Tuesday, 1 December 2009
Architecture of Failure III
Well; ever since I moved into the cupboard that has been my home for the last year, I’ve been haunted by the sounds of architecture. That is to say, nearly every morning I have awoken to the sounds of the construction industry hammering away through the ventilation grille in my wall. For the first few months it was the sounds of demolition, and now it is the sounds of erection. The site for all this activity is just around the corner from my hovel where they are building what I initially presumed to be a pile of yuppie flats, and upon consultation of the planning application turned out to be a big, tasteless lump of yuppie flats (pictured below - take a bow, Hamiltons). The developer is 'Findon Urban Lofts' who, if you follow this link would appear to be connected to a Mario Leznick, previously convicted of "securities related offenses" (don't you just adore property developers?). Anyway, what’s particularly egregious about this particular shitty pile of ‘dromes is that the building being demolished was a former light industrial complex, which had come to house a variety of artist’s studios, galleries and workshops. This is how regeneration works- like a clumsy child who, with their overzealous affections crushes their pet to death, the charms of yuppie-living in an area alongside skint ‘creatives’ nearly always throttles any chance of said ‘creativity’ occurring any longer; hence my living in a cupboard that reeks of damp.
UPDATE:- I've found out that the development is called, wait for it, waaaaaaiiiiit for it............
It's just absolutely fucking sickening, isn't it?
Due to the Mare Street Conservation Area, the developer wasn’t permitted to demolish all of the previous complex; the façade had to be retained. As they tore the building down they exposed the innards of its previous life, but I’m reluctant to describe this as the interesting part; I’m writing something about reactionary-ghost aesthetics and I’ll hopefully deal with wistful-demolition love in that piece (you know the stuff, wallpaper and fireplaces floating on a wall high above the ground). What’s really interesting, to me, about this structure is its current condition; the façade is there on its own, and is being held up by a temporary structure, which of course had to be designed. This intermediate situation creates a number of interesting effects:
One of the problems of engineering-qua-aesthetics is the paradox of selling a design that looks more functional than functional. There are reasons for this of course, I’ve heard of a quote from Foster about how if an architect speaks about aesthetics, they instantly lose the client; this might partially explain the degeneration in architecture from Hi-Tech fantasy into Solutionist ennui. In a recent piece for icon I made the following argument about Santiago Calatrava’s Liège train station; engineering architecture is often nothing other than an expensive sculpture that expressively interprets the language of engineering. The Solutionists are thus caught in a paradox; they cannot create architecture that matches their rhetoric, but they cannot speak truthfully about their architecture. But if we want to see truly utilitarian engineering in action, if you need an example of what an ‘honest solutionist’ designs, then here we have it; a temporary structure whose sole purpose is to hold a façade up until the new structure is built behind it. The specifically fleeting nature of this structure means that it must be built as cheaply as possible, without ‘elegance’ or any other aesthetic consideration, Thus, like the entrails of a building that are hidden under floors and behind walls, it is as close to ‘pure’ engineering as we can possibly get.
The next significant aspect is the collage effect that is created by the juxtaposition of support and supported. The ‘retained façade’ as architectural element is usually retained because of some consideration of its architectural merit; this is basically and fundamentally an aesthetic choice. The façade in this particular case may be rudimentary, but it is well proportioned, has been designed with an eye for detail and is a good example of an inter-war building of its type. Put simply, it is architectural. The formal relationship that is generated between the solid, detailed façade, into which effort has been put, and the perfunctory steel frame that abuts and perforates it is a clash, a discord. It is not harmonious, in fact it is a dissonance. We could say that it performs in miniature the attempted sweeping away of bourgeois academicism that was one of the intentions of early modernism, or we could say that it is like a bricolage, a juxtaposition of two incommensurable spatial logics. At the very least, it jars.
I wrote, what feels like a long time ago, about Witley Court, one of the largest ruins in Britain, which has a number of similar structures created to stabilise it. Two of the main effects I noted there are present in my local stabilised façade; the surreal effect of seeing more sky through windows, with its resultant ambiguity of envelope, and the clashes of levels of detail, ornament and of material. When juxtaposing pre-modernist architecture with modernist in this way, we encounter the clash of a logic of perforated skin (in the old fashioned sense, a solid masonry wall with thickness and ornament, punctured by fenestration), with the logic of frame. The rhythms and proportions cannot match, they make no sense together, and this nonsense is the source of much of its aesthetic power. Note also that in this case, there is little or no decay in evidence. Besides the weathering of the materials, we have very little of what we can call ruination here.
But I am reluctant to suggest that we can work with this kind of thing. Eventually this façade will be backed up with a concrete framed yuppiedrome of almost no architectural, cultural or economic merit, and it would be folly to suggest that something like this temporary condition could be put to a genuine use, except as a stabilised ruin, but that is not something I tend to defend as a typology. I also don’t think it’s enough to merely ooh and ah at it, take a few pictures and then wait for it to be filled in. There is something genuine here, but I still can’t quite make it out, as I am too worried that we have here an example of deconstructivist mannerism, a pseudo-radical, wasteful game. At best we see here the power of dischord that Brutalism showed can be deeply radical (and deeply loathed), a non-proportional, non harmonic, anti-ordered architecture. But whereas Brutalism subscribed to the modernist paradigm of forging a new context (chaos becoming language through repetition of deeper structure), any architecture based upon this logic of juxtaposition can only ever be post-modern, playing registers of language off each other in the hope of a new truth.
In the spirit of speculation, however, I’ll have a look at some other examples of this kind of thing, just off the top of my head, of course. Perhaps we’ll be able to see some ways the ideas can be pushed, or not.
Wexner Centre for the Arts, Eisenman Architects, 1989
Well of bloody course. I have to admit that Peter Eisenman is sometime very interesting in spite of himself. Being a deconstructionist at heart, I have to admit I do sometimes find Eisenman’s ‘artificial excavations’ quite fascinating. It would seem that this building is the perfect example of what I was discussing above; awkward juxtaposition, the conflict of different languages of architecture, the plush and the plain. But there is way too much of everything here; it’s an art centre for starters, it’s an expensive, landmark building and the historical aspect had to be built from scratch, somewhat defeating the point. The conceptual underpinnings need explanation, which we really need to get past, and generally it’s over-blown and flabby.
Lloyd’s Building, Richard Rogers, 1986
Oh hello! What’s this? On the most avant-garde building in the UK there is an example of exactly what I’m talking about. This is the façade of the original Lloyds building, retained as part of the development. This aspect of the design is not really talked about much, and you don’t normally see this element in images. But when you visit the building, the effect of looking through the grand doors and seeing just the very bottom of the oil-rig behind is exhilarating.
Ulster Museum, Francis Pym, 1962
Sticking with the brutalism, here we have one of the most glorious juxtapositions of architectural register I know of. An extension to a stern inter-war neo-classical building, this joyously bonkers Chernikov-like composition is just sublime, although it leaves the deeper solid/void relationship basically intact. (do note that if Zaha didn’t emulate this for her Cincinnati building, then she obviously doesn’t know her architectural history).
Ok, and here’s a couple of bits of my work from my MA, where (now that I think about it from a distance) I was basically banging my head against these ideas of juxtaposition of register and collage over and over again, never able to find the escape route from indulgence and flamboyance. No wonder all my teachers were bemused; they’d both seen it all before but also didn’t know what the hell was going on, a condition not helped by my tendency to never eliminate an idea, creating projects that were thick conceptual soups, never resolved. Anyway, please don't be judgemental…
This project was an attempt to reinterpret the language of GLC housing as something radical again. Most importantly here, it involved the creation of a gigantic atrium in the shape of a shroud that would be constructed from white tarpaulin and scaffolding poles. The idea was to create a complexity that was also vulgar, rather than bespoke, and also to give the whole thing a sense of incompleteness; modernism & mass housing as unfinished business, y’see?
And this; the project that has begun to turn into a book, which perhaps was what it should have been in the first place. It’s basically a fairly standard deconstructivist premise; a building uncovered from the archives, creatively resurrected upon the same site, with a partial demolition of the buildings currently occupying that space. Again, there’s a million other ideas going on here, but just have a look at the partial demolitions and the juxtaposition of various registers of solidity and so on.
So after all this, another comparison – if brutalism is the modernity of a Schönberg, emancipating dissonance in the hope of cementing a new common language, then the effects I describe here are perhaps the architectural equivalents of the spectro-aesthetics we’re all surely by now so tired of discussing. Unable to either exorcise nor live up to the past, we create new complexities and abstractions from revealing the complicity of the historical in its own disappearance. This, at the very very least, is a step above ruin-worship.