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Editorial View: reflecting on change

Lessons from the masters on the long and changeable lives of buildings

‘Architecture’, declared Louis Kahn ‘is the thoughtful making of spaces.’ It’s difficult to improve on that as a mission statement. So while the last issue was all about the endeavours and frustrations of youth, this issue is a reflection on the great masters of architecture − from Palladio and Schinkel to Wright and Hertzberger − and how their ideas and experience are still vitally relevant to our current era. Coinciding with the completion of Kahn’s last project, the Four Freedoms Park in New York, is a major new exhibition on his work at the Netherlands Architecture Institute. ‘After the formalistic gymnastics of recent years, Kahn’s architecture stands as a sentinel of principle’, says William JR Curtis . ‘It possesses many dimensions and cuts across geographical and cultural frontiers. It refuses to fit transient critical agendas.’ Drawing on archetypes from many cultures and eras (the National Assembly in Dhaka, for instance, mines an array of sources, from the Pantheon to Buddhist stupas), Kahn synthesised a genuinely transcendent and authentic architectural language, employing Modernist abstraction to contain complex content.

In the increasingly frenetic whirl of publishing, awards junkets and the dumb rolling newsfeed of projects on the internet, it’s virtually impossible to conceive of the idea that architecture has any kind of meaningful life beyond the moment of building completion. Kahn proves otherwise. Architecture is, in fact, a long, slow process and buildings must endure and make resonant connections with successive generations. These days slowness is often derided − despised, even − but at its most eloquent (as practised by this year’s RIBA Gold Medal winner Peter Zumthor, for example), it speaks of an innate sense of care and craft, locked into the rich continuum of human culture and experience.

Buildings generally outlive their creators and the fact that they can change, often quite profoundly, over time, is rarely reflected in how architecture is taught, debated and presented to the public. Yet how things wear, weather and work (or don’t) has important lessons both for architects and wider society and is a necessary part of any reformulation of architecture as part of the sustainable culture of the future.

This month’s Revisit considers a primary school in Marl by Hans Scharoun. Constructed in the early 1970s, it has a formal complexity and sense of humanity that now seems shamingly at odds with what passes for school buildings in these more economically challenged times. Though it has been through some difficult moments, it is now being restored, making for a fascinating architectural and social trajectory. Yet it also shows how Scharoun’s radical ideas about the potential of architecture to shape social and pedagogical interaction still endure, reworked only recently by Herman Hertzberger in his new school in Rome. As one correspondent to our letters page notes, quoting Álvaro Siza, ‘to know architecture is to know the work of other architects’.

Catherine Slessor, Editor

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