Informed Ambiguity | icon 001 | April 2003

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words Kieran Long

A new architectural paradigm is emerging; one that takes notions of the everyday and the uncanny and gives them form. But can an architecture concerned with ambiguity ever produce a coherent movement?

The most admired masters of contemporary architecture are decreasingly the formal pyrotechnicians, who must be peaking in their productivity about now. Huge cultural buildings spring up throughout Europe and America by Gehry, Hadid, Libeskind et al - whether expressionism or merely the apotheosis of plasticity, they teach us little beyond their virtuoso form-making. The more important struggle is the one by architects who are trying to retrieve something comprehensible out of the functionalism of high modernism, and to extract from postmodernism a consciousness of history that has at its heart something more than appliqué.

The ordinary is now being reclaimed, and a fascination with the everyday is resurfacing. At the heart of this is the struggle with typology. A new generation is striving for a new ambiguity, interested in strangeness, otherness, and the half-remembered form - literacy rather than literality. Well-versed in typological modernist education, these architects are broad in their influences. Their work is sometimes severe, and often unsettling, but it aims to escape from typology and process-based architecture.

This work can broadly be characterised as having something of the uncanny about it, with all its implications of resemblance, perceptiveness and haunting. Freud describes the uncanny as deriving "its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but - on the contrary - from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it". Freud characterises our reactions to this as having "changed very little since primitive times", and it is perhaps this inflected timelessness that a new architecture can aspire to. As Freud describes, the uncanny is often invoked through a subversion of the artificial and the real. Architecture inhabits this space - taking the everyday and attempting to replicate its successful bits artificially. The architect's ability to invoke the everyday provokes memory, and initiates the primal relationships that Freud talks about.

This is not just a contemporary interest, but its emergence has led to the reappraisal of significant figures from architectural history - one thinks of the revival of interest in Jørn Utzon and Sigurd Lewerentz (recent monographs have brought these names back to public attention), the rediscovery of the art and buildings of the Smithsons and the reverential tones adopted for Alvaro Siza's work. These architects wanted to know, as the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre asked: "Why should the study of the banal itself be banal? Why wouldn't the concept of everydayness reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary?"

These architects, particularly Lewerentz, were able to posit meaning through an architecture parlante of the everyday. There is Lewerentz's manipulation of standard galvanised lighting conduits at his Flower Kiosk in the Eastern cemetery in Malmo, and the bagged-off brickwork of the Church of St Peter in Klippan. Colin St John Wilson's 1988 book on Lewerentz says: "What is at issue for Lewerentz is the search beneath conventional appearance for the shock of renewed truth." In this renewal is the recognition of a cyclical nature, foregrounding both the humanity and rituals of life and society, and also death. It is simultaneously stability and mutability that characterise the everyday.

Lewerentz's work reminds one of a well-known comment of Pablo Picasso's, significantly quoted by Alvaro Siza in his complete works: "It takes ten years to learn to draw, and then ten more to learn to draw like a child." This does not mean that we should attribute children with some mystical ability to represent that which adults cannot. It merely means that children have a pre-linguistic sense of the everyday, of the comprehensible sign, and have not yet made the postmodern leap that separates the representation of a thing with the concept it represents. Thus, a child's drawing of a house is inevitably and intimately connected with the house that he or she lives in, and the kinds of houses presented to him or her in books, TV programmes and stories. Children are brought up with a conception of architecture formed by a folk consciousness, which is honed only as the child's idea of the everyday becomes richer.

What is it to make a house, a home in Europe today? These are buildings that need to provide a platform for the everyday. Lefebvre, when talking about the need for a new attention to the everyday, tried to enumerate some of its concerns and characteristics. His concept is elusive: at its most basic it is "real life", the "here and now"; it is "sustenance, clothing, furniture, homes, neighbourhoods, environment", ie material life.

This need not lead to architecture that deals only with pragmatic concerns. Lefebvre adds that these material concerns are tempered with a "dramatic attitude" and "lyrical tone". Lefebvre's is a mystical, idealised vision, in which he tries to encompass the non-philosophical and contradictory nature of the everyday - conveying an image of stability, while being fragile and transitory; governed by the repetitive march of linear time, but redeemed by the cyclical renewal of nature. Unbearable in its monotony and routine, it is festive and playful; while controlled by capitalism and influenced by advertising, it stands outside of them.

There is a mystical keystone to the contemporary conception of the everyday: nostalgic, and yet contingent. William H Gass's prostitute narrator in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife describes it well, and expresses the transformation of context by subversive and mysterious acts: "I want to have familiar things around when a man is on me; he'll be too strange, too foreign for me, otherwise. Something unforeseen might happen. [...] I must have the green vase the daffodils die in, the books by Miss Pearl Buck I glued up in a stack to stop the door, the lacquer dish..." Sex becomes something strange and unfamiliar, and it is the trappings of domesticity that provide a primal touchstone and link to culture. However, the trappings of suburban homes become grotesque in this context, too, and are transformed by this inhabitation of whore and client.

At Hagen Island near the Hague, MVRDV has, in an extreme way, critiqued the reassuring familiarity of the house, to the point where the project challenges the very ideas that characterise many conceptions of the everyday - ideas of human scale, material quality, privacy, security and form, and especially typology.

Laid out in one of 25 sharply delineated plots on reclaimed land south of the Hague, Ypenburg is a curious quilt of medium and low-rise housing, some designed by prominent Dutch architects and others by house builders. It covers an archipelago of islands intersected by largely deserted streets and canals. There is no hint of mixed use here and no public transport, making the place feel deserted, isolated, and, on a grey spring day, disappointingly incoherent.

Its Ypenburg scheme is part of the Vinex programme, a Dutch government plan to provide huge numbers of houses while giving a generation of young architects their chance and, although budgets are always very tight, a combination of inventive architecture, tolerant planning and an efficient construction industry has meant that the Netherlands will have a huge legacy of contemporary building to bequeath to future generations.

MVRDV's project is hidden at the back of the site, behind more conventional housebuilders' brick boxes, and is difficult to find behind the more polite colours and forms that are the public faces of the development.

The layout is a modified form of the working-class terrace. At Ypenburg, this layout has been modified so that, instead of long terraces with gardens backing on to gardens and high walls separating them, you have building fronts and backs alternating as you walk along the alleys and low walls enabling clear views through to other houses. Also, the terraces are broken - the longest continuous sequence of houses is eight units long.

The architect has made something like a child's drawing of a house. Pitched roofs, four windows and a door in the front façade and huge, blank gable ends are the language here. Each house - roof and walls - is clad in a rainscreen of a single material. Some are clad in entirely ceramic panels, others in profiled aluminium panels, wooden shingles, terracotta roof tiles and green painted timber. The minimal detailing - eschewing overhanging eaves - adds to a finished look that resembles the result of giving a child a colouring-in book and a limited variety of pens. The cladding is an audacious move, a strike against the arbitrariness of conventional exterior cladding for modern housing. Ypenburg is an eloquent and exuberant critique of public expectations and developer attitudes to mass housing.

There is a degree to which the radical arbitrariness of the cladding is diminished by its flaws. Tiles have already begun to fall off some of the houses, and the aluminium-clad houses have a welded detail that looks flimsy. Residents may end up wishing they lived in one of the brick boxes that these houses are trying to supersede.

A more specific view of inhabitation can be found in London architect Patrick Lynch's house extension in Norfolk, which has a kind of enforced strangeness, a subversion of one's instinctive expectations of a house.

The brief was to extend a conventional, not to say ugly, bungalow in Norfolk for two artists - a mother and daughter - who live together. The mother has a terminal brittle bone disease. The two new rooms that form the project are to be studios, rooms in which to work, rooms for the mother to see the sun come up after a night of insomnia, a room for her to die in, briefly her tomb and mausoleum, her memorial, and her daughter's home.

Is this degree zero of the everyday? Welcoming death in at the start of the project? There will be no children here. The project provides large windows on to the landscape, because every morning is a victory for the terminally ill inhabitant. The oculus at the top of the distended roof provides a consistent quality of light for the making of art, but will also work as a kind of camera obscura, like a James Turrell sculpture, allowing views of the sky and the stars. It will also allow a shaft of sunlight, designed to coincide with the hearth, that ancient symbol of the homely. This will happen at a certain time of the year - intimately connecting the house with the seasons, with mortality, with regeneration. This is the homely to these clients.

In this project, the distorted forms are sculpture, but also geometry, having a mathematical memory of the existing structure. But it also seems to function psychologically, describing the dialectic inherent in the idea of the uncanny, while also provoking memories of existing buildings and spaces in the immediate locale of the project, and historically.

Peter St John, in his description of the Smithsons' Sugden House in Watford, describes the effect of the house as an "unsteady image, somewhere between the grand and the awkward". This project has something of the same qualities.

In Mark Z Danielewski's novel The House of Leaves (2000), we are treated to the unheimlich - the unhomely or uncanny - in palpable and physical form. It is a horror novel, about the most unhomely house imaginable. The eponymous house, an 18th-century building on Ash Tree Lane in unidentifiable middle America, seems like the dream family home as the family moves in - the husband is a famous photographer; his wife an ex-model. They have two children, and are having some marital difficulties, but are both resolved to tackle them together in their new home.

It is their son who intones early misgivings about the house. "It's not the same," he says. "I dunno, sometimes its just silent, no sound at all."
"And that scares you?" asks his father.
"It's like something's waiting," he answers. "I dunno, daddy, I guess I just like the sound of traffic."

Navidson, the photographer, sets up his project - a protean reality television project. He sets up cameras in every room, in order to record the house, and his family. The house, at length, turns into a living nightmare. Doors appear where there had been none before, supporting walls disappear, and most significantly, a door appears that leads to a seemingly endless, dark, windowless place which Navidson undertakes to explore with the help of friends and (male) relatives. The house, and the character's exploration of it, becomes a metaphor for his own psychological state, his difficult childhood, and the troubled history of the previous inhabitants.

But it is its demonstration of the unhomely that makes it interesting. The reactions to this most uncanny of houses are textbook. The wife tends towards normalcy, putting up shelves, making breakfast, not allowing the seemingly impossible dimensions of the house in to her mind. Navidson takes refuge in rationality: measuring, remeasuring, and calling his brother, a builder, to help with the process of rationalising the intractable. The dimensionally unstable house becomes an icon of the unhomely.

Between these two - the Lynch house's strange but recognisible idea of what constitutes home, and the Navidon house's symbolism of spatial and psychological breakdown - are projects that demand a response to something ineffable, out of the ordinary or even horrible. Two recent projects in Germany are not part of the kind of Libeskind-inspired attempts to express the inexpressible, but look to a new and austere way of dealing with a loaded and horror-filled history.

The first is the Sachsenhausen Document Museum by Schneider & Schumacher at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in the former East Germany. This site was Germany's first concentration camp during the war, built in 1933. Some 35,000 people are thought to have died there before it was liberated in 1945 by the Red Army. The Soviet secret police kept the camp going until 1950, detaining some 60,000 war crimes suspects there. It was then largely abandoned by the new East German administration and left to decay as a rotting monument to the dead. The remains of the camp are curiously domestic, with half-timbered watchtowers, and surprisingly low walls. Libeskind has designed a masterplan for the site, which is 35km to the north-west of Berlin.
In this difficult context, Schneider & Schumacher has created a hermetic object - a Corten steel box with just three openings - windows on to the cemetery and barracks, and the entrance.

The architect says: "There can be no question of creating a dominant architectural structure that celebrates its own aesthetic in an areas so encumbered with the burden of history. The building has to provide information without being overwhelming." The architect has realised a building that enacts a hermeneutic crisis on a site where nothing is ordinary. This project, which is not an uncommon contemporary response to the problem of memorialising genocide, war and imprisonment, tries to be neutral and hermetic towards its context, with enough solemnity to look serious. While it is undoubtedly solemn, it is a problematic project, a one-liner in the face of the need to make sense of its context. It is quite a building - strange and minimal - but it does seriousness the easy way.

The new synagogue by Wandel Hoefer Lorch & Hirsch in Dresden has a more dialectical relationship with its difficult context. Seven years before British and American bombers destroyed 40 per cent of Dresden's buildings in some of the most ruthless and destructive bombing of the Second World War, the city's synagogue, designed and built by Gottfried Semper and completed in 1840, was burnt down by the Nazis. In 1933, 5,000 Jews lived in Dresden. In 1945, there were just 174 left, and no built trace of their presence.

From this tiny core, a Jewish community has re-established itself in the city, bolstered by a large Russian immigrant community, and in 1996 a campaign was launched to build a
new synagogue.

The idea of making a recognisable and contemporary symbol given this historical context would be difficult enough, but this building is in Dresden, a city at a key moment with its historic core being restored apace, and the socialist architecture that blights much of the rest of the city being replaced gradually by average contemporary commercial development.

This project sits on the edge of the historic core, and is one of the only contemporary buildings in this area - Dresdeners are fiercely protective and proud of their historic city, and the rebuilt monuments that are now nearing completion.

The impulse to reconstruct buildings as facsimiles, and to erase, where possible, the evidence of the socialist era that failed to rebuild the urban fabric of the city after the war, expresses a desire to avoid explicit symbolic reference to the city's traumatic history. It is another kind of hermeticism, and an understandable one. This can be broadly characterised as a Christian conservative reaction to the secular socialist legacy. Judaism, such as it is in Dresden, faces a different problem - the need to create a functioning centre for worship and community activities while speaking about the traditions and history of Judaism in general and its troubled history in Germany in particular.

The architect Wolfgang Lorch says: "Jewish history is different from Christian history. Christian history [in the city] has gone for continuity, as with the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche. We are saying that in the special case of the Jewish history of Dresden there is only destruction, no continuity. We must start with a new building, a building for the future."

Again, at first sight, the complex is strikingly hermetic. The plan places two blocks at either end of a raised podium terrace, creating a new piece of urban topography, with precedents in Dresden, such as the raised Brühlsche Terrasse that begins opposite the synagogue.

The new podium is extraordinary, and perhaps achieves the kind of link, acknowledgment and elegant memorial that the Sachsenhausen building does not provide. Walking across the terrace, you suddenly feel, and hear, something crunching beneath your feet. Looking down, you see that the outline of the Semper synagogue, which occupied the site previously, has been inscribed on the terrace in broken glass.

It is just one way in which this project unites the needs of the city and the spiritual function of the building. The most obvious way it does this is in the very simple decision to make the main synagogue building a twisting cube. Its base is rooted in the city, conforming to the lines set by the site, a simple square on the ground. The twist means that the roof faces due east, so you have the world of the city at ground level, and the world of the ineffable and spiritual high above. Internally, a golden chain mail is also oriented towards the east, with just the ghost visible beyond of the twisting form that encloses it.

One of Alvaro Siza's lesser-known works inhabits the territory of history and typology in a very different way. For the past nine years, Siza has spent his weekends at the Santa Ovidio Estate in Douro, north of Oporto in Portugal, building gradual additions for the owner, a friend of the architect's. A couple of years ago, the estate was sold, but Siza has continued as architect to the new owner.

At the Quinta Santa Ovidio we see his concerns with landscape, history, and memory at an intimately domestic level. The interventions chart the history of a family, of an estate, and of an artist.

The estate was once a large working farm, with an elaborate entrance sequence, remembered in the southern European baroque of the fountain and gateways. The estate now consists of a collage of elements that live in the earth. That is the rich soil that provided the livelihoods of generations of Portuguese, and for generations on this estate. It is now not a working farm, but Siza has placed new seeds, if you like, to grow in this earth. Siza's willingness to engage with the landscape and make, on a smaller scale, new additions to the boundaries of sculpture, architecture and landscape art, saves the existing elements from being relics. These are elements such as the barbecue area and restored belvedere, made out of planar stone blocks, a pergola for climbing flowers, and a granite pool for tame ducks that Siza places in the ground, with an uncovered rivulet arcing through the landscape to fill it. They will last for centuries, and will age with the rustic grace of the original house.

Most beautiful and obvious of these "seeds in the ground" is the chapel that Siza built for the daughter of the family's wedding. The approach is made for procession. Situated at the west end of the site, one rises up a path, and passes under the projecting volume of the sacristy, before mounting a wide staircase, and turning 180° to enter the chapel. When the owner disputed this arrangement, Siza told him: "My client is God, not you." This enforced procession is a baroque trope, deliberately overplaying the festival of the religious, and expressing the semi-profane volume of the sacristy as a kind of growth on the side of the rectangle of the church. The interior is a play of direct and indirect light - alabaster windows, and the clear crescent above the altar - which encourages contemplation. Unlike his more famous church at Marco de Canavezes, it is hermetic - it does not make any reference to the exterior world. This is about tradition, procession, event, ritual. Almost the everyday of Lefebvre again, implying "on the one hand cycles, nights and days, seasons and harvest, activity and rest, hunger and satisfaction, desire and its fulfilment, life and death", and on the other hand, "the repetitive gestures of work and consumption".

Passing under the sacristy, to the elevated surface outside the church, foregrounds anticipation, preparation, the last moments of the secular before entry into the sacred world. Even in its detail. The entrance step, just high enough for a shuffling pensioner to trip over, is a reminder of this transition, of the event and festival. As it wears, with the feet of generations of children marrying here, worshipping here, being buried here, it will serve as a constant reminder of life's context: repetition, ritual, death.

Siza serves as a coda to this essay. He has become an icon himself, but produces buildings that are rarely iconic. Where the uncanny happens in architecture is at the point where the familiar ceases to be quotation, but becomes a paradigm. There is no coherent movement or set of architects to correspond with this moment, but it is what Ignasi de Sola-Morales describes as "a diagonal cut… an attempt to detect in apparently quite diverse situations a constant that illuminates the present juncture". He goes on to say: "Architectonic experience can no longer be founded on the basis of a system. On the contrary, contemporary architecture is confronted with the need to build on air, to build in the void." This liminal position is one that can only be met with an informed ambiguity, such as the architects I have mentioned have embraced.

This essay is a version of a lecture given at the Bern Architekturforum in Switzerland last year.

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