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Indexed Memory

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In the mid-1920s, architects in America, Europe and the Soviet Union sought and gained new knowledge via specialist journals. Allowing time for the collection of information, editing, printing and distribution, it was at least three months before anyone would know about any new ideas or buildings. It wasn’t such a bad system as these journals were precious things passed around and their knowledge and ideas shared. Once people had digested their contents and pondered the implications they would come together to talk about ideas and further process them. For a very short time in the 1920s, reading, writing, discussion and criticism were an integral part of architectural production. These journals were the internet of their time. Le Corbusier and Ozenfant’s L’Esprit Nouveau and maybe De Stijl’s De Stijl are the only ones we hear about but they were just two of many.

As far as the spreading ideas and information went, the system of journals was an improvement on only a decade earlier when Frank Lloyd Wright had to haul his Wasmuth Portfolio around Europe to interested parties that had heard about it and expressed interest in seeing it.

For the remainder of last century, national architectural magazines with global readerships brought new thinking and developments to architectural practices around the world. The time lag between a newsworthy event and its publication shortened to about a month but the relationship with readers shifted. It was no longer about the sharing of news and information between interested parties, but about providing content that increased the number of subscribers to make the magazine a more attractive vehicle to advertisers. Hung onto predictable advertising for partitioning systems, Italian kitchens and bathroom furniture, content became routine medleys of the newest major building by some prominent architect, a house or two from Japan, some earnest and sensitive building conversion somewhere, and some unexpected building from Africa or South America. Occasional long articles sustained the illusion of informing. University libraries had copies bound by the year and practices would file theirs in impressive rows. Well before the advent of the internet, we already had a system where there was a wealth of information but no sensible way to index and access it in the expectation of it being any use. 

The internet supercharged this business model and, as we know, made viewer numbers (now known as clicks) the metric of value. Despite occasional attempts at long articles and discussions and what counts as theory, architecture media websites are not good at words and ideas. Instead, the illusion of being an educational/useful resource is created by cross-indexing images by name of architect, architect nationality, country of building, city of building, type of building, typology of building, year of completion and so on. We can always find a combination of keywords to allow us to find buildings having those keywords. But why would we ever want to do that?

Keywords are not a very useful way of finding things. Here are some search terms people used to access this blog yesterday.

Only Paris Opera House and yakhchal have a place in a conventional index of names, buildings and typologies. Moriyama house plan would lead to just that and for reasons best known to the person who searched it. The person who searched Architecture walls badly needs to refine their search but Soy per square meter, maslow’s hierarchy of needs architecture and best architecture working drawing plan of a restaurant with a water fountain and event center at the back are all requests for information on how to solve a particular problem. Architecture walls wasn’t specific enough and Best architecture working drawing plan of a restaurant with a water fountain and event center at the back was too specific. Information retrieval only works if the problem the information is intended to solve is formulated in the same way that information that might lead to a potential solution is indexed. If the formulation is too vague then too much information is returned. If it is too specific then information supplied will most likely be irrelevant. Despite all the clever keywords, we’re basically on our own.

IF – and that’s a big if – one absorbs architectural information with the intention of seeing how people have solved certain problems and in the hope that such an approach might be of use, then it might be better to forget all keywords, names, dates and countries and all attributes irrelevant to that problem from the outset and simply index buildings according to what problems they were intended to solve. [Creative misappropriation can and will happen anyway.] One can always trawl through typologies or categories in the expectation of finding buildings attempting to solve similar problems but this is neither learning nor creativity. It’s not even a good use of time.

Biographies of famous architects and monographs of large practices are interesting in themselves but from that are we supposed to learn how those architects or practices approached certain problems in the hope of perhaps doing it for ourselves? It doesn’t happen. It could be because the problems such people and practices solve are usually ones they set themselves. More to the point, it is because the only problem solved by the famous is how to leverage a client brief into a personal branding vehicle.

This has become the defining architectural “challenge” of our era and contemporary architects are judged accordingly. A fragile and easily corruptible construct at best, our history of architecture is rewritten to justify it. The only architects actively taught today are Frank Lloyd Wright who made this their business model and Le Corbusier who perfected it. Rem Koolhaas is admired for extending it, and his first generation of spawn for disseminating it. It’s little wonder the next generation has little appetite for history, ethics or the social responsibilities of architects. Students are made to believe these architects are great role models and, more damagingly, that greatness is a precondition for architecture. I’ve no problem with teaching history as certain architects’ solutions to problems they set themselves to further their business and/or publicity agenda. It’s a useful thing for undergraduates to be aware of but only if taught as the publicity and brand management it is.

If architectural media is not a good resource for learning then, lovely as architectural history is as a concept, how architectural history is taught is worse. The history of architecture doesn’t exist outside of how it is indexed at any given time. 

It’s a history of irrelevance to begin with: The conventionally taught history of architecture is a history of styles told first through ornamentation, and then through shape – or, if you prefer, form. Occasionally, the history of technological progress and new building types will intrude but very occasionally and then only if they impact upon the history of styles and form. The classic example is the skyscraper which we learn is what happens when high land prices coincide with the invention of steel frame structure, curtain walls and elevators. That usually takes care of the Chicago School and, since we’re in Chicago, can segue into Frank Lloyd Wright and his early buildings. Done with Wright, we hop over to Europe to be diverted by The Secessionists, Art Nouveau and The Futurists before finally moving on to Le Corbusier and The Bauhaus before decamping to the United States with Gropius and friends. This is just a history of stuff that happened but after The Corbusier comes online, it shifts to exceptional personalities and exceptional buildings famous for being famous and that validate our present situation. It’s a moveable feast yet we end up in the same place.

Histories aren’t good at non-linear information: Multiple strands of concurrent events and influences get compressed into a single narrative. Saying one event influences another makes for better continuity. Some years ago I taught a course on modern architecture and created a timeline of architects and buildings. [That’s part of it in the header image – here’s the full excel.] I wanted to see who was alive when and designing what and what information they might have had when doing so. The dates are for when a building would have been conceivably known about. For example, the Sydney Opera House was a contribution to architectural thinking in 1958 well before 1976 when it opened. It was an attempt to see the bigger picture but even if it’s easier to see new vertical connections, so what? It’s still the same old information about the same old architects and buildings.

History keeps getting smaller: Another problem with thinking of history as a line or lines connecting many points is that those lines become straighter over time as buildings drop out or are forgotten. Much of what was thought important fifty years ago is already forgotten [c.f World Architecture 1963 Part II, The History of Forgetting]. Despite the media tendency to over-elevate buildings to the status of “Modern Classic”, we simply have no way of knowing what our history of architecture will look like come 2067. It already seems like the entire output of Zaha Hadid will condense to some early paintings and maybe one building in Baku. In fifty years time we might remember Rem Koolhaas only for Villa Dall’Ava and a book about New York in much the same way as Le Corbusier is taught now as Villa Savoye (and maybe Towards a New Architecture). Poetic as this symmetry is, whatever buildings that will remain will be said to have passed The Test Of Time and we will still end up in the same place.

History gets corrupted to chart contemporary values: In much the same way as Victorian performances of Beethoven’s 9’th had orchestras doubled in size because that was the sound the audience preferred, architectural history is continuously edited and revised to validate the architects and architecture of a given time. If Wright’s NY Guggenheim is still remembered it’s not because it is a great building but because the Guggenheim is still an attractive client. Utzon’s Sydney Opera House is still remembered because that is what buildings that bring prestige to their locations and clients still look like. Sixty years on from both, art galleries and opera houses remain over-represented in a contemporary snapshot of our architecture and accordingly, architects of guggenheims and opera houses are over-taught. Much like our cities, our history of architecture is being purged of buildings with any kind of ethical, social or humanitarian driver. Brutalism, if it is taught at all, is with reference to Maisons Jaoul and not the idealism of 1960s British council housing. Again, we are led back to the same place.

Conventional approaches to the teaching of architectural history seem designed to not foster the skills needed to solve our own, newer and generally more critical problems. I used to think the answer was to not to try to chart everything at once but to identify different and valid histories of unique [i.e. Formalist] characteristic of architecture. This would mean less emphasis on buildings representing where these histories intersect – a good thing. It would be a first step towards realising our history of architectural form is only one history of many. Other histories are just as valid even if their importance does not depend upon the type or degree of their contribution to shape making.

COURSE OUTLINE (PROVISIONAL)

  1. The History of Natural vs. Artificial
    • Are there not more useful frames of reference?
    • What keeps this one alive?
  2. The History of Following the Money
    • Who are architecture’s clients and what do they want from it?
    • How has architecture (and architectural aesthetics) adapted so that it always follows the money?
  3. The History of New Building Types
    • [ref: The History of Following the Money]
  4. The History of Concrete
  5. The History of Prefabrication
    • Why does it never take root?
  6. The History of Marketing
    • Who’s famous at any given time, and for what?
  7. The History of Visions of the Future
    • Do we really need to have them?
  8. The History of the Spirit of the Times
    • What actually happened in the 1930s?
    • What actually happened in the 1970s?
  9. The History of Sustainability
    • A building science or an aesthetic of virtue?
  10. The History of Uniqueness
    • What function does it serve?
    • Whose interests does it promote?
  11. The Meta-History of Architectural Movements
  12. The History of Good Ideas that Never Went Anywhere
  13. The History of Bad Ideas That Did
  14. The History of Forces Affecting Architecture
    • Are they not always the same?

It’s a step closer towards a history of architecture that’s more about ideas and applications and less about buildings and personalities. It’s a step towards a more problem-focussed indexing of history, of making the resources of history more relevant to the present rather than resources to be pressed into service to validate it.

• • •

For some months now I’ve been aware of how poorly this blog is indexed. Posts are grouped into categories I try to keep tight. I recently added a chronological list with tiles that might help some people find particular posts. Post also have tags which are like keywords and are used by the search box but inputting [search term] :misfitsarchitecture into your preferred search engine will give the same results. The usefulness of any information bank depends upon it being indexed it properly in the first place and upon future users using the same logic to access it. This rarely happens. What is the use of information if it is unavailable for use? Clearly, there’s no time to process everything in real time. We return to the same questions:

  • There’s no point either generating or collecting information of any type if there’s no way of indexing it so it can be later retrieved in the hope of solving some problem?
  • Shouldn’t EVERYTHING be indexed in terms of the problems it solves? 
  • What’s the point of even looking at something if it’s not to analyse and store it as a potential solution to some problem yet unencountered? 

[NB: None of these questions are valid for architectural information that exists only as a form of consumer entertainment.]

I have a 1980s distrust of the word “language” when used in proximity to the word architecture. Whether the dialect be Classicism, Neo-Classicism, Modernism, Post-Modernism or Post-Modern Classicism, it always implies a constricted vocabulary and syntactical [ugh!] rules in order to express something. [I use those last two words loosely.] Having said that, I think learning from, as opposed to parroting, any history of architecture is a bit like learning a language. Everyone knows a dictionary contains all the words they’re likely to need and, though finding the word one wants isn’t all that difficult, expressing oneself in a language doesn’t work that way. A person has to remember what resources are available and then creatively assemble them into a sentence dealing with some immediate concern. [We don’t spout jazz poetry.] I think this is how we should approach not just architectural history but any type of architectural information we encounter. I’d like to say that, in this sense, ArchDaily is as valid a resource as the totality of architectural history but can’t quite bring myself to. I think it’s something to do with the narrow range of problems solved.

We can’t expect anything to get better. Clearly, we’re not living in a Renaissance. We have nothing but uselessly indexed biographies, monographs, websites and history books. Our only choice is to use our brains to index them ourselves by always asking what problem a building might have been trying to solve. Our brains make these connections anyway for everything we encounter and the bits we use the most are the ones that get better at what they do.

I suspect that following links rather than making them in our brains will turn out to be the mechanism by which the internet kills creativity. It’s already too late for students who show me some image (on a phone) and ask “What if I make it like this?” 

History has been plundered for stylistic devices for centuries and with little regard for what those stylistic devices originally did apart from making buildings look important or old. Plundering the internet for stylistic devices that give the illusion of creativity wouldn’t be that different if creativity were still linked to the solving of problems. The trouble is it’s not.

I think this is what I was getting at two weeks back when I admitted the proposal in The Uncompleted Apartments wouldn’t have been possible without knowing of

These were not “references”.

I hadn’t given that much thought thought to construction and materials but what I had in mind was something like a soft and gentle brutalism. The following are not “references” either.

If you remember, I was unhappy with the apartment windows at the lowest levels of the triple-height elevator lobbies.

I imagined residents wouldn’t want anyone being able to walk right up to their windows and peer inside. I wasn’t the first person to have had that problem.

My solution was to make a opening in the slab in front of those windows and to place a railing around it. This kept passers by at a distance from the windows and also allowed more light into the levels below – as Londoners had known for centuries. In my proposal, I therefore replaced the circular holes/skylights that pushed people away from the centre, by openings that bring light and yet more air closer to the windows where they will be better appreciated. These benefits can extend to the undercroft car parking now suggested. These areas and railings are not references. They are known solutions to a problem that didn’t go away.

• • •

In a week or two, a List of Topics index will appear at the top of this blog. It won’t index architects or buildings or countries to create an appearance of comprehensiveness. It will initially be a list of the keywords and phrases each post is currently tagged with but, as I re-tag all posts*, it will change into a thematic index listing posts where something on that topic can be found. Importantly, it will show what topics there are to be found. It’s a small step but a huge difference.

* 505 including this one

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Comments

  • says:

    Graham
    Can you enlighten me on the answer to the question please?
    Are you referring to his concern with ‘the little man’ that is in contrast to corporate greed/branding?

    ‘For example, whatever happened to Alvar Aalto? What values did his buildings express that are such anathema today? We already know the answers to these questions’

    • Hello Jonathan,

      Soon after I posted the post, someone sent me this.

      Why does one talented individual win lasting recognition in a particular field, while another equally talented person does not? While there are many possible reasons, one obvious answer is that something more than talent is requisite to produce fame. The “something more” in the field of architecture, asserts Roxanne Williamson, is the association with a “famous” architect at the moment he or she first receives major publicity or designs the building for which he or she will eventually be celebrated.

      In this study of more than six hundred American architects who have achieved a place in architectural histories, Williamson finds that only a small minority do not fit the “right person–right time” pattern. She traces the apprenticeship connection in case studies of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Hobson Richardson, the firm of McKim, Mead & White, Latrobe and his descendants, the Bulfinch and Renwick Lines, the European immigrant masters, and Louis Kahn.

      Although she acknowledges and discusses the importance of family connections, the right schools, self-promotion, scholarships, design competition awards, and promotion by important journals, Williamson maintains that the apprenticeship connection is the single most important predictor of architectural fame. She offers the intriguing hypothesis that what is transferred in the relationship is not a particular style or approach but rather the courage and self-confidence to be true to one’s own vision. Perhaps, she says, this is the case in all the arts.

      American Architects and the Mechanics of Fame is sure to provoke thought and comment in architecture and other creative fields.

      About the Author
      Roxanne Kuter Williamson is Professor Emerita, School of Architecture, the University of Texas at Austin.

      Source: Amazon

      It sounds like just the thing I’ve been thinking about. I think the author is on the right track. It’s not so much the education or even the talent but the realisation that courage and self confidence is most of what one needs. But to do what? I’m not sure if “to be true to one’s own vision” is entirely correct.

      Whether it’s the lowly draftsperson or the overworked associate or partner, it’s time to start looking for a new job when one is 1) overworked, 2) underappreciated and 3) underpaid. When those three conditions are met, it’s time to go. Sometimes being underpaid is the killer condition. For people such as Ken Shuttleworth at Foster & Partners, being under-appreciated was the one. When one thinks of all the people who passed through Le Corbusier’s office, and all the people who have passed through OMA and left to do it for themselves, it seems like it’s more complicated. When the figurehead architect is never in the office because of lecture, conference, client commitments and miscellaneous marketing and some associate or partner is left to run the office and its projects, sooner or later they’re going to think they may as well be doing it for themselves. Bjarke Ingel’s office structure is not that different from the OMA he left. I wonder what Ole Scheeren’s is like? Or Joshua Prince Ramus’?

      I don’t know very much about Alvaar Aalto except that in the 1970s his buildings were the ideal for a certain kind of architect who thought Frank Lloyd Wright’s too brash and Le Corbusier’s too brazen. It may be just my ignorance but I’m not aware of any architect who passed through his office, although there must been. Maybe it’s the case Aalto didn’t inspire courage and self-confidence in his employees but, equally likely (but less easy to imagine these days) is that perhaps Aalto’s employees were totally devoted and happy working for him.

      I’m going to read that book.

      Cheers,
      Graham

  • I have a lot of respect for the Divisare web resource for precisely that – they curate their archive and gring any article or image within it is into “ideas for windows” or “scandinavian outbuildings” or whatever else. Their archive had proven itself useful in my own short career. I am glad that through their existence this calling had come closer to fruition.

    As for personalities and brands, they say that conspiracy theories are exciting for the too clear and easy answers they provide, about the unfathomably complex human condition. I think this applies to architectural practice as well. The personal portfolio at the core of historical outlook promises an easy understanding of the field and establishes an idea of what to pursue. While compelling, it is also quite misleading. Especially for our age, and we can’t all go back to the 1960s and pursue our visions while doing substances. These role models are as outdated as a 2010 release of a CAD software in our planned obsolescence pen.

    I can even no longer believe the “pursue your creative passion” premise. There are too many musicians who had decidedly departed having followed their passion before. There might be a dark abyss beneath creativity and passion that no one yet had treated like the thing it is.

    • I’m with you on the distrust of the “pursue your creative passion” premise. What does it mean for a start? Who is its market? What kind of person does it attract and why? What sort of person believes it and why? My guess it’s a proxy unknowable for persons of both types to believe in, lacking any other. This would explain the fervour with which it’s defended. Maybe my historic resistance to A Pattern Language springs from this. There’s no reason why it couldn’t explain all that needs to be known. As it stands, it’s as true as anything else. Cheers V!

  • When you wrote that learning from history is a little like languages and that “A person has to remember what resources are available and then creatively assemble them into a sentence dealing with some immediate concern.”, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Alexander’s call for a language of patterns that deal with the problem of building. Each part of the language would be used and combined with others in a way unique to the problem and site at hand. In effect, it was a list of known solutions to common problems, and for this I find it one of the most useful architecture books I have read in my short career. Naturally, Alexander’s patterns/lessons wouldn’t be everything: a good architect would draw his own from all over the place, as you suggest. But it’s a start.

    Of course, you may have been referring in part to Alexander when you said you have a ‘1980s distrust’ of the word language.

    Best of luck with the reorganisation anyway!

    • Dear Daniel, Actually when I wrote that I was thinking of all the talk of language and semiotics that went on in the 1970s. I’ve never given “A Pattern Language” the time and thought it probably deserves as I was force-fed Alexander’s “Notes on the Synthesis of Form” in my first year and couldn’t get my head around it. When I’ve thought about “A Pattern Language” I’ve tended to think of it as “A Pattern Phrasebook” of what to do when. This is not to belittle it. My first encounter with the Japanese language was through a phrasebook and it was wonderful seeing a phrasebook many years later and see those isolated phrases as part of a much bigger picture created from experience. [I was just looking through it again to check that what I thought isn’t out of line. No. 110 Entrances, for example. It’s not always the case that an entrance has to be obvious, sheltering and welcoming. Sometimes it might need to be inconspicuous, exposed, and discouraging.)

      But thank you for making me see “A Pattern Language” afresh as a set of (fairly clearly indexed) solutions to common problems. As for the reorganisation, I’m still making a list of topics that I think the blog posts address in some way but it would be funny if there turned out to be 253 topics. Thanks again, Graham.