Review of Circa Gallery
Mail & Guardian Nov 2009, by Sarah Calburn
What a relief! Finally, in this fettered city, an unfenced building has arisen. Chains of fortification cast off, the new Circa Gallery by Pierre Swanepoel of StudioMAS architects hovers bold and beautiful over the corner of Jan Smuts and Jellicoe Avenues in Parktown North. A free-floating elliptical mirage in dynamic shimmering equilibrium, this building unreservedly calls architecture into dialogue with sculpture. More than that, the new wing of the Everard Read Gallery portends a new urban consciousness.
The Read was always gracious, serene. Now the qualities of its core have been released, a gift to the urban domain. The Gallery has opened its previously sealed south-western edges and sculpture has been let loose onto the pavement. Across Keyes Avenue stands the Reads’ most ambitious piece of externalised work: the Circa Gallery. It’s a hovering egg, an infinitesimally colour-graded aluminium slatted ellipse floating over a recessed concrete podium that deftly negotiates the fall to Jan Smuts Avenue.
Branded into its concrete base are the names of its architect and builder. This simple act acknowledges architecture as art form: as maker and carrier of formal, mental and physical interactivity. It also signifies Mark and Christine Read’s passionate intent to create an experimental building the program of which is (im)precisely defined to forge new relationships, suggest new adjacencies, to operate in the free-floating realm of “circa”. This building is aimed at the making of collaborative space between dealers and dealers, between artists, consumers and connoisseurs, between dream and reality, history and science, between us and the world.
To get into Circa, we move off Keyes under the low wide curve of the suspended ellipse. Through a seamless glass security screen, we’re pressed into a little courtyard, hard up against the back of the tall Caltex building. Compressed below the hovering egg, we’re made aware of size: we’re a bit too big, we’re caught in looming scale and tiny detail. Senses in slight disarray, we’re forced to see the intricate pattern in the landscaped surface, the close-range detail of the rectangular glass walls that break the oval concrete core to our right.
We’re not quite sure where we’re going, but the curving egg pulls us on, the space keeps widening. A little gallery opens up to our right, a slightly sunken concrete bunker tucked under the body of the egg. This is the Speke Gallery, a space currently full of large panels by Karel Nel, a joint venture between Mark Read and Mark Valentine of Amatuli (with James Green) dedicated to showing globally sourced cultural artefacts. We squeeze our bodies from space to space, wonder at this tight division, and find out later that these walls can be pulled up, entirely, into the space above.
Further on we arrive at a reception desk as the egg curves tightly away to our right. We are standing on a stage, a platform looking west over a pond, high above the noise of Jan Smuts. A huge piece of meteorite, solidly black and alive with words, lies at our feet. The water is silent. To the left, an absurd fire escape caught in a silver cage falls to earth. Eduardo Villa has never looked so good. We begin another journey.
Gravity reversed, we are impelled up the ramp. Stroboscopic aluminium blades form our outer casing as we ascend the elliptical path with no end in sight. Glimpses of the city form and unform. Light and rain splay through the palings.
Again the tight curve: boom — we’re in a room. It is huge, ovoid, concrete, made for ancient objects, for unlikely gatherings, for art, music, ritual – a room built to the tune of geological time. Even the enormous curved doors have a speed, a deafening slowness to their swing. Future histories glimmer in the light reflected off a submerged mirror; a standing wave pattern develops from the light cast through the door.
Up the egg again past the palings, around the last bend. This time the awakening is slow and wondrous. The roof carves away overhead, the palings swoop down in a long lazy curve, we’re on the roof deck of the world… Northcliff’s a sleepy Lion’s Head cradled in the view. Our familiar is made so strange it’s exhilarating. I want to come here for drinks every evening. Pity that this top floor isn’t a wine bar. This is the by-invitation-only Darwin Room, the Reads’ private think-space.
Which they deserve, for commissioning and championing an astoundingly affective piece of experimental architecture. A building that engages both intellect and bodily senses, Circa winds you up, and it winds you down again in equally effective reverse. Descending, you notice details both hidden and overt as they are variously employed either to counterpoint or to heighten the seamlessness of the difficult ellipse. At this level, Swanepoel’s signature blend of architectural elegance, formal manipulation, attention to surfaces and smooth masculine engineering is clear.
Later, driving down Jan Smuts in an evening traffic-jam, relegated to “normal” car-bound citizenship again, you will re-experience the magic of Circa. It transmits a rare pleasure in this conspicuously phobic city of ours: a shared experience of the urban landscape.
Johannesburg functions within a culture of simultaneous display and concealment. Booming bling operates behind the blind walls of shopping malls, brands compete on the neutral ground of giant billboards, spaces of struggle and pleasure (and wealth) have always required concealment. As a result, navigation of this city requires an exaggerated insider knowledge. Maps don’t show the closed-off roads, and urban landmarks are few and far between. Public urban space has been relegated to traffic island, pavement, parking lot; the city is configured to security and the drive-by.
The Circa Gallery makes a playground of this culture. Aluminium “fence” drawn into itself, it is both bound and unbound. Surface and depth are cast into oscillating relationship. The building is a landmark that can be accessed by foot or drive-by. Its ethos has ricocheted backwards, acting to break the walls of Everard Read.
And it plays havoc with Joburg’s town-planning regulations. “Circulation” is not considered “bulk”, so the outer elliptical ramp and stair (so crucial to the architectural experience) occupy territory under the radar. The monolithic, landscape-like scale of this building has been achieved on this tightest of corner sites largely through the manipulation of a loophole.
This building oversteps its boundaries. It is a rare work: a product of passion, commitment and — in all senses — manipulation of the givens. It is a building whose cues Johannesburg ignores at its peril.
Sarah Calburn is an architect in private practice. She sits on the board of the Gauteng Institute for Architecture and is currently running a series of design workshops for professionals called RAPID THOUGHT TRANSPORT: Architects re-imagine Joburg.
No One Looks at Buildings
I’ve been hanging out of my mother’s spare bedroom window
This sweltering afternoon
Illicitly smoking and
Attempting to blow my disgusting evidence into our overburdened atmosphere
Instead of into the curtains and the bedding
Wearing only the skimpiest
Of embroidered bras
While wrestling with another poem
This January week in the city of Cape Town
Where urbanity, I thought, has not entirely been effaced –
Street life, I thought, was still an option, here
Unlike the car-numbed malled-out private paradise we call Johannesburg
There’s no shortage of people on the street in Vredehoek
In the park opposite, mothers swing their children
People come in and out of buildings, talk, there’s music across the road
Groups of men walk up the hill, hawking – I hear muttered abuse
Taxis with open windows cruise by continually
People are hanging their elbows out in the heat
Hanging their heads out in the crowded heat
You’d think someone would see me up here
In my illicit bra.
Illicit observer, it turns out, as
People don’t look up –
They don’t look up –
At the buildings we try
So hard to make.
From the highway, I’ve been watching a building go green –
First, it suppurated and turned white –
Overflowed its bathroom windows – a sort of soapy vomit
Which, when joined with other human oozings, dried to black.
Now, in the recent rains, this black velvet façade of running shit
Has bloomed a violent mossy green…
The lurid lime of a ferny forest floor, or
A 10 storey field…
And sewerage fed, a tree rises from the roof
A bushveld tree – 3m high and umbrella-ing rapidly –
… a kind of kiepersol, or a weed?
Hanging gardens, breathing buildings, and oh –
A vertical farmland:
Funny how the stuff of contemporary discourse
Could be said to
Claim a special niche in Joburg’s vicious cracks…
We are crumbling into green…
City shops sell candles, paraffin and blankets.
The other day I noticed a tiny plant
Growing in my shower.
Mutual Deformations – Towards a Green Agenda in Architecture
– A talk given to green Building Conference 2009
I was asked in a recent interview if I would call myself a “green architect”…. 2 My immediate gut response was “no”, 3 not because I have a naturally contrary personality, 4 but because this term “green” seems to me either too limiting, or too wide, as it is currently purveyed. 5 I wasn’t sure what I’d be buying into, or even how the term is purveyed… and so I have started 6 to think around the question of what a ‘green architecture, or what a ‘green agenda’ for architecture’ might be:
7 I suppose my most visceral first thought was that I have a certain resistance to definitions that start to imply a ‘style’, 8 or that might lay down a rigid set of determinants that would serve to limit (or pre-figure) 9 what for me is always a ‘free’ act of design…10 I do not consider ‘style’ a generator for design at any level. 11 Style is an outcome…
12 My planted buildings, for example, which might be considered ‘green’, are outcomes, not pre-figurations… 13 they came from response, 14 or from more complicated ideas of blur and of framing… 15 From ideas of view, of point of view, of mirroring, of expansion and heightening of consciousness of place – 16 These buildings do not set out to be ‘green’ . 17 These buildings came from mutual conceptions of landscape and architecture, 18 of mutual becomings in space and time..19…. 20 I also talk about other less ‘green’ work of mine in terms of landscape, 21 and these buildings do not have planted roofs to make them ‘green’ – 22 they are buildings mutually conversational with their locating landscapes, simply…23
24 The best definition of style as I know it comes from my favourite philosopher Gilles Deleuze: 25 He defines style as a “linked series of postures”. 26 Style, therefore, must come after the fact, 27 a cumulative and recognisable result of the actions that have already been realised…28 So – I don’t start from any notion of ‘green’ in these terms… 29A planted roof does not a green building make…
30 If we work back from style, possibly the most limited of commonly ‘limiting’ definitions, and 31 perhaps what was not in fact even meant by the question, 32 I would ask, then, how is this term “green” 33currently understood, locally? 34Is ‘green’ still the application of passive energy systems to a normative architecture? It seems to me that “green” is still largely conceived in architecturally un-experimental South Africa as a 35 term for applied systems –solar geysers on a Tuscan house …36 Grey water collection to a suburban house form… These are systems which are not seen to substantially change architectural form and language… They are pragmatic applications applicable to anything… I too have dealt in applied systems, but this, to me, does not define me as a ‘green’ architect…
37 How else could we describe ‘green’? In other and equally pragmatic (and equally limiting) terms, I would say that South Africa has a fairly established 38 tradition of climatic response, -here is a well-thumbed book dating from the 70’s I found on a South African bookshelf… 39 The roots of ‘green’, these are logical design strategies which are currently being stressed all over again – a return to the basics – and these should – 40 in my opinion – form part of the knee-jerk arsenal of any architect worth their salt. Nowadays we have 3 D modeling programs which can predict sun penetration into a building in a second, unlike this intensely laborious drawing I did in 1997 for a house in the Waterberg.. 41These strategies have, after all, over the many generations, generated all sorts of local typologies – we need look no further 42 than the Transvaal verandah house, as a quick example… 43 We are no strangers to the benefits and calculations of sun angles, spatial routes to natural ventilation, solar absorbtion of natural stone tiles and concrete surfaces, and we can easily take on the simple techniques of energy capture in our immensely livable climates… 44 All too easy to accommodate sub-surface bed insulation, shading, or solar glass, low E glass – 45 All these are less and more expensive types of applied material strategies… Beyond common sense design, I don’t think we can really count small scale, 46 expensive green ‘solutions’, particularly in private housing, when everybody still careens about the country in Porsche Cayennes to get to their second, greener homes?
And does a site specific, contextual climatic response qualify one as a ‘green’ architect? I’m not sure – perhaps, partly.
47 So to my last, and most exigent definition: The scientific, the economic, the social views of “green” architecture would see it in terms of the “triple bottom line”, which would involve all categories of social, economic and environmental sustainabilities. 48 Within the architectural process, there exist both the temporal and the spatial conditions of manufacture and use-over-time. 49 Concrete, bricks, steel, glass and aluminium will never qualify as “green” in their manufacture, 50and they are limited in their re-use without serious energy consumption during re-processing. 51 Basically, unless you are making 52 straw bale or adobe buildings, carving into rock faces or recycling material into new kinds of small-scale 53one off configurations, architects seem limited, currently, to a series of strategies to offset energy consumption… 54
These offset strategies can take a number of forms – 55 in one sense, ‘offset strategy’ takes into itself a range of energy-producing technological experiments, which in these slides show you ideas about harnessing human movement and pleasure on dance floors, 56 then an experimental house that uses a curtain to generate energy – 57 and there is investigation all over the world about harnessing existing movement: road surfaces, and car braking systems for example: all these are strategies that can be turned to re-powering the city – 58 but all these attempts, are as yet small scale – 59 they have not, as yet, turned to a more major re-conception and strategies for realization 60 that in a larger sense redefine our patterns of living, building, and use.
61This word “offset” seems to me extremely interesting: Principally: when does ‘offset’ strategy start to become ‘avoidance strategy’?
“Avoidance and offset strategies”, as I see it, manifest in several ways, and all of these ways have ramifications for the quality of South African architecture and cities and our social possibilities:
62 The first ‘avoidance of architecture’ as I see it, is currently configured in this country around the ‘give the client what they want’ scenario that I see ruining so many opportunities for 63 fresh and innovative thinking in the formation of the architectural and urban body … 64 This is a scenario that I see every day condemning us to the perpetual unrolling of an anonymous and franchised landscape 65 that we still somewhat optimistically refer to as ‘Joburg’… 66 a landscape of botoxed, faked up, 67 overweight and under-conceptualised building taken hostage by developer-led ‘style’ bound up with the lowest common denominator of unschooled and undiscriminating client-led desire.
68 I see an architecture stripped of its power, its vocabulary become weak and emasculated, servile… Architects in this country find themselves cast out of their historical roles as urban visionaries, cast out from their historic positions of the keepers of a certain sphere of necessarily experimental knowledge: I see architects either ignored, or reduced to decorators, to a wasteful element… 69 I see architects out of tune with their power, with their imaginations, with their voices and their visions: Architects have been reduced to the lackeys of city planners and developers … 70 I see a built architecture out of step with the future, a dangerous ugly wasteful and often cruel architecture essentially contemptuous of humankind and the world… There is a defeat of hope and optimism perpetuated through all the architectures I have shown you above into our society: across the board from rich to poor .. In so many ways, we seem locked into the old centrist paradigms. Real architectural thought appears avoided. Voided.
71 The second ‘offset strategy’ I see is more obviously bound up with my conception of a green agenda: This strategy would act to continuously separate architecture and landscape from one another… 72 This strategy would perpetually condemn landscape to the “offset strategy’: to exterior decoration, to carbon offset, to the planting of trees…, as mitigation to the built, or as excluded terrain 73 and thus to something ‘set apart’ from architecture… something inimical…something perceived as either decorative, ameliorative, or “natural”, innocent, something external or other…
74 I see in the current South African approach to its city growth a landscape which cannot be called ‘green’ in any terms 75 other than those of the ‘offset’: It may be harsh judgement, but into this offset category I would include both 76 fenced private gardens passively surrounding their houses, 77 and those neglected parts that form the public domain, 78 largely made up of planted traffic islands, which seem fairly continuously non-integrated with the architectural body, and along William Nicol for example are falling prey to some of the most hideous exterior decoration I have ever seen …
79 Across Joburg I see a continually unfurling default landscape which forces endless circuits of travel and traffic and distance, 80 which is socially stratified and non-inclusive, 81 which still appears to buy into old zoning schemes which essentially act to divide and control – 82 I see an urban landscape which does not seem to re-use or re-imagine itself in any real way – 83 an urban landscape which is continually laid out, 84 raw and naked, or pretentious, fortified, fenced and consumptive, 85 its older parts forgotten, 86 neglected, 87 abandoned, 88 forgotten, 89 misused and abused through neglect 90and the failure of imagination and 91desire towards the making and participation in 92 a new hybrid society. 93 Its new landscapes are reconfigured as decoration, mitigation – 94 its parks –both new and old – are fenced or considered dangerous. 95 Its inner wastelands – 96 which hold huge and vibrant opportunities for reconfiguration of ourselves – 97 are left for dead… a symbol of our lack of societal imagination and mutual good intent..
98 All of the above criticisms form a wide-ranging set of what I would call offset or avoidance strategies… These strategies are, to my mind, what keep us so disastrously out of our future, and leave us way out of any ‘green agenda’. If a real engagement is sought with the “triple bottom line”, (which as I said would involve all categories of social, economic and environmental sustainabilities), then it would seem to me that the first engagement would take place at the level of societal attitude and the public domain.
99 As far as I can see, a real ‘green agenda’ must act to transform our highly divided and mutually distrustful South African publics… A real ‘green agenda’ would seriously challenge the insidious public/private divide that so dangerously cuts through our South African cities and which acts to curtail so severely the formation of a truly public domain in this country.
100 Think Melrose Arch, for example, and all those gated enclaves… I regard these as deeply cynical projects, essentially, in their fortification against the public and their entrenchment of elitist access and control. I would add that all our fences and walls, most critically, enact a further separation of architecture from the very problematic urban conditions which could stimulate it into inventive action. Fences limit architecture to weak acts of facadism. Fences are a very crucial avoidance strategy.
101 To me, the greatest potential of a “green agenda” would hold within itself the possibility for ratcheting up ‘urbanity’, for funneling new and more creative modes of living and working and connecting at a landscape-urbanist-infrastructural as well as a more intimate architectural scale… In other words, I would see this ‘green agenda’ having broad ramifications for the spatial re-distribution of city-components, with what I would conceive of as a concomitant renewal or alteration of societal relations…
102 A “green agenda”: then, is going to mean a move into urban innovation, and that requires a complex and rich re-imagining of ourselves and of our societies. How can we do more with less? How will we re-direct our material flows? How do we live closer to ourselves and closer to our imaginations? All these problems are enormous design stimuli. I want us to begin this move into re-imagination of ourselves…
103 I consider design a form of research – I have recently initiated a series of design masterclasses for professional architects which seeks to re-imagine Joburg, in the process aiming to open up all the problematics I have discussed above.… 104 In my opinion, the introduction of the Gautrain and the BRT offer Joburg for the first time in at least 100 years a potentially seriously PUBLIC platform which has the potential to radically restructure the urban body.
105 I’m going to describe quickly of the scenarios we’ll be looking at – we’ve already done two, so I include now some of the images produced thus far.
What if the M1 Highway became defunct as a private transport route – 106 what if it were replaced by a high speed transit system – 107 what if this broad strip of land became home to the many workers who service the suburbs – 108 an erasure of the financial and material suck of 109 daily transport from home to work and back again … 110 What new kind of public interaction could be achieved, 111 what new societal urban landscapes born? 112 What kinds of buildings would we see – 113 and what kinds of social space? 114 What new patterns of dissonance and coherence? 115 What new linkages and connectivities?
116 What if every property owner were forced to provide 3 public functions along their boundary walls? 117 What if the suburban traffic conduits became reconceived as urban parkland, kitted out with spaza shops, public urinals, lighting and benches, urban lounges, playgrounds? 118 What would happen to that tightly controlled line between private and public? How would society change? What would your contribution be to your boundary wall, to the public domain? 119 How would you deal with the perceived threat, with your received histories, your prejudice?
120 What of the inner city, and its signs of re-use, new use, and abuse? 121 What if there was a wholesale optimistic reinhabitation of the city centre 122 and our industrial graveyards and wastelands? 123, What would this mean for your daily pattern of social contacts? 124 What if the inner city had large swathes of its ground floor removed, and 125 was re-conceived as an urban surface – an urban landscape of flows, 126 markets, 127public life, 128 park life?
129 I am utterly convinced of the fact that architecture frames us just as we frame it. 130 That the experience of architecture can change thought and lived experience.
131 As I am wont to say, I consider architecture an art, a complex technical and cultural and philosophical spatial language. 132 Architecture is one of humankind’s most potent material manifestations, and is, therefore, 133 extremely revealing of the way we conceive ourselves, 134 the way we construct our particular places and selves and aspirations in time. 135 As an architect, I see architecture naked and unashamed in its ability to expose our attitudes – both to ourselves, and to others.
136 If you think of architecture as landscape-forming and not simply as a container for style driven interior decoration or as a fashionable-or-not means to keep the weather out, then 137 you can see that it is not just the spatial medium in which we construct and house our desires and our necessities. 138 Architecture is also a kind of constant companion within and without which we experience our very particular human becomings in time, in space; 139 within and without which our very particular humanities are framed, grounded and directed. Architecture quite literally frames our view, it conditions our seeing, it interferes with perception. 140 It is, in other words, active in the formation and re-formation of ourselves, and our relations between ourselves: we call this “society”.
141 Architecture forms our ‘constructed landscape’: 142 it constructs the spatial tone of our cultural, 143 physical, mental, spatial, relational, and 144 discursive or societal relations and aspirations. 145 I am interested in architecture, in its forms and processes and experimentations, which I see as being inextricably linked as well as mutually contingent and deforming.
146 I have, for a while, been interested in what I like to call the “mutually deforming relationships” that exist as a 147 force-field between landscape and architecture. I like to think that I work in this mutually moving field, and that this field 148 opens itself very widely to creative thinking, because, simply, it is RELATIONAL, and is to certain extents, then, vulnerable and explosive. Just like a human relationship.
149 As I said earlier, Landscape is often mistakenly taken for NATURE, and is thus constructed as inimical to architecture. Nature implies something ‘natural’ – untampered with, unconstructed by the seeing eye – innocent, in other words… I will quote James Corner – the English landscape urbanist – who has written that 150 “Landscape is both spatial milieu and cultural image. As such, and as with architecture, “the construction of landscape space is inseparable from particular ways of seeing and acting”.
151 In other words, as we frame the landscape, so it frames us. We are always in active and mutually deforming relationship… Here is the philosopher Nelson Goodman writing in the 60’s in his book the Language of Art: 152 “To a complaint that his portrait of Gertrude Stein did not look like her, Picasso is said to have answered. “No matter, it will”… Goodman continues to say that “… Nature imitates art is too timid a dictum. Nature is a product of art and discourse.”
153 And so I see both Architecture and Landscape dealing most crucially in representation, in artifice, both sets are able to cross all the boundaries between the imaginary/mental and the physical – 154 they are both absolutely involved with ways of seeing… and ways of acting.
155 Architecture and Landscape are two conditions long considered as opposite, and two conditions utterly informing and informed by our very living and seeing. Land is too often regarded merely as ‘passive’ –an available site to be built upon, conquered, covered, 156 or else it is treated as a simple, sometimes beautiful backdrop. Philosophically or otherwise we can no longer afford to conceive of ourselves in our world as stably defined entities in opposition: 157 these previously apparently ‘clear’ states can be seen now, to slide about in a mutually contingent continuum of movement and mutual affect – 158 Now the old oppositions form fantastic fields of mutual deformation and possibility: 159 the play between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ opens a huge door to thought and architectural potential…
160 So we are part of a fluid quantum universe which has moved philosophy from these fairly static states of ‘being’ to the far more potent movable feast of ‘becoming’. 161 I like to think we act on one another and our domain in powerful and creatively unpredictable force field of mutual becoming and deformation. 162 Really, what we are, in Deleuzian terms, what we are as human beings with imaginative minds, is a dynamic threshold between the 163 virtual and the actual. So you see, as I see it, this thought casts us, most excitingly, into a constantly creative state 164 in a perpetually oscillating field – a field, now, perhaps, of GREEN…
165 Can we find here – in the mutual possibilities of architecture and landscape – an inventive strategy towards the 166 making of robust and inclusive buildings and cities which use energy-consumptive materials, but which use them as instruments 167
towards infrastructural longevity and change and 168 generosity in mind? Can we invent strategies that are able to adapt multiply over time…? 169 Are we able to conceive new spatial distributions of work and play which can radically reconfigure our societies and urban landscapes and start to make sense of what might be termed ‘common purpose’?
170 Are we able to conceive new urban landscapes and new architectures that start to become landscape forming – 171 that start to contribute to mankind’s view of itself, that start to ratchet up the relations between the earth and mankind? 172 To my mind, along with these inventions comes a certain lively experimentation, and a 173 sometimes uncertain set of new imaging techniques…
174 A ‘green’ consciousness is at the forefront of most contemporary architectural production, certainly in its imaging. 175 In their massing, in their conceptual formal agendas, these buildings start to talk of geographies, 176 of weathers, of the texture and form and scale of the land and its inhabiting organisms, 177 of the mathematics of the bio-sphere.. 178 These are projects that are literally ‘landscape-forming’ – they are also often infrastructural.
179 Architecture has always reflected the philosophical and scientific construction of its day – 180 astrophysics and classical constructions of the universe are extremely readable through the architectural canon…181 There may very well be a distance between artistic and ecological approaches,182 however in these images one can start to see the results of a green consciousness conducting research through design. 183 I don’t know if any of the examples I am showing here would 184 base themselves on performance based agendas that go beyond the usual application of systems – 185 but – all these buildings at least APPEAR to form infrastructures, and appear to be conducting research of various kinds. 186 These buildings appear to form Organisms which work across a range of concerns…organisms which physically inform what Mark Swilling has called the ‘social metabolism’..
187 I am most interested in how these buildings might change the mental frames of their users 188 towards a heightened awareness of environment: 189. of how these buildings might exert ‘agency’, in other words… 190 how they might influence attitudes.. and consequently, 191 action in the world.
192 I would point out that most of these buildings I am showing are the result of international competitions – in other words – that this is how innovation is sought from the architectural fraternity globally, and this is how the world grows and changes and renews its imagination. 193 In SA, we get calls for tenders, which are entirely based on a written team make-up, and have no relation to design ability or calls for innovation. The brief is always considered a given.
I believe that architecture, like science or philosophy, should be able to experiment within its field, taking on conceptual problems and interests much larger than itself. 194 Architects are, after all, the specialized operators of the many tools of architecture, all of which add up to an act of translation: not the client, not the developer, not the tender evaluator. Architects are able to offer many and different nuanced visions of an optimistic and vital world which is able not only to shelter and sustain us, but to inspire us… We make our (built) world, after all, and we should be held accountable for the envisioning of that world.
195 Most importantly, I conceive one of architectures’s primary roles to be that of the speculative, experimental and inspirational re-framing of South African society post ‘94. As architecture, landscape and urbanism, are, really, forms of the self-imagination and re-imagination of a PUBLIC, it is this realm that needs the most serious re-
envisioning. It is within the re-imagination of this realm that I believe we find the keys to a ‘green agenda’.
196 And so I will define a ‘green agenda’, then, as a mode of thought that runs the gamut of societal, economic, political, cultural and ecological relations. It should be a MODE OF THOUGHT in which all futures become uncertain – experimental – and quantumly imaginative.
And all the generosities I have spoken of here would apply.
PIA 23 Sept 2015
Architecture is a strange beast:
It has insides, and it has outsides.
It operates through tactics of total immersion.
In the hectic ‘doing’ of being a practicing architect, as one daily navigates being lawyer, accountant, psychologist, lateral thinker, conflict resolution specialist, designer, teacher, mother, partner, boss and business manager, there is the incredible challenge of maintaining, or even noticing – let alone feeding or critically reading – one’s inner reserves of ideas, thoughts and desires. It is these that at subterranean level inform every design decision one takes.
I am interested, now, in excavating these interiorities, my backstories. What are my subliminal interferences? Which are the anchors and which the outriggers of my spatial intelligence? How would I describe my architectural gut: my microbiome? Why do I despise fashion and branding? Why not be a painter, a sculptor, a poet?
If I were to define Architecture, I would say this: Architecture is not the ‘containment of space’, it always involves the making of a conscious and critical ‘opening of space’.
Since I wrote this long half talk- half poem, I should say:
I think I should have called this Immersion: Tactics of Immersion
I hope to open up some space now, in my head, and in yours:
Shall I tell you about
My background movie
Or as they call it these days, my ‘backstory’ –
A term that kind of confounds me, because
Novels, for example, are ONLY backstories, and poems too –
What the hell is a front story?
A newspaper headline
Some snappy shorthand, all
Gossip and glory
A great newspaper poster seen on a tree near me – recently –
MORE SKELETONS IN OUR CUPBOARD
Its Headline news: Our front-page story:
Fossils in the Mofussil ….
Façade, facades, facadism, facados-miento, cimientos, faschada, fascia, fascismus, fascisti, fasta pasta
Pull another fast one
Je suis fache!
I am brave but losing face, losing face
Skating on the surface of
Thin ice and
The selfie isn’t healthy
I have an unhealthy
Fear of Fakeration, fa fa fa
Too many F’s in here.
IMMERSION does it for me:
I read the FT –
“The other day I heard the expression “moral retard” for the first time. One normally thinks of a different kind of retardation. This a quote from Beppi Grillo, the Italian comedian and leader of the 5 Star Party, which commands at least a quarter of the Italian vote. He should come over here. Moral retards. I think I may have to call Redi – I quite often call Redi, and sometimes have to restrain myself. It seems to me that she provides the only real public space we have – where everyone and anyone can speak. Free space, moderated by a just and wise voice.
Masks imperfect inhibition –
Are those modest blushes or
Layers of concealer?
Un-masked, un-disguised, un-defended
Soft snail, are you a
Front page story, a money shot, a set-piece,
A Page 3 girl
A show pony – but why are we talking about horses?
In a manner of trotting, may we request that you and your building make
A perfect picture, please.
“I remember being blown away in the early 90’s by an article by Ignasi de Sola Morales Rubio. At the time I was reading astrophysics and Gilles Deleuze in random combination while doing a Masters of Architecture at RMIT in Melbourne. Interiority. Everything was busy being an interior.
The article in particular – called ‘Colonization, Violence, Resistance’ – talks about possible strategies of resistance to a contemporary political situation, which of course spoke urgently to my particular history of being a South African.
Following Deleuze, de Sola Morales spoke of inescapable enmeshment within pervasive networks of power, a condition which can only be described as one of total interiority. As he remarked, this seems somewhat like the constant expansion of the Universe. The galaxy, after all, is an interior.
(And I want to say now in brackets: Isn’t the constant expansion of the universe rather fabulously illustrated now by the constant expansion of Social Networks, and our seemingly limitless absorption into them? Thus far only the deep waters of Facebook have claimed me and only in a relatively shallow way, and I feel proudly resistant to Twitter, Tinder, Grinder, and Wonker – )
But before I read all this stuff in Melburne in the early 90’s, my Wits thesis in 1986 was called ‘In the Belly of the Beast’. It seems I was on the same track.
My Wits thesis used collage as a mechanism for design, and for thinking. Thinking about it now, thinking now about why collage fascinated me so much — all through school I made collages on my files and prep-books — I realise that my instinctive draw towards collage may have been because collage manufactures a kind of depth. It makes space. It is able to draw opposites and differences into conversation. It makes new and unexpected interiors out of random given externals.
Kurt Schwitters and his Merzbau… Making collages with detritus – stuff found on the street.
Merzbau, Schmerzbau. It was painful shit, not being properly Dada.
I’d like you to note, now, please, that I was born in black and white.
I operated in a black and white age of photocopies. Before that we had purple roneo-ing machines…. You could get high on the fumes of your Grade 3 handout… Google images delivers in colour these days, and I wonder what my thesis document COULD have looked like…
Cut up crappy photocopies – a fitting reuse strategy, I guess, that embodies the emergency afforded by collage. Montage.
As I look at some of these Cubist paintings assemblages now, these must indisputably be sources for Frank Gehry’s later work. I was madly in love with Frank’s 1980’s house. I am not madly in love with his latest work.
Duchamp and the Large Glass made a most compelling and seductive kind of Cabinet of Curiosities for me – I too, was a compulsive gatherer of found objects – I still have a flattened piece of carburettor, or fan belt, or whatever it is, and a couple of strange reject objects found upon my endlessly fascinating Newtown site.
I was seriously inspired by the idea of collage. I loved Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s Collage City – What got me the most about Collage City was his evocation of Nolli’s map of Rome, and it’s absolutely black and white, indisputable demonstration of public space within the city fabric. The city as an interior.
At the same time I was involved with Lloyd Ross of Shifty Records, sharing a lot of time and space with Warrick Sony of the Kalahari Surfers who was a cut-up sound specialist of note. Can you see the reversed earphones around his neck? These were not for listening, but for surreptiously recording.
Nolli and Rowe provided me with the most graphic refutation and proof of the urban failure of Joburg that I could find, and it was this tension of resistance in graphic demonstration, spatial demonstration, that fired my engines.
I crept into the Rand Club one evening after jolling at Jameson’s which was over the road… I leopard crawled below the Security Guard in the back entrance, remembering my mothers’ scathing remarks that “women and jews” were not allowed through these hallowed portals… In the interior of this building I found a world that reminded me of Paris –
Joburg a map of Nolli’s Rome – reversed.
I always tell thesis students that they should revel in their thesis year –
It is their chance to build a bellyful of ideas that will set the tone for the rest of their lives.
I tell them that:
They are free to co-opt everything in their experience – seen, heard, read
To bend it
Anyway they want it –
In thesis year
Everything can become relevant – internalised, absorbed
Filtered through the personal poetic – its only
If you read, if you notice
Get intense, visceralise
Be the centre of your world, whether
Strange attractor or reactor:
Become litmus – coordinator
Strange arranger –
In Melbourne, almost 10 years after my Wits B.Arch thesis, I did a long 10-projector projected project inspired by the Ecstacy of St Teresa – a topic that was put forward to the class by Ashton Raggatt McDougall – a pair of the most inventive and possibly misanthropic architects working then and still working – more madly, perhaps – today.
My project was –again – amazingly, now it seems to me, about interiors, the interior of the universe, the interior of Australia, interior of the earth, (remember my mining town heritage) the interior of structure, of ideas, of self, of one’s sources of inspiration and internal poetics. The project re-inhabited a cemetery in the centre of Melbourne that had become full. A ritual space.
The project worked through 3 lenses:
1 – Appropriation, or Misappropriation of ideas : as I put it, I was looking for “improper connections between ideas” – this has to be a term that can turn you on
2 – Vision – here the ecstatic vision of St Teresa – becomes the open excavation of one’s inspirations, thoughts, sources – a transfigurational state in which ideas transmute from thought to form
3 – the Picturesque – this was a theme throughout my 2 years at RMIT, again brought on by Ashton Raggatt McDougall together with Shane Murray, who is now head of Monash’s new architecture school — I projected the Picturesque here through an idea of concavity: I made concavity a condition of interiority – I wanted to enter the VISCERAL VIEW. I even figured the buildings as meat.
In 1985, in 4th year, I had lived and worked in Paris – a penurious student who was followed about the metro on occasion by sniggers as I made my own collaged clothing out of various bits and pieces. These were some more respectable dresses I made while doing my thesis –
My home-coming project took the form of a 6m long collage. The year was intense, full, difficult, beautiful, full. The good thing about collage is does not have an end. The collage is not a progression.
When I look around the walls of my home and the art that I have bought over the years, I find that a lot of it involves Construction, or assemblage – a form of collage.
It seems clear that the reason collage makes ‘space’ is that collage allows the mind to enter into the spaces between things. Improper connections between ideas make space.
Back in Melbourne, I read De Sola Morales’s term Interiority as Subjectivity. Subject to one’s own perspective, skewed to oneself. Distorted by one’s internal, and most personal poetry.
I did a long project a about single point perspective which involved naked recumbent women – the odalisque as a horizontal skyscraper, to be precise. A horizontal alternative to the tallest building in the world, at that point being proposed in Melbourne by a virile developer called Bruno Grollo.
Anamorphism is the technical term.
I guess in some ways these Melbourne years conspired with a long held conviction of mine that “Externals aren’t Important” since they can be configured any which way by whoever might be looking at any point in time, and looking from any point.
Your building might be an accident, actually. It could be configured, make sense from one, two or three points of view, only.
What is it about belonging?
In 2015, brands and beards interest me less – tattoos are tat and
The selfie simply cannot be healthy –
Recently, apparently, the dreaded word TREND has taken a bend
“A dirty word”
Says Anna Wintour
“Now, it’s all about Idiosyncracy”.
By that I take it mean she means
Well, this is a piece of riveting frontline news, and
Here we go again.
What is it about belonging?
Has uncontrollable dimensions:
Space is multiple. Quadruple and quintuple.
I’m not too interested in surface treatments, and sometimes I am less than interested in facades
Even of my own making
Unless they are
Speaking in multiples, a
Engaged? Too often static.
You’re breaking up!
Let’s go live,
Forwards and back
Shade, sun, let’s speak
Back to front
In time —-
Making a point, an investigation, a reference
Unless they are —
I quote Leon van Schaik – whom some of you may remember:
This excerpt is from his latest book, “Practical Poetics in Architecture”, a copy of which I received the other day:
“Architecture is a practice that arises from spatial thinking. Like everything in our material culture, every act of architecture has its poetics, that is to say a ‘reading’ specific to its conception and realisation. To understand this poetics is to understand individual and communal histories in space and the values these have imbued in each architect.
“It is also to understand the political positon of every act of architecture because, unlike more autonomous arts, architecture acts upon those who build it and those who occupy it….
“Without this understanding, architecture struggles to register its power to help society in its pursuit of wellbeing, and is relegated to being a symbolic backdrop to transitory acts of consumption”.
So you see
It is impossible to read much beyond the spectacle when the only symbolism is consumption.
I love Leon van Schaik, and I thank god that he headed RMIT when I was there.
He has made and continues to make
I am terrified that Johannesburg is really only becoming a symbolic backdrop
To transitory acts of consumption:
Sometimes I get despondent, because often here
In my city of back and front stories
Architecture remains un-thought, un-investigated, under critiqued.
This city of miners has forgotten how to mine
Mine my meaning, mine
It’s the headline news:
Fossils in the Mofussil.
You would think that here
We would be dancing the dance of the 7 veils,
Shaking our butts to
The sexy requisites of SECURITY.
These apartheid-given layers of boundary walling, secondary fencing, covered patios, shuttered walls, booms and beams
OH: Beams and berms, buttressed bums, boom-tastic
The Boomtown FatCats
A slow strip-tease
ALERT!!!!!!!!!!!!! Alarm rings in the distance!! Nyow nyow nyow!!!! Bee bar bee bar, call the cops
You have just missed the capture of a giant
The thief in the night is Theory
What if the Council told you that you could only make a wall around your building if you offered 3 public functions??? Just imagine what you could do………………urinal / bench / light / bath
In Mandalay people still shower on street corners…………
If I’m not to go mad
We have the wonderful world of Oz
Right here at our fingertips
Can’t we scale the walls of
Our pissy paranoias, our pruriently pathetic Pavlovian politics, our blinkered bling
Upon some far more potent spatial ifs –
What if we mined
Our Wonderfully World Class Series of Interiors –
If you think of the city as an interior, the very conception of
Public Space is changed –
AS I have oft been heard to say, our only public space
Seems to have devolved onto the
Pavement, the Road surface and the Traffic Island –
Urban emergency, cutting edge blunt but still
Bee bar, neow neow and all that, our
Connective tissue’s weak
Out there it’s dry and bleak
Young bones glare in the sun, I’m done
Façade and fence conspire to
Keep Them out.
Us and Them.
Maboneng is a thing if you agree that
The City is a Stage –
Dress up corner in the Nursery was such fun
And the props!
Curating, making, make believe, it’s all good, right?
In my neighbourhood what’s more,
Formerly isolated, (20 years we are from Bob’s)
We are now
3 minutes from dinner or a bar –
No chance of a roadblock
And breathe through this
Paying it forward, playing it back
Promotional deluge, Instagram frenzy
Fashion, money, bla bla
Honey, old’s alright?
I can’t help think that a
Selfie isn’t healthy.
Tweed clad knickerbockered gentlemen with side partings ride the streets of Maboneng on their bicycles, monocles dangling from waistcoat pockets. I suppose it’s a laugh. Its fashiontastic.
I suppose Maboneng is a laugh. I just don’t find it that funny.
I am tempted to write a poem muddling the words Gentrification and Generification, a Brandenburg Symphony – but I won’t. Not yet.
Once I saw a wannabe graffiti-ist, especially travelled on the night train from Durban, being warned off by Maboneng Security: “But man, I thought it was cool to like tag here”?
Private city. A contradiction in terms, one would think?
In terms of straight facades-
Circa is the only South African reference I can readily crank up
A critical incursion into a
Terribly broken and incoherent stretch of Jan Smuts
Façade fence façade fence façade fence –
Flat made round
Circa succeeds at all levels:
Constructively critical, it is beautiful too.
“Poetics came into use in architecture when Gaston Bachelard’s 1957 book The Poetics of Space was published….
Leon van Schaik continues: “ Architects need to establish their own understandings of the roots and origins of the projects that they create.
Unless creative elites – including architects- articulate the ways in which their mental space frames the poetics that their work embodies, borders are intensified, as are the dangers of self parody. This leads to architecture that evokes stock responses rather than engagement.”
Beacause I need to justify my sometimes unpalatable opinions I will quote another eminent thinker who backs me up to the hilt: Achille Mbembe, on the topic of Crises of Imagination: “ in an absence of imagination, we are simply doomed to repeat ourselves”…..
Beauty is intrinsic –
It has uncontrollable dimensions
As we do, tucked inside our skins
Around us our surroundings wheel
Around us worlds expand and contract, reel and
We dream: repetitive dream spaces, cities, places
We read, we watch
Who was it that said without us to see, there would be nothing to say, to see?
Spaces are felt in moving moments –
Moments, moving –
I never understood that term til I googled it yesterday
But this it.
Space moves around you and you and you
Around me, and in its extents, it makes We
Dynamic spaces are the most difficult to photograph. The single point perspective rarely does justice to the complexities and subtleties of perception in space – or in space and time, within both of which we are in perpetual motion, or prolonged stasis…
“While the majority of what is built today is erected mindlessly in the train of global capital, most universities are islands of architectural endeavour, seeking ways to express and to house their current understandings of their missions…”
Leon. Again. Curator of the city.
Melbourne gabbles fast in façade language, faster
Unafraid to make awkward, they’re unafraid to make beauty, to
Talk shit, converse, make nasty in-jokes, conduct a ritual burning
Interrogation is not a half-time club
So it moves.
Practically poetic, frankly emetic, it must
Play with its prejudices.
Conduct an auto-da-fe of its history and futures
It must experiment, risk its life and reputation
Become eccentric, become ugly – be
God, “you’re so critical” –
A position can only be its own if forged
Not in forgery-
Hear my plea:
“Let’s forge an identity
Not serve the existing homogeneity”?
What a proposition:
Architectural bravado –
I want to be an Architectural Brave
With feathers in my hair
Dressing up has never been my bag, at least since 3rd year – and
In spite of the old poem.
Who am I, over the hill now, to talk about
Fashion? Youth culture, or what matters?
Who are we? Who were we, and
Who are we now?
Perhaps only a selfie will tell?
I was born in black and white…
In the beginning… she said
There was the word and
That word made light, time and space –
Definitions, Words and Phrases
Make space for me.
Tindered, grindered and wonked – indifferent to these
“The dance of 7 Veils” makes me want to draw.
Ideas in words, metaphors, make me want to draw.
Translation into space.
To think means to experiment and to problematize
Knowledge, power and the self are the triple root of a problematization of thought
Thinking is carried out in the interstices between seeing and speaking
Thinking as linking: there is chance, the dice-throw – and thinking always comes from the outside-
Thinking takes on new figures – it draws out particular features, links events and on each occasion it
Invents a series that moves from the neighbourhood of one feature to another:
Gilles Deleuze is spatial – he makes thinking spatial –
He has always done it for me, as has Rem:
“An area resembling a substratum of the city”
“What are your supple lines, what are your fluxes and thresholds? “
“One elaborates a punctual system or didactic representation with the aim of making it snap – of sending a tremor through it”
“ The point now marks the proliferation of the line, or its sudden deviation – its acceleration, its slowdown, its furor or agony”….
…”in order to float a soundbloc down a created, liberated line, in order to unleash in space this mobile and muted soundbloc….”
As an architect, as in Iyengar Yoga, I would like to make this my first duty.
.. the thin dog is running in the road – this dog is the road……….”
“What are your rigid segments, your binary and over-coding machines? For even these are not given to you ready-made…. we are not simply divided up by binary machines of class, sex or age: there are others which we constantly shift, invent without realizing it……”
My mind likes to move along lines, to take the line of flight
The plane of immanence or consistency tears from form particles
Between which there are only now relationships of speed and slownessses
Molecular fluxes, Thresholds of quanta –
Becomings and micro-becomings don’t have the same rhythms as
To read, to run
Run, Rabbit, Run
I am into Rapid Thought Transport:
Raptor, visceral, I will seize upon an idea, I am my hand and my hand must
Draw – Both guns at once
Short circuiting the imagination
Sometimes I don’t think too much.
I bet my friends would disagree, but I think that I mean that –
As George Bernard Shaw once said
“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place” –
I don’t force some outsides to engage too much with my insides
Unless I want to
I can’t collaborate, wait
I’m a shorting circuit
I rely on my intuition, my
Gut as powerful as brain.
Which I guess means I privilege my insides
An insider, am I, an outsider, an outrider
Of my own insides
I’m more into my interior space
And my own Microbiome
Than yours –
I do this for me.
My kind of architect is an activist –
“A concept is not a static idea like a brick that can be thrown through a window, it is rather a vector, a circumstance, an act”
I will always find and take
The line of flight
My mother is a Rationalist and she has to a large degree
Seeded my internal garden, the
Garden of my mind and gut
My Microbiome – My
Helicobacter, my Lactobacillus, my
Emotional and spatial memory, history, my intelligence
Come from my mother but are watered by
My experience, diluted and forged on the anvil of
My 51 years – her 75
She has taught me that
Amongst other things
The post mortem can only be verified by the self, not by her
Or by others –
“My god, this is insalubrious” says my mother, up in Joburg for a week or so. We are driving the kids to school in my usual early morning frenzy though potholes, dead rats, various degrees of detritus and fresh-faced freshly glistening Vaselined-up school-walking kids. My beloved Yeoville is a mess: people are living their everyday lives in amongst rotting buildings, beautiful remnants, defunct systems, rubbish strewn streets. I hear my mother’s silent voice:
“Do these things equate to a rotting people”?
Whisper to self: When you say “people” what do you mean?
Societal, Political. Spatial.
These are Gideon Mendel’s photos of Yeoville in the 80’s, when I lived there. Can you see demonstrated here an incredibly level of racial mixing, of co-existence? Yeoville was cosmopolitan in the most whole sense of the word.
Judith’s Paarl: Here we are, living in a village. See the swept earth forecourt, every plant chopped down for firewood. The school ride. Up Stewart Drive. Hitchhikers waiting at the base of the hill. “Shall we pick up these kids this morning?” I enquire in my best voice. Backseat chorus: “Nooooo, please mom”. In panicked voices: “we’re late, mom!”. I insist and when we drop them off in Yeoville and normal chat resumes. Uh oh. Not good.
IMMERSION does it for me.
On weekends I read the FT.
I grew up in Parkhurst with my mother and my little sister.
Parkhurst was safe, small. The smell of the flowering hedge as I walked back from Greenpark Nursery School in the tight handhold of Winnie, our abundantly well-upholstered nanny, embodies my feeling of security, my sense of place.
Funnily, the same hedge borders my studio today, albeit growing on the neighbour’s side of the wall, and in flowering season I am slammed back into my 3 year old self, without fail. I must google this hedge because I still don’t know what it is – so sweet, so potent.
Until I went to Big School at 5 years old, my Parkhurst was defined by its stand-alone orange face-brick bungalows (my mother called the colour apricot, like Koo apricot jam, I thought), standard rosebushes, stilted planting, a dinged up kind of frosted glass in the front door, half-moon steel windows, corrugated iron roofs and straight-as-a-die slasto garden paths. Every morning the electric milk van came nnneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee up the road to replace your empties: bringing silver tops to be crumpled off voluptuously curved milk bottles, delivered fresh to the doorstep every morning.
Wallpaper in the inside. Bamboo and panda bears. Skating couples in my bedroom. Strange grey and blue drips that I used to pick off my mother’s bedroom wallpaper when she wasn’t looking. Matchstick parquet and vinyl tiles. We had a slasto chimney and a Becker’s heater, coal deliveries in the winter. Vast dirty McPhails’ trucks arrived with men covered in coal dust hanging off the sides, handkerchiefs tied over their heads with foursquare knots. The coal cellar. Driving Winnie home to Diepkloof in the winter. Coal smog over Soweto. Blackened brick houses in endless lines. Vegetation nil. Miles in the Mini. Afterwards we played rummy on the carpet. Drank hot chocolate in front of the Becker’s. Guilty because we knew. Glad that we were home. Safe. Warm. Two little girls and our Mummy. Two things:
Thinking that we were safe.
Realising that we were White.
White, white, white
These days, I suppose, people see these little orange houses as rotten teeth in the mouth of fashionably fantastic Parkhurst –
Dear Koo, these familiar old teeth protrude from
The sunken gum,
Sunset glow fades in sparse gardens –
Unabridged and Unbraced
They rebuke the
Walled cubic confections of Joburg’s middling
Loose tooth rattles and cracks
The call rises
From narrow bedroom passages:
Bring out your dead
of the Mofussil…
Village, Village of mine, Deep Village, Village Deep
“You’re mine, you’re mine –
You’re a limpet mine” –
At the age of 5, I discovered another Parkhurst, and in the process I discovered another architecture. In my Grade 1 class at Roedean was Carey Duncan, the youngest daughter of Sheena and Neil Duncan. They lived down the road from our 17th street, at 45 22nd Street Parkhurst, and my mother and Sheena knew each other. Sheena was the head of the Black Sash, and Neil was an architect who was also a fabulous landscape gardener, sculptor, maker of tapestries and painter of ostrich eggs. My mother was an architect, and was also a member of the Black Sash. Sheena and my mother had both been at Roedean, so there was quite a connection. Neil did a lot of architectural work at Roedean. I spent a huge amount of time there.
The first time I went to Carey’s house, I came home to our modest abode, kicked the chair in the hall and demanded of my mother as to “just when we would be moving out”..?
This house was absolutely formative in my architectural life.
When Neil and then Sheena died, I arranged to buy the property, and make it Sectional Title so that the garden canremain open and unbuilt upon forever. It is the last remaining river-spanning garden in the suburb, and rarely beautiful.
I have recently altered the original house for its new owners.
I was particularly conscious of what the reaction of the Duncan daughters might be to the remodeling of their family home, and I am extremely glad and relieved to report that they have seen and love it. Where the house has changed most it remains uncannily legible – parts and elements are recognizable, although differently deployed: quite some conceptual dynamite was necessary, which is difficult when you are emotionally tethered to a place.
The Duncans and I walk around the house wearing X Ray specs, as it were.
It’s both new and familiar:
Spatial correspondences and structures that were hitherto concealed are revealed, and I hope that its energies are released, now, to new lives.
I have also recently altered Roedean, whose sublime beauty also entered my spatial matrix via the umbilicus. Its labyrinthine Baker spaces shaped my synapses between the ages of 5 and 16, and whether in acquiescence or rebellion, it snapped me into position. Neil had alos built quite a lot here, so my languages were in certain sort of synch. This is the Maths Centre, which we completed 2 years ago.
It works around the short cut. It is an urban project, essentially. It untangles and recasts the tangled conurbation that has grown up around Baker’s original building dated 1902. My daughter was rehearsing the techniques of Egyptian Mummification in the car on the way to school this morning. “Mom! They extracted THE BRAIN THROUGH THE NOSE! Yuck!” It is poetic. Brain extracted through the nose, the Maths Centre opens new vistas, makes new connections, and recasts old elements in a contemporary frame.
I am equally relieved to say the everyone’s X Ray specs work – Old Girls aged between 95 and 17 get it, see it, feel it. I’m glad.
I am happy to be an architect.
Why not a painter, a sculptor?
Much as I adore both, its just too hard to be the maker of an outside thing, the wielder of a brush ‘pon a canvas….. a maker of surfaces, illusions. I find it terrifying to make anything that, quite simply, is able to look so good as to be believable. Whether abstract of figurative is irrelevant. How to make a world flatly balanced upon a canvas?
Amazing, and miraculous, and terribly, terribly difficult. Too difficult. It’s the same with writing. I simply could not be a novelist. I am consumed with admiration for novelists.
My father was a bird artist. His surfaces were impeccable, his birds and brushwork unflappable. That doesn’t really explain my fear of painting, although it may explain my terror of being in the same room as a creature with feathers ….
Richard Serra’s vastly enterable sculpture is still about gorgeous surface, unattainable shelter, hints of home, endless passage. Rachel Whiteread makes space made solid. A tragedy: the panoply of spatial perception is locked out. Ai Wei-Wei does this too.
When it comes to design, we are all balancing acts. We enact that fine line between in and outside. Ideas, thoughts, political position, feelings: these things meet on a moving line: that is the line that is made by the pen, in the hand, following the mind. It is a line of flight, and it can be dangerous. Mostly to others.
I am ever on the boundary, opening the doors. Shape and space and structure forms around the interior me who desires a view – many views. I am a claustrophobic.
Inside out and outside in, most of all what I wish for my architecture is to heighten the experience of place, heighten the experience of space, of time, of self, of us.
Here is a last quote from Leon:
“In the Athropocene, architecture turns to capturing nature. Here we will be intensely aware of the passage of light, of navigating through ravines and escarpments, of following undulating hills, of inhabiting a coastal area and of living in a forest. Within a generation, 75% of the world’s population will be living in cities. Architecture –paradoxically- will provide them with most of their experience of the wold, the seemingly un-made.”
Who are we?
Where are we?
And where are we going?
And I suppose that is what a painter, a sculptor, a poet, a writer would say too. No matter the place and time.
Thank you –
Report from a Masterclass, by Jean-Pierre de la Porte
Rapid Thought Transport
Anthropologist Cliffird Geertz remarked that at the highest level, activities like literature or nuclear physics are carried out by worldwide communities no larger than the population of a village.
Eliminate these tightly bound, self aware enclaves and you are left only with reliquaries, camp followers, school curriculi and other death masks of the definitive practitioners.
Architecture is precisely such a Geertziasn community, densely woven from mutual recognition of peers ,bound by an overwhelming canon and the nonnegotiable requirement for talent, virtuosity, topicality and ease in dealing with an extraordinarily wide range of matters.
Unfortunately architecture has used none of its centuries-old fabric of skill, mutually primed intuition, internal norms and inventive agility to represent itself to the world. It suffers the greatest possible indignity- that of having others speak on its behalf: leisure magazines, academics, legislators, decorators, economists, gadget makers, sociologists, fashionistas, engineers, software special effects merchants, cyberpunk dystopians technicians, do-gooders, book designers, english princes – are amongst the default voices , the ventriloquist dummies, through which the primary public art makes its case to its public.
Perhaps the two percent of buildings entrusted to architects worldwide ( amongst the ninety eight percent living free off their past discoveries) have become tombs of the unknown architect- with architects accordingly silent too, imagining themselves to be as evident and self explanatory as their mute buildings.
The obvious exception- the so called starchitects , simply prove the case; The marketer-fuelled monotone of Gehry, the Marlene Dietrich affectation of Hadid and Koolhaas David Bowie-style reincarnations-through-eclecticism are all stark examples of the impossibility of architects speaking about architecture as architects.
This silence has inevitably pushed architecture to the fringes of public debate: modernisation, development, urbanisation ,planning, the public good- in fact its entire primary reality- the civic realm- have become off limits to their inventor. .
Interestingly no shortage of candidates have sprung up to interpret architectures silence ; from cultural studies to spatial geography, gender analysis to politics of everyday life, new kinds of academic fiction apostrophsisng the city , learned hypostatisations of space ,and minute historical searches have interposed themselves in the bursts of noise and silence called buildings.
Sarah Calburn has stepped into the eye of this strange , quiet storm, correctly identifying the cause of the disaster- architects not speaking for themselves.
Not given to waste time on forensic niceties, Calburn has begun putting architects on the spot- centre stage in an art gallery- flanked only by the props of their own hastily conceived drawings. Like bashful candidates on a stand up comedy forum, Calburns masterclass participants have to complete the crucial step in her Rapid Thought Transit alone – they have to talk about architecture to the public.
This was no PR exercise, with boosterists advertorilaising the stolid commercial buildings of others- this was something between a séance and a beat poetry reading , with six architects and a few student participant–observers having to make impromptu responses to Johannesburg’s highways and. crucially, to invent their own way of talking about what they themselves have done, hoped, wished , imagined.-and missed.
The result was an oddly moving spectacle of people unchained from themselves by Calburns zen like provocation, by the shared perspectives of the nimble, polymathic Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall and by the inescapable Socratic Mashups of the extraterritorial Rodney Place.
The presentation, to a crowded, highly diverse audience was dream like, with condensed, displaced and mimicking remnants of the two week projects accompanied by the progressively bolder voices of the architects speaking in their own name: humbly, tentatively, experimentally- but speaking- elaborately freed for a while from the scandal of having others endless advocating something in their name.
This was the evening on which Harpo Marx sang, Moses stopped stammering and Casper the friendly ghost solidified and stopped haunting the walls.
This is not the forum to comment on the work, save to say that it was uniformly fascinating but nonetheless quite overwhelmed by the rarest event of all, architects talking to citizens.
Sarah Calburn has put her finger on the artery from which architecture is bleeding into its own tissue, fading away with no apparent wound. She has blurted out the secret: that the makers of human reality must also be the immediate advocates of its futures. held to account in the spotlight of civic life as themselves, free to fail openly and free to succeed well beyond their silent hopes.