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Review - Book - I Think Therefore I Am

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Sergison Bates is a rare breed in Architectural practice, says Daniel Rosbottom. For one thing, the practice actually thinks, as well as acts.

‘Papers 2’ by Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates. Distributed by GG. 163pp. £23.99

Sergison Bates is something of a curiosity within British architectural culture – albeit a welcome one. For in contrast to our European counterparts, architects in Britain generally appear to regard ‘thinking’ and ‘doing’ as mutually exclusive activities.
There are, of course, notable exceptions to this generalisation. Nonetheless, Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates place themselves among select company in seeking to positn ideas, as well as buildings, within our collective architectural consciousness. Moreover, with the publication of Papers 2, they continue to do so, despite having evolved into an established office with a substantial workload since the preceding volume, Papers, was published in 2002.

Often the public articulation of an architect’s relationship with the subject recedes as ‘real’ work arrives. For both Sergison and Bates, however, an obvious enjoyment of the potential of language is shaped by the understanding that words can offer a legitimate contribution to thinking about, and subsequently making, architecture – as part of practice rather than as a counterpoint to it.

Words are certainly critical here. Indeed, those potential purchasers hoping to see extensive pictures of the practice’s latest built output will need to look elsewhere, for this book, a collection of writings from 2002 to 2007, eschews the rather abused format of the ‘monograph’. While projects are discussed, they are often not the primary focus of concern and many of them will, in any case, be already familiar from Papers and other publications. Instead, work takes its place within a larger frame of reference – drawn from precedent and history, art as well as architecture practice, through which the authors define collective terms of reference for their ongoing engagement with the discipline.

The resultant pieces are not lengthy, overly academic or intended to be conclusive. They introduce deeper strands of thinking and intention to be played out through building. In this regard, the absence of ‘work in progress’ – a discussion often central to arguments set forth in previous publications – limits your understanding of how these collected thoughts are being developed and translated in relation to the practice’s current thinking.

In Papers, the concerns of the practice were described as ‘being somewhere between ideas and places’. Mediation, between idea and artefact, continues to be a central theme of Papers 2. The opening essay, ‘On Teaching’, begins: ‘As architects we find ourselves consistently drawing upon our own experience as the basis for any building proposition.’ Theexperiential nature of architecture, and the recognition and elaboration of this experience through actions of observation, become the precursor to many of the studies that individual texts articulate. Collectively, the pieces tend towards critique rather than polemic. In some, things are simply brought into relation, leaving open questions for the reader to explore with reference to their own understanding.
This consistent grounding of potentially abstract ideas, through engagement with the directly perceived and understood, is, in many ways, the strength of Sergison Bates’ conceptual position. The precision inherent in the practices observations of familiar, overlooked, or disregarded conditions underscores the clarity, rigour and potential of its architecture, and asks pertinent questions of a profession seemingly mesmerised by the surface sheen of architectural imagery.

However, Sergison Bates’ insistence upon the value of such intimate exploration ultimately reveals another, larger question, which it also chooses to leave open. In the essay ‘Outlooks’, Sergison remarks tantalisingly: ‘Nearly all that we had built was no more than a two hour journey away [from London], although this situation has begun to change with the recent invitation to build outside our native England.’ Frustratingly the resulting, fundamental question of how distance and unfamiliarity might adjust, develop, or transform the concerns and nuanced observations so eloquently expressed in Papers 2 is left unanswered. One suspects this is something with which the practice is currently grappling. Perhaps Papers 3 might offer some conclusions…

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