ThinkTime: Remnants of the New Ancients
A Premise: All architectural theories are myths.
Buildings hold the stories of our times, and storytelling is one of the oldest human traditions. It is a tool to teach our young, to understand our existence in the world, and to recount the lifetimes of ancestors that came before us. Myths in particular are a tradition of storytelling predicated on belief and perhaps even faith. With this in mind we debate the legacy of the remnants that we inherit, and what we can aspire to pass on to our ancestors who follow us – in our stories, and the buildings that symbolise them.
Stories and Buildings
The famous mythical structures of folklore combine the values of storytelling with the physical characteristics of architecture. Valhalla; the communal gathering hall rewarding a valiant warrior’s death – fostering a battlefield mentality that embraces death rather than fears it. Camelot; the unconquerable medieval fortress, built upon courage and valour, as a beacon of law and order. The Labyrinth; the antithesis of Camelot’s civilisation – sentenced to disorientation, confusion and death in a maze of primal fear and superstition. If these stories are the means of indoctrinating our young then perhaps our built buildings do too – nascent relationships between architecture and behaviour our ingrained into our subconscious, informed by the surroundings in which we develop. For example there is no reason at all for the hushed conversation of Think Time visitors in the old courtroom of The Guildhall, but the timber panelled interior and authoritative orientation of judge, jury, stalls and cells, all speak in a language that we unwittingly understand to be authoritative – and demanding of obedience.
Storytelling as the means to carry forward our past is also true in the architecture we inherit. The buildings are the stories, and the way we present, access and interpret them, are the means by which the stories are passed on. This reassessment of a historic site’s narrative has become the standard format for our built heritage today, typified by the rise of ‘the visitor centre’ – surely soon to be the only language by which we can understand a significant site. This approach is in danger of encouraging a commodification of history, and has more in common with souvenir salesmanship than architectural legacy. This presentation of our narrative must never manipulate authenticity by ‘editing’ the history to suit our current tastes or conceptions – if the story is to be told, each link in the chain surely shares equal importance.
Words and Images
At many points in the debate the discussion turned to the all prevailing significance of ‘the image’ in the design and appreciation of contemporary architecture; and this growing dependence was considered to be culpable for many of the perceived shortcomings of the structures we build today. Images seed further images, and they can never be unseen – however the written word can give license to imagination, and bringing one’s own personality to the projection formed by the mind. In many cases the lack of a visual image (a condition of increasing rarity) may help to foster its significance, whilst the instantaneous access to a multitude of information only serves to dull significance through over-exposure. The panel were quick to point out the image of architecture (delight) should never be confused with the architecture itself (delight, married with firmness and commodity).
Cedric Price championed an architecture of the instant moment, and contested that buildings should have an expiry date to fuel the consistent pursuit of innovation. A continuous renewal of immediate architecture will never have the opportunity to leave remnants. As a counterpoint to the skepticism of imagery within architecture, Price’s Fun Palace would be an obvious precedent to cite; it existed only as images, and it’s influence on 20th Century architecture was vast. In the days of complete and total data saturation, do the stories of old become more or less valuable? Perhaps the timelessness of storytelling provides the solace from the endless churn of information; the endurance that survives the immediacy.
From Theories into Visions
It’s easy to see why many people are left cold by the New Brutalism of mid-20th Century, and why challenging new forms might be less favourable than those within the established comfort zones of the majority. Is it right to inflict an ‘architecture for architects’ upon the many, whilst appreciated by only the few? Betjeman pointed out that all eras reject the taste of those that immediately precede them, and maybe this disinclination to concrete is another instance that proves his observation astute. The Victorians vs The Georgians. The Modernists vs The Victorians. The Postmodernists vs The Modernists. And now us vs the Postmodernists? A lot of historic fabric has been lost because demolition began before the slowly growing appreciation was able to fully mature with hindsight.
Perhaps then this is why architecture continually reverts to Classicism. By re-visiting the ancient rules and proportions we hope to imbue our buildings with a spirit of what came before us; We declare ourselves as rightful successors to those values – the beginning of European civilisation. But consistently reverting backwards again and again can become a cage to contain the flight of new ideas, and stunts the development of an architecture of our age. After all what would Cedric Price do?
Our Remnants and the Future
If architectural theories are myths, then what myths do we believe in today? I would suggest that it is impossible to recognise a movement whilst it is happening, and the significance of a time or set of ideas can only be appreciated long after it has expired – when hindsight can quantify the influence affected.
It would be foolish to dismiss the importance of the instantaneous image to our digital age. Thousands of years of finite copies of written communication, supported by an evolving oral history that is never conveyed the same way twice, passed on first hand from person to person; appended by 20 years of immediate access to everything, for everyone, in totality. It is useless to assume it is inconsequential to our narrative, and it is useless to assume our culture will be able to revert to the way it operated before. Although Parametricism may or may not be the next myth that defines our time, at least its authors understand and embrace the increasingly digital world that humanity is destined to inhabit.
Viewing architectural movements as myths is a fitting analogy, because myths cannot be disproven; they are a process, not an answer. Each generation draws from the theory that which it requires, and adds to the theory that which it’s age can offer. This is how narratives continue and myths evolves, they are the debate that can never be concluded. Every act of architecture is a reassessment, and will always end with a question mark rather than a full stop.
Many thanks to the panel for sharing their thinking and time, to the audience for their thoughtful and passionate debate, and to the owners of the Bristol Guildhall for hosting the evening.
Alan Keane – Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Gillian Darley – Architectural writer and critic
Sam Joyce – Foster & Partners
Robert Grover – James Grayley Architects
Prof. Yiannis Gabriel – Bath University
Dr.Amy Frost – Bath Preservation Trust