Gallery: "canon"

Last year’s degree show at Duncan of Jordanstone was notable for the work of one student in the Masters Year, Sam Wilson.  I ended up writing a review of the show as a whole for the AJ, and an in-depth feature on Sam’s scheme at Brymbo Steelworks for Urban Realm.  His striking drawings were printed in both magazines, and here’s hoping he capitalised on the coverage he gained to find himself a job.

This year’s degree show forces the visitor to dig deeper, though.

The walls on Level 6 of the Matthew Building are hung with examples of polite rationalism, and sensitive conservation schemes.  Evidently, there are a few Asplund juniors in the Masters year, amongst whom are the authors of an ironically po-faced Cartoon Museum, and a sub-Seagram scheme for Dundee’s main railway station.  The restoration work tackles Slains Castle and the fortress at Dunnottar: both schemes are well-mannered but a little tentative.

By contrast, Magnus Popplewell’s drawings outline his idea to create an inhabited bridge spanning the Tay.  Rather than dropping another “icon” on Dundee’s central waterfront, he proposes a three kilometre long megastructure.  This is the one piece of ambitious architectural thinking on show at Dundee in 2013.

The bridge springs from a northern abutment above Seabraes, with student studios slotted into the frame, then flats for the general run, and retail units, leading to a hotel.  By then, we are hundreds of metres out into the Tay and the accommodation thins out.  Mid-river, there’s a jetty and – bizarrely – a basilica on an artificial island, founded on the kilometre-long Middle Bank, one of the Tay’s many sandbanks.  Further south, there’s a navigation span over the shipping channel, known as the South Deep, before the bridge sweeps onto its southern abutment at Tayfield, between Wormit and Newport.

Popplewell’s clean, simple pen drawings owe something to Frank Ching, but present his concept coherently without any tricks of presentation.  Neither is there the baggage of theory, phenomenology or mytho-poetics which often accompanies student schemes.  It would have been nice to see a model, though…

Many folk have proposed a modern version of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio or Venice's Rialto Bridge - including Rem Koolhaas’ scheme at Rak Jebel, high in the mountains above the Persian Gulf, and Laurie Chetwood’s proposal for a modern “London Bridge 800”.  Unlike previous examples of Living Bridges with huge towers filled with luxury flats, shops and restaurants, Popplewell’s bridge is linear and flat-topped.

The Thames is a small, sluggish river bounded by a city.  The Tay is many times wider, and the volume of water which flows down it is greater than the three largest English rivers combined.  As a result, the three kilometre long pedestrian deck crosses the Tay in one constant slow arc and evokes Corb’s “Project Obus”. Anything less would be gestural.  It works on a variety of scales: the largest of megastructures; the public apparatus of a city; the structural gird; down to the domestic scale of rooms, and their fittings.

It seems ideal territory for a student thesis.

This course of action, choosing a hypothetical brief then allowing it to run to its conclusion, opposes “The Challenge of the Ordinary”, a brief which academics elsewhere have set students.  That proposition was apparently brought about by a juror’s remark a propos the 3D Reid Student Prize - "We saw a crematorium, a monastery/ brewery, a "cidery‟ in a tower, a bench, a theatre and an exploration of the caverns of Naples.  We did not see a house, an office, a warehouse, a hospital or a supermarket.  Where were the schemes pushing everyday architecture down exciting new paths?”

This remark, as rational as it seems, betrays a lack of insight.  This is not the intellectually sophisticated line which James Gowan took when he noted drily that, the more complex the brief, the more banal the solution; whereas the more banal the brief, the more sophisticated the solution.  Rather than a challenge to think in a more sophisticated way, it sounds like a mere call for novelty.  After all, what is “excitement”?  Wouldn't resolution, sophistication, or articulation be more fitting? 

Paradoxically, students in their final year should pursue unlikely ideas and unusual typologies – the so-called “unbuildable” schemes – whereas they should only tackle “straightforward” things like houses, offices and shops after 15 or 20 years of experience.  The subtleties of the latter are learned by doing, whereas opera houses, monasteries and wineries will almost always be one-offs.  As a consequence, their design will be informed by the study of precedents, operational research, and brief extension – the very activities in which students are well versed.

Unconvinced?  Each modern opera house is a prototype; yet consider trying to design mass housing from scratch, without practical experience and hence without exposure to the norms applied by the firms who help you to realise it.  Why not try to impose your own personal module on the ceiling, floor and partition grids of offices – or argue in the face of the British Council for Offices’ (BCO’s) logic about net lettable areas (NLA’s).  Perhaps you could subvert social housing by trying something which ignores the prescriptive standards driven by the Housing for Varying Needs (HFVN) guides, and paid for by Housing Association Grants (HAG’s).

Do you already have a grasp of the concepts hiding behind those acronyms?  If the answer is yes, it will undoubtedly spring from direct experience.  A measure of that experience would be hard, although not impossible, to apply in a degree course, because we can’t properly replicate how buildings are born.  The interaction of people and firms is just too complex, and both time- and cost-intensive.  Crucially, much of the design process comes about as a result of actors offstage, and given that student architects are assessed as individuals, pitching them into a bear pit would not serve any real purpose.

Let’s return to The Challenge of the Ordinary.  Since people never set up propositions for no reason at all, this one must spring from a considered attitude towards the world.  For example you might take a narrow, vocational view of architectural training, one aim of which is to produce fodder for the big, commercial offices.  That implies you should only learn to design what they design, build how they build, and have your ambitions delimited by their experience.  Consideration of “everyday architecture” shouldn’t be restricted to certain typologies which the big commercial practices churn out.

An alternative is to consider a broader education which seeks to open peoples’ minds and offers them a fresh perspective on the world.  Provide the intellectual tools and you have set them up for life, so that they can follow their curiosity where it leads them, and the more ambitious you are at this stage, the better.  I’m with Mark Twain on this one – “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambition.  Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

Exploring the caverns under Naples is a perfect example of an opportunity which should be seized with both hands.  Imagine being offered the chance to engage with history of the tufa quarries, find out how southern European urbanism works, and live for a while within another culture, society, language and climate.  This isn’t just an “academic” point – I can speak from experience, having taken part in an ERASMUS exchange to Athens during my 4th year.  In Athens, I learned a few things about architecture, and far more about people.  I owe much to that opportunity.

My conclusion is that the course should build intellectual equipment, and broaden cultural horizons, rather than trying to reflect what happens in practice too closely.  The vocational part of training an architect will come later, from the experience of practice.  Ambitious briefs will help to stretch the mind; unambitious briefs may lead to a bounded imagination.

All that said – at the other end of the school, first year, is Hugh Ebdy’s habitat for an artist, at Kenmore on Loch Tay.  One beautifully-composed sheet of pen-line plans and elevations, and a gouache perspective of the habitat, cutaway to show the warm cocoon of the habitat surrounded by the enveloping blue twilight of the mountains.  Made from SIP panels, the habitat seems like a good place to be during the Scottish winter, a place to return to after a day’s exploration, to write up notes and fill out sketchbooks.

Between these two students, there are some well-resolved ideas and the promise of more to come.  Underlying them, is a lesson about didacticism and how to equip students for practice.

By • Galleries: canon

At architecture school, we learned about the canon.  Only the great, and a few of the good, made it into the canon.  Yet once we win a glimpse inside the decision-making process, we discover that someone has spiked the canon.

We ask ourselves, “Which is best?” 

The short answer is, “I like this building.”

The long answer is, “How do you answer a rhetorical question?”

Notions of “best” are based on our immediate responses: subjective, emotional, preconceived.   Beyond the gut reaction, choices are made on the basis of taste and discretion, both of which can be learned from publications and teaching.  However, the architecture which appears in books and on shortlists for awards represents a mere snapshot, and the decision-making process is rather less objective than it may appear from the outside. 

Not only will many folk disagree with the results of the Best Of, but some question why we need it at all.  Why do we need a canon?

Why do we single out certain buildings?   Should awards be there to reward excellence, or pour encourager les autres?   There are certainly far more competitions around than there used to be: the Scottish Design Awards, Saltire Society diplomas, the RIAS/ Andrew Doolan Prize, the Regeneration of Scotland Award…  Perhaps there is a danger that they become self-regarding, even self-congratulatory: it’s certainly true that there is an agenda at work in each case.  

Awards are the creation of philanthropists and altruists, as well as architects who want to keep their name alive – and journalists in need of copy.

Some buildings will make every list: St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross is the prime Scots example of a serial poll-winner.   By contrast, there is always another architecture, often over-looked and under-represented – you stumble across these buildings, then try to find out more in books and magazines – only to discover that they are invisible.   Who decides whether these latter works should remain outside the canon – and by contrast, who will ensure that the iconoclasts don’t ignore good architecture just because it’s “too obvious?”  

Our critical faculties need to be sophisticated enough to distinguish between unfamiliar points of departure and merely bad buildings.

Likewise, it is worth considering why buildings which are regionally as well as nationally significant should be included: a Scottish list which only features architecture from a small part of Scotland would not only be unrepresentative, it would also destroy the listmaker’s credibility.   In this regard, Neil Gillespie of Edinburgh architects Reiach & Hall made an acute observation a few years ago: deep in some glen, there is probably work of international importance being produced.   In this and the pieces which will follow, I aim to put forward some examples which may counter the idea that much of the architecture in Scotland can’t be good, because it isn’t “canonical”.

That we don’t get to know about it is due to a lack of research on the part of the judging panel, rather than our unwillingness to open up to something new.

Goalposts must be set accordingly, too.   The architecture of capitals is not equivalent to that of provincial cities:  budgets are different, some ideas can’t be scaled down, and certain types of building are missing.   Therefore, how well a building works within its context must be a determining factor – and this is where Scotland can show off its credentials.   We have always had local architectures: the Art Nouveau of Langlands & Lamond in Dundee (which David Walker first highlighted in the 1950’s); the expressive Modernism of Peter Womersley in the Borders; the modern vernacular of Baxter Clark & Paul in the North-east.  

Finding out about them may not be so simple, but the research will reward you with something fresh to think about.

Scottish architecture has operated in a series of cycles – the emergence of a New Vernacular after the war; the Post Modernism which travelled north with Alan Phillips; and Robert Matthew’s creation of a National Movement of the late ‘50’s, are all cases in point, which lead in turn to reactions and reversals.  Awards march to a faster beat.  So it is that any considered list should be representative of the whole era in question, even though the cycle has low points as well as highs, since posterity will re-evaluate the work of unfashionable architects.  

Awards or publications which consider several years’ worth of buildings have an advantage, whereas annual contests suffer from periodic gluts and droughts.  They both serve a less immediate purpose, too: they can chart the progress of our architecture from the fashions of the Fifties and Sixties, to the fashions of the present.  In fact, the selection process becomes fraught once you consider recent architecture.  

Architects who are still in practice have a personal investment in the results: plaudits and publication are important for your reputation, since winning the bays will ultimately lead to both new commissions and peer recognition.  Too much is at stake, and these beauty parades are often just an extension of the practice’s public relations effort.  Too bad if you’re a small practice without a marketing tsar, or (imagine!) a designer who feels a blush of shame when promoting herself.  

Quite often one set of award judges will be loathe to acknowledge a building already recognised in a separate competition, and the panel may even wander past the display boards, whistling that old Bryan Ferry standard, “The In-Crowd”, as the habitués of the shortlist turn up yet again.

So, what drives the decision making process?  It’s worth considering the psychology of how we reach decisions.  Sometimes the reasons are less our own than we’d like to think.  Firstly there’s the “herd of independent minds” – architects have similar backgrounds, and most have passed through the same architecture schools, so we behave similarly and exhibit similar tastes.  As a result, we tend to think alike and often arrive, independently, at the same conclusions.  There’s also the heuristic of social proof, which says that folk copy each other, because each believes that the others may know something he doesn’t. 

On the other hand, there’s the so-called salience heuristic, which suggests that we suffer from cognitive biases such as wishful thinking, which is often buttressed by the “Lake Woebegon” effect – we believe that we’re smarter than all the other idiots out there.  Other factors at work may include our self-serving memory, which remembers success, but forgets failures, and tells everyone else accordingly.  The suggestible among us may also suffer from the “Halo” effect: our belief that all good qualities must be connected, magically, by some common factor. 

Architectural education also breeds a cult of individuality, which runs from the genius, portrayed in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, to the bloody-minded individualism which many of us exhibit at some point in our career.  Finally, we all suffer to some extent from a love of novelty, and that sometimes means that we value the new over the good.  Are you still convinced in the worth of the canon?

In the end, reaching decisions through open debate is likely to improve the rigour of a short leet, and that’s exactly how we should consider any “Best Of”.  After all, only when your arguments are robust enough to present, debate and defend in public, can you really justify them, and that’s one thing the canon lacks, writ large as it is on tablets of stone.

By • Galleries: canon