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Caruso St John: 'The feeling of things' and 'Almost everything'

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David Leatherbarrow reviews two books that chart the style of Caruso St John

Adam Caruso, The Feeling of Things, Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2008, 93pp, £21.95
Philip Ursprung, Caruso St John, Almost Everything, Barcelona: Ediciones Poligrafa, 2008, 328pp, £80.00

Following very different routes, these two books reach the same destination: a descriptive and thematic account of the London-based architecture practice, Caruso St John. The Feeling of Things, written by practice co-founder Adam Caruso, takes a rather winding path through a number of contrasting situations in contemporary design and cultural experience, as if we were in an English garden. Topics are glimpsed, approached and studied, then allowed to recall and anticipate one another. The text is personal but engaging. Memories figure prominently, as do expectations. Almost Everything, by Philip Ursprung, professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Zurich, is structured differently.

Instead of a garden, the model is a modern neighbourhood, one that has suffered and shows several interventions. A number of routes open before us – photographic, philosophical, artistic and critical – that variously converge, parallel, cross and miss one another. Understanding all this depends largely on the reader’s interest and capacity
for discovering or assembling associations. Caruso’s text, by contrast, is deliberate and purposeful, even though its mood is alternately wistful, polemical and brooding.

Despite the differences in style, common themes at the heart of current architecture emerge: the project’s role in the wider context of contemporary culture, the nature of the project itself and the profile of the architect.

Although some of Caruso St John’s best projects are not sited in cities, their work is essentially urban. A tacit assumption in both books is that the city is culture’s most durable and eloquent articulation: ‘a perfect and vivid instance of reality’, writes Caruso. The key question concerns the relationship between the building and the town. These texts take a unique stand against the common version of an old truism: the house is a miniature city and the city, a very large house. Argued instead is non-reversibility: while it is possible to see the building as a condensation of its wider frame of reference – as in Walsall Gallery – it is wrong to see the city as ‘big architecture’, as does, for example, Rem Koolhaas, whose ideas are criticised several >> times in these texts. The house can be thoroughly designed, the city cannot. The first expresses individual desires and democratic empowerment; the second allows them, but only when it is unconstrained by big theories based on local interests.

Architecture exists in the city and among the other arts. In taking up this second relationship, these books address another theme that has great currency in our time, as evidenced by recent publications such as Joseph Rykwert’s The Judicious Eye (2008) and Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman (2008).

The thesis is as challenging as it is simple: architecture is an art among – but not the same as – the others. Figures such as artists Joseph Beuys, Robert Smithson, Robert Gober, Gerhard Richter, and Katharina Fritsch figure prominently in these texts. Architects are there, too, and the professional, technical and social dimensions of architecture are not neglected. But those aspects of professional practice are shown to be inadequate to the building’s expressive potential, its capacity to show or reveal aspects of the world that would otherwise remain unseen, unknown, and unfelt. Le Corbusier, recalling the passion and precision of Louis Armstrong, once described Manhattan as ‘hot jazz in stone and steel’. Caruso turns to jazz legend John Coltrane, not so that he can make jazzy architecture, whatever that might be, but to discover how he composed, measured and handled ‘materials’ donated to art by the world. Coltrane’s music also shows how an art practice has been enriched by its own traditions. Tradition has had a similarly positive role in painting, land art and even architecture, when the work of Adolf Loos, Karl Friedrich Schinkel and John Webb is considered. Texts by Gottfried Semper and John Soane are included in Almost Everything, for the same reason.

The projects and writings of Caruso St John argue three key points about the nature of an architectural project in our time: 1) that prosaic things and places are the site and soil of architectural invention; 2) that originality or ‘newness’ needn’t be sought, because it results from engagement with existing conditions; and 3) that, while the building is necessarily a material thing, its meaning or sense depends equally on its co-ordination with the situations and purposes it accommodates and represents.

Caruso and Peter St John have learned from figures like the Smithsons, Robert Venturi and Loos that architecture is good when it is enmeshed in the patterns of everyday reality. They intend their projects to be similarly ‘non-heroic’, ‘ordinary’ and ‘dumb’ on the outside but ‘rich’ within. This can be seen in the Studio House (2005) and the Brick House (2005) in London, the New Art Gallery (2000) in Walsall and the House (1994) in Lincolnshire especially. One might think dedication to the prose of the world would lead to an uncritical affirmation of the status quo. Doubtless Caruso and St John face this risk, especially in domestic projects, but their thesis is that originality is only genuine when it is unsought. Another dead end they want to avoid is uncritical reliance on new methods of design and production, as if technology were the engine of history and guaranteed relevance. Even if contemporary reality is nourished by a richly stratified past, the actual conditions of our lives are no longer what they once were. ‘The radical strategy,’ writes Caruso, ‘considers and represents the existing and known.’ Consideration here means critical engagement. Their commitment to life-as-lived-today also affects the way these architects consider architecture’s materiality. The ‘silence’ of stone takes on real significance when its surfaces are qualified by both planned and unplanned forces. While architects such as Sigurd Lewerentz and Loos had the ‘feeling for things’ that Caruso and St John seek, they also knew that designers are only partly responsible for the sense of spaces and settings. Architects select, but others finish materials: builders, users and
the forces of nature.

The architect’s hand, no less than the musician’s, moves with precision and passion. Caruso and St John insist that reason is not superior to intuition, nor is analytical thought more truthful than association and memory. These texts present both rationality and reminiscence. The latter has a role in design because cities and buildings will have ‘emotion’ only if the architect’s own feelings are not suppressed.

Rationality is weakened or complemented in yet another way in their work. According to Caruso and St John, design decisions have aesthetic and ethical import. They find this missing in the neo-functionalism or complicity with the market expressed in Koolhaas’ projects and writing, and argue instead for the fragility of reasons, of buildings. This usage is odd, because their ideas, no less than their buildings, are weighty and robust.

Precision is evident in their drawings and details, but their writings acknowledge the fact that, once built and caught up in the pace of life and history, they will present themselves to experience in ways that were never intended.

Resume: Two books dissect the work of an extraordinarily remarkable practice

David Leatherbarrow is professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania

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