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2009 March: 'What makes architecture interesting' by Peter Cook

What makes architecture interesting

There are two routes into discussing architecture: the first involves the statement of values and the construction of theories (usually linked together). The second involves the dissection of buildings and projects in order to glean the sequences of cause and effect (which may well involve a myriad of values and responses).
The former approach is presumed to be intellectually tougher and is certainly the more preferred and fashionable amongst those who wish to influence our minds. Indeed, it can be pursued by those who are very little interested in buildings per se but who would prefer to erect a structure of polemics than to get inside the architecture. The latter approach (easily dismissed as trainspotting) is difficult for those who did not have an architectural training - who make up an increasingly large portion of the family of critics. For them, the discussion of architecture in relation to politics, gender, art movements, rhetoric or what makes something iconic is safer territory than getting inside the building or its author.

So a third strategy - of sniffing around the circumstances of architecture, the gossip, the gatherings, the manifestations, the events or the oddities of the architects themselves - has been my way of making the entry via the second route (which I value) more palatable. All this has been at the back of my mind during the three or four years of this column’s existence. With its demise (this is the final one), I shall look for other vehicles to continue the discussion of architecture-as-architecture, since I cannot bear to leave the subject. I can’t stand to leave even more territory open to the dreaded theorists!

So typically, I am off in an hour to give a lunchtime lecture at the Architectural Association. Having scrutinized the season’s list of speakers I am deliberately introducing some other names. Some quaint aspects of their biography, their architectural moves, their assemblages of parts, that would alone intrigue us. I call the lecture ‘How to be an Interesting Architect’. Several of them have cropped-up in this column before, though by no means all. Some are up for redefinition. Terunobu Fujimori is no longer someone I want to meet but someone who I have now visited in the Tokyo equivalent of Barnet, North London, or outer Queens, New York.

His own house with the twigs growing out of it is grafted onto a remnant of an earlier, slightly modernist, property in a suburb that until recently contained smallholdings, so my first sight of him was while he was feeding some geese. We talked about Charles Voysey. We took Japanese tea on the floor, but the dining table on legs was clearly visible in the next room. The clue is in the normal, human reality and common sense, rather than the paradoxical. Wit and a very considerable knowledge about the bits and the stuff, re-examined as he travels.

I will talk about Amancio (Pancho) Guedes, who leapt out of a copy of the Architectural Review in the early 1960s with some of the most sculpturally free architecture that I have seen until now. Once I got to know this loveable character and his track record of 400 built buildings out in Africa, I was intrigued by the fact that he often dressed stylishly and urbanely and could produce very exact work if he wanted. He can weave a tale. He can interweave an anecdote. Little surprise, then, that he was approved of by the far more ascetic Smithsons, since perhaps he followed the ethos of their ‘Today we collect ads’ a jot more spiritedly than they could. Returning to Portugal and still building a bit. He is regarded as a sage by many who have no idea of those mysterious 400 items.

In a way, the easiest task is to dig out some obvious eccentrics from the proscriptive world of modern architecture. What will these kids, brought up on Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and parametric guidelines, do with Morris Lapidus, Carlo Mollino or Herb Greene? Characters who are easily dismissable as ‘fruity’ - yet not so easily dismissable if you tot up the number of inventions, ideas or devices per m². It’s a test of prejudice of mannerism against that of objective learning.

What do they do about Will Alsop, who always seems to be getting into tricky business situations, making him a colourful character? They should forget all this and look at the sheer number of ideas that he has. Or scan the extraordinary range of Miguel Fisac’s work, occupying most of his 92 years: from prefabricated housing, to precast concrete systems that led to the least boring compositions: a pagoda, some very theatrical churches or villas with ‘quilted’ concrete surfaces.

A run-in with Catholic organisation Opus Dei silenced him for some years, but then he came back as vigorous as ever. Yet the magazines and picture books play cat-and-mouse with such guys, branding them of the wrong generation, of a half-forgotten period in fashion, of a curious mix of mannerisms and thus difficult to categorise by those who don’t realise that architecture contains a rich set of layers, requiring the same type of mental pursuit on the part of the observer as a piece of archaeology or the subtle interweaving of the best cooking.

Perhaps the second approach is just too much. A simple piece of rhetoric, the joining of a manneristic gang, the outright dismissal of anything that is uncomfortably piling up a myriad of causes and effects …

This is the easier way. The digestible way.

The boring way.

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