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2012: The year of... Cultural meaning

Just what is the relationship between culture and architects, asks Jay Merrick

I am not a miserablist, nor am I particularly interested in the blue remembered hills of past cultural sentiments. But, in 2012, am I quite alone in feeling puzzled when considering the relationship between culture and architects? How many architects, I wonder, visited the Royal Academy’s Bronze show, or the Barbican’s Bauhaus exhibition, and felt like they were on parole from the culture of the commercial panopticon?

In the 23rd January edition of The Architects’ Journal three subjects leapt out with an instructive dissonance. The most important, and meaningful, concerned the coverage of the death of Isi Metzstein, with Richard MacCormac’s recollection of Metzstein’s interview for the post of professor at the University of Edinburgh:

Isi Metzstein: ‘I have always been a better conscript than a volunteer’

“Mr Metzstein,” the vice chancellor began, “you distinguish yourself as a candidate, firstly because you do not appear to have the appropriate qualifications for the post, and secondly because you have not actually applied for it.” To which Isi shot back: “I have always been a better conscript than a volunteer.”

A few pages further on, an appallingly interesting double-page spread: on the left, in the most repellent, idiotically lush Technicolor, Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s scheme for Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen. And on the right hand page, an advertisement for TBS Fabrication’s laminated lavatory wall panels, showing a cutaway structural graphic of a Spitfire, at the Grosvenor Casino in Stockton-on-Tees. The latter seemed a fine critique of the former. Thus, intellectual brilliance, pixie-shit landscape architecture, and a Spitfire apparently armed with gleaming white pissoirs: our cultural warp and weft.

As were the two quotes in Gillian Darley’s review of the Royal Academy’s Hawksmoor exhibition. An aged John Summerson had once encouraged her to “feel a Hawksmoor church, embrace it in the mind.” And she reported Ian Nairn’s even better remark, concerning St Mary Woolnoth: “You don’t remember until afterwards how strange the building is … it transcends originality.”

This raises the idea of two quite different reactions bound together almost molecularly

And it certainly transcends headings like the one that clarioned critical coverage of the Royal Academy’s summer architectural exhibition: Things that make you go ‘Oooh!’ This raises the idea of two quite different reactions bound together almost molecularly: do you explete an “Ooh!” because you have no idea what confronts you, architecturally or culturally, or because you do?

That question applies, increasingly, to architectural criticism in our newspapers; and Joseph Rywert has been a stalwart on the subject. Reviewing Alexandra Lange’s book, Writing About Architecture, he queried her suggestion that blogging, rather than criticism in print, would become the more dominant tool in shaping our environment. “This might,” he wrote, “turn out to be a mixed blessing.” One could hardly have expected this civil, academically eminent Old Carthusian to have suggested that the blogosphere seems – Tweeted rebellions against over-medallioned dictators aside – a bonfire of pathological inanities.

Rykwert’s coverage of the Barbican’s Bauhaus show was anything but that; so, too, were James Pallister’s deft alerts on supposedly minor subjects such as Eric Ravilious’s landscapes, and the new Modernist magazine. And Emily Booth’s coverage of the Alexander Brodsky show at the Calvert 22 gallery ensured a place not simply for a legendary Russian architectural outsider, but teased  out aspects of the tensions between objects, and humans, in space; a number of Henry Moore’s major bronzes, set out in the Gagosian Gallery, generated these same tensions on a monumental scale.

Culture begins, arguably, in the home, and yet homes and houses remained rather marginalised as critical subjects

Culture begins, arguably, in the home, and yet homes and houses remained rather marginalised as critical subjects. In today’s housebuilding and regeneration climate, shouldn’t the qualities of housing and place, as a subject, be pursued with critical ruthlessness? “England is a mean and petty scrabble of paltry dwellings called “homes”, and the Englishman accepts the “hopeless paltriness in his surrounding.” DH Lawrence wrote that in 1930.

Meanwhile, as James Pallister noted in April, George Orwell believed that “all culture that is more truly native centres around things, which even when they are communal, are not official.” He had football, back gardens and “the nice cup of tea” in mind. Rory Olcayto’s fugues on the future of urban conditions carried the idea of the unofficial into a febrile interzone somewhere between criticism and visions of place that recalled a sombre riff in Jack Kerouac’s 1949 Road-Log.

“The experience of life is a regular series of deflections that finally results in a circle of despair … one dark haunting thing. To me, ‘this thing’ is that Shrouded Stranger … our haunted sense of the thing.

Six decades after Kerouac, Rem Koolhaas spoke of “the eerie abstraction of the generic” in relation to urban conditions – and, by association, cultural meanings. How prescient Philip Larkin’s 1972 poem, Going Going, seems now: “For the first time I feel somehow / That it isn’t going to last, / That before I snuff it, the whole / Boiling will be bricked in / Except for the tourist parts …” 

Perhaps architects in search of cultural meaning should not be reading yet another critical analysis of Corb’s work

Perhaps architects in search of cultural meaning should not be reading yet another critical analysis of Corb’s work. Michel Houellebecq’s novel, The Possibility of An Island, or The City and the City, by China Miéville might be more pertinent in 2013. Here’s a sample of the latter: “Now there were more foreigners walking on the worn down crosshatched cobbles than Besź locals. The once collapsing Ul Qoma rookeries, crenulated and lumpen-baroque (not that I saw them – I unsaw carefully, but they still registered a little, illicitly, and I remembered the styles from photographs) were renovated, the sites of galleries and .uq startups.”

Are architects – to recall Isi Metzstein’s one-liner – to be volunteers or conscripts in the great game of culture? How much are they willing to experience and react to?

“It was as though he were in a different world,” wrote Arkady and Boris Strugatsky in Stalker. “A million odours cascaded in on him at once – sharp, sweet, metallic, gentle, dangerous ones, as crude as cobblestones, as delicate and complex as watch mechanisms, as huge as a house and as tiny as a dust particle. The air became hard, it developed edges, surfaces and corners, like space was filled with huge stiff balloons, slippery pyramids, gigantic prickly crystals, and he had to push his way through it all … It lasted a second. He opened his eyes and it was gone. It hadn’t been a different world – it was this world, turning a new, unknown side to him.”

Without this sense of the new, unknown side of people, places and buildings, we can be cultured, but not necessarily involved with our culture – except, of course, when we are on parole from the thing.

Jay Merrick is architecture critic for The Independent

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