If experience stifles thought, let us pursue the unexpected
Last weekend I tested my car with a journey to rural Wiltshire. I was fortunate, having travelled hopefully, that it was even better to arrive, in this case at a listed 14th-century cruck-frame house located in a combe - 'a deep little wooded valley' (Chambers Dictionary).The building was full of the stuff of everyday life, including structural timbers charred by ancient open fires and 14 new windows.Fourteen was a significant number to my hosts, who had experienced considerable difficulties with both the planning authorities and English Heritage.They were successful, but the apparently inevitable war of attrition had left them weary.Why inevitable?
Why indeed should anyone look to preserve such a building in aspic as a monument to a moment in time? Particularly a building that is already a record of different fashions of occupation and the necessity of adaptation.The concern is not how to preserve, but how best to enjoy this exemplar of the generosity of a 'long life, loose fit'strategy.
Early the following, evening I found myself on John Street, on my way to the Architectural Association's Graduate School, hoping to obtain a brief insight into the workings of the Design Research Laboratory (DRL).There, teams of 30-plus students from around the world are working on a programme generated by an international group of teachers.The teachers, through this work and involvement in leading practices, are at the forefront of research into our current preoccupation with the computer's ability to generate and describe complex spatial models.Over seven years, the focus of their investigation has shifted from the workspaces of corporate structures to the mass transit systems of the airport, but the primary interest in patterns of people movement remains.This interest manifests itself in architecture of the 'folded landscape' rather than of the 'blob'- perhaps form is incidental but I very much doubt it. It is somewhat ironic that this research, into a responsive, dynamic architecture, is carried out in a converted 19th-century house (another 'long life, loose fit'exemplar) in a street little changed since it was home to Dickens.
Later discussion questioned the work.Was there much to learn from the exploration of an architecture of responsive structures? Could the issue of skin be so readily set aside?
Were the systems, as their creators desired, able to learn? Were we being asked unreasonably to suspend the onrush of disbelief, even cynicism, engendered by experience? All questions focused on the role of architectural research in academe and its relevance to practice.
I enjoyed the work of the DRL as much for what I found to be intriguing (if outlandish) as for what I thought might be possible in the near future.
Journeying home, I reflected on what the enquiry might spawn; delights that no one could set out to invent but which many could enjoy. I was then reminded of my visit to Wiltshire.As we scanned the distant views high above the damp, protected valley, the question arose as to why we didn't build towns and villages here on the hilltops, as in Italy - there was no easy answer.The iron-age forts, the centres of protection for settlement, were appropriately located on man-made earthworks on top of the hills; later, as needs for defences receded, they declined and it was convenient to live near the fertile plains; after that, I suppose, people stopped thinking, carried on as before and put their lot and location down to experience.
The memory of those distant views from imaginary new settlements provides all the justification needed for the DRL's pursuit of a line of enquiry that sets aside the dangerously bland assumptions of accumulated experience.
The work might, perhaps even through naivety, offer new paradigms.After all, what is the point in research if you know what you are going to find out?