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Some Thoughts On Architecture


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Thoughts on how to achieve great architecture

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Some Thoughts On Architecture

  1. 1. Ruminations on Architecture One of the chapters of Le Corbusier’s seminal work ‘Vers Une Architecture’ is entitled ‘Architecture, Pure Creation of the Mind’. Many, have perhaps interpreted this statement as a support for the idea that ‘anything goes’ in architecture, particularly in a time when 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 houses and 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 is beautiful”. That is Architecture. Art enters in. My house is practical. I thank you, as I might thank Railway engineers or the telephone service. You have not touched my heart. But suppose that walls rise towards heaven in such a way that I am moved. I perceive your intentions. Your mood has been gentle, brutal, charming or noble. The stones you have erected tell me so. You fix me to the place and my eyes regard it. They behold something which expresses a thought. A thought which reveals itself without word or sound, but solely by means of shapes which stand in a certain relationship to one another. These shapes are such that they are clearly revealed in light. The relationships between them have not necessarily any reference to what is practical or descriptive. They are a mathematical creation of your mind. They are the language of Architecture. By use of inert materials and starting from conditions more or less utilitarian, you have established certain relationships which have aroused my emotions. 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 which they seem to take for granted the architect’s ability to fulfil the utilitarian 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 read badly designed) modernist (Corb’s creations included) and varying hues of Post-Modernist buildings that would suggest the faith placed by Pevsner and Corb in the architect’s practical abilities has perhaps more often than not been misplaced. This reminds us that in fact ‘the practical house’, for which Corb would thank his architect as he thanked a railway engineers has throughout history been the building type that architect have had
  2. 2. least to do with. More often than not, such houses have been planned and built by the simple people who lived in them with succeeding generations learning from their forefathers by osmosis. Today, the existence of specialist house builders continues this separation between architects and mass housing (after a brief and disastrous 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 the like, have always been a different matter. In Ancient Egypt, the high priest was responsible for the planning and erection of such structures for which the inherent ability to inspire awe, love, hope and fear was perhaps more important than the kinds of utilitarian concerns mentioned earlier. The rain and sun of course had to be kept out, but craftsman would see to that rather than the high priest. It’s easy to see how the high priest eventually became the architect. The thing about a high priest of course, is that he can tell you what is good architecture and what isn’t, and you have to listen!
  3. 3. Figure 2. Ancient Egyptian Temple at Karnak. But, as I sit here 4 months unemployed having recently qualified after 13 yrs of hard slog (almost twice the length of time it takes to become a GP), I can tell you that there are far too many architects in the market today to justify having ‘temple or palace design’ as the be all and end all of your skill-set. The replacement of skilled craftsmen by ‘operatives’ in conjunction with the practicable measurable outcomes that the’ sustainability agenda’ demands of modern 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 very recent, emerging, with few exceptions from that generation of architects, at least in the UK, who were training during the fall out from 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 his famous ‘Carbuncle’ speech to the RIBA. At the turn of the 21st Century, about 70 yrs after Corb had talked about it, Sergison Bates architects produced a series of designs for mass housing that you could thank them for as you would thank a railway engineer.
  4. 4. 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 offer potential occupants flexibility and a semi external area (which can be used for drying clothes) by separating out the circulation and the ‘habitable room’. There are 3 plan types, one of which caters for the expansion of the family unit that is common to Asian families (of which there are a great number in east London) as a result of marriage. This, in conjunction with the high level of development of the drawings in general (it is clear that construction has been account for from the very beginning) make the scheme a highly convincing ‘real world’ proposal. At a time when some 60’s housing wasn’t just leaking but starting to become unsafe, and when 16 yrs after HRH’s famous speech the
  5. 5. profession had really hit rock bottom with QSs and Project Managers beginning to seriously encroach upon the traditional territory of the architect, the appearance of Sergison Bates’s housing designs in the most popular architectural journals, and even broadsheets at the time, did indeed touch many hearts. Their work in the field of mass housing displayed a knowledge and mastery of the latest commercial construction techniques, coupled with an awareness of the way in which such issues impinge upon architectural theory. There was also an acute awareness of the need to give prospective residents tangible benefits and a grasp of the language that policy makers used to define and measure such benefits. Ideologically, the non-architect designed pattern-book Georgian and Victorian houses and housing blocks of London were a 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 in Stevenage (1998) has the same high level of resolution as their Bow housing scheme. It is a highly convincing attempt to contribute to the debate on the industrialisation of mass housing provision in the UK, and to addresses the disjunction between architectural vision and end user aspiration (of which 60s housing was an emblem) by acknowledging such aspiration by accommodating it in the form of the architecture.
  6. 6. Figure 6. SBa’s ingenious assisted self build housing at Tilbury (2001) addressed youth unemployment and the skills shortage in the construction industry by giving young unemployed to learn on the job during its construction. But the excitement of these achievements was short lived, partly because the housebuilders and policy makers did not share the enthusiasm that the architectural critics had for the Sergison Bates housing solutions (and so did not put them into production) and partly because most architects are less interested in housing than architectural critics. In housing, because of the inevitable link to public provision, the constraints are many and the rewards small. It’s much more fun and profitable to be a ‘high priest’, building palaces and temples. Soon Sergsion Bates’s interests would also shift to this direction and liberated from the more exacting practical demands of housing, their subsequent proposals for buildings of a more public nature shone more of a light on their approach to the manipulation of the language of architecture. From their early writings it is possible to identify certain recurring themes: 1. A commitment to the exploration of ‘Thinking, Building & Dwelling’ through their work.
  7. 7. 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 (considered higher) ideal, the approach of Sergison Bates and Le Corbusier has been remarkably similar. Apart from the discipline with which construction is employed, the only significant difference is in the nature of that ideal; Abstract beauty for Le Corbusier; collective taste, perception and experience for Sergison Bates, and one would think that the choice of ideal for Sergison Bates was heavily influenced by the period of ill fated ‘top down’ solutions to the post-war housing crisis, where high priest architects and corresponding pharaoh-like local authorities conspired to decide what was ‘best’ for the public without either consulting them or properly understanding them, with disastrous results. In fact, it is striking that in our time the traditional institutions of society-such as religion, tradition, central government / royal authority even marriage and the family among other similar things, have been taken down from their pedestal and replaced
  8. 8. with ‘icons’ to anti-authoritarianism in the form of hyper- individualism, anti establishmentarianism and consumerism. Sergison Bates’s approach to architecture greatly reflects this trend which is perhaps part of its appeal for many. Le Corbusier’s ideal was inspired by his personal experience of the architecture of the Near East, particularly the ancient works of Greece and particularly the Parthenon. A glance at the history of Ancient Greek temple design and the Parthenon is highly instructive the cases of both Le Corbusier and Sergison Bates. Transfiguration It is more or less accepted that the stone Greek Temple type is derived basically from vernacular timber construction. Thus the evolution of the temple type is an ancient example of the raising of the everyday and the commonplace to a transcendent position, almost literally by the time we get to the Parthenon. Thus in a strange way this ancient type is closely related to the work of Sergison Bates. But in the transfiguration of the basic constructional elements from timber to stone, the similarity ends since once the basic ‘conversion’ was achieved, the Ancient Greeks realised that the newly realised stone building was not simply a stone version of it’s timber forerunner. Another dimension of beauty could now be glimpsed, one belonging wholly to the realm of stone, thus began the evolution that eventually led in the end, through the work and stewardship of sculptor Phidias (who in fact supervised a team of architects), to the Parthenon and the erstwhile timber shed eventually became something entirely truly transcendent. This is what Le Corbusier was referring to when he said: But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say : “This is beautiful”. That is Architecture. Art enters in. It is evident that Corb was well aware of the evolution that would eventually end up in the Parthenon (p. 134) having made it a central part of the seminal thesis he recorded in his Vers Une… In stark contrast, it is just this aspect, the magical transformation of utility into plastic art, that has hitherto eluded Sergison Bates, they perhaps still being in the process of raising the everyday and commonplace to the level of the ‘special’, just as the Greeks had
  9. 9. had with the first temple design, a stage that Corb sees well represented in the temple at Paestum as recorded in Vers Une... Figure 7. The Parthenon Figure 8. Temple of Athena, Paestum And it also eluded Louis Kahn, who had a similar attitude to constructional discipline as Sergison Bates and who more or less
  10. 10. held (like the Romans) that the important thing was the efficacy of the structural system, a fact born out by his evincing a preference for the Temple Paestum over the Parthenoni. After the reconstitution of the classical lexicon through the discovery of Vitruvius at the beginning of the Renaissance, it was left to Michelangelo, the genius of sculpture and figurative representation, to pick up where Phidias had left off. John Summerson elucidates the effect that Michelangelo had in this regard 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 grammatical logic, to the sixteenth century, the equilibrium was at once upset by the most powerful imagination of the age. Michelangelo mastered the architectural prose of the ancients but made out of it a new architectural poetry, the poetry of a sculptor. Every element in this window 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 be beyond the Vitruvian vocabulary: its intensity of feeling defies technical description. In Michelangelo’s vestibule to the Laurentian Library, Florence 1525 – 34, columns retreat irrationally into walls whose negative prominence is perversely emphasised by blind windows.
  11. 11. In much the same way that film critics like to speculate regarding the ‘place’ inside themselves where a certain actor may draw a particular performance from, much has been said regarding the ‘source’ of Michelangelo’s startling architectural creations, but the for the purposes of this article, I believe that it is enough to draw attention to his ability as a sculptor and the mastery over figurative aspects and his chosen material (stone) that this gave him with regards to what Corb referred to as the ‘plastic’ art of architecture. Perhaps all this reveals the reason why Ruskin (who was an early influence of Corb when he trained as an engraver of watches) was so adamant that proficiency in sculpture (among other things) was necessary 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 dimension through his ‘Purist’ painting (in which he raised ‘everyday objects’ such as bottles, and glasses to the level of being worthy subjects for portrait art).
  12. 12. Figure 13. The plan of Corb’s seminal Villa Savoye in which the discoveries he made through painting are pivotal. Was it his awareness of the importance of these skills in the pursuit of plastic perfection, that enabled him to first play a major part in establishing the white flat roofed, freely planned, plate glass windowed Modernist ‘standard’ (exemplified by works such as the Villa Savoye), and then in his later years, when he began to identify ever more closely with the true nature of concrete construction rather 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), to disrupt the purity of the Modernist standard through such hauntingly poetic works, such as La Tourette and Chandigargh, in much the same way as Michelangelo had disrupted the classical ‘standard’ 400 years before him?
  13. 13. Figure 14. Le Corbusier, Villa Savoye (1929) Figure 15. Ronchamp Chapel (1954)
  14. 14. The passing of the baton Following through the argument to its logical conclusion, it is only natural to look for a contemporary torch-bearer of this narrow tradition that seems to take in only Phidias, Michelangelo and Le Corbusier. What may be the qualifications that one would expect of such a torch bearer? Firstly there is the consistency of medium itself. It could be said that Phidias and Michelangelo both built up over many years an intimate relationship with stone so that their knowledge of it went beyond intellectual and technical considerations into the realm of ‘feeling’. It could be said that Corb had exactly the same kind of relationship with Reinforced Concrete. (i) Knowledge, art and the middle path between freedom and restraint The realm of feeling, of direct experience, is where plastic art lives, since it is surely feeling that is responsible for the refinements that separate the Parthenon from the temple at Paestum, that gives rise to Michelangelo’s niche at the Medici chapel, and that is the driving force behind Corb at Ronchamp. La Tourette and Chandigargh. It is deep knowledge manifested as feeling that liberates the artist and their art from the safe confines of received systems (be they the system of classical architecture or that of modernism) in such a way so as to enable them to take their art to a higher planes. And entering into the realm of feeling necessarily means making it personal or even wilful and leading one to consider questions of ‘composition’ and other such unscientific things. The personal stamp of Michelangelo and Corb is evident in all their work, and this unavoidable. In today’s post enlightenment society, we are distrustful of feeling and intuition in our design processes which means that the above criteria are beyond a great many architects of the present and recent past. Those who do have a recognisable ‘style’ tend not to ally it to the innateness of a chosen constructional technology or material (the style increasingly nowadays emerging in spite of the construction technology involved, which would seem to apply to the likes of Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid).
  15. 15. Figure 16 Museum of Transport, Glasgow. Concept and under construction Is the free flowing form of Zaha Hadid Architects’ Glasgow Museum of Transport reflective of the steel structure used to construct it? Also, there are architects who claim to dwell in the realm of tectonic culture and who profess to stick strictly to natures of the materials with which they tend to work, one particularly thinks of Peter Zumthor in this regard. However, the reality is that such architects seem to work within self imposed constraints in an effort to achieve a certain pre conceived aesthetic and perhaps do not approach the full range of forms that a given constructional technology may offer. For example, the arch is a completely valid expression of the nature of brick which Zumthor has never employed in the brick buildings that he has designed.
  16. 16. 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 slate Vals Thermal Baths below).
  17. 17. Today we stand at the far end of an architectural history which latterly seems to have been dominated by a multitude of ‘isms’ and movements and perhaps this is why as architects we often struggle to free ourselves from self imposed intellectual ‘straight jackets’. The danger of this is that we nurture an inability to ask uncomfortable, unfashionable but completely valid questions during the course of our work. Both Corb – who turned his back on the five points of architecture in his later years-, and Michelangelo – who created the light hearted Porta Pia at the end of a career which had great significance for the subsequent history of architecture, did not suffer from this kind of self imprisonment. Figure 18. The Porta Pia, Michelangelo’s final architectural work.
  18. 18. Even when architects do probe, question and experiment to the limits’ of technology or formal vocabulary, they tend to fall into the trap of making such excursions their daily bread rather than the rich cake to be consumed on special well chosen occasions that they should constitute, thereby making themselves irrelevant to all but themselves. This is something that neither Corb nor Michelangelo were guilty of, appropriate opportunities for experimentation presented themselves and were seized upon, and then subsequently informed the main journey. (ii) Total architecture in the modern era But there is something more. Le Corbusier differs from both Phidias and Michelangelo in that he designed everyday housing for the working classes as well as the ‘temples’ of Ronchamp, La Tourette and Chandigargh, and virtually all building types in between. It seems to me that for the modern architect, the knowledge gleaned from this kind of ‘total practice’ is as important in the making of my overall argument as the knowledge gained from the consistent employment of a single constructional system over many years. To come full circle as regards this essay, the modern era of architecture heralded the decline of the ‘temple’ building type (religious buildings, seats of power and authority etc..) as the staple of architectural practice and the rise of the mundane in importance. The question arises; can a modern architect who only knows how to design temples (which in the post industrial era mostly constitute art galleries and museums) be considered a true master? Well, the answer is surely’ not if architects are to retain the relevance they enjoyed in the pre industrial era. In a world which has come to be dominated (as Le Corbusier predicted) by science and engineering, at the expense of religion most conspicuously, the concept of architect as high priest has had to be reinvented. It is not enough for architects today to retreat into the mountains, off the beaten track of the mainstream, concerning themselves only with ‘the higher things’ (culture, perhaps even spirituality). Corb realised this in theory if not always in practice, so it is arguably imperative that any successor should maintain some kind of relationship with the mundane.
  19. 19. The Successor So who it that might fulfil the prerequisites for successorship? The purposes of this exercise, I’m going to limit myself to the Pritzker Laureates It is immediately apparent that the vast majority of these great architects can be discounted as possible successors to the legacy that I have been discussing simply because there are exclusively builders of ‘temples’. They are architects of the extraordinary; the mundane simply does not figure as part of there oeuvre. This fact already 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, Luis Barragan, Aldo Rossi, Alvaro Siza and Jorn Utzon who have demonstrated through their built work an awareness of and relationship with the mundane. In my opinion, of these four only Siza and Utzon have also investigated the plastic potentialities of constructional systems through the building of modern temples, in the way that Le Corbusier did (and it must be said that in this, they are joined by just about every other Pritzker laureate).
  20. 20. (i) Utzon Utzon was exceptional, even among the Pritzker laureates have distinguished himself in the arena of the mundane with his Kingo and Fredensborg houses (where he echoed Corb in his admiration and use of Eastern precedents) and in the realm of the extraordinary with, most notably, the Sydney Opera House; an iconic, soaring structure which reveals itself to be, on closer inspection, very firmly grounded. A tour de force in the transfiguration of ordinary -industrial- architectural language into plastic artistic excellence, the commission for which he won, bizarrely, almost immediately after the Kingo project. It’s as if Utzon echoed the Ancient Greeks in raising the mundane to the transcendent level to create a new order. Key to this achievement was the recognition, either consciously or unconsciously, of the importance of industry in collective modern experience. Industry, industrial production and the portal framed factory buildings that are absolutely central to that production; these things are at the heart of the story of modern life as told through the language of architecture. This lies behind the power of the Sydney Opera House. Figure 19. Jorn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House
  21. 21. Figure 20. The architectural order devised by Utzon, 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?
  22. 22. Utzon managed the same trick later on with the Bagsvaerd Church; a building which clearly both is and isn’t an industrial shed at the same time. The intellectual and artistic freedom was also there particularly in his unbuilt designs, some of which border on he wacky, but which no doubt played an important part in his development He is a worthy successor to the legacy so skilfully inherited 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 artistic freedom that we also find in the work of Corb and Michelangelo
  23. 23. (ii) Siza Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza, (who strangely enough brings us once again, full circle as he is a major influence on architects Sergison Bates) is difficult to pin down as an architect but with regards to this essay a couple of things are important to note about him. Siza started his career as the architect of the ‘everyday and ordinary’. His early work consists of housing, community centres, provincial bank branches, parish halls and most famously a swimming pool. The start of his career also coincided with the Portugal’s own search for a ‘critical regionalism’ which was led by Fernando Tavora (for whom Siza worked from 1955 to 1958) and his state sponsored critical re-appraisal and search for the Portuguese vernacular. Figure 24. Alvaro Siza, Parish Centre, Matosinhos, Portugal, 1956 This search in the context of a modern industrial economy had to be about the ‘image’ or ‘feeling’ of such a vernacular if it was to avoid the pitfalls of pastiche and historicism, and this is exactly the approach adopted by Sergison Bates which I mentioned at the earlier. In stark contrast to Utzon’s meteoric rise, Siza’s career then developed steadily with him designing ever more significant housing projects (including some international ones) and ever more and significant ‘parts of the city’ including important institutions such as schools and universities (Most notably the work he did for the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Porto).
  24. 24. 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, 1977-97 Figure 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
  25. 25. gains more experience and confidence, and as the buildings he is asked to design gradually grow in scale and importance, this is particularly evident in his work for the University of Porto. It is almost as if once a precedent is absorbed, filtered and employed by Siza, he takes something ‘personal’ from the process that remains with him and becomes evident in his work. That Siza is an architect who really believes in learning, from the architects that have come before him is evinced by his own declaration that : ‘To know architecture, is to know the work of other architects’ Figure 28. Faculty of Architecture of the University of Porto, Portugal. 1987-93 Faces in the concrete? Figure 29. School of Education, Setubal, Portugal, 1986 – 1994. A quirk in the structural order creates character, but is it in fact rooted in the necessity to provide structural bracing? In he mid 1980s, thirty years after he began to practice architecture, the trajectory of Siza’s career changed abruptly as he
  26. 26. was commissioned to design the Galician Centre of Contemporary Art at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This was really Siza’s first opportunity in his long career to play the role of ‘high priest’ building an important ‘temple’. A careful study of the building reveals 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’ type projects – large public buildings such as galleries and museums who seek to solve the problem of, in Siza’s words ‘ the forlorn encounter with a blank sheet of paper’ by limiting the possibilities open to them. One way in which this is done is by focusing on the function of the building so that orientation, layout, façade configuration, section and even details are driven by one factor. In many ways it’s a safety first strategy. The reality is, as is the case with the classical language of architecture, there are many more valid possibilities and avenues than such architects allow themselves to believe, and there may also be other driving factors whose importance approaches that of the function of the building (Siza would put ‘character’ near the top of such a group, the importance of which he no doubt learned during his 30 years ‘knitting’ and ‘weaving’ new city organs into the existing built environment).
  27. 27. Siza’s Galician Centre of Contemporary Art is a lesson in this reality. Once Siza finds an optimal layout and organisation for the building, he then sets about determining how he will ‘clothe’ this diagram with the given constructional system (which given budgetary restraints, had to be a frame building rather than a solid stone one. The flexibility inherent in that constructional system is then exploited to the full in order to; a) bring about the special effects that would have been in the architect’s mind as he finalised the diagram and layout of the building, b) imbue the new edifice with all the architect’s personal interpretations of the place which make up in his mind it’s essential character and c) communicate the essential truth of the building. Hence an example of the fulfilment of a) is the way in which Siza employs the constructional system to achieve long clear spans, particularly the wide entrance portico. Figure 30. Alvaro Siza, Galician Centre of Contemporary Art, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. 1988 – 93.
  28. 28. Figure 31. Long clear spans in the Galician Centre helped to provide the flexibility that was required for an as yet undefined program. An example of the fulfilment of b) is the way in which the architect employs different widths of Granite cladding, seemingly in order to ‘mirror’ the irregular stone blocks of which the adjacent historic convent is built. Figure 32. Varying widths of granite cladding panel The example of the fulfilment of c) that I would like to give actually overlaps with some of the concerns of b), and that is the employment steel members at the entrance portico to simultaneously ‘communicate’ that the large mostly solid Granite building is in fact largely a steel framed edifice (backed up by employing the Granite cladding in such a way so that it’s essential ‘thinness’ can be seen), and also that the means by which the
  29. 29. primary structure of the steel frame is employed is essentially hidden from you (which is hinted at by the way that a solid mass of granite panels is seemingly impossibly supported by two slender back to back ‘C’ channels, which in turn impossibly transfer this apparently great load down through two steel feet which are really too widely spaced apart to do the job. Figure 33. Siza’s use of construction to ‘communicate’ with the Baroque convent adjacent at the same time as communicating with the user the essential constructional truth of the building.
  30. 30. Figure 34. Doorway with slanted granite cladding, protected by entrance portico. Towards the back of the portico too, there is a protruding doorway with a sloping roof (which on a rainy day would ensure that anyone entering or exiting would be drenched, were it not protected by the reach of the portico), around which the granite cladding is detailed at an ‘impossible’ angle, matching the slope of the roof and thoroughly emphasising it’s subservient role to the form of the building and the steel frame. In devising all this, Siza goes much further than most architects would allow themselves in exploiting the expressive potential of his chosen constructional system achieving a modern building of real character. But he doesn’t over do it (which is the main crime of those architects who do explore the expressive potential of the constructional systems they work with). The strategy is a means, not an end. The back to back channels read as a ‘split’ ‘I’ beam and echo the split pediment above the adjacent Baroque entrance gate into the convent. The split or disrupted pediment is an invention of Michelangelo who employed it on several occasions. It is interesting to note I feel at this juncture, that in the Parthenon and other similar Ancient Greek temples, the pediment plays a substantive role; part supporting structure, part gable end. This is not so when it is scaled down from this colossal size 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.
  31. 31. 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 which the dual functions of sheltering door case and signifying totem are combined within the context of then recent developments in fortification methodology, which allowed the designers of such gates unprecedented freedom to pursue their ‘ornamental’ potential. The pediment is not entirely split but rather it’s ‘wholeness’ is disrupted, seeming to contain decorations that would be too large for it to accommodate were it a ‘serious’ piece of structure. Also the way that the pediment sits ‘proud’ of the main mass of the doorway, significantly overshooting it on either side, indicates to me that it is purely a sculptural element, rather like the coat of arms that sits atop the central window in Michelangelo’s top storey of the Palazzo Farnese (where there is no pediment at all). Conversely the deep entablature and fluted pilasters read as the substantial visual constituents of the gate, continuing up to an attic which supports a further sculptural element above. Curiously, the rusticated, ‘secondary’ archway, and the semi-circle inscribed in the depth of the frieze, seem to refer, along with the fluted pilasters, to the actual ‘forces’ which surround the opening. Figure 35. Michelangelo's work to the Palazzo Farnese Rome (1546). The essential truth of the window arrangement is demonstrated by Michelangelo by rendering the pediment as floating coat of arms, purely sculptural and signatory. What we do not find, in this or in any other of Michelangelo’s works, is the grotesque twisting of columns that we find in the work of his contemporary Giulio Romano, the arbitrariness of Buontalenti or the abstract flights of fancy that we find in the work of Borromini; or the total dissolution of classical language, so that
  32. 32. the whole building is rendered as sculpture, that we find in multifarious later developments. Something of a light hearted ‘doodle’ it may be, but even so, it avoids the pitfalls that were to ensnare so many others. Thus in the work of Michelangelo we can see that same, personal interpretation coupled with the intimate knowledge of and willingness to approach the actual limits of the chosen constructional system in order to achieve of a specific artistic end, once the essential ‘diagram’ of the function had been fixed, and that same fidelity to the essential nature of that system, as we find with not only the Galician Centre for Contemporary Art, but all Siza’s work. Figure 36. Buontalenti, Porta delle Suppliche, Florence, 1577. The result of an arbitrary rearrangement of forms on paper, rather than the expression of fundamental truths that characterises 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 on to design other most notably the recently opened Ibere Carmargo Foundation Museum in Brazil, but he has also quite remarkably retained a connection with mundane having built, sports centres, further housing, an underground station, a library (in Viana de Costello, which is an example of the mundane raised to temple status recalling the Ancient Greek temples); A string of private houses and two masterplans for important coastal roads among other things.
  33. 33. For all his fame, Siza remains committed to the mundane, but – the Ibere Carmargo demonstrates –when called upon to exercise his abilities in the realm of ‘temple design’ he is superlative. Which takes us back to the passage from Corb’s ‘Vers Une..’ Siza is the railway engineer with whom art enters in. It is striking and telling I believe that Siza has said that as the architect becomes ever more a peripheral figure in the construction industry, he increasingly feels the need to draw and sculpt and that to draw, to sculpt and to design buildings is the same family of activities. What could be more reminiscent of Michelangelo or Le Corbusier? Figure 38. Alvaro Siza, Ibere Carmargo Foundation Museum, Brazil 1998-2008. Siza has said himself that with this design he was responding to the violent beauty of the site -with the river opposite as wide as the sea and the wild beauty of the terrain-; the country of Niemeyer and the strong will of the client and other stakeholders to do what was necessary to guarantee high quality. FL Wrights New York Guggenheim was the starting point. The constructional and aesthetic system of white concrete is pushed to its limits to produce 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’s Villa Savoy which certainly lingers somewhere within it. The directness and straightforwardness of its structural system (white concrete) lends it a certain luxury; real gold rather than the iron pyrite of much early 20th century modernism.
  34. 34. Figure 40. Alvaro Siza, Sculpture Figure 41. Alvaro Siza Sculpture Figure 42. Alvaro Siza sketch
  35. 35. Conclusion This rather longish essay has come about simply because I had some ruminations on architecture which I wanted to record, so a conclusion is probably not appropriate. However I need to tie off this torrent of words and solidify it into something that I can build on in the future. I’m aware that I’ve covered some lofty ground and made some bold assertions and observations, most of which have probably been already refuted or put forward by proper scholars using proper methods and giving proper credits, references along the way. I thought about giving references / credits etc.. but that would quite frankly involve me in too 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 have written this piece; I’m always asking myself, ‘how can I do this (architecture) well?’. How can the mistakes of the recent past be avoided. Potential and future clients at the very least have the right to demand that I ask such questions. I find myself returning to this topic in my mind repeatedly, and rather like the Gza’s ‘Liquid Swords’iii this essay is an explosion of great personal importance which I suspect will not be repeated. You may feel that my ‘conclusion’ thus far has been a bit indulgent, and that I wrote this first paragraph almost as a warm up exercise, and should have stripped it out in the final edit. Well, I’d agree with you if it weren’t for the fact that the compulsion I felt which has led the release of a backed up reservoir of thoughts is fundamental to what I have learned during this process. The importance of art, feeling and intellectual freedom in the pursuit of architecture has been established in my own mind at least. I believe I have correctly identified the tools. However in intellectualising and verbalising them, I fear that I have also distanced myself from the solution. In the way that Lasdun decried his inability to express himself though words, I fear that I’m a writer and not an artist in the way that Siza is and, Corb and Michelangelo were. It’s true however that Michelangelo wrote poetry, Corb wrote copiously and Siza has written quite a lot about architecture. But the making of visual art, of all types was (and is) a ‘compulsion’ for them. Even so, perhaps the saving Grace for me is Utzon who, like virtually all architects, sketched doodled and drew.
  36. 36. Ruskin expressly states the need to for a good architect to practice the art of sculpture, but he was also adamant that a good architect needs to be able to draw well from nature. In this Siza does expressly agree with him by asserting the importance of developing visual acuity through drawingiv. It is also clear that Siza uses drawing as a way of thinking through and solving the problems of design. In his legendary travel diary (Journey to the East) Corb makes the same point about ‘seeing’ through drawingv and Michelangelo’s numerous study sketches for the design of both sculptures and buildings are perhaps a testament to him holding the same view, as at least one book suggestsvi. To top it off there are 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, then how do we account for Ruskin’s insistence on sculpture as a core activity for architects? Perhaps the increasing role that science and technology has been playing in modern architectural production is the reason that Ruskin saw sculpture as being more important than modern critics do. Parts of Vers Une could almost be read as odes to the engineer and Siza has constantly asserted the importance of structural engineering in his architectural production, particularly in his most recent ‘temple’ work, the Ibere Carmargo Museum. The rise of the engineer means that perhaps it is no longer necessary to have such a highly developed feeling for the action of a material as Michelangelo had for that of stone, although some kind of feeling must be essential mustn’t it? Surely, but perhaps appreciation for the work of the engineer, rumination on past architectural solutions and development of architectural thought through sketching are enough o develop it. I’ll leave the penultimate word on this to one of those ‘other’ Pritzker laureates who’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 technological imagination has been sublimed into a stunning figure. It shows us that architecture is created by human rationality.’ Is ‘technological imagination’ the modern era’s substitute for sculptural ability?
  37. 37. i Louis I Kahn, Robert McCarther, 2009 Ed, p 391 ii The Two Paths, John Ruskin, Preface iii Seminal Hip-Hop Album, 1995 iv Philip Jodidio v L Corbusier (ed. Ivan Zaknic), Journey to the East, p vi Michelangelo, Drawing, and the Invention of Architecture (Hardcover). “Michelangelo's fame as a painter and sculptor tends to eclipse his reputation as an architect, but his impact here was just as profound. In this engaging and handsome book, Cammy Brothers takes an unusual approach to Michelangelo's architectural designs, arguing that they are best understood in terms of his experience as a painter and sculptor. Our own conception of architecture as a practice dependent on the formulation of new ideas through drawing, and our image of the flash of brilliance embodied in the quick sketch, have their roots in methods and functions defined by Michelangelo. Unlike previous studies, which have focused on the built projects and considered the drawings only insofar as they illuminate those buildings, this book analyses his designs as an independent source of insight into the mechanisms of Michelangelo's imagination. Brothers gives equal weight to the unbuilt designs, and suggests that some of Michelangelo's most radical ideas remained on paper. By following the steps by which Michelangelo arrived at his extraordinary inventions, the author questions conventional notions of 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 turning the 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.”