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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Ciarán Mackel's Urban Library

On Thursday 29th November 2012 Architect Ciarán Mackel (at our Urban Library Series) explored the urban literature that influences the built environment and his own practice. 

This Thursday 10th January at 6.30pm Architect Jessica McGarry will present the literature that influences her practice at the Urban Library Series. More information here.

The following is a transcript of Ciarán's lecture at PLACE from the last Urban Library event...

Image by David Bunting (Images-NI)

Poet Roger Housden recently wrote a short pamphlet called ‘Ten Poems to Change Your Life’ - the books I would like to talk about though did not, necessarily, change my life but did shift my perceptions (and continue to do so) and I have discussed with colleagues my contention that their lessons are universal.

I was intrigued by Marcus Patton’s list of books that included music scores, and books on architecture and illustration and when I sat down to compile my list I realised that not only have the pictorial essays and architectural monographs impacted upon me but what might be called classic illustrators / observers have been the background and context for my own range of influences, and reading for me is also generally accompanied by music. I would like to discuss a selection of those books that have helped me explore aspects of architectural culture. 

Similar to Marcus I too have a large collection of books and also worked in a bookshop. I worked, on a voluntary basis, in Siopa an Phobail, in Andersonstown, which sold books, records and handicrafts with all proceeds going to pay running costs of the first Irish language medium primary school at Shaws Road, Belfast. That school later became the bedrock for the growth of the language movement, in the North, and a personal touchstone when the practice designed the new permanent school building in 2000.

I would like, before I present my 6 books, to briefly discuss the broad influences that still feed my praxis.

I was born in 1955 - the year that Le Corbusier’s Church at Ronchamp was dedicated; the year Doris Day starred with Jimmy Cagney in ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ (the biographical film of singer Ruth Etting); the year in which Rosa Parks arrest in Montgomery Alabama would set in motion the American Civil Rights Movement, and the year of Marilyn Monroe’s film ‘The Seven Year Itch’.

I studied architecture in Belfast during the 1970s, and studied Urban Design in Dublin just after the signing of the Belfast Agreement. I have friends in politics, the arts, architecture, and cultural and community practice. I read every day and my reading embraces a wide genre from architecture to poetry, visual art and crime fiction. I love the feel of books; the weight of a book in my hand. I love texture and line and the form of the text and image on the page. I love the promise of the visceral and the comfort of the ordinary.

My first slide is the first book that I still retain from my childhood. It is the Daily Mail (what was my father thinking?) Children’s Illustrated Encyclopaedia which I got as a Christmas present in 1960 when I was five years old. It featured the usual illustrations and descriptions of animals, plants, trees, national costumes and as you can see detailed plans and sectional elevations of buildings. It is all I retain of that era of what might have been my first personal library.

By my mid to late teens I was increasingly aware of my place in a wider world. I was fortunately introduced to the work of James Thurber (the author of Walter Mitty) - journalist on the New Yorker and humorist and gifted artist. His drawings and prose were marked by wry humour with a blend of melancholy precision and fantasy. To him all was absurd and yet understandable.

My earliest exchange of books and of discussions around the issues that books raised was with a musician friend who introduced me to the writings and drawings of Giovanni Guareschi who fictionalised the little world in the Po Valley where his Good Lord strived to keep the peace between Don Camillo, the village priest, and Peppone, the communist mayor. I liked Guareschi. He used be a sign-board painter, he taught mandolin (as I once did), he had a moustache, he wrote 8 books and he had a motor bike, a wife and two children. And he coined the slogan, ‘I will not die even if they kill me’.

But the lighter side of life and of reading was counter balanced by local and world politics. Latin America, of which many of us remain ignorant, still offers possible solutions for economic and political progress. Debray is a French intellectual, journalist and academic and in late 1960s was professor of philosophy at the University of Havana and in 1967 fought with Che Guevara. In 1981 he was adviser to Mitterrand on Foreign Affairs and developed a policy that sought to increase France’s freedom of action in the world and decrease dependence on the United States. His discipline, mediology, studies the transmission of cultural meaning in society through language or images and he continues to engage in political debate.

Camus, journalist and resistance fighter during the occupation of France then abandoned both to write a number of novels that held a mirror to modern morality. He became a pacifist and campaigned for human rights and an end to capital punishment. In his essays he resisted the description of himself as an existentialist.

Hermann Hesse, who, like Camus and Solyzenitsen, also received the Nobel Prize for Literature made the plea for rigorous self-examination and Steppenwolf was his searching philosophy that examined the split between humanity, aggression and homelessness though always with the possibility of transcendence and healing.

The Underground Reader had it all: communes, dope, ecology, revolution, student power, Indian power, hippies, yippies, Women’s Lib, Black Panthers, White Panthers, Weatherpeople, Chicanos, comics, cartoons, and good times, all describing life and some proposing revolution in the ‘dis-United States of Amerika’.

And I balanced that broad reading with Irish novels and authors and also with an eclectic range of pamphlets which I still continue to buy and read as complement to my general and architectural reading.

Louis le Brocquy’s beautiful brush drawings that accompanied Kinsella’s translation of the Táin - the Ulster cycle of tales of Cúchulainn - ‘as shadows thrown by the text ...’ were intended as extensions of Kinsella’s translation. (I have several translations of the epic but I treasure the 1969 edition by Dolmen Press)

E. Estyn Evans was David Evan’s father and I have recently re-read his Common Ground essay which like many objects and places in this small territory also has two names. First written in1971 and entitled, ‘Understanding Ourselves’ it was then subsequently entitled ‘Common Ground (1984). Evans hoped that our place would be broadened by people living together, mixing and ‘quickening each other’.

The Belfast texts are broad reaching, in both English and Irish, and are always expanded and refreshed by new essays and books which range from fictive narratives to eloquent studies.

The books on architecture and urban planning

And so to my choices of books on architecture, planning and art practice that might sharpen the urban experience and reflect on urban and architectural culture. Each of my books is initially included with others as a mini-shortlist of four before a brief description of the chosen text.

I love the notion and physical reality of confluence, convergence and collision - not just the body-to-body and material presence of confluence but the creative possibility, creative space afforded by the friction and impact of one body on another: whether the turbulence and change of course of two rivers as they meet and become one new flow or the parallel but meshing projects - for instance, the J Edgar Hoover and Josephine Baker projects represented in the creative work of Paul Guzzardo.

1. Christian Norberg-Schulz’s ‘Existence, Space and Architecture’; Walter Gropius’ ‘Space of Total Architecture’; Tony Fretton’s ‘Architecture Experience and Thought’, and ‘Architecture, Craft and Culture’ by John Tuomey

Space of Total Architecture, Walter Gropius 

Gropius founded the Bauhaus School and with Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Niemeyer and others is widely regarded as one of the pioneering architects of modern architecture. Apparently he couldn’t draw and relied on assistants, collaborators and partner-interpreters throughout his career. He first worked for Peter Behrens (as did van der Rohe, Corb and Dietrich Marcks) but by 1910 formed a practice with Adolf Meyer with whom he designed the seminal Fagus factory - or at least they designed the facade, demonstrating the modernist principle that ‘form follows function’, first expounded by Louis Sullivan (Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor).

In 1913 Gropius published an article, ‘The Development of Industrial Buildings’ which included photographs of factories and North American grain elevators. It had a strong influence on Le Corbusier and Erich Mendelssohn, both of whom reprinted the images of the grain elevators.

After the First World War he was recommended, in 1919, as master of the Gran-Ducal Saxon School of Arts and Crafts in Weimar - which transformed into the Bauhaus.

On the pretext of a visit to England organised by Maxwell Fry he emigrated Nazi Germany and after 3 years in England travelled to the U.S. He disliked the suggestion that his own house in Lincoln, Massachusetts was influential in bringing ‘International Modernism’ to the U.S. preferring that he had ‘made a point to absorb into (his) own conception those features of the new England architectural tradition that (he) found alive and adequate’. He was a pioneering teacher and felt that ‘an intensive atmosphere is the most valuable thing a student can receive’. He encouraged collaborative working and saw the architect’s role as one of service and leadership.

2. Essays on ‘Maps’ and mapping; Victor Papanek’s ‘Design for the Real World’; Neil Smith’s ‘New Urban Frontier’, and ‘Space and Place - the perspective of experience’ by sociologist Yi-Fu Tuan
Design for the Real World, Victor Papanek 

Papanek was a designer and educator who was a strong advocate of socially and ecologically responsible design of products, tools and community infrastructures. Born in Vienna in 1923 he attended public school in England and studied design and architecture in the U.S. He worked for Frank Lloyd Wright; he earned his bachelor’s degree at Copper Union in New York and his graduate degree at MIT (in 1955). Papanek was a philosopher of design and interested in humankind. He felt that when design is simply technical or merely style-oriented that it loses touch with what is truly needed by people.

His designed products included a remarkable transistor radio, made from ordinary metal food cans and powered by a burning candle that was designed to be produced in developing countries.

He demonstrated that a designer by freely giving of his / her time, talents and skills could make a living and still actually serve the ‘real needs’ of people. In other words he advocated volunteerism.

Papanek’s book was considered as the most widely read book on design in the world and was published at the same time as Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ and as Fritz Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ - both of which also have renewed relevance in contemporary society.

3. Brian O’Doherty’s seminal text ‘Inside the White Cube’; a pocket-sized book of the photographs of Ansel Adams; De Chirico, and a recent Prestel publication on the work of Giorgio Morandi
Giorgio Morandi
Morandi the Italian painter and printmaker after his early training and brief digressions into Futurism and Metaphysical painting from 1922 until his death in 1964 painted with a focus on subtle gradations of hue, tone and objects arranged in a unifying atmospheric haze. His paintings are noted for their subtlety in depicting apparently simple subjects, mainly limited to vases, bottles, bowls and flowers. The still lifes are reduced in their compositional elements and pure in form. He was a prolific painter leaving a legacy of 1350 oil paintings and 133 etchings and numerous drawings and watercolours. His style of simple repetitive motifs and economical use of colour, value and surface resonates with modernist abstraction and minimalism. Like De Chirico Morandi’s work was also admired by film makers Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni.

I believe his colour palette also merits study for architects and I love the fact that Morandi spent 40 years painting the same few objects over and over again and yet each one speaks to the viewer.

4. ‘Other Plans’ by Michael Sorkin Studio - a pamphlet in the Princeton Press pamphlet series; ‘First thoughts’, architects’ sketches published to raise funds for the Architects’ Benevolent Society; a recent Moleskine publication on the drawings of Peter Wilson of Bolles+ Wilson, and the competition project by Adolf Loos for twenty villas on the Cote D’Azur
Inspiration and Process in Architecture, the drawings of Bolles + Wilson
This recent Moleskine publication extends the publishers catalogue and foray into architecture and design books intended as a reading of design which emphasises the value of freehand drawing as part of the creative process.

Peter Wilson would, I suspect, be one of the two leading architects whose drawings inspire and encourage other architects and this little book combining drawings and short texts is an ‘extraordinary iconographic-cognitive map’ celebrating over 30 years of work. This book charts the design processes of the practice which begins with an initial phase of ‘analysing and listening to the setting that is to house the new work’. Wilson records the client’s requirements as notes and sketches and then with his own background begins the on-site investigation with notebook in hand.

Each page combines typology research, a preference for the contemporary and a strong expressive language.

The book contains three sections - ‘Architectural Notes and Sketchbook Recordings’, ‘Notebook Readings’ and ‘Place’. I love the accumulation of pen over pen, of layer upon layer that represents the personal dimension of the architect’s sensitivity and poetics. Wilson advocates ‘the power of glance’, that we be ‘aware that what is front of our eyes every day is the best lesson in the composition of forms.’ His view is that architectural drawing is today as Heidegger once said of poetry - more essential because it is so rare.

The marshalling of ideas represented by Peter Wilson, and I believe, his direct pragmatic philosophy that the accidental evolving through layers of application and correction produces a graphic that requires detailed scrutiny to unlock its small scale internal nuances and poetic resonances, produces beautiful, sensitive architecture.

5. ‘Complex Ordinariness’ by Bruno Krucker on the Upper Lawn Pavilion by the Smithsons; the work of Marcel Breuer; the ‘Buildings and Projects of Aldo Rossi’ published by Rizzoli, and ‘Une petite Maison’, Le Corbusier’s house for his mother
Complex Ordinariness by Bruno Krucker on the Upper Lawn Pavilion by the Smithsons with photographic essay by Georg Aerni
I almost feel reverential opening this beautiful book: not to say that the work of the Smithsons and particularly the Upper Lawn Pavilion requires such a feeling but rather the book itself, from the variety of texture of its cover to the balance of photographic essay, text, measured drawings and smaller diagrams and images, is beautifully composed, considered and crafted. Georg Aerni’s calm black and white photographs revealing every intimate detail of the pavilion evoke something of the character of Antonello da Messina’s painting of ‘Saint Jerome in his study’ and the ‘constant inseparable interaction of physical and spatial phenomena’, which is fundamental to the work of the Smithsons.

Upper lawn pavilion was built by the Smithsons as a holiday home but no detailed plans were available until this publication. Although largely completed by autumn of 1961 it was only in 1984 that the Smithsons started putting the pavilion into an architectural historical context. They did, however, record life with the house and its surroundings over a period of twenty years through photographs and diary notes.

Krucker’s eloquent essay contextualises the pavilion in the work of the Smithsons and in the cultural atmosphere of New Brutalism and as influence on the work of those architects pursuing an atmosphere of ‘as found’ in the reading and physicality of their architecture.

6. Rafael Moneo’s ‘Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies’; Selected Projects 1983 - 1993 by ‘Patkau Architects’; ‘Old Domestic Architecture of Holland’ - a publication of 1913 which includes measured drawings of both exterior and interior elevations and a range of images of domestic habitation, and ‘Kissing Architecture’ a recent Princeton press publication by Sylvia Lavin
Kissing Architecture, Sylvia Lavin
Sylvia Lavin, author of ‘Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture, is Chair of the PhD in Architecture programme and professor of Architectural History and Theory at UCLA. She is known for her scholarship and criticism in contemporary architecture and design.

Motivated by the architectural and cultural event possibilities described so tantalisingly by Lavin I went to see a Pipilotti (Elizabeth Charlotte) Rist exhibition in March at the Hayward Gallery in London and was inspired on seeing the installation of her work. Rist is a visual artist who works with film, video and moving images which are often displayed as projections. Much of her work is colourful and musical and transmits a sense of happiness and simplicity whilst having a clear agenda about issues of gender and sexuality.

I was both lightened, intrigued and enthused by her audio-video installation ‘Ever is Over All’ (1997) which shows in slow motion a young woman walking along a city street, smashing the windows of parked cars with a large hammer in the shape of a tropical flower and at one point a police officer smiles and greets her. The work was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and it was there in 2008 that her multimedia projection ‘Pour Your Body Out’ was installed which is chosen as the beginning of Lavin’s, almost sensual, publication. The work was about bringing together the ‘spirit as good and the body as bad’. The kiss of one on the other and it is this ‘ ...release from architecture’s suspended state of repeated mea culpas that kissing offers’. Installation art and site-specific art relies on architecture and depends on the structural support of building and yet has nothing genetic or material in common with it. I find this intriguing and an opportunity for creative imaginings.

‘Architecture’s most kissable aspect is its surface. ...surfaces are where architecture gets close to turning close to turning into something else and therefore exactly where it becomes vulnerable and full of potential.’

Doug Aitken also uses filmic projections and has produced film as architectural envelopes. He has worked with architects ‘Allied Works’ on house designs incorporating footage shot on site over several seasons: a house constructed out of images. And ‘when the snowy white film of wintertime is shown on the house in winter, the house will actually disappear.’

As many architects are at sea in a spiral of low economic activity and a dearth of commissions I’m inspired by the creative possibilities afforded by the continual change, conflict, friction and ‘development’ that installation-art and site-specific art praxis can bring to the practice of architecture.

Ciarán Mackel

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