Essay: architecture and culture

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Andrew Benjamin argues that Australian architecture must open itself to the wider world of public policy. We can do this, he believes, by acknowledging that architecture is always traversed by the complexities of culture.

Online Media Centre, by Lyons. Image: Trevor Mein, courtesy Kayne Construction.
Online Media Centre, by Lyons. Image: Trevor Mein, courtesy Kayne Construction.
The NMA, by ARM in association with Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan. Images: Eric Sierins.
The NMA, by ARM in association with Robert Peck von Hartel Trethowan. Images: Eric Sierins.
Federation Square by Lab architecture studio in association with Bates Smart. Image:
Federation Square by Lab architecture studio in association with Bates Smart. Image:

OPENING. Perhaps the most well known line from Adolf Loos’s famous essay “Ornament and Crime” is the claim that, “As ornament is no longer organically related to our culture, it is also no longer the expression of our culture”. This move, which separates ornament and culture, links Modernist architecture to the culture of modernity. Reading this now two things emerge. The first is a statement of intent – Modernist architecture clearly defines itself in relation to culture. The second is a question – how today can the relation between architecture and culture to be understood? Despite the clarity of the Loos’s definition, this contemporary question has a persistent quality that is usually noticed in its occlusion. In other words, the extent to which the link is denied – and architecture is seen as no more than building and thus thought in terms of a differentiation of the economic from the cultural – suggests that the possibility of architecture’s relation to culture is a question whose acuity cannot be readily escaped. What then is architecture’s relation to culture?

In purely strategic terms, the question is relevant, since policy – usually in terms of government policy and even architectural criticism – often uses straightforwardly economic criteria to make decisions or draw conclusions. Approaching architecture as an industry, while apposite in certain instances, fails to allow for the role of the architectural in forming part of a nation’s, or a community’s, culture. Yet, it is clear that the presence of architecture in the daily lives of citizens underscores its ineliminable cultural presence.

The task in this essay is to address this presence and to draw conclusions that might have relevance for policy directed decisions, as well as evaluative ones. This essay was prompted by the refusal of public money to the Australian pavilion at the recent Venice Biennale, but more importantly, by the need to engage with the issues that such a refusal raises. For the most part, these issues do not pertain to the relative strength or weakness of Australian architecture, but rather to the way in which it defines itself. Architecture in this country does not define itself in any singular way, however, there is a prevailing perception.

To counter that perception is to reopen the need to link architecture to the wider world of policy – policy other than simple planning regulations – and this involves reopening the question of architecture’s relation to culture.

This essay uses “culture” in two senses. One relates to activities that are often understood as specific to architecture. The other is inextricably connected to the realm of human existence and demarcates the ways in which human life differentiates itself from nature. Taken in isolation each is potentially problematic – holding to the exclusivity of the culture of architecture denies its presence as part of human society, while thinking of architecture as nothing other than cultural precludes any consideration of, for example, the way different materials realize different effects within architectural practice. What matters is the way concerns of one understanding can – perhaps should – intrude into the other.

Recognizing that these two different senses of culture are interrelated can provide a way through this complex set of considerations. Insisting this interrelation introduces another defining element into the equation. Indeed, it marks the point of relation: the public.

Architecture is essentially public. This is hardly a surprising claim, but, as with many truths, the acceptance of what it asserts is conterminous with the refusal of its consequences.

A choice emerges. Architecture can define its sphere of operation as the construction of objects that are understood as only ever private, and which thus only open up the already circumscribed worlds of individual activity – for example, the house. Or architecture can insist on its inherently public nature. Emphasizing the public does not mean that the construction of the house is, in some sense, a denial of “architecture”. Rather, the argument is that architecture’s continual opening onto the world – an opening which can have an important role in the construction of that world – is one of the main ways to generate a nexus between the culture of architecture and the inherently public nature of human sociality.

The distinction between these two positions – opening in or opening out – is not a distinction between architecture as an academic activity on the one hand and as a worldly activity on the other. Instead, different conceptions of practice are at work here – in both instances there can be a championing of materials over programme; in both, a concern with the environmental consequences of building can be paramount; equally, issues pertaining to sustainability can drive each of them. Yet the distinction is crucial. It involves the extent to which there is an affirmation – with all the difficulties and complexities that this term brings – of the inherently public nature of architecture.

OPENING IN. Architecture can be described as opening in when it defines itself as an activity of construction for individuals to suit individual needs. In working from the outside in, space is created that reproduces the desires of clients – the world takes on the veneer of the private. This is a conception of the private in which the individual – either singularly or as a unit – has primacy. Moreover this generates a conception of the public as a collection of individuals all of whom aspire to create their own “private” world, which is the locus where their own unique desires are satisfied.

Architecture begins to define itself in these terms when this conception of practice – and world creation – becomes the basis for future discussions and evaluations. Once the object is understood as having been created for the individual – including a conception of the public as the totality of individuals – it follows that architecture is the expression of personalities, and that the built object expresses the personality of the client. (Or at least that this would be the desired intent on both sides.) Equally, because construction, understood in this light, is always defined by a conception of individual taste, there cannot be a link to any conception of culture beyond the generalization of the individual. It is not difficult to imagine that once this is accepted as the definition of architecture – and it is a self-definition that works at a range of different scales – architecture will be inevitably understood as a series of produced (built, constructed, et cetera) objects that are created by individuals to serve individual ends. Since the public is always counterposed to the individual – and this is true even when the public is understood as the abstract presence of the totality of individuals – architecture will be defined in terms of singular relations. The relation is will always be between architect and client, and architecture will remain enclosed within that relation.

Once there is a turn towards the interior there is no need to think in terms of the registration of the exterior. Those elements – at a minimum, the exterior to which architecture opens out – pertain to culture understood as part of the public domain. The limit of this definition is not to do with a specific programme, although the apparent preoccupation of Australian architecture with domestic housing only exacerbates the situation. The insistence on the interior and the associated definition of architecture in terms of individual concerns – and reciprocally as only of concern for individuals – make it a simple matter to locate architecture as no more than an economic activity. In this framework the house would have a bespoke suit as its correlate. The refusal of the public is, of course, a position taken in relation to the inherently public nature of architecture. This not only establishes the limit of architecture’s self-definition in terms of opening in; it also indicates that the culture of architecture is, from the start, traversed by the complex matter of culture.

The already present place of culture needs to be noted. Here, it concerns the capacity for an object to stage a relation. This may seem an overly complex point, but it is not.

Staging a relation is not just the presence of programme, nor is it just the use of one combination of materials rather than another. Staging is the way that the interarticulation of a programme and materials works to present a specific conception of the programme in question. The differences, for example, between two museums are to be found in terms of what they stage. That is, the way the understanding of the programme, the geometry proper to its realization, and the materials once combined yield the object. However, it is an object as a site of activity. The activity is the way the building stages its presence. Two things need to be noted here. The first is that staging is integral to the way an object works as architecture. The second is that programme, geometry, and the use of materials have both a historical and cultural dimension. This means that staging necessarily inscribes the architectural object with broader cultural considerations. Opening in, therefore, becomes an attempt to avoid defining architecture in terms of this inscription of wider public concerns.

The counter position – opening out – becomes the way of acknowledging the presence of staging and of allowing this acknowledgment to play a pivotal role in establishing a definition of architecture.

OPENING OUT. The move to the outside – allowing the external to be registered internally and the internal to have an external registration – allows us to insist on the public nature of architecture precisely because here the two senses of culture interact. This is not a question of the house versus the public building. Rather, this particular definition provides the basis for more generalized understanding of architecture.

It is important to note, however, that the culture that is registered is neither unified nor benign. Indeed, the interplay of dominance and opposition is fundamental to its schismatic and agonistic nature. This opens an area of discussion that cannot be pursued in this context. However, it indicates, nonetheless, that the registration of external elements will not be the registration of a unified culture precisely because the culture in question is not grounded in any sense of unity – other than that of simple dominance or the identification with the totality of a culture with its most conservative instance, for example the identification of a culture with the national.

This emphasis on the explicit acknowledgement of architecture’s public nature, and on architecture as “staging”, does not mean that henceforth architecture has to be either utilitarian – that is merely functional or instrumental or driven by some large social goal.

Moreover, such an acknowledgment might be present in quite different ways. The complex surfaces of the Online Multimedia Centre, at the St Albans campus of Victoria University by Lyons, for example, opens up a potential urban field. This does not occur by locating the architecture on the surface, but by allowing the surface to help create a visual urbanism.

What emerges, as a potential as well as what that is actually realized, are urban surfaces.

The interest in the surface as evinced by Lyons – and here there is an important affinity with some recent work by Herzog and de Meuron, in particular their library for the Eberswalde Polytechnic – should be understood as locating the object’s architecture as much in a sustained engagement with programmatic concerns, as it is in the construction of urban surfaces. The importance of the latter is that they take the creation of surfaces beyond any concern with the decorative.

While a great deal has been written about ARM’s National Museum of Australia (NMA) in Canberra, its singular importance lies in the specific way it stages a conception of the public and thus of community. While it enhances the site, to argue that a building complements Walter Burley Griffin’s masterplan runs the risk of condemning it in advance.

At the NMA identity becomes a site of endless negotiation and the symbols carry that positioning. Both work together to define the site. Rather than concentrate on the symbols per se, what is fundamental is that they introduce a conception of time that is not determined by immediacy. The symbols stage a more complex and always-to-be-determined conception of identity. There is still a connection between symbols and what is symbolised. However, what needs to be noted is that it is hard to establish the link as definitive. Indeed, that is the point. The public nature of the architecture, and its democratic impulse, are found in the symbolism because the work attests to the complex and cosmopolitan nature of the public.

Lab architecture studio’s Federation Square is a fundamentally different project. But it demands, among other things, a reconsideration of how, within the urban context, figure/ground relations have to be recast in terms of figure/figure relations. The inscription of an implicit urbanism into The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, the construction of the squares themselves as explicitly urban, the complex relation that both have to the urbanism created by the intersections of the grid and the lanes and fed by public transport hubs, means that each element becomes an important figure constructing the urban terrain. While this does not occur literally, Federation Square develops – both externally and internally (within the NGV itself) – the urbanism of its setting, while demanding a rethinking if how interventions of this scale within a pre-existing fabric are to be understood.

The significance of these projects cannot be understood in terms of the image they project. In other words, it is not as though subsequent work – be it a large scale project or a domestic house – has to have a Lyons’ surface, or to deploy complex symbolism, or to mime fractal geometries. The fact that they are significant does not mean that they set the measure for what architecture has to look like. It is not a question of appearance. Rather, what has to occur is a process of abstraction where what characterizes them – and it will always be the interplay of the strictly architectural and the cultural, one figuring in the other – is allowed to set the framework in which architecture’s definition of itself can continue to develop.

Affirming the presence of the cultural – by noting the ineliminability of the public, while allowing both to have a complex and contested status – allows architecture to be opened up beyond any reduction. Be that a reduction to the simply economic or to the merely cultural, it goes without saying that such a position is necessarily contestable. Moreover, this inherent contestability may result in the refusal of the interplay of cultures and therefore in the championing of the interdependence of the private and the economic. The victory of one over the other reveals an essential truth. Namely, that the presence of the conflict – the inescapable hold of contestability – is the first step in any argument for the inherently cultural nature of the architectural.

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