For Alex Gross' book of new works, Wood Death Architecture
Two weeks ago I missed my connecting flight in Schipol and had to spend the night in Amsterdam. Looking out of the train window from the airport, I was struck by the quality of the everyday contemporary architecture. Most of the new buildings I saw, office blocks, housing, schools, were intelligent in their volumes and use of materials without shouting about it, nor at the expense of what I could see of the quality of the internal space. They were polite in the relationship with their surroundings whilst staying individual, very contemporary in their shapes, proportions and materials whilst still feeling part of the rest of the urban fabric.
It had been a long time since I got this excited about buildings, and I was pleasantly surprised that this short train journey revived my belief in architecture. After finishing my degree in architecture and working in a number of architecture practices, I became less and less interested in the formal exploits or stylistic feat of architecture, and increasingly intrigued and attracted by the unplanned alterations and distortions appearing in and around buildings. My interest in what could be seen as impurities is not romantic, as one would acquire a fetishist love for ruins and disused buildings, but rather inquisitive and admiring. Coming from an architect, this might sound a bit perverse, one major characteristic of many architects being a desire to solve problems and order things.
From the first treatise of architecture, the idea of order and systems has been at the forefront, and the idea of controlling and organising the environment through architecture probably acquired an apogee with the modernist movement. Modernist architecture started on a philanthropist basis, the principles behind its approach came from a desire to better people's environment. Its downfall was trying to generalise these logics, from a generous standpoint of finding a solution to the urban housing crisis into a system applicable for all people and all places. Le Corbusier is exemplary in this dual aspect of modernism, his smaller works are admirable in elegance and quality of spaces, but his doctrine for applying modernism to the city denies the human factor outside of the interiors. The three fundamental elements determining the designs of his ideal cities were sun, space and trees. He forgot people. The people were part of the equation as much as car movements, the house was a simply a machine à habiter 2, a machine for living. One of his realised housing block, l'unité d'habitation de Marseille, has been a success partly because it was not built following Le Corbusier's urban doctrine. Another version of the unité d'habitation in Firminy is much truer to his original design: removed from the town centre as it was supposed to be self sufficient, on top of a hill to have as much sun as possible, in the middle of trees, grass and car parks. Half of the building is still empty, closed-off because no one wants to live in it. Nice conceptual object and everything in its place, but the machine à habiter didn't consider the fact that people are rather more complex than mechanisms.
The generosity behind the initial ambition went too far, and modernist architecture lost its innocence. The urban principles were realised in a simplistic way and reproduced without the quality of the architectural objects. The utopia was a failure.
Subsequent architecture movements reacted strongly against the rigidity of this type of architecture, but their alternatives reverted to formalism and withdrew from social engagement. The city continued to be developed through a simplistic version of modernist urbanism guided by efficiency. Today urban growth, and increasingly city centres, seems to be defined by the scale of their standardisation, normalisation and sterility. Zones of activities are clearly defined and functions continue to be divided. These zones are aiming to be hyper regulated and easily identifiable, they are becoming predictable and reproducible products. Everything superfluous, shadowy and dreamlike has been eliminated and the pure objectivity of rationality has been propagated.
In this increasingly standardised environment, architecture is regularly looked at as a finite object to provide interest; it is becoming superficial and aimed at instant gratification, playing the role of decor within a simplified environment. The city is becoming reduced to an efficient instrument for the economy and a collection of monuments for the tourists. Any undesired activities are 'designed out', prevented by the shapes of public elements: public benches have armrest to prevent homeless sleeping on them, windowsills are covered in spikes to stop people sitting on them, and unnecessary corners are avoided because you never know what might happen. This concept of preventive architecture is not new, one of the goals in creating the grand avenues and boulevards in 19th century Paris was to facilitate riot control. Architecture still forgets the essential, the fact that people have to live in the buildings and in the city, not just fulfil the function allocated to an area in a city reduced to an image.
This is maybe why I developed a love for the cracks in this superficial environment. Any incident comes as a welcome realisation that the machine is not working perfectly, we are not quite in a Disney World Main Street yet. In the real world the street cannot be cleaned straight after the hourly parades and the mechanisms cannot all be hidden away, a multitude of imperfections develop: plants grow out of a corner, an inaccessible glass canopy gathers dust, cigarette buts and other detritus, foot steps in a concrete pavements, a street light blinks intermittently.
The architecture has lost control. But it was always a losing battle, most buildings are not designed to take these events into consideration. The buildings reach their perfect state at the end of construction, when the pictures for the magazines are taken. From then on they are decaying despite the constant effort trying to restore the initial appearance. These marks and traces are not all accidental. The ones I particularly relish are where people have to adapt a space to make it usable, usually in a way it was not designed for: a fire-door held open by a brick, smokers making their own rooms in the back streets with improvised seats and ashtrays, floor to ceiling windows covered with paper, fabric or bamboo netting to create intimacy, balconies used for storage etc. These type of interventions are «things you would expect the architect at least to show sympathy for -if only by leaving an odd corner or space for them in his plans or by including them in his perspectives» 5. But where architecture fails in its ambition to be complete and finite, people take over and corrupt it, or maybe one could say perfect it. «The city works as a city only when it no longer functions» 6. These adaptations are a natural way to modify a place to suit ones needs, but in this spontaneous approach there is a real ingenuity in the (mis)use of space and materials. It is the ingenuity of the bricoleur 7, where «the rules of the game are always to make do with whatever is at hand» 8. The ability to adapt places distinguishes the architect «creating events by means of structures and the bricoleur creating structures by means of events» 9.
The lessons from the bricoleur have been recognised by some architects, but my pleasure does not come from a desire to emulate but in discovering these adaptations and seeing them for what they are and represent. These small traces were already cherished by surrealists who saw them as «the intrusion of natural in the city disrupting the veneer of urbanity and, in turn, undermining the coherence of the system. In this process, the city was revealed not as the monolithic and coherent structure of the modernist dream, but something more like a complex organism, fraught with contradictions, unstable even sometimes on the verge of collapse.» 10
These intrusions are contrary to the desired image of a prosperous city, and when they are not prevented in the design, architects attempt to solve the problem by designing the adaptations themselves. They try to integrate these events into the architecture by providing a designed solution. It is well intended, but I wonder if it is again a way for the architect to control and order. An unplanned activity becomes another opportunity to perfect an aspect of life. I sometimes long to find places where the hand of the architect has not been.
What I find delightful, is the relationship these interventions create, they bring life to an otherwise often sterile place and always find a way to take over. Wherever you go, you can discover small installations which manage to create places out of almost nothing: a small garden in a forgotten lot, a seating area with cushions on a brick wall, a swing under a bridge. More than the aesthetic of the bricolage, the dialogue they force upon their surrounding is refreshing, it is a discussion that the sheltering architecture tried to avoid by removing asperities in the name of order and cleanliness. «Your language is of a remarkable purity, hygienic. But we don't make, you have to understand, children with Hygiene. Quite the opposite! Creation is always a filthy fight.» 12 We can imagine the stories behind the people who made and used these installations, not solely hear the architect's declaration. These interventions become glimpses of ephemeral spectacles visible when the city whispers instead of shouts.
Michel Courajoud 14 compares architecture to a conversation, you enter it only after listening to what is being talked about, and you take the floor only to leave it. Looking back, what I enjoyed during my train ride was the heterogeneity, there was a co-existence amongst the new buildings and their surrounding, since none of the architecture was trying to disguise itself as older than it really was or to make a statement to stick out. In other places, I have to rely on the small moments of disruption to bring some much-needed heterogeneity and the richness of the unexpected.
- Archigram, Introduction to the exhibition Living City, ICA London, 1963
- Le Corbusier, Vers un architecture, 1923
- Fernand Léger, The Wall, the Architect, the Painter, Unpublished, 1933, in Functions of painting, 1965
- Bruno Fortier, L'amour des villes, in Télérama, 11 10 95
- Ian MacCallum, Spontaneity at the core, in CIAM 8, The heart of the city: Towards an humanisation of urban life, 1952
- Siedler/Niggemeyer, Die Gemordete Stadt, Abgesang auf Putte und Strasze, Platz und Baum, 1961
- Claude Levi Strauss, The savage mind, 1966
- Claude Levi Strauss, ibid
- Claude Levi Strauss, ibid
- Ian Walker, City gorged with dreams, Surrealism and documentary photography in interwar Paris, 2002
- Louis Aragon, Le paysan de Paris, 1926
- Louis Ferdinand Céline, Lettre à Ernzt Bendz, 1934
- Walter Benjamin, Paris Capitale du XIXe s, 1939
- Michel Corajoud is a landscape architect
- Fernand Léger, op. cit.