FAQ - Frequently Asked Questions /9


















You always seem to build the same building. Why is that. Did you have a different style when you were younger, and do you think that you will change ?


JOA have built in Britain, Continental Europe and the USA. The buildings have very different shapes. They have different uses and different costs. But they all use the same kind of Architecture. This is quite normal. If one goes to any country today one finds boxy buildings made of cement, steel and glass. An Architect who changes his style half way through his work has not found his 'voice'. An Architect who changes it more than once, as commercial firms do, is merely following fashion and has no ideas he can call his own.

I build the same building because I am interested in an 'Architecture of Mediocrity'. For to talk of a Medium, like painting or dancing and Architecture is do describe a something that mediates between extremes. This mediating is like a bridge that joins, for example that darkness of absolutely solid matter, to the brilliance of unmodulated light-energy. Both of these states exist in the Universe and in both of them we would cease to exist. The Earth is a peculiarly 'middling' kind of phenomenon, out of which has evolved the extraordinary events of culture and mentality. Mentality is the flower of the phenomenon 'Earth'. Buildings exist merely to support the phenomenon of mentality. All that has happened, when a building becomes denoted as 'Architectural', is that human beings have experienced a certain increase of what one might call mental vitality. The interesting thing about Architecture is that the conduit for this 'extra charge' is not exclusively mental, but includes the body as a fully 'aware', Being.

The 'sameness' of our buildings reflect the fact that human bodies are very similar the world over. This sameness given to JOA buildings by what I call our 'Architectural Order' . The 'differences' between our projects are, as we have said, also bodily. But their most recognisable difference should be mainly in their interior decoration (which I call Iconic Enginering).

Here we have a chicken and egg situation. Decoration was tabooed for serious architecture almost 100 years ago. But it was not tabood for the rest of mankind. So Interior Designers arose to do the job architects refused. So, today, few Architects have studied 'decoration' . The limit of their ambition is, like that of Adolf Loos, their progenitor, to use raw concrete or thinly sliced stone or timber. Most Clients would not expect to have a richly 'decorated' interior from their Architect, especially if he was 'highly reputable'.

The situation is even worse when JOA say they can design a major item of decoration that, many people might imagine, should be given to a 'major artist'. The old Royal Fine Arts Committee once advised JOA that the ceiling of the Judge Institute should be 'given' to a major Artist. They were living in another century. Major Modern Artists saw sheep in half. They do their thing in the 'off-world' laboratory-space of Art-'Galleries'. They do not paint plaster ceilings in Management Schools! JOA wired Hockney in California. He refused. He was right. He would have made a mess of it. In Texas I did it myself. But then Texas is the kind of place where a man gets a second chance. Mind you , its the 'last chance', because after Texas there is only Mexico.

Our Architecture, like all 'trabeated architecures. is akin to a powerful frame around a picture. The intellectual flower is the picture in the ceiling or the wall or the floor that our Architecture 'empowers'. Our problem is that our Clients like to pick the intellectual flowers that we grow for them over many years of labour and arrange them for themselves. They raid the nest, and like Cuckoos, lay their own egg in our carefully prepared 'frame'. It would not be so bad if the 'pictures' they painted in our frames were more intellectually fertile or iconically engaging than those we painted ourselves. But being as iconically illiterate as everyone else at the present time, they are not, or not yet. One may instance the Rotunda in Den Haag, a major urban landmark which should have had a ceiing by J.O. Instead it has a sunburst in stained glass that is modelled, as the First Tenant told me, on "something he saw in a Pub."

The emergence of an artistically illiterate 'nouveau riche' during the 19C led the Vienna School to propose an Architecture that was designed to prohibit decoration. For it is always in 'decoration' that the spirit of the 'decorator' and his client, is unfailingly revealed. Their attitude to this newly literate mass public, and the entrepreneurs and politicians that served it, is recorded in the immortal worlds of Karl Kraus who said:

"If anyone has anything to say, please step forward and remain silent".

I reject this strategy. It is true that many people remain unread. But that is surely a very good reason for installing ideas into Architecture. it would encorage people to see that ideas, and expecially very abstract, metaphysical ideas, can be of direct utility in impoving the human lifespace.

So, notwithstanding the role of the body in Architecture, it remains a fact that the most concentrated mental communion that Architecture can have with us is through 'decoration'. In order to avoid the immense philosophical confusion that surrounds the subject of 'Art', I prefer to call decoration Iconic Engineering. In this I share the same attitude to it as the 'imagineers' of Disney and the Casino-designers of Vegas. The difference is that while in Vegas to be original is to have merely failed to find the right style for the job, with JOA to be original is to escape from the idiocy of 'period style 'itself. We both agree that decoration is important. In Vegas it is designed to arrest thought by being instantly nameable (all columns are Roman or Egyptian, all Boulevards Parisian and all Ceilings either blue skies with fluffy clouds or the 'stars at night'. With JOA decoration designed to provoke thought by eluding facile pigeonholing.

I have no problem being compared to Vegas. In 1997 JOA won a competition to plan £M500 of work, which we successfully took up to a successful two-hour presentation to English Heritage. Six months later, after visiting Vegas, JOA resigned. In Vegas the whole city is made of silicone-rendered polystyrene. It is built by Global Mega-contractors, like Bovis, who JOA worked with in the 1980's City of London boom. It is created by Showmen, Illustrators and Film-set Designers. Architects no longer exist in Vegas. Or if they do they are merely Project Managers, sandwiched between 'style by the yard' Theming Designers on both inside and outside. Vegas, it is said, is the fastest growing city in the USA and there are many 'Critics' who regard it as the blueprint of our urban future, what little there will be of it between the out of town 'centres'.

Most people in the commercial side of the development and building industry regard America as the blueprint of the 'Western' future, perhaps even the Global one. Architecture, if it is to survive as an intellectual medium, has to measure itself against this fact. It pleases me that my most important building is in the USA. For it was after experiencing the destruction of the American City, in 1953, that I decided to become an Architect. It was said that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. The Cold War was won on the Real Estate of the USA. For it is the unremitting real estate development 'churn' of the late 20C USA that underpins its whole massive economy and the tax revenue which paid for Uncle Sam's steady rise to superpower status.

The question for Architecture is the basic question faced by the USA. It is whether, now that Communism has gone down before this unique culture, the USA has the will to take stock of the ruin that its cities have become and rebuild them as places where they can get back inside their bodies, and, along the way, rebuild their society as a 'body politick' in which it is safe and pleasant to walk amongst strangers on a hot night? 


End of FAQ No. 9: "Sameness",

Return to "The List of FAQ's"".  


* JOA can be reached by E-Mail at anthony@johnoutram.com , by telephone on +44 (0)207 262 4862 or by fax on +44 (0)207 706 3804. We also have an ISDN number : +44 (0)207 262 6294.




John Outram