[Written for and published in NZ Architecture #6, Nov-Dec 2006. pg.71]
Small town big cities
We completed this project recently for a law firm in the small town of Waipukurau, in Central Hawke's Bay. The firm has recently developed a number of clients in Auckland and Wellington, and both cities have also become important places for staff recruitment. So the project presented a dilemma of needing to remain a part of the town that is so engaged in the ground conditions of farming - fresh air, space, weather, fertility, grass, trees and sweet smell of urea - but also visibly engaged in the sophisticated understandings of law that makes human culture operable. That is, they need to be utterly rural to justify being there at all, but equally urbane to survive.
This dilemma made it possible for us to understand the law firm as somethinglike an idea farm: cultivating and producing advice and knowledge that is then efficiently sent to bigger markets just like the protein industry that came before it. The architecture could then work with ideas quite familiar to the farming community, yet spin them towards the so-called knowledge economy. We produced an artificial landscape of sorts, organised into strips that accommodate each individual legal team and undulate above and below the spaces of production to become as much as possible a part of the working environment.
Each strip stretches from the archive space at the centre of the building, through the working spaces and out into a raised garden that shields the ubiquitous car park from view of the idea farmer.
In the logic of agriculture - the furrowed field, or lines of crops - circulation is along each strip and at each end of the strip giving the privileged space adjacent to the raised garden over to public occupation.
We can think of this artificial landscape as a figure on the ground conditions of Waipukurau. Not the same ground we know from the figure-ground drawing Nolli made so famous with his map of Rome in 1748, instead we are thinking of a four-dimensional figure-ground where the historical conditions - the physical, social, political, or geographical context - form a kind of ground which is then altered by the operations of new figures - formal, spatial, programmatic or social interventions.
In these terms, the figure can be identified as such by its standing out in temporal terms. Hyperdictionary defines figure and ground respectively as,
Figure 7. [n] a unitary percept having structure and coherence that is the object of attention and that stands out against a ground
Ground 4. [n] a relatively homogeneous percept extending back of the figure on which attention is focused
We can think of the past figures of Waipukurau, now dissolved and fully merged with the ground, as figures of the farm. The buildings, trucks, tractors, sheep and even the farmers have all been figures that once operated on the ground conditions of the land: busily converting and then maintaining the agricultural systems that produce protein. The first of these operations were utterly violent. The felling of trees, introduction of new species, and indeed the bloody wars that often took place as Europeans made their mark on the land were not gentle operations. But these operations have now become the ground conditions themselves on which new figures operate: new buildings, new people in town, new business, new technology, and new politics all operate on the ground conditions of the small town. These new figures are agricultural equivalents of architecture's haute couture. Ron Witte reminds us that the figure is everywhere in avant-garde architecture today, despite its pretended excision from buildings since the 1980's. Witte says,
Laden with these lingering nightmares, there's no doubt about it - the figure is creepy. But it's also creeping. Look around: despite its sordid history, there's a new figure lurking in architecture today. Call it what you like - fold, metaphor, chunk, smoothness, shape, surface, data-scape, pattern, or blob. Whether or not they confess it, these architectures are unabashedly figure-conscious. (Witte, p77)
And so are farmers figure-conscious. Another recent building in Waipukurau for the Dutch bank, Rabobank, fits neatly into the tilt-slab construction techniques of its tractor selling neighbours: it is certainly a figure conscious bank.
Figures like this maintain the ground conditions as they are; they are more figures of the farm. They become the ground almost the very instant they hit it. They are only really 'figure' for that infinitesimal moment when they can be understood as new. Something so conscious of the ground as Rabobank is really an attempt to avoid being seen as figure. It avoids the new. Figures like this slip into the ground and barely ripple the surface.
We can expect the ground conditions of Waipukurau to continue defining the nature of that town for some time to come. Our intervention may prove to be misaligned, or intolerable, but it might also become understood with other new figures, as a typological operation on the ground of provincial office space in a way that redefines what small towns can become, or even may need to become. Some figures will be more radical than others, some will be utterly subversive and visibly so, and others will be subtle infiltrate the ground conditions slowly. Some figures will bounce off the ground and prove too incongruous to absorb.
The ground condition is in a permanent state of becoming, it is always shaky. The figure-ground opposition is an unstable one because each operates on the other. This collection of historical figures that ultimately forms the ground affects the production of new figures through provocation as much as inspiration. These new figures upset and operate on the existing ground. Strong figures do not as much merge with the ground as the ground merges with them. Weak figures are swallowed up by the ground. The future of the built environment emerges from this exchange between figure and ground.
It seems to us that the artificial landscape we produced in this small town is part of a flock of figures that has already got some momentum. It is already shifting the ground of small rural towns. Idea farming is already big business. The cultural momentum of agricultural industries that many small towns have today might well resist this change, and some small towns may be entirely unaffected by it. Others will perhaps be swallowed up by it. Some though, will take figures like this, exploit them, and actively seek new emergent figures. They will embrace the shaky ground and the introduction of new figures. They will pursue figure over ground. They will make new grounds for their own existence. Among these figures there is a latent manifesto for a small town. As Frederic Jameson has said of Utopian texts,
...the most reliable political test lies not in any judgement on the individual work in question so much as in its capacity to generate new ones, Utopian visions that include those of the past, and modify or correct them. (Jameson, pxv)
Witte, R (2005) Go Figure. Log, 5. New York: Anyone Corporation
Jameson, F (2005) Archaeologies of the Future. The Desire called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso Books
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- Introduction to Great Figure!
- Architecture in the House of Art
- You Are What You Eat, You Better Build What You Believe In
- Donald Judd & Adam's Hut
- Fantastic Responses to the Unreasonable
- Re-establishment of the New Zealand Company
- NZIA Canterbury Branch Lecture
- Useless Bastards
- Interiors in the Land of the Great Outdoors