Architecture; Ruminations on Some Fundamentals, may 2010
ArchitectureRuminations on Some Fundamentals
ArchitectureOne of the chapters of Le Corbusier’s seminal work ‘Vers UneArchitecture’ is entitled ‘Architecture, Pure Creation of the Mind’.Many, have perhaps interpreted this statement as a support for theidea that ‘anything goes’ in architecture, particularly in a timewhen technology allows almost limitless possibilities in this regard.What Le Corbusier actually said on the subject is as follows:‘You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build housesand palaces; that is construction. Ingenuity is at work.But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say : “This isbeautiful”. That is Architecture. Art enters in.My house is practical. I thank you, as I might thank Railway engineers or thetelephone service. You have not touched my heart.But suppose that walls rise towards heaven in such a way that I am moved. I perceiveyour intentions. Your mood has been gentle, brutal, charming or noble. The stonesyou have erected tell me so. You fix me to the place and my eyes regard it. Theybehold something which expresses a thought. A thought which reveals itself withoutword or sound, but solely by means of shapes which stand in a certain relationship toone another. These shapes are such that they are clearly revealed in light. Therelationships between them have not necessarily any reference to what is practical ordescriptive. They are a mathematical creation of your mind. They are the languageof Architecture. By use of inert materials and starting from conditions more or lessutilitarian, you have established certain relationships which have aroused myemotions. This is Architecture.’
Pevsner was of course paraphrasing this when he said:‘A BICYCLE shed is a building. Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture’What is curious about both quotes however, is the extent to whichthey seem to take for granted the architect’s ability to fulfil theutilitarian demands of ‘shelter’. Well, since the time ‘Vers Une..’the world has experienced roughly 80 years of cold, leaky,overheated and ‘badly maintained’ (for which we should really readbadly designed) modernist (Corb’s creations included) and varyinghues of Post-Modernist buildings that would suggest the faithplaced by Pevsner and Corb in the architect’s practical abilities hasperhaps more often than not been misplaced.This reminds us that in fact ‘the practical house’, for which Corbwould thank his architect as he thanked a railway engineers hasthroughout history been the building type that architect have hadleast to do with. More often than not, such houses have beenplanned and built by the simple people who lived in them withsucceeding generations learning from their forefathers by osmosis.Today, the existence of specialist house builders continues thisseparation between architects and mass housing (after a brief anddisastrous attempt at bringing them together in the 60’s and 70’s)Figure 1. Park Hill Flats, Sheffield, 1961.
The higher building types; Palaces, temples, art galleries and thelike, have always been a different matter. In Ancient Egypt, thehigh priest was responsible for the planning and erection of suchstructures for which the inherent ability to inspire awe, love, hopeand fear was perhaps more important than the kinds of utilitarianconcerns mentioned earlier. The rain and sun of course had to bekept out, but craftsman would see to that rather than the highpriest. It’s easy to see how the high priest eventually became thearchitect. The thing about a high priest of course, is that he can tellyou what is good architecture and what isn’t, and you have tolisten!Figure 2. Ancient Egyptian Temple at Karnak.But, as I sit here 4 months unemployed having recently qualifiedafter 13 yrs of hard slog (almost twice the length of time it takes tobecome a GP), I can tell you that there are far too many architectsin the market today to justify having ‘temple or palace design’ asthe be all and end all of your skill-set. The replacement of skilledcraftsmen by ‘operatives’ in conjunction with the practicablemeasurable outcomes that the’ sustainability agenda’ demands ofmodern building practice has also meant that architects have in
recent years had to learn the art of the practical and the utilitarian,and the rise of real proficiency in this area is to my mind veryrecent, emerging, with few exceptions from that generation ofarchitects, at least in the UK, who were training during the fall outfrom the ill-fated housing experiments of the 60’s and 70’s.Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates were both born in 1964,which means they were 20 yrs old when Prince Charles made hisfamous ‘Carbuncle’ speech to the RIBA. At the turn of the 21stCentury, about 70 yrs after Corb had talked about it, SergisonBates architects produced a series of designs for mass housing thatyou could thank them for as you would thank a railway engineer.Figure 3. Sergison Bates unbuilt entry for the 2001 Circle 33 Innovation in Housing competition,Bow east London.
Figure 4. Plans and section of the Circle 33 housing competition entry. The plans cleverly offerpotential occupants flexibility and a semi external area (which can be used for drying clothes) byseparating out the circulation and the ‘habitable room’. There are 3 plan types, one of whichcaters for the expansion of the family unit that is common to Asian families (of which there are agreat number in east London) as a result of marriage. This, in conjunction with the high level ofdevelopment of the drawings in general (it is clear that construction has been account for fromthe very beginning) make the scheme a highly convincing ‘real world’ proposal.At a time when some 60’s housing wasn’t just leaking but startingto become unsafe, and when 16 yrs after HRH’s famous speech theprofession had really hit rock bottom with QSs and ProjectManagers beginning to seriously encroach upon the traditionalterritory of the architect, the appearance of Sergison Bates’shousing designs in the most popular architectural journals, andeven broadsheets at the time, did indeed touch many hearts. Theirwork in the field of mass housing displayed a knowledge andmastery of the latest commercial construction techniques, coupledwith an awareness of the way in which such issues impinge uponarchitectural theory. There was also an acute awareness of theneed to give prospective residents tangible benefits and a grasp ofthe language that policy makers used to define and measure suchbenefits. Ideologically, the non-architect designed pattern-bookGeorgian and Victorian houses and housing blocks of London werea real inspiration to them. We had really never seen their like
before in the UK. Sergison Bates were on their way to becoming part of the new architectural establishment in the UK , succeeding the likes of Foster and Rogers, the inveterate high priests of modern Hi-Tech palaces and temples.Figure 5. SBa’s Double house inStevenage (1998) has the same highlevel of resolution as their Bowhousing scheme. It is a highlyconvincing attempt to contribute tothe debate on the industrialisationof mass housing provision in theUK, and to addresses thedisjunction between architecturalvision and end user aspiration (ofwhich 60s housing was an emblem)by acknowledging such aspirationby accommodating it in the form ofthe architecture.
Figure 6. SBa’s ingenious assisted self build housing at Tilbury (2001) addressed youthunemployment and the skills shortage in the construction industry by giving young unemployedto learn on the job during its construction.But the excitement of these achievements was short lived, partlybecause the housebuilders and policy makers did not share theenthusiasm that the architectural critics had for the Sergison Bateshousing solutions (and so did not put them into production) andpartly because most architects are less interested in housing thanarchitectural critics. In housing, because of the inevitable link topublic provision, the constraints are many and the rewards small.It’s much more fun and profitable to be a ‘high priest’, buildingpalaces and temples. Soon Sergsion Bates’s interests would alsoshift to this direction and liberated from the more exactingpractical demands of housing, their subsequent proposals forbuildings of a more public nature shone more of a light on theirapproach to the manipulation of the language of architecture.From their early writings it is possible to identify certain recurringthemes: 1. A commitment to the exploration of ‘Thinking, Building & Dwelling’ through their work.
2. The above in turn led to the crucial discoveries of the importance of the image in the communication of architecture and the power of association in the perception of architecture, and the subsequent relegation of constructional means to achieve ends dictated by these two discoveries. That said…. 3. A commitment to employing construction in a disciplined and deliberate manner. This is important since Sergison Bates had observed that Le Corbusier had lacked such discipline in his practical approach to almost exactly the same issues. This lack of discipline was probably at least partly responsible for the technical failures of some of his own built works, as well as those of his successors / followers (including those who built housing in the UK during the 60’s & 70’s). 4. Following on from (2), a belief in the over-arching importance of the collective experience of the everyday and the commonplace.In the relegation of construction language to another (consideredhigher) ideal, the approach of Sergison Bates and Le Corbusier hasbeen remarkably similar. Apart from the discipline with whichconstruction is employed, the only significant difference is in thenature of that ideal; Abstract beauty for Le Corbusier; collectivetaste, perception and experience for Sergison Bates, and one wouldthink that the choice of ideal for Sergison Bates was heavilyinfluenced by the period of ill fated ‘top down’ solutions to thepost-war housing crisis, where high priest architects andcorresponding pharaoh-like local authorities conspired to decidewhat was ‘best’ for the public without either consulting them orproperly understanding them, with disastrous results.In fact, it is striking that in our time the traditional institutions ofsociety-such as religion, tradition, central government / royalauthority even marriage and the family among other similarthings, have been taken down from their pedestal and replaced
with ‘icons’ to anti-authoritarianism in the form of hyper-individualism, anti establishmentarianism and consumerism.Sergison Bates’s approach to architecture greatly reflects this trendwhich is perhaps part of its appeal for many.Le Corbusier’s ideal was inspired by his personal experience of thearchitecture of the Near East, particularly the ancient works ofGreece and particularly the Parthenon. A glance at the history ofAncient Greek temple design and the Parthenon is highlyinstructive the cases of both Le Corbusier and Sergison Bates.TransfigurationIt is more or less accepted that the stone Greek Temple type isderived basically from vernacular timber construction. Thus theevolution of the temple type is an ancient example of the raising ofthe everyday and the commonplace to a transcendent position,almost literally by the time we get to the Parthenon. Thus in astrange way this ancient type is closely related to the work ofSergison Bates. But in the transfiguration of the basicconstructional elements from timber to stone, the similarity endssince once the basic ‘conversion’ was achieved, the Ancient Greeksrealised that the newly realised stone building was not simply astone version of it’s timber forerunner. Another dimension ofbeauty could now be glimpsed, one belonging wholly to the realmof stone, thus began the evolution that eventually led in the end,through the work and stewardship of sculptor Phidias (who in factsupervised a team of architects), to the Parthenon and the erstwhiletimber shed eventually became something entirely trulytranscendent. This is what Le Corbusier was referring to when hesaid:But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say : “This isbeautiful”. That is Architecture. Art enters in.It is evident that Corb was well aware of the evolution that wouldeventually end up in the Parthenon (p. 134) having made it acentral part of the seminal thesis he recorded in his Vers Une… Instark contrast, it is just this aspect, the magical transformation ofutility into plastic art, that has hitherto eluded Sergison Bates, theyperhaps still being in the process of raising the everyday andcommonplace to the level of the ‘special’, just as the Greeks had
had with the first temple design, a stage that Corb sees wellrepresented in the temple at Paestum as recorded in Vers Une...Figure 7. The ParthenonFigure 8. Temple of Athena, PaestumAnd it also eluded Louis Kahn, who had a similar attitude toconstructional discipline as Sergison Bates and who more or less
held (like the Romans) that the important thing was the efficacy ofthe structural system, a fact born out by his evincing a preferencefor the Temple Paestum over the Parthenoni.After the reconstitution of the classical lexicon through thediscovery of Vitruvius at the beginning of the Renaissance, it wasleft to Michelangelo, the genius of sculpture and figurativerepresentation, to pick up where Phidias had left off. JohnSummerson elucidates the effect that Michelangelo had in thisregard in the development of the art of architecture:Figure 9. Raphael window Figure 10. Michelangelo niche After Bramante and his followers had restored the classical language, with all its grammaticallogic, to the sixteenth century, the equilibrium was at once upset by the most powerfulimagination of the age. Michelangelo mastered the architectural prose of the ancients butmade out of it a new architectural poetry, the poetry of a sculptor. Every element in thiswindow by Raphael in the Palazzo Pandolfini, Florence, can be described in Vitruvian terms.But to describe this niche by Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel, Florence, 1521-24, would bebeyond the Vitruvian vocabulary: its intensity of feeling defies technical description. InMichelangelo’s vestibule to the Laurentian Library, Florence 1525 – 34, columns retreatirrationally into walls whose negative prominence is perversely emphasised by blind windows.
In much the same way that film critics like to speculate regardingthe ‘place’ inside themselves where a certain actor may draw aparticular performance from, much has been said regarding the‘source’ of Michelangelo’s startling architectural creations, but thefor the purposes of this article, I believe that it is enough to drawattention to his ability as a sculptor and the mastery over figurativeaspects and his chosen material (stone) that this gave him withregards to what Corb referred to as the ‘plastic’ art of architecture.Perhaps all this reveals the reason why Ruskin (who was an earlyinfluence of Corb when he trained as an engraver of watches) wasso adamant that proficiency in sculpture (among other things) wasnecessary for the man who wished to be an architectii.Figure 11. Le Corbusier with some of his work. Figure 12. ‘Still Life’ by Le Corbusier (1920)Le Corbusier both sculpted and investigated the 3rd dimensionthrough his ‘Purist’ painting (in which he raised ‘everyday objects’such as bottles, and glasses to the level of being worthy subjects forportrait art).
Figure 13. The plan of Corb’s seminal Villa Savoye in which the discoveries he made throughpainting are pivotal.Was it his awareness of the importance of these skills in the pursuitof plastic perfection, that enabled him to first play a major part inestablishing the white flat roofed, freely planned, plate glasswindowed Modernist ‘standard’ (exemplified by works such as theVilla Savoye), and then in his later years, when he began to identifyever more closely with the true nature of concrete constructionrather than the image that the Modern Movement had given it(many of the ‘white concrete’ buildings, including the Villa Savoye,were in fact conventional masonry buildings covered in render), todisrupt the purity of the Modernist standard through suchhauntingly poetic works, such as La Tourette and Chandigargh, inmuch the same way as Michelangelo had disrupted the classical‘standard’ 400 years before him?
Figure 14. Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye (1929)Figure 15. Ronchamp Chapel (1954)
The passing of the batonFollowing through the argument to its logical conclusion, it is onlynatural to look for a contemporary torch-bearer of this narrowtradition that seems to take in only Phidias, Michelangelo and LeCorbusier. What may be the qualifications that one would expectof such a torch bearer? Firstly there is the consistency of mediumitself. It could be said that Phidias and Michelangelo both built upover many years an intimate relationship with stone so that theirknowledge of it went beyond intellectual and technicalconsiderations into the realm of ‘feeling’. It could be said that Corbhad exactly the same kind of relationship with ReinforcedConcrete.(i) Knowledge, art and the middle path betweenfreedom and restraint The realm of feeling, of direct experience, is where plastic artlives, since it is surely feeling that is responsible for therefinements that separate the Parthenon from the temple atPaestum, that gives rise to Michelangelo’s niche at the Medicichapel, and that is the driving force behind Corb at Ronchamp. LaTourette and Chandigargh. It is deep knowledge manifested asfeeling that liberates the artist and their art from the safe confinesof received systems (be they the system of classical architecture orthat of modernism) in such a way so as to enable them to take theirart to a higher planes. And entering into the realm of feelingnecessarily means making it personal or even wilful and leadingone to consider questions of ‘composition’ and other suchunscientific things. The personal stamp of Michelangelo and Corbis evident in all their work, and this unavoidable. In today’s post enlightenment society, we are distrustful offeeling and intuition in our design processes which means that theabove criteria are beyond a great many architects of the presentand recent past. Those who do have a recognisable ‘style’ tend notto ally it to the innateness of a chosen constructional technology ormaterial (the style increasingly nowadays emerging in spite of theconstruction technology involved, which would seem to apply tothe likes of Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid).
Figure 16 Museum of Transport, Is the free flowing form of Zaha Hadid Architects’Glasgow. Concept and under Glasgow Museum of Transport reflective of the steelconstruction structure used to construct it?Also, there are architects who claim to dwell in the realm oftectonic culture and who profess to stick strictly to natures of thematerials with which they tend to work, one particularly thinks ofPeter Zumthor in this regard. However, the reality is that sucharchitects seem to work within self imposed constraints in an effortto achieve a certain pre conceived aesthetic and perhaps do notapproach the full range of forms that a given constructionaltechnology may offer.For example, the arch is a completely valid expression of thenature of brick which Zumthor has never employed in the brickbuildings that he has designed.
Figure 17. Is the form of Peter Zumthor’s brick Columba museum inspired by pure tectonic and/or phenomenological concerns, or is it simply the re-use of a tried and tested formula (see slateVals Thermal Baths below).
Today we stand at the far end of an architectural history whichlatterly seems to have been dominated by a multitude of ‘isms’ andmovements and perhaps this is why as architects we often struggleto free ourselves from self imposed intellectual ‘straight jackets’.The danger of this is that we nurture an inability to askuncomfortable, unfashionable but completely valid questionsduring the course of our work. Both Corb – who turned his back on the five points ofarchitecture in his later years-, and Michelangelo – who createdthe light hearted Porta Pia at the end of a career which had greatsignificance for the subsequent history of architecture, did notsuffer from this kind of self imprisonment. Figure 18. The Porta Pia, Michelangelo’s final architectural work.
Even when architects do probe, question and experiment to thelimits’ of technology or formal vocabulary, they tend to fall into thetrap of making such excursions their daily bread rather than therich cake to be consumed on special well chosen occasions thatthey should constitute, thereby making themselves irrelevant to allbut themselves. This is something that neither Corb norMichelangelo were guilty of, appropriate opportunities forexperimentation presented themselves and were seized upon, andthen subsequently informed the main journey.(ii) Total architecture in the modern eraBut there is something more. Le Corbusier differs from bothPhidias and Michelangelo in that he designed everyday housing forthe working classes as well as the ‘temples’ of Ronchamp, LaTourette and Chandigargh, and virtually all building types inbetween. It seems to me that for the modern architect, theknowledge gleaned from this kind of ‘total practice’ is as importantin the making of my overall argument as the knowledge gainedfrom the consistent employment of a single constructional systemover many years. To come full circle as regards this essay, the modern era ofarchitecture heralded the decline of the ‘temple’ building type(religious buildings, seats of power and authority etc..) as thestaple of architectural practice and the rise of the mundane inimportance. The question arises; can a modern architect who onlyknows how to design temples (which in the post industrial eramostly constitute art galleries and museums) be considered a truemaster? Well, the answer is surely’ not if architects are to retainthe relevance they enjoyed in the pre industrial era. In a worldwhich has come to be dominated (as Le Corbusier predicted) byscience and engineering, at the expense of religion mostconspicuously, the concept of architect as high priest has had to bereinvented. It is not enough for architects today to retreat into themountains, off the beaten track of the mainstream, concerningthemselves only with ‘the higher things’ (culture, perhaps evenspirituality). Corb realised this in theory if not always in practice,so it is arguably imperative that any successor should maintainsome kind of relationship with the mundane.
The SuccessorSo who it that might fulfil the prerequisites for successorship? Thepurposes of this exercise, I’m going to limit myself to the PritzkerLaureateshttp://www.pritzkerprize.com/laureates/index.htmlIt is immediately apparent that the vast majority of these greatarchitects can be discounted as possible successors to the legacythat I have been discussing simply because there are exclusivelybuilders of ‘temples’. They are architects of the extraordinary; themundane simply does not figure as part of there oeuvre. This factalready makes me question the validity of this particular criterion,but lets complete the game! Of the list of laureates it is only, it seems to me, LuisBarragan, Aldo Rossi, Alvaro Siza and Jorn Utzon who havedemonstrated through their built work an awareness of andrelationship with the mundane. In my opinion, of these four onlySiza and Utzon have also investigated the plastic potentialities ofconstructional systems through the building of modern temples, inthe way that Le Corbusier did (and it must be said that in this, theyare joined by just about every other Pritzker laureate).
(i) UtzonUtzon was exceptional, even among the Pritzker laureates havedistinguished himself in the arena of the mundane with his Kingoand Fredensborg houses (where he echoed Corb in his admirationand use of Eastern precedents)and in the realm of the extraordinary with, most notably, theSydney Opera House; an iconic, soaring structure which revealsitself to be, on closer inspection, very firmly grounded. A tour deforce in the transfiguration of ordinary -industrial- architecturallanguage into plastic artistic excellence, the commission for whichhe won, bizarrely, almost immediately after the Kingo project. It’sas if Utzon echoed the Ancient Greeks in raising the mundane tothe transcendent level to create a new order. Key to thisachievement was the recognition, either consciously orunconsciously, of the importance of industry in collective modernexperience. Industry, industrial production and the portal framedfactory buildings that are absolutely central to that production;these things are at the heart of the story of modern life as toldthrough the language of architecture. This lies behind the power ofthe Sydney Opera House. Figure 19. Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House
Figure 20. The architectural order devised byUtzon, one of the ‘shell’ forms. Figure 21. Eugene Fressinet, Airship hanger at Orly. Manifestation of the post industrial mundane or a temple to the machine?
Utzon managed the same trick later on with the Bagsvaerd Church;a building which clearly both is and isn’t an industrial shed at thesame time. The intellectual and artistic freedom was also thereparticularly in his unbuilt designs, some of which border on hewacky, but which no doubt played an important part in hisdevelopment He is a worthy successor to the legacy so skilfullyinherited by Le Corbusier, but so is Alvaro Siza. Figure 22. Utzon’s Bagsvaerd church, Copenhagen (and right)Figure 23. Jorn Utzon, Project for the Utzon home, Bayview, Sydney. The slightly ‘off the wall’unbuilt design demonstrates that Utzon nurtured the same fundamental intellectual and artisticfreedom that we also find in the work of Corb and Michelangelo
(ii) SizaPortuguese architect Alvaro Siza, (who strangely enough brings usonce again, full circle as he is a major influence on architectsSergison Bates) is difficult to pin down as an architect but withregards to this essay a couple of things are important to note abouthim. Siza started his career as the architect of the ‘everyday andordinary’. His early work consists of housing, community centres,provincial bank branches, parish halls and most famously aswimming pool. The start of his career also coincided with thePortugal’s own search for a ‘critical regionalism’ which was led byFernando Tavora (for whom Siza worked from 1955 to 1958) andhis state sponsored critical re-appraisal and search for thePortuguese vernacular. Figure 24. Alvaro Siza, Parish Centre, Matosinhos, Portugal, 1956 This search in the context of a modern industrial economyhad to be about the ‘image’ or ‘feeling’ of such a vernacular if it wasto avoid the pitfalls of pastiche and historicism, and this is exactlythe approach adopted by Sergison Bates which I mentioned at theearlier. In stark contrast to Utzon’s meteoric rise, Siza’s careerthen developed steadily with him designing ever more significanthousing projects (including some international ones) and evermore and significant ‘parts of the city’ including importantinstitutions such as schools and universities (Most notably thework he did for the Faculty of Architecture at the University ofPorto).
Siza not so much eclectic but studious, drew on the work of many other architects to achieve his architectural aims (in a way echoing Corb and his study of the ancient and Near East vernacular architecture), tailoring the precedent to the task in hand, changing it to suit local conditions and avoiding dogma. Figure 25. Alvaro Siza. Malagueira Residential District, Evora, Portugal, 1977-97Figure 26. Adolf Loos, Villa Muller Roof Terrace Figure 27. Malagueira Residential District, Evora, Portugal In this way, perhaps uniquely, one can see by turns the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, J.J.P Oud, Alvaro Aalto, Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier in the work of Siza, even singling out the influence of particular works. One can also see the language employed by him developing into something ever more personal and abstract as he
gains more experience and confidence, and as the buildings he isasked to design gradually grow in scale and importance, this isparticularly evident in his work for the University of Porto. It isalmost as if once a precedent is absorbed, filtered and employed bySiza, he takes something ‘personal’ from the process that remainswith him and becomes evident in his work. That Siza is an architect who really believes in learning, fromthe architects that have come before him is evinced by his owndeclaration that : ‘To know architecture, is to know the work of other architects’Figure 28. Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto, Portugal. 1987-93Faces in the concrete?Figure 29. School of Education, Setubal, Portugal, 1986 – 1994. A quirk in the structural ordercreates character, but is it in fact rooted in the necessity to provide structural bracing?In he mid 1980s, thirty years after he began to practicearchitecture, the trajectory of Siza’s career changed abruptly as he
was commissioned to design the Galician Centre of ContemporaryArt at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This was really Siza’s firstopportunity in his long career to play the role of ‘high priest’building an important ‘temple’. A careful study of the buildingreveals several synthesising concerns of the architect: 1. The accommodation of the programme in a sensible logical arrangement (which he achieved by ‘paraphrasing’ Louis Kahn’s servant and served space theme). 2. The need to create a building of ‘character’ that would provide favourable conditions for the display of contemporary art. 3. The setting of the large modern edifice in the historic enclave and on top of all this (largely achieved by careful massing and employment of Granite (the material of which the adjacent historic convent is made) as the main cladding material. 4. The need for the building to be true to itself.The 2nd and 4th points are of interest for the purposes of this essay.One can think of many architects of significant ‘temple’ typeprojects – large public buildings such as galleries and museumswho seek to solve the problem of, in Siza’s words ‘ the forlornencounter with a blank sheet of paper’ by limiting the possibilitiesopen to them. One way in which this is done is by focusing on thefunction of the building so that orientation, layout, façadeconfiguration, section and even details are driven by one factor. Inmany ways it’s a safety first strategy. The reality is, as is the case with the classical language ofarchitecture, there are many more valid possibilities and avenuesthan such architects allow themselves to believe, and there mayalso be other driving factors whose importance approaches that ofthe function of the building (Siza would put ‘character’ near the topof such a group, the importance of which he no doubt learnedduring his 30 years ‘knitting’ and ‘weaving’ new city organs into theexisting built environment).
Siza’s Galician Centre of Contemporary Art is a lesson in thisreality. Once Siza finds an optimal layout and organisation for thebuilding, he then sets about determining how he will ‘clothe’ thisdiagram with the given constructional system (which givenbudgetary restraints, had to be a frame building rather than a solidstone one. The flexibility inherent in that constructional system isthen exploited to the full in order to; a) bring about the specialeffects that would have been in the architect’s mind as he finalisedthe diagram and layout of the building, b) imbue the new edificewith all the architect’s personal interpretations of the place whichmake up in his mind it’s essential character and c) communicatethe essential truth of the building. Hence an example of thefulfilment of a) is the way in which Siza employs the constructionalsystem to achieve long clear spans, particularly the wide entranceportico.Figure 30. Alvaro Siza, Galician Centre of Contemporary Art, Santiago de Compostela, Spain.1988 – 93.
Figure 31. Long clear spans in the Galician Centre helped to provide the flexibility that wasrequired for an as yet undefined program.An example of the fulfilment of b) is the way in which the architectemploys different widths of Granite cladding, seemingly in order to‘mirror’ the irregular stone blocks of which the adjacent historicconvent is built. Figure 32. Varying widths of granite cladding panelThe example of the fulfilment of c) that I would like to give actuallyoverlaps with some of the concerns of b), and that is theemployment steel members at the entrance portico tosimultaneously ‘communicate’ that the large mostly solid Granitebuilding is in fact largely a steel framed edifice (backed up byemploying the Granite cladding in such a way so that it’s essential‘thinness’ can be seen), and also that the means by which the
primary structure of the steel frame is employed is essentiallyhidden from you (which is hinted at by the way that a solid mass ofgranite panels is seemingly impossibly supported by two slenderback to back ‘C’ channels, which in turn impossibly transfer thisapparently great load down through two steel feet which are reallytoo widely spaced apart to do the job.Figure 33. Siza’s use of construction to ‘communicate’ with the Baroque convent adjacent at thesame time as communicating with the user the essential constructional truth of the building.
Figure 34. Doorway with slanted granite cladding, protected by entrance portico.Towards the back of the portico too, there is a protruding doorwaywith a sloping roof (which on a rainy day would ensure that anyoneentering or exiting would be drenched, were it not protected by thereach of the portico), around which the granite cladding is detailedat an ‘impossible’ angle, matching the slope of the roof andthoroughly emphasising it’s subservient role to the form of thebuilding and the steel frame. In devising all this, Siza goes much further than mostarchitects would allow themselves in exploiting the expressivepotential of his chosen constructional system achieving a modernbuilding of real character. But he doesn’t over do it (which is themain crime of those architects who do explore the expressivepotential of the constructional systems they work with). Thestrategy is a means, not an end. The back to back channels read asa ‘split’ ‘I’ beam and echo the split pediment above the adjacentBaroque entrance gate into the convent. The split or disruptedpediment is an invention of Michelangelo who employed it onseveral occasions. It is interesting to note I feel at this juncture,that in the Parthenon and other similar Ancient Greek temples, thepediment plays a substantive role; part supporting structure, partgable end. This is not so when it is scaled down from this colossalsize to serve, in relief form, as part of a window or doorway.Neither does the pediment in relief form ‘dramatise’ the true‘action’ of the stone edifice it is applied to.
Could this be what lies at the root of Michelangelo’s innovations?This seems to be the case with his light hearted Porta Pia in whichthe dual functions of sheltering door case and signifying totem arecombined within the context of then recent developments infortification methodology, which allowed the designers of suchgates unprecedented freedom to pursue their ‘ornamental’potential. The pediment is not entirely split but rather it’s‘wholeness’ is disrupted, seeming to contain decorations thatwould be too large for it to accommodate were it a ‘serious’ piece ofstructure. Also the way that the pediment sits ‘proud’ of the mainmass of the doorway, significantly overshooting it on either side,indicates to me that it is purely a sculptural element, rather like thecoat of arms that sits atop the central window in Michelangelo’stop storey of the Palazzo Farnese (where there is no pediment atall). Conversely the deep entablature and fluted pilasters read asthe substantial visual constituents of the gate, continuing up to anattic which supports a further sculptural element above. Curiously,the rusticated, ‘secondary’ archway, and the semi-circle inscribedin the depth of the frieze, seem to refer, along with the flutedpilasters, to the actual ‘forces’ which surround the opening.Figure 35. Michelangelos work to the Palazzo Farnese Rome (1546). The essential truth of thewindow arrangement is demonstrated by Michelangelo by rendering the pediment as floatingcoat of arms, purely sculptural and signatory.What we do not find, in this or in any other of Michelangelo’sworks, is the grotesque twisting of columns that we find in thework of his contemporary Giulio Romano, the arbitrariness ofBuontalenti or the abstract flights of fancy that we find in the workof Borromini; or the total dissolution of classical language, so that
the whole building is rendered as sculpture, that we find inmultifarious later developments.Something of a light hearted ‘doodle’ it may be, but even so, itavoids the pitfalls that were to ensnare so many others. Thus inthe work of Michelangelo we can see that same, personalinterpretation coupled with the intimate knowledge of andwillingness to approach the actual limits of the chosenconstructional system in order to achieve of a specific artistic end,once the essential ‘diagram’ of the function had been fixed, andthat same fidelity to the essential nature of that system, as we findwith not only the Galician Centre for Contemporary Art, but allSiza’s work.Figure 36. Buontalenti, Porta delle Suppliche,Florence, 1577. The result of an arbitraryrearrangement of forms on paper, rather thanthe expression of fundamental truths thatcharacterises the work of Michelangelo. Figure 37. Romano, Cortile della Cavallerizza, Mantua, 1538. The result of unbridles imagination detached from essential truths. A step too far that Michelangelo never took.Since the Galician Centre for Contemporary Art, Siza has gone onto design other most notably the recently opened Ibere CarmargoFoundation Museum in Brazil, but he has also quite remarkablyretained a connection with mundane having built, sports centres,further housing, an underground station, a library (in Viana deCostello, which is an example of the mundane raised to templestatus recalling the Ancient Greek temples); A string of privatehouses and two masterplans for important coastal roads amongother things.
For all his fame, Siza remains committed to the mundane, but –the Ibere Carmargo demonstrates –when called upon to exercisehis abilities in the realm of ‘temple design’ he is superlative.Which takes us back to the passage from Corb’s ‘Vers Une..’ Siza isthe railway engineer with whom art enters in. It is striking and telling I believe that Siza has said that as thearchitect becomes ever more a peripheral figure in the constructionindustry, he increasingly feels the need to draw and sculpt and thatto draw, to sculpt and to design buildings is the same family ofactivities. What could be more reminiscent of Michelangelo or LeCorbusier?Figure 38. Alvaro Siza, Ibere Carmargo Foundation Museum, Brazil 1998-2008. Siza has said himself thatwith this design he was responding to the violent beauty of the site -with the river opposite as wide as the seaand the wild beauty of the terrain-; the country of Niemeyer and the strong will of the client and otherstakeholders to do what was necessary to guarantee high quality. FL Wrights New York Guggenheim wasthe starting point. The constructional and aesthetic system of white concrete is pushed to its limits toproduce a building a real character.Figure 39. Alvaro Siza, Viana do Castelo Municipal Library, 2001-07. White concrete is once again used,this time to produce a much more utilitarian building, in stark contrast to the stuccoed masonry of Corb’sVilla Savoy which certainly lingers somewhere within it. The directness and straightforwardness of itsstructural system (white concrete) lends it a certain luxury; real gold rather than the iron pyrite of muchearly 20th century modernism.
ConclusionThis rather longish essay has come about simply because I hadsome ruminations on architecture which I wanted to record, so aconclusion is probably not appropriate.However I need to tie off this torrent of words and solidify it intosomething that I can build on in the future. I’m aware that I’vecovered some lofty ground and made some bold assertions andobservations, most of which have probably been already refuted orput forward by proper scholars using proper methods and givingproper credits, references along the way. I thought about givingreferences / credits etc.. but that would quite frankly involve me intoo much of the wrong sort of work, I’m an architect not a scholar.And it is with the practice of architecture in mind that I havewritten this piece; I’m always asking myself, ‘how can I do this(architecture) well?’. How can the mistakes of the recent past beavoided. Potential and future clients at the very least have theright to demand that I ask such questions. I find myself returningto this topic in my mind repeatedly, and rather like the Gza’s‘Liquid Swords’iii this essay is an explosion of great personalimportance which I suspect will not be repeated. You may feel thatmy ‘conclusion’ thus far has been a bit indulgent, and that I wrotethis first paragraph almost as a warm up exercise, and should havestripped it out in the final edit.Well, I’d agree with you if it weren’t for the fact that thecompulsion I felt which has led the release of a backed up reservoirof thoughts is fundamental to what I have learned during thisprocess. The importance of art, feeling and intellectual freedom inthe pursuit of architecture has been established in my own mind atleast. I believe I have correctly identified the tools. However inintellectualising and verbalising them, I fear that I have alsodistanced myself from the solution. In the way that Lasdundecried his inability to express himself though words, I fear thatI’m a writer and not an artist in the way that Siza is and, Corb andMichelangelo were. It’s true however that Michelangelo wrotepoetry, Corb wrote copiously and Siza has written quite a lot aboutarchitecture. But the making of visual art, of all types was (and is)a ‘compulsion’ for them. Even so, perhaps the saving Grace for meis Utzon who, like virtually all architects, sketched doodled anddrew.
Ruskin expressly states the need to for a good architect to practicethe art of sculpture, but he was also adamant that a good architectneeds to be able to draw well from nature. In this Siza doesexpressly agree with him by asserting the importance of developingvisual acuity through drawingiv. It is also clear that Siza usesdrawing as a way of thinking through and solving the problems ofdesign. In his legendary travel diary (Journey to the East) Corbmakes the same point about ‘seeing’ through drawingv andMichelangelo’s numerous study sketches for the design of bothsculptures and buildings are perhaps a testament to him holdingthe same view, as at least one book suggestsvi. To top it off thereare many more great architect ‘drawers’ and ‘sketchers’ than‘sculptors’ (including Utzon and much of the Pritzker laureate list).So if so many great architects have ‘got by’ only with drawing, thenhow do we account for Ruskin’s insistence on sculpture as a coreactivity for architects? Perhaps the increasing role that science andtechnology has been playing in modern architectural production isthe reason that Ruskin saw sculpture as being more importantthan modern critics do. Parts of Vers Une could almost be read asodes to the engineer and Siza has constantly asserted theimportance of structural engineering in his architecturalproduction, particularly in his most recent ‘temple’ work, the IbereCarmargo Museum. The rise of the engineer means that perhaps it is no longernecessary to have such a highly developed feeling for the action of amaterial as Michelangelo had for that of stone, although some kindof feeling must be essential mustn’t it? Surely, but perhapsappreciation for the work of the engineer, rumination on pastarchitectural solutions and development of architectural thoughtthrough sketching are enough o develop it. I’ll leave thepenultimate word on this to one of those ‘other’ Pritzker laureateswho’s more of a draw-er than a sculptor:‘The Sydney Opera House is the summit of the 20th Century Modernism architecture.The ideal combination of architect’s rich intellectual creativity and superb technologicalimagination has been sublimed into a stunning figure. It shows us that architecture is createdby human rationality.’Is ‘technological imagination’ the modern era’s substitute forsculptural ability?
i Louis I Kahn, Robert McCarther, 2009 Ed, p 391ii The Two Paths, John Ruskin, Preface
iii Seminal Hip-Hop Album, 1995iv Philip Jodidiov L Corbusier (ed. Ivan Zaknic), Journey to the East, pvi Michelangelo, Drawing, and the Invention of Architecture (Hardcover). “Michelangelos fame as apainter and sculptor tends to eclipse his reputation as an architect, but his impact here was just asprofound. In this engaging and handsome book, Cammy Brothers takes an unusual approach toMichelangelos architectural designs, arguing that they are best understood in terms of his experienceas a painter and sculptor. Our own conception of architecture as a practice dependent on theformulation of new ideas through drawing, and our image of the flash of brilliance embodied in thequick sketch, have their roots in methods and functions defined by Michelangelo. Unlike previousstudies, which have focused on the built projects and considered the drawings only insofar as theyilluminate those buildings, this book analyses his designs as an independent source of insight into themechanisms of Michelangelos imagination. Brothers gives equal weight to the unbuilt designs, andsuggests that some of Michelangelos most radical ideas remained on paper. By following the steps bywhich Michelangelo arrived at his extraordinary inventions, the author questions conventional notionsof spontaneity as a function of genius. Rather, she explores the idea of drawing as a mode of thinking,using its evidence to reconstruct the process by which Michelangelo arrived at new ideas. By turningthe flexibility and fluidity of his figurative drawing methods to the subject of architecture,Michelangelo demonstrated how it could match the expressive possibilities of painting and sculpture.”