Sunday, 22 August 2010

Environment: towards a crisis for modern architecture

The manuscript of this article was amongst some papers of my late father Geoffrey Bocking MSIA [1919 - 1969] that have turned up in France. He submitted this for publication to the Architects’ Journal in October 1957 but it was rejected. According to the editor, the late Colin Boyne; "I am not sure the erudite manner which you present it puts your arguments forward in a manner in which they will be best appreciated by Journal readers..." To be fair, Boyne did offer to reconsider if it could be cut to half its length and written in "simpler and more direct terms" I have no evidence my father did.

Environment: towards a crisis for modern architecture

Geoffrey Bocking
The Abbey

Our environment results form the ‘organic situation’ of man-versus-nature: it is a battlefield on which new forces are constantly being engaged and a matrix continually re-shaping the weapons with which they are countered. Characteristic of the present active phase is a physical environment full of constructed objects, man-determined; the material evidence of a temporary victory of the forces of man over those of nature. In contrast to former victories which have resulted principally in a modification of the natural scene, we are now entering a phase of transformation to a man-made environment, natural in so far as man himself is of nature. The chaos which this exhibits is a demonstration that the victory is an illusion far removed from the order which is man’s ultimate and true victory and a reminder of how little we know of the proper techniques for constructing it. To control the forces now operating primarily through man we need a new phenology to guide us, as in former phases man learnt to control the forces external to himself only when he began to study them. No superficial tidy-ing up is sufficient – a shifting of shards for preservation in the sterile air of the museum – for the present phase is an active one of gathering momentum. Order – the order of the living organism – can only come through control based on understanding of the forces which now operate through man within his man-made environment.

It is obvious that the role of architecture in this task should be a prominent one, for architecture is concerned with the practical disposition of constructed objects (in its widest application, with the enclosure of space) based on a theoretical understanding of the forces which determine their construction and arrangement. In fact, modern architecture is very far from fulfilling the responsibilities of this role: of ‘what-gets-built’ – the constructed objects of our environment – architects are responsible for a proportion estimated between only 5 and 25% of the theoretical background; modern architects have chosen to concentrate on only two aspects. Intensively studied have been the aesthetic/engineering problems of structure and materials (with the result it is now structurally feasible to build in almost any shape that can be conceived and in any material) and the social/economic problems of planning (the accommodation of an entire working community is now functionally and financially practicable). But of the other forces operating in our society there has been an almost total neglect and it is worth considering whether this is the cause of the comparatively small architectural contribution and of the public indifference to its achievements which this reflects?

Of itself, public indifference does not necessarily mean a crisis for modern architecture nor need it imply a misdirection of effort. In fact, both the remedies for this situation which are usually proposed – a propaganda campaign and/or the bringing of all building construction under architectural control – take for granted the validity and appropriateness of modern architectural practice. But, as we shall see, both are nostrums: public indifference has roots deep enough in the structure of our present society to withstand such selective weed-killing or drastic cutting-back which, if we examine them, will disclose the true nature of the crisis which is yet to come. Implicit in the supposed need for a wider advertisement of modern architecture is the assumption that a larger section of the public does not like its looks but can be educated to do so. A similar educational purpose underlies the SUBTOPIA campaign: the public is blind but can be taught to see. Neither campaign appears to question the primary purpose of modern architecture is to produce an environment that looks well (although most architects, if asked, would immediately qualify this by emphasising that it must first work well). Nevertheless, a pre-occupation with the look of things only confirms the view held by the large section of the public whose sole contact with architecture occurs when it objects to the look of what they are doing and seeks to prevent them: fun-fair proprietors, road engineers, private householders, &c. It is a point of view which is further re-inforced from contact with such permissive organisations as the Council for the Preservation of Rural Erewhon whose principal intention – the preservation of the old – is divergent from that of architecture – the shaping of the new. By choosing to fight its battle of the issue of ‘the look of things’, modern architecture has become its own worst enemy for, as the SUBTOPIA campaign has demonstrated, this is seldom the first concern of those who build. The objects of our environment are constructed in response to other more urgent demand, and while these demands exist the public will remain relatively indifferent to the claims of any but those who can best satisfy them.

To a generation held in thrall by the Lodoli-Sullivan spell ‘form is function’, this may not seem very important. They will protest that forms of the best modern architecture do genuinely reflect – in fact were generated only by – the function they serve, and in that it matters little in the long run that the public is indifferent to them. Apart from questioning the want of logic in trying first to sell the public something it does not want in an effort to get to buy something it does, this argument may be accepted in toto. The shape of modern architecture (or at least that of the best) does derive from the function it serves; the limited and inadequate functions arrived at from a pre-occupation with, on the one hand, problems of structure and construction, and on the other, pseudo-social problems of, for instance, circulation. But an architecture which seeks to constrain the office workers of Hong Kong and of Pimlico within an identical curtain-wall diagram, on the other hand, or fails to study the nature and relationship of man within a community, on the other, can scarcely claim that its forms derive from or are generated by the requirements of our society. Far from seeking to acquire that confidence which, as a first step, the proper study of the forces operating our society could give, modern architecture has taken refuge in a mumbling of formulae ‘functionalism’ ‘new brutalism’ &c and a rush to be the first to duplicate and re-duplicate each new form of iconoclastic shell or perforate wall, having an obvious parallel with the incantations and totem-carving with which primitive societies seek to placate a hostile environment.

While there are obvious dangers in adopting an ostrich-like posture in the face of public indifference, it the fate of the dodo to which modern architecture should direct its keenest attention. Is his position as a designer separated from the processes of construction best adapted to the needs of present-day society? We need not argue the effects of such a separation on his abilities as a craftsman, since it is generally conceded that from this point of view they are harmful but we should examine the restrictions on his wider employment which result from it. Broadly speaking, there are three classes of persons that actually construct the objects that fill our environment: builders, engineers and private individuals. To each of these three persons the functional position of the architect is that of an assistant – he contributes a skill in design which assists the actual constructor. The demand in response to which these objects are constructed, the forces which compel their coming into being, may be – and should be – very much the architect’s concern but they never require that his particular skill must be exercised in isolation from the processes of construction nor, except by conventional precedent, that functional sequence should be reversed.

That the architect occupies a position unique in our society is a traditional relic (“par cy me le taille”) now operating much to his disadvantage. Of the three classes of constructor cited, only the builder, by reason of the purely executant position to which he has been relegated by historic precedent, continues to respond effectively to a demand received at second-hand. And even his position, under the pressure of new forces, is changing more to that of an administrator, supervisor and organiser of ‘engineer-constructor’ – specialist subcontractors over whose actual techniques neither he nor the architect have more than an essentially permissive control. But apart from those over whom the architect retains a nominal control, there remains a large section of this class of ‘engineer-constructors’ who supply within themselves all the ability in design which they need to meet society’s demands and see no necessity, therefore, either to employ or be subject to architectural assistance. And for the last class – the ‘individual-constructors’ – where demand and fulfilment are largely co-incident, the only possible role – but one from which he is at present debarred by public indifference – is an assistant one.

There remains one paramount filed of operation to which the unique and Olympian position of the architect would appear at first sight to be well adapted: the co-ordination of the activities of the three classes of constructor acting in isolation. This, however, brings him face-to-face with a problem which confronts present-day society as a whole: the elaboration of a technique of planning from diversity to unity. There is no doubt that to individuals the feeling of being planned for by an ever-present omni-potent ‘them’ is distasteful; nevertheless, no alternative, no effective technique of planning with, has yet been developed and in its absence, the conjunction of architecture with Olympian planning only aggravates public indifference into hostility. It is therefore very much a tribute to the real achievements of modern architecture that the New Towns – despite their comparative failure by the standards we have outlined – should have been accepted with equanimity. However, despite these partial successes in a limited field, the problem as a whole remains unsolved for it is unlikely and it would not be desirable that architecture should command such overriding authority generally. If it is to be solved, architecture must study as a first step, the techniques by which environment – not just the buildings nor even the ‘space-between-buildings’ is put together. (It was Clerk-Maxwell who suggested that “if you wish to understand the forces that control the motion of a body, the best method of approach is to learn exactly what the motion of the body is”). And as a second step, it must so adapt itself to the requirements of these techniques that its own can be fully employed. This requires that it should address itself not to the service of an illusory and insubstantial common good (on which R I B A practice codes lay such stress) but to the plurality of persons who actually construct the objects of our environment. When the average man looks to the architect as he now looks to the plumber the problem of how to plan with will have been largely solved.

If this new ‘architect-plumber’ is somewhat far removed from the man whom the young student just entering the profession looks to becoming, the subjects he will have studied may provide further cause for dismay. If architecture is to fulfil its appropriate role: the orderly disposition of constructed objects in the light of the forces which determine their construction and arrangement, much of the purely technical material which forms part of the architectural student’s curriculum will have to be discarded. The closer integration of architecture with construction, far from demanding an even more fevered quest for the attributes of a Leonardo, a ‘homme universale’, will liberate a greater diversity of function. The student graduating in architecture may neglect with equanimity much of the theory and calculation of structure for there will be other graduates on hand – perhaps from the same school – to translate his oneric visions into reality (Candela not Nervi will be his god!); the comparative study of historical styles and building types, hastily swallowed, and never digested, he will replace with the study of architectural iconography and of the ecology of buildings. From this he will come to know not only the people who lived and why they built what they did, but to be able to analyse the forces which governed their changing environment (Richard Kaufmann not Banister Fletcher; E A Gutkind not T Alwyn Lloyd). For composition he will substitute space, and learn to use new spatial geometries remote from perspective (Martienssen rather than Curtis). And he will study place and places not maps and plans (Le Play not Abercrombie). Finally, he will leave unopened 'The Planner’s Notebook', scribble on the Hilbersheimer diagrams, refuse to roast on the Hippodamian grid-iron, plough up the Usonian acres, and he will come to study MAN in the light of the things he makes; MAN the carver, the potter, the assembler and the Parthenons, Ronchamps, and Eiffel Towers he builds; he will study MAN the myth-maker, distinguishing him from MAN the icon-builder; Jungian MAN of the four functions, Gestalt MAN and his law of pr├Ągnanz, Reichian MAN in his orgone box, Freudian MAN on his way back to the womb. He will see the topology of MAN – the vertical ladder of kinship insecurely balanced on the plane of relationship; he will touch the landmarks on the brief road from Chandigargh to Golden Lane, from Tlaxcala to Wilton; listen to the music of the spheres and hear the ‘sounds of horns and motors which shall bring Sweeney to Mrs. Porter’; taste the acrid dust of falling towers and snuff the bracing air of Skegness; he will have “clambered over old rafters, peering down on the Dronne, over a stream full of lilies” but he will remember that he walks “on the edge of a bricked and streeted sea, and a cold hill of stars”. All these he will study at a ‘University of Building’ offering an education covering the whole field of construction. Its graduates will not struggle to put on only the straight-waistcoat of the R I B A qualification; they will be free to choose – an engineer or scientist does – a functional activity appropriate to their talents. To be an architect will no longer carry the presumptive qualification to design all kinds of buildings – for others to construct – but it will nonetheless indicate a precise and important function within our society.

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