James Wines 17.12.09

Indeterminate Fade rt

SITE's Indeterminate Facade Building, Houston 1974 (image: SITE)

A lecture by this 1970s iconoclast caused palpable excitement, says Charles Holland - but the rhetoric doesn't match the buildings

James Wines hasn't changed much. The amiable silver-haired gent standing in front of me is still recognisable as the extravagantly bearded hipster of the early 1970s. Much of what he says seems to have stayed remarkably consistent over the years too.

Wines occupies a marginal position in the recent history of architecture. He's not an architect for a start, but a trained sculptor who founded the multi-disciplinary practice SITE in 1969. SITE fused conceptual art with a counter-cultural DIY sensibility to create a unique body of work.

During the 1970s it realised a remarkable series of buildings for the Best supermarket chain in America. Stores were peeled open, pulled apart or left half-ruined in a pile of their own rubble. Wines' sculptural background allowed him to avoid architecture's usual sense of decorum and achieve moments of almost sublime idiocy, buildings that no one else would have had the chutzpah or lack of self-consciousness to pull off.

Since its 70s/80s heyday, SITE has almost completely slipped off the architectural radar. As a consequence, Wines' lecture at the Barbican in October caused a palpable buzz of speculation about what he has been up to. It turns out to have been more than expected and less than one would have hoped.

SITE's work always had a vague environmental agenda and this formed the background to his talk, titled Economy of Means: A Brief History of Doing More with Less. This could have been fertile territory, especially given architecture's recent obsession with the iconic. Sure enough, Wines had an amusing pop at the architectural egos of Daniel Libeskind et al, suggesting that their bombastic formalism is out of step with the times.

But it was difficult to establish exactly how SITE's recent work differed. Its proposal for a garden tower in Mumbai, for example, seemed as arbitary as any one of Libeskind's buildings. And without a critical analysis of what "local" or "sustainable" might actually mean in a global economy, Wines' plea for a humble architecture that respected local resources seemed well-intentioned but vague. With their abundant foliage and green roofs festooned with trees, Wines' more recent designs seem to fall into the trap of "greenwash" that he himself identified.

To accuse Wines of being voguish is perhaps unfair, as he has been talking about environmentally responsible architecture for a lot longer than everyone else. But the laconic humour of his early work sits awkwardly with the earnest rhetoric of sustainability. Throughout the talk he skirted over the more troubling, and interesting, qualities of his buildings – the fact that they seem to be falling apart in front of us – in favour of a less plausible narrative of them revealing the construction process. The best of his recent buildings is a pavilion for the The Fondazione Pietro Rossini in Italy, another carefully constructed ruin.

Wines' 1987 book De-Architecture was a brilliant polemic that implored architecture to abandon its stylistic cul-de-sacs and adopt instead an urban-scaled version of installation art – non-heroic, non-original and full of dada-ist humour. His lecture didn't really advance on any of those early and provocative ideas and some of the later buildings detracted from them. Perhaps he should have saved the best till last.

 

 Words

Charles Holland

quotes story

Wines' sculptural background allowed him to avoid architecture's usual sense of decorum and achieve moments of almost sublime idiocy, buildings that no one else would have had the chutzpah or lack of self-consciousness to pull off

Leave a comment

Click to show