God Isn’t in the Details

Why the obsession in so much contemporary architectural discourse with the bourgeois residential villa and the ‘luxury’ good? Oh, the terrible banality of Antony Gormley’s ‘luxury’ hotel room. Nice, I guess (or not, actually) if you have £2500 a night to stay there.

Much of the time it seems every architectural magazine reduces architecture to the ‘object’ available to those that can afford it. If I never saw another ‘high end’ residential project, I’m not sure I’d care – and yet this is the staple of almost all archiporn ‘design’ sites.

Where the discussion of the consequences of architecture, of what architecture enables, engenders and encourages? Actually, I do know where it is, but bloody hell, it’s buried so far beneath architectural consciousness, you’d be forgiven for not knowing it was there.

There’s such a general presumption in favour of a building as an end, rather than as a catalyst for societal change or growth. But, architecture isn’t industrial design – which, for better or worse, is a discipline that focuses on the vessel. Sure, things can be interesting on their own terms, and I’m guilty too. I like stuff. But unless design goes beyond the object, it’s a world of commodities, a world where design exclusively produces trinkets for the privileged.

Mies, I think, has got a lot to answer for. I remain suspicious of his superficial and cod-metaphysical manifesto. The default comfort zone for many of us is a zone where perfectly formed, preened, plucked and waxed buildings are revered as quasi sacred spaces, spaces that are a collection of ‘surfaces’ and ‘details’. To think that this is all architecture is, is not just tragic, it is dangerous, as it takes away the conversation from where it needs to be centred – around the corollary of design.

I stumbled upon a text by a reasonably well known practitioner recently that began ‘Like most architects, I have a great reverence for Mies van der Rohe. When I think of him, his exquisitely detailed and extraordinarily elegant buildings come immediately to mind’, and by God (who isn’t in the details, or anywhere else for that matter) I felt an ennui, a terrible weariness that, we really haven’t moved on much as a profession really. We’re still slack jawed and glazed eyed with lust at the palpability of things, and busy chasing that perfect opulent project that allows our inner mini-Mies to flourish.

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  1. Posted June 16, 2014 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Asking (most) architects to make a place beautiful is rather like asking a car designer to make a road beautiful………………….they’re just not looking at it from that perspective. They’re creating something for the client (buyer) not the ‘user’.

    I agree entirely with your sentiment but is there a danger you’re asking the wrong people the right question ?

    If we go back to the car designer again ( I was one once). If we framed the car designer’s brief in a way that also sought to improve the ‘beauty of the road’ we’d probably need to consider such things as:

    1) leaving space for other users (not just car drivers) such as buses, cycles and walkers – having less cars
    2) being less concerned about the commercial success of the design (hardly likely to endear the designer to the car company they work for)
    3) being less concerned about the look of the car (hardly likely to entice the car buyer to that particular car)
    4) being less concerned about having a perfect road for the car to drive on

    As regards Planning Officers, well, that’s just like asking a Parking Warden to make a road beautiful

    On that basis it surely looks like there’s a significant vacancy for others to make the ‘road beautiful’ ?……………………the master builder, the gardener, the shop owner, the home dweller, the community group, the market stall holder, etc

    Additionally, I’d speculate that perhaps most of the problem with architecture is that it’s just too bloody ‘commercial’ (the architect as delivery agent – along with developers – for vast amounts of funny money/debt created by unscrupulous greedy banks – no ?)………………….so perhaps this ‘space’ (vacancy) I’ve mentioned has room for the Artist Architect……………..obsessed less with commercial success and more with the achievement of beautiful places, whilst accepting they’ll be living less materially successful lives from the Artist’s garrett and not the Architect’s studio.

    …………….well, that’s how it looks to me

  2. Posted June 16, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    ……………or to quote Albert Einstein:

    “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”

  3. Posted June 17, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Quite right too! Gosh, its almost as if I had written it…

  4. Posted June 17, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Great post – mind you, there are some great details shown in your work pages 😉

  5. Posted June 17, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    The perception of the profession is that we are all a bunch of egotistical artists and sculptors. The ‘media’, by promoting that aspect with pretty drawings and arty photographs of ‘iconic’ ‘architecture’ doesn’t help. The three Vitruvian principles of architecture still hold true and must be emphasised as equal. How a building looks is as important as how it works and is constructed, not more, not less.

    Any ‘designer’ can create a hotel room interior that gets published in an ‘architectural’ magazine, that doesn’t make it architecture though.

  6. Posted June 17, 2014 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    A very interesting article.
    Firstly, was not Mies referring to a ‘positive’ reverse of the adage ‘the devil is in the detail’?
    My reading of his statement was always that there is opportunity for creating ‘good’ all the way to the micro-design?
    And that he was not actually trying to inject opulent design with the divine? Though an observer could be forgiven for seeing his motto and opulence as married. Masses of details and their expense are applied to opulent creations, which are then celebrated.
    (Surely the ‘pop’ architecture press has a case to answer here too?)
    But to the main point of the article. Mies’ motto does not have to be used as a license to indulge, does it?
    Ultimately, buildings are for people, and if we are to be utilitarian, for the good of as many people as possible. And the details, I would argue, could theoretically be steered towards the common wealth or amenity, and away from opulence.

  7. Posted June 19, 2014 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Interesting piece though I think you might be tarring the urge to detail a building beautifully with the brush of Miesian opulence. Think of buildings like Asplund’s Woodland Cemetery and Gothenburg Law Courts or Lewerentz’s St Marks Church – all buildings of intense humanity – and you find obsessive detailing in the service of the overall vision. The detail is enriching and connects us with the architecture. Craft and fine detailing are merely means of expression that can be used in the service of humane architecture or opulent ‘archiporn’.

    • Posted June 19, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

      Of course, you’re right. I’m slightly playing devil’s advocate and yes, detailing is essential, and part of the overall vision. There’s no architecture without detail, just that ‘details’ can be other than Mies – I like the ad hoc and ostensibly crude details in Rural Studio, where the journey of education and discovery is evident in the hand of the maker. Details aren’t an end – instead, the underpin the thinking behind, and are an essential part of the whole. One of my favourite books is Richard Sennett’s ‘Craftsmen’ – where he talks about this

      BW, Piers

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