An immaculately presented exhibition takes an anthropological approach to examining the client’s story behind the architectural process. James Pallister meets its makers
In 2007, the late critic and MIT professor William J Mitchell wrote that architecture is ‘the impurest medium of all’. Mitchell’s quote is the introductory text to Land Architecture People - an exhibition by three collaborators, anthropologist Clare Melhuish and architects Pierre d’Avoine and Andrew Houlton - that seeks to unravel some of the stories behind a selection of built and unbuilt projects, including their proposals for Birnbeck Island and the prefab Piper Rooftop Houses.
Housed in Ambika P3, the dark underbelly of the University of Westminster, Land Architecture People presents 27 of d’Avoine and Houlton’s projects on 10 trestle tables in part of the gallery’s vast 15,000m2 space. They are immaculately presented, with black anglepoise spotlights picking out the drawings - a simplified plan, section and elevation - alongside photographs of the finished work and the client.
Rather than long-winded treatises on the architects’ intentions, there are voices commenting on the architecture. And this is where the impurity comes in. The curators have long been interested in the messy complexities of the production of architecture; the design decisions that have more to do with love, money or land than the realisation of a formal ideal.
Melhuish is a critic-turnedanthropologist and here she studies the clients behind the projects on show. Printed transcripts record their recollections, collected using ethnography, a methodology of close interaction and interviewing. Also in the exhibition - though not working when I visited - was a taped playback of clients discussing their projects.
Rather than being about the hermetic execution of a formal language, the exhibition suggests that architecture is a messy process. This is a view with which Jeremy Till, dean of Westminster School of Architecture, would probably agree. In his 2009 book Architecture Depends (MIT Press, 2009, AJ 05.03.09) he proclaims that in architecture, ‘mess is the law’.
This pithy riff on Mies van der Rohe’s most famous saying was the launchpad for an argument that the successful practice of architecture is contingent on many social factors and that its self-image as an isolated discipline is ultimately destructive.
Through adopting a methodology traditionally associated with the social sciences, this exhibition makes some headway with one of Till’s criteria for success - that of successfully engaging people from outside of architecture’s often closed world. For the curators of this show, the title of which refers to the necessary components for building, the architect is just one of many social actors behind a building’s construction, rather than its all-powerful auteur.
And so, alongside project drawings are transcripts of interviews with the projects’ clients. These complement the photographs and drawings to unravel the multiple stories that lie within any project. Ben and Pusa Chatfield, the couple who were clients for one case study, 21 Westgrove Lane, discuss the way they acquired the site and how their feelings toward the property changed throughout its renovation. Developer Crispin Kelly talks about the ‘sense of having your own place being more important than the actual place’.
Lynne Bryant of Arcaid photographic agency discusses the build of the warehouse offices for her photographer husband, Richard; describing the difficulty in severing emotional ties to obsolescent features such as a custom-built darkroom.
There are also building reviews taken from architectural journals. They make for interesting reading and comparison with the interviews - at first glance one
tailored, considered and edited with a specific professional audience in mind, the other an apparently unguarded reflection on the emotional attachment to the building process.
The rest of the space is given over to large models of d’Avoine and Houlton’s projects, stripped of detail and made in whitewashed MDF. The large scale (some have a footprint of over 2m2) is intended to provoke a ‘visceral response’, says d’Avoine. Rather than timidly approach a small model of a house, the visitor can crouch on his haunches, eye-level with the second storey.
Both elements shed light on the process of building, the story of the way the land was acquired and the meanings ascribed to the architecture by the client. And, though lacking technical titbits, it is a lot more engaging than most texts within most solo architecture shows.
According to Melhuish, the clients were very happy to speak about their projects. ‘It’s an incredibly stressful life experience and I think many were grateful to talk,’ she explains. Within architecture the obvious choice of study is the designer, the occupant and the client. For all the case studies here, occupant and client were one.
Land Architecture People makes a good case that the ethnographic method of inquiry, together with more traditional means of architectural communication, can lead to a fuller understanding of a project and its significance. And happily for d’Avoine and Houlton, it’s also a very effective way of curating an accessible ‘nonretrospective’ retrospective of a body of work.