In the summer of 2015, Christine Murray the editor of the Architectural Review wondered if, “architecture had lost its social conscience? [i]
Answering her own query in the affirmative, she proposed that, “the loss of a social purpose for architecture is linked to the way we consider buildings”, not least in how buildings are photographed, discussed and critiqued. [ii]
Murray noted that “there are no missing socks” in architecture and that real life is edited out of how we photograph and therefore view, read, present and discuss architecture. Critics, she notes, rarely meet the residents association.
“How can a building be judged in the absence of inhabitation?” she reasonably, but rather radically asks. In a journal intended for architects, she wonders why her audience is not curious about the messy use to which buildings are put. [iii]
Later in 2015, as the world – of architecture at least – was poised and waiting for the most socially engaged Biennale yet, the fact that Assemble won the Turner Prize for a down and dirty housing project in Liverpool was being hailed in The Guardian as a new model for dealing with the UK housing crisis and not by the architecture critic. [iv]
We were about to have a worldwide conversation on the place and role of architecture and society and, finally, the mainstream press was questioning how architecture was being communicated and shared beyond the profession. [v]
Three years later and it is a February evening in 2018 and a maximum of fifty people have been invited to gather on the first floor of the Royal Institute of Architects of Ireland on Merrion Square.
Either Grafton Architects or O’ Donnell and Tuomey are about to win the Gold Medal, which according to the RIAI, is “Ireland’s top accolade for architecture”. [vi]
Both would be worthy winners, there is no doubt, both brilliant buildings, brilliant architects, chosen by a highly accomplished jury all seven members of which are themselves architects and who visited the long-shortlist of buildings.
The criteria for this Medal seem clear: “the project must be completed within a defined three-year period and the medal is awarded several years after completion so that the success of the building can be confirmed by the passage of time.” [vii]
As an architect, the passage of time implies to me, that the Medal will be given based on an assessment of how the building has worked in use, survived the elements, how it has aged. It suggests that a judgment would be made based on how the building has endured life and time since the building was completed by the architect and handed over for the purpose for which the building was intended.
If so, it is somewhat curious that for the two buildings communicated via digital projection to the gathered audience, then online and later in print in Issue 297 of Architecture Ireland, photographs taken at the time of architectural completion of the project are predominantly used.
These photographs have been in circulation for about ten years. In the case of both the rather glorious street-tram image of Universita Luigi Boconni and the aerial view of Sean O’ Casey Community Centre the photographs have become emblematic of the buildings’ architectural legacy and each buildings’ contribution to architecture’s particular form of visual discourse.
By using these iconic photographs again and again online and in print, we, the audience, are not invited to share any obvious delight in or evidence of the passing of time and how time, in reality, has impacted on these buildings. I recall Christine Murray here and I wonder what the jury encountered on their visits to these buildings.
Instead of updating the status of the buildings, both are instead shown as if from the archives, frozen, immutable, presented as resisting any change. There is no film or photo or words supplied to demonstrate any appropriation or signs of human life – they are, rather unfairly to the buildings, presented without use, or, in a sense, the buildings are shown to be use-less. [viii]
Perhaps I have misunderstood what the award is intended to show. In any case, the consideration and assessment of buildings in use as a distinct fixed phase in the life of a building is, in my view, problematic.
Considering a building in “use” sets up the design and occupation of buildings as two phases in the life of a building that are in opposition to each other. This seems counterproductive in a world where architects are actual people who also occupy motor tax offices and hospitals and apartments they never designed and where clients and occupants have both subtle and immense influence on the architectural, spatial and material design of buildings across a buildings lifetime. [ix]
Buildings and their design and use are dynamic and the profession’s engagement with a building on the moment of commission and the disengagement at the moment of practical completion and the photographic shutter click are pragmatic, contractual rather than temporal or spatial milestones. Building starts long before, and survive long after their architects and, in time, design and use very often become overlapping spatial practices.
As a profession, we do have to begin to note the evidence that the occupation of buildings when architecturally complete is generally considered the beginning of the end of the design achievement of the project. Occupation, for many, means the onset of architectural decay. [x]
In fact, the history of how buildings are used, adapted, occupied and consumed by the world and the people in that world – you and me – remains conspicuously absent from our literature, although this is changing. For now, it still points to a cultural discomfort that we are not always ready to accept what people do to rooms when they redecorate or adapt or when they go to IKEA for their kitchen table. It also points to a media culture that demands beauty, perfection and extraordinary levels of image control in our visual communication of architecturally designed spaces, a significant challenge facing our profession. [xi]
Perhaps understanding a building with regard to the passage of time that is so intriguingly proposed by the Gold Medal might be one strategy in meeting such a complex challenge.
Rather than asking the profession to confront the mess of real life in rather reductive and aesthetic terms as suggested by Christine Murray when she implies architects might document the lost sock, an assessment based on time might provide a way of understanding the impact and influence of a building on the very many people who actually interact with it, thereby more fully communicating the connection between society and architecture. [xii]
Properly considering time in buildings could encourage a true and meaningful exploration of a building from its initial idea of its commissioner, to the first sketch, to its construction, completion, occupation, and beyond.
Focusing on time might also require the invention of new methods to show how a building influences and impacts the lives of the designers, commissioners, users, passersby, media, critics, contractors, tilers, stone masons, corduroy concrete formwork makers, bloggers and joggers and night-tram drivers.
Embracing time might mean a day of reckoning for buildings – a sort of justice for them if you like – so that each gets recognized and accepted as the individual, complex, social, material, political and economic entity each actually is. Buildings are not statistics, nor can they be typecast or summarised in a single photograph.
Setting out to mine the social and spatial seams that are woven over time in and through our buildings will take some effort and, of course, much time. It is possible though that our collective reward would also be gold and of a colour so rich and lustrous that it would better and more fully reflect the reality of how people and buildings together exist and endure.
This piece was originally written for AI Extra / Architecture Ireland and can also be read, here, on their site.
All images taken from websites.
[i] http://www.architectural-review.com/rethink/has-architecture-lost-its-social-conscience/8684156.article[ii] At the time of writing, Christine Murray was the Editor of the Architectural Review. The journal is a mainstream, practice based journal for architects and its primary content is centered on the presentation of architecturally complete building projects using drawings and photographs.
[iv]http://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2015/dec/08/assemble-turner-prize-housing-crisis-toxteth[v] In 2016 Alejandro Aravena curated the 15thVenice Architecture Biennale, chosen to do so because he “was the best architect of a new generation to examine the growing gap between architecture and social need.”. At the exhibition Aravena iintended to showcase individuals who “are scrutinizing the horizon looking for new fields of action, facing issues like segregation, inequalities, peripheries, access to sanitation, natural disasters, housing shortage, migration, informality, crime, traffic, waste, pollution and participation of communities”.These are certainly real issues, and ones not always associated with architectural design. In 2015 Aravena also won the Pritzker Prize one of the professions most prestigious, because he “has certainly demonstrated the ability to connect social responsibility, economic demands, design of human habitat, and the city”.
[vii] http://www.riai.ie/news/article/riai_announces_winner_of_prestigious_gold_medal_award_for_architecture[viii] It is also the case that newer photographs exist than those taken at the time of practical completion. For example, O Donnell +Tuomey used new photographs in their monograph in 2014, “Space for Architecture – The Work of O Donnell Tuomey” (Artifice 2014). These photographs show the gardens of Sean O Casey Community Centre planted and mature and more explicit life and activities being carried out in the building. [ix] Schneider discusses this in Schneider, T (2013) The Paradox of Social Architectures. In: Cupers, K (editor) Use Matters: An Alternative History of Architecture New York, Routledge. 249-263 [x] A place to start to understand these theories in architecture would be with Maudlin D andVallinga M,(2014) Consuming Architecture: On the occupation, appropriation and the interpretation of buildings. New York, Routledge; Hill, J,(2003), Actions of Architecture: Architects and Creative Users, Routledge; Cupers, K(editor) (2013) Use Matters: An Alternative History of Architecture New York, Routledge [xi] Again this can be understood in more detail in Cupers, K(editor) (2013) Use Matters: An Alternative History of Architecture New York, Routledge [xii] This can be considered in more detail here – Gieryn, F (2002) What Buildings Do. Theory and Society, Vol 31. No 1 pp35-74