Watching the quiet ones: An exhibition that emphasize the research process rather than the built work epitomize an architecture that menage to whisper instead of imposing loudly in the contraddictions of the contemporary cities
Architecture made a strong start as a global business, and in the last 30 years London will seem to have been the key location for many ambitious practices; a historian will easily be able to trace a direct line from Bedford Square in 1975 to the provincial China, or the Gulf, of today. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the architectural debate in London in the same period − at least when the architects have done the talking − is like an overcrowded party at which the fashionable guests all shout louder and louder to be sure of being heard. Some pointlessly repeat whatever it was they had said (rather more thoughtfully) 20 years before; some say silly things for the sake of not repeating themselves; and others again the same things in different ways, in an effort to sound interesting. Of course, this is partly to reassure the partygoers themselves that the smart kids haven’t already moved on to a better joint; but quite a number of the noisier theoretical statements do actually achieve some sort of built form around the world.
Our historian may yet ask what exactly it was about all the talk that convinced the new global clientele that the talkers were the right people to build projects on such a large scale, and so many of them. One dignified response to this theoretical din has been a retreat into the reflective cultivation of one’s own garden − into a whispered enquiry into how to intervene carefully in the urban landscape. Even this has its dangers − ‘whispering’ quickly becomes a (scarcely articulate) polemic position in itself, and even a term of snarled abuse by the party set. But it is important to make the bleak observation that if in the last 30 years your interest as an architect happened to have been in understanding the texture of the city, and in tactfully filling its gaps, then it was astonishingly hard to find anybody, least of all in London, who asked you to build anything, even if that is what the local fabric needed most. No client ever really does want a background building; and it is worth adding that the particular analytic skills required to build a good one are much the most difficult to learn. Whispering − call it that − only sounds easy.
The exhibition Translations at the Swiss Architecture Museum, which closed on 26 May, tracked years of quiet thought and the relatively small body of built work by Florian Beigel and Philip Christou, practising as the Architecture Research Unit (ARU) based at London Metropolitan University. That the exhibition should happen at all can be read as a quizzical commentary − on the part of a less frenetic architectural culture than our own − of the way we order things in London. One discovered with discomfort that in Switzerland at least there is a sophisticated critical audience for Slow Architecture; in fact, ARU is a practice whose work has by far its largest group of dedicated followers outside the UK. Its most substantial built projects, and most ambitious landscape propositions, have all been in South Korea, where the two principals come close to being architectural royalty. This year, Beigel was awarded the Großer Kunstpreis by the Berlin Academy of Arts (it has also gone to Scharoun, Mies, Häring, Frei Otto, Foster, Piano and SANAA, among others).
The elegant premise of the exhibition was to take six ARU projects from 1998 onwards, and key each of them to reflective texts written over the years by the architects themselves. As the bridge between text and project, six works of art were imported into the space; these were presented both as a reference for each project and as an analytic tool with which the projects might be examined. Each choice here − of Ernst Josephson, Agnes Martin, Klee, and others − was sosuggestive, and the mode of presentation so diffidently respectful, that you were not drawn into any portentous comparison with the architecture. Instead, you were asked to examine each exhibit − a Klee or a presentation sheet, preliminary sketch, model, construction drawing, or photograph of a finished building − as though each was an equally valuable component of the project, and had an equal amount to tell us about what it consists of.
In contrast to conventional monographic exercises on architecture − books as much as exhibitions − the effort here was to document simply the process of research; the built work understood as something that emerges with no special privilege, while the unbuilt retains all its gorgeous latent promise.This is as far as we can get from the kind of finished buildings which spring, somehow fully fledged, from casually stylised sketches by architects within the star system − to which they have only a passing formal resemblance, and no possible relationship of scale or material.
In contrast, in the exhibition you gathered a sense of particular architectural and contextual problems addressed very directly, and of ARU evolving in sophistication and experience each step of the way. As a case in point their masterplan and buildings for Paju Book City, conceived over many years, had the same rising narrative sweep as did Lewerentz’s in the Eastern Cemetery at Malmö, on which he worked throughout his career.
This was most obvious in the face of the astonishing, even wilful, range of scales at which ARU has worked − the smallest project here was for an aedicular urban monument, the largest for a city of 750,000 people; of course they didn’t look anything like each other, but only because they shared the same scrupulous analysis of what the architects found, by way of form and history, when they arrived at their site.In all this, it was clear that Beigel and Christou do nothing to make architecture an easy profession to follow, or good architecture ever something that can be shaken out of one’s sleeve. It is symptomatic, as the Swiss wryly tell us, that they have chosen to work in London all of this time − the city that hasthe most to learn (and least patience in learning) from their process of thoughtful dissection.
In part, this has happened by their preference focombining the work of design and of teaching; what was the best contextual laboratory, for themselves and for generations of students, may well have been the hardest place to practise the lessons learned there. Perhaps there is a more abstract premise here as well, of the pursuit of beautiful architectural form as an exercise that is somehow apostolic, and of an ethical rigour in defining the problems raised in producing it. And it raised a question, too, about whether staying away from the noisy party down the road might not turn out to have been the more dignified professional position for our time and place − and the one which in the long run makes for the most powerful cultural legacy?
It is worth remembering how rarely the mainstream of architectural thinking has been found just where the current seems to be running fastest.
Where: Swiss Architecture Museum, Basel
When: Closed on 26 May