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The Stuff of a Town by Benjamin Strak

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

[This stone] is for me a wolf, noble and courageous, with hollowed flanks, nicked with wounds and blows. And it always will be, even tidied into horizontal layers or domesticated into vaults. As I bring proportion and harmony to the abbey, it alone will keep it’s independent spirit; even brought into order, it will remain as beautiful as a wild beast bristling. “

Fernand Pouillon, Les Pierres Sauvages, 1964

I tried very hard this summer to get inside a Fernand Pouillon building. In Paris I loitered in obscure banlieues to the suspicion of elderly residents hanging out laundry. In Marseille I grabbed at walls and handrails around the Vieux Port for an entire afternoon, steadying myself against the pushy Mistral. In Avignon I walked around and around the deserted Cité Administrative to the peal of church bells as if performing some peripatetic rite.

And alas I was never once successful. In Paris I gave up with the increasing attention at Pantin of a pair of gendarmes and their formidable matraques. In Marseille, bent to horizontal by the cruel north wind (and with one sketchbook already plucked and thrown into the Mediterranean) I retreated to a cafe on the Place de la Préfecture. In Avignon, rushing over to an official getting into his car around the back, I was reminded stonily that in France a weekend is a weekend.

I admit I gloomily sought solace in pressions or cafés créme. It was not the sort of architectural pilgrimage I had imagined. I had been hoping to see the fir parquet of a top-floor apartment, to look out from the well-hung window of a room, to take a balustrade in my hand. That somehow would have been to the see Pouillon’s architecture properly, to learn its truth, to appreciate it’s craft. But at the end of another fizzy demi-blonde in Paris it struck me that if these buildings demonstrated anything, it would be that a buildings truth, it’s essential craft, is not necessarily so hidden away.

There is a tendency perhaps to think of architectural craft as something that happens exclusively inside. That the ‘crafted’ part of architecture is concealed and precious like the marmoreal foyers of a Loos house. On the pages of glossy magazines and websites the mention of craft tends to be accompanied by photographs of plushly jointed, top-lit living rooms and close-ups of their ironmongery sets. This is where we think craft happens, deep inside, away from weather and noise and mess.

What we do not tend to think is that craft has very much to do with the city. With the outside. The humdrum, rainy world of the street. The craft, we think, like honeycomb,or like the mother of pearl of an oyster, is reserved until you get into the centre. I realised I had fallen into this trap.

For even in the last morning, in Pantin, there had been a great deal that I would have been quicker to appreciate had I observed it in a kitchen or a living room. The scraggy wolfish energy of the pierre de Fontvieille limestone, its edges crisply bounding recessed pilasters of blushingly pink marble. The composition shepherded by string courses into the dignified but lively surround to a cobbled fountain court.

At La Tourette in Marseille the same precisely coursed stone had been a reassuringly hefty backdrop to city life. It’s mass had been disclosed by shadowy window reveals of well-considered proportion, and then relieved by delicate tower-like timber structures that hung beckoning on corners. Walking under the cast ceramic soffit of an arcade, I had not properly attended to the pleasant cool nor its special acoustic.

In my rush to penetrate his buildings, it was clear that I had missed the plainly evident truth that their urban surface was as finely crafted as any interior I could hope to see.

Pouillon was throughout his life an outsider to the mainstream architectural culture of CIAM. But he was nevertheless committed to the life of the city. Unlike some of his peers he took a more synthetic view of it’s qualities. He knew that a volume of space and a material could speak to each other strongly, but in a mysterious way that could not simply be disclosed by science.

Perhaps though his chief lesson about the craft of architecture is a paradoxical one. That if you want to achieve one thing, you might have to pay the closest attention to something quite different. That if you want to make good urban spaces you might need to care inordinately about the smallest bits and pieces that form their edge. That to craft the best kind of city, it might be necessary to spend days and days, as he did, preoccupied with a more material kind of craft in a Provençal quarry.

When we talk about urban space, we should not forget about urban material. Those overlooked surfaces that compose urban life’s enclosing skin. We should talk about the way in which these contribute to character, the strange ways in which the same wall differently built can be inviting or simply rude. How the stuff of a street strengthens or weakens it, in concert with its spaces or program. Urban craft, I believe, is closer to material craft than we are generally encouraged to think.

And so I think of  Pouillon leading the wolf of pierre de Fontvieille from the Abbey at Le Thoronet and setting him loose on the streets of Marseille, Paris and Avignon. I admire the courage of his eye. The wolf still bristles at it’s mortar joints and crackles across the gracious trabeated order with memorable fire. Out here in the rain though, I realise I am also grateful that craft has left it’s cloister alongside him. There will be nicks and blows out here for sure, but here too we all benefit, not only the monks.  The wolf’s spirit is unruly and cantankerous certainly, but he has the potential to be generous too.


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