Aalto The Real Modernist

Finnish architect Alvar Aalto was acutely sensitive to a materialist ontology. Odd, maybe, for someone whose work is more often than not, categorised as 'modernist'. He was a modernist, for sure, but in my opinion a modernist who was true to the underlying principles of the movement — a perpetual desire for reformation from within; for change; for modernising — a forward trajectory, a continuum towards an always shifting goal. Then there are the other modernists; the machinists of genericism — put this box anywhere and anywhere will do; their ears inclined towards to rhythm of the post industrial revolution capitalistic machine: give us repetition without any difference.

Aalto, with his Scandinavian sensibility, refused this homogenisation and instead opted for what some have called an 'organic' approach. For Aalto, his buildings were not just 'buildings', they became part of a living, breathing 'organic' environment. The building and the context entangled together in a kind of dance. Perhaps the best place to see this is in the way he played with lighting often mixing natural and artificial lighting together to create a conversation between the natural and built environments — a brief study of the library in Vyborg is a good place to see this.

This fascinating (albeit quite expensive) book contains a wonderful overview of Aalto's work but also has some great essays exploring Aalto's interesting ontology, well wort a read.

Buildings Beyond Objects

Architecture is contingent upon forces over which it has no control. This is not a remarkable statement; but it is one worth reminding ourselves of.

This contingency is not a binary opposition — architecture imposing itself upon the world, or: there is what the architect does and there is the world in which he does it in. There is the world and the world only.

The world is a world of forces in play. Architecture is already subject to those forces, and in become real (which is to say not virtual; which is to say real, but not actual) it enters into an assemblage of networks and is thus never a singularity in binary or polar opposition, but always part of a contingent realm of becomings.

This sounds quite theoretical. But it isn’t. It is very practical indeed, for it involves thinking about buildings beyond objects and starts to consider them more like machines. Machines that do things, create things and put forces into play......

Something that the profession would do well to continue to remember.

What Is Architectural Criticism?

A question: what is architectural criticism? Since the written criticisms of Louis XV's urban plans for Paris in the 18th Century the discourse of architectural criticism has divided — be that a neighbour in suburbia responding to a domestic planning application; Frank Lloyd Wright describing Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye, as "childish"; Ada Louise Huxtable on the New York Gallery of Modern Art: "a die-cut Venetian palazzo on lollipops," or Michael Sorkin's brutal take-down of Qatar's new architecture as "twisted dicks." Given that architecture is the most omnipresent of disciplines the importance of the question should not be underestimated.

Joseph Rykwert wrote that "the business of a critic is to discriminate: the better from the worse… the more beautiful from the uglier, the more valuable from the less." Not good enough for me — quite what one means by the abstract skyhooks of "better"; "worse"; beauty or ugliness will sway in the gentle breeze of subjectivity, taste and fashion. It also presupposes that the critic has a privileged position from which to critique. The ‘subject' of the critic and the ‘object' of an architecture in which is harboured a hidden truth or meaning that the viewer, in part, can correlate with their gaze — Kant would have liked this. Sorkin does not. 

"Critics of architecture often arrive on the scene too late, giving their useless thumbs up or down to some zilliondollar pile on which their opinions will have not the slightest impact." Architecture "must also be judged by its effects." As such the critic must not just ask ‘what is it?' but ‘what can it do?' For architecture is always in the middle of experience and is always subject to forces that are beyond its control. The whole is never greater than its parts and can therefore never be captured by the critics' words. Justin Davidson, architecture critic at New York magazine is correct when he writes that "in order to be effective, architecture critics have to look beyond architecture."

What do I mean by the whole never being greater than its parts? I have written here before about the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli. He says that "we don't understand the world as made by stones — by things. We understand the world made by kisses, or things like kisses: happenings." We live in a world of events and not static objects — the universes fizzes with happenings. Kisses are what makes for interesting architecture.

Architecture is an ongoing series of complex events — a performance. As such we do not get to arrogantly assume that ours is a privileged gaze that we have special access or insight. Architecture is never static, it is always on the move. The infinite events that make up a building are always beyond the critic — there will always be a surplus. But what does this mean? Is all reduced to a subjective flow unable to ever be adequately accounted for? If so why even speak of architecture at all?

I contend that we must speak of architecture, for among other things, this most omnipresent of disciplines is inherently political. But when we speak we must do so with temporality and humility. A humility that ours is not the last word; temporality, knowing that in a world of infinite events what we write or speak today is not the final word.