The publication of pictures of Stephen Taylor's cow shed in Building Design this week prompted a classic chorus of "You must be having us on" and "Isn't it appalling" from the philistine wing of British architecture.
On the surface it's not hard to see why it might wind up those of a delicate disposition. 'Fake' arches, a vestigial colonnade and some deliberately crude detailing, all things guaranteed to confuse the dedicated English empiricist. Not only are references to classicism - or any other form of historical architecture outside the compulsory canon of Corb, Mies and Aalto - deemed unacceptable, but here they are applied to a humble cow shed. A decorated cow-shed no less. So we are in the land of ambiguity here, where one thing might masquerade as another or allude to something that it isn't.
For a certain kind of British architect, ambiguity and ambivalence are deeply suspect. A simple-minded literalness pervades their architecture, a desire for the clear articulation of elements at the expense of richness or depth of meaning. A column is a column, a wall is a wall, a roof is a roof, and each should be clearly differentiated from the other. This obsession with clarity of articulation goes some way to explaining the current obsession with the 'shadow gap', that subtly insidious detail expressing difference between the wall, floor and ceiling.
The shadow gap clarifies the wall as a plane, distinct and visually bounded. With a shadow gap there can be no merging of elements and no mannerist ambiguity between parts. Its visual neatness coupled with a sense of everything being in its rightful place, clearly appeals to a puritanical Anglo-Saxon mindset.
It's revealing then, that some of the comments regarding Taylor's shed should focus on its detailing. 'Good detailing' in the sense implied here is all about visual proprietary and aesthetic neatness. It would be beyond the pale therefore to detail anything to look deliberately crude, or messy or rough. Faced with an unfamiliar or even faintly curious object, a desire for familiar aesthetic categories takes hold.
There is something else here too, something that reminds me of a comment made by a friend recently. Very little new architecture is in anyway difficult to look at. Difficulty - in the sense of something being challenging or not immediately understandable - is a rare commodity in contemporary architecture. So much of its production is simply about nice detailing, neatness, good taste. But buildings can also validly express conflict, or unresolved, contradictory forces and imperatives.
By conflict I emphatically don't mean outlandish or supposedly abrasive form making, the faux-radicalism of deconstructionism or parametricism. Instead I mean something not entirely settled, something that risks being unresolved according to conventional compositional rules. Or simply, not neatly tied up according to a limited repertoire of accepted modernist elements.
Very little new architecture strays from the tenets of good taste, modernism-lite. That's why the howls of derision that greet anything that does are so telling. So, hats off to Stephen Taylor for designing something that isn't easy to digest, that requires some thought and attention and that asks some interesting visual questions of us. It's only a humble cow shed but, as we know, humble cow sheds can take on a certain level of symbolic significance at this time of year.