Architecture Depends: A book review

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of attending the Live Projects symposium held at Oxford Brookes university with friend and fellow Freeranger, Mr Barnaby Bennett who spoke about crisis, both architecturally and politically as well as being involved with fantastic projects in Christchurch.
One of the keynote speakers was Jeremy Till. His talk was named ‘Architecture Depends: Resuscitating architectural education’. There was a lot he had said in his lecture that would speak volumes and have deep resonance with the symposium attendees for the rest of the weekend, hovering like an intellectual spectre.

He spoke about one book of his in particular: Architecture Depends, which I had the pleasure of reading recently. Thought-provoking in content, it attempts to map out the somewhat rocky path taken by architects to essentially retreat from the contingent realities of the actual world, something that architects should inherently consider but yet go out of their way to avoid; albeit similar to an ‘inconvenient truth’.

I would like to spend a little time ruminating on this very intriguing book, as small vignettes into a few of the thoughts laid out, just to give a taste.

Mess is the Law

From the very beginning, mess lies at the very heart of the book. Till elucidates the deeply ridden obsession of architects with perfection, order and control as a disturbing set of arcane rituals and the result is a deluded sense that ‘aesthetic / formal order equates to social order’.
However, mess in this sense does not mean that architects should suddenly ransack their studios and live days without bathing, or start designing messy homes as a new paradigm, but rather take into account the ‘mess’ of everyday realities within our contingently driven world.
This aforementioned delusion (and the values behind it), as Till maintains, has been built up over hundreds of years of architectural education and it is formidably defended by various institutions (he discusses the RIBA in particular).
Architecture cannot be separated from the political realities of the world and so they must work together. Mess in this sense can be seen as fertile grounds for the creative imagination to work within the given, instead of pursuing the deluded ideal of absolute perfection as the ‘detached dreamer’.

Time and Waste

‘All architecture is but waste in transit’.

This statement of Till’s is one of the more provocative and intriguing, as it intentionally confronts architects and their values / concerns head on. Out of context, this statement could be misconstrued easily, however when one reads into it there is definitely more than meets the eye.
As he identifies for us, waste and dirt have always been marginalised within western architectural discourse, as ‘contaminants’ to the pursuit of Modern architecture.
He also explains – etymologically, construction and demolition are much closer than architects would generally like to admit. By marginalising waste when discussing architecture one essentially removes time – the very thing that architecture is dependent on. Ultimately I think this has the implication that all buildings and cities are inherently transitional by nature, i.e. never in stasis, which essentially disrupts the traditional Modernist preoccupation and obsession with order, aesthetics and tectonics.
Again, it goes back to the distinction he makes when illustrating the tenuous Modernist presupposition of equating aesthetic order with social order (with reference to sociologists Zygmunt Bauman and Bruno Latour).

Towards the end of the book, Till remains thoroughly conscious of inferring towards concrete conclusions, leaving the argument open-ended, which of course is more aligned to the spirit of the book rather than (as he mentions) adopting the stance of certainty and universality, which the book has resisted.
However, I shall leave you with one paragraph just to give a glimpse of form and perhaps a renewed sense of optimism (at least that’s my reading of it), in this case the role of the architect:

‘ The action of the architect here is not about the implementation of generic solutions to particular problems. It is not about the architect as the detached polisher of form and technique, but as the person who gathers the conflicting voices of a given situation and makes the best possible social and spatial sense of them. Hope is not discovered in the clouds of ideals that are blown away by the slightest breeze; hope is founded in the interstices of the given, and since it has a tough start in life, this hope is a survivor.’

Cover image from book: Mark Wallinger, Sleeper 2004

Book cover art: Mark Wallinger, Sleeper 2004, performance, Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin.

If you’re interested in learning more about Live Projects here are a couple of useful links you might want to check out:

This article is dedicated to the memory and spirit of Wellington architect Gerald Melling, who passed away just recently. Rest in peace fellow Freeranger.
I would like to leave you with one of Gerald’s poems from his book ‘b. 1943’, which I think is in keeping with the spirit of Till’s book:


The building draws itself up
to its full height,

pose in the air.
A lofty inflexion

of stunted men
with perfect deportment,

in search of that extra