Straightforward

[originally published in VMX 95]

“Architecture, whether it is a work of art or not, must be utilitarian or else fail completely.
Art is not utilitarian.” -Sol LeWitt (1)

As an endeavour that attempts to transcend the utilitarianism of ‘building’ with artistic signification, architecture can be understood in a certain way as building made complicated. Building is in and of itself fairly simple and only made ‘complicated’ when architects choose to make it so; in short, when the architect’s subjectivity enters into the equation. This is typically interpreted as meaning, however, that architecture is therefore a vehicle for whimsical personal expression, which often results in a formalist architecture of either tasteful or jarring composition, often willfully forced against the grain of the systematic and rational building industry, not to mention against any given site, programme, and eventual occupants. Such an architecture positions itself in direct binary opposition to questions of utility and economy that are considered to be antithetical to the ‘art’.

For VMX Architects, however, the building art does not necessarily comprise the literal complicating of building-form, but, on the contrary, the distillation of an idea together with its site and programme down to the simplest possible form of spatial generosity. Their projects have a characteristically straightforward appearance: the right angle figures prominently, as do straight lines and simple bar and box shapes. There is often repetitiveness within a project, almost as though it was designed for expediency of construction; as well as a certain consistency throughout the projects, betraying a sense of aesthetic refinement as well as an ideological position that is quite Miesian: “In Mies [van der Rohe], the realities are, from the very outset, material for the work of architecture…” (2)

The ideas behind each of the projects come out of investigations into the very ‘realities’ that constitute ‘the work of architecture’. It is almost only in their ideas that the projects are intuitive, informed as they are by personal observation of the many social and cultural realities with which architecture interacts. The rationality apparent in the work stems from the fact that the ideas are then consequently and methodically taken to an architectural conclusion with the least amount of effort and contrivance. In this way, VMX operates in a manner not unlike that of the Conceptual Art Movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Conceptual Art emerged as an avant-garde critique of the relationship between the artist’s subjectivity and the art critic’s taste. It strove to undermine this relationship by eliminating from art notions of style and aestheticism, even as much as possible the art object itself: these were felt to detract from the notion of ‘idea’ in art. Conceptual artists attempted “…to eliminate the arbitrary, the capricious, and the subjective as much as possible” (3) by relying on an initial idea that would generate a result with a machine-like minimum of subsequent decision-making on the part of the artist. The work was purposely emotionally dry and often did not employ the conventional media of painting and sculpture, but text and drawings, for example, and tended toward repetition, reduction, appropriation of ‘ready-made’ objects and simple orthogonality in fabricated objects. Interestingly, these themes resonate with the building industry’s practices of standardization, economy of means, pre-fabrication of parts and the rectangular shape of most construction products respectively, practices which VMX employ throughout their work.

Comparing architecture to art, however, let alone the building industry to Conceptual Art, is in many other respects misleading since art differs from architecture precisely by virtue of its critical role in society and therefore its degree of autonomy. Autonomy is a form of academic freedom premised upon the need for creative and critical activity to maintain a distance from the realities of finance, public opinion and power. While both art and architecture retain their relative autonomy through cultural institutions such as the museum, (4) artistic autonomy is nevertheless ultimately funded by business and industry, for whom maintaining a small, distant critical elite is not entirely against its interests: the sponsorship of art and culture can serve to redeem morally questionable business activities. While art may criticise and shock or move when it holds up its mirror, architecture, as Sol LeWitt points out above, “must be utilitarian”, it has to nevertheless accomodate real needs. Architecture is less autonomous and more socially contingent than art, and ignoring this fact in favour of an architecture primarily of personal expression opens a void for business and industry to fill, as can be seen widely today. This is a reality which VMX is well aware of: “We want to take back the profession of architecture from both its disappearance into the margins of artistic activity as well as from its displacement by developers, contractors and project management firms.” (5)

The projects are made with the aim of proposing ideas for the most generous possible spatial resolution of their respective intersections of site and programme. These are intersections which are recognized as unique for each and every project in architecture, always occuring in a different context and inevitably resulting in a unique ‘DNA footprint’. Each project is seen as always representing, therefore, a unique opportunity. The almost banal repetition of forms and materials in the designs is meant to foreground rather than distract from the issue of space and its use and enjoyment in situ. The programmatic allocation and organization of space, both interior and exterior, as well as the material and perceptual mediation between spaces therefore assume importance. The drawings that explain these projects, with the same matter-of-factness as the designs, are ‘designed’ to no more than represent three-dimensional spaces at reduced scales on two-dimensional paper in the most informative way; they are not painstakingly crafted artistic ends-in-themselves in which architecture becomes effectively a pretext for the activity of drawing. Here, architecture is primarily a pretext for providing space, and drawing is a means. It is moreso the model and especially its expressive portrayal in photographs that generates the ‘image’ of every project.

In the actual designs, there are many aspects of the work that are simplified as much as possible, often, it seems, in spite of complex and difficult requirements. In projects such as Dun Laoghaire and the Souks of Beirut, with their preposterous floor to area requirements, this can be seen as almost a will to straightforwardness, an effort. These projects manifest, for example, a decisive preference for resolving high density in low-rise buildings with carefully positioned and defined exterior spaces rather than high-rise free-standing objects in the centre of the site. Low-rise decisively occupies, defines and fabricates its own ground-scape, whereas the tall building, especially when raised on pilotis à la Le Corbusier, pretends to barely intervene in the nature of the ground. ‘Pretends’, because it is of course impossible to build anything (except a space station) that does not affect the ground one way or another given that that is still where buildings are usually made physically accessible by infrastructure. Better then to go ahead and design the ground, and by extension what one gazes at, in an architecture / landscape / infrastructure ‘Total Design’, something that low-rise more readily implies.

The low-rise buildings, with their courts and patios, establish a close-range architectural environment with a more tactile, haptic experience of exterior materials than would a taller free-standing building conceived as a ‘device to see the world’. (6) The latter’s view over large terrain promotes a more colonizing gaze, one that dominates over nature. (7) Even Oostpoort, whose municipal ‘envelope’ is for a (relatively) high-rise office complex, uses a slightly raised sockle and careful positioning of openings in the building masses to lend qualities precisely to the courtyard at the centre of the scheme, not unlike Alison and Peter Smithson’s Economist building in London.

While a preference for enclosed exterior spaces with openings is evident in the way VMX occupy a site, further articulation of building mass itself is kept to a rational minimum with the rectilinear box and bar shapes, as epitomized in the Villa Vente and in Beirut’s ‘Cartesian Transformation’. The purity of the bar form nevertheless becomes somewhat fluid in projects such as ‘Heaven Can Wait’ and the Olympic Stadium, however, suggesting a certain flexibility within their orthodoxy of the right angle. But this is still not for purposes of capricious composition: the articulation evident in the former, for example, is so because there is a decision to re-use the site’s existing elements of pool and parking, which results in the bar shape having to bend in order to circumnavigate these elements while defining exterior spaces. What appears as composition, albeit a simple one, is in fact entirely rational and avoids “the arbitrary, the capricious and the subjective as much as possible.” Both ‘Heaven Can Wait’ and the Olympic Stadium project are transformations of similar perimeter block types: these blocks are both opened to the waterfront and folded in various places to take advantage of views and light, resulting in a hybrid of the nearby Berlage ‘Plan Zuid’ perimeter block and modernist blocks.

Repetitions of compositions occur most clearly in the Metaalunie and van Leer projects, both of which are additions to existing buildings. The former is a two-phased extension onto an idiosynchratic structure, and yet the theme of simple repetition is nowhere else reduced to such an essence: the second extension phase is an exact clone of the first, not in an obvious symmetry of wings attaching onto each side of the original structure but with the second phase directly on top of the first one, complete with base of pilotis. It does so with the utmost of simplicity while providing an upper storey loggia and opening views out of the original building. In the van Leer building extension, on the other hand, three similar single-storey elements are repeated along the ground and rotated into a pinwheel formation. Repetition carries through within elements by the use of similar unit-types, lift cores and column grids.

While the exteriors of the projects regularly appear as low, modestly simple box or bar shapes, the interiors, on the other hand, are sometimes extremely complex, as evident in ‘Heaven Can Wait’. This project investigates the reality of today’s seniors, for whom retirement is almost only a midpoint given today’s longer life expectancies. This has changed seniors’ lifestyles and is recognised here as essentially a programmatic issue related to leisure and the ‘ultimate luxury’ of choice, something the highly standardized Dutch housing industry is ill-equipped to deal with. A total of 120 different units, a recognition of the diversity of today’s seniors, is generated out of a game of permutations and combinations with Dutch standard residential measurements and concealed behind a uniform facade. There is thus a complete schism between the rational logic of the exterior and the interior ‘puzzle of lifestyles’, recalling, incidentally, New York’s skyscrapers as discussed by Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York.

The Oostpoort and Olympic Stadium projects combine somewhat less complex interiors with the use of standard construction methods. These methods are so cost-effective that buildings in the Netherlands have effectively become ready-to-build kits whose parts are already in tandem with the stringent Dutch requirements for natural ventilation and daylight admittance. With building heights regulated by each municipality’s zoning bylaws and the developer’s imperative to generate maximum profit for investors, resultant building masses are effectively pre-determined. The architect is only required for reasons of legal formality and as the final ‘cake decorator’ who must paint a happy face over this reality and make it appear as if each building is a unique product of genius. It can be said, however, that the systematised production of buildings according to norms and typical construction methods is nevertheless an example of ‘complexity and contradiction’ that is arguably more beautiful in its pure state than when it is glossed over. VMX views standardization as a given and uses it precisely to generate architecture. The kit of parts is used in the most straightforward manner and becomes the very essence of these projects.

This is not to deny, however, the possibility of an architecture of ‘reflexivity’, one which nevertheless can also comment upon the conditions surrounding its production. In the reconstruction of the Souks of Beirut, for example, historical continuity is established but without the nostalgia: the ancient figure-ground is used as a given, but ‘corrected’ in a ‘Cartesian Transformation’ that aligns the buildings with the Earth’s lines of latitude and longitude. Cartesian coordinates are the principle behind both the game of ‘Battleships’ and the Global Positioning System whereby a position is ascribable to anything anywhere in relation to an established set of mutually perpendicular axes. Through the ‘Cartesian Transformation’, the Souks become part of a global order. Indeed, their reconstruction, whatever form it takes, is likely to be built as a mega-project with international financing and its share of the Benettons and McDonalds that comprise the New World Order. The ‘Cartesian Transformation’ is then, in this sense, an entirely appropriate metaphor. It also illustrates perfectly VMX’s conceptual approach whereby an initial intuitive idea is consequently and consistently carried out with the least amount of formalist composition-making: at the outset it is decided to appropriate the plan of the original Souks, followed by their systematic transformation to arrive at a result. The result is a scheme that is at once cognisant of Beirut’s history as well as contextual with its own status as a singularly conceived project. This resolution of site and programme into an architecture that reflects upon the cultural context of its own production bypasses any need for expression.

The work of VMX, by its very simplicity, does not set out primarily to claim an autonomous aesthetic realm for architecture, just as it does not stake avant-garde claims of newness for society to eventually learn to live with. Ironically, such avant-gardeness is becoming increasingly expected by certain societies (such as the Dutch), which have come almost to await from architects ‘a new architecture every Monday morning.’ Their work is in this sense also not just the newest critique of contemporary commodity culture which “…privileges the brand-new product or idea over that of the devalued, most recent ‘new’ idea in the name of ‘progress.'” (8)

Architecture resides in ideas for spaces. The spatial ideas in the work of VMX come out of an interest in culture and its dilemmas, with the projects not merely telling it as is, but positing buildable proposals for their resolution. But moreover, the projects approach the very beauty of art in the way their ideas are taken to their architectural essence instead of complicated beyond recognition. If these projects, in the end, make architecture appear beautifully simple, then that is precisely their virtue.

Notes

  1. Sol LeWit, ‘Paragraphs on Conceptual Art’, Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900-1990 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), p. 836.
  2. Ignasi de Solá-Morales Rubió, ‘Mies van der Rohe and Minimalism’, Detlef Mertins, ed., The Presence of Mies (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994), p. 151.
  3. Sol LeWitt, op cit, p. 835.
  4. Art maintains its autonomy in the museum, as much as it tries to test these institutional limitations; while architecture maintains its autonomy by building the museum, as much as it resists accomodating art ‘neutrally’. The museum has, since postmodernism, become the architectural object par excellence.
  5. VMX partner Don Murphy in private conversation.
  6. Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1994), p. 7.
  7. Interestingly, even an urban environment can be said to appear more ‘natural’ from above.
  8. Dan Graham, ‘Art in Relation to Architecture / Architecture in Relation to Art’, Brian Wallis, ed., Rock my Religion (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1993), p. 239.

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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