Category Archives: Making Sense Of It

ongoing attempts to make sense out of it all

A Consistency of Contradictions

In 1937, Douglas Haskell drove across the US and identified elements of a popular architecture. He thought Route 66 was okay. His 1958 essay “Architecture and Popular Taste” probed what people who were unschooled in architeture said they liked. Haskell has been actively forgotten because he believed in a popular architecture as a  true vernacular architecture and not one invented by architects. [c.f. Architecture Misfit #16: Douglas Haskell].

In 1966, Robert Venturi strolled around Rome identifying and enjoying the visual complexities and contradictions of its Baroque architecture. He documented his thoughts and will always be remembered for making us believe our built environment was reducible to a set of visual complexities and contradications [c.f. Clarity and Consistency in Architecture]. Venturi did later say he wished he’d made the title of his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architectural Form but that was only to set it apart from his 1972 book on architectural meaning that had us believe architecture was reducible to ducks and decorated sheds. Venturi said Main Street was almost all right.

Venturi was to also later claim he was never a post-modernist but, prior to his book, architecture at least had the remnants of a social conscience. Whether inadvertently or by design, Venturi’s C&C reduced the built environment to a set of visual stimuli and his second reduced it to a set of meanings evoked by them. There’s nothing wrong with that but there’s a lot wrong when architecture comes to be seen as only that. And that’s what happened for Venturi begat Jencks whose populist message was that buildings should be judged by how popular they appeared to want to be and not by whether they were ever intended to serve society in any tangible way. The first of the Pruitt-Igoe apartment blocks came down in 1972 a year after Learning from Las Vegas and the last came down in 1976 a year before Charles Jencks’ The Language of Post Modern Architecture.

In 1928, Le Corbusier had a problem with a door on axis with a column but solved it with a transfer beam. Ever since then we have applauded his creative breaking of the rules.

In 1960, Robert Venturi had a problem with a door on axis with a column but solved it by making people go around the column. Ever since then we have applauded his creative breaking of the rules.

It was never about style. All buildings may be modernist or post-modernist and all buildings may be of use to society or they may not be but these oppositions aren’t incompatible. It didn’t matter. It’s wasn’t possible to unlearn rational and economical construction and it also wasn’t possible to invalidate a moral responsibility to do the greatest good for the greatest number, but it was possible to divert people’s attention away from it. And that’s what happened.

On page 147 of the fourth edition of The Language of Post Modern Architecture, CJ does say of Taller Bofill’s 1983 Les Espaces d’Abraxas that “It is a popular architecture”. Finally having a home at last can’t have counted for nothing in a social housing project but all Jencks ever championed was a sense of palace.

Having got that off my chest, I’d just like to show that our built enviroment was never only about visual complexities and contradictions, and we don’t have to walk around Rome to encounter them or to read a half-century old book to appreciate them. They’re everywhere and there’s a lot we can learn from them. For example, this “sunken island” is a visual contradiction but a clever way of routing non-construction traffic around it and construction traffic across it.

Some complexities and contradictions are unintentional complications of cause and effect. Here, some fresh grass “stepping stones” exacerbate the very problem they’re put in place to solve.

Contradictions such as this next twixt building and lamp-post are to be found in cities around the world and our built environment is so much richer for having them. We must appreciate them for what they are.

This next image you saw a few posts back. A photograph of a building is digitally distressed to not look like the photograph it is, and then applied as a building wrap to make a building not look like the building it is. The something lighthearted about this deception. There’s no need to take it too seriously in what is, after all, an outdoor bar.

This next example of a secret door to a not-so-secret corridor is pure urban Magritte* and slightly more complex. Once again, a portion of a building is disguised to not look like the building it is, but this time the temporary suspension of reality is a depiction of the building that it will be. The real and present doorway exists within the virtual portal of the future, adding temporal complexity and contradiction to the visual complexity and contradiction.

But here’s where it begins to get sinister. There’s nothing intruiging or funny about the contradiction of an air-conditioned, open air street.

This next and apparently benign example clarifies what’s happening. It’s not the notice “For Display Only” that’s contradicatory here as that would stay true (although redundant) even if the flowers were real flowers and for sale. What we have here is real flowers being replaced with a representation of real flowers and being used to market something that has nothing to do with flowers or people who might want them.

In this next image we have an open air shopping mall as a representation of a city experience, as if all cities had incessant lighting effects, miniature trains, pop-up clothing stores, Turkish ice cream vendors, and balloon sellers galore (with Doraemon balloons for the discerning child and groundscraper balloons for keen-eyed toddlers). It’s no more a living functioning city than Seaside Florida was a real community. But it’s popular.

In this next image, the sign at the travelator says “Equipment switched off for energy conservation.” This is a noble thought until you realize all the equipment in this expensive construction was put in place to conserve the energy of public transport users as they traverse this air-conditioned walkway spanning nineteen lanes of traffic.

The representation of energy conservation has priority over encouraging the use of public transport and the real energy savings it brings for everyone. The new and sinister twist is that the people who now don’t get to use the travelator are encouraged to feel it’s somehow their energy that’s being saved. This sign is a confident and assertive illustration of the powerlessness of reason.

We outgrew the contrived visual complexities and contradictions of post-modernism but Jencks’s message of removing things of real value and replacing them with representations of intangible worth took root and to this day, is still regarded as truth, and probably even taught as truth. A product of its time, it meshed perfectly with the emerging neoliberal agenda of promising virtual benefits while taking away real ones. 

As we know, Pruitt-Igoe was never replaced, let alone with anything more “popular”. St. Louis housing projects weren’t the only urban areas blighted by street crime. 1970s Manhattan was also an antisocial battlefield but it nevertheless managed to avoid being dynamited. The movie, Escape From New York, in which Manhattan had been turned into a giant prison dates from 1981.

No architectural speculation is complete without an example from Venice. Here, a hoarding conceals a building only to depict a virtual one that’s then negated by an advertisement. It’s like the secret corridor in that a building wrap is applied to a building to make it make it look like the building it will be but, in this case, it’s the same as the building it once was. Between those past and future realities, the virtuous virtual building is obscured by a message very much in the here and now.

This is the neoliberalist agenda encapsulated. Replace something of real value with a representation of it and then use it to market something of zero benefit to those whose thing was replaced. Post Modernism taught us to value the representation more than the thing itself. Neoliberalism taught us to prefer the advertisements. This is where we are now. The only buildings that get presented to us as architecture are those that advertise their sponsors and their architects. Clearly, we are not living in a Renaissance.

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Thanks Jae, for alerting me to urban surrealism and starting me on this train of thought.

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2 Nov. 2017: I just saw this article by Sean Griffiths on Dezeen. We seem to be on the same page except by his using the term “post-modern revivalism” he implies that something knowable is being resurrected when, in reality, the processes it set in motion are still being played out and we have no idea where it’s going to end.

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A New Formalism

This post relates to Architecture Myth #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else and more distantly to Architecture Myth #15: Intellectual vs. Romantic. It’s getting the separate treatment because it follows on from The New Inhumanism and our current Post Modern Revivalism. Its working title was Emotion vs. Reason.

The success of Olivetti’s 1968 Valentine typewriter is attributed to it being designed to encourage people to relate to it emotionally as something more than a mere instrument for typing. I’d agree with that – I bought one, albeit in 1974. The first thing I typed was my Philosophy 100 essay, “Epistemology: What Can We Know?” The Valentine’s emotional appeal didn’t prevent it receiving an F later upgraded to a D after my protest more articulate than the original essay. The Valentine typewriter would also have negative emotional appeal for its designer Ettore Sotsass, miffed at being known best for having designed it.

People forming emotional relationships with consumer products wasn’t new but, previously, it had always occurred organically and mostly with respect to automobiles. VW’s Beetle, Morris’s Mini, Fiat’s 500 – the Bambino” and Citröen’s 2CV all hinted at some bond stronger than reason. The Valentine typewriter was the first product strategically designed to lure people into purchasing it on the basis of emotion.

By 1988 the method was perfected and along came the contrivedly retro Olympus O Product camera of which only 20,000 were made, each numbered. Demand was whipped up by having to register a month or so in advance in order to have the right to purchase one. With a name like O Product, Olympus knew exactly what they were doing and yes, I bought one, and in full knowledge I was being exquisitely suckered.

olympus_o_product_801084290

Since then the process has been updated and dumbed down. Not too long ago, Karla Welch, recent designer of a “revolutionary” T-shirt for Justin Bieber sternly told us “You have to commit to this T-shirt!

It’s still sweet and naïve compared to what we’ve come to know as post-truthism and people relating emotionally to particular words and sentences rather than their meaning. Skilled salespersons, speakers, presenters or even politicians may occasionally make emotional appeals to our better instincts but the techniques are the same as those deployed for emotional appeals to our baser instincts.

Relating to things through emotions is one of the processes Post Modernism set in motion to pave the way for Neoliberalism.

This is being overlooked in the current media enthusiasm to reimagine Post Modernism. One of the following kettles was not designed by Michael Graves. It makes no difference which, as all three were designed to appeal to emotions. Character-branded products and designer-branded products are at opposite ends of the snobbometer but they are false opposites. They both exist to separate you from your disposable income. This is the deceit post-modernism has for the consumer. And when exactly did people become “consumers” anyway, defined by how much of what the bought? I’m guessing circa 1975.

Was it really important for me to relate emotionally to boiling some water? Or was it more important I unthinkingly yet emotively purchased an Alessi kettle? Somebody’s interests were being looked after but they weren’t mine. And yes, in 1991, I bought one. I threw it when it boiled dry one day and stupid birdie melted.

If the Neoliberal mantra is “All that exists is good” then it’s safe to assume all that exists is suspect as well as the thinking and mechanisms that put it there. Encouraging us to see the world through the false opposites of as Modern/Reason/Nasty and PostModern/Emotion/Good does not lead to a greater understanding of the world because it is not meant to.

Example: Architecturally, Modernism was outmodded by Post Modernism which unfolded into Folding architecture and then deconstructed first into shattered Deconstructivists and then into curvy Deconstructivists that recently revealed themselves as the Neoliberal Affectivists. If we see this sequence as the progression of visual styles we’re encouraged to, then each style is the opposite of the one before but, taken together, there’s a macro-trend unmistakably edging towards representation without meaning. Seeing recent history as a chronology of stylistic opposites has taught us nothing. How did that happen? On whose watch was that? 

William Curtis used Jensen-Klint’s Grundtvig’s Church (1927–1940) in Copenhagen to make the point that Post Modernism can be thought of as a reversion to a kind of pre-Modernism that continued a long tradition of buildings meaning things to people. This would be true if 1927 hadn’t already been the beginning of the end of Modernism’s social ideals.

157784_Grundtvigs-Kirke_Martin-Heiberg

Meaning-laden churches and other buildings projecting power and authority did little to alleviate housing crises in Europe and Russia but rational construction and removing the unnecessary did [with Oud in the Netherlands, Hannes Meyer and  Ernst May in Germany, André Lurçat in France, Josef Polášek in Czechoslovakia, and Lacherta & Szanajcę in Poland]. I don’t accept that people who finally had a decent place to live didn’t have an emotional attachment to their dwellings. 

Josef Polasek

It took global crises to make the provision of mass housing a concern that the application of focussed architectural skills could and did solve but the topic was dumped once the immediate crisis was averted. We’re so accustomed to believing architecture works for the greater benefit of society that it’s difficult to conceive of it as a mechanism that repeatedly and consistently works against it. Mass housing is no threat to architecture as long as it’s emergency housing in a foreign country.

Japan had a serious housing problem after WWII and Soviet apartments were taken as the model for rebuilding. That was barely underway when, in 1962, Kazuo Shinohara was to declare that houses are art. (I bought that too, by the way.) If houses were art it was a very elitist art but, had the idea stopped there, it would’ve done no more than ensure we had a constant supply of intruiging Japanese art-houses to beguile us.

However, the powerful attractiveness of such an idea for architecture is that once something is declared art it is placed outside of critical reason. Normal rules no longer apply and one can only talk about whether or not something is good art, and that’s tricky given our degraded vocabulary for talking about such things. All the same, it’s still valid to like or dislike something without having to give a reason. Problems only arise when people try to convince others to like the same thing.

Robert Venturi’s 1968 opener “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture” is a statement of emotion with 90 pages of reasoned observation attached. It must’ve been pleasant wandering around Rome and pondering its Baroque architecture but what we got out of it was the idea that architecture was an art that should stimulate our pleasure centres. This has left us with buildings claiming to be playful, inventive, witty and amusing. We’re also left with the odd belief buildings exist to entertain us. 

I have no problem with either art or with architecture as art for one good thing art does is make us question our reality and re-evaluate our place in the world. In that sense, Roger Scruton saw art as a substitute for religion in increasingly secular post-Renaissance societies. I’m inclined to think so too, despite two adverse side-effects.

  1. The 1970s were the formative years of that intellectual construct, the starchitect. If architecture is art substituting for religion, then the media is no longer its galleries but its places of worship, and architects are not just artists and idols but prophets and deities. (This creates awkward moments when they age, become ill, or die.) 
  2. The other bad side effect is for architecture to be placed on a pedestal as something that can only be appreciated from a distance, and even then not by all. Pop artists produced expensive art that appropriated imagery from popular culture. Their art was neither popular nor for the people. This transfers exactly to architecture. Affordable housing is regarded with the same disdain as affordable art. Affordable architecture becomes an oxymoron.

If our likes don’t need to be justified but worth still needs to be quantified and claimed then we have a means tailored to do just that, with numbers of likes quantifying the degree of (varying degrees of) emotional impact in an open-ended scale of purported worth that has no opposite, not even the false opposite of reason. Emotion wins in a race of one and architecture always likes a winner. Reason has fallen by the wayside, probably dead. I know how this dog feels.

valentine

I’m warming more and more to the idea of a New Formalist mode of architectural criticism that probes how the tangible attributes of buildings are contrived to produce the intangible effects of architecture.

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Oct. 9, 7:32pm: The above image is of a 1968 Olivetti poster by Milton Glaser. From this blog, I just discovered it’s a detail of a 1495 painting by Piero di Cosimo.

Further googling leads me to this site and the bigger picture. It is Piero di Cosimo’s Death of Procris, now ca 1500-1510

None of this lesses the power of Glaser’s graphic, or his skill in choosing this particular image, cropping it and tweaking its lines and colours. I’ve always thought images containing the four primary colours seem complete somehow, whole. I’m aware it’s just a visual trick that can be strategically employed to evoke the emotional response of something being complete and whole but it works for me. It remains a very seductive image. The typewriter is perfect product placement. Its red works too, and beautifully and contrivedly so with the pumped up red of the flowers at the top and that triangulated red flower bottom right.

The message seems to be that the typewriter is incidental but still an integral part in some greater drama, as it is in Glaser’s composition. I also learn that the painting is said to be the first depiction in Western art of an animal appearing to feel emotion. Knowing that, it become easier to think that embedding emotion into a product was some greater corporate brief of Olivetti’s rather and no one-off accident of Mr. Sotsass. Following that train of thought, the post-modern “referencing” of history (and any subsequent emotion evoked) was a strategy to engage a market more monied than those any prior more socially-oriented architecture had catered to.

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Unimagining the Brick

Frank Lloyd Wright and his Froebel® blocks are the main reason we associate building blocks with the nurturing of architectural creativity. The great man himself told us it was so. The blocks may well have been responsible for Wright’s early mastery of horizontal and vertical massing but they might also explain his persistent aversion to diagonals and his creepy, late-in-life fascinations with circles.

Building blocks such as LEGO® [hereinafter, LEGO] have also been part of the lives of many children who did not all become architects. They could be used in many ways and to make many things. The were important for developing spatial ability in children and parents could also enjoy them in their own way. Parents must also have appreciated them being many toys in one and that requests for more pieces were easily and inexpensively satisfied – a state of affairs beneficial to everyone except the manufacturers. What the Lego company decided it needed was a product that discouraged disassembly and subsequent re-use and instead encouraged repeat purchases of one-off kits.

By 2014 the business turnaround of the Lego company was legendary. [1] The 1977 movie Star Wars had been the first movie to aggressively pursue tie-ins with all manner of products and companies.

The Lego company joined the party in 1999 in time for Star Wars Episode 1The first sets were released under the LEGO System brand and consisted of eight sets from Episode I and five sets from the original trilogy films, including the first LEGO Star Wars X-wing and Snowspeeder. [2]

Being expected to cheer at the Lego company’s business turnaround is yet another manifestation of the neoliberal pandemic that blinds us to seeing anything in terms other than dollar value. We don’t even think it odd anymore to talk about the worth of a movie in terms of its opening weekend gross, a footballer in terms of their transfer fee, or an architectural practice in terms of turnover or how many fee-generating architects it employs. 

Lego’s business problems were solved but it was distressing to watch for anyone raised on the old LEGO that had generic pieces and came without instructions. All the new LEGO required was the ability to follow instructions and diagrams and arrive at somebody else’s result. This used to be called construction – and we still need people who are good at that. What we don’t need is for creativity to be redefined as obedience. Or do we? Children who’ve known nothing else but new LEGO are about to graduate architecture school and we’ll soon see how well they adapt to today’s workforce.

Designing every piece as a special piece discouraged disassembly and the making of anything else but there would always be a steady stream of new kits to buy/make. The potential to creatively combine pieces was still represented by residual studs on larger pieces but the things most likely to be creatively added were minifigure characters that redefined creative play as the re-enactment of scenes from movies.

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The CREATOR and Architecture series [3] came along to show the link between LEGO and architectural creativity remained, even if as one-off kits that could only make one thing. Initial sets such as the 2009 Fallingwater and Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the 2011 Farnsworth House and the 2012 Sydney Opera House were spectacularly unlike what they purported to represent, further cementing the belief that shape was the only thing in architecture that mattered.

These representations of architectural creativity made them ideal gifts for architects. The 2013 Sydney Opera House was an improvement in terms of realism but the series name CREATOR was a misnomer.

These next three buildings embody a certain notion of architectural creativity but their shapes simply don’t do what LEGO does best. I don’t think we’ll be seeing them as LEGO kits anytime soon but, after seeing Marina Bay Sands above, who knows? 

LEGO’s limitations may become apparent when representing certain architectural ideas about shape, but it has even greater limitations when representing any architectural idea that isn’t about shape. We won’t be seeing these next buildings immortalized in LEGO anytime soon.

Gary Garvin already did Dessau. [4]

Occasionally, we hear of rogue artists using LEGO in the disobedient ways of art, such as Nathan Sawayas [5] and his deconstructed figures, Jan Vorman’s [5] repairing of war-ravaged walls, and Wei Wei’s use of donated (i.e. unapproved = “non-LEGO”) bricks for an exhibition of portraits of dissidents and political prisoners after the Lego company refused him a bulk purchase [6].

And then there was the LEGO house. Back in 2009 when I didn’t know who James May was, I thought this was an amusing but experimental use of LEGO as a building product until I learned it was built with the expectation of becoming a permanent exhibit at UK’s LEGOLAND®. This means that rather than being conceived of as a good idea, it was conceived as an exhibit and thus no different from any of the buildings at the VITRA zoo. It was stupid of me to imagine it could ever have been anything else. A mass-producible, durable and generic construction material anyone could assemble into buildings of infinite variation was simply too good to be true.

All avenues of escape are being cut off one by one. Even before the circle was finally closed there had been the LEGO meme in architecture [c.f. Architecture Myths #16: Memes]. Buildings were mimicking LEGO before LEGO came to mimic architecture.

It’s as if the world of architecture still wanted us to believe LEGO had a link with creativity long after the Lego company had abandoned its principles for the noisy representation of them. God this postmodern world sucks.

lego-groundbreaking-brian-yang-dezeen

This refusal of the world of architecture to believe what others already accepted created the market for LEGO Architecture Studio. “Anyone with an interest in architecture can now create their own Lego original designs, as well as building mini architectural masterpieces such as the Eiffel Tower and the Trevi Fountain,” gushed a Lego press release quoted on dezeen, as these things are.

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This architectural LEGO can be used to represent architectural ideas as long as they don’t involve properties other than shape. I wasn’t the only kid who valued colour as a property of the bricks.

Aspiring adults can now express their creativity through monochromatic models using a curated selection of architectural tropes and memes. It’s all too real for comfort. The architect kit comes with a 250-page guidebook [8] for those who still don’t get it. It’s an important document future scholars will study in order to understand precisely how the world turned to shit.

Then there’s the LEGO Master Builder Academy Designer Handbook [pdf] that teaches you how to be a designer of LEGO models …

I’m probably guilty of finding something more interesting than it actually is, but I chuckled anyway at Amy Frearson’s question to Bjarke Ingels, “Was it something of a given that you would use the LEGO brick as the basis of the design?”  

And so we approach the endgame with architecture going one step further than the LEGO meme by aspiring to be real LEGO architecture – or is that “real” LEGO architecture? It’s tricky. I propose we use doubled quotation marks to indicate those situations when reality and representations of it fold in and over each other like pizza dough, e.g. “”LEGO Architecture.””

There’s only one way this can end. We’re slowly but surely working our way towards a modular construction element that can be combined in infinitely many ways to build anything quickly, cheaply and easily. However, before that can become a product of enormous benefit to the world, there’s still some problems such as security, structural integrity, fire safety, thermal properties and moisture proofing that need to be sorted. In the meantime, we can just pretend they don’t exist so, in that sense, LEGO and architecture are already indistinguishable. 

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  1. One of many articles describing the Lego company’s turnaround as one of the greatest business success stories of all time.
  2. A post on starwars.com telling of fifteen years of LEGO® and STAR WARS™ tie-ins
  3. brickset.com is the eBay of architectural LEGO
  4. There’s a book, The LEGO Architect.
  5. More on LEGO artists Nathan Sawaya and Jan Vorman
  6. The Lego company’s refusal to allow Chinese artist Wei Wei to bulk purchase LEGO has been their only major PR misjudgment we know about.
  7. The 250-page guidebook [pdf (be patient)] accompanying the LEGO Architecture Studio Set has an introductory essay by extrusion-hater Winy Maas, followed by essays and exercises to which invited architects have input. There is REX on Scale, Sō Fujimoto on Space and Section, SOM on Modules and Repetition, MAD Architecture Workshop on Surface, Tham & Videgård Arkitekter Workshop on Mass and Density,  Safdie architects on Symmetry, and KRADS architects who are credited as consulting concept editors [!?] One thing I did learn was that Moshe Safdie used many white LEGO blocks in cluster studies for the apartment modules, gardens and streets of Habitat 67. This makes sense because LEGO was a way of understanding an idea well suited to being understood using LEGO. Elsewhere*, Safdie has said the 2:1 bricks offered the perfect scale.1200px-Habitat_panorama
  8. I was thinking a reverse-engineered Habitat 67 LEGO tribute kit at that scale and with only 1:1 and 2:1 bricks would be a piece of history and a useful tool for everybody to learn about scale, space, section, modules, repetition and symmetry in the same way they informed Safdie’s design. Instead, what happened was the limited-edition sale of a partial model pre-created by Nathalie Boucher. Ingenious as it is, it conveys nothing of how the old LEGO was used creatively to produce the wondrous thing “”LEGO Architecture”” merely depicts. Habitat 67 is a genuine example of old LEGO being used as a creative tool in architecture. It’s no surprise then, that the freestyle creativity LEGO once enabled so generously and silently had to be strategically and noisily supplanted with the dutiful construction of a representation of Habitat 67 as a representation of that creativity.

    One redefinition and two degrees of abstraction now insulate the new creativity from the old. The postmodern world sucked but this neoliberal mutation doublesucks.

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Misfits’ Guide to HONG KONG

The previous post began with an exhibition about the Japanese house, architecture and life after 1945. This one begins with an exhibition about the Hong Kong apartment, buildings and living after 1945.

Housing Authority Exhibition Centre
4F, Block 3, Housing Authority Headquarters, 80 Fat Kwong St, Ho Man Tin, Kowloon

The exhibition deals with the story of public housing in Hong Kong. In 1945 its population was 600,000. Over the next five years, 1.5 million people would either return to it or flee to it. 

The exhibition describes the incremental improvements to facilities and increases in floor area per person and the differences they made. It explains how the method of construction changed to keep up with demand and how management and maintenance regimes adapted to extract maximum performance from precious housing stock.

There’s information on changes in housing policy, home ownership schemes, design for the elderly, sustainable practices and site-specific design. Airflow around buildings is now an important part of sustainable practices and site-specific design is becoming more important now it’s no longer possible to create large sites through reclamation.

Over fifty years, tower design has evolved (in the true sense of the word) to embody an enormous amount of intelligence I’ll write about some other time.

The story of Hong Kong is inseparable from the story of public housing and the exhibition was a clear and simple illustration of how people’s lives were changed for the better. A group of junior-school childen was entering as I was leaving. Half of them will live in public housing but for every one of them it’s a part of their history and culture and it cheered me no end to see it being recognized and taught as such.

State Theatre
1952
227-291 Kings Road, Hong Kong

This 1,400 seat theatre with exposed concrete roof truses was the cultural hub of Hong Kong’s classical music scene for many years. Currently derelict, its future is looking very iffy. A developer is circling.

Chungking Mansions, 1962
Lamb Halzeland & Co.
36-44 Nathan Road, TST Kowloon

Chungking Mansions is famous for being a high-density mixed-use housing and retail development although that was never the intention. There are thirteen floors of highly subdivided apartments above two levels of small retail spaces. This is what it looks like without any divisions into retail units, retail spaces, sublets and bedspaces.

Many people who work in the building also live in the building that continues to be an important entry point for immigrants or, in ourspeak, a business incubator. Its vibrance is legendary. It is policed as an extension of the city streets that it is.

There’s something good there. The ground floor has laundries, grocers, fast food, restaurants, and everything else a person might need on a daily basis. Mobile phone and consumer electronics stores let immigrants monetize forgotten skills such as how to fix things and make them last. People might wait for elevators between a Western Union and a grocer. Chungking Mansions works and for reasons that have little to with architecture, shopfitting, interiors and public open space. Retailers who live in the building have a natural and organic attachment to it. This doesn’t happen with the later and more strategically contrived juxtapositions of typologies.

Choi Hung Estate
P&T Architects, 1965
Choi Hung Estate, Wan Tai, Kowloon

The Choi Hung (rainbow, in Cantonese) Estate is from the same era and everybody knows it as one of Hong Kong’s first housing estates. It’s rainbow colours have been maintained and the roof of the car park is host to photographers and other life.

The estate houses about 43,000 people. This is probably why the ground level can sustain a large variety of shops that not only include butchers and various grocery stores, but hairdressers, shoe stores, a store selling only plastic stools, and another only acoustic guitars. This is not a mall. It is housing combined with stores with a full range of daily essentials. Stores are small and their owners seem to spend much time chatting with customers. Despite this development receiving a Hong Kong Association of Architects’ Silver Award in 1965, we fail to recognise anything here that resembles architecture as we now know it. This is our loss because residents and retailers combine to make something special. Perhaps all that’s needed is for architecture to not work against it.

Montane Mansion
Hong Kong Housing Authority 1972
1028 King’s Rd, Quarry Bay

Montane Mansion is big and densely-packed E-shaped building fronting King’s Road. Around the back it’s a photographer magnet responsible for this building’s huge presence on Instagram. The classic shot is the rectangle of sky, preferably in early evening when apartment lights are coming on. At eye level however are laundries, hairdressers, stores selling oranges, and shopkeepers observing the strange behaviour of visitors.

Montane Mansion ends the street well despite its long side not following the curve of the street in order to be beautiful.

The Hong Kong Tram
Hong Kong Island

Hong Kong Island has the world’s only double-decker tram fleet of 163 trams that carry around 230,000 passengers per day. Their design has had various updates since they were first introduced in 1904 but all still have the same boxy teak carriages and oddly short wheelbase. The most recent change is the addition of a smile [see image above]. A single journey costs HK$2.30 (US$0.30) irrespective of journey length.

Exits A1 and C1, HKU Station
MTR (Mass Transit Railway), Hong Kong
Exits A1, A2 and C1, HKU Station, Hong Kong

With two stops and eighteen floors from subway concourse to university concourse, these subway exits are a useful means of public transport and vertical extensions of the subway itself. They’re free. Elevator displays show destinations rather than levels. Exit A2 is the express.

Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate (勵德邨)
Hong Kong Housing Authority 1975
2 – 38 Lai Tak Tsuen Road, Tai Hang, Wan Chai District, Hong Kong

It’s not unusual for a Hong Kong apartment tower to have a light well at its middle but having a circular one is. This estate has two pairs of circular buildings, connected like binoculars, with elevators in the middle and open stairs at opposite ends.

Access balconies open directly onto the light well and the open stairs enable roof access. It seems apartment ventilation would be enhanced by such an arrangement but the Venturi Effect [the principle by which a spray gun operates] would only operate in moderate-high winds if the stairwalls were enclosed. The typology was never developed.

Tai Koo Estate
Swire Properties (Developer) 1982 (Phase 1)
18 Taikoo Shing Road, Taikoo Shing

Phase 2 is the block labelled CITY PLAZA in the image below. Imagine a mall covering a city block with three levels above ground and one below, and with parking below that. This forms a podium for nine 100m apartment towers known as HORIZON GARDENS.

The upper three levels are standard mall fare and the basement contains daily essentials. Apartment building entry lobbies are accessed from the sidewalks on the long sides of the mall.

Residents could just cross the street to access the Phase 1 mall and through that Taikoo MTR Station and Kornhill Plaza mall beyond, or they could enter the Phase 2 mall and access it via the wide bridge crossing Taikoo Shing Road.

Peripheral streets are fairly busy with pedestrians because of these access arrangements and amenities such as the waterside Quarry Bay Park are not far away.

Two office buildings linked to the mall by elevated walkways comprise Phases 3 and 4 that replace four apartment towers. This not-so-stealthy gentrification is obvious when older apartment blocks exist in close proximity to the retail and amenity spaces typical of commerical areas.

Pacific Place
Swire Properties (Developer), Wong & Ouyang (Architects), Heatherwick Studio (refurbishment)
88 Queensway, Admiralty, Hong Kong

This mall has no obvious gimmicks so I was surprised to learn that most of what I liked is the result of a 2007 refurbishment by Heatherwick Studio. The format for mall and store signage is unified throughout but those rules are broken for the more exclusive stores on the uppermost and lowers floors, as well as for the cineplex anchor.

There is timber on soffits and clear (curved!) glass balustrades with curved timber handrails, and a palette of neutrals. Escalator grab rails are brown.

There aren’t any concessions monetizing walkways as they obstruct them. There is only one double-sided display advertising in-mall promotions. The one event space is not constantly in use. All this is refreshing. Food and beverage outlets on the lowest level do not become a Food Court. A Starbucks is tucked away in a corner beneath escalators. Background music was slightly up-tempo around lunchtime but is generally low-key and low-volume. Think Julee Cruise’s Floating Into The Night.

The layout is easily understood and non-coercive. Contrary to the tenets of mall design, elevators and escalators are positioned where people might need them and without devious diversions. How to get where you want to is obvious, even if it’s outside. There’s an absence of free attractors such as aquariums or musical fountains animating walkways for the sake of paying people watchers. 

There’s also no attempt to artificially create zones through different flooring or soffit finishes. The one flooring is used throughout with subtle changes in direction of laying and the size of stone. The two-coloured flagstones are laid so the mix changes from “stone” to blue, emphasizing the shopfronts in the same way that waves emphasize a beach.

Glass panels in the rooftop drop-off zone allow a surprising amount of light into the mall. Natural light is all that’s needed to show natural materials to advantage but delicate chandeliers display clouds of pink and blue light that add base and top notes to the colour balance. They’re a thing to behold.

Artificial light also complements natural light elsewhere. Where skyligthts aren’t possible, light fittings in ceiling coffers continue the pattern.

At podium level are entrances to two office towers, three hotels and a hotel apartment tower. All except this last have direct access to the mall and metro station, as well as other buildings connected either above or below ground as is the Hong Kong way.

Queensway Plaza
Queensway, Hong Kong

Even though the experience is almost entirely internal, Pacific Place still has a sense of being a building with site boundaries and a shape and identity. Queensway Plaza doesn’t. You could pass through it without even knowing it. It’s still very much a mall with space either side of thoroughfares monetized as retail. Its thoroughfares link Pacific Place and at least three other office towers horizontally but also the bus station at ground level and the Admiralty MTR station below. It’s at the centre of everything in the map below but has next to zero external physical presence.

The internal experience is like those duty-free corridors that now line most major airports. You’re not expected to linger but to buy and move on. I wouldn’t be surprised if footfall makes it the most cost-effective retail space in Hong Kong.

The exterior turned out to be unimportant. Corbusian spouts pointlessly pour water as paint peels off the architectural stairwell. A light well remains defiantly magical.

Nam Long Shan Road Cooked Food Market
Nam Long Shan Road, Aberdeen, Hong Kong

This building is also unprepossessing from the street. Two wings of three floors are separated by a sliver of courtyard. It’s where people come to eat, and the building lets them do that with a bit of ceremony and in all the comfort they need.

Hong Kong Electric Building
Connaught Road Central, Hong Kong

I know nothing about this building but I’ve called it the Hong Kong Electric Building because of the logo on it. It has the mystery of a utilities building and appears slightly sinister due to its unrevealing exterior and dominant position along Connaught Road Central [c.f. The New Inhumanism]. Much like a Shin Takamatsu building, it is decorative and symbolic in ways we can’t relate to, as if it was an artefact from the future.

Asia Society
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects 2012
9 Justice Dr, Admiralty, Hong Kong

This building is difficult to photograph because it’s not so much a building but a program of additions to “a group of four former British military buildings originally built by the British Army in the mid-19th century for explosives and ammunition production and storage. It was then expanded and taken over by the Royal Navy in the early 20th century. The site was later abandoned in 1990s until it was granted to the Asia Society Hong Kong for adaptive reuse.”*  There are many of the juxtapositions of new and old that characterize adaptive reuse.

As it’s an art gallery, those additions involve an entrance lobby, cafeteria, store and a small amphitheatere. A new bridge elbows around a breeding ground for fruit bats and leads to the galleries.

The star attraction is Hong Kong itself. To one side of the bridge is the steep mountainside host to the bat habitat, and on the other is airspace and beyond that the city. Hong Kong is full of such juxtapositions but the boundaries were as soft and blurred as they could ever be on a bridge. I like that the bridge balustrade does its fencing thing and that plants do their growing thing in the same place.

The open upper level of the two-storey bridge leads back to a roof garden event space and the elevator down.

Union Square Development
Terry Farrel & Partners (masterplanners), ongoing
1 Austin Road West, West Kowloon

The MTR (Mass Transit Railway) is now Hong Kong’s dominant player in housing development since it can sell the air rights above newly-built subway stations in much the same way as happened with Grand Central Station. The mall+apartment tower hybrid is now a subway+mall+apartment tower hybrid and the result is privately owned public infrastructure. On the surface, everybody seems to win.

Between the station and the apartment towers is public open space as well as outdoors F&B outlets. It wasn’t horrible. There was security and card access to the residential towers via some communal open space, but the public open space is of limited use as open space even when it is open to the public between 6:00 am and 10:00 pm.

This development was rightly criticised for being an island with no connection to its surroundings. I searched in vain for an exit to a street. Union Square is up against the Hong Kong Island cross-harbour road/tunnel entry to its west but, when the time comes to do so, future foobridges will no doubt connect it to developments currently being constructed to the south, north and east.

Opus Hong Kong
Frank Gehry, 2012
53 Stubbs Road, Hong Kong

Frank Gehry’s Fred and Ginger reprise spawned Asia’s most expensive residences. The building is often photographed as a solitary blot on a pristine mountainside. I was pleased that’s not exactly the case but even relatively isolated developments such as this will attract infill development and further dilute Hong Kong’s unique juxtapositions of nature and artifice.

Clague Garden Estate (祈德尊新邨)
P&T Architects, 1989
Tsuen Wan

Three 40-storey apartment towers contain 552 apartments for rent and 926 for sale. Additional low-rise buildings mean some 6,700 people live in 1,800 apartments having areas between 21m²  and 55 m². I’ve doctored this generic plan to show how apartment access is configured

Towers with H-shaped corridors have been split, the two halves offset and every third level reconnected with bridges, elevators and garbage rooms. Every 36 apartments share a communal volume internally overlooked by all stairs as well as some kitchens and bedrooms [c.f. The Landscape Within].

Stairwells serve as fire stairs and have apartments at half landings so as to minimise unlit corridor length. Balustrades are solid where there is a building-height void but are open railings when there is a three-storey void. This next image is an enlargement of the top right image above. Deep beams supporting the bridges have openings to lessen the enclosure of the uppermost stairs, creating sight lines to the stairs beyond.

This may be feng-shui at work or it may just be a nice thing to do. On both sides every thirteen or so floors are circular moon-gates. These might have been provided to guide dragons descending the nearby mountains or they might have been provided to give a public scale to the building when seen from the street.

The building has three different scales and each is appropriate for the scale at which the building is comprehended. Occupants are aware of all three as they move from their own space to have an awareness of their own place within their community of 36 apartments, of their community’s place within the building, and of their building’s place in the city and landscape. We can’t really ask a building to do more.

• • •

Thanks: 

  • to Gabriel for letting me know about Lai Tak Tsuen Public Housing Estate and for the heads up on trends in estate development
  • to Sebastien for taking me to see Clague Garden Estate and for suggesting I visit Nam Long Shan Road Cooked Food Market and Queensway Plaza
  • to Nik for suggesting I see State Theatre and for taking me to J. Boroski Hong Kong
  • to Tom for introducing me to Macau
  • to Nasrine for suggesting I visit Pacific Place and Asia Society
  • to Trent and all the utopian urbanists from the University of Queensland
  • to everyone at the Hong Kong Housing Authority Exhibition Centre

 

Madame Butterfly

Japanese people don’t all live in houses like the one above but how are we ever going to know? I left the recent Barbican exhibition The Japanese House: Architecture and Life after 1945 wondering what anyone can ever know about anything but decided to defer judgment until I’d gone through the catalogue.

Pippo Ciorra told of Bruno Taut’s first trip to Japan in 1933. I imagined Taut taking off his shoes, being amazed at the shoji slid open for him, sitting uncomfortably on a zabuton around a low square table in the centre of the reception room. Later, he would have been offered a yukata, instructed in how to use the furo, been appalled by the benjo and, unused to futon, sleeping fitfully. In the morning, he would have looked in the kitchen and seen mackerel being grilled and misoshiru and rice prepared for breakfast back at the same low table now set with plates of nori and (as it was Kansai) bowls of nattō.

The novelty of things new and foreign would have compensated for much, but Taut was having to adapt to every single one of the basic activities of living being satisfied in ways totally different to what he was used to. That next day, his friend took him to see Katsura Imperial Palace and Taut had some sort of epiphany, seeing proto-modern architecture and clarity and beauty everywhere. It was the beginning of our love affair with Japanese architecture. Even now it has little to do with the houses in which people actually live.

Two years prior, Japan had invaded and annexed Manchuria but that’s not another story because, if there hadn’t been a 1931 there wouldn’t have been a 1945 for this exhibition to pick up from and show us what happened after modernity arrived in Japan in the form of Western influence. This exhibition is about our history of the Japanese house and its relationship to architecture and life. It is about us. We never get to find out what Japanese houses were like before 1945.

Just as Taut saw Modernism at Katsura, Japanese people saw Japan in Kenzo Tange’s 1953 own house. Everyone else saw something a Japanese acolyte of Le Corbusier might design. The same could be said for Kazuo Shinohara’s first house, the 1954 House in Kugayama but, using steel as it did, more with respect to Mies. We’re predisposed towards liking things that suggest how we should understand them.

These most widely circulated photographs of these houses conceal their pitched roofs from us. As for the Shinohara house, we have only this illicit photograph of a model.

Both houses were completed within a year of each other and this closeness in time suggests we understand them as the Farnsworth House and Glass House of the Far East. The two are always presented together as having equivalent historical importance despite Tange never designing another in his long career and Shinohara doing little else for the first thirty years of his. In 1962 Shinohara made the claim that “Houses are Art” and we’ve being seeing Japanese houses as art ever since. This exhibition did nothing to discourage us.

There was much architecture on display but little life apart from some vintage photographs of non-Japanese inside houses,

and a photo of Tange in his garden, encapsulating the exhibition title in a single staged shot. [It doesn’t look like Tange was very good at throwing balls – at least not in the proximity of early Tarō Okamoto sculptures.] 

The absence of people and traces of living is nothing new in architectural photography but Shinohara was also to make that into an art. This book claims it was to recreate the same degree of abstraction as Japanese life and the syntax of Japanese architecture he had extracted.

houses are art.jpeg

Maybe. I just remember him saying he had no interest in his houses after the clients moved in. This statement doesn’t travel as well, but it’s not a contradiction. Either way, it’s a shame because interesting things happen when real living collides with some of Shinohara’s houses. Architecture and life shouldn’t be incompatible, but nor should they be forced to become an interior representing both while being neither.

Such an attitude doesn’t fit our image of what Japanese architecture should be and Shinohara (left) and later architects (right) have obliged us ever since with photographs such as these.

Our history of Japanese architecture was presented back at us, such as the story about Toyo Ito’s U-House for his sister after the death of her husband. Can Architecture Heal Loss? Apparently it can, because the family moved out when it was time, the house was demolished and an apartment block built in its place.

Poor us though! We’ve been grieving for this house ever since, keeping it alive in our memories and, last year, even reincarnating it for this same exhibition when it appeared at MAXXI.

It’s enough to make one think architecture has little to do with actual buildings, that people’s lives and architecture exist independently of the buildings that once nurtured them, and that the purpose of buildings is to enable lives to be lived as a footnote to the goal of generating architecture. Other suspicions we have of Japanese houses were also confirmed.

Japanese houses are small

Japanese houses are different

Attempting to extract the wisdom of vernacular and anonymous architecture is now a hot topic East and West. For example, the 2017 recipient of the Wheelwright Prize intends to “study the traditions and methods that enable formal architecture to operate within the paradigm of projectless environments, sensitive to the potential cultural frictions associated with restructuring problematic settlements.”  I hope this turns out to be part of a genuine movement to apply the embodied intelligence of vernacular architectures and not some quest akin to combing the rainforests for patentable products instead of cures.

Japanese live in unorthodox ways

The exhibition had animations and movie clips with houses and people moving around (or not) but the takeaway was fuzzy. Soon after, I watached Ozu’s Tokyo Story that has much sitting and moving around. I saw the [“うらら“] beauty salon Koichi’s wife runs from the ground floor of their house, with occupants and clients sharing the same entrance. Having a home business on the ground floor was the norm with machiya [c.f. The Japanese Machiya] but also extremely common in houses in the post-war years.

Once, I went to the house of a friend and, in the space where I expected the reception room to be, his wife was pouring buckets of plastic pellets into a huge injection molding machine that made orange plastic stays to keep the tone arms of record players in place during transit.  

A single anecdote of mine isn’t conclusive but saying Atelier Bow Wow’s combining of office and living functions recalls traditional urban building types doesn’t say much either. Even the tradition being alluded to is that of machiya and not the heroic live/work units that existed well into the 1980s.

Japanese appreciate Purity of Form

No they don’t – we do! The model of Ando’s Sumiyoshi House on display was the same one last seen at the 2014 Venice Bienalle.

It was still perpetrating our belief that Japanese appreciate purity of form rather than letting us accept the as-built reality of the house. [c.f. Architectural Myths #6: Purity of Form] Our understanding of the Japanese house is what we want our understanding of the Japanese house to be. Japanese architects understand that but we still don’t.

Japanese people live with their stuff artfully arranged

Japanese would see the bathroom below as a Western-style bathroom but to us it’s just a bathroom, albeit a spartan one. Even if this mock-up does approximate the bathroom at Moriyama House (towards the centre of the plan below), it tells us nothing of Japanese bathing habits, or of any shift in bathing habits that may have occurred since 1945.

Similarly, the kitchen tableau (of the room at the top left in the plan above) confirms our belief Japanese live with not much stuff and in a super-organized way. I have my own doubts as to its fidelity but won’t nitpick. I feel for the curators – it must have been like trying to improvise a Henry VIII costume using only things in your living room and wardrobe.

SANAA’s Moriyama House is neither representative of Japanese houses or even how they’re lived in and, because of that, was an excellent choice to reinforce what we like to believe about both. People moved in and around the downstairs mock-ups as if they were in IKEA bemused at how “A family of six lives in this 30m² house!”

Japanese have an aesthetic non-Japanese are incapable of understanding

Balancing the selective mock-ups of SANAA’s Moriyama House was a setting, the primary purpose of which was to make real some kind of mythical Japan-land that exists in the Western psyche. A rock garden is suggested by an abundance of coarse gravel islands bounded by rope. Curious mossy mounds suggest Chinese landscapes. For such a major element of Japanese living, tatami were oddly absent, even in Terunobu Fujimori’s charred-timber clad tea-house-esque construction.

And so it was I wondered if it was really possible to know anything about anything unless it’s presented to us as what we know already. It’s cliché to say travel writing tells more about the traveller than the place but so do travelling exhibitions.

• • •

I’ve written all this as if the exhibition were still on at The Barbican – it’s not. Here’s a preview from before the exhibition opened on March 23,

high tea

and here’s another from The Guardian, after the opening. This review on Archinect, is best of the three.

9rmsg2p8ork0tscj.jpg

• • •

The catalogue turned out to be very interesting, covering topics and providing information the exhibit could only hint at.

Apart from the four introductory essays at the beginning and some architect biographies at the end, the same content will appear as this ja+u special issue.

 

Seventy-five houses are organized into themes that are somewhat arbitrary but, (if they’re not going to use sleeping, cooking, eating, bathing, sitting and shitting) then they’re as good as any others. Japaneseness is an important one, and illustrated by the Tange and Shinohara houses already mentioned. Mass Production was perfunctorily dealt with. Lightness might have told us more if it’d stuck to physical lightness rather than overstretch it to include Kikutake’s concrete-y Sky House. Truth is though, there’s so much diversity in these modern architect-designed Japanese house that no set of categories is ever going to suffice.

The invention and diversity in Japanese houses post-1945 can be thought of as the Japanese idea that houses are Art coupling with the Western notion that houses are for the display of Individuality. For non-Japanese, the idea that a house is art is an extremely seductive one and, for Japanese, the idea that a house can be used to express individuality is equally powerful. This marriage of convenience gave us the Japanese house as a conceptual post-war baby and we’re endlessly fascinated seeing ourselves in the fruit of this union.

• • •

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The New Inhumanism

petit-cover

It’s almost twelve months to the day since I scared myself reading a 2013 book that, it was claimed, re-theorized Post Modernism. “FML,” I thought, “of all the things that need new life breathed into them, we get this one!” Anxiously watching for further signs, I began a draft.

the undead

About the book, The Graham Foundation wrote [underlines mine]:

“In this fascinating reassessment of postmodern architecture at the end of the twentieth century, Emmanuel Petit addresses the role of irony and finds a vitality and depth of dialectics largely ignored by historical critiques. A look at five proponents of postmodernism—Peter Eisenman (b. 1932), Arata Isozaki (b. 1931), Rem Koolhaas (b. 1944), Stanley Tigerman (b. 1930), and Robert Venturi (b. 1925)— reveals the beginning of a phenomenology of irony in architecture. As Petit explains, irony is manifested in the work of these architects in a variety of ways, including its use as an aesthetic tool, as existential comedy, as Romantic tragedy, and as cultural satire.

BDOnline  July 2013, wrote:

“It explores the condition beyond that of “neither/nor” to “both/and” … seeks to convey something beyond that which can be directly seen, through overlayering of experience, historical recollection and tactility. They show something deliberately yet falsely constructed, removed from use, something which goes beyond the idea of the “natural” and reveals itself as artifice.”

“Even for those not keen on this particular ism though, it investigates a time when architects questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society, unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction – a thesis surely worth reevaluating by today’s practitioners, regardless of their stylistic inclinations.”

The source of my disquiet was my new knowledge that Post Modernism and Neoliberalism are creatures of the same era.

hayek

Seen in this light, the statement “Even for those not keen on this particular ism though, this book investigates a time when architects questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society, unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction – a thesis surely worth re-evaluating by today’s practitioners, regardless of their stylistic inclinations” is light with the truth. Yes, Post Modern architects may have questioned their potential for a positive influence on a society but their answer was to redefine their field of endeavour to exclude responsibility for real action and, in its place

  1. show something deliberately yet falsely constructed, removed from use, something which goes beyond the idea of the “natural” and reveals itself as artifice,
  2. seek to convey something beyond that which can be directly seen, through overlayering of experience, historical recollection and tactility, and
  3. in a variety of ways, including its use as an aesthetic tool, as existential comedy, as Romantic tragedy, and as cultural satire.

In short, Architects now thought of themselves as cultural commentators rather than cultural facilitators. And, as for “… unmasking their weaknesses and proposing new ideologies for interaction …”, we shouldn’t assume the correct weaknesses were ever unmasked – just the convenient ones. e.g. The cure for the alienation famously supposedly felt by the residents of Pruitt Igoe wasn’t a programme of preventive maintenance to fix things, but a new look for corporate architecture across the western world and beyond.

There’s also something intellectually and morally offensive about anyone giving anyone cause to write “defining the heyday of irony as the period between the demolition of Pruit Igoe and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers” but I’ll get over it. I no longer care about Post Modernism being re-theorized. I’m more worried about Post Modernism being de-theorized and remembered and presented to us as having been nothing more than a style. We see the decorative arts as the advance guard grooming us to see post modernism as only haptic pleasure, and what a frenzy there currently is to do it! We’re being love-bombed with high-profile exhibitions and glowing reviews.

After the groundwork is done, the production of contemporary artefacts in the style of Post Modernism finishes the job.

The surest way to kill off any architectural movement of social worth is to make people think of it as a style that can then be summarily dismissed as outdated. Recent renewed interest in Brutalism considered it only as a visual style, with no mention of it ever having been part of any wider social agenda. [c.f. HIGH-RISE]

HR_2154_tiff.tif

At first, I found it difficult to imagine what inconvenient ideas Post Modernism may have ever had in order to warrant this sudden neutering by revival but there is one, and it has nothing to do with any specific meaning or meanings. It’s the notion that buildings could convey meaning at all that needed killing, and it’s no accident this process is now taking place now.

This LA Review of Books review of Douglas Spencer’s The Architecture of Neoliberalism will bring you up to speed on architecture and neoliberalism.

neoliberalism

Mention is made of “the affective turn” architecture took around 1975.

expressive

Basically,

IF WE CAN FORGET THAT THINGS WERE ONCE THOUGHT TO CONVEY MEANING,

WE WILL BE MORE RECEPTIVE TO AN ARCHITECTURE OF AFFECT THAT AIMS TO KILL OUR CAPACITY FOR CRITICAL THINKING.

I actually doubt it’s possible to devise an architecture of pure affect (and rid the world of pesky criticism once and for all as per the gameplan) but, as with most things, a crude approximation will probably do the trick anyway despite it being no more possible to wish away semiotics than it is to unlearn rational construction. Even poster post-modernist buildings were constructed rationally, with columns and slabs like many a good modernist building before.

If you’re finding it hard to accept that contemporary architecture has become an instrument of control and compliance then consider this next example of Late Koolhaas. As a contribution to the architecture of affect, it doesn’t appear to be saying anything but this doesn’t make it impervious to criticism for – and this is the conceptual leap – who trusts what an architect’s stated intentions are anymore anyway? It’s easier to retrieve the real intentions of a Renaissance architect than it is for any of our current lot. Perhaps that transparency is what made the Renaissance a renaissance? We’re clearly not living in one.

qatar-foundation-headquarters-oma-architecture-offices-credit-jazzy-news_dezeen_hero.jpg

Semiotics won’t just die because somebody wants it to, or says it has. Just as an anti-aesthetic is still an aesthetic because things doggedly persist in having physical properties, those same physical properties mean that any building purporting to be an architecture of affect still has a visual presence we can interpret and criticise as we wish.

maxresdefault

The defining characteristic of Neoliberalist Style is to deny buildings their identity as things built for humans to even appreciate, let alone be used by. Buildings look as if they came from another planet and with subjugation in mind. [No surprise there.] Omrania & Associates / Ellerbe Becket’s Kingdom Centre Tower in Riyadh nailed the look back in 2002.

Kingdom-Centre-in-Riyadh-1.jpg

  1. COLOUR: Greyscale denies any association with the natural world.
  2. PATTERN: No indication of floor heights or windows for use by humans. This denial of human scale is more than the absence of alleged feelgood factors. It’s a demonstration of contempt for humanity per se. This includes denying the building has even been constructed by the labour of humans.
  3. SHAPE: Shape is determined by factors other than what goes on inside. It cannot be “read” in terms of function or who or what may perform those functions. The shape acknowledges no external factors. Environment and context mean nothing.
  4. POSITION: Positioning with respect to an axis or axes brings immediate surroundings into the composition, extending the building’s “reach” and making it the focal point of its new home.
  5. ALIGNMENT: Alignment reinforces positioning. The combination of axes and symmetries are the tried and tested indicators of power and authority. (“You are an extension of me. I give you meaning.”)
  6. SIZE: Size seems to not have been determined by any human program. Again, this is a denial of humans and their various needs. Buildings whose size has no obvious reason dismiss human scale (and humans) by either having either no indicators of it, or by having a monumental scale in contempt of it.

Meaning, whether intentional or not, can only evoked by these six physical attributes architects manipulate when they design buildings.

In the case of Kingdom Centre Tower, all six are accounted for and all are saying much the same thing. All or most of those characteristics are shared by the following buildings, most of which seem to be coming at us from the Koolhaas constellation of the Architectural Association nebula.

• • •

  • Landscaping and masterplanning exist to dominate and assimilate, not to integrate, or even to conflate. (i.e. “You exist for me. I am your reason for being. You are part of my plan.”)
  • The New Inhumanism’s fascination with complex curves begins to make sense. Adult humans stand upright to move – it’s what makes us human – and humans don’t require anything more than vertical walls and a constant minimum headroom to do that. Any building without that, or appearing to do without that is most likely New Inhumanist.
  • Shapes tell nothing of what the building does or why it is there. (i.e. “You do not need to know.”)
  • Colours and materials have no associations with the natural world. You are not likely to see a New Inhumanist building of rock, brick or timber.
  • These airport examples are the weakest in this selection. Surface, Placement and Size characteristics are all New Inhumanist in appearance but authoritarian Placement is overridden by us knowing a functional relationship exists with surrounding infrastructure, preventing the necessary opacity of presence and intent. Airports may look New Inhumanist but we still know them to exist for the sake of people, though admittedly through their relationship to aircraft.
  • Monolithic, static and geometrically determined shapes denote authority, strength, and solidity, and with none of the contrivance involved in using angles and curves to represent dynamism but without implying progress.
  • Obfuscation of scale denies any intent to relate to humans, whether inside or outside. (i.e. “You are nothing.”)

• • •

Resistance may be futile but, as long as we continue to celebrate The New Inhumanism, it’s not even conceivable.

 

 

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Modern Vernacular

A vernacular of performance …

Microprocessor research and technological application is always concerned with the pursuit of higher performance for the same or lower energy input, manufacture using simpler and fewer mechanical and chemical processes, the discovery of processes having higher degrees of tolerance, the elimination of ecologically unsound and toxic processes, the search for elements and compounds which are less expensive either in themselves or to synthesize, three dimensional layout design to maximize compactness, increase speed of operation and minimize electron loss, and so on. In addition to all of these concerns, miniaturization and cost efficiency are also pursued in order to maximize applicability and marketability. Form is irrelevant. They are simple rectangular solids covered in resin to protect and insulate, and also to hide their workings from competitors. Rather than a beauty of form, there is a beauty of the synthesis of isolated, composite and integrated function, the exploration of materials with multiple properties, the processes of manufacture, and the economics and integration of it all. Most of this is pursued at the sub-electron level.

microprocessor.jpg

The result is a high-performance product with very specific and highly-defined functions. It has a form but that was not the goal. It carries no notions of status. Microprocessors and their manufacture are the product of continuing refinement towards more performance for less input, all the time shunning waste, excess, redun-dancy and design for the sake of it. The beauty of a microprocessor is not one of simple function, but an integrated performance of the whole and its parts in themselves and in the course of their manufacture. The pursuit of this is a commercial one for a market is assured. As there is for housing. However, in terms of its consequences for the production process, there is an important difference between a house as a machine for living in, and a house as a metaphor of a machine for living in.

car

… encompasses building materials, …

property

The vernacular use of local materials in rural areas is not intended to be quaint, rustic or to glorify the aesthetic qualities of natural materials. It is merely an obvious and expedient use of available materials, labour resources and techniques. Loadbearing walls support loads, provide thermal and acoustic insulation and provide spatial delimitors. They are also relatively inexpensive. Unfortunately, instead of us seeing the beauty of the thought processes by which vernacular buildings came about, we more readily see their beauty in terms of the property they tend to be standing on, in much the same way as the “beauty” of ships and grain silos is dependent upon the vastness of the empty (but no less justifying) spaces around them. Selection and use of materials should be in terms of how many of their properties can be made use of to satisfy multiple functions. It would expedite the rational selection and use of building materials and methods today if a similar thought processes were applied.

murcutt

Glen Murcutt and Rem Koohaus have used corrugated iron for the inherent properties it has, and in doing so, have restored its place as a building mateial.  This is a step back towards a vernacular approach to materials and their use. Natural materials are already objects of status so unless we are to either import building materials or quarry every rock and fell every tree in the country, a modern vernacular will sooner or later have to use substitutes. A day will come when corrugated iron will be seen as decadent a building material as carved stone is now.  Sooner or later we will have to relearn.

… interior finishes, …

Internal finishes contribute significantly to the cost of a building. A modern vernacular building would be designed ot use inexpensive and multi-functional finishes were any to be used at all. The walls of log cabins and traditional Japanese rooms (and their houses, for the two were integral) did not have any applied finishes.

raw

Timber having become the commodity of status it is, building such a house is a statement of affluence in Japan today. We have to learn to appreciate the beauty that less expensive and status-laden materials also have in their raw state. This process can already be seen operating in the field of product design. Whereas most hi-fi components used to be housed in timber cabinets, only top-quality ones remain so today. Office furniture is being continually being redesigned to use less expensive materials. Over the past twelve months, the use of less-expensive transparent plastics has beome widespread, but marketed as an indicator of some new awareness. Validated by their use in the iMac, their use quickly spread to kitchen equipment such as electric kettles and toasters.

imac

… building components, …

If passed on, the cost benefits of mass production are more pronounced if products are standardized and their design and manufacture tailored for maximum cost efficiency. Countering this is the value-added component restored by offering a wide selection of products and marketing them with emphasis on ‘individuality’. Double-glazed windows and conservatories are two examples where this operates to negate consumer benefit. CD players used to be made with lasers having lenses of glass. The current use of plastic is the result of design for cost-efficient manufacture rather than audio considerations. Some designs are easier to produce than others. This is reflected in the cost of the final goods whether the means of production is a factory machine, skilled worker, unskilled worker or craftsman. What has to be remembered is that a building can use prefabricated and mass-produced products designed for ease of assembly, but if these are to produce a building having an aesthetic that is dependent upon the possession of property for its effect, then it will never be applicable to realistic housing needs .The desirability will be there because of reduced construction, but those benefits will be negated by the price of the property necessary to sustain the aesthetic.

case study

… methods of construction, …

Similarly, construction by highly skilled technicians, craftsmen or artisans was simple process involving available materials. It is not anymore. The use of highly skilled labour as a means of production continues to indicate status. That it produces goods of high quality is not disputed.

gothic

This is the same value and status investing process of art. Design for less-expensive methods of construction has to take into account the inherent imprecision of techniques requiring less skill. Modernism did not translate well when its construction techniques were applied to low-cost housing. Flat roofs were technically vulnerable to imprecise methods. A simple and available means of achieving something is preferable to a complex one. In addition, each component of the building should be designed to have more than one function, both when the building is complete and in the course of its construction.

… building fittings and services, …

Building fittings continue to be marketed as status-generating consumer items, particularly with regard to kitchens. In terms of aesthetics derived from function and status, a £3,500 stainless steel cooker is more beautiful than a £50 reconditioned gas cooker, but in terms of cost-effective performance, the opposite is true.

pawson

In general, be it a sofa or a cupboard, built-in furniture is a means of adding value to buildings. Justifying this in terms of saving space, returns the argument to one of property. Be this as it may,the process of building items in complicates and lengthens the building process. Concealing anything in a building costs money, whether it be hardware (structure, construction joints), firmware (conduits, services) or software (all furniture, light fittings, saucepans and all objects having an element of consumer choice). The evolution of techniques to incorporate hardware and firmware elements into a design should be encouraged.

sync.jpg

… the building type, …

If a vernacular aesthetic of performance is to be applicable to buildings, then a building itself must also satisfy as many functions as possible – a concept which runs counter to this century’s architectural thought. Last century’s gave us the notion of separating functions and classes in a city. This century’s gave it form, the initial applications of which were new towns and mass housing schemes separating residential and retail areas. Compare the cities of Europe where, during the 19th century, having shops at street level and apartments above become sufficiently well established as a pattern of high-density urban living to survive industrialization and Modernism separating them as they did in Britain.

shops.jpg

An equivalent building type still survives here but it dates from before the Industrial Revolution when this split occurred. It is the lower-class Georgian residential/retail building. Remaining largely on high streets, it is a building of four or five storeys providing mixed usage along streets which actually function as part of a city. The needs for shelter and food have not changed that much over the past couple of hundred years to warrant new types of structures built in totally different locations and dependent upon public or private transport to link them.

… and the city. 

Modern needs are not that modern. The public amenity of shopping is privatized and concentrated in shopping centres and malls which separate the retail function of the city. The price advantages of large chain stores is sufficient for us to accept the inconvenience of location, the neces-sity to drive or otherwise get there, and the dehumanization of the act of selling, the act of buying, and to a certain extent, the goods themselves. Catalogue shopping, home delivery services, television and online shopping and video deliveries are only manifestations of a modern life-style because our local access to them has been taken away. They are commercial responses to restoring something which our buildings don’t provide any more.

warehouse

The Georigan mixed use buildings are useful urban forms which should be regarded as a prototype, and like a microprocessor, have their design, structure and process subject to continual refinement in order to extract maximum performance from it. This is unlikely to happen while residual social prejudice remains in the form of separation of classes, and institutionalized architectural prejudice remains in the form of separation of functions. However, if a former Victorian sweatshop or mews building can be marketed as a desirable form of urban living, then so can living above a shop. In addition, if we are to avoid people being housed with no alternative but to look at each other, the only unexploited form of public property left for housing to overlook is the street, and it is in the interest of the entire city and society that streets remain interesting and active enough for people to not only use them to travel along and buy food, but also interact with them as a neighbourhood and derive sustenance from them. This form of urban use should also allow us to extract more performance from our streets than we are either currently receiving or are being led to expect in the future.

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This post complements and concludes the previous Meta-Aesthetics post and is the third and final installment of misfits’ prehistory. Normal programming resumes next week.

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