an exhibition by architects Pierre d’Avoine and Andrew Houlton and anthropologist Clare Melhuish
at Ambika P3 Gallery, 35 Marylebone Rd, London NW1
June 25th – August 1st 2010
Wed – Sun 10am – 6pm
Architecture, the impurest medium of all, incorporates all the other arts in a Gesamtkunstwerk and it is typically not even “looked at” with any concentrated attention, but is perceived, as Walter Benjamin noted, in a state of distraction. Architecture is not primarily about seeing, but about dwelling and inhabiting.
(Mitchell, W.J, in Grau 2007: 398)
This is an exhibition about impurity: the impurity of architecture as a medium. Appropriately, it follows on the heels of Jannis Kounellis’ magnificent installation of large-scale, industrial found objects mixed with remnants of everyday life and social activity (overcoats, wine bottles), in the ‘impure’ setting of Ambika P3 itself: a former engineering workshop used for concrete construction, now used for art shows, fashion, and media events. The destiny of P3 reflects the reality of the processes of reproduction of the built environment, as a repetitive cycle of development and redevelopment – demolition, replacement, and re-use of the physical fabric of society in response to its evolving needs, which embodies a thick layering of social history.
Architectural history is often characterised as a narrative of ideological movements expressed in built form, a visual statement of strongly-held aesthetic principles. It conforms to the ocularcentric outlook which has dominated western social discourse, to the point where contemporary culture has been described as one of ‘hyper-visuality’ (Boyer 1996). The centrality of the visual image, enhanced by the proliferation of new visual media through digital technology, is such that it has not only claimed hegemony over the written word, but subverts any notion of objective physical reality in the environment. But the practice of architecture has always been a difficult negotiation between the power and ‘purity’ of the visual image, and the confused and impure realities of architecture’s functionality, occupation, and transformation over time in response to social impulses and aspirations.
In the contemporary context, the very notion of a ‘pure’ architecture, or architectural ideology, has become more and more ephemeral, even while the compulsion to establish a clear and strong visual identity for architectural production in the context of a competitive, global market driven by brand-recognition becomes increasingly difficult to resist. Historically, pattern books were used as a vehicle for circulating clear visual representations of stylistic models in architecture (d’Avoine & Melhuish 2005) which could be copied by others. But they also served to promote the work of individual architects, closely associated with particular patrons whose social and economic status would be thereby enhanced. Today, most architectural practices invest money in promotional visual material which sets out a clear and distinctive visual style for their work, within a spectrum of broadly recognisable idioms – even in a social context understood as being very conservative, where, as the developer Crispin Kelly notes, ‘the least you can do is to make [a new building] look as if it was there before’ (Kelly, C., LAP interview 1).
It is broadly understood that architects work within a planning system which imposes tight constraints on the possibilities for development of the built environment, endorsing solutions that adhere to a ‘neo-vernacular’ approach at the level of everyday development. But at the other end of the scale, the pressures to promote and market cities as destination environments, as a basis for economic growth, have generated the phenomenon of ‘brandscapes’ (Klingmann, A, 2005), landmark buildings, and special planning dispensations (as in the case of the ‘Shard’). This is the architecture of the so-called ‘experience economy’ (Lonsway 2009), which is heavily dependent on the power of the visual image, however superficial and dislocated from underlying social realities it may be, to identify specific physical contexts with the required ‘lifestyle experience’ to attract the appropriate consumer to the site.
The aim of this exhibition is to open up a debate about the realities of architectural practice and production in a projected middle ground between these two ends of the spectrum – a context in which architecture is understood not simply as a visual phenomenon, but as a complex, impure, negotiation between land, architecture, and people; a ‘medium’ understood in Raymond Williams’ definition as a material, social practice, and one that evolves, moreover, during its lifespan to assume new identities. The use of the large white models, built in varying thicknesses of MDF, devoid of surface or interior detail, may then seem a contradiction in terms: neutral, unoccupied, abstract – typical, perhaps, of a certain kind of architectural minimalism. But the intention and effect is quite the opposite. It is the very lack of any obvious surface visualisation or materialisation of the architecture, the lack of any projected, pre-determined occupation of the buildings, that opens up the field of interpretation and imaginary occupation by the viewer. It allows for an open-ended process of self-identification through the physical activity of walking around the models in the expansive space of P3, leaning over them from above, bending down to experience them from eye-level, peering in to experience the different perspectives through the internal volumes from different angles, and visiting the accompanying tables on which are strewn a collage of detailed materials generated by the design process, including transcripts of interviews with clients.
The material contained in the long tables represents the detailed counterpart to the apparent abstraction of the models: it reveals an array of minutiae associated with the development of architectural concepts embedded in a specific social and cultural context. The interview transcripts provide unique access to the multi-vocal narratives which lie behind the production of the architectural artefact, and bely its identification solely with the voice of the architect as ‘auteur’. They point to an architecture which is intended not to be prescriptive, ‘branded’, or ‘signature’ in its qualities, while also fiercely denying the pressure to be innocuous and neo-vernacular. Rather, it is understood and appreciated as the acknowledged outcome of a process of dialogue and negotiation with clients, a response to their aspirations and desire for choice, and to the realities of the inhabitation which will ensue. We have defined this process as ‘ethnographic’ both in intent and actuality: architectural practice and production understood as an empirically-based research process, based on detailed participant observation, visual documentation, and interviews, with the aspiration to produce a beautiful outcome.
In this context, and belying the apparent abstraction of the models, the qualities of impurity, hybridity and responsivity are actively embraced as integral to a contemporary architectural aesthetic which reflects the diversity of contemporary society, particularly in the metropolitan centres where architectural practice tends to be concentrated. It is no longer possible or desirable to work within the parameters of specific architectural idioms, where the cultural references brought by clients and architects to the table are so diverse and richly nuanced. In contrast both to the pattern books of old, and to the modern-day pattern books produced by the volume house-builders to aid their customers in making a choice based on limited options, the repertoire of design possibilities produced by an ethnographic, anthropologically-informed approach disregards traditional typologies and stylistic categories. Instead, it represents a contextualised notion of design and aesthetic expression that allows for a playful, inventive, and interactive approach to programme and site at both the detailed and larger scale.
Central to this approach is an understanding of architecture as an expression of social relations, embedded and embodied in material form and context. But this premise foregrounds the central problem for architects working in the all-important middle-ground between the innocuous and the spectacular – the availability of land on which to build; for, without a site there can be no architecture. According to the majority of respondents interviewed as part of this exhibition, the search for a suitable and affordable site on which to realise their project was the most difficult part of the process. This common experience highlights the lack of, or right to, accessibility to land as a fundamental dimension of social relations as they are mapped onto the physical environment; but it is one which architects rarely engage with, even while the inability of first-time buyers to get onto the ‘property ladder’ has become a malaise of contemporary life.
For anthropologists working in the context of traditional societies, land or property tenure represents one of the key areas of social inquiry, fundamental to an understanding of social organisation and relationships. In the modern context of complex urban societies, national planning systems may be understood as one of the most explicit forms of social representation, and yet the planning and development framework, and the land ownership system on which it is based, is mostly accepted as a given. In fact, as Healy notes, surprisingly little is known about its detailed workings:
‘All cities require the production of space in the form of both buildings and sites for various activities. Yet we still understand little about the production processes involved. The role of land ownership, the organization of the construction industry, the nature of the finance invested in urban development, and the significance of intermediaries, from developers to property consultants, lie hidden or are given little more than a passing reference in many historical accounts of urban development’ (Healy & Nabarro, 1990: 3).
Healy suggests that part of this lack of interest derives from a general assumption that ‘the conversion of economic and social processes into land use change and built form [is] unproblematic’ – that it will naturally flow from demand into supply. However, as we have seen in recent years, this is clearly not the case. The planning system in the UK depends upon land being put forward for development; hence the role played by land-owners is central to the problems experienced by architects and the public in engaging with the reproduction of the built environment more fully, especially since the passing of the Local Government, Land and Planning Act of 1980. This reform effectively re-created a free market in development land by repealing the Community Land Scheme, and acted as a catalyst on the steady rise in prices for residential development land since then. However, the implication of the land ownership system in determining and proscribing the opportunities for a wider variety of development approaches has been largely overlooked, due to a widespread public understanding that ‘it is the developer and planner that dominate the development process’ (Goodchild and Munton 1985: vii).
The ownership and exploitation of land as an investment like any other, and a scarce resource, has generated a balance of power and influence which militates against individual clients and architects wishing to work at a smaller and more inventive scale. The normalisation of bargaining between applicant and planners as part of the planning process further plays into the hands of those with the greatest resources and therefore the larger bargaining power. It has been pointed out by Kevin Cahill that 59m people in Britain live in 24m dwellings sited on a mere 7.5% of the total acreage of the country; 77% of the population hold a stake of only 5.8% of the total land area, and the average size of a residential plot is 0.07 acres per person (Cahill 2001: 12). The scale and quality of new construction is a direct corollary of the scarcity and consequent high price of land, while the major private and institutional landowners sit on vast areas of land which are kept from dereliction by huge public subsidies.
Such figures make architecture look like a very ‘impure’ medium indeed. The aim of this exhibition, therefore, is to divert attention from the purely visual dimensions of architectural practice, and draw attention to the need to understand architectural production in its social context. It is a powerful medium for the enactment and representation of social relations at the small, intimate scale of local environments, just as much, if not more so, than the large scale of the ‘landmark’ building on the global stage, and it is only right that more individuals should have greater access to the architectural process, and greater freedom to explore its possibilities.
Goodchild and Munton, 1985, Development and the landowner. London: George Allen Unwin
Cahill, K, 2001, Who owns Britain? London: Canongate Books
d’Avoine P and Melhuish, C, 2005, Housey housey: a pattern book of ideal homes. London: Black Dog Publishing
Healey, P and Nabarro, 1990, Land and property development in a changing context. Aldershot: Gower
Klingmann, A, 2007, Brandscapes: Architecture in the experience economy. Camb Mass: MIT Press
Lonsway, B, 2009, Making Leisure Work: Architecture and the experience economy. London: Routledge
Mitchell, W.K, 2007, ‘There are no visual media’, in Grau, O (ed) Media art histories. Camb Mass: MIT Press