WAF BOOK REVIEWS
Modernity and Durability
Perspectives for the Culture of Design
Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani
The boundaries between history and theory have never been entirely clear in architecture: Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani’s book Modernity and Durability Perspectives for the Culture of Design, elegantly and perceptively shows why this is the case. His central thesis is that design – across urban design, architecture, furniture and product design – is a craft rather than an art. As such it is subject to the discipline of tradition, a cumulative and collective process where innovation is only possible in small increments; the wisdom of ages (and accumulated knowledge and skill) shape any endeavour. These endeavours can contribute to the knowledge embedded in craft discipline, but not overthrow it. Every act of creation is, therefore, part of a historical continuum whose evolution can only be understood through historical investigation, and whose theoretical relevance lies in how it embeds knowledge derived over time.
In Lampugnani’s words, this potentially quite conservative argument becomes alive and challenging. Take, for example, one of his opening comments: ‘unlike in the era of Charles Baudelaire, the modern can no longer be what is fleeting and ephemeral, but primarily – perhaps exclusively – what is durable’. Almost all commentators on the ‘modern’ over the last century, from Benjamin to Berman, have stressed this elusiveness of ‘modernity’, if not modernism which has crystallised into a few outward signifiers. But Lampugnani’s challenge to this received wisdom is more solidly rooted: it is as an act of resistance to the plethora of meaningless images and the waste of resources that the modern world has brought about. The modern, in other words, can be turned into its own remedy.
But only through craft. ‘Let us look’ he writes, ‘at design as a patient, conscientious, accurate and competent work whose result will also be useful, right and fine, and in some very rare cases, a work of art’. In this light, design has to eschew novelty for its own sake and rely on its own traditions to produce something, a building, a piece of furniture or a product. The association with the accumulated skills and experience of a craft tradition gives design ‘solidity’ – a groundedness in both history, and also, through the concept of utility, with contemporary need.
This has several corollaries. One is that it characterises design as a phenomenon more akin to language or even culture itself, than as a succession of great monuments. The second comprises the implications of the relation with use, mentioned above.
Language, especially in the form of oral tradition, has many analogies with Lampugnani’s depiction of design-as-craft. It too represents the collective endeavour of numerous individual contributors, none of whom can control or alter it at will. And as such it can also embed important elements of knowledge which can be recovered for contemporary application. Similarly but more broadly, any form of cultural tradition includes certain persistent elements, whether ‘archetypal’ images or forms, phrases, beliefs or ideas. ‘Types are generalised solutions, solidified over time. They are produced not individually, but collectively over time’.
Solidity is an important concept for Lampugnani, the essence of how the modern can become what is durable rather than ephemeral. ‘Solidity is not simply an object’s resistance to wear and tear, but the adequate and substantiated representation to that resistance, and functionally not just the practical imperatives for which an object was devised and made but also of immaterial, emotive and intellectual needs that may even not have been envisaged in the actual design programme.’
Lampugnani argues the slow evolution of a craft tradition gradually refines its archetypes into ‘the invention and production of correct, appropriate and necessary objects’. These are assertive words to describe the results of design, But Lampugnani’s point is that only with experience accrued through time, rigorous and unsentimental testing and a ‘ruthlessly exact analysis of specific functional, productive, economic, sociological and ideological requirements’, can such contextual conditions be expressed in design. And once they have been fitted to form, and form fitted to them, why try to reinvent them? There are echoes here of Aldo Rossi and the persistence of form over function, where a space designed as a stadium proves a more than serviceable town square (Rome’s Piazza Navona) or the shape of an amphitheatre metamorphosises into a fine urban space (Lucca, or with reservations and far more etiolated, the Guildhall in London).
So how is all this modern? Lampugnani points out that the word’s etymology derives from ‘what is ours, now’. This licensed ‘the last century’s avant-garde’ to ‘break away sharply from the past and project itself, triumphantly, purified and renewed, into the present if not even into the future’. There is a Faustian spectre here, a theme much worked by Marlowe, Goethe, Busoni and Thomas Mann. The latter‘s Doctor Faustus is perhaps the most coruscating depiction of the implosion of European culture in the middle of the 20th century.
‘The culture of modern design has always been married to the utopias of its time’, writes Lampugnani’, adding ‘all such marriages have failed… the great utopias are also falling apart’. This echoes of Mann of Faustus, but almost in parallel, he also wrote Lotte in Weimar, a far tenderer mediation on German culture. And so Lampugnani also offers a chance of redemption. ‘I should like to be able to think that a few of those hastily discarded utopias, albeit modified against the backdrop of recent history, are actually still tenable’. But this redemption depends not on Margarethe’s prayers [Gretchen am Spinrad] or a charismatic leader, ‘Not a borrowed utopia … but a utopia genuinely its own and generated within it’. There is hope but only if we pick it up ourselves.
The book consists of a series of short, linked essays grouped into thematic chapters, ‘Design and its facets’, ‘Good Qualities’, ‘Contemporary Differentiations’ and ‘the Shadow of Modernity’. While reading its sometimes dense text the qualities of the book itself start to become evident. It is beautifully designed and produced, printed on high quality paper with wide margins into the gutter for physical ease of reading. The texts are elegantly written, if in parts quite challenging. Lampugnani credits Lupe Bezzina with the design, Kyung Hun Oh with the preparation of the English text (much of which was published in German or Italian first) and Philip Meuser with the overall production.
It is in other words a craft production itself, which becomes even more explicit with the illustrations which are dispersed throughout the book. Each is a frontispiece from a 17th or 18th century treatise on architecture, which recalls the tradition, originating in the Renaissance, of making books on architecture. Here the medium really does reinforce the message.
Building on Tradition: The new architectural language of Qatar
Produced by John McAslan & Partners for Msheireb Properties
What might simply have been a vanity publishing project for a Qatari property developer has turned out to be far more interesting. It tells the story of the Msheireb development in downtown Doha, where a roll call of international architects, mainly British and American, have designed a contemporary city quarter with many of the attributes of the best Islamic architecture. Concisely written by Ruth Slavid, the amply-illustrated text outlines the seven principles which informed the work of all the architects engaged in the project, an implicit critique of the sort of International Style modernism which invaded the Arab world in the 1970s. It doesn’t have to be like that.
Thames & Hudson
The ongoing interest in, and love of, white houses is explored by monograph specialist Philip Jodidio in a handsomely illustrated book featuring the work of contemporary architects across the world. Each featured house, it is claimed, ‘employs the apparent simplicity of white to reflect light and accent materiality, pressing the frontiers to form (sic) to the point of abstraction’. It is also claimed that the white house ‘celebrates a universal form for all people and lifestyles’. This is clearly drivel, but there are plenty of houses to admire here. But don’t expect photographs showing how the colour white can change and degrade. It’s all perfect.
Brave new worlds
The New Arab Urban: Gulf cities of wealth, ambition and distress
Edited by Harvey Molotch and Davide Ponzini
New York University Press
Gulf cities and their architecture are frequently objects of criticism and sometimes ridicule. This book, a collection of heavily footnoted essays by academics with a wide range of relevant expertise, takes a Venturi-esque attitude to them: like Las Vegas, to study and understand them implies neither ridicule, nor celebration. The cities under review are all part of the ‘Arabian Peninsula’, but are not a comprehensive list, focused more on the most ‘controversial and dynamic’, most notably Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
So very little on Oman (where tall towers are not allowed) or the Msheireb project in downtown Doha, where show-off design is subjugated to a demand for high-quality urbanism; this is not unreasonable, since these conditions are the exception rather than the rule – more’s the pity, one can’t help thinking.
The editors (both also contribute essays) have complementary backgrounds: Molotch a professor of sociology at New York University, Ponzine an associate professor planning at Politecnico di Milano. Their invited contributors have expertise in respect o, architecture, economics, planning, politics, Middle East culture, oil, geography and photography. In respect of the latter, Michele Nastase (who co-wrote a book with Ponzine on ‘starchitecture’ across the region) contributes a well-judged piece on architecture as spectacle, a strand that runs through much of this volume.
In a telling phrase, the editors describe the condition of many gulf cities as being ‘mired in the present’, rather than the past. The point is that the collection of new-ish countries under review do not have the patina of history which has informed innovation: instead, it is the here and now, imported in large doses, which has created the sometimes sensational but more frequently banal world of towers and shopping malls which expats and tourists seem to find so compelling.
In this world, with some exceptions, immigration is not a first-world problem, but a developing world condition in which the indigenous population is a tiny minority. Guest-workers may be badly paid by European or American standards, but the reason they go to Dubai is because conditions in their native countries are so much worse. Western media interest in Gulf conditions is partly because of the presence of Western ‘brands’ in all those shopping malls: the contrast between luxury and poverty is too striking to ignore.
As are the architectural extremes represented by Burj Khalifa and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, often held up as examples of unnecessary extravagance, vanity projects on a gigantic scale. To which one can only respond that experimentation and innovation are surely worth pursuing, not least because we can learn from both success and failure in the near-laboratory conditions from which these projects (including Masdar, the low-carbon city) emerge. In fact we may have to learn, because the new urbanisms emerging from these experiments are taking root beyond the boundaries of the Gulf, informing thinking across the Islamic world and further afield. The editors conclude the book, as they begin it, with a nod to Venturi, and his comment that we have ‘an obligation to the difficult whole’. Paul Finch
Design Champion: The Twentieth Century Royal Fine Art Commission 1924-1999
By Robert Bargery
Royal Fine Art Commission Trust
Paperback available via Amazon
The Royal Fine Art Commission was a peculiarly British institution. Founded by Prince Albert to advise on the installation of artworks in the Palace of Westminster, rebuilt following the fire of 1834, it foundered after his death in 1861. It was revived in 1924 to advise government on architectural matters and operated until the end of the century. In 1987 its chairman, Lord St John of Fawsley, created the charitable trust which survived the demise of the RFAC, and continues to fly the flag for high standards of design in public life. This well illustrated story is a fascinating slice of architectural and political history, written by the Trust’s executive director, Robert Bargery. He worked at the RFAC and briefly for its successor body, the Commission for Architecture & the Built Environment (which only lasted 15 years as a government adviser). This is essential reading for anyone interested in the relationship between architecture and public policy in Britain.
Aesthetics Equals Politics: New discourses across art, architecture and philosophy
Edited by Mark Foster Gage
What exactly are ‘aesthetics’? The challenge of this book of essays, edited by the assistant dean at Yale School of Architecture, is a challenge to cultural theorists, artists and architects in the 20th century who distrust representation except as a veil for underlying power structures, only evident to the very clever. By contrast, this book suggests a new way of thinking about aesthetics as relating to the sensibilities of individuals and communities. They believe this could represent a ‘turn’ in philosophical thinking which would affect multiple disciplines. If accelerationalism, afro-futurism, object-oriented ontology and xeno-feminism are your sort of thing, look no further. As ever, the arguments are essentially made in words, and as usual with academics, plain English it ain’t.
Evolution. The work of Grimshaw Architects: Volume 4, 2000 - 2010
Edited by Rebecca Roke
The latest volume in the Grimshaw oeuvre complete, covering the first decade of the 21st century, coincides with the awarding of the RIBA Gold Medal to founder Sir Nicholas Grimshaw and his retirement as head of the practice. Volume 5 is promised by the end of the year, suggesting a period of intense reflection about the past and future of a significant global office. The 20 buildings featured in volume 4 cover a range of buildings types and geographies; they include the triumphant Eden Centre biodiversity celebration in Cornwall, which should surely have won the Stirling Prize, the Zurich Airport project, and significant railway stations in Amsterdam and Melbourne. Other overseas work 9ncludes an exhibition hall in Frankfurt, a science centre in St Louis, a headquarters complex in Duisberg and a museum in Monterrey, in addition to numerous buildings in the UK. The quality of photography and drawings is exactly what you would expect; the only drawback is the usual inevitable chronological arrangement of material in this sort of work. There was undoubtedly an evolution of ideas as well as commissions.
Tower Bridge. History, Engineering, Design
Thames & Hudson/Tower Bridge
Celebrating the 125th anniversary of the bridge this June, this timely study by the always reliable Kenneth Powell includes previously unpublished original working drawings and construction photography, amidst a wealth of visual material (212 illustrations) which would make this book a suitable present for anyone with an interest in the bridge, professional or lay. The history of the site prior to construction of the bridge, to designs by Sir Horace Jones and Sir John Wolfe Barry, is covered, though it would have been good to have read more about Joseph Bazalgette’s proposals for a bridge, and the attempt by the Metropolitan Board of Works to take control, only to be rebuffed by the eventual client, the City Corporation. This should not detract from the quality of what is offered, including as an appendix useful dimensional information and a reading list. Anyone with an interest in Victorian London will want a copy.
The Buildings of England: Hertfordshire
James Bentley, Nikolaus Pevsner and Bridget Cherry
Yale University Press, London
Pevsner’s original guide was published in 1962 and updated by Bridget Cherry in 1977. However, in addition to revisions and corrections, the latest edition has been expanded to twice the original length, including hundreds of buildings for the first time, across a wide range of types. The author/reviser is Dr James Bentley, who can now be considered a Pevsner veteran having completed revised guides to Essex (2007) and Suffolk (two volumes, 2015). With about 200 illustrations, ‘Hertfordshire’ will be an essential purchase for anyone with a serious interest in the county and its architecture.
Gordon Matta-Clark: Physical Poetics
University of California Press
Hardcover $45, £35
This is a dense and detailed study of a legendary figure on the cusp of art and architecture, who died aged 35 in 1978. Matta-Clark studied architecture at Cornell, but devoted himself to what Frances Richard terms ‘anarchitecture’, a series of largely site-specific interventions that violently but hauntingly chopped and cut pieces out of buildings to create new and unexpected spaces and forms. Matta-Clark spoke of creating ‘confusion from a clear sense of purpose’: Richard untangles many of the strands of this complex figure, going into how he devised, executed and recorded his works. In the process his contribution to the semiotics, poetics and politics of the physical environment emerges, which satisfying shows how he challenged to all-too-easy conventions of architecture.
Architects’ Sketchbooks – The Creative Process
Thames & Hudson
This book promises to be a bargain with over 900 illustrations by 60 architects covering a wide demographic and geographic range – especially as it also claims to provide ‘true insight into architects’ creative processes’. A bargain it certainly is, but the claim to true insight can only be admitted with reservations. Architectural creativity is not limited to drawing: it is also about detail, construction and verbal discussion. To understand how drawings fit into that would be a real achievement. Instead this book reinforces the point that Banham made, that drawing is the way of socializing architects into the profession – and far from the only way of designing buildings. Readers may feel themselves left with the rather narrow impression that architects draw in all sorts of ways, with varying degrees of affinity – and lacking images of the buildings which supposedly emerge from these drawings, almost no way of assessing their creative potential.
New Chinese Architecture
Twenty Women Building the Future
Austin Williams (Foreword by Zhang Xin)
Thames & Hudson
In 1949 China had 120 cities: now it has 684 with another 240 to be added within ten years. This statistic tells a familiar story but Austin Williams offers an important and fascinating insight into it. Selecting 20 ‘newly emerging young female talents – together with a couple of grandes dames’ he shows how the complex history of gender relations intersects with economic growth. Under communism everyone was expected to work almost always in manual work, with little distinction for capitalist gender roles. Amid the repression some talented and determined women found ways to acquire an education and opportunities that arguably a less oppressive regime could not have provided. Williams’ informative texts depict individual experiences within this maelstrom, and illustrate architecture which if not always of the highest quality shows the range and sheer difficulty of building in so complex a society. This book may finger stars of the future, but it also opens a way into thinking about the overwhelming architectural challenge of our time: how to urbanise and raise living standards for billions of people, and how some woman are successfully engaging with it.