Sunday, December 7, 2008

Taste Not Space

(Image via)
This is the second part of the post I started last week (on architecture and literature) before I got sidetracked by robots. Read on.....
As a house, Barton Cottage, though small, was comfortable and compact; but as a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles.
This passage from Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility doesn't so much describe a real place as assemble an easily understood set of visual cliches. As a sentence it suggests architectures' importance as a system of signification in English literature. The role of Barton Cottage in the narrative of Sense and Sensibility is to communicate the down to earth honesty of the Dashwood sisters who come to live there and their relative financial penury. The cottage is continually contrasted with a range of other, larger houses throughout the story used to communicate the social and economic aspirations of their various owners.

The role of architecture in this instance is primarily symbolic, acting as a visual metaphor for the characters personalities. The signs and symbols of domestic architecture serve as a form of shorthand for the people who live in it. Its experience is never divorced from a system of class/social or economic value. The description of the architecture is therefore fundamentally visual rather than physical. By which I mean that the architecture is described as a series of visual signifiers rather than having any haptic or spatial qualities. Architecture acts as a kind of additional character - think of Mansfield Park or even more pertinently Brideshead Revisited - rather than as a place.

The proliferation of period dramas on UK television continues to develop these themes. In most of these dramas the architecture is both the luscious backdrop that draws us in and a crucial part of the story. The narrative plays itself out within the architecture, the endless pantomime of social and class distinction mirrored in the similar gradations of the architecture from peasant hovel to sublime neo-classical villa. The camera gazes adoringly at these interiors playing off the ornate splendor against the stilted drama within.

However, whilst the architecture is foregrounded as an intrinsic part of the narrative it is the signs and symbols of architecture rather than its physical experience that is most important. In so far as physical characteristics are described it is in a coded sense, communicating symbolic value. Although the houses are now being filmed as opposed to described they still perform the same narrative role. And that narrative is to still to do with class and social status. Taste and not space is what's important.

I would argue that UK domestic architecture is the product of this obsession to the extent that the spatial and sculptural qualities of architecture are always marginalised by a predominantly visual experience codified through literature. In this sense the physical divorce is two-fold. First in that we inhabit the buildings not physically but imaginatively through textual description but also that the textual description is itself obsessed not with the spatial properties of architecture but with a visual and codified 'reading' of it.

I'm aware that this may sound like a somewhat reactionary stance that privileges a notion that physical experience is somehow more 'real' than other types of experience. Or that it is possible to have a physical experience that is divorced and distinct from culture. But literature's use of architecture to tell stories (and to employ it as a 'silent' character) influences the way we make domestic architecture. The volume housing of the last forty years has been fundamentally historicist in style. In a reduced and miniaturised form it attempts to tell similar stories to the scenarios outlined above. The brochure descriptions of new housing employ a sign based approach to architecture both literally and metaphorically. Houses are christened, given historic names of symbolic importance, like characters in a slightly cheesy historic novel. They are in a way a little like the imagined endings or imaginary (in that they are contemporary) sequels to Jane Austen's novels that appear now and again. Or Barbara Taylor Braford. They contain the same vestiges of historic detail, long divorced from their original context and distorted almost beyond recognition in scale and material.

We still use houses to tell stories. Whether it is the porches, carriage lamps and disembodied timber frames of new build executive homes or the neo-industrial vernacular of loft conversions. This naming and quotation extends to the settings in which new houses sit where other landscape based signifiers such as duck ponds and watermills are employed as context.

The open plan arrangement of lofts may be sold on their spectacular spatial qualities but it is the authenticity of the signifiers of a previous industrial past that is the main draw. Fetishised objects such as brick signage, factory doors and ropes and pulleys serve the same role as the plastic porticos and bay windows of self-consciously period houses. These two models: the country cottage (or the shrunken stately home) and the industrial loft account for pretty much most recent housing in the UK.

The disembodied elements of period detail borrowed by new build houses are often perverse and bizarre. Their weirdness is easy to miss due to the overfamiliarity. The frequent spatial paucity of the houses these elements are applied to though is emblematic of an obsession with the signs and symbols of architecture.* Housing is primarily viewed as a symbol of social value rather than a functioning object: a sign for living in rather than a machine. In this sense the kind of houses illustrated below might be seen as the bastardised offspring of Austen and a literary culture obsessed with social aspiration communicated through architecture.

* I should probably state the obvious here which is that much of my own work has been in trying to do something interesting with a lot of the same material.


rob said...

"I'm aware that this may sound like a somewhat reactionary stance that privileges a notion that physical experience is somehow more 'real' than other types of experience. Or that it is possible to have a physical experience that is divorced and distinct from culture."

1. Reactionary, though the opposite of progressive, does not mean 'wrong'. Perhaps you back easily into what sounds like a reactionary stance because there is a sense in which "physical experience is somehow more 'real' than other types of experience"?

There might be a problem with senses of the word 'real' here. One use, call it 'Real' might be something like "the substance of the universe, or the collection of matter and energy in flow and flux which is". Another would be lowercase 'real', meaning something more like "actual".

Using this, the literary experience of a place would be 'real' but not as 'Real' as a physical experience.

And of course, since we have read Kant and Nietzsche and many others, we would not argue that it is possible to experience Reality outside of the cultural realities that we have entangled ourselves in (unless we wanted to admit religious experience, which is another problem entirely).

At this point, I think you (the thinker, the abstracted entity who is the other half of the 'we' above and possibly but not necessarily you the blogger) would be in a (theoretical) position from which you could do what you seem to want to do: argue that something is lost when reality obscures Reality (too much, because Reality is always obscured to some degree; the next questions are what degree do we think is acceptable and when do we start washing).

[This does mean taking a step back from a truly coherent (as practiced by Nietzsche and all his hangers-on: Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, etc.) critique of reason, knowledge, and truth, though. So if you're not comfortable with taking that step back, perhaps you won't be satisfied by this.]

2. And this is where I would agree with you wholeheartedly (though I live in America, not the UK, and the literary references are not that same -- Jane Austen not holding the American imagination as hostage as she does the British, perhaps): that understanding the house is (more) frequently a "sign for living in rather than a machine" explains much about contemporary residential architecture. For instance, it goes along way towards explaining why the quality of the arrangement of the 'period details' matters little to the average homebuyer, as the particular location of a sign is far less important than its presence.

3. I'd also agree (well, assuming you agree) that there is something quite perverse and bizarre about privileging the symbolic reality to the exclusion of the physical Reality of the home. We might call this the abdication of architecture. (Which would bother me even more if I were an architect and not a landscape architect).

Charles Holland said...

Rob, thank you for your extremely erudite comments.

I didn't express myself terribly well though. I don't actually think it reactionary to talk of physical experience as distinct from other kinds of experience whilst still being 'cultural'.
But, while architects generally privilege space over taste they don't tend to have a very useful vocabulary to discuss what space actually is.

I'm increasingly interested in how space might be conceptualised though without it being merely some kind of gloop that we walk through, or a rather hazy notion of atmosphere. Perhaps it's a cultural gloop.

There has to be a way to break it down and discuss it meaninfully without either dismissing it (and thus a vast area of what architecture actually is) or sentimentalising it as an alternative to mediated cultural experience. I don't think this vocabulary really exists in architecture though despite the routine importance attached to space and the equally routine dismissal of sign based architecture (which i was trying to avoid in the post - and failed I think, hence the semantic confusion at the end).

Maybe I should try and write about space....