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The Big Rethink Part 8: Lessons from Peter Zumthor and other living masters


These articles set a big challenge, to reconcile modernism with urbanism. Consequently , there is a polarity between the themes of the articles. 'Place and Aliveness' strongly identifies the core of the problem with modernism, its anti-urban character. The only examples of coherent urbanism available for discussion here are those that are pre-modern, a period when the building was regarded as a building block of urban form, to be composed of human scaled elements, and drawing from a rich tradition of composition and detail. The pre-modern traditional and vernacular design languages are integrated with a complementary and equal rich language of urbanism, including spatial hierarchies comprised of elements such as streets, squares, parks and points of focus. In these urban structures, not all buildings need to be masterpieces. Simple buildings appropriately framing and defining urban space provide focus for other buildings (which in the pre-modern periods were typically civic/cultural and religious structures, or marketplaces) that become urban fulcrums and are permitted to be seen 'in the round' rather than simply as thoughtfully composed facades forming the urban walls. Memorable urban environments are those that are in some way coherent (but not necessarily orderly). In most cases they are comprised of buildings that are, individually, quite unremarkable. It is just that these buildings have been designed with the decency to understand that the urban form is more important than individual expression. In so doing they express the owners' and designers' intent to be part of that community and build on its strength, not to stand outside it or oppose it. Good urban form is therefore a metaphor for human cooperation. Not every person in a society is a genius, but we can work together to create great things. Modernism encourages architects to believe that each of their building projects can be a statement of individuality, even genius. However most architectural output is by definition mediocre. Modernist mediocrity tends to be boorish, the loud man at the party. Traditionalist mediocrity can at least provide the building blocks to build memorable urban environments. Where the polarity kicks in, is in those articles such as 'Transcend and Include: Lessons from Living Masters' considering the legacy of modernism. I suggest an acid test: would an urban environment comprised of Herman Hertzberger buildings be preferable to say a traditional London urban environment, Notting Hill for example? On one hand, a master of modernism working with well meaning diligence in trying to make this modernism receptive to human habitation. On the other hand, a collection of mediocre pre-modern buildings built with consensus about composition and the place of architecture in creating urban form, then adjusted and adapted over time to create a very 'alive' environment. For all Hertzberger's diligence, there is in the cited early examples the modernist adherence to the 'honest expression of materials' (which in so many of his early buildings is a rather oppressive expression of masonry), and a certain meanness of scale and detail which is typical of even the best modernist mass housing. This means that these buildings lack the dignity of even the ordinary traditional buildings of the Notting Hill streetscapes. Imagine replacing those Notting Hill houses with Hertzberger's prescription. Setting aside the visual degradation, would such an environment be as resilient to the layers of use, amendment and adaptation that is apparent there today? You don't actually need to go as far as Notting Hill to see this contrast, just a few doors away from the Haarlemmer Houttuinen housing, Haarlemmerdijk is a vibrant traditional Amsterdam streetscape that, in terms of urban contribution, makes Hertzberger's housing look very ordinary indeed, but not in a good way. Sure, Hertzberger's interior arrangements may in some senses be more liveable than the shop houses of Haarlemmerdijk. But do these things need to be mutually exclusive? Your praise of the living modern masters is admittedly heavily qualified. But I think you can be bolder, and deliver on the promise of your first essay, to just let go of the modernist legacy. The core of this issue is urban form. The city is the ultimate AQAL diagram. The buildings are its constituent elements. If the design philosophy that underpins those elements is toxic to urban form, it should be subject to a Big Rethink, even if it means putting a lot of the design professions' sacred cows out to pasture. Reassessing selected modernist object buildings and trawling through the oeuvre for the exceptions that prove the rule, won't address the problem. A revitalization of the pro-urban design traditions that were terminated by modernism during the interwar period will yield results. For some, this may mean faithful adherence to earlier design traditions (which may be no bad thing: it will at least yield a well mannered ordinariness). However there surely remains enough creativity in the design professions to relearn and revitalize the elements of urban form making, pick up the thread dropped in the interwar period, and carry it on for a few more millennia. Or perhaps creativity is the wrong word, encouraging the idea of individual expression that got us into this mess in the first place. Perhaps we should be seeking pathways for architects to be more fully engaged with the communities concerns and objectives, to build a receptive urban environment without so many 'design statements' but with more generosity of spirit. Architecture isn't that complicated. You can build a perfectly decent, healthy and very energy efficient house, office, hospital or whatever to a thoughtful, even innovative program and with attention to detail in a very simple envelope. The problem is one of urban aggregation and arrangement, and thinking about how the arrangement of buildings can reflect, support and give some joy to relationships, from the personal to the civic, throughout their lifecycles. It is this attention to urban aggregation that will deliver 'aliveness', and a sense of consensus within environments built of elements that of themselves may be visually quite routine. Unfortunately, the architectural and design culture and media is founded on the exceptional, the one off statement that provides striking photographs and publishes well. There are few forums for urban form building, where a dialogue might exist about how good ordinary architecture can be created to enhance and enrich urban form. This might provide the prism for really analysing objectively the value of contemporary architecture. I often admire a striking architectural work, invariably in some way contrasting with its context, but within a few minutes, after the initial wow factor has worn off, I visualize the building replaced with a form that respects and enters into a constructive dialogue with the urban environment, and can't help but feel a deep disappointment. This is the irreconcilable dilemma of modernism, and ultimately the dilemma at the heart of this series of articles.

Posted date

19 September, 2012

Posted time

11:46 pm