Small Steps to Paradise
[Written for and published in Houses Magazine, Issue 18, Summer 2010, pp. 20]
Small Steps to Paradise
1. Figure Courtyards,
pathways, and verandas are not typical conversation starters. In fact as a rule, they are effective conversation stoppers at most New Zealand dinner tables. So it might be a surprise to know that a few people are happy to talk about them for several years and in great detail. It turns out that courtyards, pathways, and verandas can be important things. For want of a better word, we call them all 'figures' but we could just as well have called them 'protagonists', 'catalysts', 'accelerators' or perhaps borrowed a word from Dr Seuss and called them, 'nizzarrds', 'flunnels' or 'sneedles'. It doesn't matter much what they are called, but however unlikely it might sound, they start long conversations.
Fair enough too. They can form the basis for a house that shapes the life of a family. There are lots of things we could call a 'figure': a grandstand, loggia, porch, stoop, cellar, hall, gallery, passage, landing, lobby, belvedere, etc. The list could go on and on, and each one could be broken into various types from various parts of the world - each influenced by custom, climate, technology and philosophical fascination. They all have a certain history and set up social, technical and aesthetic expectations. Conventionally, they go together in certain groups and in certain configurations to form known building 'types': pavilion, villa, bungalow, super-bach, landscraper, skyscraper, stadium, castle, etc.
If culture was static then those conventions would be universal rules and our discipline would suffocate. There is also a good chance we would still be wearing togas, or some other ancient garb, and spend our weekends feeding Christians to the lions. But gladly for Christians, culture is not static. Our values have changed markedly since the blood and sweat of the Coliseum's hey day. Not surprisingly, architecture has evolved too, and it continues to evolve according to our changing values. Playstation in the drawing room is not just a change in fashion; it's a change in culture.
2. Architecture is a Means to an End
Contemporary culture is made up of a few over-arching ideas and lots and lots of sub-cultures. Companies try hard to build their own cultures (or at least some do), clubs do the same, and most families have a culture without necessarily thinking about it. Architecture plays a real role in that culture. Sadly, some houses cause one's sphincter muscles to tighten and 'free thought' to evaporate; it's just the way they've been done. So not only does architecture exist in the context of contemporary culture, it also plays a role in the production of that culture. Like a good piece of clothing, buildings don't control who you are, but they can amplify who you think you are. So at least in part, architecture is one means to a cultural end goal, and the 'figure' is an important building block towards that end goal. It is just one part of a whole raft of shapes, colours, sounds, habits, rules, smells, manners, stories, economies, technologies, and one-liners on tee shirts that make up a sub-culture. The best buildings are imbued with ideas that connect a place to other ideas, world views, experiences, and all manner of things that bounce around in a human's head; they respond to context like a good conversationalist.
3. Context is Everything
The idea of context is much bigger than what anybody can see out their window. When context is understood as the environment surrounding the inhabitant, not just the environment surrounding the building, then the idea of context is much richer than the Mt. Victoria design guide could ever suggest. You experience architecture in the context of your life experience. The glossy pages of this magazine; other architecture you have visited; films you have watched; books you have read; and even tonight's news; all form part of the context for the next building you visit. In fact, the places you are likely to go; people you could talk to; and things you might end up reading; all form a part of that context too. In short, contemporary culture is the context for contemporary architecture - even if only one or two aspects of contemporary culture are relevant. The immediate landscape and neighbouring buildings, if any, are enormously important, but looking out the window is just the beginning. We have to be broader minded than that to understand context. These conversations about figure can go on a long time because the width of a path, the dimensions of a courtyard and the orientation of a veranda are all small pieces of a much bigger and unsolvable puzzle.
4. Paradise Reforged
A few years ago the Economist ran an article called "Time to Call it a Day" in which it asked, "If Belgium did not already exist, would anyone nowadays take the trouble to invent it?" Well, New Zealand was a good idea, and despite the occasional cartoonist suggesting that the last New Zealander to leave should turn out the lights, it is still a good idea. In fact, it's a staggering idea. Whichever way you read the history books, New Zealand was the last land mass to be discovered and humanity's last serious attempt to build a country from virgin ground. We are young and obliged to experiment. With each experiment we make, and each small figure we build, we can have a crack at another way to live - however subtle, or radical. That other way to live is, of course, the subject of another long conversation and the world's most exciting project: 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
- NZIA Canterbury Branch Lecture
- Idea Farming
- Useless Bastards
- Interiors in the Land of the Great Outdoors