Megalomaniac building is going out of style. The best new design reshapes the past to fit the presentby / September 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Alejandro Aravena’s “half houses” in Iquique, Chile
Fit: An Architect’s Manifesto
by Robert Geddes (Princeton, £13.95)
The Meaning of Home
by Edwin Heathcote (Frances Lincoln, £12.99)
Why We Build
by Rowan Moore (Picador, £20)
New Arcadians: Emerging UK Architects
by Lucy Bullivant (Merrell, £29.95)
When I was young I dreamed of becoming an architect. At home, I was thrilled to discover that the enchanted places that shaped my life—bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen, attic—were no more than spaces enclosed by bricks and mortar, lath and plaster, joists and beams. I spent happy days taking up floor boards, pulling away skirtings, and climbing out onto the roof to find out how it all worked. Driving round in the back of the family car, I gave an anguished running commentary on the artistic sins of suburban London—picture windows, multicoloured paintwork, or tangles of cables and pipes—and I shouted with delight at the occasional glimpse of something elegant, disciplined and austere. I had a vocation for architecture because I wanted to rule the world.
As time went by I acquired a few books to fill out my fantasies: Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Maxwell Fry. On the whole the prose did not interest me, and when I re-read it now, I can see why. Nice typography, and a few slogans that would lodge in my brain (“Form follows function,” “God is in the details,” “Ornament is crime”)—but a shame about the cod philosophy, the dogmatism, and the inability to sustain an argument. The real story was told by the photos: a few to document the cluttered gloom of 19th-century interiors, and dozens to demonstrate the clarity and distinctness of steel boats and bridges, or sunlit modern buildings of concrete and glass, not to mention those cool portraits of the architects themselves, facing down the camera through heavy-duty glasses.
When I took myself off to look at Lawn Road flats in Hampstead or the Finsbury Health Centre I was disappointed at first. They seemed feebly domestic rather than ferociously monumental, and they were nothing like as big as they looked in the photos. They were also showing their age: they had grown blotchy and grey, and in any case the sun was no longer shining. I realised that those much-loved books of mine were not so much dispassionate explorations of the art of building, as bids for attention and market-share: the pioneers of modern design were, if nothing else, masters of modern self-promotion.
By the time I started leafing through prospectuses for architectural training, the tide had definitely turned. Jane Jacobs’s 1961 polemic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was teaching us to blame the horrors of modern life on the “rationalism” of modern architecture, and before long all the evils of the 20th century—from murderous fascism and repressive communism to rapacious capitalism and liberal anomie—were being laid at its door. The great modernists turned out to be monsters, living in stately country houses while their victims were condemned to a bleak existence in blasted parallelograms of urban decay. My precocious collection of books was rounded off with Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects, a witty and prophetic book from 1964 that extolled the anonymous virtues of “vernacular architecture”—buildings without pedigree which, according to Rudofsky, worked far better than the masterpieces of the big-name professionals. With that, my imaginary career as an architect came to an end.
Half a century after Jacobs and Rudofsky, architecture still has its celebrities and its cults of personality: the sectarians of Daniel Libeskind can still fight it out with those of Frank Gehry, Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, and the sensational Zaha Hadid proves that a woman can rise to the top of the profession without any change in its rituals and rules. Now as then, the big hitters win attention with portentous pronouncements, strange eyewear, and personal glamour, and they still make masses of money from projects that are too extravagant to build. And they continue to inspire shelfloads of books, bearing much the same relation to actual buildings as science fiction to actual science.
But the megalomaniac manner seems to be going out of style. David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin is perhaps the best of many fine galleries built in recent years, but its persuasive beauty arises from the fact that it is not a brand new building at all, but a respectful refit of an old structure that had been left in ruins after the second world war. Or take the veteran Robert Geddes: the textbooks may define him as one of the big beasts of American brutalism, but his buildings in Princeton are delightfully reticent, and their permeability to natural light means they charm you differently every time you visit.
In his new book Fit: An Architect’s Manifesto, Geddes exploits the privilege of seniority to declare that the era of the heroic master builder is over. He looks forward to “a more inclusive architecture,” an altruistic approach that will look at buildings from the point of view of all those who will be affected by them, paying attention to their diverse social, ethical and aesthetic interests. Most radical of all, he affirms that the future of architecture is not about autonomous creation out of nothing but tactful “improvement” of what is already there, and he goes far out on a limb to pay tribute to the massive but unchronicled culture of sub-architectural amateurs doing up their own homes.
Informal home improvement is also a theme in The Meaning of Home, an entertaining collection of articles by Edwin Heathcote, architecture correspondent of the Financial Times. The places where we live were not built yesterday: they are, as Heathcote points out, subject to endless adaptation, and to those who know how to interpret them, they offer an eloquent archaeology of ourselves. We start, as a rule, by knocking at a traditional-looking front door, but once inside we are led through time till we reach the brave new world of a kitchen extension at the rear, with big modern windows and a futuristic array of shiny branded goods.
Heathcote’s interpretations may sometimes be far-fetched: must inserting a key in a lock always mean what he thinks it means, and is the newel post in the hall really the vestige of a footman waiting to take your hat and gloves? But his approach gives expression to a vital new turn in architectural theory. For many decades now, literary critics have been reminding us that the power of literature depends on the creativity of readers as well as writers, and it seems that architectural critics are at last beginning to realise that something similar applies to architecture.
In Why We Build, for example, Rowan Moore travels around the world to see how the success or failure of buildings depends on how they are used. For Moore, as for Geddes and Heathcote, the idea of the architect as lord and master, natural soul mate of plutocrats and dictators, belongs to the past. In an opening set-piece he travels to Dubai and listens to the swansong of muscular modernism on the frond-shaped artificial beaches, marvelling at the tallest structures ever built, combined with the longest chains of foreclosed mortgages, not to mention an underclass of homeless immigrant workers, and dysfunctional sewers.
If illusions of omnipotence are the curse of architecture, then unexpected outcomes may be its saving grace. The wonderful skyline of New York is due in large part to the financial madness that preceded the Wall Street crash, and if Moore is right it is still too soon to pass judgement on Dubai. He tells an instructive tale of the Bijlmer housing scheme, a sequence of ten-storey blocks of flats built in the 1970s on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Bijlmer was designed to provide spacious homes for respectable Dutch families, but it soon became a dumping ground for poor immigrants with a reputation for drug dealing, joblessness and crime. When a cargo plane crashed into one of the towers in 1992, killing dozens of residents, a programme of demolition was begun. But the destruction soon had to stop: to the astonishment of the planners, the hungry caterpillar of Bijlmer had morphed into a glorious butterfly. There were Surinamese temples in the blocks and bird-singing contests in the parks, as well as a vital residents’ association and a jubilant open-air market, now supplemented by a six-week carnival that brings in hundreds of thousands of visitors every summer. The life of buildings is full of surprises, not least for those who design them.
“There can be efficiency and wisdom in poor buildings,” Moore says; and if you want to see the future of architecture you should not overlook the so-called slums of Africa or India, or the socially responsible buildings of South America. The architect who comes closest to Moore’s ideal is Lina Bo Bardi, who moved from Italy to Brazil in 1946 and spent a long life trying to reconcile her taste for modernist refinement with her commitment to socialism and democracy. She wanted elegance without grandiosity, an architecture that could caress and encourage rather than striving to impress. She knew, as Moore puts it, “that buildings act not alone, but reciprocally with the people and things around them,” and she designed structures that would be able to grow old without embarrassment. She is most famous for the fabulous São Paulo Museum of Art, whose galleries are lifted high above street level so as not to obstruct the life of the city. But her greatest achievement, for Moore, is a vast old factory in industrial Pompéia, which she converted into a village-like communal space with a river and a pond and areas where old gentlemen concentrate on games of chess while children play with each other or watch a puppet show. She also put in bars and a restaurant, a gallery and an auditorium, and added a couple of funky new blocks containing a swimming pool and sports courts. The aim she set herself was to “honour the people, allowing them the social integration that they deserve,” and by all accounts she succeeded: 25 years on it is still buzzing and beautiful. It offers “cues to memory and imagination,” as Moore puts it, “but not scripts,” and—an almost unique distinction—it looks even better in the rain.
Bo Bardi died in 1992, but she can still inspire. In 2001 the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena was given the task of rehousing a hundred families in the desert city of Iquique where they had been squatting for many years. The budget was not big enough for houses of a kind that anyone would want to live in, so Aravena came up with a different idea. Instead of building complete homes, he would provide every family with “half a house,” comprising a ground-floor workroom and external stairs leading to a prefabricated kitchen and bathroom, with further space on top. The families were left to build the rest themselves, however they liked, and they rose to the challenge with eagerness, pride and ingenuity. What people need from architects, according to Aravena, is not a perfect building but a framework for do-it-yourself: “Who are we,” he asks, “to tell people how to live?”
For young architects, these are exceedingly interesting times. They have been brought up to admire the great masters of modernism, but as Lucy Bullivant shows in New Arcadians: Emerging UK Architects, they realise that the world has changed. They cannot expect lavish budgets, or vast sites, or a free hand to erect lasting monuments to extra-large egos. Much of their work has in fact been avowedly temporary, more like theatre sets than traditional buildings—for example a three-week restaurant on the Olympic site (by Carmody Groarke), or a jokey translucent “art-wrapper” in Liverpool (by the Office of Subversive Architecture). But the projects that pay most of their bills involve adding extra rooms to old buildings or adapting them to new uses, like the fabulous Raven Row gallery in a pair of 18th-century houses in Spitalfields (designed by 6A), or a gorgeous domestic conversion of a Martello tower in Suffolk (Piercy Conner). Autonomy, it seems, has yielded to adaptation.
Bullivant interviews 30 up-and-coming architects in New Arcadians, asking each of them whether they think of themselves primarily as “thinkers” or “makers,” but Stuart Piercy offers a realistic third alternative: today’s architects, he suggests, are nothing if not talkers. They are indeed: but then aren’t we all? None of us can resist discussing the spaces we inhabit, any more than we can refrain from making our mark on them. Architecture is losing its mystery—we are all architects now.
Jonathan Rée co-edited “The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy” (Routledge)