Sunday 24 June 2012


Tatlin’s Tower is one of the iconic images of Constructivism, that great burst of Russian energy which so puzzled Rem Koolhaus, who asked the question: “Where did all this vigour go?” Presumably with the understanding that matter cannot be created or destroyed, he hypothesized in Delirious New York that it all travelled - actually swam - to America to become the driving force behind the International style: and the rest is history. Tatlin’s tower is familiar to most of us as two-dimensional images - a beautiful drawing; a graphic image; or a photograph of the model. It appears in a variety of contexts, on posters, stamps and in magazines. The image always seems to illustrate one aspect of the tower, the lean of the trussed beam to the right, wrapped in the wonderful sweep of the prophetic double helix supported by zigzagging props. Sometimes the mirror image is shown.

Model of Tatlin's Tower 1919

The complexity of the form intrigues. One always assumes that everything comes together beautifully without really comprehending the intricacies of the making of the massing or its functions. The void of puzzlement is finally overcome with a leap of faith, allowing one to appreciate the real beauty of the tower exhibited in these limited aids without the distraction of unanswered questions. After all, there was a model built, so it must work. Indeed, there is a model of the tower at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm, Sweden and at Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. In November 2011, a 1:42 model of the tower was built in the entrance courtyard of The Royal Academy of Arts in London.

What a surprise to stroll in and discover this completed structure that has always been so captivating! At last one could meander around the three-dimensional form and understand the mysteries of its assemblage; to actually see what one has always hoped might be - the tower as an integrated possibility, complete, albeit it in model form. It must have been wonderful to have been part of the team preparing the shop drawings for this structure. Imagine not only interpreting the sketches and other images, but also defining the articulation of the joints, shaping the junctions and drawing the details of all the various pieces - reworking Tatlin’s thoughts. The photographs published here are a few images that help illustrate how the familiar two-dimensional hypothesis - that leap of faith - becomes real, towering steel.


Constructivism can still entrance. The viewing of the model only makes Rem Koolhaus’s question become more real, adding more sense to it, because the energy is indeed astonishing. What must it have been in its’ own time? The vision of a tower higher than the Eiffel Tower accommodating moving masses, various functions and a spiralling transport system - see the notes below. Consider also, in a similar context, Konstantin Stepanovich Melnikov. His work was better than Le Corbusier’s early work, (Corbusier met him when he travelled to Russia), but, alas, the Russian Institute of Architects knew better and squashed this stunning start, limiting his career to ten brilliant years:1923-1933. Corbusier learned from him. Melnikov’s work is amazing. 
Bruce Chatwin wrote a short story about visiting him in his wonderful house, that double, intersecting cylinder with hexagonal windows (1927-1929), that he was still living in, in the early 1970’s. Chatwin tells how he left the home with the sad, departing gesture of Melnikov’s arm sweeping up and then sharply dipping down to finish with a sideways flick. Chatwin noted that the locus of this motion shaped the graph of Melnikov’s career: a quick rise and a sudden fall with its’ terminal aside. But Constructivism was a lot more that this, even though this diagram marked its’ fate as well, with the work of Tatlin, Malevich, Lissitsky, Pevsner, Gabo, and others, all falling out of favour as the Russian State demanded its own centralized vision of art through the Union of Artists - the Academy - that defined the required subject, style and technique: Socialist Realism. ‘They had to abandon their total prophetic claims and resign themselves to becoming good workers in a single productive sector. Tatlin concentrated on theatre design and ceramics, Lissitsky on exhibition layout, Rodchenko on typography and photo-montage; Malevich retired from public life altogether.’ John Berger, Art and Revolution, Writers and Readers, London, 1969, p.48.
Melnikov House
The work of this era still astonishes with its depth, strength and freshness. Yet it was so suddenly terminated. Little wonder that Koolhaus assumed it had to go elsewhere - to become the buzzing, exuberantly mad energy of New York in the early twentieth century, where, in private clubs, men ate oysters with boxing gloves, naked.

Tatlin's Tower

Tatlin’s Tower or The Monument to the Third International is a grand monumental building envisioned by the Russian artist and architect Vladimir Tatlin, but never built. It was planned to be erected in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, as the headquarters and monument of the Comintern (the third international).


Tatlin's Constructivist tower was to be built from industrial materials: iron, glass and steel. In materials, shape, and function, it was envisaged as a towering symbol of modernity. It would have dwarfed the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The tower's main form was a twin helix which spiraled up to 400 m in height, around which visitors would be transported with the aid of various mechanical devices. The main framework would contain four large suspended geometric structures. These structures would rotate at different rates of speed. At the base of the structure was a cube which was designed as a venue for lectures, conferences and legislative meetings, and this would complete a rotation in the span of one year. Above the cube would be a smaller pyramid housing executive activities and completing a rotation once a month. Further up would be a cylinder, which was to house an information centre, issuing news bulletins and manifestos via telegraph, radio and loudspeaker, and would complete a rotation once a day. At the top, there would be a hemisphere for radio equipment. There were also plans to install a gigantic open-air screen on the cylinder, and a further projector which would be able to cast messages across the clouds on any overcast day.


The Monument is generally considered to be the defining expression of architectural constructivism, rather than a buildable project. Even if the gigantic amount of required steel had been available in revolutionary Russia, in the context of housing shortages and political turmoil, there are serious doubts about its structural practicality.
Symbolically, the tower was said to represent the aspirations of its originating country and a challenge to Eiffel Tower as the foremost symbol of modernity. Soviet critic Viktor Shklovsky is said to have called it a monument "made of steel, glass and revolution."

27 January 2017

 The Spiral Minaret of the Samarra Mosque, Iraq

Kassem-Darwish Fakhroo Islamic Centre, Doha, Qatar

Wednesday 13 June 2012


 ‘Our heritage.’ It is an interesting pair of words that immediately call up visions of and feelings for a past era, perhaps the cliché ‘one hundred years’ ago or older. Yet the precise scope of time that ‘heritage’ actually refers to is vaguely uncertain. The emotion seems to play a more significant role than the fact. Still, there is something poetically alluring in the words that recall the romance of other times with a certain nostalgia - remembrance: “Ah! Those were the days.” There is a quality of ignorant arrogance in the experience that allows the deprivations and struggles of other times to be overlooked from the safe comfort of our era. This self-centred review places an emphasis to on the aesthetics of the other age as seen from our time, because this past is usually formalised for us most commonly in old buildings in our towns and cities, seen as part of a rich tapestry. It is the classical problem with art in history. Traditional art will never be properly understood until we come to know it in the way that it was experienced in its time - in its complete cultural context, not ours (see Ananda Coomaraswamy in Likewise, heritage will never be fully understood until we know it in its full cultural milieu - ‘warts and all.’ Consider knowing about the treadmill in Brisbane, and hearing the phantom screams when one is now looking admiringly at this historic precinct today - see   What is the difference between knowing and not knowing?

Old Treasury Building, now Treasury Casino, Brisbane

In Australia, images of our convict/colonial past come to mind as picturesque ‘heritage’ buildings - the grand formal government structures and the palatial homes of the gentry - as well as the quaint forms of the local cottages with their simple, naïve decoration. There is an alluring certainty about how the remnants of another time can ‘talk’ to us. The circumstance is not unlike admiring the sounds of another tongue when nothing is known about the message being transferred; or perhaps appreciating music, with words sung in a foreign language. The attraction has to do, it seems, not only with the relationship of these other times with ours, but also with time itself - how these pieces have managed to remain for us to be experienced today even with all of our prior neglect, and conceivably, our disparagement. Fashion makes harsh assertions on immediate pasts. These ‘heritage’ buildings have survived in spite of, rather than because of any special attention, other than perhaps, some innate love and care that these pieces  - these relics - may have been given by others in their time. Somehow, somewhere, someone has nurtured them. Do we feel this devotion when we see these things? Miss Toward’s nineteenth century tenement house apartment in Glasgow - complete in every detail even to this day - shows how love and care - everyday intimacy - can survive.

Heritage architects work hard at their research and with their projects of restoration to allow these pasts to be present today. The challenge is transparent when it has its own real roots in time, but things change when ‘heritage’ takes on a more intellectual stance. The article by Katharine Feeney in The Brisbane Times (see raises the issues of what is heritage, and when. While it might be easy to accept that one hundred years ago is heritage, is fifty years ago heritage? Is twenty years ago heritage? Is yesterday heritage? Is today the heritage of the future? Is there such a thing as future pasts? Do we have a role in deciding the heritage of any future? Will it have any meaning?

I can recall the project in the sixties - a new university development that became the talk of the world. It had the futuristic image of an Antonio Sant'Elia drawing, but this was a real building - a complex institution shaped as a town or city. After the first stage was completed, the original working sketch for the scheme - on a very large piece of detail paper - was found rolled up in the office. It was realised that this exploratory drawing would make a wonderful display in the foyer - to reveal the thought as work: the creative process made manifest. So the sketch was presented to the client who had it mounted, framed and installed. It is indeed a wonderful drawing somewhat like the image that illustrates the paths of cyclones off the Queensland coast over the years (see It was naïve and innocent, careless about its beauty, but very beautiful because of this. It was a true palimpsest, with layer on layer of lines as thoughts seeking their own sense of being in their revelation that became realised in the iconic off-form stepping and flowing concrete masses of the institution. The idea was a great success.

What happened after this was that this firm became self-conscious about all of its preliminary sketches, with the exclamation being made during the early periods of pondering on what the design wanted to be, frequently being “This will be the one we will present to the client.” Instead of the raw innocence of the sketch that had no ambition other than aiding thought and determining the best resolution of an idea, the sketches became contrived ‘arty-facts’ that looked beautiful, but had lost their inner raison d’etre. They were being considered and produced as art works that looked like working sketches. The careless meanderings seeking the presence of integrity now had alternative intentions - to impress, to look good on the wall, in a frame.

I was reminded of this circumstance when reading the statement in the Feeney article on brand new buildings becoming the heritage of tomorrow - ‘the new ABC headquarters at South Bank should be protected as an example of excellent contemporary design.’ This is like heritage being predicted - as if it could be. We talk of heritage boldly believing that it has to do with architecture alone, but it is far more complex than this. Heritage is a general past - other times from which we have developed; other eras that hold our roots. There is a broad intimacy here that we so easily ignore in favour of our own casual interpretations. ‘Heritage’ is not just building fabric, even though we find this aspect of it easy to grasp.

New ABC Headquarters, South Bank

Even so, ‘heritage’ as buildings with true age, has its own naïve coming into being, like the first master sketch for the new university. Subsequent conceptions of what might be heritage for tomorrow, take on a whole new ambition. Prediction of possibilities becomes such that heritage, like the later sketches, is self-consciously created. If this relates to, say, some past thirty years or so, then there is some distance that makes things a little less brash; but saying that a building that has only just been occupied for a few months is an example of its time and is the heritage of the future - and should be kept, perhaps even un-renovated forever? - seems absurd. This intellectual position not only guesses that the building has relevance - well, it must be of its time, mustn’t it? - it is also presupposing what time and others might do with this building fabric. Who really knows if it ‘good design’? I walked past the building being referred to just the other day and considered it, well, as a first impression, somewhat mediocre. It appeared to me to be Corbusier’s 1914-1915 Dom-ino slab and column system, with bland glass infill panels shrouded with geometrically interesting sun shading, complete with a bold corner box marking entrance. Is the proposition that this is an example - or will be - of how we approached our building design of today? Surely not, other than in this particular case?

Le Corbusier Dom-ino skeleton

Perhaps this argument holds much the same sense, otr lack of it, as that categorisation that labels Brisbane’s ‘brutalist’ buildings – the George Street Government complex by Lund Hutton Ryan Morton (by the late John Morton); maybe the Executive Building office tower ( by Conrad and Gargett); and QPAC and other works (by Robin Gibson). These projects are not what I would call ‘Brutalist.’ Rayner Banham gave this wonderful label – Brutalism - to the work of the British architects in the 1960’s by writing a book on it: The New Brutalism (1966). The early Smithson’s works and those of James Stirling were Brutlaist - raw brick and rough, bold concrete – inspired by Corb’s later works. The Brisbane work - especially that of Robin Gibson - is more, well, ‘managed.’ John Morton’s building has every square millimetre covered in fine pebbles. This was not apparently his choice, but the original concrete was never rough or rudely raw. Mr. Gibson had one building - a shoe shop - where he used rough concrete that could be identified as being similar to the finishes of Brutalism, but his work has more to do with the International style than anything else, like John Morton’s. These projects may have an unfashionable, unattractive quality about them today that makes the ‘brutalist’ label appear appropriate - as if self-consciously heavy-handed -  but it has little to do with this short period in the 60’s that was inspired by things rough, common and brash. Mr. Gibson and Mr. Morton liked things smart and slick - the antithesis of things brutal as Banham identified them. Their interiors make this obvious.

Predicting heritage today seems as futile as labelling works inappropriately. When does one stop? Where? Does one grab sketches off the board to justify tomorrow’s heritage: to get is as is/was being made? There is a nonsense here that makes one ask: are ‘heritage’ architects running out of ‘heritage’ things to research/identify? Is the ‘story’ of any ‘tapestry’ - whatever this might really mean - really ours to tell? Anticipating heritage is a little like Andy Warhol’s astonishing desire to see everything as having a relevance, an importance - in the same way as Miss Toward did. It is commonly known as ‘hoarding.’ Will we end up wanting everything to be considered as being important to a future that we might never know? There is the same arrogance here as that which looks on the past with our ‘aesthetic’ or ‘intellectual’ eye.
Miss Toward's Tenement interior

Australia is a young country and lacks historical depth. Cook mapped a portion of the country in 1770. Today, June 2012, makes this time difference only a period of less than 250 years. This is not Europe where buildings of over 1000 years of age can still be entered, indeed, lived in, even though we might like it to be. One can see the circumstance where there could be a deficit of interesting heritage items, especially with our eagerness to demolish; but surely ‘heritage’ is best left to other generations that can put their test of time and experience on to what they consider to be their history. Self-consciously making heritage is interesting if you like to do it, but it is really a farce - the making of tomorrow’s future today. It holds a disturbing self-consciousness that manipulates intents in the same way as the later sketches of other projects did. We may be committed to things ‘heritage’ and mourn the loss of important things, but to define ‘heritage’ today is almost foolish. It is as though we have no trust in others to manage this ‘story’ by attempting to create and define the ‘tapestry’ of tomorrow today.

Who should write this story? In any attempt to ‘keep a cross-section’ of the ‘recent past’ to ensure a certain ‘richness,’ we end up in the circular circumstance of controlling renovations and futures that may themselves be ‘heritage’ in other times. Are we making a false heritage by gauging the ‘value’ - making ‘sure that value isn’t lost forever’ in ‘some types or key buildings,’ even in  ‘more complicated buildings or buildings with very ordinary uses;’ yes, even ‘unattractive’ buildings? The words all show some emotive, qualitative assessment that is of our time. It may be useful in determining what we think of our future ‘heritage,’ but it is a rude assumption that this might be so for other generations. We need to be more humble.

Tne Mansions, George Strete, Brisbane

Yes, we do need to identify the best we have and make some assessments over time, but this needs to be managed very carefully if our presence is not going to distort any future understanding of the past that is our present today. In this context, as an example, one can only lament that fact that the 1960’s Gleneagles complex at New Farm - that wonderful twin-tower development by the Buffalo Lodge for aged living in the inner city - has been approved to be redeveloped as slick apartments in spite of it being listed as being historically relevant by the Brisbane City Council - the approving body for the change. It is ironic. But this 1960’s development, more than most, presents us with a bold example of both social and building innovation that is no longer being matched by anything we do today. Sadly, even when we do mark things that we see as important, there is no will to maintain the fight to keep these. Such is life: such is ‘heritage.’ We can tell our story – and we should: ‘warts and all’ - but we must leave others to write theirs too. Indeed, they will. Let’s hope it is not a story about how we tried to distort the tapestry of their ‘false’ heritage.

John Berger, in Art and Revolution (Writers and Readers, London, 1969, p.95), asks the question that is critical when considering the present in the context of the future. He is referring to  the work of the Russian sculptor, Ernst Neizvestny:

  To examine the spirit and the theme of Neizvestny's work.
  To try to delimit the world of his imagination.
  I ask myself whether it is too soon to do this.


This article in by Katharine Feeney highlights the dilemma with heritage: knowing what we do about our past and what has been lost with time, as well as what has been protected, what do we do about future heritage, if such a concept can make any sense? What obligations do we have to maintain any future past? Can we? Should we? What do we pass on if choose to act? Will it merely be a charade - a 'fake' heritage as selected by others of that time? Can 'heritage' have a present? - see

Protecting Brisbane's brutal charm
KATHERINE FEENEY June 12, 2012  


 The heritage values intended to protect the Old State Library on William Street should extend to the brutalist concrete government buildings at the heart of Premier Campbell Newman's controversial parliamentary precinct plan, a top Queensland architect says.
Award winning architect Don Watson, who has worked with the Queensland government and is an adjunct professor at the University of Queensland, believes towers such as George Street's Public Works office should not be demolished simply because they're popularly “unattractive”.
“These buildings are part of a story,” Mr Watson told
“Unless they survive for a reasonable length of time, the decision is not likely to be in their favour.
“But if it lasts another decade or more, then I think people would recognise the quality.”
Mr Watson, recently recognised with a Queensland Memory Award for his work researching the state's built history, said Brisbane was at risk of becoming a “just-new” city too like the Gold Coast and without an architectural tapestry.

“Unless you keep a cross-section of the buildings that have been done over the whole period, the town doesn't develop any richness,” he said.
“We renovate [old buildings] pretty quickly these days – a little more quickly than would be desirable.
“People have limited patience for what they perceive as being outdated – they somehow think it rubs off on them somehow.”
There are currently no buildings in Brisbane designed from the 1970s onward listed on the Queensland Heritage Register, with the youngest being the Sir William Glasgow memorial on Queen Street, built in the 1960s and registered in 2004.
Department of Environment and Resource Management heritage branch director Fiona Gardiner said there were eight standards in the Queensland Heritage Act 1992 that would need to be met before a building could be registered.
They related to qualities such as aesthetic significance, creative or technical achievement at a particular period or demonstration of historical evolution.
But Ms Gardiner said there had been no applications made regarding heritage protection of the Public Works building despite Mr Watson's commendation of the Lund Hutton Ryan Morton site as a “very good” example of 1980s brutalist style – an architectural period that followed from 1950s and 1960s modernism.

Mr Watson said other “fantastic” brutalist buildings in Brisbane included works by Robin Gibson, who created Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Queensland Art Gallery and the State Library of Queensland.
Unlike Brisbane, Sydney was famous for the "nuts and berries" of it's built landscape, which saw brutalist slabs maintained alongside elegant brick buildings, creating a rich visual tapestry that captured the city's architectural history.
He said protecting the recent past for the future was just as important as honouring the built legacy of Brisbane's early designers, and said buildings such as the new ABC headquarters at South Bank should be protected as an example of excellent contemporary design.
“Some building types or key buildings earn affection very quickly – like the Sydney Opera House for example and the new Queensland Art Gallery for example,” he said.
“But other more complicated buildings or buildings with very ordinary uses like an office block probably do need a period of time before people understand their value.
“We need to make sure that value isn't lost forever because it's not realised in time.”
Mr Watson is currently researching Queensland's influential architects of the 20th century for a follow up to his 1994 work Queensland Architects of the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary.
The $20,000 Queensland Memory fellowship recently awarded to him by Arts Minister Ros Bates will help him continue his work with the State Library of Queensland's John Oxley Library.

Monday 11 June 2012


Ideas in progress: following the example of Illich and James, (see, this blog is starting to explore issues as ideas in progress. The proposition is that architecture is the management of joints - joints of all varieties, classifications and for various purposes. The idea could be put as:
Architecture is the purposeful organisation of joints.

There are joints for: construction; for movement; for decoration; by necessity - time and materials are involved here; by failures; for weathering; and more. The self-conscious orgaisation of joints makes wholes out of parts, and parts out of wholes. Some joints sneek in, while others declare their existence with a grandiose outcry. Some joints are to be seen, others are to be concealed as best they can. Some joints have a purpose, others exist only because of the constant battle with essentials. Joints make their own demands, just as other demands are made of joints. They can clash and crash, depending on the aims. Architecture is a mix and match, a patchwork of joints The intent can overlay joints or adapt to them. Form and function, function and form play their games here, with strategies for joint management being determined by the interpretation of ambitions. The prime truth in architecture is the joint.

The following images of Palais Garnier - Opera national de Paris start the ponderings on this subject.

The ponderings continue at Versailles . . . .

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Saturday 9 June 2012


Paul L. Cejas School of Architecture  Bernard Tschumi

 It was a question asked in the PETE & DUD chat and should be explored - (see A school of architecture is a complex thing. Not only is it a building, but it is also an administrative department, usually within a broader educational structure, that has particular aims, ambitions, strategies and philosophies for training architects. It is also a community – a small social cluster with its own subtle structure and inner relationships. To keep matters in this text manageable, the question will be limited to asking about the school as a building. Other aspects may be explored at another time. Thinking about the school in this way seems to be relevant given the Peter Cook/Brit Andresen CRAB scheme that is presently under construction at Bond University. This proposal seems to suggest that there is some relevance in having an avant-garde architectural assemblage put in place for students. Is the intent to stimulate; to set an example; to excite? Is this useful?

Universities are now run as businesses, so one might ask in parallel whether the ambition is to have a building that can also be used in the advertising of the school - in the glossy promotions. Is an eye-catching, differently unique set of forms seen as an advantage when promoting the school to the rest of the world? Is it like having a better brand? The ‘ivy league’ campuses seem to like their identities and proudly promote their classic pseudo-‘Gothic/Tudor’ sandstone images on their brochures. With the newest of new, the ‘name’ architect can also be used to attract those who seek to get closer to the icon. Peter Cook of Archigram, for example, has credentials that can attract. James Stirling was used at Newcastle in Australia for its’ school extension. Is this seen as being essential? Imagine the PR of the school carrying all of those old quirky Archigram images and illustrations of CRAB’s newer work. It places the promotion in a class of its own as it seeks the new class of students. Similarly, one could ask about Alvaro Siza in Porto, Portugal and his Faculty of Architecture complex, even though this offers a more modest, pristine presentation.

The Faculty of Architecture, Porto  Alvaro Siza

This circumstance may be so, but lying behind all of this potential propaganda is the substance of place that is needed for a school. Does it make any difference if the building is new or old; slick or ordinary; classical or unique? Is this the question about the role of place in experience and outcome? Can a building change people - behaviour? Is it substantially relevant in determining personal outcomes – actions, attitudes and activities?

Main Quad  Sydney University

This question is usually carefully avoided by architects and theorists as it means that, for example, the design of a jail can change behaviour. Architects have been asked to design cells in such a way as to make hangings impossible - or unlikely. They have been asked to design public housing to transform problem activity into a positive result. Such briefs are generally best passed up as the proof is usually found in their failures. It seems that the concept of a building being able to change behaviour is questionable. So why worry about a school of architecture?

The issue is complex, as lingering behind this reservation is the belief that buildings can do something – and do – to people: that buildings modify feelings that give rise to other subtle implications in their use and experience. But all of this gets too emotional to quantify and becomes so ‘hard’ as fact that it distorts the senses and hence the proof, when any attempt is made to substantiate it. It is somewhat like the scientist who is unable to remove the impact of being there when making measurements in the research. Yet the latent notion of a building’s power lingers, stimulating the drive for designs that seek to take up the challenge – at least in the explanation of the rationale of their intent and difference. So, for schools of architecture, what is it that is important, if anything?

One can think of various schools that have been known and experienced over the years and reflect on them in this attempt to seek out an answer. One school was merely bits and pieces of leftover spaces in various buildings - both new and old – that had students wandering around the campus to suit the activities of the timetable. This fragmentation had its’ own unique feel that seemed to get lost when the school was transferred into a new building that centred activity into a concrete box of its era in one of the best locations on the campus. Even though this new building might have been more convenient, its extrapolation and juxtaposition of functions and spaces seemed to place an awkward inflexibility on the accommodation that was only aggravated with time and its changes. Yet neither arrangement seemed to have any observable impact on outcomes. Neither geniuses nor fools, or those in between, seemed to benefit or suffer from any different format for schooling. Staff may have been a little grumpier and more discontent, but they always are, aren’t hey?

Yale School of Architecture   Paul Rudolph

Then there was the school that fitted itself into a couple classic old buildings that had a new addition to link them. This arrangement allowed students to come to know both the old and the new, and to note the relative effectiveness, or lack of it, in the embodied usefulness or otherwise. This all changed when the bulldozers moved in and sorted out the place for a schmick, new, singularly ‘architected’ facility with a differently styled courtyard. The new had everything calculated and catered for. The faults slowly came to become as obvious as those in Paul Rudolph’s smart new Yale school when his clever glass openings started to have paper pasted over them to manage the problem of glare. The impromptu socializing that the old school made possible faded away into properly managed, organised activity in the right spaces and places, all with the required - acquired - right behaviour. Such seems to be one of the problems with new structures.

There was another school that comes to mind that was tastefully shaped in order to retain a beautiful old façade. The concept was attractive, but the operation of the school had no particular relationship to this idea other than being a part of it, complete with all of the new building problems attached to it. Students came and went with no obvious difference in performance. Indeed, it seemed, as in all of these remembered cases, that it was the make-up and attitude of the staff that was more important than anything else in relation to student attitude, activity and output.

This observation also proved to be true in yet another school that occupied a complete old building, but here there did seem to be some lingering benefit – if only in the building’s ability to adapt to change. The larger voids and older fabric seemed to generate a more relaxed relationship to possibilities for the continuing change in planned uses. But it did come to pass that one noticed that it was the creativity of the staff that allowed for this to both be envisaged and to happen. So it came down to staff yet again.

While each building or set of buildings did have an impact on the school and how one experienced it, it seemed to be that it was the staff that had a greater impact on results. The building itself only made things more or less difficult or awkward when it could not easily accommodate functions. Sometimes this challenge might have been seen to be useful in ‘hardening’ the students, but it was not immediately obvious that any building had any impact on outcomes other than in the experiencing of the tensions and challenges of use, both large and small. Maybe it could be said that buildings were good for students to learn of the various failures and successes of these facilities - both new and old? Who could tell? They were indeed, and always will be, very clear when one spends so much time in them. But this is not very useful when seeking an answer to the first question.

HLA School of Architecture  Hennings Larsen

One proposition is: does a school, like, for example, maybe a museum or art gallery, best keep itself neutral, abstract, to allow for student creativity? What might this need? Peace of mind; contentment; a particular challenge? Is a ‘performance’ space preferred over something blander to cater for the spirited? Or do students best relate to a masterpiece that might stimulate and enthuse? Can a place continue to stimulate interest when one lives in it for so long? Does the familiarity kill and distort, making the humble, readily-adapted mess the preferred solution, accommodating something of a Zen knowing rather than encouraging a blatant, egocentric boasting – a display for sake of ego rather than spaces for ‘good work,’ as Fritz Schumacher described it?

While this latter approach - the shambles – has a wonderful, adaptive, alluring, and accommodating gentleness, one can see the immediate problem with a school trying to promote itself as a business. It would not have the startling, singular and unique presence of the brand - the brand new and smartly slick building. Is there an in-between - that very best of ‘win-win’ solutions? Build an attractive shambles?

There is really no answer to this complicated question, even though I prefer the shambles, because it is really the staff that makes or breaks the school. The building can play its role in how restrictive a set of rules it places on adaptation and use, setting laws for student activity: thou shalt not do X, Y and/or Z. The shambles is completely flexible with no preconceptions. Like the slum, it grows as an aggregation into its complex, organic expression. But this carries the identity of poverty – or doing more with less and less, and a constant struggle for survival: the very last image any school other than one completely committed to its’ cause, would want. It is certainly not the image of a school that seeks to extract huge fees as a business might, for unsubsidised scholarship, learning or simply training: or is it?

So the answer to the question is always somewhat tainted by the complexity of its inner being – its’ substance. Ivan Illich always promoted learning in his village of Cuernavaca in Mexico by encouraging a raw interest in the locals and nurturing it. Education was personal, not institutional. There was no special building fabric involved; and he saw the damage that technology wrought on the village band. Transistor radios brought its demise and locals forgot their traditional songs in less than ten years. We need to ask more about what education is, and how it and its technologies and gadgets are changing us, as well as knowing more about the spaces this all takes place in. Then we might gather committed folk together to make a real school, because such a school will have both students and staff knocking on its door to share the experience; indeed, good staff members are never not students. The attempts to try to self-consciously create this demand out of smart buildings and selected staff CVs will always have an inherent complication, in both functions and morale – the limitations of a preconceived framework. This will have an impact on outcomes. We need to keep our songs alive and accept the risk of challenge and the challenge of risk.

Of course, in all of this melange, the role of the student must never be overlooked. The student is never the blank slate that some theories assume it to be, no matter how much the student might like to think it to be so with the ‘You teach me’ attitude, where failings are all the responsibility of others. Like the phantom scientist, the student is the invisible catalyst. There is a wholeness here that needs nurturing for a school of architecture to be what a school of architecture should be. Definitions only limit possibilities and outcomes. The real worry is that buildings - both new and old - define too much, too frequently, for disparate reasons, sometimes in spite of their ambitions. It is just too easy for buidlings to rage, scream and preach, and destroy the silence in which things intimate - meek, modest, and merciful - might thrive in a caring and fertile contentment. Is it just too hard to hold the silence in place?

The Austin E. Knowton School of Architecture  WSA Studio

Oh, for. . . buildings that well up . . . not imposed . . . that cross categories . . . that listen, not dictate.  (see

And as for the erstwhile critique of commodification, that has been submerged by the tidal wave of consumerist culture that generates its own self-serving ideology; hardly a voice today is raised to complain about the use of supposedly avant-garde art as a badge of status for the newly rich or as a vehicle for brand-building by corporations.
Nor does the contemporary art market have any qualms about the abasement of art to an even more squalid level of commodificaiton as a form of investment, the final reduction of art to exchange value.
Christopher Allen, Market Forces, the  June 9-10, 2012