Very exciting to see the concrete cantilevered slab being poured at our Kenworthy Road project. It is good to be out of the muck! The concrete upstands will go in after this and then the steel will be measured and installed before the timber walls and floors….slowly but surely we are getting there!
The festival, organised by the Architecture Foundation and the ORNC, was a one-day event designed to interrogate the value of the classical foundation of architectural practice. It excelled in doing it, despite the miserable weather, with that nimble and expressive humour that makes these things as much entertainment as education. I was part of the humorous side – the impersonation of a long dead and highly revered architect, the mind behind the wonderful plan that is the Old Royal Naval College – Sir Christopher Wren.
Yet my feeling from this experience has less to do with the extrovert playful interchange with Will Palin, curator and leader of the walking tour around the site with whom I wandered, and more to do with the very chance of the act itself. Though I enjoy idle wanderings, whimsical forays to assuage curiosity and (hopefully) widen experience, this is a state of mind separate to the logical mind required of fee-earning projects. The necessity of practice makes money the driver and everything else second. I took this moment to enjoy the whimsy, ignore the rain and let my mind wander.
The buildings that come out of this renewed (or recovered) mind are still the same – their physicality hasn’t changed – but meaning of that form, the influence of that space and the reception of certain details all conspire to make one shake the head as if to refresh the eyes and ensure that the sight is real. From the wonderful Queen’s House – delicate, small, perfect in its compactness – to the large vista of the main Wren axis to the river, things began to divert me. First it was the level change from our meeting point to the rear of QH to the central courtyard – a service tract, a back-stage access to the two stages that faced away north and south from it. It felt highly theatrical, a perception of architecture as a continuous production that included the un-scripted (but the none-the-less well-versed) lines of personal exchange that characterise life. Hardly surprising as Inigo Jones was, as Comptroller General, the designer of masks and the ceremonies that entertained the Jacobean court.
Once we had braved the blustering storm and got to the Hawksmoor block and stood in front of it, the most enlivening thing of all: the playful mind making a subtle dig at the classical conventions of the day, not so much laughing at Wren’s expense – it wasn’t an egotistic ‘one-over’ – but rather the use of a classical vocabulary used excellently and beyond the narrow confines of its normal use. This is my lasting and general dislike of modern building done in a classical style: none are done with any humour or wide-eyed excitement as to the possibilities possible. All seem to conform to a self-imposed orthodoxy that sit strait-jacketed in their plot, rigid and stolid; grey, humourless lumps that add nothing but a harking back to a more un-equal age and the power of the few over the many.
Although the latter hasn’t changed that much, the way it is done – less the country pile and more the corporate policy – has. And the delights of a classical language are more than anything of such remit: there is a depth that relates to the practicality of building and the weathering factor of materials and forms – both of themselves and their context – as well as the intellect of an ideal, the ideal that is philosophy applied without the hindrance of corrupting low denominators. It highlights an aspiration to be better, more that what is presently done, to constantly strive beyond the existing confines of life and life’s emblems left. Yes, this was a building to show the might of the Monarch but it was – like the Chelsea Hospital - a place for ex-servicemen to recuperate and so be enjoyed by those who weren’t kings or nobles. It showed the advanced learning of the age through a man noted for his academic research and gave to all this sense of wonder, authority and delight in use that is egalitarian. It gives hope and a reassuring push to trust inner strength and get moving. In this, it reminds of the final bit of Tennyson’s Ulysses:
“… And though we are not that strength
Which is old days moved Earth and Heaven,
That which we are, we are.
One equal temper of heroic hearts made weak by time and fate
But strong in will: to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.”
This was a study in the simplicity of building: a direct design that balanced straight, logical processes with a material reality resulting from it. The initial smirk that lead to this thought was the entrance: an almost articulated mechanism of dark folded steel steps, hooded, levitating off the tarmac predicating a departure from land in machine. The combination of structural magic and down-played sense of self set the archiphile heart alight.
Up and in, the door sweeping silently, the long vista of the raised steel walkway drew the mind in so that the body followed. This grey walkway, orthogonal grate-floored with large bracing to the sides and roof, became a grid among many. The timber space-frame’d ceiling – richly yellow and individual in twisting off the straight grid line – capped the view up. The calm whites of the Roman ruin’d walls capped the view down. And in-between this heaven above and below, the simple bands of black curtain below the gradient of the timber louvers exerted their sedimentary order. This arrangement immediately brought thoughts of geology – not hard in Graubünden where the mountains frame life in the valley with constant drama – but a psychological geography that shapes the way we think, how we are able to do with the materials to hand and informs culture. The land is that constant and the fundamental common ground (pun aside) between the present and our past: in this case the Romans.
The three varying-sized rhomboidal plans of the design encompassed three parts of the building – ruins, displays and lecture space – separate but connected by the raised walkway that punched a straight line through each. In these, a square roof light was centrally-set, rotated by 45 degrees to the plan, harnessing this idea of the hollow form with rigid outer sheath, or, in the parlance of Roman architecture, the peristyle. The depth of the skylight itself meant, together with the angle of the glass, that the viewer doesn’t perceive the light source itself – merely the effect of the light washing down the black-painted timber. I’m not going to draw any trite similes to heavenly, celestial light but only say that not being able to see the source engages the imagination. With the imagination engaged, the mind flies far beyond the physical, extrapolating a new narrative with a new set of rules. Perhaps this is the central point of interest in this architect: he engages human curiosity without hyperbole and judgment allowing the personal as much value as the academic.
Some thoughts on the Villa type with a peristyle format. This is centred on research into the relationship of the opening within the set footprint of the single storey mass. Is it a question of hard/ soft, contained/ broken through, framed view/ natural opening? And what do each of these aspects bring to the formation and sequence of space contained?
This recount comes from a recent round trip to Croatia through Italy and encompasses the Brion Tomb, the Castelvecchio and the Banca di Populaire di Verona, although this final one I didn’t get a chance to look a properly. I have written it as a sequence of personal stories as it was a personal experience, in a chronological order so that they might feed into each other as they happened.
The first stop was the Brion Tomb, the private cemetery that hugs the public on the outskirts of the loose village of Santa Lucia, surrounded by fields with an avenue of mature trees. There were public signs to the Brion – an early indication of the way this private necropolis is revered as a public work of significant cultural distinction. Past the concrete bastions formed by the perimeter wall tapering in, I entered via the direct route from parking, rather than (what I supposed to be) the ‘main’ entrance off the public cemetery enclosure, to a feeling of dumbfounded awe. I couldn’t take any photos, nor sketch in favour of my eye’s greed in consuming all.
From the shallow pools on the left, a Japanese motif and medieval moat in one, showing that ever-present stepped detailed that snakes orthogonally from wall to floor, edge to foundation, underwater to top corbel, the single-story mass of the chapel sat. It was a mysterious block, entered via a mysterious opening in the hard concrete wall. The shape of the opening looked almost kinetic, as if these slabs and blocks linked to some unseen mechanism that would pull away to open further doorways in the façade. It fact this was a constant theme throughout – the impending sense of dynamic tension that fed either implied or actual movement. I could not be sure what moved and what was fixed until you tried to push or pull. Very quickly I began to touch the building with greater intimacy, prodding details, opening pivott’d doors and unlocking bolts. The low wall to the right of this entrance, a squat but deep wall that divided off the garden behind, opened to the touch as a large block, hinged on a series of intricately-welded and inset bronze work, hinged towards me, the locking mechanism doubling to lock open or closed; such a complex detail for something so simple. It was not so much the level of detail but the level of thought – everything wove and danced together in a well-choreographed piece.
After taking so long to enter the building, I thought I must crack on, I had a lot to see. I would now rush through and then make another pass in greater detail to make sure I knew the extent of the tomb. This was an aspiration. I could not rush through with any rapidity: the intense volumes, forms, details, contrasts, mechanisms, landscapes all combined into a place beyond time and space. Abstract dimensions – blocks that cantilevered improbably – turned into complex practicality, each made with a level of detail that drew the eye in so that I found myself barely an inch from the surface of each wall, object and screw. I was a forensic archaeologist trying to eke out the mysteries of every aggregate, to reason each indent in location and form, to understand the thought – this great hidden mind that conducted a space with such ferocious intensity that it burned the soul, rendering me a bemused, ecstatic and chasen’d viewer. The long corridor leading from the chapel – not ‘long’ but made to feel so by the high ceiling and narrow proportion of the walls, punctuated by tall slits in the garden-facing wall – led to the garden at the corner where the Brion site clove to the public cemetery. Here you were presented with choices: to go straight ahead, up the 5 alternating treads set into the raised garden to the low arching cover of the tombs of Guiseppe and Onoaina Brion; left, through a sunken route to a large rhomboidal roof covering tombs of various other Brions; or, right, towards another corridor and building mass that I later found out was the ‘front’ entrance from the public cemetery. I chose to turn left, towards this mysterious mass, roof of concrete sloping down to greet me as if some massive domesticated beast had been taught. This mass was a fascia that shaded the tombs and opened up to a high-vaulted ceiling, broken into two by a tall ridge beam with a long light well to one side. It gave the appearance of being separate to the plinth on which it sat, a feeling confused by the angled shadow gap seen externally. It felt like this mass – a massive though hollow block – had been made separately and craned on. But such an undertaking would have required a level of constructional skill to make sure things lined up that I’m not sure I believe it. The balance of weight and the sense of dynamic movement it inspired, could be summed up by the small notch detail under the ridge beam, emphasized by a simple single step and inlaid bronze, whilst the shadow of the soffit played down the inset black stone, divided by concrete lines.
In writing this it is hard not to be overwhelmed a second time by the enormity of trying to relate all sights seen and their consequent thoughts. I will continue later on…
I was on the Isle of Skye the other week, indulging in the weft of land and warp of sea under an expansive sky, and thought arose about the remnants of past civilisations, their physical and mental proximity and how they are included within working culture and, more specifically, their affect of working architectural practice.
This topic has an expansive and wide-ranging feel to it being both general (also applies to my Italy topics) and rather personal. We live around the marks and mounds of past cultures, the functional spaces made for redundant uses, refashioning all in a constant swirl of development. The City of London is this on steroids.
But my main focus is that of the practical reuse and reinstatement of certain buildings. Is there a need to keep Pevensey Castle a ruin when the evidence of millennia of reconstructions and redesign is evident? Does it not strike you that, with this evidence of the practical use of an existing structure, it marks our era out archeologically as some fearful neutered one, scared to add to that palimpsest for fear of making a mark?
The affect of living with ruins – specifically architectural – has a wider reach into our concurrent psyche that we might otherwise give it credit for. To me, they give a visual cultural anchor, a reference point that subliminally contextualizes my present thoughts and the actions of my practice. They curb hubris where it might awaken in the joy of a project completed that is viewed with complete perfection – as much as a mother to a new child – and extends a greater critical eye to it.
This is a topic I want to expand further but it will have to wait till I have more time to devote to it.
A reflection on the cause and effect of dark painted stucco terraced houses in London.
This thought came about as I walked through Clapton on a mildly sunny weekend afternoon. It asked, “why do people paint their buildings black?” What does this obvious marker achieve and what does it say about those that wanted it and the wider context in which it sits?
It need not say anything, of course, and be merely a fashionable choice just as any other colour can be in a particular time. The multicoloured terraces of Portabello and Notting Hill go some way in reflecting the rich Caribbean vitality of the area and it’s carnival. Yet the predominant colour of choice for this most ubiquitous and long-lasting London house type is white. Whether good, bad, historically accurate or due to the whims of fashion, this is the case. I’m rather more in favour of a range of colours rather than white as it is both more interesting and white does show the dirt somewhat.
The need of owners to individually choose this tonal reversal is the main concern I have here. Is it a reaction to the predominant whiteness in a show of individual independence? A need to paradoxically stand out of the crowd and be visible? A paradox, indeed, as in that case as black houses in London usually riff on the ‘stealth’ or introverted vibe with names to match. David Adjaye’s Dirty House (2002) or Liddicoat and Goldihill’s Shadow House (2011) use black to at once recede into the corners and stand out dramatically. This oxymoronic desire plays with the building as an object, an actor of the street scene, temporarily performing the ritual of the lifestyle desired.
As a piece of theatre it lends itself to the narrative that can be coaxed from the brief into a design that adds that extra value to a building specific to architects. Yet these are renovations and not new builds. They might be gutted and mightily remodeled but they retain the defining slot of land between party walls, fronted by a bay window, that is their heritage. It is through the cycle of home improvement that a more obvious social commentary can be made.
The renovations to terraced houses that use a dark colour to describe their front also describe their owners – not just taste but aspiration and cultural identity. It is an updated Booth map in real time, highlighting the ever-shifting movement of people that condense and congregate in particular places. In the case of Clapton, it seems to be predominantly young families. Yet, though it shows a level of affluence needed to undertake such renovations, it marks a tide line in what lifestyle is desired. A lifestyle that further defines the surrounding area in the choice of bars, pubs, restaurants and shops. It seems obvious a connection to make though harder to get to any real evidence. The only evidence that does come to mind of linking dark-painted terraces with these new venues is their proximity and the knowledge that the price tag for a 3 storey house in Clapton is a million, with the assumed spending power that this indicates.
The spread of this fashion might be, in part, due to the spread of fashion. Fashion has always stalked architecture and it’s creation but none more so than the fetish making of the home improvement industry. Domestic bliss though acquisition and application of new devices to accommodate new functions. An indoor cinema and hammock, bar or small pool, are all achievable. Perhaps, with that, comes the need for pre-packaged thought too. The illusion that the walls are clad in burnt pine defining the simple shed, peeping through close-knit trees in some northern tundra, away and secluded, a private sanctum; the need to be subliminally reminded of a privacy that the terrace typology doesn’t quite afford.
This possible need of a psychological distance could be a reaction to the city itself. The widespread publication of newly designed and built holiday huts, whether in the Swedish north, Australian bush or upstate New York, has perhaps incited an air of retreat: a need for greater solitude in this increasingly connected world. With expanding populations together with the ever-cycling and increasingly desperate migration issues seen in the deprivation of refugee camps, is this a simple human reaction to stamp one’s claim on a small piece of land?
In this increasingly anthropological understanding of choice and the reasons for painting a newly-acquired house a dark colour, it seems to return to the small gesture rather than the macro-strategy. Yes, more will no doubt beget more, but in the end it is probably of no more consideration that the choice of new curtains or bed sheets.