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Book Review

Piers Taylor reviewed Thomas Yarrow’s Portraits of a Practice for Architecture Today.

Most of the literatures within material cultures – particularly architectural ones – focus on the artefacts that are made, and ignore the contexts and circumstances that give rise to them. In a sense, that is why so many are so boring. Is there anything worse than an architectural monograph that focuses on mere objects when – as Paul Klee said ‘Form is the end – death. Form making is life’?

Instead, it is much more interesting to shed light on the processes that allow forms to come into being, rather than – as the anthropologist Tim Ingold describes – a backwards reading that begins with a material artefact and tries to make sense of the cultures that gave rise to it.

This is precisely what Thomas Yarrow’s Portraits of a Practicedoes. Yarrow – also an anthropologist – contextualises his work by reminding us that there is little sociological work conducted specifically on architectural practice. Dana Cuff’s The Story of Practiceis perhaps the most well known text that examines the culture of architectural production, and is considered by many a classic. However, Cuff’s book has always seemed to me a super-straight reading of the worst codes of autonomous architectural endeavour.

Yarrow’s narrative is more nuanced and subtler than Cuff’s. Yarrow’s study gets to grips with a particular way of knowing about the world – an architectural one – which as he describes, is uniquely placed to reconcile specific incompatibilities between things that seem in opposition.

The book uses a study of a small, rural office (Miller Howard Workshop) in order to explore and expand on a number of themes that are universal within architectural practice. Yarrow uses a number of distinct themes (office/lives/ideas/pragmatics etc) to structure his narrative and explore the way in which architects work. The book describes a quintessentially muddy, wooly, architectural way of knowing, and how we navigate between the diverse aspects of practice in order to design buildings.

This ethnographic frame reminds us of how little we know ourselves about how we do things – or most importantly, about how we design. With the messiness of small practice life always in the background, and meandering through the themes that structure the book (arranged loosely from idea to building) Yarrow reminds us there is a distinct designedly form of activity that separates it from other types of enquiry such a science, being dissimilar in its ‘problem solving’ methodologies.

As Yarrow demonstrates, we use design as a ‘way of knowing’ in the manner of that described in the Royal College of Art study ‘Design in General Education’ (1982) which said there that ‘there are things to know, ways of knowing them and ways of finding out about them’ specific to the design area, and with this, there are ‘designerly way of knowing’ as distinct from other fields such as science, art and the humanities.

Yarrow descriptions of the teamwork, discussion and teasing out of design proposals within a supportive environment of shared endeavour is familiar to many of us. It is also in the messy way which ideas are generated within a loosely collaborative environment that is particular to architecture. It shows that despite our over-use of terms like rigour and logic, unlike scientists who focus attention on discovering the ‘rule’, we architects obsess over result – with (as Nigel Cross said) ‘solution focused’ strategies. In his quiet observations of architects at work, Yarrow describes the manner in which we design ‘solutions’ and then evaluate them, and learn about the nature of the problem by trying out solutions rather than (as scientists) specifically studying the problem.

We recognise this in architectural practice where solutions appear at an early stage in the process of design – quite often before the brief is fully formed. If scientists solve by analysis, designers (problem) solve by synthesis. As we see in Yarrow’s descriptions of the numerous models, sketches and images we make, a central feature of design activity relies on quickly generating a number of solutions – which we then evaluate, discuss, mull over – rather than any prolonged analysis of any problem. It is a process of (Cross’ term) ‘satisficing’ rather than optimising; producing what might well be a large range of satisfactory solutions rather than attempting to generate the one hypothetically optimum solution. These semi-satisfactory solutions are then use to interrogate the problem in a reciprocal manner – each becoming redefined, reiterated and restated through this process.

This process of architectural enquiry in Yarrow’s book is something Jennifer Whyte has also written about in her paper Future Making and Visual Artefacts: An Ethnographic Study of a Design Project (2017) which documents how sketch representations of design proposals become enrolled in practices of ‘imagining, testing, stabilizing and reifying’ through which ‘abstract imaginings of the future’ are turned into a ‘realizable course of action’. This is in contrast to science practice where a forensic type of analysis is carried over a significant period of time without any propositional making or representations of solutions, before, at the end of the process of research, a solution is designed that ‘fits’ exactly the definition of the project. Yarrow’s account describes the spaces between intuition and exploration within which we find these solutions.

Yarrow also describes the breadth of architectural endeavour that, as a discipline, is unusually wide, spanning from contract to ideology and cost control to theory, with – as fits with a collaborative discipline – people always centre stage. Primarily, this is an unusually human book – so much more so than Cuff’s study which made architects appear smug, self-satisfied and elitist in claiming a view of the world born from a superior and exceptionalist sense of entitlement coming from little more than a rarefied aesthetic view point which masquerades as ethics.

In contrast, there is a good deal that we can recognise about ourselves – and take comfort from – in Yarrow’s portrait. Much of this is the charmingly ramshackle, romantic way we conduct ourselves, often in the manner of perpetual and un-commercial slightly scruffy students, which is partly why I am so drawn to architecture, rather than almost all other design disciplines, which seem so much less idealistic. As well as describing how we do things, Yarrow reminds us why we persist with this badly paid, insecure struggle of practice: less for the buildings and more for the particular way that we can use architecture as a way of being in the world and to help us understand our place in it.

© Piers Taylor

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Piers Taylor Review’s Gianni Botsford’s House in a Garden for AT

Gianni Botsford shows how perhaps more than any other architect working in his field, the single family dwelling can be a fascinating basis for invention. In order to fully understand the genesis of Botsford’s latest project ‘House in a Garden’, it is useful to look at Botsford’s background, and a precursor project to this one – Light House (1996-2005). Both projects are a manifestation of his interest in ‘local adaption’ in not dissimilar contexts in West London.  Botsford’s fascination with how the specifics of site could be rigorously mapped and used to inform architecture began when he studied at the AA with John Frazer in the early 1990s. Frazer’s diploma unit 11 explored  ‘evolutionary architecture’ as an attempt to evolve form and structure in a kind of simulation of the developmental processes of nature.

Frazer was a hugely important figure in Botsford’s intellectual life. Already 34, Botsford went to the AA to study with Frazer to learn a different mode of designing altogether from that which he’d been used to for the proceeding ten years. Botsford had grown tired of design-by-instinct or architecture as style and his own lack of rigour in the process of design, and describes his time in Frazer’s unit as transformative. Botsford says ‘Frazer was interested in thinking big about the earth’s problems; interested in the earth’s systems and how these interconnected’. Frazer discouraged students from ‘designing’ in the way that most architects do – before a framework is fully defined.

Instead, Frazer would encourage the use of computational systems that layered up information to allow issues to be revealed and seen in a new way. Botsford describes how he’d hardly thought about sunlight – the issue that has defined his work for the last 20 years – until he met Frazer. Working with Frazer, Botsford developed sophisticated three dimensional solar mapping and generative tools that allowed him to gather information from a site that could be used as a basis for design. After leaving the AA, Botsford evolved (in conjunction with Arup) this way of working for his first significant commission – Light House, which was on a backland site in Notting Hill. The project took 9 years to design and realise and allowed Botsford to understand how Frazer’s ideas about evolutionary architecture could be married to a domestic typology and a tight urban site.

House in a Garden effectively began in 2007 and picks up where Light House left off. It is on another backland site, this time immediately adjacent to Botsford’s own apartment (Garden Apartment) that he has lived in for many years. A flat roofed bungalow had been built on the site in the 1960s and Botsford had spent much time observing how the sunlight affected the bungalow and its garden, before eventually buying the site, and developing his own self initiated proposal for a replacement dwelling as a prospective development building on the knowledge gained in ‘Light House’. The project was purchased post-planning by a developer who was savvy enough not to meddle with Botsford’s scheme, and remained relatively hands-off during the development of the project for construction. Although a big risk for Botsford initially, the pay off has been an autonomy and creative freedom that is often lacking with too close an involvement from a client.

The key move is understanding how to harness the sun in a context that is surrounded by 5 storey buildings, and the dominant roof form of ‘House in a Garden’ is a reflection of this in allowing sunlight to penetrate into the main living space. The tip of the roof is the lowest position that sunlight in the winter equinox reaches in a site which is surrounded by listed early Victorian villas. The roof form is defined by ensuring that sunlight can penetrate into the garden courtyards each side of the living space in conjunction with maintaining views and light for the neighbouring buildings. The roof itself it a strikingly beautiful copper clad funnel, with an expressed double curved timber structure on the interior, making the main living space feel as if it is under a lightweight tent.

The house isn’t only about the roof, however. There are two subterranean floors below the ground floor living room, which also benefit from Botsford’s forensic analysis of the site, receiving light and gaining views of the sky via lightwells and internal courtyards. The house provides an unusual experience in London, where sites are so often restricted and infill typically means being bound on either side by existing buildings, and to the front by the street. Emerging back up to ground level is akin to arriving on a rooftop, surrounded by even taller buildings, and yet with a genuine sense of tranquillity and privacy.

House in a Garden is an inverse of its earlier cousin, Light House, in that the formal relationships with sun and site are explicit rather than implicit. The project provides a useful companion to Light House in showing how careful site analysis and a rigorous methodology can produce strikingly different results. Mapping often has a binary relationship with architecture: what gets built looks like the map, but Botsford is clever enough to allow his work to transcend the data that underpins it. Botsford is a rare architect that has no stylistic preconceptions: each of his houses (including the Lubetkin Prize winning Casa Ki-Ké in Costa Rica and Layered Gallery in London) show the same focussed application of an idea but look completely different from one another. He demonstrates how an extraordinary body of work can be developed from the most straightforward of building typologies. Whatever Botsford does next, we know it won’t be like anything he has done before.

Piers Taylor 2019


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Glenn Murcutt: Newport Mosque

Piers Taylor’s Review of Glenn Murcutt’s Mosque – the Australian Islamic Centre – is in April’s edition of the Architectural Review

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