'this is not regular!'
'In the first room, a boxy television set is showing a video of a man sitting on a small cart; he pushes himself along like a stupid child, laying pieces of material on the ground in a bright, silver snake which looks like a tightly coiled knot of rope. We watch this while sitting on a sofa made out of 'bricks' of meshed paper and card. It's fucking uncomfortable.'
Me, from an earlier draft
In a recent video uploaded to architecture and design website Dezeen, the presenter observed – not uncontroversially – that the profession's promotional material often tells highly biased narratives about how buildings come to exist, about the literal processes of their development (of brick placed on brick placed...). In doing this, he addressed the ways in which the glamour of promotional films, the glossy digital renderings of new developments, often mask the fact that buildings are in fact constructed, a 'built thing' – a mass of tangled parts, discontinuities, and noise which exist beneath their glossy surfaces and tersa-panel envelopes. This reflects a similar argument made recently by Mark Minkjan, editor of Failed Architecture, who criticised the tendency for architectural practices to produce deliberately misleading renderings, typically covered in bland forests of impossible foliage and trees, all for the purpose of marketing (or selling flats) rather than in the service of 'reality' and the genuine evaluation of architectural form. What both criticisms share is a dissatisfaction with the refusal of architecture to engage with the conditions of its own materiality and production; even the glossy, modernist tower blocks of Mies van de Rohe remarked on their production by making their systematised structure 'obvious' from the outside. They were clearly the product of a mechanised process, however smooth-bored.
You could also look at buildings such as the Pompidou Centre in Paris as being characteristic of an architecture which makes its status as a building (a 'built-thing') purposefully clear from the exterior, or at Peter Eisenmann's Wexford Centre for the Arts in Ohio, where a bare, white structural steel frame – a 3 dimensional grid – intersects the site and therefore projects its function across the total area, against the axial grain of the building's context and its relationship to the surrounding town. It is cut open. Always in process, just as Kanye West's latest release – heavily parodied for its orangery a e s t h e t i c – Life of Pablo, was updated after release on the TIDAL platform by the artist as an organic rather than coherent structure, continually open to alteration, editing, revision; the album was criticised for being 'unfinished', but this is a strange kind of criticism as if, somewhere in the world, there exists an ideal measurement to decide when art is decisively complete. Kanye's first updated version of the album remarked on its own distribution, observing that one million listeners had already ripped Pablo. Say what you want about the album's position within his career as a whole, but it's clever – cleverly making something of the incomplete as a form of artistic process.
But visual art – unlike architecture, and even perhaps music – is often more obvious about its being produced, about its being an assembled thing, a product of a process of assembly and curation. It is difficult to smooth over the texture of built-up layers of paint, pen, ink and chalk. When the canvas can be taken in with a single, lingering glance, the smears and bubbled formations of material are obvious within the entire scope of observation. Works often revel in their own manufacture and 'thingness' – I guess, this is because it refers back to the idea of the artist-as-creator, of the hand behind the product, whereas architecture is so often the product of an entire design pipeline, a collaborative venture in which the single 'artist' or technician is removed or obscured. This isn't typical of all visual and installation artists, of course, but it's certainly my point that it can typically be more obvious in art than in architecture. Architecture – once the cap-stone has been laid, the tape cut – reverts to its objective of having been, almost, immaculately formed. Simply, imagined. Dropped. What you want to ask – after looking at this difference – is whether architecture has something to learn from art's attitude toward its own manufacture and generation, its being an obvious product of bodies and hands.
In a previous piece, I talked about the ways in which the visualization of disassembled and ruined/broken buildings is often inherently ideological, a negative rot in so far as so-called 'ruin porn' can obscure and make absent the histories of violence and financial exclusion which cause those buildings to become abandoned. The fetish-making of ruins obscures these histories under a vapour of aesthetic lust. Here, I want to look at 'broken' forms from the reverse perspective – to think about what architecture might learn about paying more attention to actually showing its innards, by appealing to an architecture which is supposed to appear incomplete, in process, unfinished. This doesn't contradict what I said before (I hope, lol), but should present a way in which 'incompleteness' and 'disorder' can be used positively rather than negatively, to be 'social' and to be 'ethically conscious'.
And so. We're used to an architecture which is auto-manufactured, or which – to put it another way – masks the conditions of its production and appearance. Hidden behind cladding which depicts only the 'finished thing' (“live in sunny Bounds Green! Life, Leisure, Love!”), with 3D renderings of too-fake buildings dotted with too-fake models of people. The building eclipses its own production. Architecture – thanks to the prevalence of the tersa panel – is a slick, glossy surface impervious to stain, almost embarrassed about its own materiality. The promotion of architecture is a promotion of a building that is, always, necessarily, sleek and coherent. But what of a vision which exists through an awareness of its production, a celebration of its having being made?
Filling two galleries within the spaces of the Nottingham Contemporary, Michael Beutler's Pump House is an exhibition which aims – as the gallery programme suggests - to “channel the spirit of DIY invention” and “the disappearing tradition of co-operative labour”. The team around Beutler, working within these extensive rooms, have created a so-called “social response” to the gallery's existing architecture by producing a “monumental installation from paper and cardboard, reshaping the materials into building blocks with the help of giant handmade tools”. As an exhibition as well as an artistic process, it is designed to emphasise the conditions of its own production while creating a scenario in which art, manufacture, and architecture enter into a mutual and engaging dialogue.
Michael Beutler, ‘Tea Bags,’ 2016. Installation view, Spike Island, Bristol. © Max McClure and Spike Island.
This cumulative or assemblage-based approach to architectural production – the non-linear accumulation of elements, masses, and the materials from which they are comprised – constitute a kind of 'asemic' design; by this I mean a design that has no coherent, visible language, or that it does not align with conventional, readable architectural forms of visualization, production, and engagement. The installation, while being situated within an 'already existing' building, tests and challenges the coherence of that space through its own interpretive gestures and elements which constitute a building-within-a-building, an assemblage which does not confirm or conform with the Nottingham Contemporary Gallery interior, but rather faults and intervenes against and within it. Beutler's architecture is a concertina unfolded within an already coherent space, whose aim is to question and re-examine what we mean when we build for visibility and communicability. Galleries are often always designed to enable contact and engagement in linear, clear ways; as the 'white cube' which forms a series of discrete, albeit connected, shells into which art is placed. It is uncommon to enter a gallery which does not conform to this expectation; White Cube in London's Bermondsey, or the main exhibition halls of the TATE Modern are typical of this experience. Paintings are aligned against walls, raised to an assumed head-height, while objects – sculptures, for example – are placed on white, boxy plinths. Beutler inverts and reforms this convention, collapsing the inner-building (as installation) into the building as container. As a result, we look at both differently.
In this vein, Beutler takes a different path; it is unclear, within the gallery, what is and is not a 'structure', what is and is not 'art'. Actually these are pretty ordinary questions or themes, I guess, but he executes it with enough self-consciousness to recast the question in often challenging and entertaining ways. The process of construction is placed at the forefront; it is an exhibition-installation which confronts and exposes the conditions and procedures of its own manufacture, meaning that it is both complete and fundamentally incomplete. Not only does it make heavy and extended use of recycled and 'non-structural' materials (fabric, plastic, and card bunched into netted 'bricks'), but many of the exhibits include assemblies and machines made out of non-mechanical materials such as string, cardboard tubes, and bunches of paper. It's not clear whether these machines are supposed to be manufacturing the space itself; a non-functional assemblage producing a non-functional structure; a fabric machine producing a fabric world. By the same measure, we are simultaneously within a 'really existing' space but also within a factory, a designer's office, a gallery, a construction site. In one room we walk among tables where miniature card models of architectural plans have been created; 'real' models within a modular space which is itself within another space, a layering of envelopes; a game of pass the parcel. We are constantly urged to scale between these levels of curation and creation – between the whole and the part, the element and the comprehension of the element. You want to gird yourself toward a conception of a space which does not attempt to evacuate itself of meaning, such as with Auge's notion of a 'non-place', but rather a space which denies completeness and expresses its fragmentary nature and therefore enables it to escape the doleful pressures of hierarchical discourse and aesthetic closure. Much in the way of Barthes' arguing for a fragment as a critical technique which 'affirms' rather than closes. A thing that is continually resistant, open, and moving.
It raises something of Oliver Wainwright's argument that the majority of projects coming out of architecture degree shows are of images so impossible that they 'seemed intent on fleeing the real world of people and places, scale and context; retreating instead into fantasy realms of convoluted forms and with no seeming purpose'. An architecture which imagines itself not only as 'not built', but unbuildable.
In its total realness, its deliberately 'made' condition, Beutler's installation-architecture bears some engaging similarities with earlier works, such as the famous 'merzbau' of German surrealist Kurt Schwitters. The Merzbau ('misery house') was also titled by its creator as the 'cathedral of erotic misery', where the artist spent years in-filling the spaces of his family home with jugular, angled structures and materials, fabrics and forms, in an effort to disorient the notion of the structural unit of the family home from within itself; upsetting the category of the 'domus' from inside out. His home became John Hurt, from whom the alien erupts – transforming the coherence of the body (both android and implied human) while also transforming the coherence (safety) of the vessel in which they live. Nothing becomes safe, predictable, 'easy'.
Modern architecture – and its methods of representation and rendering – often fails to disclose the conditions of its own 'buildingness', of its own existence as a thing that has actually been constructed – producing instead an immaculate conception which evades its own material production, its non-automatic generation. Beutler envisages an architecture which has come into existence explicitly through its own assemblage and partial-ness, and in this way foregrounds the building as a built-thingin contrast to architecture as an automated formation, a thing that is not there and then, miraculously, 'there'. In doing so, he also focuses on the bodies of those who built the space, who laboured and constructed within it. White walls of plain stone empty themselves of having been 'made'; roughly knotted twine and card and mashed paper instead celebrate and anchor the making body within the architectural space, reconnecting it with real people, scales, and places.
This is the reverse of a visualization obsessed with decay; instead, it is a visualization obsessed with formation, with growth and the processes and layers of growth. Denying that a building has decayed because of a real-world force (e.g., economic recession) is negative; so too is the denial that a building has come into being through specific embodied procedures and structures (e.g., assembly by a team of workers). Beutler opens up the possibility for an art-architecture interface which asserts the possibility of architecture itself as a process, a becoming, which offers up the chance to engage more meaningfully with the contribution of the fragment and the 'flow' of design and creation within architectural education and practice. Against coherence and 'finality' emerges a language of craft and 'thereness'. I think the same efforts are being reflected too, in other arts. The poetries and experimental writing of an especially younger generation of writers make clear its conditionality, its position not as a coherent and finalized surface but as a thing of becoming; in other words, turning the poetic form and text (the thing you read) back onto the person who is writing it, producing it as a means to develop and build and question themselves. Caught, mid life, always in the protuberance of what it is to be here, a subject, as a body caught within a world where language betrays and subtracts and relates only partially to the self. I find myself going back to Maggie Nelson's argument that sometimes 'ordinary words are enough', because that is true – because ordinary doesn't have to mean 'simple' or obvious but only that the expression is contained there, partially, as a half-formed thing, on the page itself. I like to think of Anna Walsh and her longingly honest writings; these don't hide the process of self-curation but actually put it all out there, and make it enough; make it eloquent:
“is it okay that i am lying on my bed
not having any useful
or funny thoughts?”
not having any useful
or funny thoughts?”
Clearly, that thought in itself is useful, constitutive of an expression which is already 'enough'. It refers to the artist referring to a text they imagine into existence by highlighting the possibility of its not existence; the communication they fear does not exist, but in airing that fear it comes into being. It refers to a self that doeshave 'useful / or funny thoughts', which appears contained and perfectly rendered exactly through their worrying at the possible incoherence of their self. It demonstrates the process of this becoming and shows that any 'rendering' of a coherent self is really the product of an entire process of self making and expression – that it is almost necessary to identify (with) our gaps, lacunae, and fragments in order to construct a whole. Similar, but different, are the constructed, layering, and ultimately evasive works of Alison Graham in an ongoing sequence of poems she is currently writing and which – full disclaimer – I had a chance to talk with her directly about recently. Poems such as 'metronome wolfs the time', where we are exposed to the ambiguities between subject and narrative suspended within a tight parallel of textual columns; the language and words are split, severed, across their structures. Partiality and the half-formed are pushed forward within an otherwise exacting structure; 'Abbey / of herself , / bloodless h / allowing in / stone . Cons / escration br / uises like h / oney'. Abbey as person, structure, experience; the body is disappeared and reappeared. We are made to see the fragment as the primary means of encountering meaning – it is 'good enough', but we must understand that what we're seeing is a process rather than an outcome.
In this way, the experimental becomes not abstract and empty, but actually and genuinely enticing; it offers an honest means to communicate the actual processes by which things – whether buildings or persons – come continuously into being, and highlights the risks contained in preferring the superficial 'completion' of an object. In this way, the fragmentary nature of a thing can be celebrated in contrast to a faked coherence, the marketing lie, of the glitzed-up surface; a visualization of immaculate conception which evacuates itself from its own becoming, as if frightened of it – or even disgusted.
And if it's still uncomfortable after all of that – then so what?
Owen Vince is a writer and visual artist living in London. He runs PYRAMID Editions art press and has a book forthcoming with Fathom, titled The Adrift of Samus Aran. He tweets @abrightfar.