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Notes towards a technical study, Peter Salter, 1989, in TS: Intuition and Process, AA: London

TS Intuition and Process

“The job of the Technical Study is to reach beyond the limitations of physical evidence. Instead of allowing design and construction processes to become separate, it seeks to re-establish the whole and to explore ways of expressing the relevance of the strategy behind the making of the building.

The Technical Study is about a way of thinking. It is neither a science nor a training for the profession. Its aim is to add clarity to a piece, making it an occasion nurturing an optimism for building in difficult circumstances. Craft can only be developed within the context and experience of building.

Accuracy is about developing and testing instinct. It is the poignancy residing within the material fineness or structure that provokes the spark of clarity in a proposition.

It is the job of the Technical Study to test and reinforce the instinct behind the strategy. So the Technical Study runs in tandem with the design programme. It is like a terrier at its heels, demanding a restatement of its aims and a search for another kind of clarity of intention – an unequivocal proposition.

  • The flower kiosk at the Eastern Cemetery in Malmo, by the architect Sigurd Lewerentz, is a sublime example of unequivocal building. The manipulation of the construction and the component details are generated and constrained by the design intentions. The building needs no apologist, beyond the florist who lays out the cut flowers before the cemetery. The cradling of the light by the soffit layers is in order with the watershed of the roof, the turned upstand of the roof copper complicit with the in situ concrete walls. The construction joints in the formwork have been omitted; instead, chamfered edges to the forms have encouraged the cement to run and raise positive joints. These finger-sized accretions are like a layered grid to the wall.

To understand the underlying intention of the proposal, it is necessary to decompose the designed building into a series of related fragments – just as an archeologist would make drawings of the finds uncovered at his site. Certain predominant concerns will determine the procedure. First, the scale of the building must be related to the dimensional order of the site. In Landscapes this may be given by the frequency of objects on the horizon that can be measured on a map. Thus in the seemingly unequivocal landscape of the salt marsh a building may have to be seen as an accretion, a new geographical landform subject to the processes of time and erosion. The resulting architecture will describe the horizon as a section of varying and layered deposits, registering a local scale which satisfies the landscape rather than the expediency of the programmatic brief.

It is also necessary to look at the fineness and order of the particular room to determine its material and structure. Without the instinctive desire to describe the room’s inner qualities and its remoteness from or sympathy with the outside world, any decisions about material and structure become hollow and trite exercises. The room may be so fine that it has its own ordering system incapable of servicing a building, only of being serviced. It may be a room of pilasters and frescos, a pergola screening the heavens. The components of the particular room cannot be of the same scale or family as those of other parts of the building, if it is to linger in the memory.

  • The people of the West Coast of Ireland traditionally inhabited the residual ground between the peat bog and the sea. They existed on the wave-cut rock platforms of the eroded sea cliffs. As subsistence farmers they cleared the rock debris from the meager topsoil by hand, carrying each boulder to a field margin determined by the power of will over muscle. Each rubble wall enclosure traced the section of the land until the slope became too steep to bear. The tilth was then nourished and supplemented by seaweed gathered from the shoreline.

The scale of the room determined by human labour is inseparable from the scale of its material. They work together to arouse a kind of resonance in the casual occupant. Perhaps all that is needed to provide a certain familiarity with the space is this collusion between craftsman and material something as simple as a door architrave that is brushed passed every day suddenly revealing its fluting scribed into the material so perfectly that it matches the print of your fingers and the scale of your hand.”

“Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived. These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space. But what a book would have to be written to decide all these problems! Space calls for action, and before action, the imagination is at work. It mows and ploughs. We should have to speak of the benefits of all these imaginary actions.”

Bachelard, Gaston, (1957 ) Poetics of Space

water yellow river china

Edward Burtynsky’s latest series of photographs is currently exhibited at the Flowers Gallery in London. The series is about Water around the globe, how we shape it and how it shapes us.

pivot irrigation arizona

Burtynsky’s photographs of Irrigation systems in Texas look (un)surprisingly like James Corner’s drawings in ‘Taking Measures across the American Landscape’, which we’ve discussed in the Unit. Drawings on landscape with water.

1995-James_Corner-Taking_Measure_Across_the_American_Landscape-Yale_University_Press-New_Haven-90-web
(image James Corner, landscape architect, Taking Measures across the American Landscape)

Photographer Edward Burtynsky has published a series of books on his landscape photographs
http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/site_contents/Books/introBooks.html

the exhibition at the Flowers Gallery on Cork Street, London is on until the 23rd of November

In his 1953 essay ‘The crisis in the growth of Science-Fiction’, writer Michel Butor talks about the conundrum of Science-Fiction, where Science has become so advanced and specialized that no author can fully grasp its latest developments, let alone its consequences, unless perhaps he/she is a scientist him/herself. This has lead to a series of approximate speculations, with erroneous facts and misconceptions. Long gone are the days of the polymath scientists, he adds, and science fiction writing now lacks the rigour and the element of truth it should rely onto.

He concludes his essay with the following positive note however, which is of much interest to the architect:

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“But the Last word has not been said, and it is certainly possible that SF will surmount this crisis in its growth.

It has the power to solicit our belief in an entirely new way, and it is capable of affording, in its description of the possible, a marvelous precision. But to realize its full power, it must undergo a revolution, it must succeed in unifying itself. It must become a collective work, like the science which is its indispensable basis.
We all dream of clean, well-lighted cities, so that when an author situates a narrative in such a place, he is certain of striking a sympathetic note. But we find ourselves, in the present state of SF, facing an enormous choice of barely sketched future cities among which the imagination hesitates, unsatisfied.
Everyone knows Heraclitus’ famous fragment: “Those who are awakened are in the same world, but those who sleep are each in a separate world.” Our dreamers’ worlds are simultaneously without communication and very much like one another. The classical mythologies united the common elements of these dreams into unique and public myths.
Now let us imagine that a certain number of authors, instead of describing at random and quite rapidly certain more or less interchangeable cities, were to take as the setting of their stories a single city, named and situated with some precision in space and in future time; that each author were to take into account the descriptions given by the others in order to introduce his own new ideas. This city would become a common possession to the same degree as an ancient city that has vanished; gradually, all readers would give its name to the city of their dreams and would model that city in its image.
SF, if it could limit and unify itself, would be capable of acquiring over the individual imagination a constraining power comparable to that of any classical mythology. Soon all authors would be obliged to take this predicted city into account, readers would organize their actions in relation to its imminent existence, ultimately they would find themselves obliged to build it. Then SF would be veracious, to the very degree that it realized itself.
It is easy to see what a prodigious instrument of liberation or oppression it could become.”

Michel Butor, La crise de croissance de la Science-Fiction, 1953, in ‘Répertoire 3’, Editions de Minuit, translated by Richard Howard, in ‘Inventory 3’

Now remember that the text was written in 1963 (!)
The allusion to all-clean and well-lighted cities seems to limit Science Fiction to a specific category when we’ve seen in fact an emergence of dystopias in Architecture, but the main argument nevertheless remains pertinent; in particular the notion of precision in the depiction of the future city. The city he envisions is enriched by a degree of complexity as an accumulative – and collective- process.
And although the collective enterprise he mentions here is possibly more difficult to achieve where individuality and authorship are still prevalent, the relationship between the imagined city and the real one, implied as a necessary consequence, is one to note.

Michael_Webb_Temple_IslandI recently posted the video of one of Mike Webb’s lecture about his project ‘Temple Island‘. I would also highly recommend a trip to the British Library to work your way through the project – almost – first hand, seeing the drawings, reading his notes in the 1987 AA publication of the eponymous title ‘Temple Island: a study’ by Mike Webb. A highly sought after volume, it also contains a prelude of ‘Canticles for Mike’  by architect and critic Michael Sorkin (reproduced in Michael Sorkins’ ‘Exquisite Corpse’), and an essay by Lebbeus Woods.

Another Lebbeus Woods project close to our current preoccupations about Astronomy is the observatory-looking-like proposal for the Epicyclarium. In fact a “structure that would continuously process computerized data to generate an evolving global image” it has to do with “human interaction and activity” according to Storefront website .
In his review of the exhibition in Exquisite Corpse, Michael Sorkin writes about the project:

  • The Paris project and the Epicyclarium are literally spherical, the former proposing a giant orb as the termination of the great axis of the Champs Elysées. The Epicyclarium is at once more concrete and more diffuse. It is meant to house devices that create – on a 30-foot disc suspended above a viewing floor – a two dimensional “global image”, kind of kaleidoscopic representation of the state of knowledge as we know it. Now, this is an ingratiating if somewhat overweening, metaphor for artistic enterprise but one that must be taken in the proper light. It serves to identify the work in front of us – a pretty, domestically scaled, rather antique and picturesque little building – with a larger enterprise; it purifies. It also offers rebuke to current species of historicizing by choosing a 19th-century, Jules Vernean, vision of fantastical architecture to house a late-20th-century fantasy. It’s a blow in favor of the history leaps forward into the unknown instead of backwards into archival certitudes. It neatly evades the present by viewing the future from the past.

Whilst the adjectives antique and picturesque are somewhat arguable in this description and some might see here an architecture of its time grappling with issues of technology, the intention of the project in gathering and centralizing all knowledge nevertheless points to the human propensity for a comprehensive understanding of the world – through technology? – but the scale of the building betrays the sheer impossibility of the task. How can all knowledge be contained in a small dome? Is knowledge not quite as vast as we might think it is? Or can it be reduced? Can it only be contained? Measured? In such epistemological conundrum I would recommend the reading of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet.

The Entrance Elevation of the Epicyclarium features in Neil Spiller’s introduction to the latest edition of AD, titled “Drawing Architecture”, which as the title might suggest, is full of beautiful drawings.
The introduction is coincidentally and suitably titled “Grasping for the fifth dimension”, and I would invite you to get your hands on a copy of the magazine before tomorrow’s lecture (details of the lecture here, details of the book here)
I would finally like to add that all that is said and shown on this issue about the dimensions of the architectural drawing is of course also applicable to the architectural model, which possesses its own donegality. An indeed the three dimensional drawings of CJ Lim included in this issue are testimony, if needed, that the drawing in architecture is as much about drawing a pen as it is drawing a scalpel, on paper.

Lebbeus Woods epicyclarium
Lebbeus Woods Epicyclarium 1984