitted in the name of Arthur Korn (who, on being shown the completed drawings said ‘I give you a B+’) and was not placed. It was conceived in a post Vatican II spirit as interpreted by the competitors—very much to take part in an active dialogue with the surrounding city rather than attempt to dominate it. Hence the large forecourt at street-level, which incorporates an independent baptistery and which allows for stalls round the edge. Overlooking it, the main body of the church opens out onto a balcony which could be used as an alternative liturgical theatre, for Easter and other such ceremonies. The bell-tower was set to the side (as they often are in eastern churches) while the vast, dominating surface of the roof was conceived almost as an animal skin, as it were a tent thrown over the site. The roof of the crypt became an extension of the interior, housing large reliefs of the Station of the Cross. Unfortunately one of the competitors broke his right arm while working on the project and that meant that the finishing details of the project, like the introduction of carefully-oriented light-canons into the roof—invoking Gerard Manley Hopkins’ image (from a Farm Street sermon of 1878) that the church was like a milch-cow—offering the milk of grace flowing though her dugs—had to be omitted.
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THE CONUNDRUM OF THE WORKSHOPS Form and Matter, Craftsmanship and Industry, Concept and Technique Luisa Collina and Cino Zucchi
When the flush of a newborn sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold, Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mold; And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart, Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it Art?” Wherefore he called to his wife and fled to fashion his work anew— The first of his race who cared a fig for the first, most dread review; And he left his lore to the use of his sons—and that was a glorious gain When the Devil chuckled: “Is it Art?” in the ear of the branded Cain. They builded a tower to shiver the sky and wrench the stars apart, Till the Devil grunted behind the bricks: “It’s striking, but is it Art?” The stone was dropped by the quarry-side, and the idle derrick swung, While each man talked of the aims of art, and each in an alien tongue. They fought and they talked in the north and the south, they talked and they fought in the west, Till the waters rose on the jabbering land, and the poor Red Clay had rest— Had rest till the dank blank-canvas dawn when the dove was preened to start, And the Devil bubbled below the keel: “It’s human, but is it Art?” The tale is old as the Eden Tree—as new as the new-cut tooth— For each man knows ere his lip-thatch grows he is master of Art and Truth; And each man hears as the twilight nears, to the beat of his dying heart, The Devil drum on the darkened pane: “You did it, but was it Art?” We have learned to whittle the Eden Tree to the shape of a surplice-peg, We have learned to bottle our parents twain in the yolk of an addled egg, We know that the tail must wag the dog, as the horse is drawn by the cart; But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old: “It’s clever, but is it Art?” When the flicker of London’s sun falls faint on the club-room’s green and gold, The sons of Adam sit them down and scratch with their pens in the mold— They scratch with their pens in the mold of their graves, and the ink and the anguish start When the Devil mutters behind the leaves: “It’s pretty, but is it art?” Now, if we could win to the Eden Tree where the four great rivers flow, And the wreath of Eve is red on the turf as she left it long ago, And if we could come when the sentry slept, and softly scurry through, By the favor of God we might know as much—as our father Adam knew. Rudyard Kipling, The Conundrum of the Workshops
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“Tectonics is an art that takes its model from nature, not in its concrete manifestations, but in conforming to its laws (...). The field in which this art expresses itself is the world of experience; its works exist in space and appear to our eyes as bodies, through their shape and colour. Tectonics is therefore a true cosmic art; the Greek word, cosmos, which has no equivalent in any living language, designates universal order and ornament contemporarily. There exists a harmony between artistic creation, tectonics and the universal laws of nature that is also represented in decoration.” –Gottfried Semper, Theorie des Formell-Schönen, 1856–59 ca. In 1851, year of the first Universal Exposition in London, the German architect Gottfried Semper wrote Die vier Elemente der Baukunst. While arguing in defence of polychromy in Greek architecture, he listed the elements of an ideal original dwelling which he considered to be the foundation of architectures in all times and places: the fireplace, the roof, the enclosure and the mound. Many nineteenth-century treatises had tried to found architectural discipline on constructive principles common to all civilizations. The originality of Semper lies in using them to order the variety of the ‘industrial arts’. In his text he relates ceramics and metallurgy to the fireplace; hydraulics and masonry to the mound; carpentry to the roof and its supports; weaving to its partitions. The delimitation of domestic space by rugs or mattings—rather than by the erection of the masonry structure which sustains them—is seen by Semper to be the primeval action of architecture. Many maintain that the idea of this ‘original’ dwelling came to Semper from his observation of the model Caribbean hut displayed in the great Crystal Palace glasshouse, within which he had curated the Canadian, Danish, Swedish and Ottoman sections of the Exhibition, having fled from Dresden after the failure of the insurrection for which he had designed the barricades. On that occasion Semper met Henry Cole, the Exhibition organiser, who later founded what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum and who played a large part in the teaching of industrial design. It may also have been the phantasmagoric spectacle of new manufactured products from the industrial revolution displayed under the great glass and cast-iron dome—and from the need to establish the logic of their form, overcoming the conflict between new technical possibilities and slavish imitation of past forms— that gave rise to the complex, theoretic-pedagogical attempt of the next work by Gottfried Semper, the two volumes of Der Stil published in 1860–1863. In this work he attempts to put into continuity craftsmanship and architecture into continuity, figurative archetypes and technical evolution, natural data and material culture. In Der Stil, Gottfried Semper almost paradoxically maintains that “the use of any technical products remains essentially the same at all times. It is based on universal human needs”, whereas the materials which the objects are made of are highly variable depending on their geographical availability, and the ways in which they are constructed are subject to an equally extensive evolution depending on technical developments. In his book, he divides materials into four categories according to their possible technical applications. These are: 58
“1. pliable, tough, highly resistant to tearing, of great absolute strength; 2. soft, malleable (plastic), capable of being hardened, easily shaped and formed, and retaining a given form when hardened; 3. stick-shaped, elastic, principally of relative strength, that is, resistant to forces working vertically along the length; 4. strong, densely aggregated, resistant to crushing and compression, thus of significant reactive strength. It is thus suited to being worked into any required from by removing parts of the mass or by inserting regular pieces in strong systems, constructed on principles of reactive strength.” From each of these categories, Semper derives altogether four main ‘branches of technique’: the first associated with weaving, the second with pottery, the third with tectonics (carpentry), the fourth with stereotomy (masonry art). Semper goes on dealing with the cross connections between these categories, making a finer distinction between a technique that produces or transforms a material and a technique for its assemble into a complex artefact: in his opinion the way bricks are produced, for instance, belongs to pottery, but the way they are put together belongs to stereotomy/masonry art; the production of mosaic tiles is part of stereotomy, but their arrangement into a mosaic belongs to textile art. Lastly, Semper affirms that metals can be included in virtually all the above categories, both because they are endowed with almost all the mechanical properties by which he catalogued the materials, and because of their variety of processing possibilities (melting, laminating, forging, welding, nailing). In a manuscript of 1852, which talks about an ideal museum of applied art and possible criteria for its organisation, Semper considers all complex artefacts as the products of a combination of these techniques. He hypothesises their arrangement on the coordinates of a big square; the products of a single technique would stand at the four corners of it, and between them, in a sort of naturalistic taxonomy, all the intermediary products would be arranged progressively according to the combination of techniques used in their production. Again in Der Stil—anticipating some of the fundamental elements of the Gestalt theory, which was so important in the teaching of design and architecture in the following century—Semper analyzes the ‘Gestaltungsprinzip’ (design principle) in natural forms like snowflakes, flowers or tree branches, seeing it as the fruit of a balance between “symmetrical equilibrium” and directional growth dynamics. In this sense, in many decorative motifs found in historical architecture, he sees natural laws of growth combined with a technical dimension and an artistic one which, in architecture and the ‘technical arts’, his “constructional-technical conception of the origin of basic architectural form” states to be firmly intertwined. Many of Semper’s considerations must be interpreted against the background of a debate that has been going on for at least the last three centuries of design culture, and the roots of which we can find even earlier: the discussion about the priority of idea (today we would say concept) over technique, and about the relation between form, material and means of production.
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TRUTH? “Even if architects lie like that, as the Lithologist Philosoper [Francesco Lodoli, editor’s note] keeps preaching, it will still be fair enough to say: The lie is lovelier than the truth.” –Francesco Algarotti, Saggio sopra l’architettura, 1756 “Now I ask myself, what holds up the roof of a building? If it is the wall, this has no need of architraves; if it is the columns, or pillars, what does the wall do? Come on, please choose Mr. Protopiro, what do you want to pull down? You won’t answer? Then I’ll destroy everything. Put aside: Buildings without walls, without columns, without pillars, without friezes, without cornices, without vaults, without roofs; piazza, piazza, razed countryside. [...] Did I not tell you, that making a building according to the principles you have got into your heads, doing everything by reason and truth, you’ll have us living in so many huts? The Shiites, the Goths, and other barbarian peoples, who lived in those reasonable buildings, waged war on people living in those that you want to call freely-built or capricious, to get inside them; but you’ll wait a long time, since no nation will wage war to get inside the reasonable ones.” –Giovanbattista Piranesi, Parere sull’architettura, 1765 Starting from the ‘rigorist’ criticisms of the Vitruvian axioms underlying the theory and practice of design and architecture made by Abbot Marc-Antoine Laugier and Father Francesco Lodoli in the mid-eighteenth century, much of the subsequent architectural culture seeks to re-found general theories able to hold together the logic of construction, the reference to consolidated praxes in terms of style (classical for the most part, but also other styles from different periods and countries) and the challenges posed by new social demands. Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s endeavour to deny by logic the affirmation by Vitruvius that the characteristic features of the Doric order were inspired by an original construction in wood, or his attempts to apply static principles derived from Gothic architecture to the new architecture in iron, testify to his efforts to find a structural relationship between architectural forms, construction techniques, and materials used. All of this stands in partial opposition to any teaching inclined towards a net division between artistic or architectural forms and the techniques to produce them, unconsciously preparing the ground for the widespread mechanical copying of objects used in the ‘artistic industry’, and the emergence of what we could now call Kitsch. The questions of ‘truth’, of constructive honesty, of the relationship with the material often become the weapons of criticism against academic architecture and against industrial art teaching that slavishly copied ancient models, inappropriately forcing their form (and their supposed ‘prestige’) onto the new technical artefacts. The long history of the reform carried on by this “early stage of design”—although the word ‘design’ seems already well-rooted at that time—and by architecture towards what today appears to be the ‘state of things’ consists of an endless sequence of mutations; and
of a series of partisan battles conducted by ‘brigades’ marked by different ideologies, nationalities and purposes, but facing a common enemy: firstly, academic teaching based on the styles of the past and secondly, commercial production that found in them a series of readymade patterns which were shared and therefore of certain appeal to the public. The names of these brigades sound romantic today: Century Guild (1882, captain Mackmurdo), Art Workers Guild (1884, capt. Lethaby and Prior), Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society (1887, capt. Crane in 1887; ideologists Morris and Ruskin), Guild and School of Handicraft (1888, capt. Ashbee), Vereinigte Werkstätten für Kunst im Handwerk (1898, capt. Schmidt), Darmstädter Künstlerkolonie Matildenhöhe (1899, capt. Behrens), Wiener Werkstätte (1903, capt. Hoffmann and Moser), Deutscher Werkbund (1907, capt. Muthesius, heroes Behrens, van De Velde, Fisher, Gropius, Hoffmann, Olbrich, Tessenow, van der Rohe), Novembergruppe (1918, capt. Pechstein and Klein, heroes Breuer, Gropius, Itten, Mendelsohn, Moholy-Nagy, van der Rohe, Taut), Arbeitsrat für Kunst (1919, capt. Gropius and Taut), Der Ring (1926, capt. Häring, heroes Luckhardt, Mendelsohn, Poelzig, Scharoun); as their values advocated by the ‘schools of the faction’: l’École centrale des arts et métiers de Bruxelles (1898), the Glasgow Government School of Design (1845), later Glasgow School of Art (1853), the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (1859), the Rhode Island School of Design (1877), the Grossherzoglich-Sächsische Kunstgewerbeschule (1908, van der Velde), the Staatliches Bauhaus (1919) and many others. Totally different positions appear within them: ranging from those associated with a rather dreamy, sometimes ‘mystic’ concept of art and craft—exemplified by the writing of John Ruskin The Seven Lamps of Architecture—to the tough agitprop harangue of the speech by Hannes Meyer (1928) to inaugurate his direction of the Bauhaus. After the title bauen (starting with a lowercase B, a real slap in the face for the German language) and a ferocious criticism of the praxes of the period, the list of synthetic materials that would change object production forever—and with it every fragment of bourgeois aesthetics—sounds both sublime and ridiculous (half the ‘new’ materials listed by Hannes Meyer no longer exist).
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tectonics? “Physical forms can be characteristic only in so far as we have a body. If we were purely optical entities, we would be denied the aesthetic judgement of the physical world. [...] We have carried weights and therefore experienced what weight is and what a counterweight is, we have fallen to the ground [...] so we can judge the proud destiny of the column and understand the impulse of all matter to arrange itself, formless, on the surface of the earth.” –Heinrich Wöfflin, Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur, 1886
“I’m beginning to think that ornament, by its very nature, is a natural reaction of our senses in the presence of a naked space, in which they try to place whatever would best satisfy their receptive function.” –Paul Valéry, De Corot et du Paysage, 1932
“The art of building reminds us that nothing stands by itself and it is one thing to love beauty and understand it, another to make it understood. As gravity works and judges the work of the architect in its own way, and subjects it to constant and merciless criticism, this happens in every field. Even in the easiest compositions we need to think about duration—about memory, about form, just as the builders of towers and spires think about their structure.” –Paul Valéry, Histoire de Amphion (Mélodrame), 1932
“Ornament is the demonstration of the functional principle— It is the functional laws made visible by means of the elements of representation. [...] Surplus of energy. Remaining liberty?— Sign of a greater force than that necessary and sufficient for the principal act—cf. children’s games.” –Paul Valéry, Ego scriptor, 1894 – 1914
A hundred and fifty years before the famous volume of Kenneth Frampton Studies in Tectonic Culture (1995)—in which he is duly cited—Gottfried Semper shifted the collocation of tectonics from the technical to the conceptual field, defining it as the “true cosmic art”. By associating it with the root of the Greek word kósmos (which translates as both ‘cosmos’ and ‘ornament’) he tried to find a fundamental relationship between form and technique, which architectural and industrial production seemed to have lost. However, as Heinrich Wöfflin seems to suggest, the concrete concept of weight and of resistance precedes the notion of technique in architecture. The physicality of matter enters architectural thought not as a phenomenon under observation, but as a profound structure of the thought itself. The tectonics of a building is understood through a bodily analogy; the shared condition of physical existence is the basis of mankind’s possibility to translate matter into architecture. Thus tectonics lays the foundations for an architectural thought capable of nullifying both the classical aesthetic theory of mimesis and the idealist one of expression. It is gravity that makes architecture possible as a unit, in open contrast to the historicist idea of composition. Space weighs.
“Ornament is the expression of a surplus of formal force.” –Heinrich Wöfflin, Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur, 1886
In his book The Sense of Order, Ernst Gombrich talks about the evolution from figurative ornament to modern ornament through a sequence that shifts attention from its iconic content to the exploration of its structural elements, such as the geometry of a lattice, or the translation or mirror reflection of an element, until these were included in a ‘scientific’ statute. The struggle against figuration in the industrial arts triumphed in the last century and, perhaps taking to extremes the ideas of Adolf Loos, identified ‘ornament’ with ‘crime’. Indeed there is no ornament possible in Modernism except texture. This word contains at the same time the accidents that chance has operated on a natural material, the fossilized spirals in stone, and the mathematical, abstract operation of joining and knotting. The union of constitutive parts in a building or an object occurs through a material concatenation, a puckering of the material that reveals the physical impossibility of its being extended ad infinitum. Like a sung note, whose duration cannot be maintained indefinitely without interruption or change, the joints in building work are intervals, pauses which reveal the reciprocal posture of the manufactured parts, the varying nature of the materials it is made of. In a high-tech mode of expression, such a ‘moment’ of discontinuity and the attempts to solve it by a technically efficient solution assumes the role of the protagonist, as can be seen clearly in the visionary perspectives of Konrad Wachsmann, in which the joint appears as a sort of carbon atom capable of forming limitless organic chains. By contrast, contemporary decoration cannot but appear as interruption, incompleteness. If the symmetry of a kaleidoscope or Rorschach’s inkblots transform shapelessness into a figure, repetition transforms the figure into texture. The figurative ideal of a rug is one of the few decorative paradigms accessible to Modernism. We could see texture as a syntax that rejects the content, and that exhibits its own structure instead of what it is representing.
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engineers? tinkerers? “The action of natural selection has often been compared to that of an engineer. This, however, does not seem to be a suitable comparison. […] Natural selection has no analogy with any aspect of human behavior. However, if one wanted to play with a comparison, one would have to say that natural selection does not work as an engineer works. It works like a tinkerer—a tinkerer who does not know exactly what he is going to produce but uses whatever he finds around him whether it be pieces of strings, fragments of wood, or old cardboards; in short it works like a tinkerer who uses everything at his disposal to produce some kind of workable object. For the engineer, the realization of his task depends on his having the raw materials and the tools that exactly fit his project. […] As was discussed by Levi-Strauss, none of the materials at the tinkerer’s disposal has a precise and definite function. Each can be used in a number of different ways. […] This mode of operation has several aspects in common with the process of evolution. Often, without any well-defined long-term project, the tinkerer gives his materials unexpected functions to produce a new object. From an old bicycle wheel, he makes a roulette; from a broken chair the cabinet of a radio. […] Similarly evolution makes a wing from a leg or a part of an ear from a piece of jaw. […] To make a lung with a piece of esophagus sounds very much like tinkering. […] Evolution does not produce novelties from scratch. It works on what already exists, either transforming a system to give it new functions or combining several systems to produce a more elaborate one.” –François Jacob, Evolution et bricolage, 1977 In its refounding zeal, early Modernism tried to cancel every formal paradigm inherited from the past, and to sanction the muchdemanded universality of a “method” capable of transforming collected data into a design result. Modernism dreamt of a designer who closely resembled the ideal of the ‘engineer’ described by Claude Lévi-Strauss: one who has ‘method’ and not ‘form’, and who creates “events through structures”, whereas his ‘tinkerer’ uses the forms he has in the house to solve contingent problems, thus creating “structures through events”. Although engineering culture is never completely free of customs and prejudices, this ideal engineer—not totally unlike the one called to mind by Heinrich Tessenow—sees technique as a mere means to an end; so he is in a way ‘agnostic’ towards the formal implications of the different techniques; indifferent to the various traces that opposing techniques may leave on the object. However, the story of techniques cannot be separated from the formal cultures that use them; or rather, the latter are inconceivable without the former. Yet critics and artistic historiography have often tried to do so with ‘styles’, when even in their critical interpretation of classic treatises they have tried to separate the entirety of practical notions contained within them from their ‘theoretical’, ideal parts.
We could even go as far as to say that, below the elaborate crust of the debate on classical orders and the decorative devices of architecture, a succession of architectures without ornament has existed since Mediaeval times, without a real ‘language’ other than the technical resolution of the problem. The models that mediaeval carpenters submitted for examination in order to enter their guilds; Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of knotting and braiding, of small interlocking wooden elements for temporary bridges, of diaphragms, modular roofing and other wooden elements ; yet again Leonardo’s sketches of joints (sliding and hinged) between panels and frames for a small, collapsible pavilion at Vigevano ; the series of variations on fortified bastions designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti for some of the Florentine gates; the proposals for a dam on the river Bruna in Maremma by Baldassarre Peruzzi ; the illustrations by Cesare Cesariano showing the various types of brickwork in the Italian translation of Vitruvius’ De Architectura ; the wood carpentry structures depicted in the treatise by Philibert De l’Orme ; the diagram by Sebastiano Serlio showing how to use wooden beams that are too short to cover the light by arranging them as a swastika ; the project for the bridge on the river Cismone illustrated by Palladio in I Quattro Libri (1570); the representation of the primitive huts and Roman war machines in the French translation of Vitruvius by Claude Perrault (1673); the sketches of great stone trilithons by Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Friedrich Gilly; the stone structure for multiple executions depicted by Viollet-Le-Duc at the entry ‘Fourche’ in the Dictionnaire raisonné de l’architecture française du XIe au XVIe siècle (1854–68) and finally the axonometric drawings seen from below in L’art de bâtir chez les Romains (1873) by Auguste Choisy constitute a sort of deep underground river of ‘primary structures” flowing below the animated surface of the endless debates about language and style. These structures, these ‘configurations’, are related to each other not so much by appearance as by a shared zero grade, which distinguishes them from the full works of ‘Kunstwollen’; just as the peasant’s house is distinct from the architect’s villa that ruins the tranquillity of the mountain landscape in Adolf Loos’ lovely parable or—still for Loos— like the furniture made by craftsmen who “don’t know each other, yet everything they make goes well together”, which are as far away as ever from their modern successors, “tutored” by the architect “able to make anything, in any style”. The same impression hits us as we turn the pages of Architecture without Architects by Bernard Rudowsky : the evocative, black and white photos, which often do not show single buildings, but whole parts of cities—where it looks as though the epidemic of ‘Vitruvianism’ or of ‘artistic expression’ never struck—they tell us of a varied, diverse world, of faraway cultures with different climates, different geographies, different supply sources for materials; yet, brought together by a desire to ‘do good’, to respond with architecture to the basic conditions of a repetitive life, where decoration too finds its place as a daily embellishment of home and utensils rather than an individual expression. In these places it is often only the church or the 61
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invention? tradition? prince’s palace—intentionally absent from the ‘choral’ tableau of the book—that represents a different world, full of icons from a higher culture, perhaps classical, perhaps imported. The torment of Rudyard Kipling’s gently satirical poem that lends its name to the title of this essay, “ the Conundrum of Workshops”, constantly poses the ‘temptation of Art’ to the spontaneous action of the Homo Faber who constructs houses and objects to sweeten his life: “pretty, but is it Art?”. The ‘re-foundation’ of Modern Design had thought to get rid of this problem, denying any autonomous representational value to the architectural products and to the objects that would serve the New Men of the new century. But in its moralizing, it has often wiped out the age-old action of man on the landscape, his continuous transformation of the organic and inorganic nature that surrounds him in an environment at his material, and wherever possible also spiritual service.
“Civilization, we dare to hope, can be transmitted; it cannot be taught in university courses that end with an exam. [...] What we call civilization can be interpreted as an interweave of value judgments that are implicit rather than explicit” –Ernst H. Gombrich, Art history and the social sciences, 1975 “Science need not be called anything but a collection of recipes that always work. All the rest is Literature” –Paul Valéry, Tel Quel, 1941 “Young people today suddenly find themselves in a situation in which by life’s strange requirements a good average intelligence is no longer enough. […] It is no longer enough, indeed, to be good players; rather the question keeps coming back: is this the game to play right now and what is the right game?” –Ludwig Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen, 1937 Children of this ‘revolution’, we can however detach ourselves for a moment from the scientistic, universalistic obsessions of modern design and turn our attention to techniques, to practices rooted in real history; examining a design culture that unites experimentation and research through critical revision of our customs, our recipes, even the technical and formal ‘prejudices’ that every shared situation inevitably reveals. Thomas Jefferson, great president and great architect, found himself having to design the low walls bordering the paths that join the halls around the great porticoed courtyard of the University of Virginia to the second row of lecturers’ houses; at that moment, he realised that to economise on a one-brick-thick wall, he could give it stability through coil geometry. Suddenly, he abandoned the gentle Palladianism (in wood) of the complex, and became an ‘inventor’, with a structural yet poetic intuition worthy of Eladio Dieste, and designed a mini ‘free style’ masterpiece of landscape design. Already in 1974, Enzo Mari replied to the progressive standardisation of ‘modern’ products considered universally valid, and the separation between ‘ideation’ and ‘industrial production’, by promoting self-designing by single individuals: a slim manual published by Corraini guided the readers (“anyone, apart from factories and traders”) in building their own furniture with their own hands, assembling simple rough wooden planks equipped only with a hammer and nails. With this series of proposals (beds, tables, shelves, cupboards, benches, chairs...), Mari returned to “a pre-artisan, pre-linguistic stage” of designing, characterised by a basic structure, manual gestures and a rudimentary constructiveness. This absence of language, in favour of an anti-consumerist, empirical approach, prophetically anticipated the contemporary questions of open-source design and co-creation processes. Intuitions like these, often forbidden to the great contemplative mystics, are conceded only to practical minds, capable of following the beaten tracks, but also of abandoning them to pursue
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a particular objective: as Venice and New York demonstrate, cities build by trader civilisations, animated by a practical spirit, ‘thinking with their hands’, manage to become real collective dreams where great theocracies have failed. Research into new materials and technological innovations led by modernism, today, appear to intertwine with the weft of ‘ways of doing things’ that in history unite the natural elements—stone, wood, clay, iron, cotton—with modalities learned and passed on in their selection, and their use in combinations unobtainable in their original state. Craft practices contained within them part of the artistic culture in the ancillary role of decoration; but the negation of an imitative dimension leaves modernism no other representational path than the one of texture, of the evidence of a connection or link between the constituent parts of the object. However—no longer with the danger of being accused of traditionalism, or worse of Heimatstil, like the American and Canadian Alternative Country bands, not to be confused with the maudlin productions of Nashville—today we can synthetically revitalize techniques elaborated in specific fields; techniques able to generate patterns and forms without implying a mechanical return to the past. The process of ‘formativity’ should instead by looked at in its contemporary manifestations, where process and figure still interlace; without simply extracting formal motifs—action typical of an eclectic culture, and later of the ‘postmodern’—from history and the contexts that generated them. If modernist thought was based on overcoming the ‘applied arts’ and on their substitution with a new culture of industrial, serial production, the industrial procedures we use today are accompanied by the return of craftsmanship; the quality of an object or a building is not undermined by the irregularities of the handmade; the serial nature of the ‘standard’ product is giving way to the uniqueness of the single elements, whether they are created by hand or through advanced production processes. However, the change does not only concern the way it is carried out; the contemporary design process is operating a strong revision of the concepts of ‘universality’ and ‘serial repetition’ taken by modernism as general principles, capable of establishing the quality of most design themes; from here comes the renewed interest in the interrelations between design and process, between forma and technique. In Notes on the Synthesis of Form Christopher Alexander distinguished two types of learning in the arts: a traditional model, aiming to ensure good results through pragmatic behaviour, which corrects the learner who makes a mistake without explaining the criteria for this correction; and a modern attitude, which tends to isolate a ‘method’ from its specific results, and separates the theory from the process of apprenticeship. The modern notion of teaching ‘by discipline’, with its requisitory pause between process and formal outcome, is the logical continuation of this second model; of this trust in the power of the grammar, and its substitution for the language.
But Esperanto, the perfect language with universal pretentions and without errors or exceptions, is a dead language, cultivated only in nostalgic circles. It was its own perfection that killed it, that prevented it from adapting, from evolving, from growing by metaphors, by extension, by deviation and drift, in that theory of the “variation on a theme” that the genial mind of Douglas Hofstadter saw as being capable of great innovations; greater even than those claimed for themselves by the ‘heuristic leaps’ that every embossed book title on show offers us each day in the airport bookshops. If the last century was marked by expansion and the noble attempt to provide general solutions, perhaps this will be the century of modification, of the adaptation of general abstract thought to the specific circumstances of its application. Learning innocently by experiment, by chance finding, by technical innovation through trial and error, and hoarding experience of technical innovation and embedded formal cultures without subjection, with a spirit able to find within them unexpected directions; these are two ways that can live happily together, facing up to the challenges of a not so preordained future, and to solve in ever-differing ways the eternal “conundrum of the workshops”.
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1 “The use of wickerwork for setting apart one’s property, the use of mats and carpets for floor coverings and protection against heat and cold and for subdividing the spaces within dwelling in most cases preceded by far the masonry wall […]. Wickerwork, the original space divider, retained the full importance of its earlier meaning, actually or ideally, when later the light mat walls were transformed into clay tile, brick, or stone walls. Wickerwork was the essence of the wall. Hanging carpets remained the true walls, the visible boundaries of space. The often solid walls behind them were necessary for reasons that had nothing to do with the creation of space; they were needed for security, for supporting a load, for their permanence, and so on.” Gottfried Semper, Die vier Elemente der Baukunst. Ein Beitrag zur vergleichenden Baukunde, F. Vieweg, Braunschweig 1851 (Eng. transl. by Harry Francis Mallgrave and Wolfgang Hermann, The four elements of architecture and other writings, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989, pp. 103–104). 2 “Architecture, in its relation to the fine arts as well as in its own right, will be a major theme of our considerations. Yet these higher realms of art represent only one of the outer limits of the field to be investigated. In this field we also encounter those simpler works to which the artistic instinct was first applied: adornment, weapons, weaving, pottery, household utensils—in a word, the industrial arts or what are also called technical arts.” Gottfried Semper, Der Stil in den technischen und tektonischen Künsten; oder, Praktische Aesthetik. Ein Handbuch für Techniker, Künstler und Kunstfreunde, Frankfurt am Main 1860 (Engl. transl. by Harry Francis Mallgrave and Michael Robinson, Style in the Technical and Tectonic Arts; or, Practical Aesthetic, Getty Publications, Los Angeles 2004, pp. 72–73). 3
Gottfried Semper, Style, p. 107.
Ibid., p. 109.
The manuscript cited, from 1852, preserved in the National Art Library of the Victoria and Albert Museum ref. 86.FF.64., enabled Semper to obtain a teaching position at the National School of Design from its director, Henry Cole. “Most of the productions of Art and Industry wear a Mixed Character, and are related to more than one of the above given four families [note of the editor: it goes without saying that the thing also applies to the works in metal]. They must be placed and arranged together in the Collection so as to form the intermediate Members
between the extremities or limits of the Collection, which are formed by the objects representing the pure fundamental motives.” Gottfried Semper, The Ideal Museum. Practical Art in Metals and Hard Materials, (MAk Studies) Schlebrügge Editor, Vienna 2007, p.57, cited on the blog by Giovanni and Francesco Mazzaferro (English version) http://letteraturaartistica.blogspot. it/2015/11/gottfried-semper.html. 6
Gottfried Semper, Style, p. 106.
For the criticisms made by Laugier and Lodoli of Vignola’s classic system of orders, and the different positions held by various architects and theorists (including Piranesi) in the second half of the eighteenth century, see Cino Zucchi, Costruzione e linguaggio classico, in “QA, Quaderni del dipartimento di progettazione dell’architettura del Politecnico di Milano”, n. 14, Ottobre 1992, pp. 128–141, and related bibliography.
Bernhard E. Bürdek, Design: History, Theory and Practice of Product Design, Publisher for Architecture, Basel 2005, p. 21.
The word “Design” appears already in the name of the magazine (The Journal of Design and Manufactures, founded in 1849) and the school (School of Design, established in London in 1837) both directly associated with the figure of Henry Cole.
10 John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, John Wiley Publisher, New York 1849. 11 “Building is a biological process, building is not an aesthetic process. In its design the new dwelling becomes not only a ‘machine for living’, but also a biological apparatus serving the need of body and mind. The new age provides new building materials for the new way of building houses:
cold glue 16 Claude Lévi-Strauss, La pensée acetone sauvage, Plon, Paris 1962, (Engl. transl. synthetic resin by George Weidenfeld and Nicolson cellular concrete Ltd, The savage mind, The Garden casein City Press Limited Letchworth, synthetic horn Hertfordshire, 1966). rolled glass trolite 17 “La tecnica cerca sempre di ottenere synthetic wood la più piccola forma possibile e xelotect la più grande energia, accetta la tombac forma solo in quanto inevitabile, per il resto la tecnica nega la forma. we organize these building materials (...) We certainly value the simple into a constructive whole based on technical form overwhelmingly for economic principles.” the economic values it nurtures in us. We can value technical form very In Hannes Meyer, “Bauen”, within highly, yet still not want to have water Bauhaus, year 2, n.4, 1928 (reprinted pipes mounted visibly on the walls in Ulrich Conrads, Programs of our rooms.” In H.Tessenow, “Die and Manifestoes on 20th-century technische Form”, in Hausbau und Architecture, The MIT press, dergleichen, Bruno Cassirer Verlag, Cambridge - Mass, 1975, pp. 117–120). Berlin, 1916 (Engl. transl. by Walter Jessen, “House-building and Such 12 Kenneth Frampton, Studies in Things”, in Richard Burdett and Tectonic Culture, The MIT Press, Wilfried Wang, 9H: On Rigor, The MIT Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989, p.15). 13 Ernst Gombrich, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative 18 Codice Atlantico, fogli 328 v-a (dated Art (The Wrightsman Lectures, V. 9), 1508–1510). Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1979. The mathematician Heinrich Heesch 19 Codice Atlantico, fogli 283 r-b (dated had catalogued the twenty-eight 1494), 283 v-c; Ms. H, fol. 89r. possible repetitions of a ‘tile’, leading to the theoretical study of what came 20 Collezione della Casa Buonarroti, inv. to be called ‘tessellation’. For a 13A, 14A, 16A, 17 A, 22A, 24 A, 25A, rigorous treatise on the tessellation 26A (dated around 1529–1530). of a surface and its symmetry groups, see also Slavik Vlado Jablan, Symmetry, 21 Preserved in the Uffizi, shelf mark Ornament and Modularity, Word 589 Ar. Scientific Publishing, River Edge (New Jersey) 2002. 22 Arnaldo Bruschi, Adriano Carugo and Francesco Paolo Fiore (curated by), 14 Adolf Loos, Ornament und Verbrechen, De Architectura traslato commentato 1908 in Ins Leere gesprochen. e affigurato da Cesare Cesariano, 1521, Trotzdem, Herold, Wien-München 1962 anastatic copy, Il Polifilo, Milano, 1981. (Eng. transl. by J. O Newmann and J. H. Smith, Ornament and Crime, in 23 Philibert de l’Orme, Le premier tome Spoken Into the Void: Collected Essays, de l’architecture, Fédéric Morel, 1897–1900, Graham Foundation Paris 1567. for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Chicago and the Institute for 24 Sebastiano Serlio, Il primo libro Architecture and Urban Studies, New d’Architettura, 1537, anastatic copy, York, MIT Press. Cambridge 1982). Edizioni Forni, Bologna 1987, p.16.
reinforced concrete 15 Konrad Wachsmann, firstly aluminium apprentice to Heinrich Tessenow ripolin and later to Hans Poelzig, became synthetic rubber one of the major experts in wood euböolith construction and later, after his viscose escape to the USA, a theorist of synthetic leather spatial reticular systems based plywood on standardised metal joints. See asbestos concrete Konrad Wachsmann, Holzhausbau. porous concrete Technik und Gestaltung, Ernst hard rubber Wasmuth Verlag AG, Berlin, 1930 bitumen (Engl. transl. Building the wooden woodmetal house: technique and design, torfoleum Birkhäuser, Basel, 1995) and Konrad canvas Wachsmann, Wendepunkt im Bauen, wire-mesh glass Kraußkopf-Verlag, Wiesbaden 1959 silicon steel (Engl. transl. The turning point asbestos of building: structure and design, pressed cork Reinhold, New York 1961).
25 “May I take you to the shores of a mountain lake? The sky is blue, the water green and everywhere is profound tranquillity. (…) But what is this? A discordant note in the tranquillity. Like an unnecessary screech. Among the locals’ houses, that were not built by them, but by God himself, stands a Villa. The creation of an architect. Whether a good or bad architect, I don’t know. All I know is that the tranquillity, peace and beauty have vanished. […] And therefore I ask, why is it that any architect, good or bad, desecrates the lake? The farmer does not. Nor does the engineer who builds a railway along the shore or scores deep furrows in its clear surface
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with his ship. They go about things in a different way. […] (The farmer) is making the roof. What kind of roof? A beautiful or ugly one? He has no idea. It’s just a roof. […] Is his house beautiful? Yes, just as beautiful as a rose or a thistle, as a horse or a cow. […] Like almost all city dwellers, the architect lacks culture. He lacks the sure touch of the farmer, who does possess culture. The city dweller is a rootless.” Adolf Loos, Architektur, 1910, in Ins Leere gesprochen Trotzdem, Herold, Wien-München 1962, (Eng. transl. by Wilfried Wang, with Rosamund Diamond and Robert Godsill, in Adolf Loos, Yehuda Safran, Wilfried Wang, Mildred Budny, Architecture, in The Architecture of Adolf Loos: An Arts Council Exhibition, Arts Council of Great Britain, London 1985, pp. 104–105). 26 Adolf Loos, Intérieurs, 1898, in Ins Leere gesprochen Trotzdem, Herold, Wien-München 1962 (Engl. trans. Interior design: Prelude, 1989, in Adolf Loos, Adolf Opel ed., Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays, Riverside, California Ariadne Press, 1998, pp.51–55). 27 Bernard Rudowsky, Architecture without Architects. A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture, Doubleday and Company, Garden City, New York 1964. 28 Enzo Mari, autoprogettazione?, Corraini, Milano 1974. 29 Giulio Carlo Argan, in Enzo Mari, ibid. p.34. 30 “At one extreme we have a kind of teaching that relies on the novice’s very gradual exposure to the craft in question, on his ability to imitate by practice, on his response to sanctions, penalties, and reinforcing smiles and frowns. […] The most important feature of this kind of learning is that the rules are not made explicit, but are, as it were, revealed through the correction of mistakes. The second kind of teaching tries, in some degree, to make the rules explicit.” in Cristopher Alexander, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1964, p.35. 31 Douglas Hofstadter, Variations on a Theme as the Crux of Creativity, 1982, now in Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern, Penguin, New York, 1985, pp. 232–259.
Right and overleaf: Photographs of the Sempering exhibtion at Milan Triennale 2017
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Edgar Wood and the abnormal Andrew Crompton
Never make the mistake of confusing Edgar Wood the Edwardian architect with Ed Wood the Hollywood film-maker. Edgar designed picturesque buildings in the North of England whereas Ed was responsible for some of the worst films ever made. Edgar, 1860-1935, was a Victorian mill owner’s son who told his father he wanted to be a painter. They compromised on architecture, but as soon as he could he discarded the black suit and top hat of other professionals in favour of tweed and knickerbockers. It would have been easy to be jealous of the flamboyant and imaginative young architect; on site one day he was blinded in one eye by a gob of mortar possibly flicked from a trowel. After he got his inheritance he left practice and moved to the Riviera to paint. In contrast, Ed, 1924-78, was the son of a Postal Service worker and had a troubled childhood. His life was testament to the power of positive thinking, a talent he developed in the US Army Marine Corps wearing women’s underwear under his uniform. His artistic roots were in pulp fiction and comics and his persistence as a director in face of humiliation was a sort of auto-de-fé, a way of expressing his faith in himself. Today Edgar is more or less forgotten while Ed, ironically, is very famous indeed having been played by Johnny Depp in the 1995 film Ed Wood. What can Ed tell us about Edgar, or Edgar tell us about Ed? There is the odd fact that both of them had their major works paid for by American religious foundations. Incredibly, Ed’s most notorious production, Plan 9 from Outer Space, was financed by the Southern Baptist Convention of Beverly Hills, even if he found it necessary to mislead them slightly as to its content. Edgar Wood’s most celebrated work was the First Church of Christian Science in Daisy Bank Road, Manchester, 1908. It is one of the most amazing buildings in Britain. Apart from this coincidence it would be easy to think that Ed and Edgar have nothing else in common, but that might be another mistake. The pathological illuminates the normal and putting them together can help solve the mystery of Edgar Wood: Why is he not more famous? He is not completely unknown, John Betjeman mentioned him in First and Last Loves, and his work appeared in Muthesius’s 1904 book, Das englische Haus. There are, however, difficulties in fitting him into a single scheme of history since he belongs to several. He had Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Expressionist phases,
Right: The First Church
and sometimes they overlapped. He is unusual in that the front of his buildings are not always in the same style as their back. There is more to this than having a public and a private side, at The First Church the front is romantic picturesque and the back is Soanian, an oddly appropriate arrangement for an organisation that denied the reality of matter. Pevsner described it as “halfway between Gaudi and Germany about 1920”; rather than halfway it might have been more accurate to say both at the same time. Elsewhere Pevsner, perhaps having thought the matter over, called it weird. The church served Victoria Park, which at the time was a gated community with tollbooths that charged sixpence to pass through. It stood in grounds of its own and like Garnier’s Paris Opera House had a side porch wide enough for a carriage to pass through. This allowed the patron, Lady Victoria Murray, to alight under cover before stepping into the midst of the congregation. This porch, together with the back of the building, is composed of interlocking volumes in brick and ashlar stone. It is quite unlike the entrance facing the street which is a deeply recessed brick arch set in a rendered prismatic gable next to a round tower. The front looks like Snow White’s wedding palace. One would like to call it Disneyesque, except that it can only have been from buildings like this that Disney derived his folk appeal rather than the other way round. You enter under an organ loft whose screen is an Arabic pattern of small openings in gold, green and white. The interior seems Scandinavian. There is a huge wooden roof fit for the hall of the mountain king. It is an equilateral triangle in section with trusses illuminated by dormer windows like sunlight through a forest. The aisles have low white plaster arches with a green marble veneer dado. With all this going on you might not notice that the floor slopes; furniture on castors can move towards the stage as if under supernatural influence. The space is heated with hot air fed from ducts lined with green tiles with bronze grilles. The combination of being one of the very last buildings arranged for horse traffic and one of the very first with ducted warm air dates it exactly. Its other aspects might baffle a future historian. Edgar Wood was not an historicist. He was always hunting some new idea and travelled as far as Egypt and the Maghreb looking for inspiration. He designed vernacular revival houses which, in a witty touch, he drew as if they were themselves decrepit. Yet he was rational to the extent that, alongside Mackintosh, Pevsner chose him as one of his pioneers of the Modern Movement. He used concrete floors, air ducts and cavity wall construction, as well as flat roofs with plans that
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exploited the freedom in layout they offered. To the end of his life he kept an architectural scrapbook which came to include Le Corbusier houses, but to see him as a larval modernist is an incomplete picture. As he prospered he began to dress like an artist with a large black cloak lined with red silk and a flat broad brimmed hat. It is almost as if he became an artist who used buildings as his medium. Many of them contain scenes into which you can enter imaginatively. You would not be surprised if at The First Church, a wizard came to answer the door. This theatricality is also found in an Art Nouveau clock tower he designed at Lindley, near Huddersfield. It has an elongated form like a Tiffany vase, diagonal buttresses, a pagoda roof, and a high balcony. It is difficult to look at it without thinking of Rapunzel. Philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem pointed out that the distinction between the normal and pathological does not occur in physics and mechanics but only arises with living things. For example, mermaids are monstrous things made of incompatible living parts, in this case a fish and person, in particular a lady person attractive to sailors. Works of art that are abnormal and attractive
Opposite and above: Durnford
in this way are also possible, for instance Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in which cubism begins halfway across its canvas. It was for a long time thought shocking, and thus perhaps in some way alive. On the other hand a machine such as the half-timbered Morris Minor ‘Woody’, an anachronistic combination of car and carriage, is simply kitsch. Can a building be monstrous? In general buildings do not pretend to be alive unless they are grotesque or surreal, and junctions of different styles are common enough even if they are rare in a single work of architecture. Normally they would be seen as picturesque, in other words making a good subject for a drawing. Edgar Wood, however, goes further than this in that he composed scenes that suggest a story. His buildings are not simply good to look at but good to think with. In 1910 he used a collage of styles at Durnford School in Middleton. In its centre there were Tudor-looking windows with leaded glass flanked by grand stone bays with crenellated tops. They only needed a little ivy to look like a Hollywood representation of an English stately home. On either side, and also round the back, it looked like a factory with small paned timber windows in a brick wall. At the ends were Soanian telescopic towers, an early expression 71
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of Art Deco and the essence of municipality. The girl’s and boy’s entrances were at opposite ends of the playground. The boy’s was a symmetrical dished recess, the girl’s was a vaulted porch reached by a descending stair with a tree, almost like a light opera set. We have, working outwards from the middle, a story of nobility, working folk, government and love. It made very sinister ruins when it was demolished in 2002, appearing not just as one wrecked building, but several, like part of a devastated city. As it came down brick and concrete ventilation ducts were exposed that used wind blowing thought the towers to pull air from the building. An intruder who got into the tower would have been able, with a little nerve, to scuttle along these tunnels and peer through a grille into the Headmaster’s study. As secret passages they were far more plausible than the metal ducts along which Bond escapes his cell in Doctor No. Edgar Wood’s architectural vocabulary was based on cottages, Tudor mansions, Cotton Mills, Art Nouveau, Fairy Tale Churches,
Above, left to right: Garden in Porto Maurizio, clock tower at Lindley Opposite, clockwise from top left: Royd House, villa in Porto Maurizio, details from the villa in Porto Maurizio
Romantic vaulted gates, Moorish gilded screens and butterfly plans. He was an end of the century figure who collaged these themes in the same way that Barrie mixed other children’s stories in Peter Pan. There is little to compare with him until the designer Theodore “come and seduce me” Komisarjevsky installed Moorish, Venetian and Baronial Hall themed interiors in Art Deco cinemas, most famously at the Granada, Tooting, in 1930. In 1916 Edgar Wood built himself a house in south Manchester. It had a flat roof and it amused him, on arrival at the local station, to ask the cabbie to take him to “the ugliest house in Hale”. A gateway in a high brick wall to the street opens into an imposing circular courtyard. The house stands symmetrical with curved external walls and a tiled panel of Islamic influence. The interior was freely planned, silk Mandarin gowns were used as wall hangings and the kitchen was in turquoise and gold leaf. Sadly these details are now lost, but a door and ceiling painted by Wood himself in a fractal Moorish style can still be seen in the circular hall. It was not his home for long. There is a snapshot of him dancing on ice which has been mutilated with small scissors to cut off his companion. Who they were and what this meant is long forgotten,
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all we know is that after the war he left England for good, alone except for his money. Eventually he settled in Porto Maurizio where he built himself a villa with three floors whose main rooms, as in a dolls house, all face the same way. The view is over a terraced garden then beyond there is the Mediterranean. The ground floor has a concrete frame which extends free of the building and winds through the garden like a skeleton, Richard Meier could hardly have done it better. At the end of a reflecting pool this structure frames a rococo bench where you can sit and admire the house. It looks like a 1960s television set ready for a singer to step through. Photographs from this period show him in a linen suit and Panama hat. He favourite medium was pastels on English sandpaper but the house itself also served as his canvas and he decorated it inside and out with patterns based on chevrons. When he died in 1935 it passed to his housekeeper who kept it intact with its books and furniture until about 1975. Only a few patches of his painting survived the subsequent clearance although pieces of his furniture are still said to appear for sale in the town.
Opposite: Edgar Wood in the garden at Porto Maurizio Above: Dalnyreed
His architectural influence has been negligible, but we should not for that reason overlook him. The word ‘influence’ like the word ‘influenza’ has an occult sense: to act on something at a distance. Perhaps we should look for his legacy elsewhere. Picasso appropriated things from Cezanne, but Picasso now influences how we see Cezanne. In this vein it might be better to ask: What came after Edgar that enables us to see his work in a different way? Ed Wood was conventional insofar as he reused the language of film for his own artistic and commercial ends as well as to be able to live in a milieu where his sexual eccentricities were unremarkable. The same could be said of Theodore Komisarjevsky. They both dealt in clichés, their mode of failure was to be camp. It was Edgar who was truly creative and original. He was the outsider who had rejected his destiny as a company director and crossed boundaries cutting from one scene to another. It was Edgar who was pathological and Ed who was normal, for Hollywood at any rate. Edgar’s buildings are best seen as narrative collages conceived scenically and thematically. They are places to be seen in movement, arrive in a carriage, step into the street, stand on a balcony, to pose and be photographed. He was a film-maker avant la lettre. When Ed is placed next to Edgar we can see that not only was Ed a very bad filmmaker but that Edgar was a very good one.
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Force-field Michael Badu
One could almost say that designing traditional religious buildings is not really a conventional architectural process. Instead of working up a brief with an individual or committee who may use or invest in the building, you are handed one by the representatives of persons/ committees who have long since died. The defining characteristics of Catholic Churches and Sunni mosques (I spent the first half my life attending the former, and the second half the latter) were ‘given’ centuries ago and are largely immovable. When you walk into a catholic church, there must be an entrance hall or narthex, where holy water can be accessed before the nave with its rows of wooden benches. In the nave there must be a central aisle and side aisles to facilitate time-honoured ritual flows of people during ordinary masses and feast days, the principal feast day identifiable in terms of change in ritual, being the 3 hour long Good Friday service when the stations of the cross and the adoration of the crucifix are enacted. For this you also need the usually wooden carvings marking out the stations of the cross (the key events from Christ’s passion) on the walls of the side aisles. Then there are the candle-lit chapels where within or nearby you will also find statues of the saints to whom the most fervent prayers are offered; desperate pleas for sick or dying loved ones, conversations between lonely old ladies and those already in another world. Then there is the confessional, these strange, fascinating apparitions in lightweight dark-stained marquetry, hugging the sides of a dark solemn masonry atmosphere. As a Muslim, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that a man can come between myself and God; but as a boy, I found the transition from the cold stone expanse of the nave, to the secret cupboard of the confessional quite magical. At home, like any young kid, I was always making smaller ‘spaces’ for myself; a bunkbed for a spaceship, cupboards were hiding places or portals to other worlds (such as with dungeons and dragons, C.S. Lewis or Lewis Carroll). The question of magical spaces finally leads to the altar and spaces adjunct to it, the vestry, the tabernacle and even the space in-behind with the requisite giant crucifix suspended overhead. I don’t know what other serving boys thought, but to me entering into that space was like penetrating a force-field, or even going through the looking glass to another world. The whole church was transformed, and not only in my imagination.
Photograph of new mosque at Galway by Michael Badu
Suddenly you were a step higher, and looking at all the faces of the congregation rather than their backs. You had the feeling that you were at the heart of things, in the engine room and that if you dropped the holy water and wine (as I was always terrified of doing) the church building would collapse (although maybe I was affected by all the action/adventure films I’d seen from the Voyage of Sinbad to Conan the Destroyer, where rituals going wrong always led to buildings collapsing!). The black and white of the serving-boy uniform, the cheap steel serving utensils, the intricate purple and green vestments of the kindly priest, the heavy stone table altar, the smell of cheap wine, incense and, in older churches—the aroma of stone saturated with ritual; these are the things along with others I’ve mentioned that stick in the mind. What I never remember particularly well, is whether the walls are brick or stone, whether the floor is wood or marble, whether containment is surface— fixed or chased in any given church; in my mind all churches are reduced to the pews, the three aisles, the stations of the cross and the altar with the crucifix overhead. Even spatial characteristics other than these melt away. This is why I say designing traditional religious buildings is not a properly architectural process. One has the feeling that there are larger things at stake, not so much things of the Spirit (which you can take or leave depending on your point of view), but the rituals and the intimate irreducible human relationships, the feelings and sentiments they inspire across time and space. Mosques are large and essentially simple spaces, the rituals associated with them differing from those of traditional Christianity by being very simple and practiced very often; as opposed to being complex and practiced periodically. Where you have the little stone dish of holy water in the narthex of the church, in the mosque you have the washroom, sometimes vast; then the shoe rack just outside the prayer hall (the choreography between these spaces is often a very serious design challenge as wet feet have to be dried and socks put back on without socked feet touching the washroom floor—cue the mosque staple of cheap plastic slippers). The most important feature of the prayer hall is undoubtedly its orientation, which must precisely face Mecca, and often leads to strange discordances between the outward face of the mosque and its interior given how often mosques are refurbishments of existing buildings, perhaps this could be seen as a metaphor for how uncomfortably this most strident form of religious life fits into contemporary Britain, but where Muslims manage to acquire large sites and have the space to 77
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be themselves the discord become more not less comfortable, or disappears altogether. The next most important feature, I would say, is the carpet (well it’s nearly always carpet in Northern Europe), as so much time is spent sitting, kneeling and praying on the floor. We architects like our carpets either non-existent, or ascetic in feel and tone, whereas in a mosque they must be high-piled and bouncy. Other than these considerations one mosque can vary very greatly to another. For example, compare the famous forest of stone-trees (which apes the original layout of the prophets mosque in medina, literally a grove of trees as well as taking the notion of inhabited landscape very literally) in southern Spain, to the tremendous vaulted spaces of Istanbul, inspired by Byzantium and so admired by Le Corbuiser. Personally I don’t like too much space and light in my religious buildings, mosques included. Something of a predilection for the filtered, slightly gloomy atmosphere of the church nave has stayed with me I think. When I attend the mosque, I seek columns, corners, filtered light sources from above with no views out, or just a single view of the sky. I need to enter a different realm when I approach the institution of Islamic worship, to feel cut off from the world. Traditional construction methods offered this as a matter of course, as the aforementioned, and the Suleymaniye and Cordoba mosques attest. With contemporary default construction solutions however, the thick threshold between inside and out that was a natural consequence of having to build spaces of serious scale, has today to be manufactured ‘artificially’. At a mosque I worked on in Ireland, I designed a stone portico for this purpose by wrapping 40mm Kilkenny stone about steel columns encased in concrete block. In a competition entry for a new 8,000-worshipper mosque for Pristina in Kosovo, I designed thick walls and oversized corbelled arches in concrete block; an attempt to mitigate against the weightlessness that modern buildings seem to exhibit by default. Perhaps the most variable aspect of a mosque building from place to place and culture to culture is the provision for women. In Islam, 78
men are required to attend the mosque daily to offer prayers, whereas for women this is optional. In some communities this ‘flexibility’ is manifested in the mosque as a lack of proper provision (this was very noticeable in Sinan’s Istanbul masterpiece for example). Quite often, women are banished to the basement, or to inelegant ante-rooms that may have originally been designed for a different purpose. Contrary to popular opinion, men and women have been known to occupy the same space in a mosque, but nowadays this is often viewed by both sexes as a less than ideal solution. By far the best solution, in my view, and of the women I know personally, is the ‘Mahfil’, a women’s prayer gallery overlooking the men’s prayer hall. This type of spatial arrangement means that both women and men can share in a unified religious experience, while still maintaining the obligatory desperation of the sexes within the prayer hall. I had to persuade the mosque committee to include a Mahfil in the mosque that I designed for Malmo Sweden, while the enlightened client in Kosovo—perhaps because there was female representation on their committee?—made it a requirement of the Pristina mosque competition. At Pristina, the women’s prayer gallery is deigned to be like a forest of columns, and the men’s prayer hall as a vast vaulted space. There are points where the two types impinge on one another to create a shared experience, resulting in an exaggerated sense of architectural drama. My mosque design for Pristina also contains an internal circulation which doubles an internal street, skirting around the rear of the prayer hall, allowing you to use the mosque complex and its gardens as a shortcut from one side of the city to the other. In Islamic thought, wild animals are considered akin to angels in that their natural instincts never betray them. Things are less straightforward for human beings. As Hannah Arendt observed when, Man left Eden, He had to make a ‘new world’, the Human Home, through ‘work’, Religious buildings are a pointed reminder that such work, cannot meaningfully occur in a vacuum.
Photographs and plan of the new mosque at Galway by Michael Badu
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Visualisations of the Pristina mosque competition entry by Michael Badu with plans to the left and elevations far left.
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Poems Geraldine Clarkson
hopeless on hope street
Muzzy McIntyre brushed her bangs and went pellmell down the staircase. The banisters pulled her palms back with their waxy residue and the ball at the bottom looked grey-black with grease. This place has gone downhill, she thought, descending. But she went out onto the front step and the mahogany door was flaming —it was that time of day—and the brass lion knocker, brilliant, was shooting out gold spears. All around, the red brick of the houses was deepening. For the sake of these twelve minutes or so, perhaps, one could tolerate the blanched mornings and the puny electric nights; the dust; and critters; the drunken singing of the wind in the passage; the pious crooning of the neighbours. The waiting. Her other self, the slow Muzzy, ambled out to take the air. She looked up and down the street, laid the flat of her hand to her forehead, against the slanting light. Another fine day tomorrow, she drawled, headlocking a memory.
Hope lopes along like a bandit. Mrs Molesworth looks sceptical. Wants the streets cleaned up. What a pass when every low-looking male can stuff municipal waste bins with white stuff to believe in. Outside the barber’s, Hope combs a moustache and finishes with a gloss of wax, taking care to equalise left and right. Mrs Milkwater expostulates that low-looking girls can air their toilette in public as if at a show. She gathers up Hope’s implements and secretes them in her handbag like hotel courtesies. Mannequins stand in protest outside the town hall, 17 abreast, reaching as far as Bell Street. Their gaze favours the right side where shop windows are spritzily lit and sparsely furnished. The man watering the Council flower baskets is dazzled, transported to the Russian ballet, light on his feet as he leaps past, illegally snagging begonia from solicitors’ window boxes. Hope stifles a cough, lifts a muffler. Mrs Merryweather desteams her glasses and considers the ways in which peace will come, by water and by blood. False sunlight falls hard. Hope struts on high heels. The street is busier now. Flesh in flux. The evening is a belter. Lights stuck on red. People singing hymns at the zebra. Some men are cursing their lives while women wonder about crossing. Some set off together; sometimes they drift back, swaying.
These poems appear in No. 25 (Shearsman Books, forthcoming, June 2018)
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Issue one of the JoCA brings together a series of essays and visual essays that consider the theme of Portrait, or more precisely, the role...
Published on May 1, 2020
Issue one of the JoCA brings together a series of essays and visual essays that consider the theme of Portrait, or more precisely, the role...