Dwelling With Architecture

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The following is an extract from the recent book Dwelling With Architecture written by Roderick Kemsley and Christopher Platt of studioKAP.

Our own practice in Glasgow is the sort of office where architecture gets discussed. We talk about the projects we are working on as we are doing them, pinning them up on the wall at different stages to crit them, just as we did as students facing MacMillan and Metzstein. In doing this, I guess we are hoping that the work will get better by applying both a degree of healthy self-criticism as well as involving anyone who has something intelligent to say. Choreographing those discussions and turning them into tangible and useful prompts is not easy, but nevertheless is crucial in order to avoid such an occasion turning into a time-squandering talking shop. Architects are always under time and financial pressure to minimise or even avoid these discussions and so much of contemporary practice therefore seems to focus on cutting to the chase, rather than developing, exploring and crafting a solution. But we keep being reminded that these crits are crucial to the very nature of what we do. For one thing, they raise the intelligence of the office. For another, we find that this method of pinning up work and trying to make it better is deeply ingrained in our educational experiences and often the most efficient way of cracking a problem. A long-standing structural engineer colleague once expressed his amazement at the difference between his own educational experience as a student engineer and his experiences when tutoring students of architecture. Where engineering students in his own experience kept their arms over their work lest someone see it (and presumably copy it) and were thus educated “in the dark”, unaware of what or indeed how each other were doing, architecture students, he said, seemed to be educated “in the light”; pinning up their work for review even when it was unfinished and far from perfect – a crucial component in the formation of a self-critical approach. We architects are, in other words, educated within a culture of serious criticism.

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Concept model, Dunderave Castle. Image: studioKAP

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Limestone and concrete. Image: Christpher Platt

We have both been teaching in various architecture schools for many years, sometimes together, sometimes separately. Whilst one of us currently combines responsibilities at the Department of Architecture at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow with an itinerant but regular presence in our office (we have located our office within a few minutes’ walk of the university), the other’s professional life reverses that mix and spends the working week in practice with occasional forays into the Academy. So, on the one hand are we both being disingenuous in writing this book – offering words instead of deeds for others to contemplate? The risk in putting words to thoughts, or even reflecting on previously-built deeds, is indeed that: one gets the chance to rewrite history, airbrush out all the bumps and flaws of the process and present instead a clean and elegant theory that binds it all together, as if it were all that clear at the time. We find it difficult to both design something and “look over our shoulder” at posterity, with a view to writing about it as well. As authors of buildings, we need time and distance to reflect on the work when we are working as authors of words.

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The remains of Loch Etive pier. Image: Christopher Platt

Without wishing to obfuscate or indeed romanticise what we do, there are difficulties in clarifying its fundamentals – which are often (perhaps inevitably) instinctive and long since buried within the way we think and work. Parallel statements made by those working in another medium can sometimes offer a more productive start into unpicking the familiar thought patterns; a sideways approach that can better evade the paradigm. The playwright Arthur Miller puts it pretty well:

“As a writer of plays I share with all specialists a suspicion of generalities about the art and technique of my craft, and I lack both the scholarly patience and the zeal to define terms in such a way as to satisfy everyone. The only other course, therefore, is to stop along the way to say what I mean by the terms I use, quite certain as I do so that I will be taken to task by no small number of people, but hopeful at the same time that something useful may be said about this art, a form of writing that generates more opinions and fewer instructive critical statements than any other.“ [1]

We think architects who reflect upon what they do would generally empathise with Miller’s observations. Certainly on his latter point; most human beings alive would have an opinion on architecture, rather fewer an instructive critical statement. What sometimes worries us however is whether (aside from the mechanics of technical expertise) a significantly better ratio would be found amongst professionally trained architects….

Why then publish yet another book about houses, when so many already exist and in numbers that only seem to have accelerated over the last couple of decades? From our perspective, many of these recent books seem to be designed primarily as entertainment. They follow a loose “beauty parade” structure of a contemporary case study collection, often preceded by a short, historical overview set within a coffee table format. Novelty and lifestyle tend to be the defining characteristics of their content. Given their popularity there is clearly an appetite for this kind of publication but, at the risk of sounding snobbish, we felt no need to contribute yet another exemplar to the genre. We are also aware of the contemporary trend for books on architecture to be more image-orientated than text-based. We wanted however to encourage students (in the widest possible sense) of architecture to delve deeper in their explorations of the nature of architecture in a way complementary to the process we were undergoing in writing this book. We hoped that our frequently open-ended, written and drawn reflections might thereby yield greater rewards by prompting the reader’s own study and reflection in a way that the more closed completeness of a book of photographic images could not.

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Front cover of “The Place of Houses”, Moore, Allen and Lyndon; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York 1974. Image: University of California Press

In putting pen to paper we were inspired by “The Place of Houses” by Charles Moore, Gerald Allen and Donlyn Lyndon; a book which we think hasn’t been surpassed since its first publication in 1974. Here, it seemed to us, was a great example of a book which also looked at house design and included, but did not exclusively focus on, the authors’ own work. The authors wrote as users as well as makers, laymen as well as professionals and were as enthusiastic about “high-end” architecture as they were about modest, anonymous (you could even say “uncool”) places that had touched them in some particular way. We liked the fact that the authors demystified what they did, wrote in a direct and humorous way and weren’t afraid of revealing their own personal weaknesses, preoccupations, likes and dislikes. They were clearly serious architects in that their own work was underpinned by powerful ideas worthy of study and discussion. Yet they were above all inteligent observers who appreciated that life for most people is made up of a series of detailed decisions rather than a grand concept lived out in some style. “The Place of Houses” is unashamedly a “j’adore” book but refreshingly unglamorous in its design and production and significantly, no colour was used then nor in subsequent editions. We were sure we couldn’t match the first memorable paragraph of their foreword, which must rank as one of the great architectural (anti)manifestos, so we’ve included it here as a reminder:

Good taste, we are told, is a singularly important factor in the design of a house. We are usually told this by someone who is assumed to possess it, and who generally makes a considerable point of the rest of the assumption: that there are people who don’t have it, that that includes you, and that you will have to pay dearly to be suitably worked over. We submit that all of this is arrant nonsense. Our traditions are far less confining than the “tastemakers” would have us believe. Traditions have great power precisely because they present us with possibilities and guides that can support invention (Thou Shalt…), while good taste seeks to intimidate us with rules and limitations that stifle personal choice (Thou Shalt Not…). [2]

And then, having restrained the potentially limiting and intimidating forces of the professional adviser (in other words, us architects!), the authors empower the prospective house-maker with these further words of encouragement:

“The main premise of this book is that anyone who cares enough can create a house of great worth – no anointment is required. If you care enough you just do it. [3]

If you contrast that with the classic “call-to-arms” manifesto statements announced by the giants of the modern and post modern movements such as: “form follows function”, [4] “less is more”, [5] “I like complexity and contradiction in architecture” [6] and of course, “architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light”, [7] you can see that Moore, Allen and Lyndon adopt a friendlier bedside manner, centring their architectural approach on the people they are building for and searching out the common architectural experiences they might all share. They are trying to start a gentler revolution than those early masters. They are also trying to close the gap between the professional and the layperson. In so doing they were neither trying to demean the principle of professional judgement, nor the position of the architect in society and still less the work of those particular architects quoted (whose projects are also included in their book). Rather they were simply trying to remind everyone just how broad a church architecture has been over the centuries and across the cultures and how deep the treasure trove of ideas is out there awaiting both discovery and fresh interpretation by each generation. Although the book was aimed at a wide, lay audience, we were encouraged as architects and agreed with those initial words, quietly thinking that we also “cared enough” to create houses of great worth.

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An architectural spectrum, ranging from the innocent to the sophisticated. Image: studioKAP

Why is it interesting to explore houses at all you might ask? Is there anything left to say about our most familiar building type? For the many people who think that the work of architects usually involves designing important and complex monuments, airports and hospitals, houses are probably seen as lying at the “easy” end of the tasks we face. This is a widely-held opinion even among architects – or at least those who aren’t much involved with house design! It is certainly the case that they generally do not need to be structurally or technically complex and nor is there a politically complex client body to satisfy. It is however precisely the simplicity of these aspects that often allows a more involved architectural investigation, enabling the designer to move with a certain lightness of foot (perhaps one of the main incentives in retaining houses as part of their body of work). The examples chosen for this book are generally taken from close to home, which for us means the north western part of Europe. This is the climate we are most familiar with and it also allows us to locate our own work amongst other case studies by our distinguished colleagues. From our own point of view, both in practice and as we write here, houses also have the unique fascination that they seem to occupy a pivotal position in a certain panorama of architectural typologies; one which ranges from the innocent to the sophisticated. In this spectrum of human activity houses seem to gravitate to the very watershed of what is generally understood as “architecture” and what is considered to be “just building”. What better point of departure then, to examine the nature of architecture and indeed the role of architects in its making?

References

1.Arthur Miller, Introduction to “The Collected Plays”, 1958.
2.Moore, Charles, Allen, Gerald and Lyndon, Donlyn, “The Place of Houses”, (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974), p. vii.
3.Ibid
4. Louis Sullivan was credited with this statement from his 1896 essay, “The
Tall Office Building Artistically Considered”. However, his phrase read, “form ever follows function”, Wikipedia.
5. Attributed to Mies van der Rohe, Wikipedia.
6.Venturi, R., “Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture”.
7. Le Corbusier, “Towards a New Architecture”, translated from the French by Frederick Etchess, The Architectural Press London, 1978, (p 31.).

Dwelling With Architecture was published in March 2012 by Routledge. To link to more web pages and buy a copy of the book (paperback £22.99 hardback £100) click here

To link to the Routledge Architecture page click here

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Cover of Dwelling With Architecture by Brian Cairns Studio

Main image: studioKAP office in Glasgow

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