Category Archives: Aesthetics

Meta-Aesthetics

This second installment of misfits’ prehistory builds upon some of the ideas in last week’s Property, Time & Architecture from 1999. I remastered the file from an InDesign package created February 2010. The original was probably made in Quark XPress a decade earlier because all images were .tif files. Bold headings summarize the text. Blockquotes are diversions and expansions.

In this essay, I use the word aesthetics in the usual sense and the term an aesthetic to denote a set of architectural devices united by an underlying philosophy and purpose. I only mention this because since this essay was written, the term has been largely supplanted by the word style even though (or, more likely, because) it makes us expect neither.

• • •

Aesthetics is the study of notions of beauty.
These notions change over time.
This essay is about architecture in general and architectural beauty in particular.
It identifies what successive notions of architectural beauty have had in common.
It identifies why certain aesthetics fall into and out of favour.
It provides a framework for understanding how aesthetics operate over time.
It is a meta-aesthetics.

• • •

Aesthetics give shape to our values and aspirations. This is not necessarily a good thing.

By 1850 in Britain, property and people had been divided into three classes. The upper class (still) had property in the country. The middle class had property subdivided in the form of townhouses and, later, as suburban houses. The working class had property stacked, as tenements. The middle classes overlooked communal property in the form of the squares or parks recreating country estates, and the more fortunate of the lower classes had communal property in the form of basic facilities provided by humanitarian industrialists.

 

The success or failure of any aesthetic is an expression of the values generating it.

19th and early 20th notions of an Ideal City separating the functions of the city also served to separate the classes for the two were the same. Over the course of the Industrial Revolution, the upper classes built townhouses but anchored themselves on their land. The middle classes were to build their townhouses in locations such as Belgravia, Paddington and Kensington, separating themselves and their new wealth from the docks, mills and railways that were the sources of it, as well as from where the workers lived. In a consistent expression of this attitude, convicts were separated as far away as Australia. The style of the 19th century urban townhouse was the Classicism of the country house and the square or park recreated the impression of property outside one’s window, even if it was communal.

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The style was successively simplified for houses of the lower classes. Within the larger townhouses, there was a similar separation of function/class, with servants having their own working spaces, stairs and living quarters, within which, location and quantity of space established a similar separation amongst servant classes. The use of servants also enabled the functions within the building to be separated. Whereas the lower class could only bathe in a tub in front of the fire, servants duplicated the roles of pipes and conduits, transporting hot and cold water throughout the building, maintaining and lighting the lamps, and carrying away waste.

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Servants also isolated the household as a class unit within society since they performed necessary tasks such as shopping by either going to the markets or dealing with cart vendors for milk, bread, vegetables, meat and fish. The physical and social separation of classes inside the house replicated the physical and social separation of the house from other classes in the city. Separation by function was separation by function in society. Status of the owners was denoted by the location and size of the house, the design of its facade, and the number and decoration of its major rooms.

Buildings require money and land to build. The history of architectural aesthetics is the history of articulating the ownership of wealth and property.

The use of decorative ornament in the 19th century indicated the rich man’s surplus and the poor man’s lack of it. In the 20th century, the architectural aesthetic of Modernism was to shun decorative ornament as bourgeois and attempt to generate form from the separation of physical functions. In patterns of living however, it maintained the class values inherent in the forms it replaced. The Georgian square miniaturized the pleasure of overlooking property. Although many of those townhouses were subdivided into flats in the 1920s and even today remain prime properties because it still possible to overlook the property of the square as if it were one’s own.

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In 1922, Le Corbusier arrived at an identical form in his Immeuble Villa unit for the élite in his Ville Contemporaine, planned, ‘as a capitalist city of administration and control, with garden cities for the workers being sited, along with industry, beyond the ‘security zone’ of the green belt encompassing the city.’ Le Corbusier also designed 19th century notions of social segregation into both his urban plans and his private houses such as the Villa Stein (1926-7) and Villa Savoye (1928-9), two buildings commonly regarded as seminal works of the Modern movement.

An aesthetic loses its usefulness when its connotations of status are lost, and any process of refinement stops

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations of 1947-53 was never going to be a realistic prototype for low-cost, high density living. Needing to be surrounded by sufficient Nature/property, it was self-defeating in the city and absurd in the country. Despite its claimed advantages, shop space was not let immediately and few shop-owners were keen to relocate there. The fact that what was once the outskirts of Marseilles is now a popular address indicates that property prices in central Marseilles have risen in the meantime, and that a view of the ocean from there is better than none at all. It also means that instead of being located in “Nature” it is now located in a thriving suburb with sufficient population density to make stores within the building viable. If such buildings have large sites, then the cost-effectiveness of site use is less compromised by siting such buildings alongside virtual property such as public parks or bodies of water, but these sites are usually occupied by premium high-rise dwellings or hotels.

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Having one’s own estate in the country downscaled to communally-owned squares in the city or smaller properties of the suburbs, with the virtual property of converted flats remaining preferable to that of purpose-built flats. Public property such as parks or bodies of water became virtual country estates, and views of one’s neighbours did not rank. Modernism presented light, space and a view of Nature as universal rights, but in reality, continued to treat them as commodities of status, their absence signalling poverty. Another problem had to do with materials. While concrete and prefabrication feature largely in the technical history of Modern architecture, it was not until Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul of 1954 that concrete slabs were combined with bare load-bearing brick walls and presented as an aesthetic.

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Despite Stirling’s use of this in the 1955~8 Ham Common flats and the attempts of the Brutalists to develop it, the sheer applicability of concrete slabs and load-bearing brick had sent them straight to low-cost housing worldwide, making Modernism the aesthetic of the poor. This fact did not pass unnoticed by the poor. Pruitt-Igoe. Built 1958. Dynamited 1972. The providers of public housing formed the last remaining market for Modernism. Any product becomes unmarketable when the market becomes disenchanted with the brand.

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An aesthetic must continue to adapt in order to maintain status …

Internationalism was to escape being condemned along with Modernism because in the hands of Mies van der Rohe, it combined metal and other materials with a status-inducing Classicism such as in the German Pavilion at the Barcelona World Exhibition (1929) or the Tugendhat House (1930).

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Purged of any ideological content it may have had in Europe, Modernism in the United States became the preferred institutional and corporate style. Curtain walls became a lattice of structure and window, effectively creating a visual barrier. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1946-50) and Johnson’s Glass House (1949) were excellent solutions to this problem and restored the status of privately-owned Nature to the aesthetic.  Concern for privacy was for people with neighbours. Mies’ went for overkill, using expensive materials and methods. The steps, terrace and floor were faced in travertine, and welding joins were ground away before the steel was painted. Whereas the Farnsworth house stepped over Nature, Johnson’s house, the more spartan of the two, was the more decadent in that it sat on its lawn and indicated possession.

The near absence of house emphasized where the real status lay. The adjacent guest house had no windows for even visually possessing the estate at any time was the owner’s right alone. Modernist derivatives (Meier, Eisenman, Graves, etc.) restored status through similar means, but all have in common the necessity for big property.

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… or another will quickly replace it.

If Modernism combined the human factor in terms of plan, with the built factor in terms of structural logic, then Post-Modernism combined the human factor of a populist vocabulary of building terms, and the built factor as a grammar of their usage. The result was something akin to a toff swearing in order to be popular at the pub – patronizing. From the start, the aesthetic was defined by generating and sustaining two aesthetics which, times being the times, were called levels of meaning. Its goal was never to bridge them for then it would cease to exist. Maintaining this aesthetic double standard was both its means and its end in public. In private however, the familiar indicators of status and wealth were to reassert themselves and by 1985, intoxicated with its imagined popularity, the aesthetic of Post-Modernism spoke only in double-entendres to itself. One of which was to take a material formerly regarded as unworthy for use in buildings of all but the most temporary and lowly nature, and to use it ‘out-of-context’ in a sophisticated manner, thus making a point about duality of meaning. Without exception, it was the materials such as concrete or Formica carrying the low and form the high. This led to High-Touch and Creative Salvage aesthetics of the late 80s, which found their beauty in the visual and tactile qualities present in any materials. The result was self-consciously designed, expensive one-off objects. This new materialism turned out to be not so new. Chicken wire, exposed 2 x 4s, and gypsum board have found little appeal, but polished concrete, terrazzo and Formica are being invested with status once again by finding their way into commercial interiors such as shops and restaurants en route to private residences.

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Once connotations of negative status are lost or forgotten, a new value-adding aesthetic can be applied and marketed.

Property pressures and availability led to interior space making do for property in the 60s, and neglected building types being converted as a means of attaining more space than provided by contemporary building types. Former prejudice was disregarded and mews buildings, coach houses and warehouses were given a new lease of life as premium dwellings.

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Being only a pre-existing building providing space, juxtaposed with a human factor of use, such buildings remained outside the realm of architecture. However, once possession and use began to carry notions of status such as more space and enlightened freedom from the tyranny of plan, it became possible to subdivide any large building and market it for more than a comparably sized flat. Interior partition walls then become a separately marketable commodity, as they had already become in office buildings.

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Whilst an aesthetic of space and light is essentially one of property, aesthetics can also add value by how they enclose space.

Gideon saw modern architecture as an increasing perception of space as a quantity in itself. Whilst this is not untrue, it ignores the fact that that space must belong to somebody. In other words, it ignores the political dimension of space and property. Space, the stuff between the walls, and the space outside them as well, is a commodity of status because space is merely enclosed property. As the amount of property people can have has decreased, ways of creating the impression of having more have developed from closed plan to free plan, free plan to open plan, and finally open plan to no plan. A blurring of the distinction between inside and outside assumes that there is an outside of one’s own to blur. Large areas of glazing indicate no neighbours nearby.

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Light is an indirect commodity of status because of its connection with property and density of land utilization but the conversion of warehouses has shown that people are prepared to sacrifice light and location for space. A building envelope enclosing a physically and visually finite space and with no plan would seem to be resistant to notions of status, but as long as there is an enclosing structure, an aesthetic can still operate through the use of materials and methods in new value-adding ways to indicate status.

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High-tech is aesthetic which has little social mobility, thereby allowing it to remain an aesthetic of status.

The aesthetic of High-tech finds its purest expression in the spanning of large areas without internal supports, making it a horizontal Gothic exploting the tensile limits of steel.

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This makes it inherently suitable for buildings that are only perimeter walls within which either culture or machines set the spatial agenda.

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When relatively mundane spaces for human activity are required to be housed, it resorts to vertical Gothic with full-height atrium spaces displaying engineering prowess being justified on the grounds of providing light.

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The high levels of accuracy and craftsmanship involved render high-tech inapplicable to the relatively modest spatial and structural requirements of living. High-tech also has a large research and development component tailored to individual projects in the same way as in civil engineering structures. Its lavish and visible use of resources to achieve large, dubiously justified spaces, maintains its status as an aesthetic and consequently ensures its inapplicability to anything other than prestige projects.

Minimalism is another.

The Minimalist aesthetic is that of an en-closure creating the sensation of infinite space, a concept the Japanese found attractive even when both space and Nature were abundant. But feudalism in the past and overcrowding in the present have led to owning any space, let along property, being an object of status, and if space is a commodity, then appearing to have infinitely more is better even if it isn’t real.

minimal

In Minimalist buildings, windows overlook a courtyard or whatever property remains, and infinite property (“space”) is ‘seen’ in the walls. Light enters through slits to exaggerate its value. If it doesn’t use exquisitely executed concrete, the building process is denied through the expensive and contrived elimination or concealment of joins and lines.

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Minimalism is much money being used to create the impression of having little except a sense of infinite space, a trompe l’oeil of nothing. It is an expensive aesthetic of denial of both the envelope and use, and an apparent denial of possession when linked to the concept of voluntary poverty. It is not an aesthetic for the actual poor.   

Successive aesthetics use progressively less expensive means to indicate wealth and property, but status-laden materials and processes then work to make them less accessible.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the buildings of the upper classes took the style sanctioned by the church or state while buildings of the lower classes were the result of the expedient use of available materials, techniques and labour. With middle-class country estates in the later 19th century, architects such as Shaw, Webb, Lutyens, Voysey and Wright were to use vernacular materials combined with their respective Post-Classic aesthetics to indicate wealth and property, thus furnishing the new suburbs with motifs.

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Modernism took functional industrial forms and structures and used them to indicate wealth and property. Post-Modernism took its visual techniques from roadside cafés and other structures not in the realm of ‘high’ architecture, and did the same. As soon as the Case Study houses made a cheaper aesthetic available through the use of ready-made ‘industrial’ materials, Internationalism used expensive materials and the restoration of a Classical relationship to property to distance itself again. High-tech did the same through refined materials and technology. Its applicability to spanning large spaces assumes a large space to span. Minimalism takes the very idea of looking and one’s walls and living with very little and makes it into an aesthetic of wealth and property. Loft living takes a former worker’s reality and makes it into an aesthetic of space, but being ‘fitted to the highest standard’ maintains status. The attraction of each new aesthetic is that it uses a progressively less expensive means of indicating wealth and property, or the aspiration to it. This makes them inherently vulnerable to marketing in less expensive and accessible forms. As an aesthetic cascades through society in this way, status and corresponding aspiration are artificially maintained in a carrot-on-a-stick fashion by increasingly mannerist use of expensive materials, finishes and processes.

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20th century aesthetics are irrelevant to future housing and even current housing problems.

The alleged virtues of Modernism disappeared when it was applied to less bourgeois housing problems in general, and to less property in particular. Its legacy was structural rationality and lack of decorative ornament, and (due to property pressures) a view of activities taking place in spaces rather than rooms.

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Post-Modernism largely treated social identification at the public level rather than the individual. The Taller Bofill “Let them eat cake!” approach refers beyond even the public aspirations of the individual. Aesthetics as a palliative. Post Modernism’s twin legacies were to alter certain pre-conceptions about what buildings could look like and to pave the way for a re-evaluation of the fundmental properties of materials (once the status/historical meanings had been stripped away). Its major socially applicable benefit was a re-evaluation of materials which sooner or later would have occurred anyway (due to decreasing availability or affordability).

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Metabolism correctly identified buildings as organisms in the city, but was content with expressing it at the metaphorical level. Brutalism supposedly made ordinary materials into an aesthetic which allowed materials and construction to be appreciated for what they were. This made it inherently inapplicable when lesser standards of materials and labour were used. Minimalism took the status aspects of appearing to have more space and owning less but relied for its effect on expensive materials contrasted with expensive effects achieved via contrived construction processes and finishes. In effect, it was a metaphor for the elleged virtues of historical examples of simplicity. High-tech isolated functions and satisfied them using expensive materials and processes and became in effect, a metaphor for the economies that mass-produced industrial components could theoretically offer.

It is necessary to have a way of seeing beauty which, for once, does not derive from wealth and property.

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Consider Le Corbusier’s inspiration for the machine aesthetic – the ocean liner and the the grain silo. Both have in common a certain technical and functional sophistication, but they also have in common a necessary relationship with large amounts of open space. Although the visual implications were revolutionary for architecture, the relationship between those built objects to the spacesurrounding them continued to link beauty with the ownership of property. There is nothing inherently wrong with technical analogies since housing is the result of a production process.

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Whereas ocean liners and grain silos taught us about function and form, other inherent (and these days, more useful) factors such as construction process, sourcing and design optimisation were ignored. Unsurprisingly, aesthetics derived from the display of the wealth or property associated with private houses on private land, prove inapplicable to low-cost housing using public money on public land.

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Those 20th century aesthetics which have been applied to mass housing have had their deficiencies highlighted. This is not a problem of aesthetics per-se. It is a problem of where they come from and the criteria by which beauty is defined. The marketability of an aesthetic is related to the desirability of its product, which has changed very little. This means that low-cost housing, being neither an indicator of wealth or property, can never benefit from aesthetics. Ever.

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However, if successive aesthetics are evolving from criteria which are less and less expensive to achieve, it ought to be possible to shortcut this process and determine a way of seeing beauty by concentrating attention and techniques on other articulating the possession of wealth or property,and thereby arrive more quickly at a modern vernacular aesthetic towards which we are moving anyway. This would be an aesthetic applicable to everyone, not just the providers and occupants of low-cost housing. Warehouse conversions have indicated that people are willing to sacrifice light and location for space. It is only a matter of time before other qualities that have been essential considerations in private housing so far will also come to be devalued. Location, quantities, materials, processes and contents will always remain indicators of whatever level of status people can afford to display or aspire to.

An architectural aesthetics independent of wealth and property will mean traditional displays of status will for once be explicit, not mistaken for beauty, and the aspiration to them will be less attractive to those who can ill afford to.

• • •

This essay will conclude next week with Part II, Modern Vernacular.

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Property, Time & Architecture

To commemmorate seven years of not fitting in, misfits would like to present some of the early thinking that led to its formation. This visual essay dates from around 1998. It was put together between occasional bouts of paid work, using Quark XPress 3.2 and a PowerMac G3 with 64MB of RAM.

The file was stored on iomega 100MB Zip “backup” disks which is why what you’ll see here is a scan of an A3 laser-print hard copy. It’s as-was, complete with original typos, proofreading failures, plus a numbering error I’ve only just noticed – there’s no 10.1.1. The font is Trebuchet which, for some reason, was popular at the time.

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Clarity & Consistency in Architecture

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, I re-read Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture.

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First published in 1966, and since translated into 16 languages, this remarkable book has become an essential document of architectural literature. A “gentle manifesto for a nonstraightforward architecture” [.]

But what exactly is an essential document of architectural literature? Is it something that still has something to teach us, or merely something famous for having been famous once? If so, when did it become irrelevant? Did anyone ever refute it? Is it beyond criticism? In short, was it a good way for things to go?

In 1977 in a note to the second edition, Venturi himself answers some of these questions by saying he wished the title had been Complexity and Contradiction in Architectural Form. He also suggested “the book might be read today [1977] for its general theories about architectural form but also as a particular document of its time, more historical than topical” but I don’t think one can have it both ways. All books are destined to become particular documents of their time and the same goes for their contents. However, it is possible to read (or even mis-read or mis-understand) something historic and discover something new and of relevance. I hope this will be the case but I don’t warm to the opening sentence.

“I like complexity and contradiction in architecture.”

Everyone has the right to an opinion but, more importantly, when attempting any kind of intellectual exploration into architectural aesthetics, trying to first make some sense out of what one likes is a reasonable and obvious place to begin. Three paragraphs in, however, we start to get a clearer view of where this is going.

“Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox Modern architecture. 

Is MoMA on some sort of mission to publish books reducing architecture to questions of visuals every thirty-five years? If so, we’re well overdue for another. One thing the Post-Modern era taught us was to beware the quotation mark.

I like elements which are hybrid other than “pure,” compromising rather than “clean,” distorted rather than “straightforward,” ambiguous rather than “articulated,” perverse rather than impersonal, boring as well as “interesting,” conventional rather than “designed,” accommodating rather than excluding, redundant rather than “simple,” vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear.

We know now that hybrid turned out to be “hybrid,” compromising to be “compromising;” distorted, “distorted;” ambiguous, “ambiguous;” perverse, “perverse;” boring, “boring;” conventional, “conventional;” and redundant, “redundant.”

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Here’s a column with some “redundant” structural capacity.

Complexity and contradiction turned out to be “complexity” and “contradiction” as contrived and predictable as the “simplicity” and “straightforwardness” they set out to replace.

Just as Modernism had done fifty years earlier, Venturi was proposing a “new” way to continue the churn of style replacement that stands for progress in architecture. For that, he and his book were rewarded with everlasting fame. What Venturi offered was the easiest option available at the time.

Googie was a growing force but was insufficiently pretentious – it was popular instead of “popular.”

[c.f. Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell

As early as 1937 Haskell had published pieces such as “Architecture on Routes US 40 and 66” and suggested that designers could learn “in the country of the automobile,” by studying places that “are growing with the people themselves”. 

1937–: Haskell observed the architecture of popular culture
1952: Haskell identified Googie architecture
1958: Haskell claimed Times Square was all right
1966: Robert Venturi claimed in C&C “Main Street is almost all right”
1972: RV (now with Denise Scott-Brown) claimed things could be learned from Las Vegas.

Around the same time, dissatisfaction with the status quo was about to produce experiments into temporary and biomorphic architecture at SCI-ARC. [c.f: Career Case Study #3: Glen Howard Small]

Inflatable architecture was a reaction against the rigid lines of what Modernism had become but it was attractive to all the wrong people.
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And some of it was just weird. This is the 1967 Dyodon experimental pneumatic house by Jean-Paul Jungmann. I think I remember this building from UK House & Garden report on the 1969 The House of Today competition. If I remember rightly, Richard Rogers came third with the Zip-Up House he’s been showing us ever since.

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Over in Japan, the Metabolists were doing their thing but they were big on ideas but short on buildability. Plus, they were East not West.

UK’s Archigram always seemed to promise more fun than they were capable of delivering.

America simply wasn’t interested in Brutalism, or in houses built from concrete. [c.f. The House That Came to Nothing]

Over in Venice in 1953, Ignazio Gardella had designed Casa alle Zattere, a studiously polite house contemporary commentators such as Reyner Banham were at a loss to explain as it was neither Modernist nor Historicist.

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Significant mid-sixties buildings didn’t propose the future Venturi was seeing in the past.

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What was needed was something cheap and cheerful, didn’t threaten the 2×4 industry, was achieveable rather than visionary, and carried some authority. It all sounded like a job for … HISTORY! – or at least trickery with arches, columns and cornices.

“Like all original architects, Venturi makes us see the past anew.”

Vincent Scully didn’t backtrack in the 1977 update to his original introduction. It’s all good stuff and I agree wholeheartedly – until the bit highlighted.

The book itself is organised into chapters with the following titles.

  1. Nonstraightforward Architecture: A Gentle Manifesto
  2. Contradiction and Contradiction vs. Simplifiction or Picturesqueness
  3. Ambiguity
  4. Contradictory Levels: The Phenomenon of Both-And in Architecture
  5. Contradicatory Levels Continued: The Double-Functioning Element
  6. Accomodation and the Limitations of Order: The Conventional Element
  7. Contradiction Adapted
  8. Contradiction Juxtaposed
  9. The Inside and the Outside
  10. The Obligation Towards the Difficult Whole

Ambiguity deals with questions such as those posed by Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.  “Is it a square plan or not?” Venturi asks to anyone who cares and, in 1966, many people probably still did.

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Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier are mentioned with the reverence accorded the recently deceased. Alvar Aalto and Louis Kahn were the new greatest living architects used to represent opposite architectural positions now both closer to the middle. Venturi occasionally used Le Corbusier’s projects to illustrate what wasn’t good, but mostly to illustrate what was. Villa Savoye alone is capable of supporting or contradicting most thoughts about architecture but, as ever, its prime function when referenced in architectural discourse is to show one is talking about Architecture.

  • In Chapter 4 (p23) on Contradictictory Levels, Villa Savoye is mentioned as being simple outside yet complex inside, as if it’s the first building that ever was.
  • In Chapter 6 (p41) on The Conventional Element, “the Villa Savoye accomodates the exceptional circumstantial inconsistencies within an otherwise rigid dominant order.”
  • In Chapter 7 (p52) on Contradiction Adapted, “the exceptional diagonal of the ramp is clearly expedient in section and elevation and allows Le Corbusier to create a strong opposition to the regular order of column bays and envelope.”

A major fault of this book is its insistence on using dubiously revered examples to justify mundane statements. In Chapter 5 (p34) on Contradictory Levels Continued, Le Corbusier’s “Algerian project” gets a mention for “contradictorily” combining an apartment house and a highway.

Venturi praises the P.S.F.S. building for the functional honesty of its various volumetric articulations despite part of the office space being given an expression befitting the hidden elevator shafts. He also gets excited about the sign on top.

The fact it can’t be seen from the street is a plus because it’s a bit like van Brugh’s Cloth House in Bruges which, apparently, relates to the entire town from afar as big things tend to do but has a violent change of scale with the lower levels that relate to the square. [What does “relate to” mean, anyway? It seems to be being used as shorthand for “a size appropriate to …” – or are we talking about scale?] Going by this photograph, I’d say it’s not just the lower bit that’s relating to the square.

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I wondered how far was afar? This next image is from 250 metres away, although the houses wouldn’t have been there in 1280 when the original building and tower were built. The octagonal upper part of the tower was added in 1486. There was also once a spire destroyed in 1493 and in 1741 for good. The points Venturi makes still stand, but it’s wrong to imply this building is the result of a single mind at work. Extensions to buildings are contradictory by nature.

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The sheer number of heavyweight examples over the following fifty pages either bludgeon one into submission or compel one to resist. I formed the impression anything can be used to mean anything. Let me illustrate using what’s on my table at the moment.

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  • The binoculars have a shape that is directional but they point downwards, intruigingly.
  • The surface of the table is there but not there at the same time!
  • A laptop is not atop a lap. Why?
  • There is a plant in a pot – or is it a pot with a plant in it? Such tension!

Now let’s try to make some sense out of it.

  1. When we look at the binoculars and laptop and make those observations, we do so with a knowledge of what those objects are. A person who didn’t know what binoculars were or what they did would see no complexity or contradiction. As a theoretical construct, an architecture of complexity or contradiction is never going to be inclusive. The smug elitism of Post-Modern architecture derives from this. [Remember that highlighted bit in Scully’s notes to the second edition?]
  2. Moreover, when we look at the plant and the pot we assume we’re not looking at some work of art demanding we question the nature or validity of its existence. The potplant is not a Duchamp or even a Koons. A theory of complexity and contradiction only works if things are posited as complex or contradictory, i.e. as art. The pretentiousness of Post-Modern architecture derives from this.
  3. Finally, when we look at the table we are seeing or, more importantly, choosing to see more than one aspect of its existence at the same time. I may appreciate its shiny reflectivity but might not when it’s reflecting glare back at me and, even then, I may still appreciate it stopping things falling to the floor. Venturi recognizes the value of pluralism not just between different observers but even for the same observer at different places or times. He repeats Paul Rudolph’s observation that Mies van der Rohe’s buildings are great only because Mies chose to solve only the few problems he felt required solving. What Venturi is proposing is worse in that there are now infinite variables to set up any problem one wishes to show one has solved. The moveable feast that was Post-Modern architecture derives from this.

Overall, I found it bizarre that Venturi could look at innumerable historic and not-so-historic examples of architecture and make what is a wealth of observations yet never mention the very same things in unpretentious buildings not considered architecture. The only worth he sees in the circumstantial is in its capacity to produce an intentional effect. This may be intentional, or it may just be how architects looked at things half a century ago. If the latter, it needs putting right. 

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This lighthouse is not a tower in order to appear more imposing when seen from afar but to ensure its beam of light is visible farther out to sea. Yet, [“intruigingly, bizarrely”] it also has small windows to light the stairs so a person can access the beacon room. There’s no contradiction of the type Venturi sees in Lutyen’s unrealized project for Liverpool Cathedral, for example. 

We shouldn’t be amazed to learn that people are smaller than buildings. Ah, but it’s still a difference of city scale and human scale you may say. Sure, but even the glassiest of curtain walls has those same two differences of scale. Amazing, no?

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My own counter-investigation into the Baroque period isn’t as thorough as Venturi’s as I have only one example. Earlier, I mentioned Ignzaio Gardella’s 1953 Casa alle Zattere in Venice.

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This 1703 etching shows two buildings on what was to be its site. Their facades aren’t in the same plane as there’s a 5° bend where the two sites meet.

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Sometime not long after 1703, the two sites were combined and the buildings remodelled to create a single building with a symmetrical three-part facade as was fashionable at the time.

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A continuous facade was created but the angle remained. The former party wall was extended upwards to make it easier to construct the roof. Venturi would draw our attention to how the continuity of the facade is contradicted by its non-planarity and also by the discontinuity of the roof. However,

this building was never trying to be complex or contradictory! 

The problem of producing a tripartite facade was solved. The problem of roofing the building was solved. Contradiction? The rooftop altana works against the facade symmetry that’s been set up. A drainpipe draws attention to the very angle the symmetry seeks to downplay.

Speaking of drainpipes, an other example of mine is this building you’ll recognize from Misfits’ Guide to Venice as the Palazzo Fondazione Masieri, the interior of which was remodelled by Carlo Scarpa.

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[You might also recognise the rest of this paragraph.] The chimneys and the position of the drainpipe highlights the symmetrical part of the facade, suggesting we disregard the additional bit on the right, but where else could that downpipe go? The midpoint of the gutter is the most practical but least-wanted place as it would not only split the building in two but discharge over the entrance. Placing the drainpipe at the end of the gutter would involve practical problems of gutter slope. Three shorter gutters avoiding the chimneys would each require a drainpipe. This minor functional element is doing something of crucial visual importance for Venturi but I doubt whoever put it there gave its placement a second thought.

In both these examples I see not complexity and contradiction but a clear and consistent approach towards the solving of real problems. In both examples, the simplest and easiest way has been chosen and the result is far richer than seemingly contradictory problems selected and studio-farmed for the expressive potential of their so-called resolutions.

• • •

Venturi was of the opinion that complexity and contradiction made for buildings that weren’t boring. This single personal preference of one person implied buildings had a duty to entertain and this is how “delight” has been interpreted ever since. Post Modernism was ultimately discarded for its inability to delight clients outside of its host culture. It was unsuited to the burgeoning global market for trophy architecture by rich rulers and property developers in non-Western countries. Something meaning less to more people was what was required and Deconstruction stepped up to the plate. 

Nevertherless, Robert Venturi and Post-Modernism have a place in the history of architecture’s meta-aesthetics for reducing architecture to a style toolkit once again and kicking the architecture can a bit further down the road. 

What I can’t abide is Venturi representing the inherent honesty and beauty of ordinary buildings to encourage an architecture not remembered for either its honesty or its beauty. Ordinary buildings were the losers as nobody gave them another look. Job done. Give the man a prize.

JC

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Skin Deep

Pallasmaa, Juhani “The Eyes of The Skin: Architecture and The Senses“, 2nd Edition, Wiley-Academy, 2005

It’s easy to see why this book is essential reading in many schools. It makes architecture sound like a very noble pursuit.

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Its argument is simple. Western culture has, since the Greeks, emphasised our sense of vision to the neglect of our other ones. All Greeks aren’t to blame. Socrates for one, is on record as discouraging the use of reed pens and papyrus to take notes – he thought it stopped people concentrating on what was being said. He also claimed visual representations took on a life of their own independent of their original intentions.

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Soc. belived in a truth more fundamental than the visual representation of it. He had no idea someday people might want to create visual representations of a truth in order to convey a notion detached from that truth. To be fair, it was a long time ago.

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Aesthetics as we know it now is almost totally concerned with the visual aesthetics and, even when it isn’t, poetry gets discussed in term of imagery, music in terms of space, drama in terms of distance – all concepts derived from vision. Pallasmaa’s main concern is architecture and that we’ve come to understand it almost solely via our sense of vision.

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He’s worried that people actually in or actually around a building experience that building as predominantly a visual object. It sounds like the people actually in or around a building are at fault. Pallasmaa is hesitant to point the finger at who might be encouraging people [in or around real buildings, remember] to do so.

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Pallasmaa can’t conceive of architects producing images of buildings intended to be comprehended as visual objects so he’s certainly not going to be able to conceive of architects designing virtual visual objects intended to be comprehended as architecture. Here’s City In The Sky. It’s been around since 2012. Is it fanciful? Is it visionary?

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It doesn’t matter – it’s no less real than this image of 2 World Trade Center which, some time back, we comprehended as architecture.

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Pallasmaa’s objections to visual culture are no more up to date than Socrates’. I suppose we should be grateful Pallasmaa wrote them down in an essay, and then a book, to help us see things differently. He wants two things.

  1. For the importance of our other senses to be recognized, and
  2. For them to be encouraged to function along with our sense of sight for
    • a fuller and richer architectural experience and, as a result of that,
    • a fuller and richer lives more grounded in the world.

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A few things.

I hadn’t gone too far into the book when I had a feeling a reference to our hunter-gatherer past was imminent and indeed, the importance of peripheral vision was mentioned in this very context and then blithely extrapolated to architecture. Here, I’m going to look at the idea of  a walk in the forest from various because it’s being held up as the type of experience architecture should aspire to.

My first objection is that Pallasma’s forest is a benign construct that it is reasonably easy for architecture to represent, as Aalto did. But a walk in the forest is no walk in the park. As a Finn, Pallasmaa must be aware forests have bears. There are things called rainforests that most of us wouldn’t survive a walk through. Their sights, sounds, smells, touch and tastes are not trying to be beautiful. Thinking that they are, and that they are so for our benefit is a big mistake.

We should be wary of isolating the aesthetic experience of anything. 

More precisely, we should be wary of using any sense, not just vision, to reduce anything to an aesthetic experience. A walk in a forest implies walking on the ground but despite the immediate physical contact (especially if we are, for some reason, barefoot and naked) walking in a forest is inherently no more more grounding than driving a car. To say it is, is disingenuous, sleight of hand. Pallasmaa assumes walking in a forest is A Good Thing even though bad things can happen in forests. Driving up a coast road can be fun and no less grounding in terms of directing our consciousness back to the world and towards our own sense of self and being … etc.

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The former takes place amongst rocks and trees and the latter takes place within metal and glass. If, as Pallasmaa is suggesting, ‘groundabilityness’ is transferable to architecture as a real quality and not as mere representation of it, then two completely different architectures will result. And then what will have been the point of all this?

Even as an example, the sheer babykitten benignness of ‘a walk in the forest’ is irritating. Swimming in the ocean is a multi-sensory experience that’s exhilarating and dangerous and usually has a purpose beyond the aesthetics of the act. So is driving a car. When driving, we hear the sounds of engine and dashboard as well as ambient beeps, whistles, sirens, abuse and music. Through the steering wheel we sense road conditions, our speed and the direction and strength of the wind. We’re alert to smells and changes of temperature. With driving, the coordination between all our senses seems to support Pallasmaa’s thesis, as would the importance of peripheral vision but for the fact that most of the time you really do need to be focussing on what’s in front of you.

Even if we restrict the talk to forests, I’m wary of forests being held up as an aesthetic ideal if important non-aesthetic benefits of forests are going to be ignored.

Our senses, like those of any living creature, are primiarily sensors to make us aware of things we need to respond to.  

If we smell some poisonous or noxious odor we’ll move away but, when walking through a forest, we will have no awareness of breathing in the phytoncides that are increasing our NK cell count for the better.

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This omission pushes one of this blog’s buttons. Pallasmaa’s essential forest is no more than the sum of what’s sensed aesthetically and extrapolated existentially while the really useful things forests do go unsensed.  The prospect of a beauty of non-sensable performance seems more remote than ever. Six years ago this week, misfits posted its first post The tree is not trying to look beautiful.

The forest is not trying to look, sound, smell, taste or feel beautiful.

If walking in a forest leaves one so full of existential goodness then why go back inside? What is it we need buildings to do?

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Pallasmaa is being deliberately obtuse about this in order to rephrase the old architecture vs. buildings divide again: buildings keep you warm, comfy and alive, architecture caters to your existential self. Again, you can see why this book is popular in schools of architecture. Pallasmaa only mentions the thermal response of the skin once, and even then obliquely, on page 16.

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Pallasmaa’s conception of skin is finger-centric even though our skin is our largest sense in terms of area and absolutely vital stopping us dying of chills and fevers. In ignoring this essential role of the skin, Pallasmaa is extending the old building vs. architecture prejudice to our sense of touch. Skin may only keep us alive but touch makes us feel alive. No good can come of the postmodern predeliction for the representation of a thing to be more important than the thing itself.

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The field of visual aesthetics is sticky enough. We don’t have the slightest idea what it is that needs to be countered or balanced by a complementary aesthetics of touch. Surely our senses have evolved to alert us to different dimensions of the same entity? Should we even trust all five senses if they send complementary information? The flower that looks beautiful for a reason may smell vile for a reason. All our senses work in tandem and make their own contributions when occupied doing something actively useful like driving or, if you must, hunting. It’s not necessarily true for decadent pursuits like aesthetic pleasure.

I’m not defending the damage that an aesthetics ostensibly based on vision has done to architecture. I’m just not convinved an aesthetics taking one or more other senses into account will necessarily be any better.

Pallasmaa doesn’t help his case much with his choice of examples. It’s another reason why this book seems older than it is. There are some modernish references

 

but long gone are the days when everything had to be justified with a reference to Mies van der Rohe

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or Frank Lloyd Wright. These examples refuse to die because they be used as examples to say pretty much anything one wants to say about anything. Fallingwater remains America’s favourite piece of architecture only because people have never been allowed to forget it.

The live encounter with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater weaves the surrounding forest, the volumes, surfaces, textures and colours of the house, and even the smells of the forest and the sounds of the river, into a uniquely full experience. [p44]

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This could be said about any house in any forest next to any river and waterfall – and whether inside or outside. I’ve mentioned before and more than once how Mr. Kauffmann showed FLW his favourite rock and view of the falls and expected his house to be built there. Mr. Kaufmann saw the brilliance of siting the house above the falls so people worldwide could see what only he owned, brilliantly exploiting the 1930s and 40s popularity of illustrated magazines made possible by advances in photographic reproduction and the electronic transmission of photographs worldwide. There had been paintings of houses before, butFallingwater was perhaps one of the first houses to be designed and understood as image. For most of us, America’s favourite piece of architecture is nothing more.

Pallasmaa would counter, “it is the proof of the greatness of any artist that they can make you see the world through their eyes and feel the warmth of the sun and the colours of the landscape”, as he says of Cezanne.

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So let’s do a test. Look at the image of Fallingwater above and ask yourself if you hear the sound of the water and the smells of the forest. If you do, then Frank Lloyd Wright was a great artist. If not, then you are a philistine. You can’t win. Some people may well imagine the fall of the water and the rustle of the leaves but never the chill of the air, the biting of insects or the grumbles of other tourists wanting you to take your photo and move on.

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It is just as Socrates feared – images take on a life of their own, but only because we invest in them whatever we want to see.

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So what are we to do?

Don’t look to this book for advice. I came away from it thinking it wants architects to all be more like great twentieth-century architects such as Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvaar Aalto (and the good bits of Le Corbusier). And that we should have more forests outside and more timber inside – especially doorhandles, more photographs of fish on kitchen counters …

I can’t help thinking Pallasmaa is making a problem out of something that’s not so complex. He doesn’t seem to notice the world doesn’t live in Aalto or Wright buildings or think there’s probably a reason for that. As a resource, Eyes of the Skin is short on ideas for making a world of limited resources a better place. On the last page but one, Pallasmaa comes close to making a good point.

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I totally agree, but a chair is not a building. We don’t sit or sleep on our floors. In fact, we don’t touch our builings very much at all and there’s probably a reason for that too. I’m all for tactile (and ergonomic!) doorhandles and handrails are fine but any sustained physical connection we have with our buildings is mostly via shoes or via furniture.

We shouldn’t ask more of architecture than what it needs to deliver.

Our skin is continuously reacting to our environments and we’re good with that. Our existential grounding can be sorted with a comfy chair, sofa and bed. Unless we’re going to sit and sleep on our floors and rub up against our walls, our skin has no need to react aesthetically to buildings ever, let alone every waking second.

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Decorative CMU

These useful building components have many names. They’re cinder block in Canada, the US and NZ, hollow block in The Philippines and the UAE, and besser block in Australia. In the UK, NZ and Australia, breezeblock refers to breeze which is another name for ash/cinder and not, I finally learn, to any associated cooling airflow. Other names include CMU (concrete masonry unit) although these tend to do more the heavy lifting, and decorative concrete block which may or not be used with perjorative intent. I’m going to combine these last two virtues into the new and unashamedly proud Decorative CMU

midmodmich has beaten me to identify them and admire them.

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There, and on similar sites, you’ll get an idea of the variety of effects that can be generated from one simple idea, an inexpensive material, and a simple process of fabrication.

Decorative CMU can be made by hand with a simple mold, but Chinese companies supply a wide range of plastic and metal molds, as well as a variety of sizes of machinery to automate the process.

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Wherever you are in the world you’ll have seen decorative CMU. Some patterns will be more complex than others but all will belong to a building element that provides

  1. a physical barrier that may have a security or light structural function,
  2. modulated light and, at the same time, a degree of visual privacy, and
  3. airflow.

These three characteristics are appreciated in varying proportions around the world but find particular favour in the hot and humid countries where airflow is valued most. In temperate locations, decorative CMU are more likely to be more valued for their decorativeness. moderndesign.org and other mid-century design sites show how important decorative CMU were in defining the popular architecture of an era. Often featured on those sites is the Palm Springs Parker Meridian Hotel, built in 1959 as California’s first Holiday Inn.

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A low-cost, easily manufactured way of providing security, airflow, diffuse light and a reduction in concrete/weight were not what the world of architecture ever needed. Decorative concrete blocks have very rarely been proposed as architecture. There was 130 E64th street by Edward Durell Stone circa 1960.

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Edward Durell Stone’s 1960 2 Columbus Circle featured decorative CMU but those were custom designed and fabricated.

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Both the Stone buildings have had a tough time in New York. The house was widely reviled, its screen wall removed for reasons of historical propriety and then replaced for reasons of historical propriety. His 2 Columbus Circle suffered a worse fate. Demolition, like death, at least allows closure.

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At least his 1959 US Embassy in Delhi fared better, perhaps because the people there ‘got it’. Elsewhere, it was forgotten. I never even knew about this building until a minute ago. It’s not bad.

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Almost immediately damned by its classnessless, the decorative concrete block was declassé and not something to be seen in polite architecture. In recent history there’s been this house in Vietnam.

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Australia has Eva-Marie Prineas’ Lane Cove extension, continuing the Australian tradition of decorative CMU for garden fences, front porch screen walls and rear ‘outdoor living’ areas.

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This hotel outdoor area in Melbourne attempts to play it safe using regular CMUs in contrived denial of decorative intent. (Either that or my Uncle Jack built it.)

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Despite their banishment from architecture, decorative CMU went on to have many undocumented adventures around the world. I had to go 40 minutes’ out of Dubai to 25°30’17.02″N  55°34’39.10″E) to find these UAE examples of a pure and handsome vernacular making good use of decorative CMU in three different ways:
(1) around the perimeter of a roof terrace,

(2) adding secure openings to the top of an enclosed outdoor area and,

(3) possibly as a precursor to that, adding some height to a fence.

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This isn’t so much an example of architecture contributing to vernacular building, but an example of vernacular builders appreciating the value of something the world of architecture tired of and dumped. Usually the transfer is in the other direction with something from the world of vernacular architecture appropriated for the sake of its appearance. Here’s a house currently doing the rounds in Australia. Open brickwork is now a ‘clever screening technique‘.

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Hmm. Before that was the 2012 Grafton ArchitectsWaterloo Lane Mews.

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Prior to the London Olympics there was the Primary Substation building by NORD architects.

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There was also the 2012 ABC building by WISE Architecture in Seoul. You get my drift.

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The first time this usage of brick appeared in conscious architecture was Ignzatio Gardella‘s 1934-8 Dispensario Antitubercolare in Alessandria.

It’s said to be a variant of a local vernacular technique and I believe that, for here are two unpretentious Alessandria farmhouses.

Here’s a third. It’s 18th century and currently on the market.

This brickwork is not trying to be decorative. It provides security and 50% airflow without compromising structural integrity and is probably the lightest brick wall you’ll ever see. It’s also a pattern that effectively utilizes brick’s shear strength. I’ve never seen this example of vernacular brilliance updated, perhaps because the Greek cross pattern appears too decorative for modern us who think the only purpose of a screen wall is to beautify a facade.

Not obstructing airlow was important with the NORD substation, the Vietnamese house, the vernacular Emirati houses and the tuberculosis dispensary. Let’s not forget Laurie Baker who did amazing structural brick walls that facilitated airflow and modulated light.

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Not only have we shunned decorative CMU in favour of decorative brickwork, we’ve also banished the word decorative from our vocabulary, preferring to call decorative brick screens perforated facadeshttp://dariocanciani.blogspot.ae/2015/11/facciata-in-mattoni.html will show you some of the more extreme perforations. This is Silk Wall by Archi-Union Architecs, in Shanghai.

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MIT are also on the case, but the outrageous offseting of conventional masonry units has its limits.

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Injecting value-adding variation to the modular advantages of masonry units is where parametric bioidiocy excels.

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These have all all the advantages of modularity – except its sameness. Our contemporary disdain for uniformity and our craving for novelty are not new. The Georgian terraced house was one of the most successful and useful housing products of all time but the Victorians thought the streetscapes mind-numbingly dull. If the Victorians had had Haddonstone™, they wouldn’t have have bothered with polychromatic masonry or, when money got tighter, polychromatic brickwork.

It’s amusing to see Haddonstone variously described as cast stone, cast limestone and reconstructed limestone, partially accurate though they may be. Our objection to the c-word aside, we’re no different from the Victorians. We still lack the ability to comprehend any virtue not visible. We tired of decorative CMU and grew to despise the tedious monotony of brick.

Foreign Office Architects were one of the first to solve these first world problems with their Spanish Pavilion for Expo 2005 in Nagoya. They made it hip with colour and a non-repetitive repetitiveness, and referenced everything on the planet that was architectural and Spanish. I remember one or the then other saying it even referenced the decorative CMU that line the Costa del Sol and maybe it did, apart from one-offness, the customized parametric geometry, the coloured and glazed ceramic material and the glass infills

This next example is also probably better described as decorative modular glazing units.

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Both follow the example set by Frank Lloyd Wright trying to take decorative CMU upmarket via the custom-design route. Here’s his 1961 Ablin House.

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It didn’t work. Decorative CMU as mid-century architectural phenomenon coincided with the International Style and peaked around the time of Googie.

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People were hungering for a new relationship with ornament, something meaningful.

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The hunger never went away. Remember how not too long ago everybody was excited about that new miracle of laser cutting? For about three seconds, laser-cut screens were the new shape, the new beauty,

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the new image.

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The love quickly faded. decorativescreensdirect do a nice line in affordable laser-cut decorative screens to use in exactly the same way we would once have used decorative CMUs.

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Architects are feckless philanderers when it comes to new building technologies. We shouldn’t expect 3D-printed bio-imagined screens to be around for any longer than decorative CMU or laser-cut whatever.

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It’s every architect’s dream to find the perfect eye candy that’s low-maintenance, cheap and classy at the same time. Never trust an architect eager to jump into bed with new technologies.

• • •

[20 May, 2016] I had a feeling I was barely scratching the surface. Thanks to everyone who enhanced this post, post-posting, by sending me further examples of architecture featuring decorative CMU. The links below are from the respective comments.

Jonathan alerted me to Iwan Iwanoff, an architect who made much of the decorative possibilities of regular CMU in Perth, Australia.

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Iago alerted me to the work of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew introduced in this Architectural Review article. [Click wisely as AR will give you only chance per month to access the article]

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yorksranter sent these links to two Flickr groups that celebrate the versatility and ubiquity of these underrated building components that are still very much part of the global built environment.

https://www.flickr.com/groups/891254@N23/ has about 1,900 photos. https://www.flickr.com/groups/795044@N23/ has about 1,100 photos.

 

 

 

 

Performance Beauty

It’s good to take a break from architecture every now and then. 

So one evening last week I powered down the laptop and fired up YouTube on the flatscreen. I was in the mood for opera!  “Sure,” you may say, “but opera’s still about organizing people and how they move and interact in and around a space!”  “True,” I would reply, “but it’s got music and singing and drama and merrymaking, all of which architecture tends not to.” I wanted modern staging with simple means employed to maximum effect. I’ve nothing against minimal stagings such as this one for The Metropolitan Opera‘s 2012 production of La Traviata

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but object to starchitect product placement presented as either news or art, such as with this Don Giovanni set design by Frank Gehry

or this Cosi fan Tutte set design by Zaha Hadid.

I settled down to watch this production of Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte. It’s always inspiring to watch things done by people good at their game and Mozart was definitely one of those. 

It was jolly enough and the simple set worked well and didn’t get in the way. When it ended, I let YouTube suggest what next. It turned out to be Cosi fan Tutte again, but this time with a rotating set having three scenes. Now, the set itself became part of the action. It was interesting to see what two different directors and set designers can come up with when given the same brief of satisfying some necessary requirements yet at the same time make something seem new and fresh again.

For some years I’d been trying to identify a particular piece of music that turned out to be the Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Christophe Willibald Gluck‘s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. I wanted to check it out and now was that time. My first find was this from choreographer Pina Bausch’s 2008 production. Pina Bausch is another person good at their game but, awesome as this is, it’s about dance not opera.

Now. In 1755, Francesco Algarotti had written his Essay on the Opera, calling for its simplification and for the emphasis to be on the drama instead of the music, dance or staging. Gluck and his librettist Ranieri de’ Calzabigi were the first to make it work. If they hadn’t, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) would no doubt have.

Orefo and Euridice was first performed in Vienna in 1762. Mozart’s fourth opera, Mitridate – Re di Punto from 1770 still had lengthy recitative and continuo bridges and is not as musically inventive or dramatically tight. He was fourteen when he wrote it though, and he had written only four operas before.

Gluck’s reforms were controversial at the time but they were good and timely ones that would change opera forever. The most important was to simplify the music. Gluck did away with long recitatives separating virtuoso arias. He did away with virtuosity – it was no longer about the star singers. Conductor Sir Roger Norrington said of him,

“Gluck’s significance is deeper than just his attempts at musical revolution. Gluck’s influence arose from his melodic genius as much as from his reforming zeal.  The touching honesty of his arias gives them tremendous power. I admire the way Gluck risks great simplicity in his musical methods, at a time when elaboration and show were taken to such lengths…” 

Keeping the music going was a major step in the development of modern opera but, more importantly, Gluck kept the plot moving. In the third act we even see a glimpse of that thing Verdi was to later perfect – the simultaneous singing of plural psychologies for dramatic effect. With Orfeo ed Euridice, the art was now in the drama and not in the dramatization. It was the first modern opera. The first version I came across had Janet Baker as Orpheus at Glyndebourne in 1982. Its staging seemed over-contrived.

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“Overly-contrived” is an accusation frequently leveled at opera staging. The Metropolitan Opera’s 2011 production of Orfeo ed Euridice came in for a bashing on that count.

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A 2008 French production erred in the other direction, also mistaking inadequate illumination for darkness. Drama is only dramatic if we can see it.

If anything’s going to be dramatic, then the scene where Orpheus pleads to be allowed to pass through The Underworld must surely be one of those instances?


“O, have mercy on me!

Ye Furies! Ye spectres! Ye angry shades!
May my cruel grief
at least earn your pity!

“Like you, O troubled shades,
a thousand pangs I too suffer.
I carry my hell with me,
I feel it in the depths of my heart.”

This production got it right. Along with everything else.

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The film was shot entirely on location in the historic Baroque Theatre of the Český Krumlov Castle. The theatre dates from 1680, and maintains today the stage equipment and machinery from the 1765-66 renovation, making it one of the oldest functioning Baroque theatres in the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This is not a film of a staged opera production for a public audience. This is an opera production designed specifically for film. There was no audience, all takes were sung live, and the entire spectrum of the theatre was used, including the backstage space, the flyspace, hallways, cellars, and the auditorium itself.

It’s a joy. We get to wander around an old theatre, hear some wonderful singing and get our fill of drama. We also get to watch some people very good at their game. It’s a great night in.

  • The stage staging is genuine Baroque, not some trendy re-imagining. amore2
  • Another improvement Gluck would’ve approved of is the elimination of the extended dance sequences. Nobody knows for sure what Baroque dance actually looked like anyway. Dance of the Blessed Spirits, lovely as it must have been, had to go. This production is lean, fast, and more dramatic and drama is the currency of opera as we now know it thanks to Gluck.
  • The part of Orfeo was originally written for a haute-contra (high-tenor) voice popular in the Baroque era. It’s more common for the part of Orfeo to be sung by either a contralto, mezzo-soprano or castrato – all of which are, to my mind, cheating. This production restores the lead role to a high tenor voice known these days as a counter-tenor (a.k.a. contratenor) and the male equivalent of contralto.
  • Getting rid of the audience is another innovation. This production is sung live, but not for the benefit of an audience of theatre-goers but for us out here. Film’s immediacy and closeness intensify drama.
  • Every now and then, we’re jolted into modernity by a glance, smile, nod, hesitancy or shrug we can relate to. Drama isn’t dramatic if we can’t relate to it.
  • The Underworld seems human, The Furies a bit harsh at first but okay once you get to know them.
  • There’s no fire or gates in this production. Hell is other peoplethe only obstruction.

Hell

  • Elysium is made to seem as if it might become a bit tedious and start to get on our nerves after a while. This is nice to know.

Elysium

  • Amor (a.k.a. Cupid) seems to just to screw people around.
  • But poor Orpheus! He goes through Hell only to find two new types of it after he’s reunited with his wife.
  • At the end, Euridice gets her priorities wrong, enjoying her moment of media glory to much. Orpheus walks away, leaving her to it. True hero.

Much of this art must be due to the Director, Ondřej Havelka and to to Bejun Mehta who sang Orfeo and was also artistic advisor, but something like this is the result of many persons’ skill, time, teamwork and dedication.

  • LIGHTING DESIGN
    Much use is made of candles but modern lighting is also used to dramatic effect – lights are dimmed for intense feelings, colour of light emphasises the difference between the dead and the living and in the same frame.
  • SET DESIGN
    The Baroque sets have a simplicity that’s charming in their quiet inventiveness but, as Gluck would have liked, are not the main event.

    Act 3The second time around for Eurydice, she ends up in the same place as the scenery whose time ‘onstage’ is over. This isn’t accidental – somebody devised it to be so. Somewhere, someone is thinking beautiful thoughts about the power of scenery and moving it around. It’s both delightful and shocking to see such quiet creativity at work – to see that there even still is such a thing.

    treesAlso, in nearly every frame you can see the colours red, blue, green and yellow. I don’t know why, but this seems to generate subliminal feelings of warmth towards a frame. (The last time I saw such an awareness of drama by colour was Paris, Texas.) The proportions of the colours of course change to intensify the drama of the scene. Hell is mostly blue, but never completely. There’s not much blue in Elysium and we sense something lacking. Also.

  • COSTUME DESIGN
    Mehta’s costume is a balance of muted primaries – skin tone providing the yellow. The most striking colours in the entire performance are the ones most off balance. His red sash always denotes him on the stage as the most important character. Amor, as you would expect, is another important exception with her brilliant gold breastplate and bow.

An art of this kind is the result of a shared LOVE FOR THE ART – and working to produce a tribute to that art. As either architects or image consumers, we don’t get to see that very often.
The performance wears its art and its artifice lightly. We’re also unaccustomed to that. The power and – I will say it – beauty of this performance come not from some forced newness for the sake of it but from a respect for the fundamentals. It gets its priorities right.

• • •

The opera is on YouTube for me or anyone else to watch anytime. I don’t have a DVD player and don’t intend to get one but I purchased the DVD all the same. This won’t restore any sense of fair reward to the world, but these people already have my respect and admiration. I needed them to have my money as well.

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Isamu Noguchi: Aesthetic Efficiency

Meet Isamu Noguchi.

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Misfits’ doesn’t normally have much time for artists, especially superstar sculptors, but the rules need to be bent a bit for Isamu Noguchi. There’s a biography here. Noguchi is sometimes known for this sculpture he did in 1940.

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Some of you may have seen it.

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Many will know this coffee table he designed for Herman Miller in 1947.

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But rather than for these, Noguchi deserves a place on this blog for having ideas that produced a great effect yet simple to construct. More from less, in other words. More aesthetic bang for the buck. For example, he designed these fountains for Expo ’70 in Osaka.

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It’s a simple idea, not too complicated to construct and the illusion of cubes rocketing upwards is very effective as a fountain-object thing in a pond. It doesn’t need to do anything more than that.

Noguchi’s public landscape/sculpture draws upon the tradition of Japanese rock gardens best typified by Ryoanji – umm, Temple of the Relaxing Dragon? Peaceful Dragon? – you know the one.

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He managed to bring this sensibility to a garden that is known as Isamu Noguchi’s California Scenario.

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And did the same thing but differently for UNESCO in Paris in 1956-1958.

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This garden has come to be known as the “Peace Garden” but parts of it have come to seem very familiar.

unesco peace gardenYes, they are the inspiration for low-maintenance public space that has rocks instead of grass, with varying accompanying degrees of Japaneseness. Like exposed concrete columns and slabs with brick infill, this is one of those very good ideas that, once it was presented once as high art, was immensely useful and applicable to most anywhere and was never thought of as high-art again. This is a good thing if open space can be used for more things by more people for longer.

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These days, it’s known as “hard landscaping” – a euphemism for “low-maintenance”.

High-maintenance open space is still a good way to show one can afford to maintain high-maintenance open space.

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This effect, much prized on the large expanses of lawn fronting mid-Victorian stately home gardens, meant the lawn had to be trimmed using hand clippers. How posh is that?!

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The effect may be simple but the decadence of process is display of wealth by stealth. So we shouldn’t sneer at simplicity even if cost-cutting is one of its side effects.

Another of Noguchi’s great ideas is also derived from Japanese tradition of paper lanterns.

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Most people will have at some stage of their life owned or been in a room with a light fitting derived from the range of lamps he designed around 1951 and which are known by the Japanese word  “akari” (meaning “light”). They were apparently inspired by the lanterns used for night fishing on the Nagara River.

night fishing on the nagara riverYou know them.  

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Most of the original range is still available for sale at the noguchi.org website – at 2013 prices.

isamu-noguchi-garden-museum-lights-38.4Or you can find copies throughout the world via Galeries Layfayette

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or IKEA.

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Or anywhere really. This is another good idea of Noguchi’s that found immediate and widespread acceptance. The original designs can still be purchased but there are expensive derivatives, inexpensive ones, sophisticated ones, simple ones. They are student staples. People who want nothing more from a lampshade other than for it to cover the light bulb after they’ve moved in will find themselves still living with them a decade later. What were lampshades ever like before Noguchi?

This is what happens when there are no boundaries between the fine and applied arts.