Vol. 6, No1 ( September 2001)
Seeking the Centre:
Architectural Praxis in the Network Society.

In 1901 following the death of Queen Victoria, a young architect studied the demolition of a great symbol of order and power, the famous, indeed notorious, Newgate Prison in the centre of London. As dusk gathered, this very successful and well-known designer of country houses in the English Free Style watched the tumbling of the great rusticated walls and looming arches of George Dance’s gloomy pile, as he consciously repositioned himself professionally after the demise of the Queen-Empress. This event meant that there was a demand for emphatically memorialising structures expressing the serious mien of a worldwide empire, something that the rustic references of Sussex vernacular could not readily supply. An empire greater than the world had ever seen demanded, many felt, the expression of the most noble sentiments in the homage to Victoria that were to be placed everywhere throughout her domains. The architect was Sir Edwin Lutyens, later president of the Royal Academy, when he died in 1944 – a household word for architecture in the English-speaking world at that time.

Little more than half a century after the destruction of Newgate, another young English architect was moved in quite another way.News and photographs of his hero, le Corbusier, and his latest building – the pilgrimage chapel of Notre Dame at Ronchamps. Having been oriented towards modernism during and after World War II when he was a Normandy paratrooper, he was now dismayed that the ‘white architecture’ of pure crystalline forms had been rejected by the foremost propagator of Modernism, in favour of a dark interior, with roughcast surfaces and thick walls with no allegiance to industrialisation or standardisation – watchwords of the new order. This young architect wrestled with the intellectual issues implicit in this chapel and the brick-and-raw-concrete Maison Jaoul, eventually imbibing some of the ‘new’/old lessons that le Corbusier was propounding, leading to a great diversity of work that led to world-wide recognition; he was Sir James Stirling RIBA, winner of the Pritzker Prize and the RIBA Gold Medal.

The Problem of Zeitgeist

As in no other profession is the occasion of such intellectual summersaults so obvious and so public. For many fashion is the very stuff of excellence and relevance in design, but architecture, due to the great amount of capital expenditure and permanence that implicitly accompanies even the smallest building, not to mention the time needed for execution from planning, contracting and on to site, refers to a stability above the ordinary. Such was the age-old image of building, when the search for truth was identified in ‘pillars of wisdom’ – seven in the Bible, and other images of ‘foundations’ and ‘structures’ of knowledge and virtue. Yet the Tower of Babel was an image of man overreaching himself and forced to suffer accordingly. The image of stability expressed in a link between building and culture is a commonplace, but the connection may not be so constant and obvious that we are lead to suppose. One of the most obvious question marks that hang over the theory of Zeitgeist is that of nineteenth century Britain itself, ruler of so much of the world. Its position was due to Britain’s leadership in industrialisation, yet such an expression did not dominate the architecture of Victoria when British power was greatest. Nor did classicism, which could embody desired values of antique wisdom and superiority. No, it was the revived Gothic style that found favour, from the great Palace of Westminster on the Thames that ruled the Empire, to the many police stations in various types of more relaxed picturesque exercises. The assurance of the ability to express the Zeitgeist is one of the most unexamined beliefs of modernism and is indeed part of the problem that our two young architects faced in their different ways as described above. Part of the methodology of this enquiry into contemporary attitudes is to examine the most prominent tenets of modernity and see where they lead us: with the notion of the Zeitgeist, we confront one of the most central – that the modern artist has a grasp of time itself, or rather that aspect of time that is most relevant to the current circumstances.

If it were true, then Britain should have been the forge of the ‘new’ architecture; instead, after ‘promising’ starts such as the Crystal Palace – icon of industrial architecture – the British distained revolutionary turns in taste for an English-based Gothic revival as noted, already established in Britain since the mid-eighteenth century, followed by a staid official Classicism until after Lutyens’ death. It was with effort that the members of Stirling’s generation pulled out exemplars of British industrial architecture to justify a revisionary version of modernism – regionalism. Our generation of architects has lived through a great cascade of such alterations of dizzying alternatives, so that today a young architect is confronted by a continual turnover of ‘ideas’, fashions and challenges from all over the globe. Great expectations raised by such universal concepts as ‘sustainability’ and ‘good design’ that some might wonder – is it all necessary? – and where is it all leading?

Modern Images

To give a comprehensive answer to these questions is the goal of this paper. In order to do so we must examine many of the central intellectual territories of our civilisation. In doing so requires a metaphorical voyage probing into the future based on recent and more distant experiences – the only relevant basis we have to work upon. This journey is a sea-voyage in the noble tradition of adventure and exploration, like the Odyssey, an exploration of the soul as much as of space, still attractive today in an age of goal-setting endurance trips and even popular ocean cruises. It is not an idle metaphor as the threat of disaster always looms – a modern Czech philosopher likened living in modern times as being on a ship destined for destruction – le naufrage. In the Middle Ages such an image had its dimension of social satire and personal examination as in the Ship of Fools, subject of a film. And looming over the twentieth century towers the image of the great ship, the Titanic. The unsinkability of such a huge vessel – a floating city – was linked to the efficacy of the nation state, particularly the English-speaking Empire and the US, both wedded to the rise of technology. The great ship was an outcome of the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, the foundations of which had been laid during the Italian Renaissance, when modern politics also emerged.

The tale of the Titanic has never failed to fascinate since its sinking. It was a product of Ireland’s industrial city Belfast, capital of a region with periodic social conflict for the rest of the century. The modern world seems to embrace impudent daring as much as illusion, just as the fourth funnel of the Titanic was false – put there to balance the profile. The unity of the British Empire was shattered by the ‘disloyalty’ of most Irishmen in seeking independence, leading to the Empire’s dissolution after WWII. The Titanic flew the Red Ensign, but was owned by the American J. Pierpoint Morgan who turned up at the enquiry. In an age of certitude and technical triumph the spectre of duplicity and disillusion, defeat and betrayal still lurked in the wings of civilised society, or emerged full stage to dominate the scene, as it did with the Nazi takeover of Germany. In 1990 the other progressive experiment in society bit the dust with the fall of the Soviet Union. We have since come to learn that the turmoil and the betrayal continues, in the struggle for justice against the forces of unregulated capitalism disguised of ‘free trade’.

In the face of such great forces of change, one attitude to all of it is parody. The origins of science was parodied by Jonathan Swift, and the literary consciousness of the time was parodied in Ullyses by James Joyce, the mocker of British pretensions as much as Irish patriotism. Prophet of the new architecture, Walter Gropius, was wickedly portrayed in an novel by Evelyn Waugh, and the self regard of ‘modern design’ as been punctured at different levels by Tom Wolfe and David Watkin. Another response is that of journalists’ accounts of the conflicts and shortcomings of such cities as Los Angeles by Mike Davies and Dublin by Frank McDonald. Special interest groups concerned with historicist preservation and environmental protection wage never-ending campaigns to achieve various goals with varying success.  Yet it remains difficult to penetrate to a more lucid plane of consideration and reflection, only achievable through careful thematisation and reflection, however enjoyable parody and instant attack might be.  With lutyens and Stirling I have already indicated one of these themes –that of the artists’ life-story, already indicated by Ernest Gombrich when he stated that after the High Renaissance the history of art would be the life of the artist.  But this is only one indicator of parallel forces of change that have transformed our society since the Renaissance changing many intellectual structures for ever.


Cultural Crisis

The dissolution of these intellectual structures has been recognised in different ways by commentators such as ‘the disenchantment of the world’ by Max Weber, the ‘Great Secularisation’ by the English historian Christopher Dawson, and ‘divided representation of symbol and instrument’ by Dalibor Vesely.  The rise of rationalism and the notion of progress claims to have conquered religion and superstition, whereas the destruction of traditional metaphysics has obliterated the givenness of the cosmos and the expression of the transcendent.  In such conditions of scientific accomplishment our sense of the suprahuman has gone as well.  Thus careful patterns of identity have been deformed and then questioned in the rush to create a ‘new world’, the demand of utopia fostered by the now common notion of ‘progress’ and the ‘perfectibility of mankind’, both gross deformations of Christian doctrine as a little reflection will demonstrate. 

And where are we going now?  It is the habit of architectural commentators to celebrate the last battle, namely the victory of the International Style and ‘modern design’ in the post-war period.  Today we are swiftly passing from the   Industrial Society to what Manuel Castells calls the Network Society, where the economy is based on electronic communications and information, constituting a ‘new social morphology’ (p. 469).  More power will be gathered by the leaders of media than ever before, yet ‘work process is increasingly individualized, labor is disaggregated in its performance, and reintegrated in its outcome through a multiplicity of interconnected tasks in different sites, ushering in a new division of labor . . .’ (p. 471).  In such turmoil, the need for stability seems to be the most precious commodity that will not be provided by the Network Society.


Architecture and Modern Culture

In all these processes, past and ongoing, the unspoken dimensions of architecture either became occluded or outspokenly transformed into different modadities following various motives, such as the search for charactère and patterns of rationality, either tectonic or in planning terms.  One of the key territories in which to examine such changes is in the matter of ‘the centre’, which many have observed, was under threat and subject to extinction even, from the verse of John Dunne in the seventeenth century, to the artistic critique of Hans Seidlmayer sixty years ago.

The remarkable feature of the centre – political, urban, social - in Western culture has been fairly consistent in form and content from prehistoric times until the eighteenth century.  The main constituents of palace and temple united the sacred to the profane sometimes in a separate citadel, or later in city-centres organised around piazzas with a plethora of other forms such as wells, rostra, statues and minor foci such as memorials and such monuments.  The great church of the Middle Ages was in itself a sufficient centre for any major city, combining splendid landmarks of towers and spires with a concentrated interior space with clear boundaries and intense transcendental references.  The success of such centre-making can be seen in its most developed form during the Baroque, from the new royal centre of Nancy for the ex-king of Poland, to the little parish churches, town-halls and almshouses of Vittone and others in the expanding province of Piedmont.  At a more intimate level, such facility can be encountered in the Baroque church itself, where the formal intensity of the main altar is repeated grosso modo in the external façade, using the most plastic means and even illusionistic techniques of perspective, and other effects of sculpture and imagery.


The Loss of Centre

With the rise of the nation-state as the focus of democratic hopes during and after the French Revolution, the dissolution of the successful urban centre-making was the cost for the search for new forms and styles for the new order.  Thus the triumph of reason was at the expense of traditional geometrical meaning, very well attested in the case of the Parisian Corn Exchange built just before the Revolution.  Before, the circle was reserved for holy places or high social focus, but now it had shed this identity and was now deployed as a practical planning device in the form of an annular vault, with certain structural innovations – a demarche echoing the circular workshops to the Salines de Chaux by Ledoux.  Another form of such dissolution was the application of the temple-front, restricted to churches and royal palaces, to other buildings, first in Palladian practice, and then in France, when Ledoux petitioned the King to allow a pediment to be attached to the house of the Director at Chaux.  During the eclecticism of the nineteenth century this process of dissolution was masked for a time; the dimension of the loss marked by the theory of Camillo Sitte, who pointed out the deficiencies of academic responses to urban planning in most graphic terms.  Very few new images found favour; the Tour d’Eiffel became the successful symbol of Paris and even France, but it did not mean much else.  It is composed of a spire sitting on an arch, safely drawing upon ancient forms but never remarked upon by engineering enthusiasts when praising its other attributes.

The dissolution of centre-making is seen most painfully in the loss of human scale in so much of our attempts at urban space and form, where vast parade-grounds are fringed by puny buildings from Chandighar to Brasilia.  The Haussmanisation of Paris was tolerable because there was the fabric of the medieval city that could not be totally cleared, and still survives in many streets off the boulevards.  But now Haussmanisation using larger slab blocks and towers is the planning response in the new cities of the Pacific Rim, particularly in China and Singapore, where the boulevard has no natural starting point or termination – it is merely the excuse to congregate a number of imposing developments with little higher sense of order.  Manhattan provides the model, but at least New York’s downtown skyscrapers grew over a century, and is replete with diverse supports at the immediate level of support and supply – indeed many skyscrapers are full of tiny businesses and services not envisaged by the up-market rental policies of current developers.  The currency of modern formalism renders the consideration of other issues very difficult, be they ‘aesthetic’, or even the politics of local support and propriety, as the development of Canary Wharf in London abundantly testifies.  Whatever the supremacy of Pelli’s lonely tower at Canary Wharf might have meant with its intriguing response to different meteorological conditions, the grouping of more towers seems to share the vacuity of thinking that has informed the overall project from the beginning.  The erection of one tower is the guarantee for others to follow, as demanded by fair play and commercial interests, so that once one exemplar is allowed, the conditions of isolated splendour are then eroded by invidious competition.  The powerful image of Manhattan is due to its visibility and demarcation due to the three sides of the island, a coherency lost when one views a forest of towers from street level, or even from inside a park.  In more detailed symbolic terms, the survival of older forms such as the spire accounts for the popularity of the Pacific Tower in San Fransisco, rather than the stump form that became the stock-in-trade image of the high-rise block world-wide.

The fight against modern formalism has yet to be written, but surrealism had a part to play, in underlining the loss of the object in terms of cosmic relation that was undermined by the grosser aspects of modernity.  Few surrealists espoused architecture, except Salvator Dali and Georges Batailles.  The later’s critique of the Place de Concorde celebrated in the most memorable terms the memory of ritual and civic gesture bound up with royal sacrifice, and Dali made many references to Renaissance architecture in his work.

Some architects have vented their protests against the disappearance of the centre – Aldo Rossi’s dependence on memory through form may perhaps the most coherent, yet the relevance of persistent memory of form in a pluralist society is still problematic.  The survival of ancient exemplars has been marked in the output of Aalto, with his mini-citadels and other clever exploitations of site and landscape.


Contemporary Architectural Technique

At this point I wish to take stock of current varieties of praxis and architectural technique.  The first and most prevalent is that of hi-tech, partly stimulated by rationalism, partly modelled on the paradigms of Mies van der Rohë and a general ethos of functionalism, translated into tectonic morality.  The second is Romantic, tending to primitive forms, the understanding of exemplars and context, and ready to explore various answers in conformity with general cultural values.  The third is what I call ‘secular antinominianist’ in reference to theological antinomianism, referring to a refusal to believe in the normal dispensation of grace, and therefore the need to adhere to common norms.  Modern artistic antinominianism is fairly cynical in terms of self-advancement and cultural exploitation, in that it is modelled on the 200-yearold model of the avant-garde.  The demand for political reform and national liberation impinged on literature very deeply after the French Revolution, and gained a slow purchase on the practice of the visual arts.  Only in the post –war period with the victory of the International Style has it become noticeable in architecture, the way being paved by le Corbusier’s constant propaganda and self-promotion.  Peter Eisenman is surely the father of antinomians today, building a building in Ohio that doesn’t work either in plan or in construction, designing a memorial to the Holocaust which symbolises the Nazi state which ruined not just the totality of German Jewry, but a generation of Europeans in so many different ways.  Antinomianism is possible in the wish to believe in the ‘new’, whatever its outcome, as it is promoted by the priesthood caste of curators and cultural managers who have no responsibility for downstream results – they will have moved on to other jobs, projects or even countries. 

Another feature of modern technique is the emergence of the museum as a centre, or at least a signature building for a city needing a fresh image.  Perhaps the Guggenheim Museum by FLW in New York is the exemplar here, as the American master wished to contrast as violently as possible with the cosmopolitanism of Manhattan, to the extent of designing a building unsuitable to hang or even to view pictures at all – an antinomian building if ever there was one.  But now the emphasis is totally on the exterior, and we are all familiar with the images of rupture, and implosion, of sinking (the Titanic again) and of collision that mark the Jewish Museum of Libeskind and the Bilbao Guggenheim of Gehry.  The Bilbao Museum seems ill-considered internally, but then the interior of a museum is surely the most intractable of all architectural challenges that might exist.  The reason for this is that the museum represents the full programme of modern consciousness – ‘come here to learn what is valuable in the past, in order to live well in the future’.  But all that was valuable in the past has been ripped out of any context and displayed as trophies in a ‘temple’ of spoils, the result of cultural as well as political conquest in different lands, just as Napoleon conquered Italy and then the Louvre opened its doors as a modern museum of art.  It is surely significant that the most successful museum displays are radical and even emancipated programmes of exhibition in freely interpreted settings with some respect to the actual exhibits, such as those achieved by Albini and Scarpi in Italy, a country fortunate with plenty of scope in both art holdings and settings, as Napoleon realised.

Whatever the design technique –hi tech, Romantic, or antinomian, that I have referred to above, the one underlying factor in modern architecture is the underlying tendency to create formalistic landscapes, the creation of nature as a landscape where all the elements are equivocal and interchangeable.  The remedy to this almost universal dumbing-down in spatial terms is to treat each building as a centre, inasmuch as its programme will allow – obviously not all that viable for a warehouse or a shopping centre, lost in a car park.  Yet the paradigm of the little Baroque parish church is still there, with its incomparable intensity that was shared by its public neighbours in lesser degree. 

The techniques of centre-making can be taught and learned, the need for boundary and focus, the control of movement and light, the imagination towards identifiable image and material, and so on.  The solecisms of open stairs and flimsy railings, even made of glass, must be resisted in favour of visual security and opacity where required.  The attention to doors, their overall visibility and their role as markers of transition from one realm of experience to another, must be recognised.  The confusion between inside and out, sometimes possible in good weather conditions in a tropical climate, is due to a belief of its universal appeal as a desideratum, and leading to unsustainable demands on the building envelope in cold climates.  Another modern model, that of the glasshouse, is a weapon of similar wishful thinking, and can only be a gardener’s forcing house –try sitting beside a glass wall for over an hour.  Many of the solecisms of modernity can be easily demonstrated but even the most anti-modern of critics never call upon them, probably due to the visual prejudice that blind them to overall issues of physical comfort and thermal well-being.

It is truly remarkable that the twentieth century made only one powerful innovation to making a façade for all its acclaimed inventiveness.  The curtain wall with lightweight cladding was a development of the nineteenth century, and mainly referred to established results in terms of architectural surface, depth, etc., long explored by masters such as Borromini.  However, without any fanfare in terms of theory or propaganda, Mies’ application of the I-beam to the façade to the Seagram Building in New York was certainly innovative and convincing, uniting the spandrel and the glass in contrast to the exposed flanges of the I-beams, thus creating a dual façade from certain points of view.  In a way, Mies legitimised the later experiments that have been favoured by minimalists ever since, and in an understated way, he initiated the relativist character of the curtain wall, consonant with the overall relativism that marks our culture.  Just as he re-interpreted the centre as a palace in the ambiguities of the Barcelona Pavilion, he provided another ambiguous answer for the large façade.  Perhaps the enduring triumphs of modern architecture will rely on such ambiguities, less crude than the large gestures of the Romantics such as le Corbusier, more relevant than the meaningless gestures of the antinomians. 


Habitational Colonisation

My last recommendation for modern praxis is that of habitational colonisation.  Indeed this practise has been going on all the time, but in the utopian-charged chambers of our schools of architecture, staffed by some who have never practised, the tabula rasa is the only challenge – conservation is a sidelined specialism for later practice after graduation.  Yet the continual reorganisation of all types of buildings into different configurations of use, is a factor of civil and architectural reality – think of most surviving public buildings from the Middle Ages, the common large terrace house of Georgian Britain, Ireland and the USA, and the need to regenerate slighted parts of our cities, too innumerable to quantify here.  The demand for continuity has never been higher, while the urge to make signature statements has never been greater.  At the same time very restrictive legislation to maintain ‘conservation areas’ with concomitant bureaucratic control imposed in an era of weak overall planning machinery, tends to impose a sterile gentrification on whole tracts of our cities.  Well-intentioned though they may be, the need to revise planning legislation at every level, and introduce stronger local control, is now necessary.  Maybe the policy of subsidiarity might find its paramount legitimacy in terms of planning law, and lead to a revival of local identity that other forces in our society have inevitably weakened.



Since it is obvious that the practice of architecture is political, the emphasis on praxis must be shifted from the restricted instrumentality of the process to the wider prospects of cultural engagement that the search for ‘centre-making’ should engender.  The antinomians are legitimate in that they instinctively recognise the need for such cultural engagement, however inchoate they appear to the rest of us, and even to themselves.  The romantic exponents are close to a range of positive values and experiments but tend to attack problems that are no longer relevant.  The hi-tech exponents lack sufficient self-awareness and critical reflection to engender much appeal outside professional commentators – Forster, for example, is loved by most British architects.  As I have indicated above, the recovery of meaning is the only programme worthy of attention, and the search for meaning has no boundaries in space and time under modern conditions.  However the products of such a search are in turn highly prescriptive of space and time, as we cannot escape the human condition.  The Ship of Fools must have had a crew, including a navigator.  Foolish or not, the architectural profession must guide and find a landfall, in a sea full of shipwrecks.  Such shipwrecks are victims of the culture wars that surround us, so a steady hand, and mind, is needed.  Architecture today requires such hands and minds