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New Radical Pragmatism

Ev’rybody’s talking about
Bagism, Shagism, Dragism, Madism, Ragism, Tagism
This-ism, that-ism, is-m, is-m, is-m.

Art: Classicism, Romanticism, Expressionism, Impressionism, Primitivism, Futurism, Cubism, Purism, Abstractionism, Minimalism

Literature: Classicism, Romanticism, Expressionism, Futurism, Post-Modern, Deconstructivism

Architecture: Classicism, Romanticism, Historicism, Eclecticism, Expressionism, Constuctivism, Futurisim, Functionalism, Rationalism, Modernism, Brutalism, Metabolism, High-Tech, Post-Modernism, Deconstructivism, Minimalism, Parametricism.

I left out Art Nouveau, Art Deco and Googie not because they’re not isms but because they’re surface styles. We never liked them anyway and that’s sort of the point of this post – we think less of them because they’re not isms. Post-Modernism’s greatest invention was to be a parasitic ism. I included Functionalism and Brutalism because they have certain distinctive visual characteristics as a consequence of being physical objects, even though they weren’t designed to have those visual characteristics.

High-Tech’s pretty much the only exception. I suppose one could say “High-Techism” but it’d mean something different and minus the gravitas a bona-fide Art-ism brings. All the same, High-Tech does snatch at historical cred by claiming it is the heir to Paxton’s Crystal Palance, Chareau’s Maison de Verre and the more aspirational of the Case Study Houses.

class

(Patrik Schumacher makes a similar point over in The Autopoiesis of Architecture, but of course assumes – must assume – that architecture continues to have the gravitas attributed to Art in the first half of the 20th century even though it’s doubtful even Art has it anymore. Despite claiming that Architecture is a Great Social Function System separate from the Art Function System, Schumacher’s artistic notion of big-B beauty as “formal resolution” is one aspect of Beaux Arts thinking he finds convenient to maintain. I’ll have more to say on this in a coming post.)

Meanwhile, the names keep coming! Another recent one is New Radical Pragmatism. The reality may or may not exist but the name certainly does, looking for an reality to attach itself to. Lacking anything concrete, ArchDaily seems to think this isn’t an entirely random illustration. Such is the nature of dissemination of architectural ideas these days.

rad prag

The article, getting back to it, is a fair survey of x-isms where x is any adjective you care to name. For me tbough, it falls flat at the end with its lazy rhetorical question as conclusion. This is a device all too common in internet journalism.

The New Radical Pragmatist is meticulous in the appropriation of systems and factual data, so as to allow for outcomes to architectural problems. They embrace all forms of technological codification, planning and design-based policies, stratagem, regulations and economic constraints as the justification for design. They project manage and tick boxes. They play into the hand of the client by using buzzwords such as “Green Star”. A radically pragmatic architect will refrain from discussing the visual impact without fact; for example, the facade is “structurally efficient in its radical form as it only uses four different panel types made from recycled material”. Theory, conceptualisation and preconceived notions or retroactive research is not necessary to the radical pragmatist. What is important is the validation of fact. But this fact is commonly deriving from outside the discipline: from planning, from sustainability councils and from regulatory governing bodies. Which begs the question: are architects giving away too much in this new form of validation?

I confess I like this idea of New Radical Pragmatism, although it’s neither new nor radical. It’s what I thought I was doing anyway but in answer to that last question I’d say “No, nothing is given away.” With the new breed of PM/client/contractor, it’s just a fact that design decisions need to be justifiable.

The mistake the author makes is to assume that every design decision MUST BE EXPLICITLY VALIDATED IN AESTHETIC TERMS. I disagree for if  something gets approved and paid for because it meets certain criteria for certain people and (hopefully) appreciated because it meets certain other criteria for other criteria, then I don’t see what the problem is. Here’s an example.

In order to increase the sale price of a piece of land, I was once asked to maximise the apartment development potential on the historically sensitive site of Fort Pitt. As a job, it sounds like trouble, eh? Here’s an engraving of Fort Pitt back in the day, upper left. It protected not only the motherland but Chatham’s 18th century ship-building industry that prospered because there were lots of nice seaworthy oak trees nearby.

Copy of Fort Pitt copy

Fort Pitt was one of a series of coastal forts built when Napoleon was thought to be about to attack England. Fort Pitt is also the location of the fictional duel between Mr. Tracy Tupman and Dr. Slammer in Charles Dickens’ novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. (Citation needed.) Fort Pitt is usually claimed by nearby Rochester because of the Dickens connection but overlooks the more historic but less quaint town of Chatham more.

Here’s Fort Pitt nowish.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As you’d expect of a fort anticipating warships, it has a very grand view of the River Medway as it winds around.

City Way

That’s our site in that green triangle in the middle of the lower-right quadrant. For an architect, it’s a total nightmare. It can be seen from everywhere. Everyone and their councillor was going to have an opinion on what goes there.  aerial MAIN

In a way it worked to my advantage for a while as nobody had great expectations that anything could be achieved on such a highly visible and historic site. My job was also made a bit easier by some very unlovely educational buildings nearby. I could not build higher for reasons of added visual impact and I could not build outside the footprint for fear of disturbing the possibly important historical artefacts possibly waiting to discovered.

what happened

There’s more. On the train from London to Rochester and Chatham, the site is seen behind both Rochester Cathedral and Rochester Castle. That’s Rochester Cathedral on the left, Rochester Castle on the right. High visual impact was not what I thought was needed. In the middle at the back is my little building.

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It’s basically the former Unisys building near Wembley Stadium.

SONY DSC

Just after Wembley Junction, the train from Watford passes by these buildings at a distance and, as it does, the buildings appear to rotate slowly around their vertical axes. I’m not sure how to explain this but I think it’s because, as the train passes, the angular distances between the viewer and the ends of the buildings changes faster than the angular distance between the viewer and the axes. It’s a lovely effect – a genuine architectural event – and if ever you’re on the train to Watford look out for it on the right. Recreating that effect was what I had in mind and it stayed there. I kept it secret.

Instead, I generated a building within the allowable footprint and with a similar geometry. The curved buildings fitted the allowable building footprint better and the longer buildings meant I could achieve more apartments.

3420_003 RevC

I paid attention to public and communal open space requirements as well as parking ratios. I calculated numbers of apartments for various market and social housing parameters, with options for both five-storey and seven-storey buildings.

HOUSING CITY WAY

I did a quick plan to make sure I could get all the apartments in. I considered fire escape and disabled access & parking.

1 FLOOR

I stacked apartments of similar types for maximum efficiency of construction and servicing. HOUSING 1I had arguments and reasons for everything the stakeholders were concerned about. Nobody objected to how it looked, so I didn’t feel compelled to justify why the building really was the way it was. I thought it’d just be asking for trouble by announcing I wanted to make the project into something special and enhance the environment, etc. etc.

I almost pulled it off.

Since no-one was objecting, English Heritage suddenly decided to list the site as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, effectively killing all hope of development. Here’s what it looks like now. (It seems like the grammar school still managed to parcel off some of the site for new development.)

fort pitt

So there you have it. There’s no need for what you as an architect might really want and think ought to exist, to be made explicit as long as it can be justified to the satisfaction of all stakeholders. If everyone’s happy according to their own criteria, then why can’t the architect can’t be happy according to theirs? The drawback is that (and this will sound familiar) whatever your secret stealth design idea is

  1. it can’t use additional resources or cost anything extra (for if it get value-engineered out by some stakeholder)
  2. it can’t negatively affect the performance of the building in any way (for if it get value-engineered out by some consultant), and
  3. once it exists, it’d be nice if it was actually appreciated for what it is by the people who are going to have to live with it

* * * 

The reason why author of the article that prompted this post, asked that silly rhetorical question is because she can’t imagine a world in which a design idea exists without the communications that market it. For her, a design idea which can’t have a promotional song and dance and that doesn’t play a part in some grand brand promotional strategy isn’t a design idea worth having. Such an attitude only serves to reinforce the perception that good design is expensive and unjustifiable on any grounds other than aesthetic. For me, I like it when stakeholders approve design ideas without actually realizing they’re looking at one.

It’s like what Christo (of Christo and Jean-Claude) says of their artworks. I paraphrase, “the finished product is nice but the real art is in overcoming the infinite obstacles to achieve it.” I get that.

* * * 

Postscript: I left out part of the story because it would have been a diversion too long and too far. After my proposal had been granted planning permission in principle, the client invited two other architects to come up with alternative (less expensive) proposals which the project manager asked for my thoughts on. Here’s that letter. I include it just as an illustration of what architects have to do. You know how the story ended. This bit was just missing from the middle.

6 thoughts on “New Radical Pragmatism

  1. cam_l

    Funnily enough, as a fellow new radical pragmatist (whatever the fuck that is), and working for an old-school aesthete, i often find myself doing the complete opposite.. couching my pragmatic, purely functional, and stakeholder-centric approach to architecture in purely aesthetic terms.

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      That all sounds very pragmatic of you. I hope you’re at the front-end because knowing when to speak up is just as useful as knowing when to keep quiet. You promoted the aesthetic qualities of your design to a person who (whilst presumably recognising its pragmatic qualities) could not be seen to be explicitly encouraging them to the detriment of everything else. I had many situations just like that but, in the one I described, I extolled the pragmatic qualities because my audience did not want to be seen explicitly encouraging the aesthetic qualities and be seen as wasteful or irrational or egocentric or any of those qualities that are summed up by the phrase “not in the client’s best interests.” As you say, it was exactly the opposite. Good luck with it.

      Reply
  2. Koff

    “Pragmatism” is a nice word; it’s gratifying to think that there may become a “Pragmatic” movement in response to the intellectual climate to-date.

    Not sure about the “Radical” part, though. Is it radical just by contrast to the current “zeitgeist” we live with? Of indulgent, theoretically vacuous Parametricism and the Post-Modern emphasis on relativity and non/anti-absolutism?

    “Radical” makes me imagine some sarcastic dialogue, like: “Pragmatism and practicality…designing buildings that respond directly and competently to the actual needs of people — *there’s* a radical idea!”

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Too right, Koff. That’s pretty much how I see it also. I don’t see why Pragmatism should be either new or radical. I agree that, by contrast to the zeitgeist (as far as what’s hot and what’s not), it might be both new and radical, but defining something in terms of what went before it guarantees it a short life for, in time, Pragmatism as a movement will become discredited and passé Like Post-Modernism. With each new edition of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture, Jencks had to keep redefining it and saying “Yes, this is exactly what I’ve been talking about.” And still is, I believe.

      It pleases me to think that, as a word, pragmatism denotes not a movement but a genuine and life-affirming quality that will hopefully always be with us.

      Reply
      1. Koff

        Cheers, Graham. It will also be interesting to see how/whether architectural education evolves in tandem.

        There may be a caveat, however. It is all very well having the chronic lack of pragmatism in architecture remedied but there may be a problem if there remains a lack of sensibility.

        The planned “pedways” of postwar London that came with the reworked, higher-volume carriageways were a “pragmatic” means to an end in theory yet apparently did not take into account human behaviour and *base* desires. (Discussed more fully here: http://vimeo.com/80787092)

        Don’t forget that the etymology of the word “aesthetic[s]” comes from the Greek pertaining to “feeling” — so really not superficial but visceral. The whole reason why the general population lambasts postwar planning/development and considers it a failure is b/c often it has seemingly failed to tap into this. (NB that is not to say that, therefore, Poundbury is the answer!)

        So, basically, pragmatic approaches need to be married with additional insights in order for places to truly “work” (sorry for stating the obvious).

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