More than drawings and photos

The Other Tradition of Modern Architecture - Studies in Tectonic Culture
April 19, 1996

These books should appeal to thoughtful practising architects. The arguments unfold within strong theoretical and historical frameworks but it is refreshing and welcome that they both keep firmly in view the fact that architecture is, of its essence, to do with buildings. The books are remarkably similar in their general outlook and analysis of what has gone wrong in modern architecture.

Kenneth Frampton and Colin St John Wilson both suggest that architecture has lost touch with the lived world and suffers a fundamental schism as a result. Wilson points to architecture's uncomfortable status between the mutually exclusive realms of fine art and utility. Frampton describes how the way in which a building is constructed - wherein the Greeks would seen its potential for poiesis - has been stripped of its cultural content and relegated to "mere construction".

The messages are essentially similar as are the means of redemption: architecture should return to its true calling. This is not to imply that it can distance itself from the onerous obligations of the more general cultural crisis of the late 20th century but to suggest the efficacy of the means proper to architecture. In abandoning or denigrating these means architecture has lost its way.

Carlo Scarpa's Viconian motto, "truth through making", is a key to the basic assertion of Frampton's book, and he champions that kind of making particular to architecture. This rings true to every architect's own experience of the motive force of their passion - the metaphorical rolling-up of sleeves, no matter how vicarious, in preparation for the business of making buildings.

Frampton establishes the specially tactile and tectonic character of architectural knowledge sui generis and proposes that the architectural discourse constituted by the key buildings of the past two centuries is sufficiently strong and authoritative to establish its own legitimacy without the need to tag along on the coat-tails of any another discipline.

His initial thesis on the crucial cultural importance of construction as the "presencing" of architecture, is developed from a basis in phenomenological thought with particular reference to Heidegger and Habermas. The greater part of the book is then devoted to a series of thorough and perceptive essays about the architects and moments in architectural history which best illustrate his proposal.

Each of these substantial essays is a worthy monograph in its own right and all illuminate the work of architects who might be considered to be the warhorses of the previous generation - Wright, Perret, van der Rohe, Kahn, Utzon and Scarpa.

This list of worthies is balanced by two preliminary essays on the origins and rise of tectonic form in the 18th and 19th centuries and by a postscript which discusses the more recent work of, among others, Calatrava, Hertzberger, Foster, Bonell and Rius and Piano. Rather intriguingly this chapter also includes a few pages on those works of Corbusier - Maison Week-End or the Philips Pavillion for example, which can be considered "tectonic".

There are some delicious moments. The affair with deconstructivist architecture is described as a "trahison des clercs in which architects proceed to exacerbate their marginalisation by embracing a quixotic intellectuality totally removed from any kind of responsible practice".

In a perceptive passage on the current commodification of architecture Frampton is similarly withering about the role played by journalism and photography that engenders an "entirely photogenic preconception of architectural form such that building appears to be imagistic and perspectival rather than tactile and spatial". The building is seen as that unfortunate stage between the beautiful drawing and the beautiful photograph.

This sentiment is remarkably in tune with the Aalto quote which is the leitmotif of Wilson's book: "It is not what a building looks like on the day it is opened but what it is like 30 years later that matters." Wilson's book is similarly a historic account written very much with a view to illuminating the present architectural dilemma.

The "other tradition" to which the title refers is the work of those architects who remained outside the mainstream of orthodox modernism. Wilson's book begins with an account of the suppression of the concerns voiced by this group at the La Sarraz/Congres International d'Architecture Moderne conferences and during the establishment of the International Style. Corbusier is presented as a major figure, not to say tyrant, in the establishment of the doctrinaire modernism against which is pitched Wilson's "resistance", Aalto, Scharoun, Haering, Lewerentz and Gray.

There follows a lucid essay in which Wilson, like Frampton, puts praxis very much at the centre of architecture, defining it as a "practical art". Again the apparent straightforwardness of this assertion delivers no easy solution to the problem at hand and allows no abdication from the obligation to what Venturi termed the "difficult whole". Wilson goes on to point out that "a practical art always has promises to keep; in the sense in which it is answerable to a way of life, architecture is grounded in the ethical" .

The argument, again sympathetic to phenomenological thought, proposes a true interpretation of the classical Greek definition of architecture in which "architecture's first cause, its origin and its inspiration is to realise some desirable end that can only be fulfilled by a building". This is clearly a much broader and culturally inclusive definition of "usefulness" than modernist functionalism.

The book concludes with case studies in which buildings by Aalto, Scharoun and Eileen Gray are compared to orthodox modern movement counterparts.

The last of these is a highly revealing and moving account of the failure of Corbusier's house for Mme Mandrot and the almost obsessional and certainly intrusive admiration he held for Gray's own seaside house at Cap Martin Roquebrune. It is this house which seems best to represent the values of what Wilson terms the "uncompleted project" of modern architecture.

Beneath the evident scholarship and diligence of both these books is the kind of apparently obvious basic thesis which, in its very simplicity and confidence, has the ring of truth, even wisdom. These books are real contributions to architectural thought and I recommend them unreservedly.

While Frampton's is the more substantial tome (430 pages to Wilson's 128), both books are beautifully produced and illustrated. Being based on case studies they are useful reference books for architectural magpies; Frampton has a large number of beautiful drawings and photographs, those on Perret being particularly useful.

Hugh Cullum is a partner, Cullum and Nightingale Architects, London, and lectures at the faculty of architecture, University of Cambridge.

The Other Tradition of Modern Architecture

Author - Colin St John Wilson
ISBN - 1 85490 412 4
Publisher - Academy Editions
Price - £19.95
Pages - 128pp

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