Architecture Depends: A book review

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of attending the Live Projects symposium held at Oxford Brookes university with friend and fellow Freeranger, Mr Barnaby Bennett who spoke about crisis, both architecturally and politically as well as being involved with fantastic projects in Christchurch.
One of the keynote speakers was Jeremy Till. His talk was named ‘Architecture Depends: Resuscitating architectural education’. There was a lot he had said in his lecture that would speak volumes and have deep resonance with the symposium attendees for the rest of the weekend, hovering like an intellectual spectre.

He spoke about one book of his in particular: Architecture Depends, which I had the pleasure of reading recently. Thought-provoking in content, it attempts to map out the somewhat rocky path taken by architects to essentially retreat from the contingent realities of the actual world, something that architects should inherently consider but yet go out of their way to avoid; albeit similar to an ‘inconvenient truth’.

I would like to spend a little time ruminating on this very intriguing book, as small vignettes into a few of the thoughts laid out, just to give a taste.

Mess is the Law

From the very beginning, mess lies at the very heart of the book. Till elucidates the deeply ridden obsession of architects with perfection, order and control as a disturbing set of arcane rituals and the result is a deluded sense that ‘aesthetic / formal order equates to social order’.
However, mess in this sense does not mean that architects should suddenly ransack their studios and live days without bathing, or start designing messy homes as a new paradigm, but rather take into account the ‘mess’ of everyday realities within our contingently driven world.
This aforementioned delusion (and the values behind it), as Till maintains, has been built up over hundreds of years of architectural education and it is formidably defended by various institutions (he discusses the RIBA in particular).
Architecture cannot be separated from the political realities of the world and so they must work together. Mess in this sense can be seen as fertile grounds for the creative imagination to work within the given, instead of pursuing the deluded ideal of absolute perfection as the ‘detached dreamer’.

Time and Waste

‘All architecture is but waste in transit’.

This statement of Till’s is one of the more provocative and intriguing, as it intentionally confronts architects and their values / concerns head on. Out of context, this statement could be misconstrued easily, however when one reads into it there is definitely more than meets the eye.
As he identifies for us, waste and dirt have always been marginalised within western architectural discourse, as ‘contaminants’ to the pursuit of Modern architecture.
He also explains – etymologically, construction and demolition are much closer than architects would generally like to admit. By marginalising waste when discussing architecture one essentially removes time – the very thing that architecture is dependent on. Ultimately I think this has the implication that all buildings and cities are inherently transitional by nature, i.e. never in stasis, which essentially disrupts the traditional Modernist preoccupation and obsession with order, aesthetics and tectonics.
Again, it goes back to the distinction he makes when illustrating the tenuous Modernist presupposition of equating aesthetic order with social order (with reference to sociologists Zygmunt Bauman and Bruno Latour).

Towards the end of the book, Till remains thoroughly conscious of inferring towards concrete conclusions, leaving the argument open-ended, which of course is more aligned to the spirit of the book rather than (as he mentions) adopting the stance of certainty and universality, which the book has resisted.
However, I shall leave you with one paragraph just to give a glimpse of form and perhaps a renewed sense of optimism (at least that’s my reading of it), in this case the role of the architect:

‘ The action of the architect here is not about the implementation of generic solutions to particular problems. It is not about the architect as the detached polisher of form and technique, but as the person who gathers the conflicting voices of a given situation and makes the best possible social and spatial sense of them. Hope is not discovered in the clouds of ideals that are blown away by the slightest breeze; hope is founded in the interstices of the given, and since it has a tough start in life, this hope is a survivor.’

Cover image from book: Mark Wallinger, Sleeper 2004

Book cover art: Mark Wallinger, Sleeper 2004, performance, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin.

If you’re interested in learning more about Live Projects here are a couple of useful links you might want to check out:

This article is dedicated to the memory and spirit of Wellington architect Gerald Melling, who passed away just recently. Rest in peace fellow Freeranger.
I would like to leave you with one of Gerald’s poems from his book ‘b. 1943’, which I think is in keeping with the spirit of Till’s book:


The building draws itself up
to its full height,

pose in the air.
A lofty inflexion

of stunted men
with perfect deportment,

in search of that extra

Birth as Performance Art

I would be lying if I said I was able to think of much else at the moment other than my first two months of motherhood. I am constantly surprised at news that everybody knows unless they’re living under a rock – The Hobbit film is done? And out? Nelson Mandela is still alive? And I would be lying if I didn’t say I was thinking about writing this blog post while feeding my baby, and because there’s only so much writing I can do with one hand, that I decided to use it to do a quick Google search on “Birth as Performance Art.”

The first dozen or so links were for articles about the Brooklyn based artist Marni Kotak who gave birth to her son at a New York City art gallery. Mostly they focused on how radical her choice of location and context was. Apparently she is now turning the raising of her son into a work of art.

Whatever. I’d be interested to hear more about the actual experience. As far as I’m concerned, the interesting thing about giving birth is that it sure as hell feels like performance art, whether intended or not, and it sure as hell doesn’t require an audience to feel so. It’s like cathartic theatre that serves the performer (or performers, there are some acrobatics, subtle interpretations of time, and stylistic quips required of the baby for sure).

I was determined to do very little visualization of what I expected giving birth to be like. This was my way of being open to whatever might happen. For someone who is a bit of a control freak, pregnancy marked the zen-est experience of my life. I like to think that a long episode of uncontrollable vomiting in the first few months had something to do with putting me in my place. After that I just surrendered to whatever my body and the body growing in my body was up to.

When I started to feel my first contractions, I did exactly what my lazy pregnant self would do. Took the couch out onto the back deck and lounged in the sun, had a bath, tried to sleep sitting up, until at about 1am this seemed impossible so I got out of bed and said to myself with the hesitance of someone getting up early to get to work and who would really quite like to sleep in, “alright, let’s do dis.”

On went the short red robe with a dragon embroidered on the back that was my grandfather’s. Out went the wake up call to various sleeping family members and friends throughout the house. And onwards went the experimenting with various positions and sounds while everyone else moved around at a steady and silent pace.

Once I made it out of the bedroom, our living room had been converted into nothing less than a faux Greco roman theatre set. White sheets covering all the furniture. Candles in lanterns. A fire. Oh and a blow up swimming pool and Dolly Parton soundtrack. The stage was set and I subconsciously felt a bit like some kind of combination of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard and Grace Jones and Nina Simone. And also a gladiator. Fear-inducing and oozing with almighty power that is way beyond socially comfortable.

I thought that I might feel self-conscious about being butt naked and totally primal in front of a small and tending audience. But once the show started, I was just a heaving roaring woman with huge breasts and belly in a short red robe with a dragon embroidered on the back and there was no two ways about it.

I embellished in making sound. High, low, loud, loud. I don’t think I made one single breath that wasn’t audible. My legs were exhausted so I tried various ways to support my body. The couch. The dresser. The door. My husband. The bed. I kept moving. Forwards and backwards, side to side, up and down. They don’t call it labour for nothing.

When things really reached the next level, I would start the sounds and then they would just take off on their own. This was the part where I’m pretty sure I blew the microphones on the home video camera. There was no screaming. There was no crying. No swearing. But there were demented gurgling roars.

It was slowly slowly fading from dark to light. I hadn’t made eye contact with another human being for a good 6 hours. I spent the last few with my eyes looking only in the direction of the sea out the window, where the sun was slowly rising and a ferry slowly crossing between the north and south islands. But I only actually SAW the view in my deep subconscious.

At some point I thought I heard my friend say “I’m going to read you a poem now.” She read aloud something about a bat. I was happy for the added touch of avant garde. I only found out later that she had actually drawn a card from a pack of Medicine Cards she had brought. The bat symbolised birth and rebirth. Bats hang upside down like babies getting ready to launch themselves out of the womb. It couldn’t have been better if it was planned.

With one of my final pushes I yelled out “come ooooon baby!” which brought some comic relief to the whole scene. And once she did come shooting on out and on to my chest, the audience that had gathered in a circle around the pool all burst into spontaneous tears of joy. I looked all around at them in a bewildered state that I could never ever pull off convincingly as an actor. Laughing, crying, in total shock as if I’d only just fully realised what I had actually been doing.

My midwife wrote in her records of the birth that immediately afterwards I announced “well, that was easier than I thought!” Clearly I was blathering and drunk on hormones.  I was just so relieved. I had improvised my way through birth, let my body lead the way and rode that magical uninterrupted wave of synchronicity right on through to the beginning of the rest of my life.