‘Each material is what we make of it’ said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Tadao Ando seems to have taken his advice
[AJ WRITING PRIZE] Shortlisted: Daniel Elsea
All architectural projects must begin with a client, a brief, a commission and the funds to pay for it. Yet there are other equally important factors to consider - the craft of architecture, the community impacted by architecture and the curiosity inspired by architecture.
The good architect, as a practitioner, successfully navigates these to create lasting, meaningful design.
There is an old architects’ saying that a good building begins with a good door handle. If buildings are to be lived in and used, then they are to be touched and battered over time, their components dissected by the eye and sculpted by use. This is why architecture is as much about the details of a door handle as it is about lofty ambition.
An architect’s obligation to craft is grounded in fostering quality, from micro to macro scales, and where possible, in exploring innovations in forms, shape and structure. These engagements add to a collective imagination that continues over time: discovery of new methods, more interesting materiality, ever higher levels of quality, and more revolutionary feats of engineering, which collectively belong to architects as professional knowledge. Architects should look at every project as an opportunity to refine these.
Take concrete - concrete is boring. For most people, it conjures up images of banal car parks and insipid council blocks. But ‘each material is what we make of it,’ said Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The architect Tadao Ando seems to have taken his advice and made concrete wonderful. In the Church of the Light and Church on the Water in his native Japan, he transformed simple planes of concrete into something un-boring, rather more sumptuous in its expression and gorgeous to touch.
The same can be applied to a building’s form, especially in today’s technology-driven architectural practice. Frank Gehry’s application of high-powered software originally used in the defence industry allowed his studio to create some fantastical shapes, simply for the fun of it.
The wildly undulating curves at the Guggenheim Bilbao and Walt Disney Concert Hall have shown what is possible when new technical skills are applied to engineering.
The technical requirements are exceeded to create more than a mere building, but a new paradigm of built form that pushes architecture in an ever more inventive direction.
We live in a world shaped by buildings. This is why no building should be considered in isolation. Architecture is a living, breathing part of overlapping contexts. There are physical and cultural contexts, and perhaps most pertinent in our era of environmental threat, there is ecological context.
This is why architecture’s definition should be expanded. Architects must also be urban designers and landscape designers; they must understand sustainability and socio-economics. An architect’s building leaves a near permanent mark on its site, often living beyond an initial client’s intended use, which is why architecture belongs to the community.
As urban designers, architects must consider how their design relates to the character of its neighbourhood, the values of its people and culture, the surrounding grain and scale.
Architecture should spill out of the building into the street, into the public realm, into the spaces in between and around buildings that are just as important as buildings themselves.
This understanding of architecture’s expansiveness includes nature, the energy grid and the balance of living things that make buildings (and all things) possible. Here, architects have what is probably their most important responsibility: to advance social and environmental progress.
Sometimes the best architectural response is to not build a building. The critically-acclaimed High Line in New York is a fine example of how architecture can progressively shape the ‘in between and around’. A floating park built over more than a mile of dormant raised train tracks in Lower Manhattan, the High Line brings together found objects, landscape and planting, paving, street furniture and new outdoor pocket spaces to create a piece of civic architecture that is a true delight. They may not be buildings, but these spaces were designed and crafted with an architectural method.
Like all professions, architecture has its standards and methodologies. But it also has something special, an intellectual tradition that commits its practitioners to the rigours of debate and dialogue. This is what David Chipperfield called the ‘vital, interconnected architectural culture’ at this year’s Venice Biennale.
There is a reason why museums have departments dedicated to architecture and design, why newspapers have architecture critics, why we spend thousands of night-time hours hunched over in the studio. Architecture is a labour of love. Good architects pour themselves into it, from a small town designer focusing on domestic additions to those in a global mega-practice masterplanning new cities. Instinctually idealistic, architects have a duty to bring to their work that special passion.
Few architects exemplify this design curiosity more enthusiastically than recently-retired duo Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Their ideas don’t exist on the page alone, but live in their architecture, from the historicism of their earlier buildings to more recent projects for elite university clients that turn Modernist convention upside down. They apply their intellect to the real world.
This ethos reveals an architecture that is dynamic and unafraid to change. It shows that architecture is more than the ‘profession of building’ but a way of looking at the world through the objects that shape it, and then taking action to better shape that world. This is why the good architect is curious. They innovate, challenge methods, have responsibilities to society and environment, and yes, when needed, should be unafraid to question the client.