Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
It’s all around us in Black and White
Two recent talks, by the Swiss Peter Zumthor and Briton John McAslan, illustrate just how different approaches to architecture can be, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Within architecture’s broad church there is an exclusive, black-clad cult for whom the job is neither profession nor business but vocation; a semi-mystical calling that demands total (designer) obeisance. Like any faith, it regards itself with unfailing gravity and is practically immune to criticism, since dissent-from-without is unwashed and dissent-from-within inconceivable.
The high priests of this arch-cult speak slowly, rhythmically, using language rich in repetition, steeped in metaphor and weighted with spiritual significance. Lovingly they dwell on stuff like light and nature, reality and ritual, memory and passion. Such ideas have immense appeal in these undernourished times so while the priests may be few, many are swayed. Especially the young.
Something of this touched the 900-odd under-30s who gathered at Angel Place last week to hear the visiting Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, inaugural speaker in the aptly named Black series hosted by the breakaway Australian Architecture Association.
The association, founded by high priests Glenn Murcutt, Harry Seidler and others, espouses the democratic goal of broadening architecture’s constituency in Australia. Good stuff, until you get to the subtext about providing special “activities … to enable [the public] to understand and appreciate their built environment and in time become more informed and able to participate in discussion about the quality of architecture”. Which they are currently, one can only presume, incapable of doing. Or doing properly.
This is a problem. Architecture, as the most public of the arts, depends absolutely on public understanding, but this particular grail has never seemed more elusive. The association, in remedy, offers two events programs; Black and (as taste decrees) White. White, blurbs the blurb, “is considered the starting point of understanding for non-architects”, since it “suggests a space waiting to be filled up with information about architecture”. Black “suggests a place crammed full of dense, interesting and enjoyable ideas”, and so is the name of the talks series, aimed at the elite d’elite, on 21st-century architecture. Whatever that is.
As Chris Johnson, Government Architect, comments, “If you read it carefully, Black is about the depth and subtleties of architecture where famous architects are going to explain it to you. White is where the public are taken on walks around the city to explain to them because their minds are pretty blank.”
So Zumthor’s talk, entitled “The Magic of the Real” and reaping $75 per non-member head, was always going to be of the Black persuasion. And the novitiate throng took the instruction seriously, making sure there was barely another hue to be seen. Except epidermally, of course.
Nevertheless Murcutt, introducing Zumthor, spoke fervently of the need to “democratise” architecture and make it “popular” – but not by changing architecture. Good heavens no. Which smack-dabs us into architecture’s central conundrum; architecture craves popularity but can accept it only on its own terms and without compromise. So writers like Austria’s Friedrich Achleitner argue that Zumthor’s buildings “demand the visitor’s empathy. Unconditionally.” Nice work if you can get it.
Architecture wants popularity without populism. At the same time, though, it is clear that while the public’s grasp of architecture may be woeful, architecture’s understanding of humanity is comparably meagre. What to do?
For architects, the temptation at such an impasse is to jettison political entanglement altogether and retreat to the hills, whence to mine architecture’s poetics in peace. Especially, in Zumthor’s case, the poetics of material and function.
Not that it’s function as normally defined. Zumthor, whose resume lists 31 awards and exhibitions to only nine buildings, has built a chapel without windows; an art gallery without whitewash (just bare concrete); an alpine bath-house (in Switzerland) where virtually the only materials are water and stone and sheep graze the roof; an art museum (in Bregenz) where there is no “commercial crap” in the building (it’s all outside) and a number of buildings, including the Swiss pavilion at the 2000 Expo in Hanover, where there is no message, no promotional guff and the rain falls freely in.
The cost of this choice is becoming a cult-hero, an architect’s architect, beloved of the cognoscenti but largely excluded from the making of the world. (John McAslan, by contrast, is excited by the very battle to extract excellence from just that mundane engagement.) And yet there are lessons to be learned from Zumthor. Lessons about material and tectonics, time and history, fashion and authenticity.
Zumthor tells about constructing a floor from 700kg stone blocks. Of each block only the surface was visible; the rest was just there to contribute “energy” – the magic of the real.
Similarly, with the Swiss pavilion, he wanted to “build for temporariness” and chose timber. Pursuing the raw energy of the lumberyard, though, rather than the usual domesticated version, he brought 4000 cubic metres of unseasoned timber fresh from Swiss forests and stacked it in great seven-metre-high interlocking piers – fir in one direction, larch in the other. Designed for shrinkage, these wet-timber stacks formed a scented, resonant, enveloping “Body of Sound”, as the pavilion was titled, with music, food and clothing all designed-in as part of the event (before recycling into other projects).
On being invited to produce a chapel for farmers in Graubunden, Zumthor pointed out that he could offer only contemporary architecture and that his fee would probably outstrip the building’s value. The farmers said fine, to both – so Zumthor waived the fee. Arranging sticks into an elongated teepee form, he poured concrete around them in “tagwerk” (day’s work) stages over 24 days to give diurnal growth rings in the concrete, then burned the timber out to form a charred and textured interior.
Zumthor’s other interesting point is about unity. Although starting life as a cabinetmaker, he has resisted the temptation towards traditional craft-architecture, but has retained a compulsion towards wholeness. In re-working heritage, for example, he avoids the current orthodoxy of addition-by-contrast (which facilitates reversibility), preferring to “create a new whole”. It’s a courageous approach, as Zumthor’s conversion of the “Gugalun” (Looks at the Moon) House at Versam illustrates. Converting this tiny alpine farmer’s-cottage into a weekender, Zumthor was determined not to upstage the original, building behind the house, into the hill, rather than in front. The tectonics are sumptuous, but to my mind Zumthor’s devotion to the wholeness of the product has deprived the original of its skinny eccentric charm.
McAslan’s ethos could hardly be more different. After a poor west Glaswegian childhood, his is a passion for the sparse, no-frills functionality of 19th-century industrial building. Presentation, ditto – no story, straight to the guts.
And yet the work itself – from the winning scheme to extend London’s Kings Cross station to the art-space conversion of Camden Town’s famous Round House; from the Max Mara fashion HQ at Reggio Emilia in Italy to a linear semi-submerged concert hall for the Royal Academy of Music in London’s Regents Park, is every bit as poetic as Zumthor’s.
Profoundly rational in his organisation of space (McAslan worked for Richard Rogers after graduation and is heavily Louis Kahn-influenced) and terse in the narrative department, McAslan is nevertheless driven by love – a love of the spare, the strong, the elegant device. “We’re at our best,” he notes ruefully, “when there’s no money in the project.”
No money is a slight exaggeration, of course, when you’re running a 70-strong practice with dozens of projects including air terminals, railway stations and department stores.
He has the volume, and the quality. But, as McAslan notes, “there is nothing fashionable about what we do.” Which no doubt accounts for the dismal turnout for McAslan’s talk – fewer than 100, despite the zero door-charge, and many of them grown-ups at that. And yet, if it really is democratisation you’re after, maybe there’s something to be learned here, too.
TWO PHOTOS: Surveying Sydney … Peter Zumthor and Glenn Murcutt take in the view. Photo: Peter Rae Zumthor’s thermal spa in Vals, Switzerland, built of local stone. Photo: Todd Eberie Studios