Morphologies, programmatic adjacencies, and spatial compositions : it’s all Greek to me, as I take a long, hard look at architecture’s Rococo lingo
To paraphrase a quote from one my favourite artists, J.M. Basquiat, I’ve first learned about architecture by looking at it. My ongoing fascination with architecture, and the research of its forms, history and social significance has become one of my favourite pursuits, and a labour of love. Throughout this journey, however, I often felt intimidated by the deep complexity in the ways it was being presented to me, in books, journals or interviews. I saw a problem in that : a world where all justification for architecture seemed to depend on mastering its strange jargon, a codex of inside ciphers that held deeper meanings to some, and nearly nothing to others. To demonstrate this, I picked a phrase from Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966): “The difficult whole in an architecture of complexity and contradiction includes multiplicity and diversity of elements in relationships that are inconsistent or among the weaker kinds perceptually”. Something of a mouthful, right? Such sentences read great when laying out the theory of design, but remain vague without adding a great deal of additional context (Venturi did accompany those with examples and illustrations, but still).
Most casual observers, however, probably lack the time and patience to sift through and decode the terminology of architecture. As an art form, architecture has a considerable impact on our lived environment, our daily lives, and ultimately, on our very psyche. And it is meant to be universally approachable, symbolic of our shared culture, and not just the culture of an individual, or a group. But many of its luminaries won’t give the rest of us a chance. Often, there’s more than a hint of arrogance towards those who aren’t deemed intellectually capable of grasping what architecture is about. Take Alison Smithson, for example : “…if cultural cities were the criteria of joining a common market, any African state would have as good a chance as London now has” (“Smithsons on Housing”, BBC, 1970). Or how about the frustrations she expressed in a Team X meeting at Toulouse in 1971 : “it is almost impossible to prove you are working for the people. The people are alienated by the intellectual – yet the people are the strength” (as related by John Furse in his seminal 1982 thesis on Robin Hood Gardens)
The virtue of this prevalent Newspeak is in question, even among architecture’s professionals. Rory Stott once created a list of the absolute fluff architects tend to use in writing, much of it suggested among themselves in an online poll. Of course, complexity in a text can be a hallmark of authoritative scholarship on a subject. But it can also become a meandering wall of exclusion for those without a formal training in the field. Arguably, the latter is the nearly the rest of the world. Marred by a codex full of cliches, neologisms, qualitative nouns, and in fact, all kinds of deep -isms and -ities imaginable being thrown around, it can be damn hard to understand what is being proposed. So the question arises : do architectural authors write exclusively for themselves? In extent, do architects exclusively build for themselves? This makes everybody else think that the practice of architecture is just a huge ego trip. And the lives and deeds of some of architecture’s greatest may suggest that too. Its’ hubris.
In his Divine Comedy, Dante used architecture to exemplify hubris: the mythical tower of Babel, the world’s earliest imagined vanity project, represented mankind’s superbia, or pride, the foremost of all sins. In our day, self gratification in architecture takes many forms: we see improbable projects displaying the infallible narcissism of their creator, or a state’s lucidly dreamed utopias, or our liberal society’s unfettered ambition, whose only boundaries appear to be space, funding, or technology. At the same time, architecture – alongside the society it’s meant to serve – has failed to offer a satisfactory, universal solution to one of humanity’s most basic needs. A walk through our inner cities will demonstrate that although we can now build skyscrapers that boldly rise higher than the tower of Babel has ever managed, homelessness still exists, oblivious to the wordy, cascading essays that urge us to dream of an imaginary world without it. No – a steady foundation, this is what’s needed. The proverbial counterbalance to vainglory, humility (whether imagined, built, or literary) can become that foundation.
Somewhere in my ongoing journey to bridge the chasm between the verbosity of haute-architecture and its more instinctive, accessible forms, I fell in love with Modernism. It proposes, as you may have heard before, that less is more. If everyone who wrote, spoke or theorised about architecture adhered to the simple virtue of this Modernist motto, then more of us would be enabled to engage, interact, and navigate the built-up environments we live in with renewed confidence. This doesn’t have to be about dumbing-down of the language to the lowest common denominator. But it could be about fostering a process which Alejandro Aravena, the director of the 1916 Venice Biennale, once welcomed as a crucial and necessary engagement with “.. organised communities and empowered citizens, (who) sometimes without any formal design training, have been able to improve their own built environment.” Sounds like a great premise: an architectural process more of us would be welcome to participate in and contribute to, supplementing the practitioners with our own expertise, and formulating a common approach in understanding the built up environments we share.
To mildly oppose the lack of transparency in architectural terminology and practice (despite the fact there seems to be plenty of transparency designed into the gleaming glass façades of post-modern see-through buildings), I recently began to share less seen, less-than-expertly colourised images of forgotten post-war architecture at a social media group called Modernism Colourised. This break with black and white formality was both a protest, and a proposal: I would add an AI generated, irreverent splash of ‘colour’ where it wasn’t meant to be. Then we could all get re-acquainted with the principles and majestic visuals of the era of High Modernism, at our own terms. I wanted my approach to be symbolic of certain conventions going, while the substance remained : accessible, and open to new perspectives and interpretations.
Since 2017, I have been campaigning for a more accessible, vernacular playground via Brutalism for Beginners. It’s a celebrated, one of a kind architecture walk that has garnered over 100 5 star reviews on Airbnb/Tripadvisor. Free from the yoke of formality, and bringing our own, diverse scholarship to the forefront, me and my guests re-discover and critique London’s imposing Brutalist and Modernist icons as non-architects, exploring the tangible impact of architecture and urban planning on our lives.
Our search for answers doesn’t have to begin at decrypting complex theories, committed in voluminous tomes. Actually, removing the barriers in understanding architecture might be about setting the literature aside for a moment, and start engaging with our built environment more directly: touching, feeling, understanding it the way we do, not the way we’re told to. Using our instinct, we can be like children climbing up the slide in a playground, not down as intended. It’s a change. And it’s a start.