Geometry + Geology (2010–2014)

“The point of philosophy is to start with something so simple as not to seem worth stating, and to end with something so paradoxical that no one will believe it.” Bertrand Russell

SIMPLE OBSERVATION #1: Frequently, architecture looks like other things.

1. Architecture has often been designed explicitly to look like other things; sometimes elegantly, sometimes comically. Taking some examples from each end of the spectrum: Acanthus leaves on Corinthian columns, rose windows in Gothic Cathedrals, the Big Duck Building on Long Island, and the Longaberger Basket Company building in Ohio.
2. Sometimes resemblances are seen which may not have been intended. These are often meant to be disparaging: eg. the Gherkin, Cheesegrater, Ken’s Testicle, etc.
3. To my knowledge, few architects or critics have made any sustained comparison between Brutalism and landscape. Common comparisons are with ships and castles. An exception is Denys Lasdun, who conceives the articulation of circulation routes in some of his buildings as akin to geological ‘strata’; another is Jonathan Meades in his 2014 film Bunkers, Brutalism & Bloodymindedness, where he points out that our interest in sublime landscapes, like our interest in Brutalism, is not a moment of repose.

SIMPLE OBSERVATION #2: People hate Brutalism.

There’s probably a sizable majority of the population who regard Brutalist architecture with a mixture of incomprehension and contempt. The phrase ‘concrete monstrosity’ is a familiar refrain in the popular press.

‘Two long cliffs of grey, stained concrete enclose mean staircases, narrow decks and unusable balconies, a prison without a roof endured by 600 people for half a century. The east London Pevsner guide calls Robin Hood Gardens “rough and tough ... ill-planned to the point of inhumane”. Not one current resident to my knowledge has stepped forward in its defence.’
‘Had the estate not been designed by two gurus, Peter and Alison Smithson, no one would be shedding a tear. ...The Smithsons were ideologues of the “street in the sky”, the vertical village, the Clockwork Orange tunnel, the urinal stairwell and shuttered concrete. Their ethos was so influential that hardly a British town is without some Smithsonian pastiche, like London's Hayward Gallery.’ Simon Jenkins in the Guardian

The main point to notice is the ease with which Jenkins associates the materials from which the building is made with problems he identifies with its spatial design and use, such that any other building of similar style is condemned from the outset.

SIMPLE OBSERVATION #3: People love the rock formations of northern England.

They are protected landscapes, mostly contained within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. All year round the hills and their rocky outcrops are a place of leisurely pilgrimage for picnickers, walkers, and all kinds of outdoor sports enthusiasts. They are the unobjectionable subject matter for the mainstream of amateur (as well as professional) painters and photographers.

PARADOXICAL OBSERVATION: Brutalism is the architectural image of the rock formations of northern England. The dark and sinister is visible in the welcome and familiar – and vice versa; an instance of the Freudian uncanny.

The particular similarities I want to depict are the sense of sublime scale and monolithic bleakness. The rough, weather-stained face of the shuttered concrete resembles the irregularities found in the erosion-scarred terrain of mountain rock. The darkness of the material in wet and grey weather matches that of the frequently dour conditions in the mountains. The shadowy nooks and crevices inspire trepidation and invite exploration. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, John Ruskin writes of the significance of ‘power’ (or the sublime) in architecture, citing the epic, uninterrupted wall, the ‘precipice’, as the archetypal expression of abstract power. This severe, unyielding magnitude also carries with it a sense of melancholy and solitude. The Brutalist buildings photographed exemplify this sense of imperviousness: solitary, stark, with intersecting planes conveying a sense of geological force and weight. The geometric compositions add to a sense of abstraction. There are no obvious symbolic forms introduced by the architects. The geometry is strong, but irregular. The buildings, considered as wholes, do not have lines of symmetry; again, suggesting a comparison with mountain rock.