ARCHITECTURE / Architecture: it's inevitable

Blind Spots: You can't get rid of it. You can't get away from it. Tom L ubbock explains why building design leaves him cold
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The Independent Culture
My blind spot: architecture. As a whole. Not some bits more than others, but the lot. I see it's important, I see it's necessary. But I'm blind to it. I don't really notice it. I'm certainly not on the look out for it. I don't naturally think about it. I don't feel strongly about it. I don't - consequently - know much about it. But it is difficult to say because, obviously, the thing is unavoidable. Architecture isn't special buildings, it's all building. High or vernacular, famous or functional, authored and nameless, old and new, it's all architecture of some sort. So architecture is almost everywhere. You can't, as with other arts, easily absent yourself from it. Leaving out mountains, caves, deserts and deep country, every interior and every exterior view puts some kind of architecture in your way. You can't be wholly indifferent, surely.

Architecture is also inevitable. So it's hard to get into an argument about it as such. What would you compare it with? What would you prefer? People who dismiss opera or ballet wholesale probably consider straight theatre a more sensible form. People who reject theatre generally put up cinema as the preferred rival. They might even, fanatically, demand theatre's total abolition on moral and religious grounds.

But with architecture you can't imagine a comprehensive case against (nor likewise for). There is no alternative. There's nothing you could put in its place. There couldn't be none. You might argue for some sorts of architecture against others ... You might reject, say, the entire tradition of Western architecture to date - in favour of something different. But I don't. I don't reject architecture at all. I'm not arguing. I simply don't mind about it.

Some distinctions do need to be made. Traditional ones will do. Vitruvius famously divided architecture into three aspects, which a 17th-century English translator put like this: "Well-building hath three conditions: Commodity, Firmness, and Delight." Roughly, firmness means the mechanics of building; commodity, the varied needs and purposes it serves; and delight, the aesthetics, the art of the matter.

It is probably impossible to separate these considerations absolutely, but I need to take a stand somewhere. So I should say that I'm fully committed to the importance of firmness and commodity in architecture - but blind to its delights. They don't exactly leave me cold, but they don't grip me either. Not that I think other people should be blind to them, or that people who talk about them are faking it; and, with a proper effort of attention, I can see what they're talking about, and maybe join in theconversation a little myself - but I'm always conscious that I'm faking it.

What, are you saying there aren't some buildings that just take your breath away? Not quite. But it doesn't go much further than that. I'll come back to this.

Of course, to talk of a blind spot at all implies some pattern of expectation. You respond to, you're interested in, you mind about x - so why not then y? So with me, the x is going to be painting and sculpture and the y, architecture. I see the point. Vasari called his book The Lives of the Most Famous Painters, Sculptors and Architects as though it was a natural grouping, and many artists have done all three. These are what used to be called "the plastic Arts", a name that put together painting, sculpture and architecture as activities which had some common ground: arts of physical shape and form.

So - not to make my argument, because I don't have one, but to explain my situation - there must be a significant point of difference. What is the problem with architecture precisely? There seem to be several candidates. I don't feel them equally strongly, but here's a case for each.

Abstraction: I do not respond to pure form, only to images. So architecture as such holds little for me. (In fact, I don't think this one is my problem.)

Hybridity: I have a streak of puritanism which doesn't reject pleasure in favour of function, but feels, all the same, that the two should be kept firmly distinct. I am not comfortable with the way architecture combines pleasure and function. So I close my eyes to its aesthetic aspect. I feel the same about pots, furniture and that sort of thing.

Three-Dimensionality: My visual taste is essentially pictorial. I can't get a grip on architecture's solid forms and spatial relations. I only really respond to sculpture pictorially. On the other hand, pictures of architecture, especially details, are fine.

Hollowness: Even the simplest building has an outside and an inside, so wherever you are you never frame the whole thing as an object. There's always another dimension, another perspective, that eludes you. This is disquieting.

Sheer size: Buildings are excessively large. When a building takes my breath away, I think, This is magnificent. But I couldn't (so to speak) get it in my mouth. For me, aesthetics is really a department of eating, and some sweets are just too big.

Omnipresence: Architecture is everywhere. Appreciators of architecture must always be on the aesthetic qui vive, transported or disgusted at every corner - or they deliberately switch off. The whole world becomes an art gallery. This is overload.

My problem with architecture is along those lines, anyway (rather a confined, controlled, quarantined idea of aesthetic pleasure, to be sure).

But am I really saying it makes no difference to me what's put up, what's knocked down, what anything looks like - so long as buildings are safe and serviceable? That, after all, is an exacting enough requirement. But beyond that, I don't know how to answer. I take it on trust. I accept that because so many people mind about it then it must be worth minding about.

I admit, though, that one of the attractions of not minding about architecture is that it does save you a hell of a lot of minding. What a relief not to feel involved in the debates. With architecture the stakes are so high. If it matters, it matters terribly. Other arts can largely keep themselves to themselves. Architecture is out there in the world, making its presence felt always and for all.

Oh, but that is the reason you must care about it. Architecture is the public, the social art. Even at the aesthetic level, it connects to everything. There's no good society without good architecture. That's why it matters.

If you take the social point, though, there's another problem. Surely the connection goes both ways. To assent to architecture is to assent to the society from which it arises. A building can't be isolated from the world where it takes place. Find a building good and you can't help feeling the world is basically good. But it is sensible not to feel that. This is a further motive for resisting architecture; because to succumb is to fall into an unreal sense of social contentment.

Architecture can only be enjoyed, in good faith, in utopia. As is, we can never be happy with architectural pleasures. Wherever we may find them, they're always unfulfilled, incongruous or false. Best not to start looking at all.

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