Architecture

TOO MANY WORDS

KrierI was listening to a lecture on YouTube by Léon Krier. He was in full apocalyptic mode, his rousing talk illustrated by his charming but barbed drawings. At one point he recounted a quotation: “I wish I could speak a language where no word is repeated.” Krier couldn’t remember the source–it sounds like Marcel Duchamp or Max Ernst to me. In any case, Krier’s point was that this could serve as a maxim for today’s modernist architects, who judge themselves–and are judged–almost solely on their originality. What makes the metaphor so cutting is that a language of unrepeated words would be simply meaningless gobbledygook, which encapsulates Krier’s opinion of the architectural avant-garde. He maintains that meaning in buildings emerges not from the maker’s imagination but from a shared tradition. He characterizes this tradition as a blend (in the proportion of about 20:1) of vernacular and classical. (This formula is an implicit criticism of modern classicists, who drape the orders on everything–big and small, important and humble–with sometimes reckless abandon.) While I was fruitlessly trying to identify the no-repeated-word quotation I came across another. This one from Alexander Pope:

In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
Alike fantastic, if too new, or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

FANTASY FACTORIES

Dream_Castle_by_SukhRiarOliver Wainwright writes an excellent article on architectural education in The Guardian. He is particularly good describing the distortions that have accumulated in the so-called academy. Here are some highlights:

Wiry contraptions hang from the ceiling, while globular fungal forms nestle on tables between the spidery legs of 3D-printed creatures. A post-apocalyptic confetti of scalpel blades, empty Pot Noodles and cans of Coke is scattered among this landscape of foreign objects, while a sleeping bag pokes out from under a desk – perhaps with someone still in it.

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Attending final presentations as an external critic, it has been striking quite how far students are marshalled under the prescriptive dogma of their tutors in a lot of schools, producing projects with astounding graphic flair, but with a tenuous grip on reality, and often little sign of a critical position. Taught by the same people who mark their work, many students said the safest thing was to keep their heads down and follow the prevailing agenda – or else literally pay for the consequences.

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With all energies directed towards the climax of the final exhibition – conceived as a salesroom for students and tutors alike – the emphasis is too often weighted on creating a dazzling polished product, rather than the rigour of the process of getting there. Seductive alien imagery trumps the perceived banality of buildings, with the visual cacophony masking the lack of underlying spatial ideas.

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 The common retreat into introspective dreamworlds can be directly correlated against the dissolution of the architect’s powers, which are increasingly superseded by specialist consultants for every stage of the process.

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 No one has the answer yet, but at least students’ plaintive pleas for relevant teaching are finally being taken seriously – and they may soon have an alternative to costly years trapped in fantasy factories.

 

SAVE THE STACKS

nyplI am lending my voice to those who are calling for a reconsideration of the plan to demolish the stacks beneath the Reading Room of the New York Public Library. While it is true that these stacks are not generally open to the public, they are an integral part of this extraordinary building, a Beaux-Arts design but truly a machine for reading in. As a writer and researcher, libraries–especially public libraries–remain for me special places. Library stacks, even more than reading rooms, are their symbolic heart. I think that one of the things that drew me to writing was the experience of wandering the stacks of McGill’s old Redpath Library, an Erector set of steel shelves, glass-block floors, and low ceilings, clanging steel spiral stairs, murky light, and the smell of old paper. In those days, entering the stacks was a rare privilege reserved for graduate students. I remember the ever-present feeling of surprise whenever I found the book I was looking for, the mysterious LCCN numbers hand-lettered on the spine. And then discovering something even more interesting farther down on the same shelf.

THE OTHER STYLE

Louis Sullivan, Gage Building

Louis Sullivan, Gage Building

The first international style in architecture was not the white-box style of Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius but Art Nouveau, modernism’s predecessor and in many ways its aesthetic and philosophical opposite. Art Nouveau flourished from 1890 to 1910, and along the way it produced a surprisingly large number of masters: Gaudí, Hoffmann, Horta, Mackintosh, Plečnik, Sullivan, Van de Velde, and Wagner. And that’s just the leading architects; there were also painters, designers and craftsmen: Beardsley, Klimt, Lalique, Moser, Tiffany. Thirty years is a good long run as architectural fashions go, indeed, the International Style lasted barely that long, nevertheless, modernist apologists have always pooh-poohed Art Nouveau, promulgating the view that “the demise of Art Nouveau was attributable to some fundamental internal flaw,” as Peter Kellow writes in a recent issue of American Arts Quarterly. The modernist apologists were understandably defensive; nobody would ever put a Gropius architectural fragment in a museum, as they would the work of Sullivan and Horta. Moreover, the anti-rationalism of Art Nouveau flew in the face of “scientific” modernism. Yet a quick glance at subsequent history reveals that Art Nouveau was the harbinger of a significant strain of modern architecture, visible in the work of Scharoun, Mendelsohn, Poelzig, the late Wright, and surviving today, though without the exquisite details, in the work of Gehry and Hadid. Though there was a brief revival of Art Nouveau, at least in graphic design, during the psychedelic Sixties, an architectural revival seems unlikely. But you never know. As Kellow writes. “Art Nouveau buildings are surely some of the most beautiful ever designed. Not necessarily the best, but the most beautiful.”

Sant Francesc

formentera

 

I took this photo in the spring of 1967, in the village of San Francisco on the Balearic island of Formentera where I was living at the time. The wall in the background is the church of Sant Francesc Xavier, an eighteenth century building, fortified against attacks by the Barbary pirates who periodically descended on the island. The mesh above the court must be there to keep the soccer ball in bounds. I assume that the taller figure is that of the local priest, or brother, acting as a referee, as he is the only one wearing street shoes. I took this with a Leica M3, I think. Like many architecture students (I had just graduated) I was a devotee of sports cars (which I couldn’t afford–my first car was a VW bug, though later I graduated to a Mini Cooper) and cameras (which I could). So what do I like about the photo? Volumes in sun and shade–the Corbusian trilogy–boys at play, the moment frozen forever; it is the world of a 24-year-old architect on the edge of life.