IMG_1460 copy

A rectillinear Tatlin’s Tower in the Himalayas.

And.. violence

Upon the passing of the housing bill, was reminded of this:


Peter Gelderloos, How non-violence protects the state.


The impure community


Jeremy Till. Architecture of the Impure Community.

Suspension of disbelief

It may be slightly cheating to make an entire post out of a quote, but here is Jeremy Till in the 2005 article: The Negotiation of Hope. Bold areas are mine..

The threat may be explained by the tension that exists between the ideals and the reality of architectural practice. Architects cling to a perfected model of practice, neatly and simplistically summarised in an idealised version of the Vitruvian triad – commodity, firmness and delight. Idealised commodity (solve the ‘problem’ of function in as efficient a manner as possible). Idealised firmness (advance on technical fronts as a sign of progress). Idealised delight (a polishing of forms in accordance with prevailing aesthetic sensibilities). The problem is when these ideals meet the reality of the contingent world; a threefold undermining of the values of the ideals takes place. Contingent reality first upsets the carefully laid plans of utility (users can be so annoyingly unpredictable). Secondly it ignores many of the values held high by architectural culture (for example the public hardly share architects’ obsession with the refined detail). Thirdly it brings into play issues that are overlooked by the Vitruvian triad (most notably issues of the social and political world). Disappointment, as Rem Koolhaas resignedly notes21, is inevitable in the face of this undermining. And so the architect will do everything possible to delay the fateful moment when reality bites. Suspension of disbelief is a condition of design practice. One knows in one’s heart of hearts that the suspension cannot last, but the state is hypnotic whilst it does – those clean diagrams, those neatly scheduled packages of work that defy all construction practice, those empty photographs taken before the great unwashed (users, dirt, weather, change) move in. And when it all goes wrong afterwards, when reality truly does upset the ideals, one can always resort to the publication of a monograph to resuscitate and perpetuate the mythology of a perfected state of architectural production.


Carpentry for Giants

Carpentry for giants

Setting out

A reading of Leatherbarrow’s Architecture Oriented Otherwise X Current Housing Crisis.. or A letter to Bernard Tschumi from the 21st Century.

“Paper architects brought theory and practice together in the arena of art galleries and lecture halls, but this convergence ended when the market regained momentum and building commenced once again. Consequently, theory remained in academia while practice followed the money. Now we’re left with an academic discourse that produces ideologically (anti-capitalist) charged theory for a practice operating in hyper-capitalist conditions. While practice is driven by market opportunism, all theory can suggest is for practice to negate the market.”  Edwin Gardner

This text has been a long time coming. As we enter into the summer of 2015, the London housing crisis remains in the minds of many of the residents of the capital. The results of the general election mean that the effects of austerity will be felt by an ever wider section of society. What does this have to do with architects, or architecture even- after all, the realities of property development, land ownership and the planning system have no relationship to the art of architecture, form, geometry, material and design. This attitude of architects towards the residents of the existing built environment creates a feeling of revulsion towards the profession. As one of many potential designers of buildings with anti-capitalist tendencies, this text is an attempt to unify some architectural theories which reinforce my conviction that it is impossible to stand aside and watch whilst the city is populated with bland, inferior designs, pushed through the planning system with no regard for the communities which they are destroying in the process. Firstly, David Leatherbarrow writes in Architecture Oriented Otherwise:

“Assuming that the development of urban, public, or communicative space is impossible as long as architectural methods and techniques remain dedicated to the production of works that proclaim themselves to be internally defined and self-sufficient, I believe that the most pressing task in our time is the description of the ways that better buildings have been oriented or inclined beyond themselves- which is to say, otherwise. This movement could be called counterpositioning; its result, counteracting.”

In “ways that better buildings have been oriented or inclined beyond themselves“ I read that solely having a physical understanding buildings is inadequate. A holistic analysis of a building could include the design and the building process, the relationship that the materials have with the environment, how the building relates to the context. Reaching out beyond themselves, these elements could involve other aspects of spatial value analysis which are usually neglected or avoided- a socially oriented building could be read as social housing.

Leatherbarrow goes on to say:

“Contemporary ecological theory may provide a parallel here. If the technical, practical, and representational conditions architecture is to sustain take into account not only natural phenomena but also cultural norms, as embodied in urban situations, my sense of “orientation” can be seen to parallel the mandate to think widely and act locally.”

Another architect/theorist who has a history of engaging with the city is Bernard Tschumi. In The Environmental Trigger, an essay written in 1972, he asks how architects can use their knowledge as a instigator for change. Rather than passively working to serve the current powers in place, Tschumi describes three roles for architects, which I think could be seen as increasingly relevant today.

“Either we could become conservative, that is, we would “conserve” our historical role as translators of, and form-givers to, the political and economic priorities of existing society. Or we could function as critics and commentators, acting as intellectuals who reveal the contradictions of society through writings or other forms of practice, sometimes outlining possible courses of actions, along with their strengths and limitations. Finally we could act as revolutionaries by using our environmental knowledge ( meaning our understanding of cities and the mechanisms of architecture ) in order to be part of professional forces trying to arrive at new social and urban structures.”

I believe that the only route currently open to practicing architects is the third, although the word revolutionary probably would raise some eyebrows. As stated by Edwin Gardner again:

“Theorists and practitioners seem to live on different planets, because even when the architecture theorist is asked directly by the architect,‘What should I do?’ the theorist can provide the architect with little guidance. Apparently those who think about architecture cannot guide those who make it. When the theory and practice exponents of a discipline doesn’t make sense to each other, there is a problem. It begs the question: are these actually exponents of one and the same discipline? Is there even a common ground where they can meet?”

There are plenty of intellectuals in academia who are perfectly situated to unveil new courses of action, and there are some who are proving him wrong and are interested in doing so, however there appears to be a lack of awareness within architectural offices that practising architecture is a political act, especially when involved in contentious regeneration projects. This is all the more reason for raising awareness of the need for change.

Tschumi writes of “Exemplary Actions” – acts designed to respond to the crisis ( he calls it the environmental crisis ) by combining everyday life with awareness.  In November 1971, Tschumi occupied the disused Kentish Town railway station with his students from the AA. An example of a current exemplary action would be the political occupations of the Carpenters and the Aylesbury estates. “But above all, the purposes of the exemplary action are demystification and propaganda; it means to reveal that the capitalist organisation of space destroys all collective space in order to develop division and isolation” Following from exemplary actions is the strategy of “Counterdesign” – “ By being the devil’s advocate, counterdesign is aimed at creating an understanding in the people concerned by implications of such developments on their everyday life, and at leading to their active rejection of such planning processes.”

After a time, Tschumi grew weary of the problems posed by direct action, and reverted to subversive analysis in the hope that through spatial design, the process of change could be accelerated and have an influence on society. He also warned of the capabilities of capitalism to subsume countercultures and turn resistance to it’s own advantage. However, I think that he failed to anticipate how relevant the above arguments would become for architecture.

The Oculus (DARK)

1000003296 - Triumph Pavilion 2014

The in-formal im-pure and anti-geometry of natural building.

My previous thoughts ended with the question- can natural building provide a space within the architectural discourse which addresses formal, social and ecological concerns?

What would be the appropriate form for such a discourse? Existing natural building practitioners are conspicuous by the simplicity of their conceptual design- self builders and communities, architects who are not applying theory to their practice- in the sense of not having developed conceptual architectural tools. The focus on materiality in natural building is acting to restrict the architecture to only being about the materiality, which in turn highlights the ‘natural’ in the building, which leads to the emphasis on the non-standard behaviour of materials such as timber, straw and mud and their tendency to decay, warp, and react when exposed to changing temperatures or levels of humidity in the air or soil. The perceived unpredictability of natural materials in comparison with manufactured materials from the construction industry leaves them vulnerable to criticism from multiple angles, for example, increased construction costs, difficulty in financing mortgages, less durable and associated with low design standards.

Michael Hensel, in his book ‘Performance Oriented Architecture’, documents a number of projects from his university students which harness the properties of wood, changing shape according to the level of moisture in the air. The approach which is taken in this case is primarily scientific, examining in detail the hygroscopic properties of in this case thin veneer plywood.

This approach has the potential to counter the aversion to the lack of rigour and inexactness in natural building, but it could also be seen as quite limiting as it is based upon an unnatural level of climatic control. When graded or thickened thresholds are added into the equation, there is potential for increased climatic control without the restrictions of modern building envelopes – i.e a solid, thin, formal yet essentially cosmetic “wrap” around the buildings functions.

So, to return to the question- what would be the appropriate form for such an architectural discourse? Can the current level of material knowledge in natural building be harnessed in an acceptably rigorous fashion, using the specificities of site and program, using conceptual tools which meet a certain level of architectural theory or criticism, without trying to push the material boundaries as such, but push the conceptual boundaries using natural materials.

A New Kind of Bleak

I think that everyone should read at least the introduction to “A New Kind of Bleak” by Owen Hatherley formerly of Nasty Brutalist and Short ( as far as I know, before he got published).

For such incisive insights as:

There is an awful impasse in contemporary Britain, a failure of imagination or intellect, producing a manic-depressive society locked into what Ivor Southwood calls “Non-Stop Intertia”, while the free-market ideology that seemed to be mortally wounded by the bank bailouts has managed, somehow to thrive and become even more extreme”


The Tory-Whigs have no ideas. No ideas about the city, no tangible notion of the sort of country they want to build, no conception of the future, no positive proposals whatsoever.

And for a wholly rounded view into how far gone we are into this mess…

September walls… onsite r&d

Woven Willow Panel Woven Willow Panel Light sawdust rammed mudLight sawdust rammed mud