Friday, October 19, 2012

A brief paen to Peter Salter


I've recently moved flat and therefore have an enormous pile of books sitting in the middle of my living room. Whilst sorting them out into vaguely respectable piles I came across the book pictured above, an extremely dog-eared copy of McDonald and Salter, Buildings and Projects, published by the AA school in the very early 1990's.

I bought my copy in the second year of architecture school and it followed me around through various, vaguely squalid residences where it acquired its present mangy look. It's fair to say that I loved this book with its seductively heavyweight paper and the strange yellow bull on the cover that reminded me vaguely of Andy Warhol's design for the Velvet Underground's first album.

During my degree, Peter Salter was my architectural hero. At first it was Aldo Rossi, but Rossi's stripped down austerity was hard to recreate at college, especially if you didn't know what you were doing. Deficiences, either of the technical or artistic kind, tended to show up when the forms were that simple and pared back.

Salter's drawings by contrast were fabulously complicated, full of idiosyncratic shapes and inexplicable protuberances. I had very little idea what was going on in them even though I spent a great deal of my studying them. Boundaries of inside and outside were obscure, circulation routes opaque and programme more or less indefinable. What they did have was a giddy excess of detail and a strange ability to evoke dilapidated machinery, vegetative forms and ambiguous body parts. They involved spindly and fragmented frameworks which held bulbous, vaguely obscene looking objects, all detailed with an obsessive technical fluidity.

Salter's drawings alternated between complex technical plans and watercolour perspectives populated by tall naked women and short fat, naked men. I shamelessly copied both styles of presentation for a while, adding my own strange protuberances and naked people for good measure. At the time Salter was a tutor at the AA and I would study the enigmatic lumps of lead and rusty models set in the Po Delta or the Cambridgeshire fens that populated his unit's pages in the school's annual Projects Review.


Despite its popularity with students then, Salter's work was unplaceable in many ways. It was utterly uncommercial looking but also totally believable in that every component required to build it was drawn in detail. Its dirty realism removed it from the kitsch zoomorphism of someone like Calatrava or the cool shape-ism of Peter Wilson. It was too crafty to be Archigram, too down-to-earth to be Zaha and altogether too nuts for most English architecture.

Recently I got to see a number of original Peter Salter drawings and I was amazed all over again at the remarkable dexterity and obsessiveness of their draughtsmanship. There were mistakes of course - tiny misalignments where one arc met another, or slight blobs of ink at the end of a line - but these are important too, like the crackles of an old LP. Mostly though there was the half-forgotten pleasure of following the lines as they looped and zig-zagged across the paper, changed thickness and weight or dissolved into dots and dashes.

For architectural tutors of a certain age, the hand drawing represents both a lost art and a much-missed rite of passage. For those of us reared on battling with sheets of tracing paper and blobby rotring pens, the CAD drawing is suspiciously easy. Mistakes disappear, erased into the ether, rather than becoming part of the drawing's story. Scratched-out lines and occasional rips where the razor blade had finally gone through the paper were testaments to the sheer effort of hand-drawing. Opening up a new document isn't comparable to the mild terror of starting a new drawing. Marking an initial line on some vast expanse of milky-white trace is never quite the same thing as zapping a new Vectorworks 'page' into life.




















Salter is currently designing a housing project (for Baylight Properties) in West London. Reassuringly, he remains committed to the hand-drawing, which presumably now someone has to translate into construction documents. The same naked people and bulbous forms appear in the drawings for this scheme, seemingly blissfully unconnected to pragmatic concerns of Lifetime Homes requirements or the number of recycling bins.

The houses are currently on site too, so they will be the first buildings by Salter in this country. His only other previously completed schemes are in Japan where he built a wood-carving museum, a strange pavilion in the mountains that is covered in snow in the winter and (with former partner Chris Mcdonald) a peculiar, earthy and rotting pavilion in Osaka. Somehow the exotic locations and programmes of these buildings renders them less real, less alarming even, than a group of flats  in Notting Hill.

The strange thing is that, after all those years obsessively looking over Salters's drawings I have genuinely no idea what this building will look like. Looking at the plans (reproduced above) gives little clue. Salter's drawings were always both explicitly literal and almost completely opaque. Everything is rendered with utter deadpan realism apart from what it might look like.

All of which points to a paradox in Salter's position. His rise to architectural fame came at the height of what used to be known as paper architecture, designs made by people who were primarily theoreticians. Their drawings were never meant to be built, although - as Liebeskind, Zaha and Peter Wilson have shown - they ended up being. Salter - who always wanted to build and whose drawings contained little in the way of visual rhetoric - was the one who stayed in the academy. I'm excited to see that they finally let him out. 

10 comments:

Matt Jones said...

Great post, I didn't know anything about Salter, and love your comparison on CAD to hand-draughting. You manage to lament a passing craft without sounding sour and old-timey, ha!

I'd be interested for your comment on how, if at all, Salter relates to Lebbeus Woods or even Eric Owen Moss. Perhaps its just a superficial resemblance, but in the case of Woods especially, with his drawing work, viewing Salter's drawings and buildings in an image search just after I finished reading this post made me wonder if they were aesthetically/ philosophically kindred contemporaries.

Anonymous said...

salter is a dangerous lunatic. he should be in an asylum not an academy. what a waste of time and talent.

ie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ie said...

What I wonder is how Miralles' drawings remained pretty much the same after his office switched to CAD (and whether there's any honesty in that, or to put it in other words what are the exact theoretical underpinnings of such ideosyncratic drawing styles.)

Why is Salter a dangerous lunatic, anonymous? I'm curious. I don't know anything about him, but the few images I've found in the Internet seem to indicate the type who conceives projects as a machine of pieces which imply other pieces until the project becomes a very complex mass of seemingly random details...

murphy said...

Nice one Charles. I remember Salter used to do workshops at the Mac about 10 years ago, and people found him a great tutor but terribly boring. There was an exhibition of his drawings and I was shocked by how torn, covered in coffee stains and even footprints they were.

I'm glad someone brought up Miralles too; I always had Salter and Miralles linked in my head, partly because they both visited the Mac a lot, partly because of the confident dependence hand drawings, but also because of the bitty construction; complexity through alterations of small elements.

I might now add that late Hexen House by the Smithsons to go along with them...

Murphy said...

Sorry, that last comment was me, obviously.

Murphy said...

D'oh! Salter WORKED for the Smithsons, which would explain some things...

Charles Holland said...

The lineage is definitely via The Smithsons (P Smithson contributes a very peculiar introductory essay in the book) and the heavily-Peter Cook influenced AA of the 1970's - all those insect-oid buildings with their pods and ramps and spindly frames linking them altogether.

That style migrated over to the Bartlett and was still rife while I was there. People designed vast buildings of which the biggest single space inside was about the size of a toilet cublcle. By that point I had defected to the 'other side' and out away my Rotrings.

The Hexen House interests me a lot though, partly because it is so peculiar in wholly different ways. By that point the Smithsons really had gone off into the wilderness. Possibly in a good way although it's hard to tell.

D said...

Thanks for this post, really enjoyed it. Interesting that Salter seems to still have a huge influence over the Bartlett. Your comment on the difficulty of creating Rossi's stripped down austerity at college is interesting there...

Will be fascinated to see how the notting hill project turns out, and hearing him lecture on the project a couple of times it doesn't seem like he slipped easily into the realities of building in the uk.

Really love his work though and thanks for pointing out that Hexenhouse by the Smithsons too Douglas.

D

Jack Clemoes said...

Four Houses in London, a ‘back-lot’ development, an example of packed urban
dwellings in which privacy, quietness and defensible space are of strategic importance.

http://orca.cf.ac.uk/49330/1/Salter%20four%20houses%20in%20London%20REF.pdf