Image sources: Architecture Depends (left) and http://www.greatbuildings.com/ (right)
I’ve always struggled with Architectural Theory and how we’re expected to reconcile the ideals with the world in which we practice, so it’s somewhat surprising to find myself having spent the last four months glued to Architecture Depends by Jeremy Till. Refreshingly this discourse refrains from telling us how things should be and instead concentrates on telling us how things are; the surprising yet almost commonsensical revelation that the world is beyond our control; from design conception to site completion our projects are buffeted by forces outside of our control and that while “we can still have vision… at the same time we need to be modest and light footed-enough to allow the vision to be adjusted to the circumstances.”
Till’s central point is that while an architect will generally be aware of and accept the contingent nature of architecture, the profession as a whole (and in particular our methods of education and self-review) has been woefully inadequate in dealing with this situation. As a result architecture has often been left appearing detached, high-minded and aloof, and a flick through the pages of the AR or the AJ (choose the flavour depending on your country) will reveal reviews solely interested in the clarity of ideal while the general media’s architectural columns are more often than not about what the “architect” is “imposing” on the town.
A striking piece of evidence put forward , and one that is hopefully familiar to anyone who has recently been in education, is the nature of the architectural photograph which Till exhibits as the epitome of our struggle to deny contingency and to hold up perfection as the idol we must worship. Pictured above is Corbusier’s kitchen in the Villa Stein-de Monzie. An image of domestic perfection? In reality rather than capturing the occupants messy life style each item was carefully picked to follow Corbusier’s intentions (and as any Frenchman worth his salt will tell you while a teapot might look good next to a fish you’d certainly never take the two together…) Is this really how we should sell our architecture, as an ideal that doesn’t reflect life? Perhaps quite fittingly while searching for a copy of this image I came across the same scene but this time empty of the clutter of day-to-day life. You can’t help feeling that this nicely sums up the thrust of Architecture Depends; that timeless architectural perfection cannot work for the chaos of our lives and that in imposing our ideals on a world not suited to isms we’re always destined to failure. Rather than worrying about the modernists’ mantra of “less is more” we’d probably be better off accepting that our ideas need to be accommodating. Let’s all follow Till’s own take on the matter, that “mess is the law.”
(As a taster to the full book there’s an article from Till available online at the excellent Field Journal.)