Friday 28 February 2020


- the bugbear of 'Grand Designs'
It was Ananda Coomaraswamy who wrote the essay The Bugbear of Literacy – see: The modern world has always seen literacy as a positive, an essential part of learning and being, a truly transformative, cultural necessity. Illiteracy is seen as an unfortunate, ‘backwards’ circumstance, a little like mud building, basic and bland – a situation lacking any ‘intellectual’ sophistication or progressive ambition. Coomaraswamy argued differently;# and one could argue likewise on the impact and relevance of McCloud’s Grand Designs*its bugbear.

Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali.

It was the BBC report on the Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali - see; and - that highlighted the problem. Here mud and people are engaged in maintaining wonder. There is no dramatic music, or exaggerated hype here; there is no saga on family breakdowns; no failed materials, lack of money, progress; or any disastrous impacts of weather and time: everything that has become fodder for the Grand Designs programme dramas.

Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali.

Ordinary mud and lives can make marvels without the super-exaggerated buildups - literally - to generate interest, that then seek to promote an ambition, a need, a desire to achieve the ‘Grand Design’ definition of architecture as a personal achievement and expression; as something bespoke, special, devoid of any link to the reality of costs or contexts; something just there to be recorded as an entertainment for folk to stare at - MY creativity and expression: only this is important, and equates to the ‘literacy’ of design that dramatically contrasts with the raw necessity of 'illiterate' mud.

Architect Hassan Fathy

We need to learn about the architecture of things ordinary, like the mud building of Hassan Fathy, an approach explored by Christopher Alexander who, ironically, gained a reputation with his clever title, Notes on the Synthesis of Form. It must be the book in architecture that is the equivalent of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time - many purchased, but few read or understood. Sadly the following writings of Alexander that took an alternative view on things, were ignored in much the same manner. A Pattern Language, along with its associated publications, made a significant point, but became something like the traditional household bible, a required, big book on a shelf, rarely opened, and a little overwhelming when it was. Even the pages of this Oxford publication are beautifully, biblically thin. The subsequent The Nature of Order series seemed to exist only for enthusiasts to purchase and peruse, and become privately excited about as the world became Gehry-ized and Hadid-ed; received somewhat in the same manner as John James’s books on Chartres and the cathedral builders of the Paris basin were – all truly significant publications that have never been given the attention and respect that they deserve. Alexander's intrigues seemed to get too personal for general consumption; too academically rich and fertile; too intimate and modest for the world interested in articulate, literate, ‘Grand Designs;’ ignored in the same manner as James’s substantial studies that reported on his years of astonishingly detailed research.

Architect Hassan Fathy

Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali.

The BBC Mali mosque report highlighted how meaning and mud - values and necessity - were not structured opposites: how simple, everyday things can be magnificent. Amazement reigned as the idea became explicit: we need to rediscover mud and hands; to re-learn how simplicity and necessity can create marvels if the spirit.

The problem seems to lie not only in the desire for things ‘grand,’ but in knowing what matters of the spirit can be embodied in our architecture. Is it this unknowing struggle that seeks its deliverance in the interpretation of the power of things spiritual as things merely big, bold, and grandiose? The modesty of the Mali mosque needs to define majesty for us, and its possibilities, rather than the continuing muddling around with the entertainments of the self-proclaimed ‘grand designs’ of Grand Designs, stimulating those egocentric messes that we see replicated in our towns and cities everyday.

Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali.

The bugbear of Grand Designs is not only its manipulative, ‘entertaining’ characteristics, its repetitive, formulaic programming, but also its assumption that things are only ‘architectural’ if sophisticated and ‘grandly’ grand: pompously self-conscious and exhibitionist. We need to muddy such 'literate' concepts with the clarity and complexity of things ordinary, things ‘illiterate,in order to appreciate their inherent rigour - their modesty and majesty.

A “literary” man, if ever there was one, the late Professor G.L.Kitteredge writes: “It requires a combined effort of the reason and the imagination to conceive a poet as a person who cannot write, singing or reciting his verses to an audience that cannot read … The ability of oral tradition to transmit great masses of verse for hundreds of years is proved and admitted … To this oral literature, as the French call it, education is no friend. Culture destroys it, sometimes with amazing rapidity. When a nation begins to read … what was once the possession of the folk as a whole, becomes the heritage of the illiterate only, and soon, unless it is gathered up by the antiquary, vanishes altogether.” Mark, too, that this oral literature once belonged “to the whole people … the community whose intellectual interests are the same from the top of the social structure to the bottom,” while in the reading society it is accessible only to antiquaries, and is no longer bound up with everyday life. A point of further importance is this: that the traditional oral literatures interested not only all classes, but also all ages of the population; while the books that are nowadays written expressly "for children" are such as no mature mind could tolerate; it is now only the comic strips that appeal alike to children who have been given nothing better and at the same time to "adults" who have never grown up.
. . .
American is already a language of exclusively external relationships, a tradesman’s tongue – lest the other peoples should be unable to compete effectively with us. Competition is the life of trade, and gangsters must have rivals.

Just as the oral literature belonged to everyone, so too did the mud – it built grand mosques and the most basic of shelters with equal pride, confidence and contentment.

Architect Hassan Fathy

On Channel 4’s Grand Designs, see:

Wednesday 26 February 2020


It was somewhat of a surprise when seen on Google Earth, but not unexpected. That the iconic and much-praised, much-referenced dwelling might be buried in a forest confirmed the loneliness in its identity, its quiet, singular stamina; that its separation might be so dramatically complete, truly alone incliché clearing in a forest surrounded by a busy, buzzy context of development, was the intrigue, the lingering enigma that raised the questions.

Like other 'islands' - those of Seidler, Eames, Mies, Wright, - this home was isolated, a true retreat. Yet it stands as an example, an inspiration for so many, in the same way as Le Corbusier's remote chapel at Ronchamp does: see -  Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea (1938-1939) is a much-acclaimed masterpiece.

What does this say about modern architecture - that so many of its great pieces are remote from any testing challenge of context other than solitude? The Farnsworth house is in a clearing by a stream that unfortunately floods, but it, too, has been the beginnings of various works in other very different contexts. Is this the core problem with modernism - forms fixed in iconic isolation being transposed into towns and cities? Is this the emotional challenge in the NEW that reads as an esoteric, elitist arrogance that has a complete disregard for the other? - see:  Inspiration, if not replication, is complete in every way except context, even with Johnson's glass house that stands as part of a set of structures grandly, blandly, exposed to the road passing through an idyllic, green suburbia.

Is this blind enthusiasm for heroic work the shifting sands of modernism - its Achilles heel? Modernism, well architects, have all struggled with context in their efforts to be innovative with things appropriately 'modern.' The Postmodern ideologies began looking at neighbours and place, but even here we have the masterful Venturi constructing his landmark gem as an 'island' for mother, to be photographed and considered alone: see - Can one see Villa Mairea as the defining example in this matter, in the same way as Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water? Why are the 'great' buildings so literally alone?

How can we build cities inspirited by singular statements interested only in themselves, in being isolated, free from any challenge beyond self-expression in nature? Is this why our cities are failing? Is this why the street has become just a left-over zone, a no-man's-land? These icons have no relationship to anything like a street, just open space, sky and trees, and yet we seek to force them as inspired derivatives into an intermingling of other structures and public places. Little wonder that there is such a division, a schism, between the architectural image and Street View – see: The street is never in any initial architectural view or vision; it ends up just being there in spite of the primal dream, with all of its rude necessity, just because we cannot all live in 'Villa Mairea's; and all of this is in spite of the aspirations and enthusiasm for the images and their subtleties, their astonishing intellectual love and embodying care.

Can modernism be likened to the street walker, the prostitute, commercialising love, things intimate, private? Are these the origins of modernism's exhibitionist status, offering displays like those of the exaggerations of the cliché ladies on the corner?

There is something too gritty, too unfair, in the analogy, but it is useful in highlighting the problem that we need to consider if we are ever able to again build great cities that are more than an ad hoc conglomerate like rocky road that, in spite of the messy shambles, still makes a claim as a tasty, popular confection.

What is a city today beyond a concocted confection of buildings dreaming of being alone? What are our suburbs but a collection of individual visions, with each struggling to express its isolation? Is our problem one of ideas shaped for solitude being forced into an unwanted cohabitation? Is this why architects consciously exclude context in the published, architectural images?

We seem to have forgotten the other in architecture when others are there, everywhere, adjacent and nearby - such are our cities. What seems clear is that we can only make good streets once we consider, accommodate and respect the other.*

Modernism has suffered from the physical isolation of its inspiration. One fears that today we are doing likewise, but with our selves - our selfies show our interest only in ourselves. One can see matters getting worse before they improve. The isolation of the models is only further aggravated, enhanced by that of the self that declares: Look at ME and MY bespoke efforts! Am I not clever!

Is Edition Office's strategy to consciously ignore context the new wave - the explicit statement that no longer pretends to consider anything but self? One can possibly admire the honesty if not the outcome for public place: see -

Do we need a vision for public place before we can construct it in the same way as e.g. Villa Mairea stands as an inspiration for dwelling? How might we best dwell in a city? For years, planners have drooled over the Italian squares, (e.g. Camillo Sitte), their marvellous organic shaping. St. Marks is the grand master, but there are many other less formal wonders in other cities, towns and villages. Making cute, ad hoc plan-shaped public spaces has not overcome our problem. It is clear that the between has its authority rooted in the other that makes and shapes it. It is this organic interplay that makes place and defines its ambiguous qualities. Buildings and street are both best considered as one. What might St. Marks be without its specific surrounds? We might get wonderful displays of care and skill with solitude like Villa Mairea, but we will never get a street, a square, or a lane from this indulgence that holds its own marvels in its contrived, unspoiled void.

We need to learn to manage the spoilers, to incorporate difference and diversity, likes and dislikes, if we are to have good cities. We need to respect the between, that I-Thou mystery lingering and empowering the everyday in every way. That an I might seek to be the Thou without the engagement of the other is a fabrication that Street View exposes as a fraud just too easily, effortlessly.

That the city has been likened to a large dwelling has its own irony, because, seen in this metaphorical manner, Villa Mairea is a fine city. That actual cities struggle to replicate such subtle complexity in the larger scale because of the inspiration of 'city' forms and ideas developed for the isolated context of Villa Mairea and other referential, remote examples, is the problem that such intellectual concepts rarely address.

All of these houses have their own private 'island' space:
Harry Seidler               Rose Seidler House, Wahroonga, Sydney
Charles Eames           Eames House, Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles
Mies van der Rohe     Farnsworth House, Plano, Illinois
Frank Lloyd Wright      Falling Water, Mill Run, Pennsylvania
                                   Jacobs House, Madison, Wisconsin

 to know ourselves we have to know Others, who act as a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected