Concretism and Critique, by Kati Blom

Figure 1

Figure 1

Back in Finland, I participated in the 11th International Alvar Aalto Symposium. The symposium had an extremely interesting theme which sought to reach out to the edges of profession by introducing modest but professionally respectful approaches to local problems of five continents. As it happened, the theme was concretisedby architects who believe in and seek to implement participation and local craftsmanship. These architects also believed in using international money and generally minimizing the amount of local money. There was one exception. It was an Argentinean pair – Mauricio Pezo and Sophia von Ellrichshausen – who work in Chile exclusively designing single-family houses using a local concrete technique.  The presentation was astonishing.

Figure 2

Figure 2

The Argentinean speakers did not want to talk about social values at all. They concentrated on the spatial poetry of the buildings, whereas all the other speakers were tied to the social, technological and managerial aspects of architecture only. Even if the results of these methods (shown in Figures 1 & 2) were outspokenly ‘beautiful’, and even if the aesthetic or formal aspects were not mentioned in the presentations, they looked to represent the contemporary concretism. Concretism can be taken as the materially based, practical approach to architecture. In stark contrast to this were the projects presented by Hollmén, Reuter and Sandman (Finland), and projects by Anna Heringer (Austria). The contrast was annoying and provoked a great deal of discussion during evening gatherings. The Argentinean couple’s work was seen as elitist, formal – basic – a-ethical. Yet this description would not be a critical remark per se.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Even the websites of their three practices are different. An axometric is typical of Pezo’s approach, whereas sensitive hand-drawn elevations are typical of Anna Heringer. These differences are furthermore evident in the title of each presentation title. The title of Pezo and Ellrichshausen was, “Stern Nature, Stern Formal Idiom”, Hollmen, Reuter and Sandman’s title was, “Architecture to Help People” and Anna Heringer’s title was, “Architecture is a Tool to Improve Lives.” Figure 3shows the METI – a handmade school in Rudrapur, Bangladesh. Designed by Anna Heringer and Eike Roswag this building was built between 2005 and 2006. Figure 4 shows the Women’s centre in Rufisque,  Senegal designed by Hollmén, Reuter, and Sandman between 1995 and 2001.

Figure 4

Figure 4

 

So, what was happening here? Why was this confusion so obvious? If we consider, as Finnish architectural critic Pekka Suhonen does, that there is a difference between critique and meta-critique [1], it firstly looked like the theme of the symposium was to be a critique (of existing value system in the main-stream architecture), rather than a clarification of the specific concepts, patterns and practices in relation to aesthetic values (or meta-critique). Secondly, within the category of critique, it would be beneficial to differentiate between negative critical evaluation and approving evaluation. This latter distinction is clarified by Finnish environmental aesthetician Yrjö Sepänmaa [2] with a distinction between critical and positive critique. He uses this distinction in environmental aesthetics, but it is easily applicable in architectural contexts as well. If you are critical, you weigh the object (natural or man-made phenomena) against value set in order to improve future decisions in this area. If you are approaching the object positively, you are searching to understand and accept its presence. Also, in my mind, you do not challenge its existence, for it is somehow out of your reach. The object of evaluation has transcendental qualities (like ‘nature’ has in our minds). Maybe this approving approach could be called journalism, when an everyday kind of writing is employed which looks for the object in its own terms [3].

The Argentinean pair didn’t explore their value system at all. Their presentation was self-referential and touched on the formal qualities of space layered in Japanese-like manner. Unlike other speakers they also didn’t talk about their method or process. They rejected this question as they view method a private matter. This elitist attitude was in sharp contrast with the symposium spirit and was felt by participants which gathered in Jyvaskylä with a specific topic in mind. Pezo and Ellrichshausen’s practice wasn’t a critical practice at all. It appeared to be a private esoteric game in a similar manner to the Glass Bead Game (1943) by Hermann Hesse (1877 – 1962). Context such as participation or public opinion didn’t matter. Even if the couple used local concrete on-site techniques and was fully engaged with spatial aesthetics, context was overlooked. Their contribution to the new wave of ethically concerned practices, which  engages with construction techniques (i.e. Concretism) was minimal. Their practice creates a modernistic and autonomous architecture which could be called immaterial concretism. Even if the architecture of Pezo and Ellrichshausen, and let us say Anna Heringer, Holmen and Reuter Sandman, were tied to the local building techniques, and even if these are all concerned with the sequences of space, the perception is quite different. The former is about the interior space-slicing based on an undefined pattern and the latter cases present spatial formations with a social slant. Either the explanations or the lack of explanation, as in the Argentinean couple’s case, effected their perceptions of space. They are somehow fundamentally different. However, their concerns regarding space and light take place in a characteristically a-contextual manner.

The case was more poignant given Juhani Pallasmaa’s lecture, just before the talk by Mauricio Pezo and Sophia von Ellrichshausen. Pallasmaa pointed to his favourite demand. He demands that we not indulge in personal expression, but rely in design on the eternal values of human space as a built memory and concretised in a value system. His talk, as well, aroused a lot of confusion and questions amongst the participants. He used his familiar pose to condemn the personal expression and rely on local traditions and materials (which appears to be an acceptable and decent position). Firstly, of course the word expression is polluted, contaminated and politically suspicious from the times when Modernism emerged. At this time there was a fight against spatially engaged architecture where the un-decorative nudity of abstraction was preferred in architecture.  When it is used, it almost without exception received a condemning connotation [4].

In spite of his objection of a spatially overwhelming ‘expressionism’ in architecture (represented in Carlo Scarpa’s, Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s and Frank Gehry’s architectures) it was anyhow obvious in rather confusing way that Pallasmaa favoured the Argentinian couple’s work containing a kind of spatial authenticity. Is this kind of architecture of the authentic and beyond critical critique, as in case of ‘nature’ which is left untouched in its transcendental a priori. It appeared, in an oblique and indirect way, as some architecture can avoid the critical critique. As such, its critical evaluation and positioning in the social, historical or cultural value system remains elusive. It would rather stay in an a-historic or a-society realm takes place in such a way that this type of architecture could be evaluated solely according to the positive critique’s pose.

Jeffrey Kipnis offers an answer to this. He opposes the idea of a critical practice as there were two or more competing philosophies in architecture fighting for the subordinating position – as embodied, finalised and hermetic meanings of architecture. He rather prefers architecture to create alternative, ambiguous positions outside the value systems offering various interpretations. He says, “The alternative attitude derives from the fact that architecture is an authentic discipline, yet one in continuous transformation.”[5] The presentation by Argentineans gave no contextual acknowledgment allowing them to freely positioned themselves as able to embody the truth of architecture, as in modernism. Criticising them would mean that we didn’t like their forms, as if that was the course of astonishment. Peter Collins famously stated that once Modernism was established the method, approach and value systems were no one’s concern anymore. The critique shifted from the meta-level towards a critique of images and styles; it was a paradigmatic shift. The question regarding whose taste prevails is connected to this position. The only acceptable critique in the couple’s case was to be formal. All the other presentations avoided the modernistic stance by arguing for their socio-ethical or technological stance. It certainly appears that a paradigmatic shift has taken place.

The question now becomes, from which angle are we able to justify a critique of a piece of architecture which does not care about demonstrating any localities, traditions or cultural patterns? Firstly, like in architectural schools, if a student does not declare the starting position or clarify where the spatial game originates from their architectural reviewers are able to destroy the piece instantly using critics’ own value systems. It means that if it is not explicitly declared any value system can be applied to any work.

The participants of the 11thAlvar Aalto symposium were to criticise, evaluate, compare and make judgements about the presentations. Only it appeared that because there was one who positioned themselves out of the context of the symposium, they were targeted as an outsider, as an odd exception of the socially aware militants of future improvements of deprived areas around the globe. The context in the case of Poze and Ellrichshausen was undecided, and must be read from the formal attributes of the images we were given. All the other presentations localised themselves in a socio-ethical concretic realm.

References:

(2009) 11th International Alvar Aalto Symposium.  Available at: http://www.alvaraalto.fi/symposium/2009/index.htm (Accessed: 23 September).

(2009) Anna Heringer Available at: http://www.anna-heringer.com/index.php?id=31 (Accessed: 23 September).

(2009) Hollmen Rueter Sandman Architects.  Available at: http://www.hollmenreutersandman.com/index2.php (Accessed: 23 September).

(2009) Hundertwasser.  Available at: http://www.hundertwasser.at/ (Accessed: 23 September).

(2009) Pezo Von Ellrichshausen Architects.  Available at: http://www.pezo.cl (Accessed: 23 September).

(2009) Rintala Eggertsson Architects.  Available at: http://rintalaeggertsson.com/ (Accessed: 23 September).

Kipnis, J. (1992) ‘Picking up the Pieces’, in  Linder, M. and Bergren, A.(eds) Scogin, Elam, and Bray: Critical Architecture, Architectural Criticism.New York: Rizzoli, pp. 31-48.

Koss, J. (2006) ‘On the Limits of Empathy’, The Art Bulletin, 139, (March 2006), pp. 139-157.

Pallasmaa, J. (1980) ‘Our Future lies in Modernism’, Arkkitehti 5-6, pp. 47-48.

Sepänmaa, Y. (2008) ‘To approve or to criticise? On the two tasks of environmental aesthetics’, Datutop, 30, pp. 78-88.

Sharp, D. (1980) ‘The Role and Responsibility of the Architectural Critic’, Arkkitehti 1, pp. 48-50.

Suhonen, P. (1978) ‘Arkkitehtuurin kritiikki ja estetiikka’, Arkkitehti, 7, pp. 14-5.

Images:

Figures 1 & 2: (2009) Pezo Von Ellrichshausen Architects.  Available at: http://www.pezo.cl (Accessed: 23 September).

Figure 3: (2009) Anna Heringer Available at: http://www.anna-heringer.com/index.php?id=31 (Accessed: 23 September).

Figure 4: (2009) Hollmen Rueter Sandman Architects.  Available at: http://www.hollmenreutersandman.com/index2.php (Accessed: 23 September).


[1] Suhonen 1978, 15.

[2] Sepänmaa 2009, 79.

[3] Anthony Vidler quotes Walter Benjamin by calling this a kind of ‘documentary’ criticism commentary, which falls under Sepänmaa’s category of positivecritique. Vidler in Linder 1992, 19.

[4] Koss 2006.

[5]Kipnis 1992, 38.

 

Harvard Citation Guide: Blom, K. (2009) Concretism and Critique, International Society for the Philosophy of Architecture, [blog] 19 Sept 2010, Available at: https://isparchitecture.wordpress.com. [Accessed: 01 June 2012].

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