‘Vertebrate buildings: the architecture of structured space’, by W.G. Howell. Part I

Bill Howell (1922-74) didn’t write much — HKPA said that they preferred making buildings to making propositions — but the few texts he left bear close examination. The following article, based on a talk he gave on 20 January 1970 at the Royal Institute of British Architects, is something like a credo. It was published in the RIBA Journal (vol. 77, no. 3, March 1970) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of RIBAJ. I’ve broken up the text into six instalments — posthumous guest posts if you will. Howell’s illustrations are included with their original captions where possible, and the original spelling and punctuation have been maintained. GF

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When I was asked to take part in this series, I discussed with my partners whether or not we should attempt to devise a sort of group sermon – chanted in unison, perhaps, in order to demonstrate that in so far as we have a philosophy, it is a group one. However, since on the last occasion when we exposed ourselves in public (at the AA four years ago*) we did more or less that, we felt that to make such a meal of it again might prove indigestible as well as repetitious; so though I may seem to appear without visible means of support, remember that anything I say has been quarried from the sedimentary deposits of endless dialogues and conversations, not only among ourselves but with structural engineers; and to some extent quarried not from verbalised attitudes, but by looking back at what we have done and wondering what it is, if anything, that characterises it – and why.

An embryonic suggestion of my theme appeared in our AA talk. On that occasion we confined ourselves to half a dozen issues where we felt we had attempted some contribution. One of them was our attitude to structure, and it is this I want to develop here. My theme is a certain kind of architecture. It represents a minority party in modern architecture, though I’m glad to say it has a most respectable ancestry. Briefly it is architecture in which the interior volume is defined and articulated by actual, visible structure. Perhaps the term ‘Vertebrate Architecture’ comes somewhere near identifying what I mean. The only danger of using such an expression is the suggestion that everything I am not talking about is by definition spineless, and therefore no good. But in fact I like lots of architecture, old and new, that is outside the scope of what I am here defining.

Reyner Banham, in his Architecture of the well–tempered environment, has identified the contribution of the services engineer to 20th century environment and architectural form. In so doing he has given the M&E boys a deserved niche in architectural history. I can’t presume in a short paper to do anything so grand for the structural engineers; and in any case, compared to a hi–fi historian at full volume, I am but a tweeter. All I can hope to do is to raise my hat in passing to the structural engineer, and to try to show that when his imagination and skill and those of the architect combine to create a visible (as opposed to concealed) result, a specific sort of architecture happens.

Let me start with a brief glance at history. This is not my selection of the in–buildings of the past, implying that all the others are wicked. I’m trying to define without preaching ie, to avoid doing a Ruskin. The vertebrate buildings are, of course, the ones he would have approved of, and the rest he would certainly have thought sinful. I suppose that standing on the threshold of the second permissive decade, we may now admit that sin can be fun.

“I suppose that standing on the threshold of the second permissive decade, we may now admit that sin can be fun”.

Let us start near home, with Stonehenge – space defined (not yet fully enclosed) by actual, palpable structure. The simplest and most dramatic ideogram of man’s defiance of gravity, a heavy object supported in space so that you can walk underneath it. The intentions behind this amazing prototype work, and the ritual and astronomical purposes it served, could have resulted in other solutions. It would have been easier to define the significant place and align the stars with a set of wooden poles, as the same people did elsewhere on the Wiltshire downs. But here they felt impelled to go out of their way (miles out of their way) to conquer gravity in perpetuity, and devised a system of curved geometry made up from linear elements which is both simple and sophisticated. Whoever the designer was, it was quite likely his first (may be his only) structure, which must make this as remarkable a first building as Castle Howard and the Smithsons’ Hunstanton school.

Stonehenge, like most primitive structures, is among the vertebrates...
Stonehenge, like most primitive structures, is among the vertebrates…

The Celtic beehive tombs are the ancestors of the other basic group of enclosing structural forms – the planar as opposed to those differentiated into linear and infill elements. The enclosing form is the structural form. Linear and planar elements come together in Durham Cathedral. an assembly of structural sets of piers, ribs and vault, enclosing and articulating a spatial continuum. There followed the whole Gothic phenomenon, a stone architecture whose impact on us derives mainly from the directness with which a proliferation of manifest structural sets builds up into a flowing spatial whole.

...as is most mediaeval build ing (eg Durham Cathedral).
…as is most mediaeval building (eg Durham
Cathedral).

* ‘Attitudes to architecture, 1’, AA Journal, no.82, pp 95-122.

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