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

The final instalment of Howell’s talk, first published in the RIBA Journal (vol. 77, no. 3, March 1970) and made available here wby kind permission of RIBAJ. Previously on HKPA allsorts: parts one, two, three, four, five. GF

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When structure is used visibly throughout a building, any discussion of architectural form must involve a discussion of the form of the structure. Of course, most buildings don’t have a clear and visible one anyway – the relevant bits are formally confused with other irrelevant bits, or are buried or disguised. But to analyse building form without analysing the structural form is like a running commentary on a Miss World contest as opposed to an anatomy lesson.

This is not to imply that we believe architectural form should consist of whatever morass of cells is produced by the interaction of the requirements of the programme and the characteristics of the structural system. The Crystal Palace was based on an additive system of small parts, making up relatively small sets, ie, bays. These added up to a prism of extreme overall simplicity (the simpler the earlier the design you look at). This can be described in terms of external and internal volume, but to comprehend the gestalt you must also comprehend the parts and how the sum of those parts produces the simple whole. It is interesting in this connection to note how comparatively rarely in publications or school projects is one given a ceiling plan. A ground plan of the Crystal Palace will tell you what you can walk about on but will give you little idea of what is above your head.

Transverse section of the Crystal Palace at Kew
Transverse section of the Crystal Palace at Kew

we derive nourishment and inspiration less and less from art and architecture, and more and more from industrial plant, space modules, vehicles of all sorts ancient and modern, crystal structures, native villages, biological forms…

I have indicated that I feel dissatisfied with so much art–based formal analysis; this is basically because I feel that, for architects, Art is the Trap. Don’t get me wrong. We are visual chaps, we are involved with form, light, colour, texture and images. So we all love art. Some of my best friends are artists. But most of the influence of art movements on architecture in this century seems to me to have been baneful. Corb’s early houses are not machines for living in so much as cubist artworks for living in: super, of course, significant and influential, but not machines – which, I agree with him, is what we are trying to make. So we derive nourishment and inspiration less and less from art and architecture, and more and more from industrial plant, space modules, vehicles of all sorts ancient and modern, crystal structures, native villages, biological forms, and so on. We turn to these because they are structural assemblies of bits; studying them helps us to understand this our problem.

We all hope that what we do is valid for its context in time. But where will it end and why? Suppose we or our successors continue to like vertebrate, explicit buildings: will we or they be able to go on doing them? Will they be forced to admit one day that this can no longer validly be done, or will they give up wanting to do so? Are we the last of the dinosaurs?

I don’t want to end on a note of pessimism and gloom like some dwarf lurking miserably in the corner of a Watteau pastorale, knowing it can’t last. But it isn’t gloomy to face change, or to accept that what can be done and is willed to be done by your own generation wiIl be impossible or seem irrelevant to another. WiIl future ages find the sort of approach I have outlined impossible – or just irrelevant? Remember, it does not depend on a given technology – it has existed from the bronze age to Nervi.

Why will they not build as we do in 50 years’ time? Economics and the loss of certain skills and materials, yes. New materials will arrive with new capabilities. But basically it will be because desires and visions change, and what we do will not be wanted because it will have become history. But does this necessarily mean no more vertebrate structures? We think it likely that, whatever people build with, there will always be a stream of architecture that concerns itself with enclosing people and their activities with palpable structure. You may well be asking why. Why show structure? Why bother? Why pay for it? It’s not easy to answer. Can any of us be really honest about why we do anything?

We do it, surely, because we like it. We do it because we are trying to make buildings that wiIl create in others the response we have experienced in the buildings we admire. It doesn’t mean we hate or despise everything else – it’s just different. There is a range of choice (just, despite the general downward trend of building budgets) and, within the range of choice available, we tend to go for solutions which communicate how they work. This is our thing. We hope we are not one–track minded. We have designed big buildings and little buildings, cheap buildings and less cheap buildings, multicellular and continuum buildings, concrete buildings, brick buildings, steel buildings, timber buildings and any combination of all four. We have designed in relatively advanced techniques and peasant techniques. We have designed buildings clad by skin systems outside and in, and we have designed buildings whose internal space is articulated by manifest structure. It is this last category that I think we enjoy doing most, because we think that such buildings satisfy some basic human instinct.

Why do all our aunts love beamy cottages? Why does everyone go mad the first time they step into King’s College chapel? Why do all architects turn on to Japanese houses? Why do we all love old boats and airplanes? Why do we weep for the Crystal Palace? Why does Mackintosh’s art school never disappoint nor Berlage’s stock exchange in Amsterdam? Why do we all applaud Perret even though all his buildings are straitjacketed in Beaux Arts symmetry? Why are the early Herts schools still among the most exciting postwar buildings? Why do we all root for Bucky Fuller’s domes despite their somewhat limited application? Why are tents and greenhouses always super? Because, we submit, they are structures; and somewhere, deep down, all God’s chillun love structures. An American lady recently wrote a book about Oxford called Beware, these ruins are inhabited. If you like what we like, come and join us – these structures are inhabited.

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