From the GKC archives at the Glasgow School of Art.
This week sees the start of the Mountain Biking at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, a fact that may not obviously have an obvious connection with the Commonwealth Games. However, the event marks in many ways the final affirmation at an official level of Scotland’s great contribution to the wider narrative of Modernism, and in particular the contribution of the practice of Gillespie Kidd and Coia. As it is well known, this established practice built a series of stunning religious buildings, particularly churches, for the Catholic church in the west coast of Scotland, designed by Andy McMillan and Isi Metstein. The Mountain Biking will head out from the former Church & Presbytery of St Martin’s, Castlemilk, one of the lesser known projects by the pair. A far better way for Glasgow to acknowledge the importance of its modernist heritage than blowing bits of it up for kicks.
St. Martin’s, which ceased to operate as a place of worship in 2010, boasts some of the key features of McMillan and Metzstein’s work. It exhibits an ingenious use of gradient, standing as it does on an outcrop of rock with the slopes and trees of Cathkin Brae which forming a picturesque background to it. Existing rock face and trees on the site being preserved to advantage and exploited with a series of terraces and staircases creating a dramatic approach. It also expresses the complex and engaged role of the Church in local life at the time of design, as it also incorporates a Sanctuary, two side altars, a shrine to St Martin, a baptistry, choir gallery, and sacristies.
The preservation of an example of Scottish modernism was ostensibly enabled by Historic Scotland giving a grant to a local preservation trust. However behind this has been an extensive campaign by key activists in Scottish architecture to convince a reluctant Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Glasgow that their architectural patrimony was of greater significance than the value of the land on which it stood. This year Creative Scotland, the Scottish government’s arts body, announced capital funding (i.e. money for buildings) for the slowly emerging proposals for St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, Metzstein and McMillan’s masterpiece….
One of the great forestalled ideas in the repetoire of 20th century utopian urbanism is the skybridge. The idea of street hierarchy was first pioneered by Ludwig Hilberseimer in his book City Plan which he published whilst teaching at the Bauhaus who went on to be director of planning in Chicago. Today is the birthday of one of the other emigres from Bauhaus to Chicago, Bertrand Goldberg who is the architect of Marina City and the sadly departed Prentice Women’s Hospital.
He also designed River City originally envisioned a high-density site of mixed-use skyscrapers 72-stories tall containing everything from schools to shopping centres, with the towers connected in “triads” by skybridges. It was knocked back, partly one imagines as a result of the growing fetishisation of the street, as outlined in the work of Jane Jacobs. Goldberg effectively unfolded his towers and laid them on their end, producing the sinuous low-rise structure which was eventually built.
In London there are still traces of this idea. Around the Barbican there are still remnants of the pedway which, despite what you may read, still operates as a link across the Barbican Centre from Barbican metro to Moorgate metro. The pedway came about as a means of allowing faster car routes to be built across London and keeping pedestrians separate from this. Far from being an ahistorical process, the means of justifying the separation included reference to Venice were streets and plazas. Indeed the logic of it was partly aesthetic, as the vistas from the Barbican deck attest to.
As London’s South Bank finally gets the skyscrapers that the Festival of Britain generation imagined it would it’s a shame we won’t have the easy connection between the upper floors that their lower deck first intimated. Yet this idea is one which will not completely let us alone. The Petronas towers are linked by a bridge. Steve Holl’s Linked Hybrid is another example indeed, if you look at much of Holl’s work his buildings are effectively skybridges, particularly his proposal for the Culture and Art Center of Qingdao City.
What is the significance for the trouncing of the Parti Québécois (PQ) in last month’s elections in Quebec for the situation in Scotland? I’d say it is an important one but it is not an obvious one. At first glance it appears that the main significance of the defeat is it shows that the Canadian province doesn’t have the stomach for another referendum on independence. The raison d’etre of the PQ is independence after all. The PQ initiated the 1980 referendum seeking a mandate to negotiate for independence. It was rejected by 60 per cent of voters. They tried again in 1995, and after a protracted campaign dogged by the confusing terminology of the referendum question, lost by a much slender margin.
Of course, with a referendum due in Scotland events in Quebec look like they don’t have much relevance. That would be too easy an attitude to adopt and indeed the SNP have in one regard already learned a valuable lesson from the PQ. Although a Yes vote looks unlikely for the referendum, during the previous Holyrood election the SNP steered clear of placing the referendum at the core of its campaign thereby keeping at least nominally the link between the SNP and the Yes campaign indirect. They did very well at that election. There may be other lessons to learn should the Yes vote lose in September as is likely. The Quebec situation would lead one to believe that once you lose a referendum, drop the idea, less you become identified by it. Salmond will no doubt announce if Scotland votes ‘no’ that he will champion the Scottish people in whichever way they wish him too and then try and kill public discussion of another referendum somewhere down the line. Continue reading
I have been trying to find Brutalist churches in the Americas as part of my interest in the different attitudes to Brutalism on either side of the Atlantic. In doing so I came across the story of the demise of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist in Washington D.C. The Church is in the process of being demolished – they have a camera trained on the site which takes a picture every 30 minutes which is a little gratuitous. Something about the debate around the church has struck me even amongst the building’s supporters; the discussion took place around whether the building was anti-urban or not, whether, specifically if it animated the sidewalk or not. It’s detractors beat it with the stick that it’s blank walls offered nothing to the world around it. I thought back to what Reyner Banham said in his book New Brutalism, that the movement had ‘a preoccupation with habitat, the total built environment that shelters man and directs his movements’. What could be a better architectural approach for places of worship than Brutalism? It is not much of a leap to adopt this approach to architecture and direct the mind of man (to God) as much as his movements.
Of course when Reyner Banham was writing about directing mans movements he was discussing Brutalist public housing projects in the United Kingdom and Europe. However he also highlighted what can best be described as an interior turn in architecture; a focus on the interior as a total environment and a deliberate rejection of the facade as an interplay between two worlds. In Europe this drive – which comes from I think a reconfiguring of man’s relationship with nature – was clearly attractive to the commissioners of churches. Architects could create places were thoughts rather than movements could be directed. It doesn’t seem to have struck anyone in the debate about the Third Church of Christ that the that the blank walls were entirely deliberate. Jane Jacobs active streets have been wrongly co-opted in a debate about the meaning of religion.
In Europe, Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame Du Haut – a medidative, contemplative space if ever there was one – and is perhaps the most famous example of a Brutalist church. It is certainly not the only one. In my native Scotland, the Catholic church was arguably a better client for Brutalism than even the welfare state was. The now ruined St. Peter’s Seminary by Gillespie Kidd and Coia is arguably Scotland’s finest piece of modernism. It’s fate however highlights the reason perhaps for the relatively small number of brutalist churches in the USA not to mention the disregard for Third Church of Christ. St. Peter’s Seminary was obsolete even before it was complete. In 1965 Paul VI closed the Second Vatican Council in which the Catholic Church emphasized anew what it called “a universal call to holiness” which brought many changes in practices, including the simplification of services to include less Latin and emphasised the role of religion in the community.
Now whilst, Third Church is not a Catholic building, I think the Second Vatican Council identified a fundamental shift in religious attitudes in Europe which brought it in line with attitudes in the USA; that churches are proselytizing bodies, they are evangelising institutions rather than contemplative spaces. I would argue that in the religious ferment of the Americas, churches are by self-definition and in competition with other faiths primarily engaged in the universal call to holiness. (In Europe this reconception of the church’s role only took place in response to the secular shift of post-war society) They must be part of the community. They must be after souls.
I’d argue that this was also a consideration in the campaign to replace St. Paul’s Chapel in Wisconsin. The main architectural feature in this little brutalist gem is the staircase and banked seating in the interior, which brings the congregation in from the street, makes them turn their back to the street and focuses their bodies and minds on the small font. It is this structural component which looms out over the entrance and creates what passes for a facade. Like other Brutalist church architecture the internal procession of the congregation is made monumental. Their gaze – free from columns – is focused on the altar, which is often placed centrally. The proposed replacement is a neo-Romanesque confection which is plonked on top of an entrance colonnade with numerous doors. This church is emphatically for a Church that is part of the community.
Of course there must be more Brutalist churches across the USA which I have not found and don’t know about; ones that are secretly cherished by those that use them. If you know of any please let me know.
Le Corbusier, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, Chandigarh © FLC/ADAGP
We know little of Jane Drew through her writing. Of course, she co-authored works on building in the tropics with her husband but these are generally technical in nature; part of the programme of international expertise that Drew was part of. They are expressions of Drew’s expertise as an architect but only by implication can we sense her pioneering spirit which was legendary. Her husband, Maxwell Fry acknowledged it as his one of his wife’s many strengths. Although Fry served in the Royal Engineers from 1939 to 1944, reaching the rank of major, and ended the Second World War as town-planning adviser in west Africa, his wife, he acknowledges was “the truer adventurer” even if he was rather disparaging about her written work. “She is a teller of stories rather than a writer,” he wrote (The implication is that Fry himself is the latter.)
The recent BBC 4 documentary on Ian Nairn is just the latest attempt to bolster the reputation of a writer and broadcaster who is often described as desperately needing of rediscovery yet who has in fact had a singular, negative influence over architectural writing since he died in August 1983. In case you don’t know, Nairn came to prominence after writing a couple of diatribes against the pace and nature of urban change of Britain in the 1950s before going to write some books, present some telly and drink far too much. I suspect that in an era of polite circumscribed behaviour amongst journalists this latter fact lends an allure to Nairn’s reputation. Today, too I think there are some who see a certain glamour in throwing long words vainly in the face of human development. I am not one of them.
It didn’t turn out quite as I had expected. From the moment the tour guide announced that he had helped Andrew WK write the lyrics for his latest album to watching the outside audience for NBC’s Today Show form an elongated cluster on the street so as to get into shot, the Rockefeller was something far more intangible than I had imagined. Before I arrived, I had understood that it was 14 different buildings but I hadn’t appreciated quite how detached they would all feel and how little opportunity there would be to consider it as a single entity entity. Just as an example, there are three conventional Manhattan towers on the western side of the Avenue of the Americas which I am sure most New Yorkers don’t think of as part of the Center but in fact are. Continue reading
It may have started with noble intentions; to halt the idea that social media somehow brought about the Arab Spring and to remind us that real protest – people in the street – actually delivered the end of regimes. However, architectural theorists, critics and writers interested in urbanism have used the events – particularly in Egypt – to make some dubious claims about the instrumental effects of urban planning. Reading them, especially in the light of the “liberal” embrace of the Egyptian army and the attacks on supporters of the democratically elected government, one is forced in turn to state that architecture and urban planning have a limited role in social upheaval, much as these writers originally wanted to point out that the major agency of the Arab Spring was not Twitter. Conversely one has to state clearly that nor was it brought about by the pedestrianisation of roundabouts.
There is something pleasantly unsettling about the Highline and it is not just the richness of the plantings in an urban context; prairie dropseed; spiked gayfeather; wild quinine; yeah whatever. It is the inversion of the usual egocentric co-ordinates of the city. Particularly in New York the rich generally look down on the poor whether that is from their penthouse or from their helicopters. On the Highline that has been inverted. On one level the Highline has provided a new attractive, hip development driver to the Chelsea district but in another way it gives something back. Continue reading