Thursday, June 17, 2010

Questions of Taste

"In order to really appreciate architecture you might even have to commit a murder", wrote Bernard Tschumi in his book Questions of Space. Leafing through a slightly dog eared copy of The Language of Post Modern Architecture (as you do) I came across an odd piece of evidence of exactly that. In the grainy shot above New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger mimes the act of murdering someone in one of the stair lobbies of Alison and Peter Smithson's Robin Hood Gardens.

Presumably the point Goldberger was trying to make was that Robin Hood Gardens was a muggers paradise. His pretend violence was aimed as much at the architecture as it was some phantom victim and in that sense acts as an eerie premonition of the buildings likely demolition. The photograph is included in a chapter called The Death of Modern Architecture and fits into a familiar enough story about the perceived failure of streets in the sky, lack of defensible space and other sins of brutalism. But, as the recent ongoing refurbishment of the Smithsons inspired Park Hill in Sheffield prove, the problems of this kind of modernism are more about taste than they are about space. By which I mean, for people who want to live there and who can now afford to, Park Hill is a viable form of housing*.

The current obsession with systems of spatial control and surveillance in new housing developments (documented recently by Anna Minton) are supposed to eradicate the chances of Goldberger style anti-social behaviour occurring. Criteria like Secured by Design (where police officers vet architect's designs) co-opt architecture as a (supposedly) benign agent of law enforcement. In doing so they suggest that it's possible to design out crime. Instead of locating criminality within a socio-economic context measures like SBD blame it on recessed entrance ways and an overabundance of spaces for 'lurking'. Which also neatly aligns safety and security with conventional architectural styles - front doors to the street, low rise developments etc.

Isn't architecture then a pretty innocent victim in all this, forced to play the blame of villain for societies wider inequalities? A colonnade, for instance, is both a charming place for a pavement cafe or a lurkers paradise, depending on your location. The colonnades of Portland Place were, infamously, designed to eradicate the possibility of undesirables lurking in them. Which suggests that there is a certain causal relationship between architectural form and social behaviour, even if it might be overstated.

Architects, with their privileging of space (form) over taste (culture), unwittingly play themselves into a reactionary trap here. If places or buildings are perceived to have 'failed' it is because of their failings as architecture rather than the failings of the culture that inhabits them. Just as politicians deny the causal relationship between poverty and crime (because it is clearly convenient to do so), demonising any number of scapegoats (TV, drugs etc.) social inequalities become blamed on architecture.

Tschumi went on to say: "Murder in the street differs from murder in the cathedral". That would depend on whether you're the victim or not.

* This doesn't mean that it isn't viable otherwise, merely that it has been starved of the kind of upkeep that all buildings require.


Matt Tempest said...

GREAT photo spot.

One of the things I love most about living in Berlin is the total openess ("permeability" in archi-jargon) of all spaces, the complete lack of gated communities, gates, CCTV, fences, digicodes, barriers, security guards, railings.

I actually spend most evening just wandering in and out of courtyards, office carparks, hinterhofs, derelict spaces, housing estates, gardens and the like.

After 18 months, not only have I never been stopped, nobody had batted an eyelid. Indeed, there's been no eyelid to bat.

Matt Tempest said...


Don't know whether its the archive age of that photo, the moustache, or what - but why is that Smithsonian landing space more liable to mugging and murder than say the frontdoor step of the presumably West London contemporaenous murder scene of Lord Lucan's nanny?

richard said...

The architecture/safety/defensible space/taste nexus was laid out neatly for me by Bonnie MacDougall at Cornell. Her argument is essentially that Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger) tells us that when folks don't like something they'll hunt around in their cultural vocabulary for justifications on which to base action against it. Her take is that Oscar Newman et al are essentially doing this, and that health and safety are among the most powerful weapons us secular moderns have to deploy in this way. Right after she said this to me, the Case Western University shootings happened, and lo, the NY Times lead with:

...a maddening "cat-and-mouse" chase through one of the nation's most idiosyncratic architectural complexes... designed by Frank Gehry. Its avant-garde design led to a prolonged hide-and-seek between SWAT team members and the gunman in a building that defies conventional shape.
(Ex-Employee Held in Campus Attack. May 11, 2003)

richard said... occurred to me recently that comments in the press regarding vuvuzelas were very like those often made by detractors of modern architecture. link

Jack said...

the fact that Park Hill can be made to work for the right slice of society is nothing new. Think of the transformation of Goldfinger's Trellick tower at least twenty years ago. The one question I have about the current rehabilitation of modernist housing in the blogosphere (see Owen Hatherley's blogs too) is whether they would be so successful without a surrounding urbanism that is not strictly modernist. A Plattenbau in Friedrichshain is nice because it is only a few minutes on a bike to places where something is happening on the street. Same with the Trellick Tower. Have only been once to Sheffield, so can't remember if Park Hill fits into this pattern.

Markasaurus said...

It becomes clear upon reading Secured by Design documents that certain types of design attract "lurkers"- recesses in walls (as you mention) obviously being one of the worst. Perhaps the solution is not to omit them from design, but rather to strategically locate spaces irresistible to criminals as decoys. Perhaps a folly that consists entirely of colonnades could be located on the site plan of a school as far as possible from the playground you are trying to protect?

Charles Holland said...

Matt, I know exactly what you mean....he does have a touch of Lord Lucan about him. The shabby mac being a quintessential murderers garment...

Richard, thanks for the link re Gehry, that's fabulous and has inspired a quick post.

Jack, well I'm no Brutalist apologist myself (although becoming more so) and I was quite critical of the architectural fraternities shrill campaign about Robin Hood gardens a couple of years ago. I might take a slightly difference stance today although I still don't rate the building as architecture. But, to get to your point, I guess I'm just saying that the scapegoating of modernist housing with social problems is obviously simplistic (at best). I'm not sure that any particular kind of urban morphology leads 'naturally' to good behaviour or polite civility.
Mark's suggestion might test that theory out though!

the new vuvuzela man said...

Police officers entered right away. But to gather the manpower necessary to comb the building and protect so many people inside, the city called in SWAT teams from the suburb of Euclid.

Ahahahahaha. SWAT teams from the suburb of Euclid.

Jack: modernism, per se, doesn't necessarily look like new towns. Politically it IS "modernism vs non-modernism" but if we're talking about architecture then that's not the matter, really.