Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Cow Shed Blues

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.


Ben said...

From my (outsider) reading it seems as if the commentary was responding as much to the historial overreach of the author as the architecture in question. Sentences such as "The functional imperative behind all this is not weighty" make me cringe as well, and I happen to like the building.

Please expand on further posts on the interplay between the functional and representational aspects of detailing - I don't think there is much critical thought into what people consider a "good" detail, and I can attest as an architect of faux mid-century Southern California houses (as well as restoring some real ones) that the "culture" of detailing is far richer than DETAIL magazine and your "philistine wing" would have us believe.

Charles Holland said...

Hi Ben, thanks for comment....

......yes, the comments were as critical of the writing as the architecture, although I think the objection of both had a philistine aspect. Anything that strays from a very straight, orthodox line whether building or theory of building tends to get slapped down by the self-appointed taste police.

However, you're right in that this issue could do with more unpacking. Roughness, crudeness and a deliberate sense of the unfinished or unresolved are very hard to achieve in architecture, for obvious reasons. Architects tend to get sued of there are mistakes in this area, so any crudeness in detailing is likely to be rhetorical rather than actual. There are some traditions of it though; Lawrentz, early Gehry, the Smithsons at points, Koolhaas.

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Daniel Hewitt said...

A perfectly judged reply to the BD review and associated comments. Thanks for the prompt to look carefully at Sigurd Lewerentz. I'm struck by these lines in Adam Caruso's article http://www.carusostjohn.com/text/sigurd-leverentz-and-a-material-basis-for-form/#

"The strangeness of the enveloping brick fabric, the brutality with which openings are made in that fabric, do not have a fetishising or iconographic intent, but rather effect an equivalence between the different parts that every inhabitable structure must have. The relative muteness of the church’s exterior and the darkness of the interior reinforce the ‘all over’ and intensely spatial character of the building’s physical condition.

By questioning the role of the most basic elements of construction, Lewerentz removes the possibility of our forming easy or conventionalised associations within the church. Instead we are confronted with brooding walls and spaces whose darkness make us strain to even understand their extent. When the rich variety of spatial conditions begin to emerge from this darkness they appeal directly to our emotions, bypassing an understanding of the building within our personal inventory of experience."

(Note to readers: Google image search has plenty of instructive (if amateur) photographs of St Peter's Church at Klippan.)

Play angry Birds said...

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Hugo Hardy said...

Hi Charles,

Very well said.
Given that this building is much more ambiguous than puritanical functionalism perhaps I could pose one question, "How does this approach differ from Victorian Eclecticism",which perhaps expressed the same idea of loss of a culturally specific identifiable meaning. Simply is this shed merely pointing out the poverty of
no common language amongst Architects today and to identify our inability as a profession to engage meaning within our work.

This is my question and perhaps my criticism as the line between witty one liner and serious dialogue is dependent on the author having a "position" of his own , not just a good eye as it were.

Charles Holland said...

Hi Hugo,

I think that most modern architecture is more ambiguous than 'puritanical functionalism' will allow. I guess my point is that the particularly British strain of modernism rejected this. They bought a particularly narrow definition of modernism which when that became exposed as inadequate left them unable to understand anything else! Complexity and Contradiction is a good way back in I think.