The Case for Contingency
by Michael J Casey
ess is more. Less is a bore. Mess is the law. Jeremy Till opens his book ARCHITECTURE DEPENDS (MIT Press, $24.95) with a personal thesis that derives from two opposing dogmas of 20th century architects Mies Van Der Rohe and Robert Venturi. This trio of outlandish doctrines sets the tone for Till’s humorous and deeply intellectual dressing down of some prolific and egomaniacal architects, and summarizes the main premise of his book: Despite an architect’s highfalutin claims of purity or autonomy, architecture is inherently contingent upon context, and will be unavoidably affected by forces completely outside the designer’s control. A seraphic vision of pristine volumes and whitewashed walls will always be brought back down to earth by the realities of dust, dirt, and inevitable decay. Critique of established ways of thinking is nothing new to architectural literature. Robert Venturi’s declaration that “less is a bore” was a tongue-in-cheek play on Mies’ minimal, functionalist approach to architecture. Venturi was cleverly voicing his discontent with the tired state of modern architecture in the 1970s and 80s. By then, what had once been a noble attempt at capturing the zeitgeist of a new post-war culture had become just another style.
Just as the post-modernist Venturi hijacked modernist Mies’ credo and retooled it to his own counter ideology, Jeremy Till declares his own canon by thoughtfully laying out a case for the inherent contingency of architecture. Till’s main premise: the reality that any building will be subject to “uncontrollable circumstances: users, time, weather, historians, and new technologies”. Using a disarming sense of humor to skewer no less than Mies, Le Corbusier, and Vitruvius, Till challenges the puritanical philosophies and exclusive attitude of established forebears in his own field. He convincingly debunks their revered ideas by emphasizing that even the best laid plans can never take into account the whole future of events that lie ahead of a completed building project, striking a populist tone by challenging what he sees as “clear lines between us architects and them unwashed”. An architecture that anticipates and embraces uncertainty is what Till calls ‘lo-fi’ architecture. Citing musician Elvis Costello as his inspiration for the term, he reminisces on a radio interview in which Costello explained that during a recording session he has sound engineers play back his music over a cheap radio, in order that he may “hear how it sounds in real life...over the noise of a breakfast table”.
BOOK REVIEW The analogy between recording popular music and the contemporary architectural process is direct. Just as musicians are cut off from the rest of the world in a recording studio, manipulating their voices and instruments until a song has been perfected for distribution, architects hole themselves up in studios, “creating hi-fi architecture on high end equipment, dreaming of that perfected delivery in the polished aura of blue skies and happy people”. Those polished visions are an idealized fantasy. No matter how many hours you spend in front of your Mac, rendering a perspective shot to stunningly realistic qualities, the built iteration of your design will never truly resemble that flawlessly presented depiction. Till is criticizing the elitist tendencies of highly educated and admired architects who see their buildings as purely autonomous or worse, as expressions of their own artistic vision. He mocks architects who design based on idealized images of what the building will look like and cater to specialized and exclusive categories of users, arguing that those in the business of dreaming up beautiful objects often fail to consider the “ethical consequences of one’s action toward that object or person”. A candid referral to Frank Gehry’s seminal, tourist drawing Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, with its abstract bulges and undulating titanium masses, drives Till’s critical point home. Despite architecture’s importance to social and civic discourse, its sheer pervasiveness has created a condition where buildings are mere objects that “when placed into a wider chain of exchanges, become primarily a commodity of capital exchange rather than a crucible of social exchange”. This critique of the monetary bottom line that drives much design work will resonate with anyone who has dealt with the sobering realities of “value engineering”, a process that tends to limit an architect’s more grandiose ambitions. The substantial monetary investments required for commercial and institutional building construction can put a choke hold on architects who think beyond the immediate needs of the client and dare to philosophize over a building’s deeper meaning as a part of unpredictable urban and social contexts. Interspersed with a cerebral and thoroughly researched prose that conceptualizes his philosophies, Till repeatedly digresses to humorous personal anecdotes of life as both a student and practitioner of architecture. These punch lines strengthen Till’s proletarian appeal and invite readers who may be daunted by the acutely intellectual composition of his manifesto to continue reading, if only for another laugh. Although his dense language and frequent references to architects known mostly within the design field might leave some readers high and dry, Till consistently stresses a level playing field where you me and everyone who inhabits a built environment has an effect on it. Accordingly, his ideas appeal and apply to the masses. The act of designing buildings for construction and occupation is dependent upon a set of needs arising from a group of potential users. Architects are trained to interpret the demands of their client and to design a solution that satisfies practical requirements while accommodating a specific program of needs. This so-called ‘design process’, starting with a required program and ending with an occupied product, reflects a societal condition where architects are only seen as responsible for their buildings up to a certain point. Once the final touches have been made and the keys have been handed to the client, the architect’s role is supposedly over. In Till’s reality, this is the point where the true cause for architecture becomes apparent. When the users move in and make the space their own, when something that has traveled from sketches to construction documents to tectonic reality is now accommodating the messy lives of imperfect humans, that is when architecture is truly functioning in all it’s ‘lo-fi’ modesty. Architecture is not the accommodation of particular lifestyles, rather it is the background provided for life to unfold.
Architecture Depends by Jeremy Till. Cambridge: MIT Press, © 2009. 254 pages.