Strange Harvest
Architecture / Design / Art
StrangeHarvest is written and collated by Sam Jacob.


Backpeddling into the Future: The Historical-Futurism of British Architecture



I recently shared a platform at the Yale Centre for British Art with Ed Jones and Robert Maxwell. We were there representing architects in a conference about architectural history. Specifically, our brief was to address how architects use history. Between us, I think we managed to offend everyone in the room. Why? Because as Robert Maxwell confided to me, academic history is a deep and narrow subject, while architecture is very wide and incredibly shallow.

Any architect brave enough to mention the impression of history or the gravity of tradition upon their work is likely to alienate pretty much everyone. Historians because they will be appalled by such amateurish ignorance, architects because of their blind attachment to an idea of 'contemporary-ness'. Mention history and you will find yourself summoning the spectres of Architectural bogey-men such as Prince Charles and Quinlan Terry.

According to Reyner Banham, Modernism owed it all to the Futurists. And it's that 'Theory and Design in the First Machine Age' historical trajectory that is used as the background to High Tech architecture. Its incredible success has hijacked Banhams legacy: the gadgets, the engineering, the thrill of the machine and the child-like glee of bolted together infrastructure - all of this is used to explain the historical inevitability and universal contemporary relevance of High Tech.

But there is an alternative story to British architecture. One where the relationship between the past, the present and the future is far more complex. It's an idea of modern architecture that is distinct from continental Modernism. One where the role of history and tradition is significant in the creation of the future. It means that progressive - and sometimes radically utopian - architecture comes wrapped up in historical reference.

It's what we see in the proto-modernism of the Arts and Crafts, in the intentional Luddite nature of medieval revivalism in the face of the industrial revolution. William Morris proto-socialist social progressivism and fit-for-purpose simplicity. Perhaps this back-to-the-future view is best seen in Morris' novel, 'The News from Nowhere' whose scenario reads like a Sci-Fi B-movie: a future London filled with people in bright, homemade clothes, the Houses of Parliament turned into a dung heap, Kensington Gardens a forest where children are sent to educate themselves.

Nostalgia is the language which disguises the essentially rationalist/futurist vision of the Garden Cities. Ebenezer Howards infrastructural and economic blueprint was interpreted by architects such as Unwin and Parker into something whose references were far from contemporary - in fact, these references were little more than collages of the architects most recent holiday sketchbooks. But the references serve an important architectural service. They extend the Howards equation of the Garden City: (City - disease + poverty + crime)) + (Country - (unemployment + isolation)) into a terrain of pleasure.

The relationship of nostalgia to technology and infrastructure continues as the suburbs roll out of the cities along railway lines - escaping from the post industrial city. Its important to remember that the suburban expansion was bright fresh and new. It was utopian and bristling with new technology.

Perhaps it is this relationship that Archigram - children of the suburban pioneers -accelerate and amplify. Ron Herrons 'Tuned Suburbs' might well be surreal and hip, but they are also made in tribute to the suburbs utopian pleasure principle.

Archigrams pastoral-futurism is seeped in nostalgia. Technology is used to return us to a more innocent state. It's perhaps the sentiment at the heart of David Greenes Rok and Log Plugs and in Cooks 'Hedgerow City' - high tech pieces of naturalistic landscape - what one might describe as a techno-picturesque.

Are Archigrams concerns of history and technology the same tendencies that find architectural fulfilment in Jim Stirlings Staatsgalerie? Are they linked - via Banham, the Independent Group and Denise Scott Brown to American Pop and Postmodernism? The questions being asked in these projects are about history in relation to the full machinations of contemporary culture. The importance of this is that it directly addresses issues of identity and attempts to examine the effects of technology and globalisation upon culture. To this end, nostalgia is a powerful tool: it can be used as a battering ram, a protective shield, a means of delivery and a way of communicating.

This trajectory through modern British architecture avoids the cul-de-sacs of pastiche, of simple historical re-creation. History is used not as an accurate model, but as cultural reference. By doing this, it places the architect with a wider social and political landscape and sites architecture within broader culture. In fact, rather than providing a protected harbour against the raging sea of contemporary-ness, it challenges the exclusive dialogue within the profession. It also involves tremendous leaps in imagination: of remaking the past as well as the future. Far from being safe, it is unsettling, challenging and sometimes radical.



Posted by anothersam at November 30, 2006 2:26 PM.

2 Comments

Fallow said:

Hi Sam,
Felt compelled to comment. I think you're broadly right, but conflating Stirling and Archigram is where it all goes a little too far, i think.
Archigram is interested in history insofar as it represents a nostalgic retro-futuristic consumer utopia, as you suggest. I visited Stirling's Neue Staatsgalerie for the first time earlier this year, and what is striking is its desire to communicate in a mediated and yet unironic way. This is not pop art appropriation of iconography (despite the architrave lampshades), it is the desire on the scale of the city to reclaim symbolism as a relevant area of architectural enquiry. The stepped rotunda, in particular, is an extraordinary gesture of pragmatic sophisticaton, but it's meaning is not ironic. The steps really are a place of procession and peacock-like public display, a highly mannered interweaving of publicness and high culture. I think that the NS is a postmodern project, beset by double-coding, but cultural in its capacity to communicate through culture.
I think your thesis here is a little too concerned with imagery. Stirling's buildings are very much about the city. Archigram's projects are removed from it, walking above it, or sealing the individual body from the environment. In this respect, Archigram is just modernism - obsessed with mobility and hygiene. Stirling is not nostalgic - he believes just as much as Lutyens did in the contrinuing relevance and power of the rotunda, arch or obelisk.
Have you read Gaving Stamp's book about the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme? There is nothing nostalgic about this project - it is a powerful adn contemporary authorial statement, in language. As Danish architect Jan Olav Jensen said to me the other day (when talking about his extraordinary new Cistercian monastery in the north of Norway - a true postmodern project) - "telling the same stories, but using somehow different words."

sam said:

Kieran:

Perhaps the Staatsgaleries tone is not ironic, but instead it could be filed under a neighbouring and little used catagory: "musings regarding the differences between now and then". It's more poetic than ironic, using the dialogue between construction technique, material and historical expectation. In this much it is "theatrical" with explicit narrative - for example where the stone cladding falls from the wall as though a ruin, revealing a car parking level (or some such).

I think Stirling is nostalgic, but importantly, not sentimental. Perhaps the difference is similar to Ruskins definition of 'high' and 'low' Picturesque: where 'low' is sentimental and 'high' aware of and in sympathy with the misery of the worker in the field, the ravages of time, the isolation of the countryside and so on.

There was an essay recommended to me by Bob Maxwell - who had been sent a photocopy by Mary Stirling - about some early housing by Stirling & Gowan whose subject was the nostalgia for working class terraced housing. I think this essay, by Mark Crinson, stresses an unsentimental nostalgia. Here is a link to an abstract

Your right of course to question the relationship I suggest between Archigram and Stirling - definalty a point held together with string and chewing gum in my original piece. In my defence, there is a large Stirling shaped hole in the middle of British architectural culture. Perhaps this will be addressed by the show that is currently being assembled between Yale and the CCA - due in 2010, I think.

Again - you are right to say that here I'm obsessing about imagery. And you are right to foreground the urban role of the Staatsgalerie. Equally impressive in a similar vein, is - to introduce another British protagonist - Mackintosh's industrial-baronial handling of spatial organisation where one slips between typologies ancient and modern with alarming ease: from Great Hall to Factory.

In this previous essay, which I've posted here, I was attempting to address the issue of the uses of historical architectural language. Off the top of my head, I think I was borrowing a concept from Seamus Heaney: the 'word hoard'. He used this term relating to a kind of cultural language resource that we reach into. That might be image, but could be most anything else too. What it really represents is culture. And language is the mechanism through which one addresses culture.

Leave a comment





Contents:

More Scenes In Cartoon Deserta

Eiffel X-Rays

Beyond: Values and Symptoms

Sub Plan

Shenzhen: Window of the World

White Power

Generic Powerpoint Template: Delivering Bad News

Duplicate Array

The Best New Building In London

Book Review: The Infrastructural City

A Balloon in the Pantheon

Letters From The Pantheon

Henry Moore in Motion

On My Steel Horse I Ride

The Michael Jackson Monument Design Competition

Now Showing: John Baldessari Sings Sol LeWitt

Obscure Design Typologies: Life Guard Chairs

Osama bin Laden Cigarette Lighter: Novelty Products as Congealed Culture

Absurd Car Crashes: A Eulogy for J.G. Ballard

Candy Pistol

Now Showing: Dan Grahams 'Rock My Religion'

This Concrete 'O': On Serotonin, the M25, and the Motorik Picturesque

Church of the Literal Narrative

Philadelphias Floating Architecture

Now Viewing: Married To The Eiffel Tower

Le Corbusiers Image Hoard: Poeme Electronique

Giant American Signs: Original Learning from Las Vegas Footage

Giant Soviet Signs Cut Into Forests

Bricks Melted Into Icicles: Napalm Decorative

C-Labs 'Unfriendly Skies' & 'Bootleg' Volume

2 The Lighthouse: Self Storage & Architectural Hallucinations

Ceci N'Est Pas Une Pipe: Infrastructure as Architectural Subconcious.

Viva Sectional Cinematography!

Now Showing: The Installation of an Irreversible Axis on a Dynamic Timeline

Plug: Junk Jet

Sim Seasons Greetings! The Rise of Neo-Winter

Geography in Bad, Festive Drag.

The Ruins of the Future

High Tech As Steampunk ...

On The Retro Infrastructural

Simulations of Industry: High Tech Architecture and Thatcherism

David Greene: The Big Nothing

From The Factory to the Allotment: Tony Wilson, Urbanist

Koolhaas HouseLife / Gan Eden: The Revenge of Architectural Media

Ruburb-ric: The Ecologies of the Farnsworth House

The Architecture of Divorce

Flagrant Delit: The Movie

Landscape as Clothing

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham Redux

Acts of Un-Building: Timelapse Demolitions

Yard Filth: Next Years Hot Look

Stonehenge: A Black Hole At The Heart Of British Architecture

The Popemobile: Mechanised Robes & Motorised Architecture

Tarmac Adam, Tarmac Eden

The Secret Language of Surface

Some Housekeeping

Information Fields: Agriculture as Media

My Bloody Valentine: Sound as Substance

A Cubist Copse: Gehrys Serpentine Pavilion

Olympic Model Protest

Spouting Off: Some Thoughts On The Fountainhead

Form Follows Dysfunction: Bad Construction & The Morality of Detail

Floating Homes

Vintage Tradeshow Surrealism: International Grune Woche

Moving Houses: Buildings In Motion

Desktop Study: The Strange World of Sports Studio Design

Married to the Eiffel Tower: More Objectum Sexuals

60 Years of The Crazy Horse Memorial

Married to the Berlin Wall: "The Best and Sexiest Wall Ever Existed!"

Inflatable Icebergs: Sublimated Guilt Has Never Been So Fun

The Cinderella Effect: Phantom Architectures of Illumination

Two Deaths and a Retirement: The Strange Shape of British Architecture

If London Were Like New York: Antique Schizo-Manhattanism

If London Were Like Venice: Antique Geo-Poetic Speculations and Hydro-Fantasy

41 Hours in an Elevator: The Movie

NASA: Mapping the Moon with Sport

Lemon Squeezy: Design Tendencies after the Juicy Salif

Stadium Seat Mosaics

The Nihilistic Beauty of Weapons Arranged in Patterns

Light Vessel Automata

Dogs: Britains Greatest Design Obsession

Madison Avenue Modern

Detroit Sucks: The Motor Shows Last Gasp

Mies' Grave: Cut Out Model

All You Can Eat

Valentine Machine

The Tools of Re-Geography

Floating in a New Town Sky

Authentic Replicas: Football and the Franchising of Place

Folk Football: Landscape, Space and Abstraction

Haystack House

A Wishing Well with a Fat Up Pipe

The Camoufluers and the Day-Glo Battleship

Pseudoccino: Instant Coffee Foam

Yesterdays Technology, Today

Blown Up: More Inflatable Military Stuff

On Christmas Trees, Folk Forests and Staples Office Supplies

Hampton Courts Shrouded Sculptures

Named Fabric: 20 Sponsored Pieces of Architecture at the New Museum

Form Follows Felony: The Secret Home of the Un-Dead Canoeist.

Architectural Magazines: Paranoid Beliefs, Public Autotheraphy - More on Clip/Stamp/Fold

Little Magazines Seen Today

James Bond Lives Next Door: Suburban Imagery as Industry

The Ghost of Christmas Futurism

Petrified War Machine

Military Deceptions

Chapters for an Imaginary Book About Architecture

Shrouded Plinth - Urban Striptease

In the Night Garden - Surreal Landscape of Nostalgia

Kim Jong II, The Great Architect

Pill Box Picturesque

Un Clear Monument

Place Faking: Instant Heritage for the Thames Gateway

The Marc Bolan Memorial Crash Barrier.

Warped Domesticity

The Nuclear Heritage Coast

Enjoy The Silence: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones

The Story of O (2)

Telly Savalas Looks At Birmingham

X100: A Design Exercise

How to Plan A New Town

Carpet Bomber

In Search of Britains Vehicular History

Scenes in Cartoon Deserta

Scary Suburbanism: Why Horror is at Home in the Suburbs

Re-Make Re-Model

I Like Your Manifesto, Lets Put it to the Test-o

How to Become a Famous Architect

Northampton - Sci-fi Pop Planning Promotion

Advertising Central Milton Keynes

Baltic Exchanged

Festival of Nostalgia

The Clapham Trainwash

Airports as Music

Test Card Dummies

The Velvet Underground at the Glass House

Duplikate: Kate Moss on the Production Line of Individuality

The Museum that Ate Itself

Hollow Inside: Starbucks Foam and the Rise of Ambiguous Materials

Revisions to the Architecture of Hell

Crufts: Dogs, Design and Aesthetic Genetics

Eos Airlines: Executive Bubbles over the Atlantic

London's Ugliest Buildings

1.51 Miles Of String

Google Earths Vertiginous Mapping

Church of the Ascension and Descension

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

Replica Bombs

The Invisible Bungalow

House / Boat

Reading Lines: Skateboarding and Public Space

Mountain Sculpting

Sint Lucas in BD

Bat House Competition

Old Walton Bridge

Kiruna: The Town That Moved

Spray On Magnetic Defense

Chris Cornish: Prototyping History

The Jubilee Gestalt Vase

The Most Visited Location in the UK

Anything to Feel Weightless Again: The Cargo Lifter and the Tropical Island Resort

'Its beauty will know no season'

2000 Years of Non Stop Nostalgia. Or How Half Timbering Made Me Whole Again.

Inside-out Aldwych

Backpeddling into the Future: The Historical-Futurism of British Architecture

Miss Selfridges' Feeling for Fake Snow. The Oxford St. Lights and Why We Need Artificial Winter

Nelsons Cavern

Foam Gargoyle

New Tory Logo: A Hazy Shade of Politics

Jeff Koons, Rem Koolhaas, Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine

Souvenir Empire

Celebrity Scents: The Bittersweet Smell of Success

Imperfect Pitch - Football, Space and Landscape

Product Placement: Making the Impossible Possible

Suburban Growth: Matthew Moores Field of Dreams

Perfect Sound Forever: The Secret Function of High End Stereos

Picture of the Week 1

A Little Light Product Placement

Some Advice To A Young Designer

London and on and on

In the Gallery of Ice Creams

Useless Proclamations for a Beautiful City

Mini Mies Chair

Topsy Turvy VSBA: Inverted Heros of an Upside Down Avant Guard

Harvest III: Buried Things

The Harvest II

The Harvest I

Estuary Urbanism

The Royal Families Trees

Everything Flows: ideological cartography

How Geostationary Was My Valley?

The Psychotic Utopia of the Suburbs and the Suburbanisation of War.

LegoLand London Cluster

In a Lonely Place - Under Construction

Design Will Eat Itself

Mach 3 Nitro Gel - Design that's foaming at the mouth.

Marchitecture. Architectural things to do in London this March

Metallic Jet Powered Cloud

"When we got married I had no idea he would do something like this, he just said he was going to do some decorating."

The Electric Cenotaph

Russian Rok

Commitment ...

Dinner in the Iguanadon

Trace

What happens when you cross a pen with a car?

Leg Table Leg

Florentine Building Sites

Good Morning Britain

Football Pitch: Best of British

The Sad Photographer

The First Cut is the Cheapest - Blenheim Palace: pop architecture that goes for the jugular

Book Now For Christmas

Requiem for a Toilet Seat

Architecture that Destroys

TomTom Mobile 5 / GO 700

Winning Design

Another Croydon

Holiday Snap II : Giant Glowing French Balls

Holiday Snap: Canadian War Memorial, Vimy, France

Pecha Kucha London

Anatomy of an Architectural News Story

Big Bens

First Cut - Case Closed

The Texas Tower

Its All About the Big Benjamins

G8 Security Tower

White Cubed Blues

Poundbury, unexpectedly, in the rain

The Exploding Concrete Inevitable. Lou Reed and the Casa da Musica

Swingball

Untitled (Plastic Sack and Timber)

Berlin 1945 - The Obscene Picturesque

Pizza Planet

Goal Sculptures

Interview: Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane

Previewing Cedric Price

The Mardas Touch

Building a Lionel Richie Head

Ornament is Grime 2

An Incredible Smell of Roasting Coffee

Flatpack Frenzy at New IKEA

Langlands & Bell - The House of Osama Bin Laden

Labour is kind of working

Happy Death Men

Build to Let

Architectural Criticism gets Sharp

Niagara Falls

Ornament is Grime

FA(ke) Cup

Q&A: Wouter Vanstiphout

X-treme urinals

Unigate Cowscape

Spray-on Snow

From the Baffler ...

One in a Taxi

The Queen Machine

The Knork

Venturi, Scott Brown and my love that dare not speak its name.

Polictical Placards

The Ketchup Conumdrum

Douglas Coupland: Design and Fiction

It's a Small World

Images de Parfums

Soft Carcass

Christopher Dresser at the V&A

Blow up Pub

Municipal Mummification

The Matt and Ron Show

Semi - detached

Half Timbered Van

Feltham Future

Favorite Things

Fugitives and Refugees' - Chuck Palahniuk

The Pop Vernacular

Design by Chefs

Just What is it That Makes Yesterdays Homes So Different, So Appealing?

Archigrams Pastoral Futurism

Sorry Mies

The Flaming Lips - Live.

Everything Counts - The Sound of Geography Collapsing.

Carlton Terrace Extension

Other:

www.fat.co.uk

www.samjacob.com

twitter.com/anothersam

Flickr:


Links:

IconEye
Archinect
Flip Flop Flyin'
Arts & Letters
Bldg Blog
City of Sound
Design Observer
Limited Language
Mcsweeneys
Things
Dezeen
Kieran Long
Arts Monitor
Loud Paper
Dwell Blog
David Barrie
Super Colossal
sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy
The Sesquipedalist
Londonist
Architecture & Hygiene
Pruned
Infosthetics
Aggregat456
A456Tumblr
Kazys Varnelis
Infranet Lab
Life Without Buildings
Landscape & Urbanism
HTC Experiments
Deputy Dog
Subtopia
The Dirt
Mockitecutre
Art Fag City
Triple Canopy
Where
Actar
Mechanophilia
Shrapnel
NL Blog