Buildings do not impress me. Interiors do, to an extent, but exteriors are just facades. They have no bearing on whether a building is functional, warm, or comfortable. They exist, in their state, only to fit within the oft-unspoken architectural ethos of the city in which they have been built. When I walk along London streets, where there are such varieties of culture, I am looking at the people rather than the buildings, noting the fine differences, for instance, between the clothes worn by people who profess to belong to certain subcultures. Even when I travel on the top deck of a London bus, apparently one of the best ways in which to view the architecture of the city, I am more concerned with the interactions between the pedestrians down below than those of the buildings, except perhaps when I am in the City, and every corner turned opens up a vista of beautiful golden stone, accentuated by sombre black railings and clock-faces.
I recently stumbled upon my own definition of architecture, that which doesn’t concern itself simply with the design and construction of buildings out of brick, glass and steel, or wood, but that studies an available space and the people and things in it, and tries to find the best possible state in which those people and things can coexist in comfort. I live in a city of approximately seven million full-time residents, and quite possibly – or so it feels – the same number again of tourists and travellers of whatever motivation, who bring in with them their various loci of culture, whether slow or fast, strict or liberal, structured or chaotic. All must use the same space, for example, within the narrow veins of the Underground, where, at 5.30pm, slow-moving, wide-eyed, daydreaming tourists block the otherwise inexorable pathways of sweaty businessmen escaping the grip of the City as they loosen their ties.
A space is found, utilised and designed, for the types of people who are expected to use it. It should be designed such that its beneficiaries are kept warm in winter and cool in summer, that there is minimal danger of dehydration caused by moisture-draining air-conditioning units, and that each individual resident of that space is able to function to the very height of their potential, using whatever magnitude of that space they see fit to, without encroaching on the space of any other individual, or feeling themselves stymied. Architecture, then, will concern itself in future with exploring the possibilities of multi-dimensional living, such that each individual feels free to express themselves in ever-widening spaces, even as the population grows and concentrates. The field will increasingly depart from its traditional focus on creating boxes or stacks to facilitate the work or play of the greater number, and home in on the needs of the individual, as individuals become more introverted, and less tolerant of each other’s mere presence. A person who enjoys listening to raucous rap or grime on his mobile loudspeaker on the bus does so to the chagrin of an intimidated other, involuntarily buoyed from their immersion in the rich tones of Dostoevsky or Angela Carter. People thus want to shut other people out. Nobody wants to have to admit strangers from another world into their space.
In Rodin’s masterpiece The Gates of Hell, one of the sculptor’s most famous figures, The Thinker, is positioned in his own space in the centre of the tympanum, in his usual, profound brew. He is willingly isolated from the world around him, yet inextricably moulded within it, like Des Esseintes, the hero of Joris Karl Huysmans’ roughly contemporary novel Against Nature. He has given himself time and space to contemplate, such that he is of sufficient distance from the world to temporarily forget that it is out there, but not so that he is entirely cut off, like the sole example of a species in a foreign place.
And so the possibilities of a Metropolis-type cityscape are rekindled, a web of tubes and orifices for the conveyance of crowds of loners, each with their own particular destination, their unique little box unto themselves. There are those who cannot live alone; let them reside in historical buildings designed for families and social salons. Then there are those who wish to exist within the perpetuity of their own minds, and it is to those that architecture as a profession must look for inspiration, for spaces have to be found and studied such that each resident feels that they have the entire universe to themselves, positioned somewhere between Earth and Heaven, as a reflection of their own creativity, such that a sprinkle of divinity is suffused within the dust from which they are made. The problem is, that sci-fi writers with varying concepts of what is real and possible have already written the future. We stand on the edge of the cliff of the past, surveying the future in the middle distance. Architecture can build the bridge.
(Written 28 October 2009)