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

The concrete layer cake of my childhood

Part 1: Lost in Time and Space

It’s 1988. The same year that Seoul had the summer Olympics, Sonny Bono was elected Mayor of Palm Springs, the former Soviet Union was initiating its economic reform (Perestroika) under Mikhail Gorbachev, Sonic Youth’s fifth studio album ‘Daydream Nation’ was released and incidentally also the same year I somehow managed to get myself locked into the Dunedin Public Library for one whole hour.

I shall now inform the reader that this short tale as a whole is indeed ‘factual’ by nature (well mostly let’s say); fragments are inevitably from the dusty recesses shelved (or not shelved as the case may be) within my memory or ambiguously pieced together from forgotten dreams.

To begin the story, it was like any old weekend school trip to the public library. Yes, you heard me… weekend. I was eight years old at the time. It was the same weekend that Margaret Mahy was going to grace us with her presence and read us some stories at the library. As someone who grew up in Dunedin, the curious behemoth of layered concrete known as the Dunedin Public Library (designed by the City Council’s Architectural Division) always had a seemingly omnipresent, yet comforting feel as a ‘civic surveyor’ of the Octagon city-scape.

Ms. Mahy had read us kids a story during which the mid-afternoon light shifted across the surfaces of the room. The light danced across her rainbow wig like a penumbral halo, gifted to us temporarily from the heavens above. From that point on, my memories dim. I vaguely recall people emptying the space around me as unconscious peripheral shadows during which time the teacher had somehow miscounted the head count.

Voices muffled. Daytime faded into early evening. I was lost in my own little world, doodling I suspect. Within moments I found myself alone… alone to explore my ghostly surrounds.

I had always thought of the building as a giant ‘layer cake’, where the spongi-ness was present as concrete. This now reveals my former obsession with dessert treats. I remember various past school trips, trolling through the shelves and finding myself lost within the books. It seemed all too easy to escape into the womb of my imagination by venturing into a window box or simply resting on the warmth of the carpet floor.

The escapism was most definitely the jam filling between the layers of concrete sponge. In a sense, I feel that libraries lead a wonderful double life with their role as public places in the city – as public places they facilitate both collective and personal intimacy as a refuge for the mind and soul.

Alas my hour was soon at an end. The scene was retold as a slightly embarrassed but relieved teacher escorting an eight year old kid out of the building whilst clutching colouring-in books and looking at his shoes the entire time.

For me, the Dunedin Public Library has and always will be about Margaret Mahy’s rainbow wig, colouring-in books, felt-tip pens and that single hour of my life where I thought the world was quite a different place.

Part 2: Stories of Time in Space

An interest of mine is stories of buildings and places. The belief is that both personal and wider social narratives have the possibility to do more for architectural production than one can anticipate or perhaps, to an extent, appreciate. As one important Sociologist Henri Lefebvre, has already mentioned in his book The Production of Space in the most devastatingly succinct manner possible:

“(Social) space is a (social) product”

The simplicity of this statement belies both an intricate and complex set of overlapping relationships concerning the production of space – where everybody produces space – from the personal to the political and the social to the representational. Stories in this sense have the ability to bring the flux of time and thus life into space; ‘the lived experience’ as embodied memories to buildings and places within a phenomenological dimension; i.e. social, cultural, political, historical, mythological and of course personal time.

Acknowledgments and thanks to the staff at the Dunedin Public Library for allowing me to photograph inside.