FAT’s new BBC studio in Cardiff employs a ‘figural section’ in the facade – a deadpan surface with hidden depths. Here, partner Sean Griffiths explains its role in the work of the practice.
In 1993 following his execution for murder in Texas, Joseph Paul Jernigan was sliced into 1,871 sections, approximately 1mm thick. Each slice was photographed and scanned into a computer. The result was animated to create a virtual journey through the human body.
In this animation, each slice refers to the next and to the body as a whole. The slice’s power as an artefact comes from its retention of something essentially human, despite its being reduced to a scientific specimen. It represents not only itself but, by implication, that of which it was once a part, the whole which is now absent.
The front facade of Fat’s St Lucas Art Academy in the Netherlands is a disembodied architectural slice. Like a piece of Jernigan’s body, it refers to something absent. Just as the body is a fragment of something human with its humanity removed, the facade is a fragment of something architectural with the architectural meaning removed. With the human body, the very absence of humanity makes it excessively present, so with St Lucas, removal of the authentic architectural meanings (the structural reason for the form, for example), makes the meaning more present.
The St Lucas facade is related to death in another way. When buildings die they become ruins. Such fragmented remains are also like slices of body and the sense of death that pervades a ruin is part of its romantic quality. By contrast there is nothing romantic about the slice of a cadaver, just as there is nothing romantic about the St Lucas screen, which looks like a ruin, but has more in common with Patrick Caulfield’s emotionless depiction of ruins than it does with those of, say, Piranesi. Both the corpse of Jernigan and the St Lucas facade are representations deliberately devoid of emotional content. The former is a disinterested, objective, purely scientific way of seeing. The latter is a similarly objective ‘pop art’ way of seeing. Both might be considered examples of the deadpan – a method of depicting meaning with minimal expression.
Early practitioners of Post-Modernist architecture, such as Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, saw the removal of emotional content as a useful device which would help their analyses to remain objective, or in their words, ‘non-judgmental’. The most potent project of early Post-Modernism was, perhaps, Venturi’s ‘Bill-ding board’ project for the National Football Hall of Fame (1967). Here the building was almost secondary to the main element – an enormous electronic signboard. Here, again, the ‘emotional’ qualities of late-1960s Brutalism – expressive materialism and bombastic formalism – is eschewed in favour of a thin surface carrying information.
The facade at St Lucas and the Bill-ding board project are very different examples of what I should like to call the ‘figural section’: a flattened architectural element taking the form of a slice, extrusion, fragment or surface for information, offering a rich but non-expressive, deadpan or objective form of communication.
As a surface-based rather than volumetric element, the figural section is vulnerable to the accusation of that most architectural of crimes – being superficial, whereby physical superficiality is conflated with philosophical superficiality. Notwithstanding this facile position, the figural section actually generates a very particular modern spatiality.
At the time of the Bill-ding board project, Venturi, Scott Brown and Steven Izenour were about to undertake the studies that became the basis of the book Learning from Las Vegas (1972). This publication outraged the architectural establishment by promoting commercial signs and billboards as possibly positive elements within the urban landscape. It rejected explicitly the Modernist conception of space as a purely geometric entity, and instead proposed a communicational field into which information in the form of signs was distributed. These elements charged the spaces between them with an interactive interplay of meanings. In the 1990s this embracing of surfaces as carriers of architectural, and other forms, of communication, seemed to us a relevant point of departure for a conceptual approach to architecture which would counteract the renewed wilful spatiality that was emerging at that time.
The figural section is a key trope in our work. It is used as a communicative surface, a facade, or else as a sectional element within a space. In whatever form it acts upon the spaces in which it is placed, altering them physically and semiologically. It remains essentially a surface element, superficial in appearance. This straightforward expression is an implicit critique that refutes the Modernist claim that surfaces are insubstantial and architecturally meaningless.
The Blue House in London (2002) displayed an emphatic early use of the figural section. The building has two facades, one of which is a figural section occurring at the front. This comprises a ‘fake’, cut-out house applied to the main facade. It extends to form the garden fence and also effectively thickens the wall of the street elevation to provide a poché-like window seat at the landing of the stair. The movement of people up and down this stair creates a piece of domestic theatre, visible from the street. This theatrical quality is reinforced by the stage set like character of the architecture. The ‘house’ image acts as a sign for ‘home’ and yet its ‘home-i-ness’ is undermined by a series of distortions. A chimney and a bush form part of the image but are also represented negatively as absences to emphasise the ‘cookie cutter’ quality of the facade. Odd window sizes distort the sense of perspective creating a sense of the uncanny in this typical symbol of comfort. The cut-out house is under scaled in relation to both the surrounding buildings and the side elevation creating a sense of dislocation in relation to the spaces of the street and the internal spaces of the house.
The house motif is placed against what appears to be a miniature office building. This combination announces, in a deadpan manner, a house with an office in it. The building reconstitutes urban life as a piece of theatre, touching on the dichotomy between reality and representation. In order to leave no one in any doubt about its aspiration to be understood as serious architecture, this false facade follows the tradition of Palladio by being placed in relation to a complex and nuanced architectural plan. It is Adolf Loos on the inside and South Park on the outside.
At Islington Square, a social housing project in Manchester, the figural section forms a facade which is violently dislocated from the building by an abrupt change of materials and formal language. The exuberantly shaped and extravagantly patterned brick facade is like a giant slice of cake wrapping a simple white modernist box, giving voice to a series of typological ambiguities. The scheme is a series of terraces and yet the facade is used to create the illusion of semi-detached villas. Each house is articulated individually by having a different top but this individuality is undercut by the over-scaled brickwork patterns which suggest, but are not true to, the boundaries of each house. These brickwork patterns also reinforce the sense of the facade as a continuous enclosing wall creating a citadel-like expression of community in opposition to the individual expression of each house. The facades become part of a defined public realm and yet emphatically detach an exclusive world of private alleyways and gardens allowing for the creation of complex spaces of social interaction within.
In contrast, at St Lucas, the facade is physically separated from the buildings that it wraps. This is a ‘pure’ facade: it has only one function – to create a public face that communicates the nature of the institution. It is a concrete billboard, albeit one whose meaning is more ambiguous than the average advertising billboard. But it also represents a clear distinction between ‘architecture’ and ‘building’ perhaps appropriate for the way buildings are made today. For, borrowing Pevsner’s terminology, the St Lucas facade is the ‘Lincoln Cathedral’ and the ordinary existing buildings it shields, the ‘bicycle sheds’. It allows a relatively modest building to have architectural expression in an age that allows for the construction of buildings but increasingly, driven by cost, excludes the possibility of architecture. The St Lucas screen therefore represents a piece of autonomous architecture devoid of programme and only related to the ‘buildings’ behind it in the loosest way possible.
Facadism is deemed an insult in architecture. An open adoption of it is, on the one hand, a polemical position, designed to expose the conceits of an a profession currently in thrall to pornographic spatial excess. On the other hand, the re-invigoration of the facade as a communicative element of architecture is nothing more than the recovery of a longstanding tradition. What’s good enough for Palladio is good enough for us. Fat’s use of the figural section reveals it to be an architectural device which has the ability to create rich ambiguities of social, spatial and architectural meaning, allowing narratives to unfold and enrich the reductive geometrical spaces we have inherited from our forebears. In the face of endless worthy architecture and ineffable flights of spatial fantasy, it gives architecture an opportunity to be complex, intricate and relevant.
Sean Griffiths is a partner in FAT. An extended version of this essay first appeared in AD213: Radical Post-Modernism (Wiley), co-edited by Charles Jencks and FAT.
First published in AT 223, November 2011