Art, Architecture, Design, Crossover: Architecture for real people

Last September I was fortunate enough to attend the Arts Council sponsored Critical Voices “Art, Architecture, Design, Crossover” conference in the National Gallery.

The idea of the conference was to consider creative practice and strategies in those fields and consider whether there is a blurring of distinctions between them.

Let’s stop for a second and think about if and why this matters. After all, who cares if Art, Architecture and Design are becoming more similar? Well, actually we all should. It’s not a matter of simple categorisation, but an actual reflection of how this society, and by extension global society is changing under pressures of commercialism, mass communication (I give you the internet as exhibit A), the ability to do new stuff with technology and so on and so forth. What appears to be happening is a convergence of disciplines in these fields where architects, artists and designers will work jointly on projects such as motor-ways and large scale public infrastructural developments, or commercial buidlings. We’ve moved beyond pure functionalism and utilitarianism into an area where our society currently has sufficient extra capital to see a need to incorporate aesthetic elements. These are used to soften the impact of a deveopment, or to link into the local community or whatever. Sometimes this is cosmetic, but often not, and it displays a genuine shift in the nature of the society, a shift towards the visual and the ’social’. Of course the cynic in me is well aware how such activities can be used as a sort of ‘public good’ fig leaf. But even so, it’s a remarkable change from the brutalism, both aesthetic and concrete of the past…

In any case, the list of speakers was fairly diverse from Tom de Paor who is an architect and responsible for the Irish pavillion (made of briquettes) at the Venice Biennale in 2000 and has worked on the A13 motorway in the UK [see here], onto Aisling Prior who is Artistic Director for the Ballymun Art Commission programme through Breaking Ground (and by the by responsible for the commissioning lighting of the Boilerhouse in Ballymun that bright pink red colour at night – which was so liked by the residents that a six week art installation was extended for four years), and a number of UK and US based architects and gallery curators.

Of those Adam Scott was particularly interesting as he was one of those involved in the Millennium Dome, a project which was and is regarded as an abject failure of creative imagination and one that was utterly tainted by commercialism in it’s most crass manifestation. He’s working on a number of projects, including an installation for Liverpool city which would have a beam of light shone vertically into the sky, a sort of luminal version of Dublin’s Spire. Other pieces included a message as you enter Liverpool, they suggested an enormous metal and neon HALLO over the road as one drove in and a GOODBYE as one drove out again. Sadly Liverpool bottled it. Perhaps next time.

Perhaps most interesting for me though was Sean Griffiths, an architect from Manchester who is part of the FAT (Fashion, Architecture, Taste) architectural practice (check out their memorial for Diana – the Diana Bridge – tasteful!). FAT have been involved in a number of projects, including social housing, which lean upon the vernacular. Griffiths father was a strong left wing trade unionist. This has informed the work produced by Griffiths and FAT, although as he points out he is no longer a ‘raging lefty’ himself, and this is manifested in a wish to undercut or reverse notions of liberal bourgeoise taste. And by that what do we mean?

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Well he showed a couple of images of interiors from working and lower middle class housing from the 1960s onwards – note the fine example above. These consisted of extremely decorative fireplaces, a sitting room with a complete pub interior set into a corner including taps, bar space and so on, a fireplace which wrapped around a wall, another which looked like an explosion in an antique store (see image) which drew from many different and seemingly contradictory styles.

The audience at the conference laughed – uneasily it has to be said – but Griffiths pointed out that above and beyond taste these were enormously creative, the result of thought and time directed towards an aesthetic end. He contrasted this with the interiors of the next generations which were filled with strip flooring (oops, I have that)…and IKEA furniture (which I don’t) making them into pastiches of modernism (essentially minimalist interior design and decoration) and which he considered to be simply boring.

His point is that there is a divide in visual culture and this is where taste, politics and class intersect. Draw the line and you can tell where people stand on either side of it by class analysis. Good taste tends to be seen as middle class, bad taste tends to seen as working class. Hence the highly decorative interiors as in the image above are ‘bad taste’ and vulgar. But he points out a huge contradiction. His experience (and mine too) of architecture and design worlds tends to see those involved as left-leaning, vaguely middle class, Guardian readers. And yet the cultural expressions of these worlds is implicitly anti-working class or at least indifferent to working class cultural expressions. In fact he ascribes it to a ‘fear of the working class’ or as he said ‘what is it about these interiors that refined, educated people find so horrific?’. As he says “Housing is a process to make places into homes – which is quite different from how architects see designing houses”.

Now there are counter critiques of this. Taste is notoriously slippery as a concept. Further differentiation into good and bad taste is even more difficult (although it’s worth noting that this is a very modern problem, one that has developed only in the very recent past as commodification has spread from the upper classes to the middle classes and on to the ‘working class’). As one attendee pointed out Adorno had something to say about working class culture and why it might not necessarily be adopted wholesale, but I think Griffith’s point is important because it tells us something about the way elitism works, even or particularly when that elitism is perhaps well-meaning and how, in cultural areas, engagement is necessary.

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Some of the projects he has worked on, in particular a social housing development in New Islington in Manchester has utilised this, by actually going and asking residents what they require. Open plan? Out. The residents don’t want cooking smells wafting through the house. L-shaped rooms in, so that they can have at least two windows in each room increasing visibility and therefore the sense of space (worth noting that the buildings are entirely compliant with energy saving regulations). The residents chose them in an open competion, and why did they choose them?
According to Rita, a long-time resident of the Cardroom Estate who has just moved into her new home, the reason they chose Fat was much simpler:

“They listened. They really listened to what we wanted. And we just liked them as people.”

I think this is important, above and beyond even the notions of taste. If we truly believe in democratic systems of governance, we must also believe in choice in the sense of autonomy, that we listen to what people want. And choice isn’t something that should be restricted simply to our patterns of consumption but should be extended to our patterns of life. In this instance the residents were consulted and listened to. They were lucky, the architects were willing, no were actually philosophically driven, to take on board the concerns of residents, to shape their aesthetic, their ‘taste’ to that of the residents. It’s almost stating the obvious to consider that perhaps those who might actually live in a development should have their opinions taken into account, but we live in societies where until very recently public bus transportation systems made no provision for those with bags, prams, those with difficulties or disabilities or the elderly to board a bus with any degree of ease. This indifference to the welfare of those using these systems, or those forced to use them is certainly more important than simple (or complex) matters of taste but it belongs within a spectrum of attitude.

The final shape of the development used facades as can be seen in the image, behind which were the L-shaped houses. These facades used a playful style which used interesting little decorative features, and even space for bird boxes and mock ornamental gabling, fake windows and so on. The rationale of the oversize facades was as much to provide a visual counterweight to the larger apartment blocks which will be built around the development.

Any mis-steps? One major one. FAT thought they might put the names of the mill owners from the area (the site was built on a former mill) along the top part of the facade in white capital letters, rather like the painted names used on old warehouses. The response was:

‘F*** off! Why would we want to immortalise the oppressors of their ancestors?’.

Which is an interesting insight into how certain elements of traditional ‘class consciousness’ remain extant even in this day and age of supposed meritocracy.

One major element of the FAT approach is to effectively critique ‘modernism’ in architecture and art which they believe, even in it’s stripped down functionalism is no more or less honest than any other ’style’. Theirs is a sort of ‘decorativism’, ornamentation used pretty much for it’s own sake rather than for any functional requirement, which is hated by purists but is rapidly creeping back into not just architecture, but across the visual media, I point you towards the recent spate of advertising – such as that used by Coke – which uses floral silhouettes as framing devices, or the station ident of the Living Channel on Cable which has more floral motifs growing out of the name of the station. This decorativism is interesting, because it strongly reflects a deeply engrained impulse to take a lived environment and lend it little touches here and there to humanise it.

Sure, some will see this as post-modernist play acting, that FAT are as much part of that game of retrospection and retrieval as the most jaundiced neo-modernist high-end architectural practice. Note this example of their thinking… I like it, but I can see problems ahead.

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Perhaps it’s impossible not to play the game. Or perhaps it’s too easy, as in pieces like this, to place too much emphasis on the game. Yet one doesn’t have to be a structuralist in relation to class analyses to appreciate the utility of engagement, indeed it is very much the non-conformity of FAT which is so attractive, that although taking a submerged class position they wind up championing the individual. To my mind there’s a very specific irony in there which tells us more than any arid ideological texts of left or right about the direction which our society is heading.

Still and all, Griffiths was asked how would he feel if one or all of the residents were to use cladding on the facade of the houses. His answer was that he didn’t mind, that it would in some respects be a vindication of the project.

I think he’s telling the truth.

Ciarán Swan

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