Friday, May 20, 2011

EVERYDAY ARCHITECTURE


Stephen Harris and Deborah Berke in Architecture of the Everyday, Princeton Architectural Press, Yale, 1997 have collected a series of writings and images that explore the subject of the title in various ways. Their mutual interest in this idea grew from their conversations during the drive to New Haven from New York City that they shared on a regular basis for nine years. The title is a Kenneth Frampton phrase that was used in his question that was a part of his critique of Venturi and Scott Brown’s ideas: Could an “architecture of the everyday” be constructed on the basis of building forms created by large corporations for consumption by a mass market? (p.89) It is a good question that needs more careful consideration.

One has to realise that there might be something is the concept of the ‘everyday’ when large retailers, banks and others start using the word as a promotional theme for their various products: ‘everyday’ account; ‘everyday’ credit card; ‘everyday’ mobile telephone; etc. The word has almost become so everyday that it is no longer registered or noted as holding any meaning beyond the bland identity of a familiar brand. One has to wonder about this ‘everyday’ usage – whether this devalues the quality of its naivety. The idea was raised as a philosophical concept by Henri Lefebvre, a French philosopher (1901-1991) who was influential in providing the intellectual framework for the 1968 street demonstrations in Paris. Lefebvre lived immediately behind the Pompidou Centre in Paris with the raw giantism of this structure being his immediate neighbour, forming the daily vista for his ‘everyday’ comings and goings. One wonders just what impact this juxtaposition might have had on his life and his ideas.

The various articles in this Harris/Berke publication are interesting as everybody’s ‘everyday’ varies so much. Some pieces read like a student’s submission; others present ordinary experience in an interesting manner; while there are still others that grapple with theory and ideas in a more rigourous way. One of these is Deborah Fausch’s paper titled Ugly and Ordinary: the representation of the everyday, pp. 75 – 106. The title has the form that the late Tom Heath identified as the preferred American academic naming – a sort and snappy set of words followed by a longer explanatory suite. In this text, Fausch, a practising architect who also teaches theory and history, uses Venturi and Scott Brown’s 1976 exhibition Signs of Life as a basis for the analysis the ‘everyday’ in architectural theory and practice – an interesting choice as Venturi and Scott Brown were much intrigued by this subject.

The text is fascinating as it does more than single out this exhibition and its implications for discussion. It places this display in the context of its times, involving Framption, the Smithson’s, Rossi, Rudofsky, Turner, Archigram and other contemporaries in the overview. This not only expands the framework of her thesis, but also defines a short history of the development of ideas during this period. One becomes intrigued because this recent history that remains resonating in the minds of many today, has not yet been reviewed or recorded in any systematic manner (c.f. Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age) other than in those strides that seek to move away from the concerns of these times. Here issues are documented in order to differentiate new concepts from the old. Fausch does not pretend to be writing a formal history, but her paper does provide a glimpse of an outline of ideas that this era was interested in. A fascinating observation is that many of these concepts have now been absorbed into new theories – not in any obvious manner: they have sublimated to become a ground for another theory in the best Karl Popper manner. Our politicians would blandly describe this notion as a step ‘forward.’

The text ends with a question: The question raised by the work of Venturi and Scott Brown – can the public art of architecture succeed in displaying the ordinary, unmarked events of everyday life in its forms, or can it only accommodate and shelter them? – remains unresolved. (p.106) It is this question that touches the heart of things architectural today. Are these two possibilities outlined in this question indeed two separate matters? Can any event of everyday life be ‘accommodated and sheltered’ in an architecture that does not display qualities of the ‘ordinary’ and ‘unmarked’? Does architecture change the experience of the everyday? How can architecture best accommodate the ‘ordinary’ and ‘unmarked’ – the unremarkable? There is a broader, more subtle question: does even the understanding or naming of the ‘everyday’ bring a self-consciousness - an awareness - that intrudes into its innocence? So how does one do nothing, as this seems to be the proposition being suggested? This is an A. A. Milne / Pooh bear question:

"I like that too," said Christopher Robin, "but what I like doing best is Nothing."
"How do you do Nothing?" asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.
"Well, it's when people call out at you just as you're going off to do it, What are you going to do, Christopher Robin, and you say, Oh, nothing, and then you go and do it."
"Oh, I see," said Pooh.
"This is the sort of thing that we're doing right now."...
from The House at Pooh Corner, Chapter X, by A.A. Milne

Perhaps architecture will benefit by our just ‘going off to do it’ rather than having minds pontificating on procedures and outcomes before any event or action? Fausch quotes Pierre Bourdieu on this issue - Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (reprint 1977 of 1972), p.80, 109 – (italics in original) on page 78:
Automatic and impersonal, significant without intending to signify, ordinary practices lend themselves to an understanding no less automatic and impersonal . . . [but] in taking up a point of view on the action, withdrawing from it in order to observe it from above and from a distance, [the observer] constitutes practical activity as an object of observation and analysis, a representation.

Fausch has many other interesting and revealing quotes in her text and analysis that should be read by architects, if only to be reminded of what has been, where ideas have come from, where they are now, and how the past - yes, even that far beyond the nineteen seventies/eighties - has its own rich intelligence that should not be forgotten in any rush ‘forward.’ It also might help in making more, more humble.

The text following Fausch’s piece talks about humility as the author narrates the story of her neighbour’s garden on Long Island. Margie Ruddick, a landscape architect and teacher, tells us about Tom’s Garden (pp. 107 – 119) in a piece that has the quality of a fairy tale or fable. It relates beautifully to Fausch’s more theoretical writing by providing an ‘everyday’ tale with a moral. It outlines how everyone’s ‘everyday’ is different, why, and why we need tolerance and humility, and should exercise hospitality. Read it. The essence of a story is ruined in any overview and analysis, especially one so subtle. Like the best fairy tales, it gently suggests a way in which we can manage ourselves - and be changed - without any exuberant and intrusive, self-conscious mannerisms that disrupt intentions and send outcomes askew.

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