07 September, 2008

erstarrte Musik

When I first met my wife, at a dormitory party at the University of York—an encounter I described here—I took her for a walk around the campus at four in the morning. We climbed up the Central Hall and stood looking out over the artificial lake, shivering in the chill of a northern February. I explained why I liked the campus—its bare geometric forms, its variety of spaces, its schematism—but try as I might, I just couldn't convince her that gravel-grey modular prefab had any architectural merit. It wasn't just her—most of my fellow students thought it a hideous place, a classically ugly product of 1960s tastes, like the South Bank or the Barbican. If Baukunst really is an erstarrte Musik, as Goethe said, then the campus must be near absolute zero.


Hostility towards this style often derives, I suspect, from a confusion of architecture with sculpture, from a criterion of beauty based in the plastic arts. It isn't pretty, is what they're thinking—individuals who'd never dream of requiring prettiness in literature or music. The campus, indeed, is far from pretty. Concrete rarely is. The architects had originally planned to clad their designs in banded white and green—limestone-fluorspar and Cumbrian granite—so as to approximate Siena Cathedral. That would have been prettier, but it proved too expensive, so instead they left exposed the concrete gravel that they'd dredged out of the Trent River. As a result, the campus is a terribly grey place, but it is at least a grey of the earth. (How often we forget the greyness of the earth, our eyes caught up in its greens and ochres, the garish spray of its flower beds and orchards.) The concrete itself is in precast panels arranged on a light steel framework—a method called CLASP, and revolutionary when it was devised around 1960, the campus being its first major application. Some of the panels were sculpted in abstract designs; these 'were an attempt to reassure people as to the fact that prefabrication didn't mean the end of all human variety and the touch of the human hand'. It did seem that way. A reviewer for the Architects' Journal in 1965 noted:
The edges of the precast concrete wall panels show, obliquely, and include angled drainage channels. There is an immediate natural reaction that these gaps need filling—and a further reaction that if they are not to be filled by the builder they will soon be filled by spiders' webs and the like.
The prediction turned out to be correct. When I was there, spiders were everywhere, especially hanging in mazy webs from the lit panels affixed to the ceilings of the walkways that stretch throughout the campus. Those walkways might as well have been taken from the utopian proposals of Charles Fourier—'everything is linked by a series of passageways which are sheltered, elegant, and comfortable in winter thanks to the help of heaters and ventilators'—one walks with nature, protected from it, but not isolated. Frank Lloyd Wright had written of his Living City utopia that 'hard-and-fast lines between outside and inside. . . tend to disappear'—'In spite of all untoward vicarious circumstance, man is now to be less separated from nature'. (Part of me resists Wright's vision: when I typed out this sentence, my fingers put 'not' for 'now' three times, a pregnant parapraxia.) In the same way, as you wind through the older colleges, the paths become corridors, colonnades, open now on this side, now on that: you are neither wholly inside, nor wholly out.

One is supposed to wander in this little world, to dérive: Guy Debord had only just started to use that sort of language when the York development plan was being drawn up. In a 1977 lecture, preserved only on an antique reel-to-reel audiotape sitting misfiled in a dusty corner of the university library, the tape itself threaded the wrong way through the spool, Andrew Derbyshire, one of the chief brains behind the campus, remarked:
We realised pretty early on that this was going to be a difficult place to find one's way about in. . . One wants to be able to explore. I don't like situations that expose themselves immediately, reveal all their secrets.
What we have is a version of the political utopianism so characteristic of post-war architectural theory: the design of the campus rejects hierarchical structure and places man directly in contact with nature. The organisation of buildings, loose and irregular, around intersecting nodes for congregation, are entirely anti-authoritarian: Haussmann would have been appalled. Contrast, for instance, the plan of the York campus:

to a map of Arizona State University, where I spent three long years:

In Tempe, most of the residential blocks are outside the campus, as is its centre of administration. There are some 30,000 students—twice that figure if one takes into account the other campuses. Provision is made for easy access and functional clarity, not for organic flexibility: hence long, broad avenues, lined with palms and palo verdes. At York, on the other hand, residential, educational and administrative blocks were deliberately combined. It was to be a small, close community, for a few thousand students. As Stefan Muthesius put it, 'this university is arguably not an assembly of separate units, but forms a whole, a kind of complete and 'anti-diagrammatic' organism.' This was the vitalistic language of the Smithsons, or of Constantin Doxiadis, who wrote in 1966 that the ideal city 'will evolve continuously, and when it ceases to do so the death of the whole organism will occur'. We are back at Mesa vs. Hornsey.


You can see plenty of pictures of the campus online. But for a more authentic vision, it will be worth examining pictures from the manifestos and early journal reviews of the campus, shot in a gorgeous 1960s high-contrast monochrome, the floors and facades all shiny and modernist. In these photographs, and attendant prose, we can recover some of the initial excitement.

A courtyard in the chemistry department; the columnar object
to the left is an old water tower, since demolished.

Pyramidal rooflights, Goodricke College

Colonnade, Derwent College

Boilerhouse, "ship-shape and shining. Ex-navy boilermen take
keen and obvious pride in their jobs."

And the greatest concession to a sculptural aesthetic, the boilerhouse chimney sticking up from the campus periphery, now usually sidelined by the roving architectural eye in favour of the spaceship-like Central Hall at the heart of the campus, seen here in half-installed form (1965) from a later retrospective:

Finally, the whole campus seen from the air:

The boiler chimney is at the far right, centre; in the bottom-right corner, meanwhile, can be seen Heslington Church, whose spire delightfully resounds in the pyramidal rooflights dotted about the campus: a 'happy harmony,' according to Derbyshire, 'which we hadn't actually ever intended or thought about'. The rooflights provide relationships of form within the campus, as well as a relationship between the campus and its environs.

And the language used to describe these lights is astounding. The 1965 reviewer saw them as evidence of an 'overall romanticism'. A later reviewer concurred: 'roofs and side-elevations were embellished by romantic details in the form of pyramid-shaped rooflights and box bay windows'. Michael Brawne, also in 1965, had mused in own his review of the campus that 'certain systems exert, through their apparent technical neatness, a romantic fascination'. What are we to make of romantic rooflights? They gesture upwards, with the spire at Heslington: they mitigate the modular repetition of the CLASP blocks: and at night they haunt the wanderer in his labyrinth.


Paul M. Rodriguez said...

Concrete is often pretty. There is a great deal of very appealing concrete in the US—dating largely from between WWI, when the coasts were fortified extensively in concrete, through the labors of the WPA. As these were the first essays in concrete as a construction material, the composition of the concrete and the technique of the pour were imperfect. The structures have since cracked and discolored like decaying frescoes. This is the closest that one can come in the US to the beauty of ruins; and since much of it is neglected and overgrown, viewing it is perhaps a purer form of this pleasure than can be found in genuine ruins in this age of curation.

Why do you oppose hostility to the style to appreciation of the place? I have often admired a building while still believing that it was a mistake—disliking the architecture as architecture, yet loving it as artifact.

Peony said...

Conrad, I really enjoyed this post-- from the description of your first date with Lily to the black and white illustrations, it was truly a pleasure.

Reading about York, Chandighar immediately comes to mind. That city too dates from around the same time and is also constructed largely of concrete. Divided into sectors and based on an "anthropomorphic plan form"-- it too feels more organic and "open" (to the elements)but at the same time self-contained. People love it or hate it but a grand city it is!

Like you, though, I feel that it is perhaps a mistake to view architecture in the same way as sculpture-- not because people expect it to be pretty (because I don't necessarily think that is true) but because sculpture stands alone as complete work of art, doesn't it? In Chandighar, there are rose gardens and sprawl and chaotic traffic and art exhibits and well, the city is lived-in in a manner that sculpture never could be-- and that is the difference, I think, regarding aesthetic judgements-- since I think this ought to matter as much as the formal aspects.

I am always a sucker for a covered walkway too!


Crown, A.J.P. said...

I suppose that living in the West you must have seen some of Wright's concrete work, like the Hollyhock House in LA and the rubble and poured-concrete walls at Taliesin West. And I think you must like Louis Kahn's concrete: the Salk Institute, for example.

A good example of a CLASP system building fairly close to you is St Paul's School in Barnes, in W.London. Although the hammered-granite prefabricated concrete skin is pretty nice, I think it's fair to say everyone loathed the building from the outset (I was there when it opened in '68). For one thing, it replaced an amazing Victorian red-brick building in Hammersmith, by Alfred Waterhouse, that they razed-- the old school was allegedly in the Guinness Book of Records for having the longest uninterrupted line of urinals in the world (Victorian symbolism was more visceral). CLASP tends, as you say, towards non-hierarchical planning. In this case, the siteplan had an arrangement of classroom-sized shoeboxes surrounding two small inaccessible courtyards. One of the CLASP selling points was its modular flexibility in the event that the school's needs changed (nobody had discovered yet that, except in the case of earthquakes, a flexible building is an oxymoron). Another selling point, for some odd reason, was that the fabric would have a very short lifespan: thirty years may have been mentioned. Well, time's up, and they are replacing St Paul's with something equally hideous, but more permanent. My school was one of the buildings that provoked me into becoming an architect; not just the blandness of the building itself, but also the discrepancy between the promotion and the prosaic reality -- that's still the biggest problem for architects to overcome, I think.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Peony, thanks. Chandighar sounds fun; like Brasilia possibly? And do you not think that the majority of people expect their architecture to be pretty?

Paul: as much as I like concrete, I'm not sure I'd ever describe it as 'pretty'. I'm not sure it has that potential, except possibly in disguise. Concrete as concrete is essentially unpretty, and appealing concrete has to be appealing because it is unpretty. Why don't you show us some photographs of your ruinated concretes? And perhaps you could expand on this:

"disliking the architecture as architecture, yet loving it as artifact."

which I find a little too gnomic.

Mr. Crown, good to see you here. I have been to St Paul's but not for ten years. I should go back and check it out, shouldn't I? Sad to see a Waterhouse go down: his Prudential block in Holborn is astonishing. What you say about CLASP's selling point is of course true, and the York team were able to knock their buildings up with amazing speed and cost-predictability. I did see Taliesin (brief post on that here), but not Hollyhock. One of my favourites is the Alexandra Road estate, not too far from where I grew up.

Peony said...

Conrad, you can read more about Chandigarh here if you're interested. I have never been to Brasilia so cannot really say, but the pictures of your university just struck me immediately of Chandigarh-- and just like you say of York, Chandigarh too hits a nerve with people as people seem to love it or hate it.

Regarding pretty, I wish I had read your other Post before I commented as with regard to that post, then yes, I agree. that Post of your's was extraodinarily well-done and I plan to go back and re-read it more leisurely. Bravo.

Finally, as to concrete-- I am also a great fan and find it can be beautiful as well. Ando's concrete is famously "smooth as silk"... I am a very big fan of this building by Ando which is not all that far from my place. It's part of the Gunma Insect World and I believe Ando designed the tropical butterfly house, the library and the outdoor patio. It is pretty incredible actually.


Paul M. Rodriguez said...

Unfortunately, I'm a mayfly among shutterbugs. And as this kind of structure tends to occur between rather than in places, I can't look up pictures.

But these may be two distinct phases of concrete's appeal anyway: mine when nature overtakes it, and yours while it defies nature.

By architecture as architecture I meant architecture as the subject of the discipline of architecture—a building representing a certain answer to the question of what a building should be, how it should be used, &c. By architecture as artifact I meant a building as a thing, with a particular history, and having a value which must be measured through its associations with other things—some architectural: its place in architectural history, how it fits into its city; and some otherwise: what happened there, did someone noteworthy draw it, was something filmed there; did I experience something there, accomplish something, meet someone, &c.

Of course, your ideal of architecture may not admit the distinction.

A.J.P. Crown said...

YES! I love that Alexandra Rd Estate. I had only seen it in a film before now, I think it was "Notes on a Scandal", so it's good to have your link. It is great for two reasons. First, it's designed in section (and so is lots of modernist housing, from Le Corbusier on, but in this case it's very evident on the outside). Second, it's a unique modernist idea that also manages to be contextual (what Ken Frampton called Critical Regionalism) so I love the way the vertical rhythm of the facades along that curve imitates the rhythm of a Victorian London terrace.

Frampton himself has done, unfortunately, only one big building and that's some housing in Lancaster Gate that has a great interior section. You can see it here: http://www.corringham.eu/index.html

There's an Ando picture that I thought you might find interesting in relation to non-hierarchic spaces, it's from his Hyakudanen terraced, chrysanthemum garden at Awaji Yumebutai (the site where they took the earth to build Kansai International Airport in Osaka Bay)

It is so remarkable for someone to be able to write both well and knowledgeably with new ideas about architecture, that I think if you had any interest in making money from it you should contact the magazines and the AA (the Architectural Association, not the car people) and give them a link to your writing.

Arthur Crown said...

Something else, Conrad. It's a good point that architecture reveals itself so much more slowly than sculpture. One problem with erstarrte Musik, with all due respect to Goethe, is that it reminds me of when I lived in Hamburg and natives would call it 'the Venice of the North' because it has a couple of canals. You have to tell them that if there was any real similarity, then Venetians would call Venice 'the Hamburg of the South'. Similarly, if architecture is frozen (actually, it's more like 'solidified' auf Deutsch) music, then music is melted or ethereal architecture, which it pretty clearly isn't most of the time. Myself, I think that music is a greater form of art, but I can't ever prove it.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Peony, thanks for the link. The Ando building seems a bit unusual for him, no? As far as I can recall, his work tends to be all straight lines and minimalism.

Paul: I can enjoy nature overtaking concrete too! The Barbican often has this quality, when algae coats the lake and the plants hang down from the flats surrounding it (imagine, if you can, a wintry and less spruced version of this). I understand the force of your distinction now; in which case I was not making any claims about 'architecture as artifact', simply saying that most people find the campus ugly from an architectural point of view.

Arthur: Many thanks; I'm flattered and somewhat surprised that you think my ideas are new. This post is in fact distilled from a longer paper I wrote on the campus, and once submitted to Architectural History; they rejected it. I couldn't think what else to do with it, to be honest! Do you really think the AA would have any interest in this? Please do not hesitate to contact me (my email address is on the right there). And, yes, the Ando centre and Frampton buildings do look fine--I should go have a look at the latter! (The only other work of modern architectural curiosity in that area, to my knowledge, is the amusing but grotesque Spire House.)

Paul M. Rodriguez said...

That is an appealling building—at least, it gives the sense that interesting people live in it.

I should take the chance to settle a question I've been harboring about buildings with such columbarial fronts: do people ever actually sit out on those balconies? Or do they only serve to prevent vertigo when the residents look out their windows?

Conrad H. Roth said...

I don't know, Paul. I would. Why not? Perhaps Arthur can tell us. By the way, Arthur, I have to agree about Goethe's saying--it isn't terribly clever or enlightening. Why do you think music such a superior artform? (Proof or not.) Being an anti-Romantic, I tend to place it on the bottom of the hierarchy.

MW said...

Very nice post.
I'm a huge fan of Ando's buildings & this is perhaps one of my favorites.


The exhibits are all specifically designed to interact with the buildings architecture. Their Minimalism show was particularly beautiful. The videos on the website are a touch pretentious but worth watching. The Richard Serra looks great in the context of their courtyard & apparently Ando made changes to the design (window size & placement) so there would be a real dialogue between the sculpture & building. If you've never seen one of his sculptures in person ~ they are frighteningly monumental & yet extraordinarily sensuous for rusted steel.

Arthur Crown said...

When I lived in a NY we had a fire escape we used as a balcony. We grew a tree on it. Even in Oslo I remember seeing people sleeping on their fire escapes one hot summer. A tiny balcony, big enough for breakfast, is a fantastic luxury in some cities.

Music is the greatest art for me because it's the most visceral. It has the best potential for understanding and enjoyment by lots of people and on lots of levels (more so than literature, I'd say and certainly more than architecture). In it's own way it's a deeper means of communication. It's no big theory, in other words I don't grade all the other arts downwards on this basis.

John Cowan said...

My favorite works in concrete: the Mercer Museum (dedicated to pre-industrial American tools) and Fonthill, Mercer's home.