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Essays + Talks

Practising from a Position

28/7/17
Presented at:
Practice in Research <> Research in Practice
Symposium led by RMIT
with Bond University, QUT
and the University of Adelaide 

From the outset of our collaboration, Stuart frequently referred to his desire to ‘practice from a position’. At the time, I found this to be a panacea to the turmoil and confusion I had encountered as a student. 

This ‘position’ from which we practice continues to evolve. We aren’t attempting to discover a universally ‘correct’ position, nor do we think it wise to cling to a fixed position. What we aspire to do is to practice with conviction derived from sustained critical observation and personal reflection.

The following is a brief account of some key concepts I find myself returning to - and around which many of my discussions with Stuart have centred. 

1. Habitat theory: Rooms of inquiry

For me, attempting to understand how great rooms are composed is an ongoing personal and professional preoccupation. Like a child pulling apart a toy in search of the unseen magic that makes it tick, I’m frequently reminded that beguiling artefacts are often deceptively complex.

One of the patterns of room making that I find most arresting is the convergence of adjoining spaces with contrasting, (though complementary) conditions, particularly those that manage this connection in ways that accentuate and exploit the tension between the spaces. These are the rooms that seem to capture the imagination and compel exploration: rooms of inquiry.

Rooms of inquiry often exhibit similar techniques: openings that foreshadow the act of moving to a partially obscured adjunct space, glimpsed views hinting at the possibility of discovering an as yet unknown, adjacent space. These techniques can be further embellished with moments of delight: an expanded outlook such as the unfurling of a carefully framed vista, a privileged vantage point, or perhaps, a place of repose nestled into the margins of a larger space.

A room of inquiry is more than a beautiful room, it is a room that is engages the imagination, it compels action, whether it be exploration or contemplation. The best explanation for these phenomena is perhaps the one that I learnt on my first day at university: Jay Appleton’s Prospect and Refuge theory. 

Like the 12 bar blues chord progression that winds its way through the history of popular music, from Led Belly to Led Zeppelin, Prospect and Refuge principles seem to be intrinsically woven into the syntax of architectural space making. However, where I would argue that Appleton’s habitat theory is at its most compelling is in the expansion of Prospect and Refuge to include Secondary Prospect and Refuge.

Appleton states:

... the belief that one’s field of vision can be further extended if one moves to another observation point will accentuate the sensation of environmental advantage ... Indirect prospects are essentially symbolic. They symbolically invite the speculation that they command a further field of vision. Whether they actually do so is less important than whether they appear to do so.¹

For me, this is an idea capable of endless variety and adaptation. It is present in all of our work from the initial concept diagram to determining the placement of Chris’ tripod when we photograph the building.

2. An appropriate architecture / The architect as custodian

Some years ago I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green designed by Caruso St John Architects. My initial impression of the building was that it was a welcoming and pleasant offering but only after subsequent visits did I gradually begin to appreciate the intelligence of the building.

I found myself confronted by how daringly understated these architects were willing to be. Here was a prominent commission for a major institution that could almost go unnoticed.

Later, when I read Adam Caruso’s essay Traditions it was confirmed to me that this condition was no accident:

Our practice has always made work that is related to things that we have seen before. We are interested in the emotional effect that buildings can have. We are interested in how buildings have been built in the past and how new constructions can achieve an equivalent formal and material presence.²

Caruso advocates for the making of buildings that are: ordinary enough to become part of the urban background.² This to me seemed to be a built example of a set of values espoused in an essay entitled Subtle Innovation written by Italian architect Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani:

…to forgo novelty-at-all-costs undoubtedly brings advantages to design: it need no longer cling to the almost always slim support of an individual’s momentary intuition, but can lean instead on the solid foundations of a collective endeavour built up and proven in time.³

In our work we have sought to make appropriate responses to settings and I think that the sentiments captured in Caruso and Lampugnani’s writing best captures our sense of how this might be achieved. We see ourselves as custodians of ideas that have been passed down to us through several millennia of human industry - and with this comes a responsibility to refer to the past in our work. 

We also see ourselves as custodians of the present built environment and with this comes a responsibility to make contributions that rely on more than momentary intuition or novelty; contributions that are capable of being overlooked, of being ordinary. 

3. Creative conflict and the aesthetics of inconvenience. 

As some of you may know, we have worked a good deal in alteration and addition projects. This kind of work was seen by the modernist movement as somewhat undesirable, they preferred the Tabula Rasa. My personal experience has been that working in constrained or conflicted conditions can be far more desirable.

I’m reminded of my teenage CD collection, and that many of the albums I immediately enjoyed became stale long before they had justified their purchase price. Conversely, most of the albums I still cherish were those that I struggled to understand on first, second or even third listen.

A work of art that defies or frustrates your expectations can also stimulate and sustain your interest beyond what might be expected from a conventional solution. It can also shock you out of your complacency. The most beautiful summation of this notion that I have encountered was in the writing of John Dewey:

The unexpected turn, something which the artist himself does not definitely foresee, is a condition of the felicitous quality of a work of art; it saves it from being mechanical. It gives the spontaneity of the unpremeditated to what would otherwise be a fruit of calculation.⁴

Conflict is not only a productive condition for the architect, but also has positive ramifications for those who experience the work. I believe that permitting moments of incongruence within an overall framework of order can bring the user into a heightened state of awareness of their surroundings. This seems to touch upon Heidegger’s concept of Handiness which Vycinas expands upon:

When an implement is not suitable for the work for which it is used, when it is not fitted properly into the implement totality to which it refers … it becomes striking ... A driver on a smooth road does not notice or does not comprehend the road objectively. He is merely using it as an implement, and is handy with it. Only when he hits rough pavement, does the road strike him as a road ... ⁵

Strategically introducing conflict, inconvenience, or even just oddity is a powerful tool of the designer. This might take the form of a ponderously heavy door to amplify the passage through a key threshold, or be manifest by requiring an occupant to pass through an external space between two rooms, an experience that might result in greater mindfulness of the season, humidity, temperature or the scent of the foliage.

In conclusion:

I tend to think of myself as a collector of ideas. If innovation occurs it is in the manipulation of a thing to fit a new context or in the combination of disparate ideas from independent sources. 

For me, 'practising from a position' is not about unveiling new ideas, it is about understanding where they come from and how they can be best applied.  

One of the many advantages of a long term collaboration is bringing these ideas to the conversation and seeing how they are received and transmuted through that process. While Stuart and I share many interests and our design sensibilities tend to align, the way in which these predilections are expressed in our work is always subtly different and often surprising.

Perhaps this is the key to practising from a position: a ready supply of productive agitation and uncertainly. 

/ Aaron Peters

 

¹ Appleton, J. (1996) The Experience of Landscape, Wiley, London, pp 80-81
² Caruso, A. (2008) The Feeling of Things, Ediciones Poligrafa, Barcelona, pp 25
³ Magnago Lampugnani, V. (1992) Subtle Innovation. in Domus, ed. Burkhardt, F, Compagnia Publicata Periodici, Milan, pp (iii)
⁴ Dewey, J. (1958) Art as Experience, Capricorn Books, New York, pp 139
⁵ Vycinas, V. (1961) Earth and Gods, An Intoduction to the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger, Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, pp 36