SLOGANS AND BATTLECRIES

A series of 300 word pieces for Building Design run in 2012. Here are six of them:

03. Firmness Commodity and Delight.

Firmness, Commodity and Delight comes from the seventeenth century aesthete Sir Henry Wotton, translating Palladio, in turn translating Vitruvius, on the essential qualities of good building. The triad is usually taken to mean that a building should be strongly built, be useful and be beautiful. So many questions are begged there that it’s enough to make you scream like a baby! It smacks of the seventeenth century view of the universe as an ordered progression of planets, rather than the fiery tumult of coincidence we now assert it to be.
The trouble is, essential and qualities are themselves outmoded terms. My friend Ben, digital musician, is sceptical. He says: “Firmness Commodity and Delight? Sounds like an ad for a bra.” I spend the next hour trying to spin him a theory of architecture from this unpromising start. Delight is too relative a term to even discuss. And, immediately, it all bogs down. Is firmness about material structure or organisational structure? Or does it refer to the architect’s intention? As for commodity – what a can of worms! Commodity could be a function thing, designed in by the architect to set the building up, or a use thing that arises through time: we all know a building designed as a chocolate factory can be used as an arts centre. Commodity could even be a finance thing. Or maybe a sustainability thing! Or would that fall under firmness?
In the end, though thoroughly tangled up in the material-and-ideal-at-the-same-time character of architectural thinking, we conclude that firmness, commodity and delight might still be useful to the contingency minded times we live in. The trick is to let each term have its multiple meanings and let them twine and intertwine with each other; and look upon firmnesses, commodities and delights as dynamics, not statics.

 

04. Form Follows Function

Guy the gorilla sits all day in his cage in the zoo waiting. He has been transported out of the agony and the ecstasy of life, in which death will come either sooner or later, into the permanent sanctuary of the cage, where waiting for death is all that life is. Everything about the cage is geared to his captivity. It is a collection of functions, and if form follows function, as airport makes passenger, as hospital makes patient, this prison makes prisoner. It’s like the Minotaur’s labyrinth. It stretches time.
Guy’s boredom is written on his face as clearly as if he were human. And genetically Guy is only fractionally not human. Biological ancestry is held in code in DNA, instructions that the information theory pioneers described as digital. DNA, they said, is form. The bodies that grow from the instructions are analogues, and these they described as functions. Guy’s body is a function of his DNA. But which comes first? Digital or analogue? And why does this sound as if, contrary to modernist cliché, that function follows form?
The question hinges on whether form is an ideal or a physical presence. Form follows function opts for the latter. But do we have to choose? Alongside the Labyrinth that caged the Minotaur was a circular dancing floor on which the conquest of the beast was symbolically evoked. While the labyrinth was entirely made of walls, the dance floor had none. The labyrinth was all function, in this counterpoint, and the dance floor was all form. It released the dancers to function, to perform their dance, and as they did so, the dance itself became form. So the duality is not enough: we could say instead that form follows function follows form follows function follows form. And so on.

 

06. A Building is to a City as a Brick is to a Wall

This is Dutch. Een gebouw in de stad is als een steen in de muur. After a thousand year struggle with sea levels, the Dutch have developed an acute understanding of physical context and the hand-over-hand labour that goes into constructing it. A Building is to a City as a Brick is to a Wall depends on a pragmatic understanding that the city is planned, first, and built according to the plan, second: so if you think that cities are emergent, even organic, happenings, this slogan will not be for you.
“Clay is to a brick as a brick is to a wall as a wall is to a building as a building is to a city,” is Ben’s version. “It’s Aristotle,” he says. “It’s matter and form.” Then Billie shows us an image of bombed Dresden taken the day after, a collection of gaunt crags, jagged and tottering, that seems to belie the morphological basis of brick construction as an analogy for anything. She starts saying “A brick is to a pile of rubble as a pile of rubble is…” but we stop her. We think the formal sequitur might as well end with the brick itself. There is a modest beauty in putting one brick on top of another until something big is achieved; no wonder bricks have become the repository of an alternative wisdom against the icon.
But Billie won’t stop. “Have you seen a tub of Lego lately?” She says. “Rectiliniarity in Legoland is over. Every single piece is a special, like a component. A component is to a machine as a machine is to a singularity!” Provoking a discussion about curvaceous iconic buildings persisting because they are the machine age machinic: componential, not material. So what comes next? The brick age or the rubble age?

 

09. Architecture without Architects

The word vernacular means local, or native; and though we accept it now as a good thing, as the fruit of the common man, my dictionary suggests a pejorative tone in that it stems from the Latin word for slave. The inversion of values is right to the point with this slogan. Bernard Rudofsky’s 1964 MOMA exhibition Architecture Without Architects was about what he called non-pedigreed architecture, an implicit criticism of professional architects who pursued form for its own sake, driven by their obsessions with business and prestige. Sound familiar? Isn’t that exactly what 00:/ or Space Agency would say about our own crop of iconophiles?
The strange thing is that, browsing the photographs of sublimely coherent settlements in which everything fits with everything else, a vapour comes off the pages that smells of conformity and tyranny, of the oblivion of the craftsman substituted for the passion of the artist. It’s as though entire cities have been built with a fiercely enforced set of building regulations, from which nothing wavers. The resulting architectures are so beautiful that one’s faith in freedom and expression is jolted. The conformist architectonics, through their intimate relationships with the wild and unconforming world, show themselves again and again as places you want to be.
The world may never be that way again. Community architecture is politicised now in a different way, with architects firmly in place but acting as enablers, not controllers. The enablers show people how to spring money from the agencies, how to present a case for action, how to work the system. Beauty and form are way down the list, temporary and effectiveness and publicity way up it. Business and prestige? Hell, yes, and why not? They say. Let’s get this thing moving!

 

10. Ornament is Crime

Adolf Loos: and it’s Ornament and Crime in the original. Reading that original, some of Loos’ argument comes across as nineteen twenties unsavoury, speaking of ornament as a feature of degenerate cultures. “Anyone who has a tattoo and is not in prison is either a latent criminal or a degenerate aristocrat!” reads Billie out loud, flashing the indigo swallow engraved on her forearm. But Ben points out the rational element: ornament is a crime against the worker, who wastes both labour and time making rich men’s decorations. I can’t remember where I heard this, but that reminds me of the story of an architect driving to site in New York with a stone dressing gang in 1939. They shook their fists out of the car window at the new MOMA building with its machine made flatness: “The International Style,” they yelled” is putting us out of work!”
One of the difficulties is deciding what ornament is, as John Summerson pointed out in an essay written in the dark days of the forties, when the blitz was splitting buildings open and revealing their true natures to the astonished citizens. There was a standing lesson in Belgravia, where a terrace of five heavily stuccoed brick houses stood next to a bomb site. As you got progressively nearer to the explosion, more and more of the ornament had been ripped away; the furthest house looked like a banker’s palace, the nearest looked like a bunker. Ornament, said Summerson, could be the panoply of effects the classical architects used to stage their facades, but it could also mean the surface treatment that has to be dealt with if architecture is to exist. Get rid of the first, you get a Brave New World. Get rid of the second and you have nothing at all.

 

17. The Extraordinary of the Ordinary

This idea tumbles out of a whole tranche of thoughts about the value of living the ordinary quotidian life as an ordinary person, attending to the profundity of the present moment, giving your everyday encounters with the usual things priority over the insane ambitions and desires of our mediated society. It is a sort of revolution, a quiet revolution, and it gives architecture an entirely different job to do: forget putting objects in the world that look like the gestures flung put of car windows in heavy traffic, and set about making common ground in an ordinary, modest, co-operative way. You might even reclaim the word mediocre from its fate as a derogative by pointing out that the everyday is a far more influential presence than the so called special, and build buildings that look as though they belonged together with the others in the street.
Sitting on my shoulder as I write all this is a little guy with a loud voice called doubt. He says that an argument for mediocre is an argument for class, that the whole thrust of evolution is to differentiate, not assimilate, and that accepting the ordinary is accepting the status quo. He quotes the terrifying Blood Meridian at me: nothing on this earth constrains any part of it to be like any other part; and finally says that nothing is usual, normal or ordinary. Those wire coat hangers on the rail may look the same but microscopically they’re all different. Like people.
I am momentarily swayed. But then I see this loud mouth is wearing a T shirt with the letters WWBD across the chest. “It stands for What Would Buddah Do”, he yells. And what would Buddah do? “Nothing!” Which makes me think that even doubt itself is an ordinary thing.