Sunday, 18 September 2016

An Endless Playground

This article and the accompanying images sourced from my Instagram feed were published in Abitare in 2015

Rome is a city in which the most beautiful squares imaginable, flanked by the most important, grandiose and sensuous buildings, containing Egyptian obelisks and Roman temples and Baroque fountains are used so efficiently as open-air car-parks, they are so tightly packed with Cinquecentos and Smarts and 4*4 Pandas and Multiplas, that pedestrians can often not cross from one side to the other, as they are unable to squeeze through between the bumpers of the vehicles. Everything coexists in Rome, the dirty, busy, gloriously dysfunctional life of a major metropolis pumps like blood through the accumulated wonders of three millennia, three empires and the 21st Century, and it is entirely blind to the provenance of things, medieval tower or nineteenth century factory, roman temple or neoclassical seminary, aqueduct or wall, if it can be used it will be, if it can’t it will be girdled and set aside, put in a park for teenagers to make-out on.

All cities are to one degree or another filled with the traces of their own history, and must deal with the question of how best to relate to those remains and what they mean to them, with these traces often exerting a tyrannical hold over the collective consciousness. In fact the younger the city is and the less it has been bequested by history, the more its history becomes important to its inhabitants. Seeking legitimacy in their heritage, cities look to anchor themselves in a past that is their own and justifies their current standing. Rome is the precise opposite. There is just too much. There is such an overwhelming, incomparable quantity of history, heritage, buildings, art, whole pieces of city, and infrastructure present all over the city, and from every period of European culture, from Nero to Mussolini, from Innocent X to il Boom, that in Rome heritage has reached critical mass, has become so massively dense and impossibly varied that it cannot be maintained in historical order and collapses in on itself. It implodes in a city-sized singularity in which all historical periods are coeval, in which they lose individual significance, in which time collapses and becomes purely spatial and we can walk in the present between every period whilst smoking a cigarette and chatting on our mobile phone. Rome is the internet as a city, it is the one place in which all architectural knowledge coexists simultaneously in one space, instantly accessible at the same time, and just as people mostly use the internet –the most awe-inspiring collection of information in human history- to watch videos of dancing Chihuahuas and Taylor Swift running from paparazzi, so Rome –the most extraordinary assembly of built material known to man- is mostly a place to buy Pope Francis mugs and complain about traffic on the way to work.

And therein lies the crux of what makes it so truly remarkable: its total and utter mundanity, its complete obliviousness in the face of its own importance. It wears its profundity as lightly as a summer t-shirt, mixing the high and the low, the old and the new, the dysfunctional and the grandiose, the sacred and the profane, the narrow-minded and the worldly, the politically volatile and the permanence of tradition in the most relaxed fashion imaginable. Its streets are magic corridors that transform the past as you walk down them into an agent of liberation, that shows you there is no one style, no one way of doing things, instead you can have it all, at the same time, together in flagrante delicto. For those fascinated by the forms of history, but shackled by the narrow and joylessness of historicism, for those in love with the intermingling of the quotidian and the profound, for those who can enjoy the simultaneous echoes of Bernini and Las Vegas in the zigzagging of a 1950s balcony or the intermingling of Borromini, Zaha and an American Diner in the over-exuberance of a 1990s Bar, for those of such sensibility, Rome is a playground of endless, diverse and exotic pleasures.

Revisiting Pomo

An article published in Architecture Today in the summer of 2016 (above)

Every style, after having achieved a certain degree of success and ubiquity tends to suffer a period in critical purgatory, but few approaches to architecture have been rejected in quite the way Postmodernism was spurned. A movement born out of rebellion against the elite, abstracted, paternalistic codes of taste that had come to define the bloated behemoth of international modernism of the 1960s & 70s, Postmodernism purposefully –brilliantly- turned the accepted canons of architectural value on their head.

The surface -the “superficial”- became a key focus of design, the main vehicle for communicating with the public, directly, figuratively, colourfully. History, hitherto banished, came back with a vengeance, imbuing houses with sophisticated and evocative combinations of historical elements, as well as leaving wonderfully stranded Mayan temples on the tops of skyscrapers. Ornament returned not as crime but as virtue, as a way to introduce character and narrative into spaces that had up to that point been denuded of any comprehensibly human quality.

Pink granite, mirror-glass colonnades, gigantic 12metre high dolphins, chrome capitals, Disney dwarf caryatids, interiors with golden brass palm trees, furniture that looked like a car crash between giant bars of Piz-Buin, rickety old buildings in run-down bits of the city that would have previously been marked for slum clearance by modernist urban planners, Postmodernism was an explosion of repressed energy that expressed itself in a bewildering and delightful array of forms, through a spectrum of practitioners, each with their own specific mix of concerns.

As always happens when a style is successful, its most easily replicable -and least interesting- formal elements were taken up by the industry and rolled out across the world, with every city from Lima to London sporting countless business park office boxes with little pedimented entrance pavilions as their stand-out feature. But the decades-long relegation to being the architect’s go-to bogey man and general object of derision that Postmodernism suffered, and is still suffering, cannot be explained by the ubiquity of its bad copies, or else every other once-popular architectural style would have been derided with the same vehemence, which they were not.

Architects tend to mistakenly equate depth with dryness, and seriousness with being dour, a protestant moral set-up in which it is inconceivable that one can be worthy unless one is seen to be being worthy and nothing but, lest it confuse the picture of a saintly effort toward laboured purity. Irony, colour, surface, whimsy, decoration, play, humour, allusion, these tactics that defined, and still define the Postmodern approach, are not only looked down upon, but viewed as existential threats to those who cling to the idea of architecture as a resolutely structured moral enterprise. Like the religious prude who must control all signs of sexual profligacy as a threat to his moral order, even the hint of a female ankle, architects seek out the social exclusion of the value-disrupting games of the Postmodern building.

This is all very well, but it has been 20years now, and whilst a lot of postmodern buildings were put up in the fifteen years in which it held favour, very few of them were of great importance, and of those, many are now under threat, or will be in the near future. There are numerous Hi-Tech buildings from the same period that have been listed Grade 1 and 2. Not a single postmodern example has been listed, despite (failed) applications having been lodged to save Stirling’s Number One Poultry and Farrell’s Midland Bank from insensitive alteration.

This seeming inability by the Heritage authorities to recognise that the style is not inherently without merit (a view predicated on the moral puritanism described above) is being progressively eroded by a change in attitude amongst a small, but passionate group of advocates. There is currently a campaign to list Farrells’ Comyn Ching –an iconic project for the style and the postmodern approach to incremental urbanism- which has gathered a huge amount of support, and the recently set up Postmodern Society already has five and a half thousand members, the 20th Century Society and National Trust are organising tours and events around the period and style, and the public are keen to revisit and revaluate an era and period that are distant enough to no longer be tainted by the contempt of familiarity, and near enough to retain an aura of association and nostalgia.

The tide of opinion is turning, and it seems the scene is set for a rupture in the puritan consensus, for the return of some colour, and for the protection in posterity of some fabulous, important buildings.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Independent Value

Lincoln Plaza by BUJ Architects was winner of 2016's Carbuncle Cup. Photo from Galliard Homes

This article was published in the September 2016 edition of AArchitecture

As the annual trollfest that is the Carbuncle Cup gets underway, in which "the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months" is crowned in humiliating glory by a crowd of sneering commentators, it is perhaps appropriate to question how -as a profession- we come to value, and devalue certain architects and architecture.

What is “ugly”? It is not simply an issue of whether a building performs badly in relation to its occupants, the street, or is built to a low standard, or else the critics’ and commentators’ ire would be focussed on the mass of terrible, soulless buildings that surround us in Britain.

Instead the focus tends to be on buildings that actually do have a pronounced architectural ambition, but one which happens not to conform to any current notions of good taste. Buildings that wilfully and stridently flaunt an aesthetic which has just gone out of favour tend to be a favourite, or ones that simply do not follow any of the unsaid rules of decorum prevalent at a given moment in architectural time.

What could win the Carbuncle Cup one year, might have been lauded a decade before. Iconic architecture was welcomed in 2000 as the sign of a British renaissance, but by 2016 its examples had become the bankrupt symbolism of a much hated economic model, and the architects of its last progeny have been lambasted where its instigators were once celebrated.

“ugly”, and conversely what we value as “worthy”, is not in any way objective. It is entirely based upon the combined prejudice of a vocal clique who define what is acceptable, and what is not. This changes from one period to the next with the same imperceptible ease as the cycles of fashion, and just as with fashion, those who do not conform are ridiculed or ignored by those who through numerical supremacy and dominance of taste-defining media outlets and forums, constitute a prevailing zeitgeist.

Positive and negative value is all too often simply a question of aesthetic conformity to a set of arbitrary and insubstantial architectural codes of belonging.

Ellis Woodman has recently pointed out how RIBA awards are almost entirely absent of either architecture which creatively engages with any pasts other than that of modernism, or with buildings by architects who operate in the very much living tradition of classical architecture. Why is this? Both strands of creative endeavour are rich with excellent buildings produced by thoughtful and praiseworthy architects, and which engage in complex ways with contemporary issues.

There are unquestioned assumptions and biases providing the uncritical foundations of architectural value judgements everywhere one cares to look. Classicism is ‘pastiche’, unsuitable for contemporary expression, and is reactionary. The language of modernism is progressive, radical, and perpetually avant garde. Abstraction is sophisticated, while figuration is at best comic or satirical, but is mostly ‘kitsch’. Expressiveness, colour and conceit are superficial and arbitrary. Restraint, dourness and severity are serious, intellectual and convey a sense of gravitas.

These value judgements are damaging, ubiquitous, bountiful, ever-evolving, and they also penetrate deep into the heart of architectural education and academia.

Fashions force their way through Architecture schools with even more vigour than they do through the wider profession. The creative freedom and gusto with which students can pursue an idea free of external constraints and contingencies means that everything necessarily becomes more extreme at university. This includes the architectural community’s predisposition towards exclusionary value judgements, which in architecture schools often reach vertiginous levels of prohibition.

Perhaps, in order to expend the vast amount of energy required to complete years of often joyless labour, there is a need for architects and architecture students to feel passionately that what they are doing, and the way in which they are doing their work is the only right, acceptable, avant garde or progressive way. A corollary of this self-imposed delusion seems to be that in order to feel so passionately that what one is doing is right, one must also devalue the efforts of those others whose production, ideas and values, do not conform to yours.

When I was a student at the AA in the early naughties, there was a degree of consensus in the school around a techno-positivist approach to architecture. Zaha Hadid, DRL, UN Studio, Asymptote, Plasma Studio, Emtech and Foreign Office were the models we were referred to. Mention James Stirling and you would either be met by dismissive laughter, a snarky comment, or stared at with wide eyes as if you were some kind of monstrous degenerate. James Stirling, an unquestionably great architect  who had been an exemplar of intellectually engaging architecture only 15 years earlier. But he was out of fashion, by this point he himself had become fodder for the self-affirmation mechanism of the prevailing architects of that moment.

And yet by asking questions, by wielding the simple and infinitely powerful weapon that is the question “why?”, again and again, “why are folded surfaces truly the embodiments of revolutionary politics in architecture?” “why can you not explain to me in clear English what your unit is about?” “why is the pastiche re-hashing of the architectural language of Russia circa 1923 radical, but when it is done with the language of England of the same period it is ‘Disney’?” “Why does quoting a philosopher make my architectural drawing political?”, it is by getting into the habit of asking these questions relentlessly, in search of meaty, truthful and believable answers, that one quickly finds the lack of foundation beneath most architectural value judgements.

Assignation of architectural value is too often entirely about the social mechanisms of acceptance into, and exclusion from, a hallowed centre of playground coolness. This however does not mean that there is no value, only that one has to construct it elsewhere.

The best recommendation I can give to any architecture student is to never stop wielding the question “why?”. Dig underneath the self-assured statements of your tutors, pull the rug from underneath their illusions. But do the same to yourself. Question your own thoughts. Keep asking, keep digging, get into the habit of catching yourself when you come across a building and think “ugh!” and recoil in horror, catch yourself and ask what was it that made you react in that way, dissect your feelings, get to the bottom of your value judgements, see them for what they so often are –a restrictive filter that dramatically narrows the horizons of your world.

It is in this way that one can discover the germ of the greatest kind of value in architecture. Liberated from the stifling value judgements of others that disallow so much from our possible appreciation, free from the suffocating snobbery of the academic avant garde that label so many things as degenerate, one can begin to define specific, precise, meaningful and singular notions of value. One can begin to unearth buildings, qualities, ideas and scenarios that have an importance defined by their own qualities, on their own terms, not by whether or not they are deemed worthy of interest by the posturing of others.

Real value, in architecture as in any other worthwhile pursuit in life, lies in the open gaze of an independent mind.