To start with a rather obvious statement; every building we interact with was designed by someone.
As mandatory as this statement is, it is easy to forget the fact that as we navigate our urban spaces, we are surrounded, and to some extent dictated by a plethora of often conflicting ideas, designs and motivations. Even as I sit at my desk and gaze out of the window; a 1930s terrace adjoins rather utilitarian yellow brick building from the 1960s, which in turn is juxtaposed with a modern breeze-block extension. Each of these designs has the same motive; to house the growing population of South London, but they are all unique in their execution and aesthetic. This point which I wish to make is most apparent, even exaggerated if one takes a walk through any part of central London. One such walk has informed this essay and will be described later on.
In this essay I wish to examine the extent to which the architect is visible in our cities and, more importantly, to what extent this is important. Through study of the buildings of Jean Nouvel and texts by the architect himself as well as Jean Baudrillard, I hope to answer the question: Can architecture be truly objective? In making this enquiry I also hope to explore the tension between ideology and aesthetics and observe what happens when it is necessary for a building to disappear. Most critically – can architecture be devoid of aesthetics?
One way into this question of aesthetics is a look to the concrete bunkers of the Second World War, which although designed with a plethora of concerns other than their aesthetic qualities, have informed post-war modernist architecture. Also, Britain’s industrial zones – in both cases we see a case of ‘accidental architecture’, I will try to decipher this term and ask whether it is possible for a design to be accidental, also whether this accidental aesthetic can occur on purpose.
A starting point for this essay is The Singular Objects of Architecture, this 2000 text takes the form of two interviews which in turn form a dialogue between architect Jean Nouvel and philosopher Jean Baudrillard. This text sought to display the lack of boundaries between practices which has come to define the postmodern society in which we find ourselves, in this case questions of philosophy and architecture are seamlessly woven into one-another without distinction.
The historical context of this work must be considered. Its publication date – 2000 – is interesting as a symbol of postmodernism; new millennium – new way of thinking. For many the year 2000 represented an exciting and imperative opportunity for radical change (the extent to which this change was actualised is hugely debatable, after all, how far does a society evolve from one calendar year to another?) Importantly though, this book embodies globalization, and its discontents. However, many of the themes which are apparent in the text may have been informed by Bernard Tschumi’s writing on architecture and event in the mid-1990s.
I will now draw attention to a section of this text by Jean Nouvel:
“What I personally like about American cities – even if I wouldn’t cite them as models – is that you can go through them without thinking about the architecture. You don’t think about the aesthetic side, with its history, and so on. You can move within them as if you were in a desert, as if you were in a bunch of other things, without thinking about this whole business of art, aesthetics, the history of art, the history of architecture.”1
Why this quote then, and why American cities in particular? American cities are characterised by their production as financial centres – the epitome of a commodity driven culture with growth and competition at its core. Despite attempts to humanise the corporation, this culture is necessarily impersonal and this fact is exhibited in the buildings that enable it.
I would like to make a distinction between American cities and those of Britain, for this enquiry I will take London as my example. Whereas in the case of many American cities, namely Chicago, the development of the urban space was constructed and occurred within a rather short time frame. The development of London is apparent too, but instead this urban environment boasts a plethora of buildings from different eras, each with their own individual styles and motivations.
This could not be more apparent than when taking a walk from the new Globe theatre across the river to Jean Nouvel’s One New Change. Here we see the Tate Modern in all its former industrial glory, the Millennium Bridge, Blackfriars station and St Paul’s Cathedral, all of these distinctly different elements almost obnoxious in their appearance, adding up to a vision of a metropolis with one foot firmly rooted in its industrial and empirical past and one stretching forth into the future.
On visiting the shopping centre, I notice it is not listed on The City of London pedestrian street maps, it is wholly inconspicuous in appearance – blending into the surrounding architecture and making little obstruction to the skyline. It is a hugely conscientious building, with little to say for itself but a sleek design. Interior and exterior are linked in perfect transition due in part to the paving stones which follow the pavement outside, into the centre itself. Unlike most buildings of the same function, One New Change feels open, inviting and somewhat neutral – even the individual shop signs within are standardised and restricted to a small square format.
Inside the central square which follows all the way up to the sky, the structure is reminiscent of a medieval town centre with its overlapping walkways and six storeys of densely populated real estate. Only here, the walkways and shop fronts are in glass, mirrors and brushed steel, and the space is populated by brands.
As one ascends in the lift, St Paul’s remains in view and one seems to ascend with the building itself. Here, One New Change -its structure, design and function – is forgotten. This is more apparent still when one emerges onto the roof terrace, the building slips away behind you in favour of the view of the cathedral and across London. Actually, it seems one thinks of anything but shopping when exploring this sixth storey piazza. I expect this would have been the main consideration for Jean Nouvel Ateliers when designing the space – just how to build something within such close proximity to one of the city’s most famous buildings without overshadowing it, while still remaining true to a certain aesthetic and brand conscience.
The building, it seems, is a means to an end and not typical of other shopping ‘destinations’. It would be possible to walk through the ground floor of the building as you made your way across the city without paying much attention to the building or its function. To quote Jean Nouvel: “…if we do architecture, we want it to be seen, and at the same time we don’t want to make waves.”2 So, we could say that One New Change has a carefully constructed aesthetic as to make no opposition, it is a building for which it is necessary to be invisible.
I now wish to take a look at another type of building which deals with ideas of appearance and aesthetics in a very different way. Unlike Nouvel’s One New Change which goes as far as it possibly could against its essential function; the aesthetics of concrete bunkers built by all sides during the Second World War are directed by the function of the structure. Aside from the inert sensibility of the architects who designed them, there is little concern for the appearance of these buildings. Here I would like to quote Jean Baudrillard on aestheticization:
“…it inevitably involves a loss: the loss of the object, of this secret that works of art and creative effort might reveal and which is something more than aesthetics. The secret can’t be aesthetically unveiled.”3
Thus we could say that the appeal of such structures is based upon something other than aesthetics, something which proves impossible to put one’s finger on. I therefore wish to make the claim that these concrete bunkers are pure object, I believe that this is the reason for their informing of post-war movements in architecture, most notably New Brutalism.
A 2014 photographic series by Jonathan Andrew shows bunkers that remain, of the hundreds that were built across German occupied Europe during the Second World War. The structures are presented dramatically, almost as though they were monuments. Their function has been removed, leaving them to ruin – their only function now to serve as a stark reminder of the last major European conflict. The structures have a strong sense of having been designed, their careful composition of vertical and horizontal elements is juxtaposed with their simple function founded in violence. This accidental aesthetic is modernist to its core and signifies the birth not just of modern warfare, but of immense change throughout Europe and indeed the world. It is clear that the appeal of the concrete defences has not diminished, with many photographers and architects documenting and taking inspiration from them: as was previously mentioned I would like to draw similarities between Second World War bunkers and brutalism.
Brutalist architecture is characterised by use of béton brut – concrete which is left raw or unfinished after moulding – and developed following advances in the design and practicality of architectural steel frames. On the surface of this unfinished concrete, one can often see an imprint of the wood or other material used in the moulding process. The principle application of such architecture was for public buildings – universities, housing, government buildings and spaces for the arts. This has lead to the movement being associated with socialist or utopian notions of public space.
The Royal National Theatre – and indeed much of London’s pedestrianised South bank – embraces the brutalist aesthetic of beton brut. The theatre was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun and Peter Softly in 1976, Lasdun is known for his following of Le Courbusier and for his involvement in post-war housing projects, such as the Hallfield Estate, London. In these buildings we find a simplicity of form and – not unlike the bunkers I have studied – a clear sense of function and materiality.
Here I would like to bring forth Britain’s industrial buildings for discussion, they too can be seen as pure object – devoid of aesthetic concerns – to quote Jean Nouvel once again:
“We need to realise that we’re surrounded by a great deal of accidental architecture. And an entire series of modern, or modernist, attitudes – in the historical sense – have been founded on this particular reality. There are countless numbers of sites whose aesthetic lacks any sense of intention … The same applies to industrial zones at the end of the twentieth century, which are, for all intents and purposes, radical architectural forms, without concessions, abrupt, in which we can definitely locate a certain charm.”4
We could define accidental architecture as that which has an unintentional purity of form. One example of this kind of building in London is the Tate Modern which has been elevated according to some indefinable logic of appearance – what Jean Baudrillard called the secret – from the post-war Bankside Power Station to a world renowned centre for the celebration of art and radical thinking. The Bankside Power Station was designed in 1947 by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who is also responsible for the design of the exterior of Battersea Power Station which begun in 1929, was completed after the second world war. Both power stations, though long decommissioned, remain integral parts of London’s architecture and have been transformed into public spaces.
Through the study of a few London buildings I have explored the theme of appearance in architecture. This study has shown how the particular motivations of the architects who have designed the city are visible as we navigate the built environment. The ways in which they are visible vary hugely, for instance we could pitch Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre with its bare concrete towers and walkways, with Jean Nouvel’s One New Change which assimilates itself into the existing architecture of The City. So we could say that Jean Nouvel is less visible in this case than Denys Lasdun.
It was necessary to draw comparisons between Second World War bunkers and buildings of Brutalist style, assessing to what extent one could say that the latter was influenced by the former. This is an argument which needs to be developed, however in my eyes these types of building are intrinsically linked in terms of aesthetics and in their trueness to their materials and function. Thus the bunkers of the Second World War and Brutalist architecture have in common not only their use of beton brut, but a purity of form which comes with this and their essential functionality.
When considering my earlier question – can architecture be devoid of aesthetics? – one could say that within the course of this essay I have shown that even in the case of buildings who’s aesthetics are based purely upon their function, we find merit in their form and appearance. It is also apparent that buildings designed for the sole purpose of defence or industry have been elevated to some schema of aesthetics; with a resurgence of interest in ruins of the Second World War and in the renovation of London’s post-war power stations into public spaces. However, as I have quoted previously, Jean Baudrillard stated that the secret that a work of art holds is devoid of aesthetic concerns.
Baudrillard. Jean. The System of Objects. London: Verso. 1996. (1968)
Baudrillard. Jean and Nouvel. Jean. The Singluar Objects of Architecture. trans. Robert Bononno. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis – London. 2002. (2000)
Tschumi. Bernard. Architecture and Disjuntion. The MIT Press. Cambridge. Massachusetts – London. England. 1994
Tschumi. Bernard. Event-Cities. The MIT Press. Cambridge. Massachusetts – London. England. 1994
Ritchie. Ian. Jean Nouvel: One New Change. Architecture Today. 25th November 2010. http://www.architecturetoday.co.uk/?p=1180