NZIA Canterbury Branch Lecture
[Delivered as a lecture on the work of Kebbelldaish at the Canterbury Branch of the Institute of Architects on June 15th, 2007]
This is about the beginning of a Body of Work, not the end:
Kebbell Daish started on April Fool's Day 2002 and if all goes well it will close on March 31, 2032. By that time John Daish, my business partner will be 94, I will be 60 and, well, we don't want to plan the whole of our lives. So consider this if you will, a formal invitation to the wrap party: the 31st is a Wednesday so some of you may need to arrange annual leave in advance anyway.
The 30 year time limit generates a certain amount of urgency actually. You know how long it takes to make good work, and getting a good body of work together 30 years seems to us to be plenty ambitious enough. When we began we set a number of milestones and we are already nervous about drifting behind the clock by a few months. It was our 5th birthday a few months ago and by then we had set out to establish a concept for the body of work that we are working on. By our 10th birthday we hope to have refined that concept and we hope we understand more detail about our thinking: more nuance - something like developed design on a single project. After that we really want to spend 15 years or so testing these ideas in increasingly demanding and more complex situations. In the last five years, while John is in his 90's, we expect to spend tidying up loose ends, finishing projects that had delays, filing, labeling folders, long lunches and things like that. Plans are made to be changed of course, but there it is.
So your invitation to speak is timely for us, now that our deadline for the concept of our body of work has been and gone, we need to put up or shut up. Before I get to some examples of our work I want to explain a little bit about what we mean by the concept for a body of work.
As educators, John and I have both rallied against the idea of concepts as simply 'generators' that get discarded at some point when pragmatics overwhelm. For example, students quite commonly develop a concept for a building that works as a metaphor of some moment in a poetic novel, normally Invisible Cities, (or worse some other cultural or natural object: a forest, a cloud, a movie or something) but only as far as it gets them moving on the design. As soon as serious questions about the design start getting asked, the answers are often framed in terms of structure or efficient circulation or something equally prosaic and the so-called 'generating idea' is discarded while the formal results of that idea are maintained. These 'generating ideas', by definition, get going when the going gets tough. Not all of you will have witnessed this nasty virus in studios at school, but it is there, and it is often in practice too. We believe it is problematic. Bad criticism of these ideas accuses them of being too literal.
Instead, we think they should engage better ideas and then be more literal about them. We think good concepts actually go in search of problems with a confidence that the solutions to those problems will ultimately accumulate and in fact strengthen the idea. Good ideas go looking for trouble. The idea may evolve, but it should deepen, it should get richer, and it should never go away. So similarly, with our body of work, the concept is looking for trouble. The concept is something we hope to unleash on projects as we find them and see what it can do, or what we can do with it. In this way, it is a kind of manifesto.
We like the idea of manifestos, but we are also conscious that some manifestos have universalizing problems - not all, but some. I mean the weaker manifestoes tend to try and explain solutions in a one-size-fits-all framework and that leads to heavy handedness and suffocation. Some of the visions for Modern architecture suffered from this problem and there are several utopian manifestos (the Situationists for example).
More useful manifestoes, we think, are more like open-source software where there is a clear objective and a basic structure towards achieving that objective but the system is transparent, open, and in fact actively encourages suggestions and changes from external sources about the specifics. This is the nature of the concept for our body of work: there is a clear objective and a basic structure to our current thinking that we envision forming the basis of our intellectual growth from here. We solicit your criticism, as much as our clients, our consultants, our immediate family's and so forth, but we curate those criticisms.
That objective that I am talking about is to maintain the possibility for freshness, for the un-named, and un-knowable: for openings in culture. We utterly believe that our role as architects in (or of?) contemporary culture is to pursue this objective. John described it the other day as the need for architects to operate as a grit of sand in the oyster of the building industry, and of culture more generally. We should be inherently problematic. If we call that the end goal, the means toward achieving that is centered around a particular idea of figure ground and I want to spend the rest of the time trying to explain that particular idea.
The figure ground we are talking about is related to, but definitely not the same figure ground that Giambattista Nolli had in mind when he draw his incredible map of Rome in 1748. It is not two-dimensional, and it is not about diametrically opposing built and un-built form. It's good I think to remove that traditional definition straight off the bat.
Figure 1. Aldo Rossi:
I want to talk about Aldo Rossi because pieces of his Architecture in the City published in 1982 are much closer to the way we think about figure and ground.
In particular, it is Rossi's description of the primary elements of a city that make the most sense for us. He says that, "the primary element evolves and should be studied as an element whose presence accelerates the process of the urban dynamic" p99 For Rossi, the primary element is a catalyst and major organizer of the city over the long term. For us, the figure is a catalyst and major organizer of any particular project. In contrast to the primary elements, Rossi also talks about dwelling areas that operates for him something like way we understand ground. So figure for us is a kind of primary spatial element that is a catalyst within the project, that organizes the ground into which it is placed, and new ground that follows.
Figure 2. Venturi & Denise Scott Brown:
You will be familiar with the book Learning from Las Vegas by Venturi, Scott Brown and Steven Izenour. We think this is a really important book because it polarizes people so neatly around the issue of representation. In that book they famously distinguish between architecture as a duck, and architecture as a decorated shed. They are quite clearly opposed to the duck, and campaign for the decorated shed.
- Where the architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form. This kind of building-becoming-sculpture we call the duck.
- Where systems of space and structure are directly at the service of program, and ornament is applied independently of them. This we call the decorated shed.
The duck is a special building that is a symbol, the decorated shed is the conventional shelter that applies symbols.
They call Chartres cathedral a duck, and Palazzo Farnese a decorated shed.
With all due respect for Venturi and his friends, we are opposed to the decorated shed and more in favour of the duck. This project we did in 2003 where the brief was literally to make something that looked like a pukeko: great client. This project was clearly a fascination with these ideas. Since then we have retreated significantly from this position because we have decided a figure in our universe is only almost a duck, and a duck (or a pukeko) is not necessarily a figure. Using Venturi's language again, if the architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form we need to reject it. In other words the figure must operate spatially and culturally, not only formally. So now we pursue a duck where architectural systems of space, structure, and program are fully embraced, and it remains legible in symbolic form. So our figure is, so to speak, part duck.
Figure 3. Michael Hays:
At one level Venturi & Scott Brown attack the duck for its inaccessibility to popular culture, and irrelevance outside the high art and architectural worlds. In the context of this perennial debate on autonomy, they accuse architects of the duck such as Paul Rudolph of a kind disciplinary autonomy and prefer a higher degree of instrumentality. The kind of figure Kebbell Daish is talking about is neither purely autonomous nor purely instrumental. One of the key protagonists in the debate on autonomy has been K. Michael Hays: (founding editor of assemblage magazine, editor of several books on contemporary architectural theory, he is currently architecture curator at the Whitney Museum in New York and Professor at Harvard). We like to think it is positioned closer to what Michael Hays calls "Critical Architecture": a device that is conceived and developed entirely within the discipline of architecture but deployed upon culture outside of architecture. It uses architecture to push back at the rest of the world: so it neither withdraws from the world at large (as Venturi & Scott Brown accuses the duck) nor remains simply instrumental for it (as we accuse Venturi & Scott Brown).
Figure 4. Heavy Hitting Art Critics:In this sense the figure is best understood not as a noun, but as a verb. We ask of our figures not what are you, or what do you represent, but what do you do. We are keen to learn more about the figure in terms of the operation from contemporary art where we see: Yve Alain-Bois, Rosalind Kraus, Hal Foster and others doing their work on people like Pollock and the operation of Horizontality.
- Small Steps to Paradise
- 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
- Idea Farming
- Useless Bastards
- Interiors in the Land of the Great Outdoors