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‘At last! Architecture is on the wing again’

Archive: Peter Cook, as one who has fostered its growth, untangles some of the roots of the New Spirit

First published in August 1986

The New Spirit has a very mixed ancestry. Peter Cook, as one who not only knew its grandparents, but who has for years nurtured it and watched it grow, unravels some of the complex network of cross-fertilisation that has produced such a vigorous new strain.

Two winters ago a capacity crowd in a large room on the Dürerstrasse, Frankfurt, heard the words ‘Architektur muss brennen’ shrieked by Wolfgang Prix as the film of Himmelblau’s 1.5 ton ‘Blazing Wing’ filled the room and the Rolling Stones thumped away on the soundtrack. The normally phlegmatic Frankfurters and Darmstadters erupted with great clapping and cheering - just some 15 per cent of the audience silently hung their hands (inky, cracked, Rationalist hands I wouldn’t wonder) and looked grim.

Two days later a capacity crowd in a large room in Bedford Square, London, heard the words ‘Architecture must burn’ shrieked by Wolfgang Prix as the blazing wing, the music and that whole mastery of enthusiasm represented by Himmelblau’s output of the last 10 years caused the normally cynical AA kids to clap and cheer - just some 10 per cent of the audience looked rather puzzled (and couldn’t wait to creep back to those London polytechnics where the easier games of Post-Modernism offered safety and orthodoxy).

In a single week I had seen young architects really enjoying architecture and getting caught up in the spirit of Himmelblau’s battle-cries … ‘The tougher the times - the tougher the architecture’ … ‘Architecture is NOW’ … ‘The city throbs like a heart - the city flies like breath’. I could not but recall the excitement and conscious audacity of our earlier Archigram rallies and the recognition that they in turn made towards the inherited audacities and battle-cries of the Smithsons in the ’50s, ClAM in the ’30s, Bruno Taut or the Constructivists in the ’20s. But my instinctive uplift was confirmed in both cities by conversations with students who seriously admired the relentless achievement and growing sureness that accompanied the increasing naughtiness of the architecture.

A bridge between the so different worlds of the late ’60s and the mid ’80s had been made and even consolidated in their work. The passing of time had added to their vocabulary of forms and tricks and had bred its own three-dimensional excitement of wings and diagonals - but a spirit ran through from then to now - an attack upon space - a thrust forward; again and again a thrust into and about space. We were reminded that architecture is essentially to do with STUFF - not, thank goodness, semantics, semiotics, supplications or syllogisms.

Some months earlier, another, dual, event had announced, by its own simultaneity as much as anything, a rustle of wings in the architectural nest: Zaha Hadid had won the ‘Peak’ competition and Bernard Tschumi had won ‘la Villette’. Both with schemes of great verve and thrust, great confidence and a reaching out into space. The subsequent history of architecture (whether or not they got built) could never be the same. An immediate spin-off was a feeling of elation amongst their friends and some students, who knew that these schemes were no flashes in the pan, but a recognition point in years of increasingly dynamic work. Hints of Hadid’s talent could have already been seen in her contribution to OMA’s Amsterdam City Hall, artistic flair in her Dublin Prime Minister’s House and sheer elation in her Belgravia apartment proposal.

In a different way, Tschumi had long fascinated us, and by the time of his ‘Manhattan Transcripts’ he had offered a real challenge to our ideas about architectural dynamic: ‘The accident of murder … they had to get out of the Park - quick … THE PARK,’ ‘Possessed by a woman who was beautiful to look at but lethal to love … THE STREET,’ ‘The elevator ride had turned into a chilling contest with violent death … THE TOWER,’ ‘With its loose yards and its ruthless frames … where everything you want belongs to somebody else, and the only way to get it is illegal, immoral or deadly … THE BLOCK.’ Seeing his imagery together with the human analogies, you realised that the whole morphology of nice urban architecture was being twisted, threatened: violated. The reality of the Parc de la ViIlette has come merely as a freeze-frame in his equally dynamic architecture.

The subsequent months have seen the results of this ignition: and an acceleration of the thrusting, spatial architecture that is now surely pushing away the torpor of the yuppie-pastel style that has pervaded much of the United States and Northern Europe in recent years with its general sense of coyness and flatness as it rests among the Berlin IBA or the fashionable backdrops for cocktail drinking or child-playgrounding (and just about everything else in-between) in every city from Oslo to Melbourne - and it was bound to crack open eventually. Some of us had begun to despair - for the well-developed mechanism of brochures and Biennales (masquerading as serious books and manifestations) had flooded most of the arteries.

Of course in cussed quarters there had been grumbles: ‘We’ve seen enough of the Americans’ said the overfed AA students - and at that place the unthinkable happened in the summer of ‘84: a Michael Graves audience of 300 melted to 100 after the first hour, through sheer boredom.

An alternative to watching the cracks appear at the traffic junctions of New York, London or Berlin would be to peer at the remote hills, unknown plains and hidden valleys where original work has always continued. At Graz, for instance, where the smell of the Balkans results in an obstinate refusal to be intimidated by the sophistication and arrogance of Vienna and a bevy of strange architects has continued to breed. In the ’60s the rivalry between Raimund Abraham, Friedrich St Florian, Günther Domenig and Eilfried Huth gave impetus to their megastructures, inflatables, flying machines and respective diversions into beautiful atmospheric monuments, holograms, or animal-buildings.

The second generation of Heidulf Gerngross, Helmut Richter, Michael Szyszkowitz, Karla Kowalski and Volker Giencke seems equally talented … with a third generation of spatialists chasing them. There is a certain raw edge to the Graz work, a refusal to be forced into good manners which runs past the obvious sharing of free-form (and I am trying to avoid the term ‘Expressionism’).

In this region it has much to do with being surrounded by mountains: the consciousness of hewing rocks, trapping streams, and the honing of forest timbers. Looking at their buildings one can almost imagine Szyszkowitz and Kowalski as a Titan couple wrestling with the landscape and heaving it and twisting it into shelter - hardly restrained by that series of sophistries known elsewhere as ‘architectural manners’. I am reminded of a parallel instinct in America which caused the more forgotten parts of the midwest to be a natural context for ‘organic’, ‘craft’, ‘eccentric’ and finally ‘alternative’ architecture.

In a longer analysis it would be fascinating to compare the psychological freedom that this might have offered to Bruce Goff, Buckminster Fuller, Paolo Soleri: alongside Günther Domenig. All their work is ultimately sophisticated, thoughtful and intricate yet none of them are city boys.

Certainly, in his lectures, Domenig makes plenty of references to the natural landscape of his own Styrian valley and its surrounding mountains and, in particular, uses this to introduce his three or four year thinking that will soon lead to the building of his own Great House. On closer inspection however, one notices how much sharper and more aggressive are the more recent drawings of this project: how much more demanding it will be of its materials and details: how much more vicious and ‘international’ is its thrust than in his earlier work.

Somehow, he is speaking back to Zaha Hadid and Co-op Himmelblau … the younger ‘townies’ … ‘take a peep down the valley, kids … that’s where it’ll happen’ … and he is even willing to flood part of the building in order to grapple further with the elements; part of the structure then re-emerging from within the flood; shades of Captain Nemo at the organ in the ‘Nautilus’ - often, incidentally, quoted by Archigram since it seemed to embody at once the idea of the architect as mad scientist, as musician and romantic, as possessor of both the mysterious cathedral and the ultimate world-encompassing vehicle. In this way, Domenig remains one of the most fascinating figures in our story and throws light upon the vexed question of exposure and suppression in late twentieth-century architecture.

In the manner of things hierachical and European, it seemed acceptable to the Viennese that Domenig could beaver away expressionistically back in the hills and valleys, and even be permitted to build in a poorer suburb of the city, so long as the world at large didn’t know. Visitors were not told about the building for a long time. In the end, however, architectural mafias and politicians (who are notoriously unnoticing of things visual) are doomed to fail. So it is that, eventually, Berlin’s Umlauftank by Ludwig Leo and Fraenkelufer Housing by Hinrich and Inken Baller have seeped through the net with Günther Domenig’s ‘Z’ bank as pieces of noticeable, intriguing and discussable architecture.

Moreover, his enjoyment of the international scene has caused Domenig to pitch his latest University buildings for Graz up to the levels of refinement that are more characteristic of American college buildings, without their formal sterility. He has become the hero and spokesman for the ‘Grazer Schule’ despite the inevitable Austrian predilection for bitching between friends. Interestingly, it is with the two Viennese, Prix and Swiczinsky, that he can talk most freely. They in turn acknowledge the fellow feeling with the Grazers, perhaps because they themselves had enjoyed years and years of studied indifference from an edgy Viennese scene.

Not for the first time do I have to make direct comparisons between Vienna and London. The differences first: that London is infinitely more international and suffers from the feeling that ‘everybody comes through at some time’ which can easily lead to complacency - and that London does have more work for architects (‘It’s just that they’re the wrong architects,’ etc. etc…) But the similarities are more intriguing: the shared cynicism, the shared amusement at two or three different drinkers in the bar being intellectual enemies but social friends (impossible in New York), the feeling on the part of the most outrageous innovators that whatever they do is merely part of the inevitable metamorphosis of the city. It breeds at best that foreknowledge that architecture is a very wide and resilient old territory and that the rise and fall of power, status, monarchies, empires, traditions - can be ascribed to the discussion of architecture itself.

Certainly in the 1960s and early ’70s we felt that only in Vienna and Tokyo did they really share our optimism that architecture could and must extend its territory and vocabulary - devouring from other territories if necessary - and thrusting forward (metaphorically, technologically and literally) into space. Perhaps Raimund Abraham would be embarrassed that I mention his early designs for robots and space suits. Himmelblau are not embarrassed about theirs: more able to trace the step by step or rather the blow by blow sequence by which the unlikely spaceship is now revealed as the building itself.

When they exhibited in London in 1973 they were regarded as the back runners of the Viennese scene - a long way after the pioneering work of Hans Hollein and Walter Pichler and still behind the somehow more respectable image of Haus-Rucker Co. But they stayed with it, and stayed in Vienna. Rucker - who must have a place in this history - moved both to Düsseldorf and New York. In Düsseldorf they have struggled well against a suspicious and often indifferent German mainstream consciousness as foreign - but (as Austrians) not very foreign; as artistic but not artists; as weird - but in the end perhaps not weird enough; so that their handsome exhibition at the National Galerie in Berlin two years ago seemed to be saying ‘here we are in Mies’ basement … now will you take us seriously.’

The seeming opportunities of Düsseldorf (money, buildings, energy) have also been its trap. In London or Vienna they wouldn’t have built much either, but they would have had tougher rivalries, stranger conversations and, perhaps, that curious brotherhood that eventually emerges between creative rivals who are aware that the architectural world at large (maybe 200,000 or 300,000 people) is hardly interested in any of them.

John Hejduk, head of New York’s Cooper Union, often talks about the essential isolation of really new architecture and about power; in this he is not referring to the mandate enjoyed by Philip Johnson but the issue of trajectory. As he points out, a certain naivety is necessary - perhaps a boyish enthusiasm which certainly links many of the people I am discussing. I can still recall it in the atmosphere of the Archigram Group. Somehow we were conscious that forward-thrust architecture could only come about by pitching it against the general stream … ‘This’ll upset them’ was often said as a phrase of encouragement to one’s companion.

The ‘them’ was known and understood to be the polite, acquiescent, wanting-to-be-seen-to-be-all-right architects of London town. We knew that a studied indifference would be the inevitable reception to our work … but there were unknown allies scattered here and there. The Archigram publication set off the chain: …’ We are a small group in Prague, we call ourselves the ’ “Continualists”,’ (Dalibor Vesely) … ‘Perhaps you might be interested in the catalogue of my exhibition at the Nächst St. Stephan (Hans Hollein) … ‘I am from Florence but teaching alongside your friend Mike Webb’ (Adolfo Natalini); later of course they became real faces, friends, sometime allies; but the first contact was very important seen against the studied indifference which could of course demoralise.

At this moment I feel the spirit of alliance once more towards and between the young English who design perilously hung or scrawled shapes that resemble butchers’ offal more than they do the Parthenon, and Austrians whose buildings resemble punk hair-dos, and Japanese who live inside beached oildrums with tasteful triangles sticking out, and Americans who place gawky legs up against quilted hangars.

As might be expected, the most relaxed coterie within this total scenery has existed for some time now in Los Angeles. That city still has a useful tradition for eccentrics and eccentricities, with Hollywood’s dreamworld as some sort of general cultural legitimiser. It has meant that your own theories, however loopy, could find their slot and that somewhere up there in the hills there would be a couple of allies. Archigram first landed there in 1968, backed by a bunch of AA students who later became Chrysalis and later still became the core of Rogers’ Pompidou team.

In the same department of UCLA there arrived a small group of tutors and students from Graz. The most eccentric of them, Heidulf Gerngross, made the buying of a mattress and the continual sleeping on it in the middle of the school into a simultaneous piece of both conceptual art and opportunism. The humour, though much more perseverance too, remains in his design for the Königseder house. Somewhere nearby was lurking the embryo Thom Mayne, Eric Moss, Coy Howard and the already known Craig Hodgetts. And busy with his purist output - before the great exciting flip - was Frank Gehry.

For some years there was an inevitable suspicion of the English and Austrian combination of seriousness about language (both formal and verbal) and about drawing. Moss himself has perhaps parodied this period best in a beachside remodel that with its curved corners and pipework excrescencies and, essential, lemon-yellow walls, is a source of embarrassment to both him and his Archigram friends.

Anyhow, the exuberant and formally inventive series of buildings that are now recognised as the ‘Los Angeles Thing’ could only evolve directly from the beach, the frame and plywoods, the observation of John Lautner’s extraordinary houses, the glamour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Lloyd when on form, and perhaps the return home to real America after a year at the Harvard Graduate School for these young architects.

Michael Rotondi of Morphosis declares - quite aggressively - that it was essential to make an American architecture. From London, though, one recognises another aspect of the positiveness of Los Angeles - for here too the companions at the bar make very different buildings from each other and yet feel themselves allied in the face of the disdain from New York. And whilst that city laid down the lines of succession and the new formal rules, the Angelinos felt more and more like running free with bits of wood, sheets of almost anything flat that could be bent at will, and tacky materials like bitumen tiles and staples. Frank Gehry took inspiration directly from his artist friends and did with whole rooms and edifices what they might have done with gallery installations and driftwood - and better. Moreover, he was prepared to go and live in them.

This more than anything else gave impetus to young architects, who were suspicious of four-square surfaces and impermeable substances, to go out and collage-together buildings in space. The politics of the situation have continued to be a loose collage as well; Gehry, though he is the first to become a world figure, is acknowledged to be supportive of Moss, Morphosis and some of the others to the extent of passing them on work and recommending them to otherwise incredulous clients. The result is a jocular rivalry and a similar down-the-line impetus to odd Sci-Arc graduates whose funny contraptions crop up all over the back blocks of Santa Monica and west Los Angeles.

Not entirely coincidentally, the two best magazines on architecture seemed to come out of California in the early ’80s - Arts and Architecture and Archetype. The former a revival of the pioneering magazine that had sponsored the famous ‘Case Study’ houses in which the ’50s men had experimented with the light-tech architecture of Craig Ellwood and Raphael Soriano (to mention only two). In its later series giving a positive boost to the idea that gloss and colour and art and palms and sheer unadulterated form were, of course, linked; but not in any school-marmy way as they might have been in a self-conscious European or Eastcoast tome.

The latter magazine, with an inevitable Austrian, Mark Mack, somewhere at the helm, was noteworthy if for no other reason than that it introduced most of us to Stanley Saitowitz, a South African architect who in his late twenties had already built a most marvellous and original house. Even without the arty two-page photographs in Archetype, it commended its sheer relaxedness to anyone with spirit - at a level that made even the LA work seem self-conscious. The proposition was simply that of draping, or gently swinging, long curves of corrugated metal over thin frames and then making occasional house-enclosures below. Taken in fact from the barn-building tradition, but set with great sensibility. Saitowitz has made other houses and designs and drawings that are always fresh and original … as in the case of his suntracking house (AR February 1986), but this first was shattering.

In what seems to have been no time at all, the scenery has become inhabited by other draped and swung buildings, not in the fields and suburbs of course, but on the drawing-boards of students, particularly at the AA. Demetri Porphyrios has called them ‘the architecture of fragmentation, meaninglessness and despair’, but then his spirit of architecture is as constipated as his prose. ‘Meaning’, this dreaded prop of the verbally preoccupied, is always trotted out to validate the spatially turgid at the expense of the formally exuberant.

There isn’t an enormous amount of connotative meaning to be found in the best of the AA work, with the odd exception, though Across Architecture, contains strong declarations. What there is, as an alternative, is a lot of running; the running of the edge of the building into other edges; the collage becoming more of a layering process where sheets or wisps or strands or meshes or flimsy fiIters play amongst each other. The clue was given by Gehry with his chain link and his twisted drapes. To the ferrets it can also be found in the work of some current Australians, like Rex Addison, or Glenn Murcutt, or sometimes Richard Leplastrier, for example, who also rediscovered corrugated metal and decided to drape it and curve it.

To other ferrets it can be associated with Hugo Häring in Garkau mood and, of course, to Hans Scharoun in the Philharmonie. The wayward wheel turns full circle, of course, with any mention of the Expressionist stream of European architecture, for in the German-speaking countries one is always aware of the pent-up emotion surrounding Rationalist-Expressionist associations. How did Mies feel about being published in Taut’s ‘Frühlicht’ we wonder?

The AA, however, likes to feel itself purely self-generating. At first it has a point: the extraordinary inbreeding that elsewhere would have resulted in the architectural equivalent of cross-eyed dopiness has in fact resulted in a chain of influence, support, rivalry and evolution that puts real meaning into the idea of the academy. Perhaps it is because the English architectural world at large has been jealous or suspicious of the AA since about 1890 that from inside the feeling that ‘This’ll upset them’ is implicit. Just look at a sample of the chain: all of the NATØ Group were students of Nigel Coates, but he in turn was a student of Bernard Tschumi.

Neil Porter and Guy Comely were students of Peter Wilson but he was a student of OMA’s Koolhaas and Zenghelis. Incidentally, Zaha Hadid was also an OMA student (and, the ferrets will note, a student of Leon Krier at an earlier stage). Kay Ngee Tan and Dimitri Vannas were students of Christine Hawley (and myself), but she had studied with Archigram’s Ron Herron who still teaches there. The full chart of cross-fertilisation overlaid on direct-line influence would soon render this piece as boring (or fascinating) as a banquet diagram but it is the middle generation that forms the key to the real burst of energy and outrageously good drawing - almost across the board.

It is the fulsomeness of the thing and the coinciding swirls of inspiration that make the strange but exciting architecture match the strange sociology and, in such cases as Peter Salter and Chris Macdonald, result In a hybrid architecture that combines lyricism with mechanisms and yet is unlike all other.

The Australian buildings might droop similarly, but they never display quite the same lightness of touch. The alumni of New York’s Cooper Union may display a similar sensitivity - or even more sensitivity - but nothing like the same range. At times it draws fire through its very self-possessedness; the NATØ work in particular seems always teetering between ugliness and pure masturbation, but just at the point when you might lose sympathy it throws up an exciting reminder of the daft-craft tradition of English work that almost died with the end of the Festival of Britain. Of course, it is now the moment to recall and revivify the spirit of ’50s architecture.

So many links can be found and therefore clues to the formal direction of the work under discussion that we know, by extrapolation, that its next stages must be fruitful. In all, it is as if several seams of sustenance have been reopened together in the last four years. First, is the Constructivist inspiration: more and more I come to suspect the dominant authority of the Bauhaus - which was certainly rammed down my throat - of being a filter or gentrification by the middle Europeans of the much more exciting work made by the Russians during and after the Revolution.

Airships, agit-trains, theatre sets, paintings, towers, huge creaking abstractions … all this and a host of dynamic buildings too. Perhaps to the teachers of the ’ 40s, ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s this was all too heady, bolshie stuff? So we were taught to admire the Bauhaus. No wonder many were bored and looked for easy fun? The mouthwatering kick that the now-fashionable publication of Russian material gives to my own students is also related to the feeling that OMA and Hadid and they themselves can carry on where it left off. There’s a Post-Constructivism in the air.

In England, the success of the High-Tech architects suggests that stuff is available that can realise those exotic forms: that the High-Tech offices so far choose to use it sparingly and conservatively is merely a come-on to the imaginative.

That the architecture of the 1950s was highly inventive - even when it stained - is just beginning to dawn, and excite. Oscar Niemeyer (who was not to be mentioned in polite architectural circles three years ago) is once again being heralded as a hero and ‘look-no-hands!’ becomes, once again, the cry in contemplating the legs and wings of the new new architecture.

The present messages being sent out are just the first few hops from branch to branch but those with good hearing can discern a fantastic rustling and the healthy sound of twigs breaking.

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