Saturday, December 3, 2011

Top of the Pops

This might seem a little self-important or, err, teacherly, but I find myself referring again and again to a few key essays on architecture, ones that I am repeatedly drawn back to or that seem to frame abiding interests more articulately than any others. So I thought I would list them here and try to explain a bit about their continued relevance. They aren't in any particular order and no doubt  reflect the period during which I studied (1989-1996) although I discovered at least a couple of them since. At least three of them therefore fit into what you might call a 'critical theory' context and one with a decidedly post-structuralist bent. I'm not sure if this should worry me overly, but I guess you tend to alight on these things at fairly formative stages. I also read more generally off-topic now than I did then so this is an unashamedly architectural list. Nevertheless....

Roland Barthes, The Blue Guide (taken from Mythologies)

"The Blue Guide hardly knows the existence of scenery except under the guise of the picturesque. The picturesque is found any time the ground is uneven". Thus begins Barthes' deconstruction of the ubiquitous European travel guides. In it he unravels the deep protestant longing for exertion (both physical and ethical) that lies behind our appreciation of hilly and mountainous terrain, a "morality of effort and solitude" as he puts it. I have a trivial but autobiographical reason for particularly loving this essay when I could have picked anything from Barthes' Mythologies for this post. As an Essex boy born to parents with a deep dislike of that much denigrated and mostly flat county (don't ask me why they live there still) I have an abiding aversion to the constant eulogies to the supposed hilly superiority of counties like Yorkshire that accompanied family trips around the country. Reading Barthes' merciless exposure of the moralistic cant behind such prejudice was revelatory for a whole host of other reasons too. Most importantly it brought a deep seriousness to everyday things, a method of prizing apart systems of popular meaning that remains hugely valuable for architectural criticism today. 

Robin Evans, Figures, Doors and Passages ( taken from Translations from Drawing to Building)

Not many posts here go by without a reference to Bob Evans who I was luck enough to have as a tutor back in my second year of degree. Evans was a fabulously original architectural historian (and occasional architect) who wrote extensively on prison design, Mies van der Rohe, the relationship between projection and architecture and the social customs embedded within everyday architecture. This essay is perhaps the most perfect encapsulation of the latter approach, an elegantly constructed detective story investigating relationships between privacy and domestic layouts. Evans describes the development of the internal corridor as a mechanism of separation, one that replaced  older, medieval dwelling layouts with their interconnecting rooms and consequent casual sociability. Evans goes on to relate this development to a growing fear of carnality and puritan ideals of physical separation, one that he brings forward into modernism and designs such as the House For Frictionless Living. 

Miriam Gusevich, The Architecture of Criticism (taken from Drawing, Building Text)

Not a hugely well-known essay (or writer as far as I am aware) but this is a superb essay that subtly but devastatingly picks apart the canon of architecture.  To be more precise, it picks apart the way that the canon of architecture is constructed and the way that it acts in parallel to the physical act of construction. Questions of architecture's autonomy, its distinction from building and the various hierarchies of criticism (critique, commentary etc.) are examined with a lucidity and clear-sightedness that never over-simplifies or generalises the argument.

Erwin Panofsky, The Ideological Antecedents of the Rolls Royce Radiator (taken from Three Essays on Style)

From Panofky's Three Essays on Style, this fabulously titled and faintly bizarre essay relates the design of the Rolls Royce Phantom IV to the tradition of Picturesque gardens. Once you get the idea that the Palladian radiator set into the rolling curves of the car body is directly analogous to the designs of Capability Browne or Humphrey Repton, it's impossible to look at an old Roller again and not see it as, essentially, Stourhead on wheels. The essay has other subtleties and avenues that I am doing a slight disservice to here but its methodology opens up a whole new avenue of architectural criticism that traces the genealogy of architectural elements into other areas of design and popular culture. 

Beatriz Colomina, The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism (taken from Sexuality and Space)

A companion in a way to the Robin Evans piece, this essay looks at the psychological complexities of the domestic interior with particular regard to Adolf Loos. Apart from anything else, Colomina turned me on to the perverse brilliance of Loos' interiors and their profound reflections on bourgeoisie life. Through both drawings and text, Colomina demonstrates the subtle ways that Loos plays out the tensions of family life as well as the twin urges towards modernity and tradition. Elaborate circulation systems, interlocking volumes, gendered spaces, secret views and reflective, mirrored surfaces are all employed by Loos in his domestic choreography, like a Brechtian drama about family life. Colomina's essay has effectively re-written the party line on Loos to the extent that virtually no description of his work goes by without some reference to it. Which brings us back to Gusevich in a way, and, cheating a bit, another essay by Colomina called Media Constructions. In it, Colomina equates architecture with criticism, or, at least, a product of discourse as much as physical construction. Criticism, she suggests, is the discursive realm in which buildings become architecture. Architects often denigrate criticism, seeing it as parasitic or secondary to the act of designing and building. Colomina shows that they are entirely co-dependent. One doesnt' exist without the other. 


John Hill said...

This list reminds me to read Evans' essay. I've read most of the others in that great book, but Figures, Doors and Passages was the next one I was going to tackle. Looks like I'll delve into that sooner rather than later. Thanks.

Jack Burnett-Stuart said...

Glad to see that Figures, Doors and Passages makes your list; it's certainly one of my favourites. A German colleague has pointed out to me, however, that Alexander Klein never actually designed the House for Frictionless Living. His project was called "Flurlose Wohnungsgrundrisse" (trans: apartment plans without halls), and as the original title suggests, it doesn't actually support Evans' argument half as neatly as it seems from the text, with its memorable shunting yard metaphor. Evans' mistake came from using Catherine Bauer's Modern Housing at his source. It's a pity that the mistake was never corrected; as a result of the essay's long-lasting influence, Klein is now indelibly associated, at least in the English-speaking architectural world, with "frictionless living", a fate he does not deserve.

Charles Holland said...

Thanks both, especially Jake for the interesting illumination on Evans' misreading of Klein. I guess the point still stands in that the moderns interest in an efficient functionalism betrayed a certain disdain for messyness both physical and cultural.

Julius Jääskeläinen said...

Thank you for the list! Have to get some of these for Christmas reading.

Ragemanchoo said...

Who owned that Phantom IV limo? There were only 18 examples of that model.