Friday, 14 December 2012

Prince Charles and John Ruskin: a Tale of Two Cultural Conservatives

“While your divine intelligence and will, Imperator Caesar, were engaged in acquiring the right to command the world,…..I hardly dared , in view of your serious employments, to publish my writings and long considered ideas on architecture, for fear of subjecting myself to your displeasure by an unseasonable interruption……I began to write this work for you, because I saw that you have built and are now building extensively, and that in future also you will take care that our public and private buildings shall be worthy to go down to posterity by the side of your other splendid achievements. I have drawn up definite rules to enable you, by observing them, to have personal knowledge of the quality both of existing buildings and of those which are yet to be constructed. For in the following books I have disclosed all the principles of the art.”

The Ten Books on Architecture: Vitruvius  (80-15 BC)

The Ten Books on Architecture by Vitruvius, the only text on the subject to have come down to us from ancient Greece and Rome, provides not only a manual of Classical architecture but  also provides a clear insight into the nature of the politics of the time. The fact that Vitruvius not only dedicated the book to Caesar but claimed that his book
“disclosed all the principles of the art” provides, for me, also  a certain amount of humour since today, no architectural theorist would claim to have settled, finally and irrevocably, all theoretical controversies surrounding architecture. However, while no two architectural theorists can agree on everything, one British architectural theorist, namely Prince Charles seems to have acquired a quite remarkable level of certitude in his own beliefs.
Prince Charles first  intervention in the debate on architecture came  in the 1980s. This  consisted of  a  television program and a book, both entitled  “A Vision of Britain.” In the television program he examined a drawing, illustrating the  primitive hut of classical architectural theory, a group of tree trunks which fortuitously grew close together with branches strewn across the top forming rafters and beams. 

From this he seemed to   conclude that the Classical style of architecture, since it derived from nature was  therefore  eternally relevant, seemingly appropriate in all times and places. Since that time he opened the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment and founded the village of Poundbury. He has also conducted high-profile interventions into developments such as the Chelsea Barracks site effectively torpedoing the design by Rogers Stirk & Harbour, insisting his preferred design “relates to nature.” 

Leaving aside the issue that deliberately scuppering an architectural project does raise very real constitutional issues, he insists he does not advocate simply a style such as Classicism. In a speech he gave to The Royal Institute of British Architects in 2009 he  stated:
“I am sorry if I somehow left the faintest impression that I wished to kick-start some kind of “style war” between Classicists and Modernists; or that I somehow wanted to drag the world back to the eighteenth century.”

His approach, it seems deals not with style but with social issues such as “bottom-up” planning, architecture which deals with problem solving. The antithesis of this might be seen as those obsessed with form and Prince Charles admits classicists can be as guilty of this as modernists. He states:

“I propose to speak of “organic” rather than Classical or Traditional architecture
And this, he partly explains is:

“one which is informed by traditional practice, and by traditional attitudes to the natural world”

But here, he seems to have embraced a rather circular form of reasoning.

The idea that Classical architecture, self-evidently relates to nature is rather more contentious than Prince Charles seems to realise. The subject has been discussed down the ages, especially during the 18th and 19th Centuries  when the subject of the hypothetical origins of classical architecture in nature became a huge bone of contention between various architectural theorists. Leaving aside the views of Vitruvius on the origins of architecture, the primitive classical hut was basically an idea invented by 18th Century  theorists such as Abbe Laugier in France and William Chambers in Britain. This led to a more rational conception of classical architecture; Laugier argued that the five classical orders were based on columns and hence should only be used as freestanding elements and never in relief.  In the 19th Century, British architecture turned towards a revival of the Gothic. This style had never entirely died out, surviving in unlikely quarters such as  18th Century notions of the picturesque, keeping the  style alive until its  19th Century   re-flowering.   Augustus Welby Pugin, architect of the  Houses of Parliament would only countenance  a Gothic rather than Classical approach. Indeed, he believed Classical architecture was flawed from its very inception. A primitive timber hut may have been the inspiration behind the Greek Classical Temple. But these forms cannot simply be transposed from timber to stone. A key example of this were triglyphs. Triglyphs were the vertical channels on the frieze of a Classical temple which represented the ends of timber rafters. The features were considered to be representations since the frieze of a Classical temple was constructed in stone, not timber. And hence, this motif, when reproduced in stone, indicated that the architecture no longer truthfully expressed the structure. 

Pugin wrote:


“Grecian architecture is essentially wooden in its construction….never did its professors possess either sufficient imagination or skill to conceive any departure from the original type… it is extraordinary that when the Greeks commenced building in stone the properties of this material did not suggest to them some different and improved mode of construction.”

  The other great instigator of the British Gothic revival was John Ruskin who shared with Pugin a dislike for Classical architecture. 
Ruskin wrote the book “The Stones of   Venice”, on the  Italian city in the shadow of the Alps, which he regarded, rather strangely as the birthplace of Gothic architecture. Here, he describes the kind of architecture he admires in the great chapter “The Nature of Gothic.” Ruskin makes much of the savageness of the northern climate and the quickening of energy which must accompany endeavours, qualities which people of the north expressed in their architecture. Ruskin was a great advocate of architecture which “relates to nature,” and firmly believed that in the context of Northern Europe, Classical architecture was incapable of fulfilling this role.

Ruskin, evokes the  British climate and landscape with its heathland, ice, snow; language which  amounts to a sort of   word-painting.

“we should err grievously in refusing either to recognize as an essential character of the existing architecture of the North, or to admit as a desirable character in that which it yet may be, this wildness of thought, and roughness of work; this look of mountain brotherhood between the cathedral and the Alps;”

Evidently, he considered Gothic to be a sort of ' organic' architecture. For instance, he wrote in ' The Seven Lamps of Architecture' the following on piers in Gothic cathedrals:

'the resemblance in its shafts and ribs to the external relations of stems and branches.. . . necessarily induces in the mind of the spectator a sense or belief of a correspondent internal structure; that is to say, of a fibrous and continuous strength from the root into the limbs... ' .

Taking Pugin’s argument, that classical architecture was an essentially dishonest imitation of a timber hut, he argued that there could be no beauty in architecture without truth. In what is arguably the greatest book ever written about architecture, "The Seven Lamps of Architecture", Ruskin devotes an entire chapter to "The Lamp of Truth." Here he eloquently condemns all forms of untruth in architecture. The first is

"The suggestion of a mode of  structure or support other  than  the true one:”

However, he also states

  "The architect is not bound to exhibit structure; nor are we to complain of him for concealing it, anymore than we should regret that the outer surfaces of the human frame conceals much of its anatomy; nevertheless , that  building will generally be the noblest, which to an intelligent eye discovers the great secrets of its structure, as an animal form does, although from a careless  observer they may be concealed".

  He also condemns
"The painting of surfaces to represent some other material than that of which they actually consist (as in the marbling of wood)"


"The use  of cast or machine-made  ornament of any kind.”

He argues that

"For it is not the material, but the absence of human labour, which makes the thing worthless:"

He despised the sort of architecture that was being produced all around him by the industrial revolution. He was employed as a consultant to the architect Benjamin Woodward who was designing the Museum of Natural History in Oxford  but resigned when he realised that the building would have some similarities with  a Victorian railway station, with stone and brick used at the front and iron and glass  at the back of the building. The Crystal Palace, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 may have had a touch of Regency elegance about it, reminiscent of Nash, but Ruskin viewed it with similar disapproval. However, I would argue  that, as time went on, Ruskin began to have to have doubts about his rigid architectural conservatism.



In 1859, Ruskin produced essay on the subject of industrial materials, “ The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art &  Policy.” Iron, Ruskin states, can be seen in the British landscape in the form of ochrerous stains, that is oxidised iron or rust on hillsides or in streams. A conclusion that might be reasonably drawn from this is that metal, used as a material in architecture can relate to nature.

He states:

“what do you suppose dyes your tiles of cottage roof? You don’t paint them. It is nature who puts all that lovely vermilion onto the clay for you; and all that lovely vermilion is this oxide of iron.”

Whether he thought iron could produce appropriate forms for architecture can be gauged by the following statements. Architectural writers were so pre-occupied with the academic approach that there was much controversy over whether buildings realised with iron  could be considered to be architecture at all. Ruskin,  capable of almost schizophrenic views on this subject was able to write the following views in the 'The Seven Lamps of Architecture';
“True architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material.”
And again;

“the time is probably near when a new system of architectural laws will be developed adapted entirely to metallic construction.”

Here, for the first time, Ruskin acknowledges that new technology may fundamentally alter approaches to architecture. The French architect, Viollet-le-Duc, spent most of his career restoring his country’s cathedrals. He also wrote a number of great theoretical treatises on the nature of materials and embraced with rather more enthusiasm, the potential  new technology offered:

"We hear it maintained in the present day, as it was formerly, that iron cannot be employed in our edifices without dissembling its use, because this material is not suited to monumental forms. It would be more consistent with truth and reason to say that the monumental forms adopted, having resulted from the use of materials possessing  qualities other than those of iron, cannot be adapted to this latter material. The logical inference is that we should not continue to employ those forms, but should try to discover others that harmonise with the properties of iron.”

Here we can sense the stirrings of something new in architecture, detectable even in Ruskin.

The Gothic revival overturned the Classical tradition of axis and the orders and celebrated qualities such as asymmetry, originality and “truth to materials”. Once these ideas  had been accepted , the floodgates were opened to a wave of architectural innovation.

Prince Charles may feel that in the Georgian era, there was a sort of universal benchmark of quality, below which architecture did not seem to drop and that modern architecture has not achieved this. In many ways I would agree. However, there is at least one member of the Royal Family who seems to view with favour the work of at least one eminent modern architect. The Order of Merit is an award which is the personal gift of the Queen to bestow. In 1997 she gave the award to Norman Foster. 

( A version of this article appeared in The Salisbury Review).

Sunday, 6 May 2012

The Auteur in London

Jean Nouvel is an architect whose critical stock has both risen and fallen in dramatic ways over the course of his career. His career as an architect of international importance was launched by the Institut du Arab Monde, one of the Grand Projets, built in Paris for the Bicentenary of the French Revolution. This building, with its expressed structure and intricate detailing, proved rather atypical of his future output. It embraced the modern materials utilised by British “High-tech” and, indeed,   envisaged by Jacques Tati in his film “Playtime.”  However, it has always been possible to differentiate his work from “sublime engineering,” which is how some categorise the work of Norman Foster. Nouvel utilised a similar artistic language exploring the aesthetics of mass production but fused with an altogether different sensibility. In Barcelona he integrated a polychromatic façade with an organic shape, contextually appropriate in the city of Gaudi. The Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne incorporated a seemingly unsupported cantilevered roof stretching out to create a line of simplicity and purity similar to that of the horizon line of the lake itself. The critics, however, also insisted that his career had embraced many creative lows as well as highs. The Torre Agbar   was held to have inadequate spatial and urbanistic qualities. The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris was slammed by the critics for its uninspired detailing. When he finally came to build in London he was greeted with little fanfare. His pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery was described as a dull one-liner, seeing as its entire creative strategy seemed to be to colour every surface red. One expressed the view that this was simply the work of an architect who was long past his best.

After failing to enthuse the British critics, he was given a second chance with a building intended to be permanent. He was asked to produce a mixed-use development, consisting of office space, retail and restaurants on a site just east of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Surprisingly, with “One New Change” he has managed to confound his critics with, I think, one of the finest new buildings to be built in London for years. The nickname “One New Change” has  already acquired,  “The Stealth Bomber” conveys nothing of  this building’s  quality.

On a site with such a distinguished neighbour, the strategy Nouvel seems to have adopted is one of reticence. The building  has a chameleon-like quality whereby it seems to adopt a sort of visual camouflage. The all-glass façade has been designed to reflect light,  meaning that most of it appears to be a milky-white. This is counter-balanced by large horizontal strips of muted colour, mostly a matt brown, created by fritting a brown pigment on one  face of the centre of a glass laminate. The decision to use brown coloured glass was a brave one. Presumably Nouvel was trying to merge his design with the brick buildings of this part of London. This is a  building without clearly defined edges. It’s transparency and emphasis on the way in which materials reflect light creates a sense of   dematerialisation, an unusual strategy in an age when some gifted architects side-step the approach of minimalism.

        Although the exterior is marked by a sense of blankness and repetition, certain techniques are introduced to give a sense of rhythm to the façade. The modular cladding system erupts at certain points with twisting planes, creating a sense of sculptural richness. An axis is projected from St Paul’s Cathedral into the centre of the building. This provides the route of an arcade-like space, one of four, laid orthogonally to each other which penetrate the solid mass of the building. It is possible that this simple arrangement, with its echoes of the Roman method of laying out a city along   Cardo and Decumanus axis, refer back to the City of London’s origins.  The four  arcade-like spaces lead to a central space open to the sky which penetrates the building down to the basement, providing a circulation core and light-well. Jean Nouvel has said that “architecture happens mostly inside” and it is only when you venture down one of these arcades that the building really begins to reveal itself to you.

If brown is the signature colour of the more public parts of this building then a change of colour signals the more private, internal spaces. On the  North and South axis, the arcades are roofed-in. The ceilings and entrance screens abandon the muted palate of the exterior and instead are coloured a glorious red on the Northern side and a mixture of red, grey and brown on the South side. The quality of twisted planes is repeated in the soffits, constructed by overlaying polished plaster onto sheets of glass reinforced gypsum, assembled   on site to prevent unsightly joints. The result is that each plane of the ceiling receives and reflects light in a different way.  This is more reminiscent of “The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” than anything produced by the American aeronautical industry. The reflectiveness of the materials used throughout the arcades ensures that you are constantly catching glimpses of reflected images of the buildings surroundings and of the Nouvel building itself. This kaleidoscope-like  quality both dazzles and entices and as you progress through the arcade the ceilings above recess back as the space opens up into a mezzanine level. At pedestrian level, the envelope is simply constructed of glass sheets providing views and access into the retail units which line the internal ground floor of the arcades. There is one more spatial surprise: the various levels of the central core are interconnected by escalators which conduct you through enclosures faced entirely with  black glass. These look towards the central core as do a series of balcony-like spaces.

       The central core again adopts a mono-chrome palette and the overwhelming quality of this space is that of reflected light, from the stainless-steel wall climber lift, and planes of mirrored-glass. The latter are composed as series of twisting planes, their reflectiveness softened by the re-appearance of the matt-brown cladding. I visited the building on several occasions and found, in different weather conditions, the building displays a whole range of colours and light qualities rather like Monet’s paintings of haystacks or Rouen Cathedral. In seeking precedents for this work, we could look to the great luminous spaces typical of French Architecture. Jean Nouvel, when asked to name his favourite buildings, has referred to examples such as the Sainte-Chapelle and the Maison de Verre. However, the real cultural reference we should consider probably lies outside architecture. Standing in the darkly-shadowed subsidiary spaces around the central core, viewing the heart of the building, I was reminded of the spatial experience of being in a cinema. The sense of dematerialisation has precedents in the example of film. For instance, in Jacques Tati’s “Playtime,”  several key scenes appear as reflections in plates of glass. However, perhaps the key theoretical idea we should refer to is that of “montage” as understood by the Great Russian film-director, Eisenstein. Eisenstein thought that film illustrated a dialectical method. Each frame could be read at various levels such as symbolism and composition but would contain internal conflicts. This would lead to a succession of moving images, a “montage,” driving the narrative forwards.  In the film, “The Battleship Potemkin”, the massacre on the Odessa Steps ends with a close-up of a stone lion, presumably symbol of retribution. The building’s juxtaposition of utterly different spatial and material qualities suggests a similarly conceptual approach. Nouvel has said that:

“Architecture exists, like cinema, in a dimension of time and movement.”

      It also exists in the creation and framing of certain qualities of light. Cinematographers and indeed photographer often create lighting effects which to the viewer seem entirely natural and uncontrived. A portrait photographer may rely on an assistant holding a screen to reflect light onto a subject’s face, differentiating the foreground from background, but the photographer is always careful to crop this.  Nouvel seems to have a similar repertoire of mysterious techniques to control light hidden up his sleeve. He states that his one unrealized ambition is to direct a film, but with this building he already has taken his place among other architect-filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Fritz Lang.

As with all architecture, it is intriguing to try to guess its tectonic logic. For instance, in a Rogers’s project, the staircases are usually placed on the outside in a lightly structured glass and metal enclosure. This means that one of the normal functions of a vertical circulation shaft, the cross-bracing of the floors, is not achieved. The solution usually adopted is some form of externally-expressed, structural cross-bracing. The Nouvel structure has similarly diagonal elements expressed in the cladding and in some steel members which touch the ground. I suppose stressed skins and even structural glass are possibilities but my instinct tells me that this glazing is simply curtain walling.

This is reminiscent of the art of the watercolour painter, where the paper, shining through the paint, actually represents the light. Along with this transparency, reflection and dematerialization have been added empathetic, tactile qualities achieved through more traditional materials such as polished plaster. The result is something quite ethereal. St. Paul’s definitely deserves a neighbour which shines brightly and in this building has found one.

Friday, 6 April 2012

New links - the NPPF and the Portas Review.

Two new links form the basis of today’s post.

The link on the right to the National Planning Policy Framework in its draft form.
The National Planning Policy Framework has  actually now gone through Parliament. You can read the finalised  document here.

I spoke to a planner recently who thought that the new planning guidelines will lead to lots of applications being challenged in the courts. Like most pieces of law, it is often only when you can refer to a body of case law, does it become apparent how a piece of legislation will be enforced. At any rate, the debate surrounding the correct approach to British Planning and urban design will run and run.

Here is  the Portas Review by Mary  Portas,  into the future of our high streets.

It is, of course, true that retail patterns are shifting, much of it moving to online shopping. There is, I would argue, still a role for physical spaces as opposed to virtual spaces. In the report by Mary Quant, commissioned by David Cameron, she stressed what she argued was the social capital of the High Street.

Incidentally, when the internet was invented, some people predicted the traditional library would now become irrelevant. As far as I can see, libraries are still going strong. In fact, architects like David Adjaye and Rem Koolhaas have virtually re-invented the library.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Birmingham Central Library

John Madin has died.

He was the architect of the original Birmingham Library. I recently visited this building and found much to admire. Admittedly from the outside it’s fairly grim but it has quite a beautiful interior. It has an atrium surrounded by concrete waffle slabs, perhaps as beautiful as the interior of the Lloyds Building, perhaps more so.

It’s an example of mixed-use, long before this became received wisdom, with cafes on the ground floor and more private spaces as you ascend through the building’s section. I asked a librarian what she thought of it and she described it as a “hive of activity.” Indeed it has lots of different activity zones with quieter spaces for study, just what a library should be.

If you describe this as “a place for incinerating books” this obviously shows that you have fallen into the error of considering buildings simply as objects and failed to realise the importance of a building’s spatial qualities.

I know the decision to build a new library to the designs of Dutch practice Mecanno has now been taken, on a site a short distance away. It would be a shame to demolish the old library though it seems this decision has also been taken. It seems to be due to be replaced by a new development designed by Glenn Howells Architects.

 I know this is regarded as a piece of “Brutalist” architecture, a much unloved genre. However, much of this kind of architecture is not as bad as it often supposed to be; some of it is actually quite good. Perhaps the original building could have been saved if it had been given a re-modelled façade.