Saturday, 18 July 2015

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Angkor Thom, The Royal Terraces

Having looked at the Khmer engravings, it's wonderful to note that the temples still have the power to impress themselves so powerfully, not only on the imagination, but also through their sheer physicality. Here, at Angkor Thom, the twelfth to thirteenth century masonry has weathered in such a way that it seems as though the massive stone blocks themselves are in the process of becoming flesh, taking on life. It feels so palpable that the statuary is in a state of embodiment midway between flesh and stone. 

This is a 1992 photograph taken by John Listopad, showing the east wall at the northern end, using lions and garudas (huge, mythical birdlike creatures) as telamons (columns in the form of a living creature) at the corner. Click on the image to view the whole photo. 

Khmer Architecture in A Nineteenth Century Exploration of Cambodia

These engravings are the frontispiece plus selected illustrations of a book on Khmer art and architecture written by nineteenth century explorer Louis Delaporte, and reprinted in 1999. Louis Delaporte was a cartographer and draughtsman who accompanied his first expedition in 1866, and returned to Cambodia as the head of his own expedition with the goal of assembling a collection of Khmer art.

At the culmination of the expedition, he set out to record the story of his travels, which forms the narrative of the book. His plentiful illustrations convey all the nineteenth century sense of wonder of vanished worlds. With him we catch privileged private glimpses of Bayon and Angkor Wat, the vast temple complex built in the early twelfth century. As Jacques Dolia mentions in his introduction, the power of this extraordinarily beautiful book lies in his personal recollections of the moments of discovery of Khmer art.

In my rough translation from the French, we can feel the exhilaration of the numinous, the wonder of stone magic of the guardian divinities in the ruined sanctuaries of the tangled Cambodian jungle:

"Digging in the middle of the rubble, we exhumed among other things, a character whose stone feet and eight arms were broken, but whose head, full expression and refinement, remained intact … the whole person of the god or deity is formed of a multitude of small gods, some seated … other in the attitude of prayer … the weave of the coat that he wears are figurines; his belt, his necklace, are small gods, his hair just as many tiny characters."

Frontispiece: View from the Ruins of Bayon

The French Explorers among the Khmer ruins.

Delaporte's map of Southern Indochina — the ancient Kingdom of Cambodia, with the pink tint indicating Khmer ruins that had been explored up to his day.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

From Bauhaus To Our House

Tom Wolfe's incisive 1982 book, which never had much positive attention from architectural critics, should be reread today in the light of shifting approaches to architecture. Our research group on Detail and Ornament read and discussed it recently, and it stands as a powerful critical assessment of the origins and growth of the style of modern architecture as socialist propaganda misappropriated and perpetuated by the MoMA in the utopian delirium of the twentieth century. Not your average conspiracy theory! Tom Wolfe simply saw a political pattern to the glass boxing of America which no-one else would, or could, admit. 

An excellent quick read in Wolfe's lively, dramatic style, From Bauhaus to Our House tells the story of the Pyrrhic battle against being bourgeois — beginning with guru architect Walter Gropius — the "Silver Prince", or "White God No. 1". 

"Young architects went to study at his feet. Some, like Philip Johnson, didn't get up until decades later." (p.11)

In 1932, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson published The International Style, one of the main influences that popularized European modernism in America. The book was a catalogue for a show of drawings, models and photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Wolfe reveals the pivotal role played by MoMA in the shaping of architectural taste over the last century. 

At the same time, architecture's "White Gods" are skillfully painted, warts and all, for their role in the demise of humane dwelling spaces: Le Corbusier, Albers, Mies, Kahn, and Breuer are rendered in all their lack of rigour: rather than a functionalist position against ornamental elements or applied decoration, modern architects toed the party line to battle a more protean monster: the appearance of being bourgeois. The industrial ideal of socialist worker housing began to pervade development, and it's not difficult to see that the American suburb was a reaction against these cold, minimum-existence boxes. 

Minoru Yamasaki, designer of the late World Trade Centre, also built the 1955 St. Louis housing project Pruitt-Igoe. This vast award-winning project was the paradigmatic case of the poorly designed architectural environment causing crime and social disease. The remaining inhabitants themselves, finally were asked what to do to make it habitable.  

"It was a historic moment for two reasons. One, for the first time in the fifty-year history of worker housing, someone had finally asked the client for his two cents' worth. Two, the chant. The chant began immediately : "Blow it.. .up! Blow it .. .up! Blow it . . . up! Blow it . . . up! Blow it . . . up!" The next day the task force thought it over. The poor buggers were right. It was the only solution. In July of 1972, the city blew up the three central blocks of Pruitt-Igoe with dynamite." (p.83)

One of the more interesting analyses Wolfe makes is to examine in detail those who stood outside of the party lines "The Apostates" and to show how Robert Venturi, ostensibly a postmodernist, was in fact one of "The Scholastics" who only appeared to break with the modernist precepts. In the course of his argument, Wolfe observes that Venturi's book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was also a publication of MoMA - fully authorized and backed by luminaries like Vincent Scully of Yale, who in 1976 actually refused an AIA award on the grounds that they hadn't inducted Venturi into their college of fellows.

"Scholasticism in the Dark Ages was theology to test the subtlety of other theologians. Scholasticism in the twentieth century was architecture to test the subtlety of other architects." (p.109)

Wolfe closes the book with a critique of the New York Five, the Rationalists, and the Pop architects following Venturi. One of his anecdotes is a bitter reminder of how much architecture had lost faith in being a primary embodied ground for human experience. In 1980, Gordon Bunschaft, in New York for the awards ceremony of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. 

"'But, then, a lot of things have changed,' said Bunshaft. 'We used to give prizes to architects for doing buildings. Now we give prizes to architects for drawing pictures.' … Graves was the only architect who had received an award, and furthermore it was true: he had won the award for drawings. Or, rather, for his drawings, for his theories, and for his status as Princeton's resident White, or Neo-Purist. Not for buildings, in any event. Not for buildings, in any event. You could count Graves' built structures on one hand."

If you dislike living in boxes with low ceilings, if you find suburban strip malls and big box store parking lots disturbing, if you believe that people have a right to beauty, and if you have an ounce of architectural taste … you need to read this important book.