[Written for an Invited Public Panel Discussion, '100 years of the NZIA: Taking Stock.' Delivered at Sky Tower, Auckland, May 25-27, 2005.]
I have titled my presentation, "Useless Bastards". Not referring to anybody in the room, or the NZIA. I'm referring to the few of our own projects.
And I mean "useless" in the best sense. That is, I'm referring to those aspects of a project that are not related to pure utility. So when various functional and programmatic issues are put to one side, or at least understood for their cultural value not simply their utilitarian value, and the project then exists as a cultural artefact: something similar to the way art, or philosophy, or music normally does.
That's what I mean by "useless".
So useless architecture operates on what we believe, on our value systems: by confirming it, critiquing it, challenging it, or changing it. I say this because I want to talk about these changes in culture, about ideas that migrate - conceptual migrations, not geographic ones. And this is not a question of national culture either. Cultures obviously coagulate at various sizes. The habits and ideas, or values, we are talking about might be within a company, or a family, or a small town, or a province, as much as they might be within a country, or a continent.
I mean "bastards" in the best sense too. Not in the derogatory at all, but in the sense of having illegitimate conceptual parents.
This seems to me to be one way that culture can migrate, conceptually: through bastard ideas. By that, I mean ideas that are not only conceived within the usually accepted parameters that any particular culture might work in - like architectural ideas that are tidily conceived from a careful study of the site, or the program, or technology for example.
The projects I will show you deal with these issues too, but we think they also step into relatively less acceptable ideas too. One of the projects is quite literal, one is a cliche of sorts, and the other is, at least to some people, offensive. And from within the various pockets of culture that we probably spend too much time, these ideas seem reasonably unacceptable.
They are not completely, but to some extent at least, and in the sense that I'm describing them, they are "Useless Bastards". This is why we like them:
PROJECT 1: a private house
This project is quite literal, but we also think, quite beautiful. Our client wanted to rethink the image of a New Zealand house.
The project was in Karori, and the site is at the end of a well known street of established Victorian villas, not that far from an extraordinary wildlife sanctuary well known for its native birds. It is fair to say that this project was more influenced by the bird-life than the villas.
PROJECT 2: a corporate office
This project is in many ways, a cliche. The brief is in a sense a familiar one, although it is one of those strange cliches that people don't seem to have actually produced many of.
The brief was essentially, to produce a culture of change. This would enable them to avoid complacency, allow for quick manipulation of project teams, make parties easier to set up for, etc.
And the answer, in short, was to produce something like an urban caravan park. It is a collection of mobile 'pods' if you like, surrounded by a no-go zone next to the natural light which we called the 'queens chain'.
PROJECT 3: Tomb for the Unknown Soldier
This project might be offensive to some of you, and if it is, I am very sorry, but I hope you understand our position.
It is a well known competition for the tomb for the Unknown Soldier, so I don't need to explain the brief. But our answer takes some explanation; I will simply read the text we submitted with our registration of interest - which evidently didn't register much interest. The sketch I will show you was produced after the competition, once the realisation we would not actually build it had set in.
"Killing Strangers for no personal benefit is an unnatural act, and deliberately risking your own life is more so. The purpose of wartime military systems is therefore to turn normal people into deviants. In standing armies, this can be done by building up tribe-like unit loyalties, with their own cultures, traditions and symbols such as flags, which grown men will actually die for."
If the symbols in wartime are tools for deviancy, the symbols outside of war should promote peace and serve to discourage the deviancy of killing. The very construction of a tomb is already a reverent act, and our approach will endorse that respect. New Zealand's Tomb for the Unknown Soldier will remember victims of deviancy but it will not be a trophy to one of the darkest periods of New Zealand, indeed world, history.
We included a few quotes from "All Quiet on the Western Front" that helped us bring the reality of war into focus a bit. So this is straight from the WW1 trenches:
"...a blow from a spade cleaves through his face. A second sees it and tries to run farther; a bayonet jabs into his back. He leaps in the air, his arms thrown wide, his mouth wide open, yelling; he staggers, in his back the bayonet quivers."
"...with the butt of his rifle Kat smashes to pulp the face of one of the unwounded machine gunners. We bayonet the others before they have time to get out their bombs. "
"... we jump through the narrow entrances into the narrow trenches. Haie strikes his spade into the neck of a gigantic Frenchman and throws the first hand-grenade...I fall into an open belly on which lies a clean, new officer's cap."
We proposed to pursue a beautifully crafted, highly polished, materially rich and formally simple, three part, triumphal blood bath: 'All Quiet' deep red water relentlessly flowing from our sodden ground. It will be a stunning reminder of hell on earth, how sick and bloody human behaviour can be, and how desperately we should avoid the irrational greed that fuels it.
That was the last bastard.
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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
- Idea Farming
- Interiors in the Land of the Great Outdoors