Friday, November 29, 2013


This is a response to your question: what do you think of this? - Augmented Australia: the contemporary list
Apologies for the length of the response, but the logic is self-evident in the text.

Some thoughts on ‘AAARRKITECTURE,’ the hard and certain display of ME & MY CLEVERNESS - BESPOKE ME: the one and only genius creator. Is this the new way in which ‘architecture’ seeks to ‘speak to us’: “I have bespoken”?

One is tempted to yell out ‘FAAARRK!’ - but these projects in Augmented Australia: the contemporary list need a better, more considered response than the cliché scream that can just be too easily dismissed as the dumb grudge of inarticulate ignorance that is facetiously declared to be a total lack of understanding.

There is something missing here, something to do with the necessities of flesh and blood - living life, everyday breath and feeling: its accommodation and enhancement in the experience of form, space and place, not only in its ordinary functioning, but also in the processes involved in the making of the thing, its assembling – see

Parc de la Villette, Paris

An earlier critique of Tschumi’s Parc de la Villette comes to mind. Everything appeared different and new, creatively askew and red for its own diverse theoretically graphic sake and sense, nothing else; but a door was still a door that related to one physically and emotionally in the same way as any other when approached, as did the rusting detail of the window frame: its fact in failure too. It is this understanding, the recognition, acceptance, accommodation of and caring for these subtleties of ordinary experience in others unknown, (the users and the makers), in a building that is significant: how the work incorporates and celebrates these common and straightforward complexities effortlessly with a certain coherence, charm, consideration and concern for people, persons, individuals: inclusively, with a certain grace. The ‘exclusive’ declaration isolates and estranges with its pompous intellectualism, its harsh, divisive, pseudo elitism.

In AAARRKITECTURE, the intimacy of the collaborative perception of possibilities arrogantly gets ignored in favour of the dumb belief that the gentle wonder of the architectural experience that holds depth and resonance can be, as it were, mechanically recreated in anything astonishingly different and extreme, in the apparent belief that this noisy amazement of different, eye-catching possibilities equates to that awe arising in true delight - the quiet astonishment of the mystery of beauty: its marvel.

We need to know how to make, e.g., a meaningful door or window that can accommodate and change us, confirm us and our being there/here, without any self-conscious exotic variations that make us alert to the differences that have been implemented for their own and their creator’s sake, to highlight ‘special’ aspects of the works and the individuals involved: the genius. This is an experience that is the antithesis of the sense of beauty, and its wonder that recognises a body, its presence; an eye, its glance; a hand, its touch; and cares for these senses. Traditionally art was nameless and left one speechless. Here, in AAARRKITECTURE, with managed manipulation, feeling becomes a real visual and verbal fakery directed by the stress of extremes, their unexpected surprises, shrewd interpretations and cunning explanations. The first question is ‘Who did this?” – as if it mattered: and, in this unique context, it does! Here one might be left speechless, but it has no relationship to the solitude of beauty; rather it has to do with the astonishment of the sheer gall and effrontery of the work. Indeed, this rupture is frequently acknowledged in the texts that usually seek to explain how these works do not seek to be anything like the cliché ‘beautiful’ thing; rather they indulge other initiatives and ambitions that seem to have been created as rationales after the event, with just as much a ‘creative’ ad hoc approach as any assembly and shaping might have involved – see SWELL SCULTPURE FESTIVAL 2013.

Making ordinary ‘faceless’ architecture is much more difficult than building anything that might be grossly distorted in an impromptu, random manner so as to be immediately noticed beside more quietly modest outcomes. The brashness of the perceived ‘great gestures’ stupefies and threatens; disparages with the latent question: “Why is this other work so bland?” Anything can amaze in this deliberately contorted “LOOK AT ME!” manner just too easily. Indeed, perhaps it can only do this, maybe just once. Inevitably, as with most drugs, we need more and more extremes in order to maintain the buzz: see P.S. below.

Good architecture enriches the silent knowing of everyday existence repeatedly, effortlessly, in the same way that the face of a Buddha, (for want of a better analogy), can hold peace, personally, intimately, in an encompassing experience that is both ordinary and extraordinary, poised in the raw facts of fabric, in the skill and care of the making; suspended with a coherent life-enhancing depth. Tradition beautifully explains this notion as being a circumstance in which ‘we cannot marvel enough.’ Something ‘other’ is involved; something that is difficult to articulate. Of this mystery, tradition simply says that if it could have been said, it would have been.

Self-consciously distracting different works are interesting, perhaps only for a few minutes. They rely on a journalistic interpretation and a commercial PR push for their justification, for their being considered anything at all. Hence the hype of naming, e.g. a Gehry or a Foster, or both, (see the proposed Battersea Power Station redevelopment: gosh! – a double whammy: it has to be good); or maybe a Rogers or a Nouvel (see NEW SYDNEY.). I like to call Gehry ‘Frank O’ for his uncontrolled brashness asserted in his self-centred, singular importance. In this aspect he pairs well with Lord Norman: ‘Oh Lord!’ – actually ‘Lord Foster of Thames Bank, OM Kt.’ OMG!

Indeed, the situation is worse than this hype that markets names, for the promotion of works such as these unique disturbances that are becoming just too familiar does consciously belittle those, seeks to shame those who try to show the weaknesses in the ‘architecture,’ perhaps its distorted shallowness, in order to highlight and promote their creation’s self-importance which, by implication, focuses the spotlight on their own unique qualities too: ME & MY.

‘FAAARRK!’ is probably the best primal response, but its explicitness only provides the key for this promotional operation to be successful by allowing the crudity to illustrate the mark of ignorance beside all of the exotic, clever words that seek to express an ‘intellectualism’: navigate; journey; narrative; narrate; etc., etc.

On smart words, there was a discussion on ABC Radio RN By Design (23 October 2013) concerning the Sydney Opera House that was spoken of in this crafty lingo as ‘The House.’ More and more jargon words flowed. One was ‘event’: apparently the new concern for things architectural. ‘The House,’ it was explained, had become the venue for ‘events’ that were more fundamental than exotic concerts and elitist opera. ‘The House’ was opening up to the people as a location for ‘events,’ for example, The Festival on Dangerous Ideas that was recently held at the Opera House in Sydney, and Q&A, a live ABC TV chat programme that is based on a BBC model (as usual). This radio discussion cheekily went on to ask what improvements the Opera House might undergo in order to bring it up to date, using the logic that it is after all an old building! There is no questioning the cheek of youth!

This perception helps to give some direction to an understanding of AAARRCHITECTURE that holds too much of the expletive to become a successful label. It seems that the best description of the new work is EVENT ARCHITECTURE, where the building itself becomes the event, not an enclosure to accommodate some managed festival occasion initiated to promote a chosen theme for a day or two. These building forms gesticulate with their own enthusiasm for their own purposes to be a perpetual EVENT, nothing else, even though the texts might seek to explain things differently. It could be called PERFORMANCE ARCHITECTURE – see P.S. below on performance art and its extremes. Sadly, when constructed, these buildings have a life longer than the ephemeral fun and games of celebratory events that, like this AAARRCHITECTURE, readily move on to the next fad of fashion festivities. But these transient occasions leave only memories in another time, unlike these architectural ‘EVENTS’ that remain as permanent markers of a ‘genius’ that is constantly moving on to bigger and better things as if to prove itself grander than the greatness of ‘genius.’ Maybe these schemes are best left as flimsy digital fantasies? But we all know how ideas never die, even though some should. The danger is that such displays as this contemporary list will encourage others to build similar forms as fashion, fad, fantasy and determined egos demand. Even worse, some might try to create even more extreme variations of these distended distortions.

The situation establishes a real point of difference with Otto Wagner’s statement made in The Architecture Of Our Time, Vienna, 1914: ‘It cannot be beautiful if it is not practical.’ Indeed, the published images seem to prove Wagner’s point that is exactly the same statement that tradition made on art: see NOTE below. We need to rediscover this intent and content today rather than pressing on blindly with bland, random guesses: whatever comes up; whatever it takes; however – just to impress ourselves. Tradition saw such a loose, egocentric, personal approach as a situation where one was going wildly astray, suggesting that it is better to copy a work of substance than to try to invent a different one. Perhaps the beginning of this change is humility?

The other question that arises with these works is: just what is Australian architecture? Do we know? Do we care? Is all this effort a cringing attempt to prove that we have a ‘world class’ culture? - unique ‘world class’ difference for the sake of difference, and ME!

The modern notion that can accept that, e.g. a jug might not pour properly but can still be declared beautiful, a wonderful design, creates a schism that has allowed Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’ to be cast aside as an old-fashioned, out of date theory and understanding. Just why misunderstandings are allowed to gain such momentum is a mystery, because Sullivan’s words, like Kipling’s classic statement too, did not stop there. Just as ‘East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’ has become a rhythmical, hackneyed phrase that completely changes sense when the next word is read: ‘Till,’ so too does Sullivan’s understanding of function get transformed when seen in its full context. His words continued: ‘function follows form,’ citing the rose as an example: ‘the form of the rose is the function of the rose; the function of the rose is the form of the rose.’ This notion touches on something much more subtly substantial that any ordinary practical performance. There is a different necessity here: (see NOTE below).

0h, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!

Kipling  The Ballad of East and West

Sadly our arrogance is blind to such issues as these, making it unacceptable to do what we must: learn to understand where we have come from. We seem happy to press on with some silly notion of ‘progress’ that seeks to discard any past in favour of some unknown future that is assumed to be better, when something far more inclusive is required. Science knows about this: how theories need to incorporate older theories or to refute them with a transforming rigor and understanding that can truly enlighten. Architecture needs to learn about this concept, and come to understand its true roots and spirit. We need to learn that architecture is not a personal statement or a bespoke competition. It is and always has been much more than this.

To understand this notion better, one should peruse Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language and The Nature of Order.


11 November 2013 news: Russian performance artist nails testicles to Red Square.

Can one expect a building shaped like testicles soon? Oh Ghery? Indeed, why not?! – well, ‘why?’ might be a better question. For the Russian this act was a form of political protest, not a protest about art. The alarming inference is that this is art! One might assume that, art or not, it will be sore: an eyesore?

Gosh, has he used masonry nails for this “I have bespoken” feat?


In the same way it can be said that ‘the function of the leaf is the form of the leaf; the form of the leaf is the function of the leaf.’ It is an apparent circularity that Christopher Alexander talks about in  The Nature of Order  Book One  The Phenomenon of Life  The Center for Environmental Structure, Berkley, California, 2002, p. 117- 118

Consider, for instance, one of the apple leaves shown below. We feel it to be a center, of course. Now, suppose I ask what it is about the leaf which makes it seem like a center. To answer this question, I have to point to the tip of the leaf, the uniform double curvature which makes it a single thing, its spine, its minor ribs, all parallel to one another, the zone of flesh roughly a parallelogram between two ribs, the stem of the leaf, and the indentation where the leaf is joined by this stem, and the very tiny serrations, almost smooth, which form the outer boundary of the leaf. All these are centers.

It is the organisation of these centers which makes the whole leaf a center. Yet all these things are themselves centers. That is why we notice them. It is their centertedness which we notice, and which makes us pick them as the elements with which to see and explain the centeredness of the leaf as a whole. Thus it is the organisation, the “centered” organisation of these other centers, which makes the leaf a center in our experience. As soon as we try to describe, precisely, why this particular thing is a center, we find that we have to invoke some kind of description in terms of other centers.

In mathematics, such a concept is called recursive. Grasping this idea, and grasping the fact that this bit of understanding is a positive step forward, and not problematic, is the key to understanding wholeness. The apparent circularity here is – I believe – the crux of the problem of wholeness. The reason that deep wholeness (or life) is so mysterious, is that centers are built from centers, wholeness is built from wholeness.

This is not a peculiarity of the leaf. It is typical of every single thing in the world that we can examine.

Alexander also touches on the notion of beauty and function in The Nature of Order  Book One  The Phenomenon of Life,  p 185:

Although it may seem surprising to someone raised in the mechanistic-functionalist tradition, good shape in buildings, rooms, gardens, streets, plays a vital role in the way they work. Essentially, what happens is that the thing which works effectively has - must have - more centres in it and, by virtue of having more centres, has better shape. So the good shape is not only making things more beautiful; it also makes them work more profoundly, more effectively.

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