Mind the gaps
Actions of Architecture: Architects and Creative Users By Jonathan Hill. Routledge, 2003. 220 pp. £25 Jonathan Hill recently gave a most enjoyable, elliptical talk about his 'Weather Architecture' project, which - even in the asides when he left his script - was almost identical to a talk he delivered a year ago in the same venue. In his introduction, he talked of how, for architects, producing books is like producing designs: they overlap, are redigested and regurgitated, helping their creator develop an attitude to a body of work.
It sounded like Peter Smithson, who would overlap and reiterate so inventively, saying that to layer one new idea a year on to his existing store was quite enough for anyone. The sepia cover of Hill's new book is directly reproduced from his first (The Illegal Architect, 1998), that 'serious yet funny' project (in Adrian Forty's words) which reflected on the RIBA. The 'Illlegal' project is illustrated here once more, as is 'Weather', Hill's charming and thoughtful conceit on the cloned Barcelona Pavilion, again very often in the words of his last volume (The Subject is Matter, AJ 14.2.02).
Hill's controlling idea, not unexpectedly, is montage. As Barthes suggested that 'the reader can make a new book through reading', so Hill says 'the user can make a new building through using'. He quotes, and takes, Robin Evans's advice to begin at the centre and work outwards. Hill's central page reveals his kernel: a theory of 'montage of gaps' which force 'the user' of a work of architecture to form the creative links between its fragments.
The ideas spin outwards from here. Back, to the book's beginning with notions of architecture where 'creativity of use' is the central issue; forwards, to the final examples of projects incorporating such spatial, sensual and semantic gaps, thus offering space for the user. The focus throughout is on an architecture which is susceptible to a revision and appropriation which differs with every experience.
This is an optimistic book. Hill is a cheery fellow. There is an intellectual enthusiasm about it, with its carefully direct language and its juxtapositions, which encourages extraordinary leaps by the reader. But there is also a certain sense ofan innocent abroad, particularly obvious to a reader who has lived through the 1960s.
We find Hertzberger and Van Eyck, Barthes and Benjamin, Cedric Price and the Situationists, but sadly nowhere the subtlety of De Carlo, with his attempts to layer contradictions and thus spur exactly the creativity in us(e) for which Hill calls.
De Carlo's 'semantic gaps' include the domelights which illuminate subterranean volumes of legal pedantry, and literally block the path into his Urbino law school (1960s), or the washrooms which connect two very different dwellings in his Tridente College (1970s).
The 'semantic gaps' which Hill does illustrate - his own linking toilets between the RIBA and his projected Institute of Illegal Architects in Portland Place or, more realistically, the gap between the hovering cloud of Diller and Scofidio's Blur on Lake NeuchÔtel (2002) and its designation as building - are not always as rich. (Sharing washspace can, of course, be life-changing. One of the most intriguing tales of Peter Smithson was his friendship with Enric Miralles, which began in Siena in 1981 when, both teaching at De Carlo's ILAUD, they were given adjoining rooms in the ex-convent, where pairs of rooms shared washing facilities. Meeting daily for their ablutions triggered an unexpected closeness. ) Hill's subtle tale is not aided by distractions like 'architecture can be found in the incisions of a surgeon. Architecture can be made of anything and by anyone, ' to quote both this book and identical sentences in his last. But his stress on creative occupation certainly brings that raft of 1960s and '70s ideas forward for today.
Arguing against experiencing buildings in a mode of contemplation (as presented in glossy publications), he already on his second page denies such building the status of architecture. It is the event (as others from De Carlo to Tschumi have long argued) which is central. Hill's 'montage of gaps' is an evocative idea for architecture, and one with which he plays here alluringly and illuminatingly.
John McKean is a professor at Brighton School of Architecture