Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Speak like an architect

Recently, as part of my unending cycle of interests, I've been drawn back to architecture. Partly because of my trip to Denmark, partly the book 'Architecture after Modernism' I'm reading (gripping, I assure you), and partly It's Nice That opening my eyes to Alexander Road Estate. As a result, I've been attempting a proper architecture project, a concrete social housing block with some wacky angles - a real departure from my Lego models of old. And the key to the change, and to the more mature architecture I'm starting to create, is in visual language. Here, I'll explain.

Above are sections of the floor plan for this housing block, which is only two storeys high, but still packed with apartments and annoyingly acute angles that are going to produce some cramped living spaces. The 'block' is, ironically, in the shape of a large scalene triangle. One corner is opened up to the roof in a large double-cavity opening split by a concrete chunk of a pillar. On one side of this opening, an industrial metal staircase clings to the wall. Inside the building is a triangular courtyard surrounded by walkways on both floors with two trees in it (grey circles, top picture), from which all apartments are accessible. There is another staircase (still metal, just like the ones you'd find in factories or on ships) occupying a cutout in the concrete wall.

It's hard to describe, and the actual slanty-here-but-more-slanty-there-but-not-there shape is even harder to describe, so you'll have to wait until I can figure out the goddamn trig to make a rough model of it (card this time, no more inaccurate Lego). For now I want to return to my previous architectural attempts, mainly the Ishøj House (my first, over a year ago):

The Ishøj House, looking back, was the only uniquely piece of architecture I made, as it pioneered using concrete and glass in my own creativity. From then on, my projects were variations on a theme, and each of them less buildable than the last. Why? Because the combination of materials, and the naïve concept of 'planes of concrete' were unrealisable in the real world, no matter how nice they looked in Lego. Ever since the Henne House I've wanted to make another building model, but I couldn't - I just couldn't make it realistic enough. It was like I was designing a toy, regardless of context, testing, and consequences. I also didn't know how to construct a house, so how could I just start with a shape, a shell? Without knowing anything about the materials, how they could hold together, how a normal building is made. Surely there is some system? Of floorboards, electricals, bricks, that creates a house - a system on which all buildings, from the wackiness of Gehry to the Victorian house I live in, is built with? Also, what means a building should be made of brick? Or have certain shaped windows? Is that a predefined style of the architect, or appropriate to the site, and if the latter, why?

These questions hung in my head for months, unanswered apart from one part of me continually saying 'I can't know, that's what they teach you in the degree', but 'Architecture after Modernism' has made me realise that isn't quite true. Because what I've been searching for, what my previous buildings struggled with, is a visual language. A typology of architecture. A building is not one big piece, it is specific repeated pieces - roofs, floors, windows, walls, corners - that are interpreted in the typology of the building - and the architect speaks in a language of parts and elements from which he can not only form a new, appropriate shape for the building, but it also provides a starting-point. That's what I was missing: I was getting too caught up in the language of concrete planes and glass walls of my previous attempts that I had convinced myself that was the only way to design a building.

But of course, that isn't. There are hundreds of typologies, of styles, of languages to speak when you are designing a building. You can even combine languages, adapt languages, or create new languages with new ways of thinking about elements. Of course, some architecture defies all this and uses no typology, no normal architectural elements. One example I can think of at the moment is the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum by Frank Lloyd Wright:

The Guggenheim defies normal visual language by creating a sculpture of a building, an interaction of shapes and forms into which the building fits. Of course, some elements are recognisable - a glass pane to the left and a covered entrance, but these are few and far between in this abstract and unique project. Aside from the basics, the Guggenheim shows signs of modernist architecture, in its cuboid volume at the back, and the whitewashed walls of the main form. The shape is not so much wacky as geometrically playful. The circular section is not wildly shaped, but instead takes on a slight frustum shape, and other elements - including the cuboid volume - are considered in relation to balance and good layout. The building, despite being unusual, is at its heart very modernist and rational, though not without its quirks.

Frank Lloyd Wright used the modernist typology in part with the Guggenheim museum, but it is largely devoid of an identifiable language. When a language is used in architecture, the architect can still experiment and explore - but there is an irony in the way he can pervert its words. Let's take another example, the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, designed by Robert Venturi & co:

We're taking a big leap from the landmark Guggenheim to a small extension on the National Gallery in London, both in terms of ambition, context and time period: the Guggenheim Museum was built in the 50s (which places it distinctly before postmodernism, before you start that argument) and the Sainsbury Wing was built in 1991, coming in right at the end of what's been recently defined as the postmodernist age. Unofficially, I believe postmodernism continued through the 90s in the form of free, globalised design thought as afforded by the internet and technological advances. The cultural and stylistic multiplicity found in early-to-mid 90s design ultimately supports postmodernist theory of historicism, or rather referentiality (only in the 90s it was more cultural than historical).

Back to the Sainsbury Wing; let's notice the typology of this small extension. It's designed using the visual language of the old gallery building of the 1800s. You can see the classical elements in the design: columns with elaborate capitals (column caps) and similarly styled windows - windows in the language of the original 1800s building. So far, we can see that Venturi has created an extension that perfectly fits the old gallery - or not. On closer inspection we see he is playing with the typology - note the blind windows, predesigned like that, as opposed to normal windows filled in for some reason later on. The window to the far left even has its bottom frame missing. This experiment of the language, regardless of perfect effects, shows that Venturi is not interested in direct historical architecture; rather he's giving us an impression of the typology of the architecture. Note to the right the columns overlap and merge, yet the form is clearly made out of individual columns forming a cumulative shape, as if you copy-and-pasted them on top of each other on the plans and then just made the damn thing. In a way, this distances Venturi's work from the typology as it shows he can overlook formalities in the old visual language, such as column spacing and functional windows. 

It's ironic that the only functional part of the façade - the entrance at the bottom - is simply cut into the wall, with a glass wall behind that. The extension has a resulting odd sculptural quality to it, like it knows what it's trying to say, what it's trying to be, but the language has to be adapted in a foreign way for the shape the architect needs to create. A few blind windows are thrown in for the historicism, but they are merely a reference. Even with all these perversions of 1800s architectural style, most passers-by would not notice the difference (other than the stone looking newer) - I can't comment on whether this is good or not, because I have no idea. Should postmodernist architects like Venturi design to show off their style, or to fit in, with their stylings only visible to critics and experts? I honestly can't say. But I can say that I believe the Sainsbury Wing to be an excellent example of late postmodernist architecture at its best; regardless of my own taste.

Of course, Venturi is also responsible for less rational postmodernist projects such as the Vanna Venturi House (above), devoid of any respect to architectural language, and so postmodern it makes me feel ill, but I'll save that rant for another day, or better yet my own head.

So maybe I haven't yet found a realistic visual language - unless I go find a modernist building or such and examine all its parts, then use them to form a design of my own. Ultimately, a project can't be fully realistic and use the visual language properly unless it's a legitimate piece of architecture, that considers ventilation, light, engineering, environment and intended use as specified by the client. And yes, I can't learn that properly unless I do a degree. But, for now, I feel I've progressed a little in my understanding of how architecture works and how a building comes to be. At this stage, I can't ask for any more.

~ John

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