Hermeneutics of modern architecture

The architect is a specialist in the sense that they must respond to the needs of a community, and as such may be said to be constrained by both values (however we might define these) and technical requirements. This makes the architect different from other aesthetic practitioners who may assume an audience no matter what they do. Indeed, some art forms exist very much “in spite of” the audience. If ideas have a history, then so too do styles. This makes us question the reactionary elevation of Quinlan Terry (almost universally regarded as a purveyor of pastiche) by Roger Scruton. Why does he see fit to elevate the neoclassical above the gothic? Why isn’t Terry churning out works in the style of Pugin? Edward Winters calls Scruton “nihilistic” in that he is fixated on a world that is irredeemably lost. What if we step back from all this, though, and ask some more questions about what we think architecture should be…

We should consider architecture via the dialectic of the counterparts, the conflict of interpretations that Ricoeur tells us is an agon between inherited traditions and the need for critique which stems from youthful innovation and technology. I want to take three figures from philosophy and history of art, so that we can set out an engagement with architecture which has few a priori preferences for styles either old or new. Gombrich in The Sense of Order describes the “tenacity of tradition” in architecture as coming from the manipulation of expectations. We assume we will see something in a particular style, given that it is a part of our lived environment, and all it takes is a slight alteration, an injection of some visual tension, and the essentials of a style can be maintained. Wittgenstein says “architecture is a gesture”. It is both a time and place, but is this gesture open or closed? Finally, Hans Georg Gadamer states that buildings are solutions to architectural problems. This is the functional, engineering perspective of architecture. This is useful in so far as a building can be judged successful or not, and it is a view that ties architecture to its material roots.

We need to supplement all these thinkers with a positive hermeneutics which calls for a positive contribution, one which is open in the sense of Wittgenstein’s gesture. Buildings seek to accomplish mediation, then, wherein past and present are brought together. This mediation requires the negotiation of values and needs. The most successful buildings will seem to rise above such concerns, but they are no less constrained by such an awareness of  what is appropriate in a given context. Context is the root of all the above, of that crossing-point where past and present, present and future, market and art, form and function all meet. This centrality of function is what speaks to me of the need for the application of hermeneutics to architecture, given that hermeneutics is the philosophical approach that maintains validity of context as carrying meaning in and of itself. Further to this, the best buildings as successful negotiations are also successful performatives. In this they seem to magically rise above the nitty gritty of conflict, becoming an entity that far surpasses our expectations. I seem to have veered off into the abstract, so I will try to pin things down with a concrete (and steel, and bronze manganese) example, chosen because I have walked past it every day for years.

STW’s Bank of Ireland HQ, Baggot St., Dublin (source, Archiseek)

To illustrate a practical engagement with some of the theoretical issues outlined above, we can take the Bank of Ireland headquarters on Dublin’s Baggot Street by Scott Tallon Walker, a large and historically important Irish firm of architects. As Ireland’s then (and perhaps now) pre-eminent modernists, it is no accident that this building takes the Seagram building of Mies van der Rohe as a reference point, given its centrality to the modernist canon. The BoI HQ uses his vernacular, referencing his use of bronze cladding (indeed, using so much that it influenced the price on the world market), although, this being Ireland, the cladding has not been maintained as the New York building has, hence the verdigris patina on the building. Inside, the homage continues, with the use of those staples of modernist furniture, the “Barcelona” chairs by Mies, which are to be found on the ground floor of the main building.

One issue of style will always remain the tension between this style and its appropriateness, whether it should be applied in a certain time and place: context. Where New York is the city of the skyscraper, Dublin is defined by its human dimensions, which are a result of the Georgian streetscape, which is maintained even through later Victorian, or Edwardian visions. If we consider John Summerson‘s work on London of the Georgian period, he describes the size and shape of houses being economically conditioned. There is no pure, disinterested aesthetic in play. To be sure, there is what the historian of architecture will appeal to as a “Palladian” interest in proportion, but this may be overstating the aesthetic dimension as intentional. I am not convinced. As residences for the wealthy, Georgian houses were to be well-appointed, but ultimately they were a product. Georgian London had its own property developers and spectators, just as Georgian Dublin did, and just as both modern cities do today. The Georgian building is, after Gadamer, as much an answer to an economic question as the Scott Tallon Walker office blocks on Baggot Street. There is an immediate connection between past in present in theory, but the most pressing question for the observer is whether this has translated into the street-scape as a reconciliation of the two Dublins, Georgian and modern.

The site is a plaza, containing three buildings, which are stepped in ascending height receding from Baggot Street. Approached traditionally from the city centre and Stephen’s Green, there are two buildings visible: one of four stories, and the next further on and closer to the Grand Canal of five stories. The tallest and largest building which runs the width of the entire plaza is recessed from the street entirely, behind these two smaller blocks. Scott Tallon Walker managed to respond to the needs of a large, modern business’s needs for space and flexibility, which calls for open plan buildings considerably larger than had been required in previous periods. Post-industrial cities no longer require factories, but rather places of work which create a comfortable atmosphere for workers. The average worker may expect a better view from their office block than their own home, and design of workspaces reflect this.

Scott Tallon Walker also responded sensitively to the context of their plans, the location. The three blocks do not overshadow their environs, either literally or figuratively. The lowest building of the three, indeed, is the same height as its Georgian neighbours either adjacent or opposite. The horizontal lines on the front of the office blocks approximate and echo the divisions into floors of a Georgian house, working with the proportions of the entire street-scape. These are dynamic modernist buildings, but they are by no means compromised by being an open-handed architectural gesture, responding as they do to the street with an awareness of the expectations of the average pedestrian while simultaneously playing with them (in terms of Gombrich above). They are not buildings that raise a fist saluting their own supposed magnificence. By referencing Mies (an admittedly ‘classical’ modernist), but still maintaining a form of stylistic conversation with the older, established buildings of Baggot Street, the BoI HQ insinuates itself into the streetscape without arrogance, to become itself a part of Dublin’s rich architectural heritage. It becomes a part of the context of Dublin as an example which future architects will have to negotiate and engage with, repeating and encouraging this process of sensitive innovation.

Links to more photos and information about STW’s BoI HQ: http://archiseek.com/2010/1978-bank-of-ireland-baggot-street-dublin/

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