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David Kohn's 'Hedgehog and the Fox' lecture and exhibition at the London Met

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David Kohn outlines some urban ju-jitsu and urges us to embrace our inner fox, writes Peter Carl. Photography by Ioana Marinescu and David Kohn

The Hedgehog and the Fox
, London Metropolitan University, 26 Feb

This is an extended version of the piece which runs in this week’s issue (AJ 19.03.09)

A standing-room-only audience at London Metropolitan University applauded David Kohn’s lecture to open an exhibition of the recent work of his office (26 February – 12 March).  Under the rubric of The Hedgehog and the Fox, Kohn developed the themes that animate five projects. 

I first heard from Colin Rowe of the fox and the hedgehog, a concept more firmly associated with Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay than with its originator, Archilochus (VIIth century BCE Greek poet); but one can immediately see its attraction for architects. 

It is usually taken to refer to the psychology of the architect – the fox, who ‘knows many things’ is more of a generalist open to a variety of influences and approaches (James Gowan), whilst the hedgehog, ‘who knows one thing’, is more of a utopian, trying to measure the world’s differences in terms of a commanding style or strategy (early James Stirling). 

Even if Berlin was concerned to identify the merits of both (Joyce is a fox whilst Plato is a hedgehog), the fox is assumed to be cunning, a smile on its face, whilst the hedgehog is a less attractive animal, earnest, glum. 

However, as Kohn made apparent, there is a more important dimension to this – the fox-architect is more sensitive to the latent poetics of a context whereas the hedgehog-architect is more likely to take the context as background for a beautiful object. 

Particularly in an urban context, the fox-architect indulges a species of architectural jujitsu, whereby subtle interventions activate the rich thematics and history of a site (always replete with contradictions or ‘nasty’ phenomena), whilst the hedgehog architect treats the context as a kind of bed of lettuce for the whole smoked salmon. 

The fox-architect gets all the richness for free whereas the hedgehog-architect must conjure either the sophisticated illusion of richness or its opposite – the complete absence of reference, pure form.  Whilst this in turn creates a second psychological reading  - the fox is timid whilst the hedgehog is bold (as in Rem’s ‘fuck context’) – the main issue is that for the fox, one’s city is the topic, whereas for the hedgehog, one’s own architecture (or oneself) is the topic.

Kohn opened his demonstration with some wonderful photographs of a theme he rightly published six years ago – how Sicilians incorporate petrol-stations in what might otherwise be regarded as a preservationist’s universe.  The American petrol-station achieves dignity by weathering away its eager identity as global brand-site (No Country for Old Men, 2007). 

Kohn shows that the savage processes of nature and history in Sicily expose the eagerness itself as slightly pathetic, or possibly tragic, but more importantly, that the petrol station could be used as a window to understand Sicily.  In his photographs they are the liturgical furniture of the automobile-cult, but also latent towns, or earthly Jerusalems for robotic Samaritans with hoses.

With the audience therefore alert to the petrol stations in the plot – as well as to Kohn’s subtle visual imagination - the lecture turned to London, and the office projects. The proposal for Deptford Creekside developed with a team of consultants as part of the Deptford Creekside Charrette in July 2008, conducted with Creative Process, headed by Andrew Carmichael and funded by a wide consortium including the two borough councils, local developers, Lewisham College and Design for London. 

The petrol stations here turned out to be the new architecture – those large, shiny visions of middle-class goodness that are the inevitable vehicles of regeneration, but which, equally inevitably, tend to be less compelling than the existing natural-industrial creekscape.  

Kohn recognised that there could be no single identity for the creek, but rather that centuries of London transformations had created five urban ‘rooms’ with slightly different characters.  This specification of the context as thematic structures would provide orientation for all subsequent interventions (petrol stations).

Rooms within rooms emerged as a recurring topos in the work of the office. Kohn’s proposal for ‘Arts Space of the Future’, a competition organized by RIBA London and the Arts Council for the Thames Gateway, was a species of ‘ideal town’ articulated by enlarged ‘types’ of building that provided an open framework for ateliers, performance and exhibit-spaces.  Constructed on a wood armature, it is also a species of garden – ‘the smallest totality of the world’ – set in a 43.5 hectare short-rotation willow coppice that provides the source of energy. 

Similarly, the Bistrotheque guerilla restaurant, Flash for the transformation of 6 Burlington Gardens into a contemporary arts venue illusionistically restores the garden which once lay behind Burlington House.  A rhythmic wall of recycled art packing-crates firstly reduces the oppressive horizontality of the existing space, and then supports a game of broken fences and grotesque animals made of felt together with mirrors whose parallel reflections open ever-widening horizons of dwelling.

The degree to which ‘recycling’ is always also the architectural jujitsu with the context is exemplified in the Stuart Shave Modern Art gallery on Eastcastle Street.  The serviceable, laconic concrete frame and brick infill of an existing building is transformed into a representational order by subtle articulations of the frame at ground level and a displacement of the entry. 

Stuart came to Kohn with the marvellous Vitsoe shelving system, whose ethos is not to generate a variety of products, but to maintain the integrity of the single product.  A year later, the site was found, coincidentally near the Vitsoe showroom.  In order that Stuart’s office furniture, reclaimed from Chandigarh, not acquire the character of museum-objects, but rather exhibit the degree of use or comfort of the artefacts in Lina Bo Bardi’s House of Glass, 1951, a strategy was adopted of attuning all the ironmongery to the style of the Vitsoe shelving. 

Moreover, the gallery itself was conceived as a species of house that developed a progression of interior settings from a room open to the street through a wall-sized window set in the primary framing down to niches made by inserting the shelving in recesses.  Under these conditions, a field of interpenetrating worlds is created, where the street’s daily life is complemented by the imaginary worlds of the exhibited paintings.

The gallery might seem to exhibit a hedgehog-like quest for aesthetic consistency.  Rather it exemplifies the lateral imagination of the fox, partially adopting the strategy of his counterpart for the sake of bringing to life the meaning of the dutiful frame of the original building.  Both the dutiful frame and the daily life of the street are arenas of forgetfulness, of taking the context for granted for the sake of immediate needs. 

By encouraging the proximity of paintings to the cell-phone chatter of the street, the imagination is invited to step outside of itself.  Similarly, by bringing the main room to the scale of the frame, one acknowledges the analogy of the frame building to the industrial shelving-system, which is not only beautifully made, but made to support little ‘rooms’.  

The fox-architect enables us to recognise that contexts are made up of contexts, that even a shelf is potentially a ‘totality of world’ - a room, a garden, a petrol station, a town.    

Don’t be a chicken - embrace the context with Fantastic Mr Fox

Peter Carl has been teaching design, history and philosophy of architecture at Cambridge for 30 yearsand has moved to London Metropolitan University to set up the new PhD programmes.

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