THE BIRDWHISTLE PRIZE IN NONFICTION 2016
THE BUILDING WITHOUT ORGANS
On January 26 1962, the brightly hardened and aluminium body of the Ranger 3 probe was launched from its base at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in order to conduct a prolonged analysis of the earth’s single natural satellite – the moon. It would eventually miss its target by little more than 22,000 miles. In doing so, Ranger 3 became an object defined by the conditions of its own failure; by missing its target, in straying wildly off course, it explored further, and more deeply, than it would have done had it circled only the moon’s sunless, unbroken lozenge. The Ranger 3 – as a failed technology – seems somehow better because of its failure, in having escaped the technical programme it was designed to complete. A spiral that bends into its own centre, and vanishes without a sound.
That same year, Finnish architect Sverre Fehn worked fixedly toward the completion of his so-called Nordic Pavilion, a building intended to represent the three nations of Finland, Sweden and Norway at the 1962 Venice Biennale. The structure – an austere grey and glass complex of overlapping plains and strongly horizontal, load-bearing bars – was unexpected in the logic and intensity of its exposure; the building appears unfinished, only partially realised amidst the bare, winter branches which grow against, and within, its frame. It looks like an unfinished thing, a Spanish holiday villa after the builders have set down their tools and walked into the rarefied air.
Sverre Fehn – in this picture – is placing his finger exactly at the termination of the granite-seeming haft of his pencil. The roll of architect’s drawing paper – unsteadied by his elbow, so that it might roll away – sits to his right, while behind his body is a lazily washed surface of blackboard. Buildings have been put there, intended there, and washed away. Bits of them remain; grains, smears, a confluence of barely recognizable lines which dirge and peel like a willow branch trailing in water. Enough actually.
A key feature of the Nordic Pavilion is the exposed framework of concrete lintels which overarch a plain, flat courtyard of dusty looking stones. The frame has many openings, in the sense that the ‘roof’ actually produces its own failure; it is penetrated by its own design. A non-roof. Should it rain, you will get wet just by standing here. Look how many people – long, dressy, black coats – stand beneath or next to or around the tree. A maypole and the dancers are – missing. Presumed.
in fact, the bough’s charcoaled branches pass through the aperture – that series of finned, softly blushed stone lintels – referencing the somewhat scuffed black surfaces of the tiles which span the building, circling its feet. There are – in its photos – narrow, chalky lines which separate each tile from the other by a matter of centimetres. Their edges are like the white of sand beaches which cling to deserts, and then mountains. Unknown country. How to make an edge not an edge, a boundary which undermines its own expression.
who says a building – its ‘envelope’, the visible exterior – has to contain or be contained, or must keep its guts firmly pressed inside itself, removed from the eye which passes along, and dreamily penetrates, the skin of a building only to scud off it because of sheer, gossamer plastic, hard board, tersa. The building as a tensed skin wrapped around an enclosure. Why are buildings always contained and glossy – why do things have to be so pretending at their own coherence? Buildings emerge out of structurally messy, gross-smelling, awful technological and manual processes of engagement. Buildings sort of swell out of dust and debris and murder, however small the scale, no matter how inanimate the victim. The Nordic Pavilion is exciting because it gestures at a design which is inherently incomplete, and was made to be that way – muscled up out of raw material and shaped into a thing which toils and wavers at the edge of being one thing or another, but never a whole ‘Completed’, capped-off project. But it also is finished. Sverre Fehn says it is finished. Just, don’t argue with him.
I slept on a balcony, a terrace, because the rooms were too warm. The sun was rising over a half-finished car-park. The muezzin began. I sat up, opened a can of warmed-up ice coffee from the day before, and lit a cigarette. The sky was a very trembling and hazily blushed colour. Across the road, an unfinished carpark had a void at its centre. Staves of rebar and steel pins shied up into the sky. A pair of guys were hoofing around in the dust. Technically, I thought, you could still park a fucking car in that. Hundreds. It is technically a carpark. It is still, despite that, a kind of half-made corpse. The body needless of organs. The body stuffed with emptiness which gestures at its ability to proceed as an empty thing. Later, we will stay up dancing and find our way to a bar which has an aquatic theme. There is one bar-man and a woman in dressed-down leather. There are fish-tanks in the walls, but only half of them are whirring. Something stirs, in all that milk.
The building without organs is a surface which is penetrated at every location, in every component, and still refuses to collapse for failing to meet its essential needs. It excites in its own partial dismemberment. It is a building which speaks about buildings. Just as, say, the Centre Pompidou – with its guts flashing on the outside – is a building which screams its own pan-existence as a thing which can be incomplete and complete in the same, fluid movement. Such things shake up your world. They alter disciplines. Sverre Fehn probably thought it didn’t need a driveway, or those things which reproduce the family. Or …
An architecture which isn’t closed, but is an archipelago – an unfinished, nearly pointless expression into deep black, crushed paper – and so is perhaps more capable of commenting on the conditions which render buildings ‘built’ or – that weird crutch word – complete. I’ve said this already.
So what were you doing, in Morocco? I can almost picture you there, in 1952 or 1953. The sun is spitted by its own light. You lean against drystone, a brushed wall, and it is so cool to the touch that you open your mouth slightly, in surprise. Cedar trees and palms and clumps of dry-brush line the boulevard. The building is a squat thing which somehow remains light, airy. A wooden shutter is opened, and you gain a momentary glance into a shaded, blue and white tiled floor. A curtain moves, and then does not move. The head of a tree rises up from within a courtyard. You think it must be good to sit there, beneath it.
I get now how your Hedmark Museum looks like a giant bird, its feathers and skin washed away, its organs removed, hunched over a ruined stone chapel. I get how these are both doing the same thing – a building which is incompletely complete. A building which works despite not seeming to. I remember seeing a building put up, near London Bridge, and the frame was ruined by the cladding which eventually ran it back into its coffin.
When you won the competition to build the pavilion in 1959, Gotthard Johansson wrote of the plan’s “stunning simplicity”, a building “without too many architectural overtones”. What does that mean, exactly? Like, a building which isn’t being too Architectural, paired down to its constructive, formal basics? But still, it is a complicated building. It poses a lot more questions than it answers or seems to desire to answer. The ‘slender’ concrete lamellae were pigmented, in order to glow slightly. He refused to create a closed space – instead, it remained open, literally. Those black-seeming trees which grow in its heart, and pierce the building without, I guess, actually touching it.
More than anything I want to visit Fehn’s pavilion on the Venice campus. I just typed out an email to my girlfriend – we’re going to Venice in one week, passing through, and it occurred to me that we could actually see this thing. I used a lot of exclamation marks.
‘the orchestration of space by assemblage is different to that of contextually grafting —and thereby crafting from, and into—a new environment’
– James Taylor-Foster, 2016
Fehn’s building is not a series of segregated elements, articulated within a particular location, but rather a complex, nuanced, and sustained gesture which arranges itself through accumulation and organisation. Its incompleteness – the penetrated roof, the removed curtain walls, the unfinished surfaces and plain materials – belie the fact that it forms a single, continuous gesture within the site’s complex topography. Its locale.
Later I would read about Fehn, how his trip to Morocco was one of the primary sources of inspiration for his pavilion a venice. He said –
‘You suddenly feel as if the walls are not simply to bear a roof or make a house, but at one moment made to provide shade from the sun, the next to be support for your back, in the autumn a rack to dry dates on and in the spring a blackboard for the children to draw on. It is the same with the roof and the floor. The different parts of the whole house are regarded as domestic furnishings’
-Christian Norberg-Schulz and Gennaro Postiglione, Sverre Fehn: Works, Projects, Writings, 1949 – 1996. Monacelli Press, 1997, p. 22
Strange congruence between what I’d guessed he’d thought and what he’d actually thought. In a way it’s obvious. That’s what the building does; it is a building/body-without-organs, a surface which is both empty egg and stuffed, dynamic machine, and therefore gestures easily, though loudly, toward the interpretive process. It is obvious because it is aware of and expressing its own reproduction, a thing that is simultaneously moving and still, present and absent.
The building without organs is not a coherent, slippery surface – not a vibrant, impenetrable fruit – but rather an inherently open and dynamic form which – by the fact of its own incompletion, of its own permissability of ‘is it, isn’t it’ – causes us to think more carefully, more sharply, about what we might use or not use architectural space for. It disturbs those categories of spatial and social organization which become so intertwined; the living room for the reproduction of the family; the bedroom for fucking; the kitchen as the mouth; the bathroom as its anus. By removing these organs entirely, yet keeping the promise of a half-contained shape, the building – which can be walked into, can be ‘used’ as a building, because it has been built – forces the body and the mind suspended within that body to dissolve those highly pressurised ideas about social form and social space. The building becomes, perilously, and excitingly, anything, open to the jagged, writhing possibilities of wild interpretation that are enabled by an architectural space which defies conventional arrangements and hierarchies while remaining, in the same breath, inherently and still a built thing.
An architecture, an … or, an architecture toward , towards –