To get a deeper understanding of the architecture we design, we must have a deeper understanding of the human condition. An anthropological understanding as a psychologist, sociologist and philosopher to attempt to advance our general knowledge, in order to provide buildings and spaces that communicate with meaning and feeling. We need to have a sensibility to interpret the brief or programme - which invariably leaves out most of the important bits anyway – to find the narrative experience.
Feeling the same differently...
There are issues that we encounter as architects that do not remain the same, but they concern the same man, and that is our cue. We meet ourselves everywhere in all places and in all ages - doing the same things in a different way, reacting differently to the same, feeling the same differently.
Take two passages from literature 200 years apart ... the first from Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion’ (1818)
'Everybody has their taste in noises as well as other matters; When Lady Russell, not long afterwards, was entering Bath on a wet afternoon, and driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Camden Place amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of the carts and drays, the bawling of the newsmen, muffin men and milkmen, and ceaseless clink of patterns, she made no complaint. No, these were the noises which belonged to the winter pleasures and her spirits rose under the influence.'
The second is from the contemporary writer Jon McGregor in his 2002 novel 'If nobody speaks of remarkable things' about modern life in an undisclosed northern town.
'If you listen, you can hear it. The city, it sings. The machines and sirens, the cars blurting hey and rumbling all headlong, the hoots and the shouts and the hums and the crackles, all come together and rouse like a choir, sinking and rising with the turn of the wind, the counter and solo, the harmony humming expecting more voices. So listen.'
The experiences of places and spaces, the human condition - senses and feelings - remnants of the past and emotions of the present. Freud speaks of ‘archaic remnants’: embedded memories that evoke human emotion and interaction with each other and our places; thresholds that mark our comings and goings; the sociability of a building or neighbourhood; the individual and the collective in our surroundings; earth under our feet; sky above our heads; horizons and our compatriots at our sides. Architecture is an existential experience, a constant narrative.
Heidegger said 'Only when we are capable of dwelling can we build ...dwelling is the basic property of our existence'. (1954).
House is City...City is House
'Tree is leaf and leaf is tree - house is city and city is house - a tree is a tree but it is also a huge leaf, but it is also a tiny tree - a city is not a city unless it is also a huge house - a house is a house only if it is a tiny city'...Van Eyck 1962
The narrative of the macro making sense of the micro, and vice versa, is a universal trait. As humans we need metaphors and symbols to make sense of this world, models that represent our relationship to this world and bring meaning to our existence.
As architects, constantly working across the scales of the individual building (or room) and the structure of a town ensures that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Fragments make cities, cities are made of connected fragments.
We're all mixed up now ... Work and Love
Freud speaks of all life being about 'work and love'. It is about the need for us to be useful, to be appreciated and to appreciate. So, is this to be reflected in the spirit of places we make? Places for existence, for gathering, for imagination, for awareness, for ideas, for dialogue, a bunch of places for all manner of human emotions, that are interwoven and not separated into urban zones or building sectors.
We've already spoken of a city as a house, but a house can be a school, a school a gallery, a gallery a workspace, a workspace a university, as a university is a city.
Schools can be under homes; homes over public space; public space over workspace; workspace next to schools; schools alongside homes, and so on.
We should think of spaces as verbs not nouns (after Alejandro Aravena), activities not labels.
The purpose of space is that of bringing humans and their activities together - learning, working, playing, resting…living; for the younger, older, able or assisted.
Permissive space allows things to happen by blurring the boundaries between activities and uses. To be spaces of movement, allowing interaction and engagement by serendipity to create an atmosphere of both familiarity and expectation.
We need new models for these new ways of operating based on the constant of human behaviour. This is the transition of pluralistic modernism…as William Lethaby, arguably the father of modern architectural theory, said in his book ‘Architecture, Mysticism and Myth’ (1891) 'Would you know the new you must search the old', and then went on to say 'What then will this architecture of the future be? The message will still be of nature and man, of order and beauty, but all will be sweetness, simplicity, freedom, confidence and light'.
But it's to the city, where more than half of the world now lives, that I turn, to conclude this short story about human experience and feelings. From the last paragraph of the opening chapter of McGregor's book: 'if nobody speaks of remarkable things':
'But here, as the dawn sneaks up on the last day of summer, and as a man with tired hands watches a young couple dance in the car park of his restaurant, there are only these: sparkling eyes, smudged lipstick, fading starlight, the crunching of feet on gravel, laughter, and a slow walk home'
This essay is part of the St Catherine’s Papers, and was originally presented as a short talk at the Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios 2017 Awayday.
A full programme of talks can be seen here.
Previous: Explore 33: The social potential of architecture
Next: Explore 36: Ten principles for the design of interiors
1. Keith Bradley presents at the FCBStudios 2017 Awayday © Richard Battye for FCBStudios
2. Panel discussion at the FCBStudios 2017 Awayday © Richard Battye for FCBStudios