Postscript

The framework of themes in this book is not complete. There are many still to be identified; and probably an unlimited amount to be invented.

I am aware of some that I have not had space to include: the theme of 'datum place'—a place by reference to which one knows where one is; the theme of 'places made by excavation', rather than by building; the theme (related to transition, hierarchy, heart) of 'places be-tween'—places within walls— zones between inside and outside which are not quite either; the theme of 'implied place'— that place is not always clearly defined by basic and modifying elements of architecture, but can be implied in minimal and subtle ways; and then there is the theme of 'non-orthogonal architecture' (which has only be touched upon here)—where orthogonality and the six-directions-plus-centre are denied or subverted.

There is more work that could be done on those themes that have been included in this book; each of them could be the subject of its own full-length study. There is more to do on the ways in which geometry contributes to identification of place; the subtleties of the parallel wall strategy have not been exhausted here; the philosophical and poetic ramifications of the 'temple-cottage' dimension need to be more fully explored.

One intention of this book has been to help to open this field of research, rather than to provide a comprehensive survey of it. The latter would be impossible anyway, because the boundaries of architecture are not known and there may not be any.

The key that let me into this field was the realisation that architecture is, before all else, identification of place. This is discussed in detail in the first chapter but, although it is not always mentioned, it can be seen to underpin all the others too: the purpose of basic elements is not just to be themselves, but to identify place; the effect of the different attitudes associated with the 'temple' and the 'cottage' is to identify place in different ways; the power of the six-directions-plus-centre is that they identify place; the purpose of organising space—by structure, by parallel walls, into stratified layers, or into hierarchies with transitions and hearts—is to identify place.

This is a key into architectural design as well as analysis. If one thinks of architecture as designing 'buildings', one designs in one way; if one thinks of it as identifying places, then one designs in another. The focus of attention shifts from tangible form to include inhabited space. In the latter, a 'building' is seen not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end.

This is not a new thought, but it remains a significant one. It can be found, in varying degrees of clarity, in most of the texts included in the list of supplementary reading given at the end of this book.

It is a thought that seems to require restatement from time to time, because it can be elusive, and also because it can be easily lost beneath a mound of seemingly more pressing concerns. The practise of architecture is so beset by constructional, contractual and commercial pressures that this silent and seemingly undemanding core of its 'reason for being' can easily be ignored.

Through history, other factors have helped push 'architecture as identification of place' down the list of priorities for concern. (These are in addition to the common tendency that people find it easier to think in terms of the tangible—i.e. buildings—rather than the intangible—e.g. places.)

First is the suggestion, implicit in a lot of architectural writing, that the word architecture can be reserved for a special class of building. This is contained in Nikolaus Pevsner's famous assertion, 'A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture'. To think like this might be satisfactory for an architectural historian, because it relates to a quality of buildings as perceived, but it throws definition of the activity of architecture into turmoil.

In thinking of architecture as identification of place one is on firmer ground: both the bicycle shed and the cathedral are architecture, though of different character and quality; the shed identifies a place for storing bicycles, the cathedral a place for worship. The people responsible for both are architects, though one of them may be better at it in some ways than the other.

Thinking of architecture as identification of place, everyone is to some degree an architect. Setting out the furniture in a living room is architecture; so too is laying out a city. The difference is only a matter of degree, and at different scales there are different levels of responsibility.

The legislative bodies in some countries rule that the responsibilities of building—in that they involve contractual problems and spending large sums of money—should only be handled by people with particular qualifications which make them professionals. In some cases, the United Kingdom included, the title 'architect' is protected by law. But there is another justification for architecture being a profession, which can be understood by thinking of it as identification of place. It is architects who, by definition (whether or not they are legally entitled to the name), organise the world into places for life and work. This is a responsibility which is on a par with medicine, law, religion. There is a level where everyone deals with their own concerns (as in health, dispute, and spiritual belief), but there are also levels where matters can be complex and require the education, experience and commitment of people who accept professional responsibility.

A second factor which has pushed 'architecture as identification of place' down, has been a conscious fascination, in some strands of architectural theory, with its contrary—the idea of 'placeless' architecture. There is not space here to follow this strand in detail, but it was recognised and described by Oswald Spengler in his book The Decline of the West (1918), as a preoccupation with 'the infinite'; it was evident too in Mies van der Rohe's interest in 'universal space'; and it has been brought to realisation in many 'anti-street' urban developments. In 1931, the Swedish architect Erik Gunnar Asplund gave a lecture in which he illustrated one such development, declaring triumphantly that 'PLACE GIVES WAY TO SPACE!'

The third factor which has worked against 'architecture as identification of place' has been technology, partly because people tend to focus more on how buildings are built rather than on what they do in identifying places, but also because many primitive place types have been made redundant.

The 'hearth' is no longer an essential place in a home; heating is provided by a boiler perhaps kept in a cupboard and heat distributed through pipes and radiators. From its heyday in the time of the pharaohs, the 'tomb' has plummeted to almost total irrelevance in the repertoire of architecture. The 'market-place' was superseded by the shop, but even that is under threat from telemarketi-ng and the Internet. Most significantly perhaps, the pulpit, the look-out and the stage have been overtaken by television, which allows politicians to preach into people's living rooms, viewers to see great distances (even to the moon and outer planets of the solar system), and performances to be watched from almost anywhere.

Related to this is the enormous increase in the prevalence of the framed image. As has been said in the chapter Architecture as Making Frames the two-dimensional image of a work of architecture, set as it usually is within the four sides of a frame, does not allow one to experience it as a place or series of places. This is true of a painting, or a photograph, a film, or a television image. Even if the picture presents the illusion of three dimensions, even if it includes movement, it diminishes the experience of place. Even so, these images are perhaps the most common ways in which the products of architecture are viewed; there are only a limited number of buildings that each of us can actually experience; the vast majority— especially those which architects are urged to emulate, by critics in the press—are seen as framed images. This has the effect of reinforcing the perceived importance of visual appearance in works of architecture (and even pictorial composition), further undermining the importance of place identification.

It is probably true to say too, that architects involved with large projects worry more about whether the roof will leak (or similar matters to do with the performance of the fabric of a building), or whether they will lead their client into some expensive legal battle (against themselves perhaps), than about whether they are making good places; at the least such worries must seem more immediate, and have more potential to give architects personal problems or spoil their lives. Concerns about construction, about performance, about legal and contractual matters, can easily occupy all of an architect's time, leaving none for issues, which can easily (but wrongly) be disregarded as worthless, of identification of place.

Hearths, tombs, shops, schools, libraries, museums, art galleries, meeting rooms, places of work, offices...all are challenged by developments in technology which complicate and confuse issues of place. But this is not to say that the idea of place is no longer relevant.

Architecture, like language, is always changing; new types of place emerge while others become redundant. Architecture now has to take account of: places for televisions, for computers, for skate-boarding; airports, cash-dispensing machines, motorways; none of which existed in ancient times. And there are still many primitive place types that are still relevant: places to sleep, to cook, to eat, to walk, to grow plants, to meet people, and so on.

These are all points which indicate something of the nature of the theoretical ground on which the present book stands. But its main purpose has been to show that architecture, its products and its strategies, can be subject to analysis within a consistent conceptual framework.

This is not to say that the whole framework is understood, nor even that the framework is finite in its extent. Nor is it to say that all the themes that have been described and discussed in this book are relevant to every work of architecture that has been achieved, or applicable to every new work of architecture that will be proposed.

Indeed it is apparent that different movements in architecture through history, and different individual architects, have had different preoccupations in their works. Within the creative field of architecture different themes may be given different weights, independently and relatively. One architect or movement may concentrate on the relationship between space and structure; another might stress the ways in which social geometry influences the organisation of buildings, and give the ordering power of structure a lower priority; one might exploit the powers of the six-directions-plus-centre, where another might see them as best subverted; one might seek to concentrate on the modifying elements of architecture—light, sound, touch, where another might be more interested in the formal powers of the basic elements— wall, column, roof. The variety of permutations is endless.

Architecture is not a matter of system, but of judgement. Architecture, like play-writing, composing music, law-making, or even scientific investigation, is subject to drive, vision, and interest. It is a creative discipline that accommodates varying views on the interactive relationship between people and the world around.

Architecture is, because of this, a political and a commercial field too. It is political in that there are no 'right' answers and 'wrong', but answers which find favour, and those which do not; 'favour' lies with those who have the most powerful voice. It is commercial in that the products of architecture have to survive in a consumer market—a new building is like a newly launched product; whether it succeeds or not depends on whether or not its 'customers' 'like it'. And this leads into the debate about who architecture's 'customers' are.

Despite the unnerving complexity and uncertainty of the conditions within which it is done, architecture as a creative discipline is susceptible to reasoned understanding.

If one considers architecture not in terms of material things (objects, buildings)—not as a catalogue of formal types, or a classification of styles or technologies of construction— but in terms of frames of reference for doing, (which is another term for the themes or 'filters' in this book), then it is possible to build a framework for analysis which is consistent yet not restricting; one that allows the creative mind to learn from the works of architecture of the past, and to generate ideas for the future.

Architecture should not be limited by classifications that deal only with what is or has been; there will always be potential for new ways of identifying places. Architecture's vitality depends upon invention and adventure, but any field of human endeavour—music, law, science—needs a base in knowledge that can be presented to students of the subject as a foundation upon which they can build and develop. Architecture is no different.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment