Monday, 1 October 2012

Architecture and dermatology

The architecture of some types of building has become more and more about skin, and less and less about substance.  A rash of recent new buildings in the City of Westminster demonstrates an interest in patterned surface treatments to the elevations.

On this new office building in Buckingham Gate in Victoria (above), sandstone cladding is decorated with swirling patterns of (3D) gouge marks, its inspiration appearing to be somewhere between the abstract and the figurative.

On a weird new building in Oxford Street that is nearing completion (south side, near Marble Arch)  the glass and metal panel cladding system includes decorated panels that seem to have a similar aesthetic intention, this time in 2D only, and heading more towards the world of geometry.

And next to Edgware Road tube station, possibly the apotheosis of this trend, at least in Westminster - this time more purely geometric -  a cut and paste update of random pages of Owen Jones' 'Grammar of Ornament', perhaps.

What's going on?   An interest in surface decoration, now very fashionable, is a respectable aspect of architecture with a long history stretching back via Semper and Owen Jones all the way to prehistory.

That great modernist hard-liner Adolf Loos regarded decoration, exemplified in his mind by tattoos, as the last resort of criminals and degenerate aristocrats. The cerebral delights of abstraction were seen as an advance on the 'horror vacui' (fear of nothingness) of the savage mind.

It's certainly true that some recent patterned buildings must have engendered regrets in the cold light of day, as one assumes many tattoos do, after seeming a good idea at the time.

But you don't have to be a savage to think that the world is a more pleasant place if buildings have 'more to see when you get closer'.  It happens in most traditional architecture, whether high or vernacular.  The lack of it is one of the complaints that has always been levelled at 'modern' buildings, for example in critical reappraisals of the 'International Modernism' that swept the world in the postwar period when aesthetic interests appeared to align with the desire to do things cheaply - which gave us, for example, Victoria Street of the 1960s.  To do a Mies or Corb wasn't cheap, but to do a knock-off was.

The 'more to see' can come from the bits and pieces of the building itself - something you get in the best buildings of Richard Rogers or Michael Hopkins.

But delight in the elaboration of construction is a poor fit with an age of austerity, with unitized construction, with the world of design and build, value engineering and procurement by project manager rather than by client as patron.  

One can't help reflecting, considering some of the recent examples of 'dermatology as elevation', that while sophisticated details are expensive ('No money no detail' - Rem Koolhaas), decoration is cheap.  The trouble is, it often looks it.  But it doesn't have to.  If we are not to get buildings of substance, and visual interest is to come mainly from 2D surface decoration, then it deserves as much attention and talent as might be put it to beautiful details.


  1. I think it looks fantastic, so much more modern than a lot of architecture these days. Let's hope we se a lot more from this artist.

  2. Modern?? It appears that the artist referred to her copy of "Wallpaper patterns for the modern home" circa 1970 rather than exercise her talent. Yes more art to fill these bland canvases but please let us use the best of our design rather than the lazy alternative!