Monday, August 19, 2013

IS ARCHITECTURE JUST GRAND?


 Oxford Boathouse

It was Kevin McCloud introducing his Grand Designs on ABC TV 30 June 2013, (see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/grand-design.html ), with his usual generalisations, exaggeration and hype: “A piece of ‘non-architecture’ is going to make way for something grander.” He was referring to a comfortable 1920s riverside cottage that looked fine to me and to all of the neighbours. Apparently there had been a three-and-a-half year argument with the locals who fought the planning approval that was eventually given for a modern home to replace this modest building. But why was it called ‘non-architecture’? The statement makes clear that there is a specific understanding of what architecture might be. It seems that an ordinary house can never be ‘architecture.’ Something more has to be involved - something grander?


Thames House


Nikolaus Pevsner once wrote that a cathedral was architecture but a bicycle shed was not; it was just a building. He seemed to take this clue from Ruskin who argued similarly that architecture was more than some ordinary structure. A building had to have something extraordinary about it to be ‘architecture.’ Little wonder then that ordinary folk consider architects to be a waste of time and money with what seems to be their commitment to always search for the extraordinary approach. The owners of the old cottage ended up with a few boxes stacked one upon the other, appropriately offset to appear ‘interesting’, all clad in expensive German ceramic panels, with the curvaceous interior surfaces matching the roof, all painted pure white. The budget was in excess of one million pounds. The aim was to create something that required no maintenance; something that would look just as schmick, smart and stylish in twenty year’s time. This ambition alone seemed to be the stimulus for the demolition of the old ‘character’ place that had, as might be expected, some obvious wear and tear. It seemed that there was going to be no natural deterioration allowed here. Even the floorboards on the new exterior deck were ‘plastic’ wood, and the ‘grass’ on the lower roof was artificial turf. Apparently one could not risk natural, organic growth and change. Does the use of these synthetic materials display a naïve faith in ‘futuristic’ things, or just a lack of empathy with life itself?




Why does architecture seek to define itself only as things special, grand and different? The ABC TV ten-minute infill programme, Dream Build, played on 23 June 2013 in the time slot just before Grand Designs, its prelude, had the owner sitting for the photo shoot outside his home that was inspired by camping: the architect liked camping. There was no statement confirming that the client liked camping; indeed, the whole thing seemed like a new experience for the family. Sipping his cup of coffee in full view of the neighbours who all lived in this street with its array of traditional brick homes with tiled hip roofs, the owner said, as if by way of apologetic explanation for the extremes of the stark alternative: “You don’t go to an architect if you don’t want something different.” Oh! Well, this family certainly got something different - a house open to the street and its internal courtyard with rooms that had a maximum of only three walls.




The great irony here was that the house was attempting to replicate the joys of camping; while, when camping, every effort seems to be put into making something temporary look and feel as cosy as a permanent home! There seemed to be no thought given to the nasty and uncomfortable sides of camping: the lack of security; the lack of privacy; possums; rats; snakes; cyclones; wind; storms; insects; cold; damp - we all have experienced or know about these matters. The thing that appeared to be the core issue was that this place was different; and it came with a story too - a rationale. So we are back to the definition: architecture is something grand and different.




The concern is that if we are unable to be content with ordinary things done well, then we are relegating art and architecture - the art of architecture - not only to an elitist role, but we are also forcing it into a territory where every effort has to be made to make things uniquely different, bespoke - just for me, by me - before they can be considered worthy enough to be categorised as art or architecture. Indeed, the owner of the house on the river argued that she liked the house that expressed her ambitions and ideals, so everyone else could, well, “go jump,” as the cliché goes. It seemed that everyone else was wrong, or had no say in how ‘I’ should act, even though they were the ones who had to look at this place. Context was irrelevant. The three-and-a-half year battle with the river community proved this. It appears that the planners eventually relented: see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/planning-failures-who-cares.html





That we seem unable to show any interest in capturing quality and spirit in ordinary things appears to display not only a disregard for such matters, but also a carelessness and a laziness. It becomes too easy to argue that something ad hoc and random has quality just because it is so different and extreme; and any story can be put in place to explain the uniquely special properties even when the ‘work’ is obviously silly or stupidly irrelevant, even trash. The rule here seems to be: the more extreme, the better the work.


 

Tradition holds many examples of ordinary and simple things being special. Indeed, the philosophy was that if art did not comply with the rules, then the work could never be beautiful. It saw individual ‘creativity’ as an idiosyncrasy. If one reflects on this, it becomes obvious. Why should any personal dysfunction be hailed as some grand invention to be desired and admired by all? If I choose to express myself with a natural stammer or lisp, does this make my speech better, more desirable? It will certainly be different. We already see something like this selectivity of and preference for difference in television programmes where presenters with quirky accents are chosen to front shows, any show, be it medical, geographical, for tourists, or nature-based. In Australia, we have yet to see the newsreader who stutters, even though the world bleats on about equality for those with a disability. It will come.




So is architecture just grand? No. If we are so determined to define architecture, then we should approach it in the same way we do everything else: identify the ‘pecking order’ or the ‘chain of command’, as it were: the variation of parts and their roles. Art has hierarchies, categories, as do most things in life. We have child’s art; monkey art; elephant art; commercial art; graphic art; oil painting; sculpture; watercolour; etc. The options are endless, and each has its own sub-hierarchy too. Why is architecture only claiming to be ‘high art’ and nothing else? If we are unable to accommodate all building into some identification of architecture, its scope, then we are not only limiting our own vision, but we are also curtailing any likelihood of achieving a true expression of spirit in the rich baseness of the everyday that becomes merely a discard. Our lives will be as theatre, we as actors, if architecture is seen only as things grandly different: see http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2011/04/living-design.html  Architecture becomes a performance art seeking out our indulgent and self-satisfying participation that degrades basic daily life.




We need an architecture that can enrich us in our ordinary existence and partaking of life: our wellbeing needs it. We should not have to step aside into another world or vision in order to know architecture or art. Seeking things grand will only create division and promote our discontent. We need ways to let contentment flourish, in a beautiful world that is the ordinary and everyday rather than the bespoke and special that is concerned only with, and is all about ME. “Aren’t we lucky,” was the lady’s refrain on Grand Designs. We need an environment that can express US: our world; our society; ourselves as a community; our completeness and coherence rather than our fragmentation. This strategy does suggest something that ‘averages’ things out, but it will be a sad day when our ordinary living has to be seen as average, mean, because it cannot be labelled ‘grand.’




Have we forgotten how to be meek? Have we devalued this understanding with our crass commercialisation and its hyped, promotional enterprises? Sadly there seems to be profit only in division and discontent, and the eternal stimulation of desire that ennobles grandly exclusive, ‘impossible’ dreams.


 
On planning, see and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/town-planning-visions.html



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