Rotunda Ceiling design


This the state of my ceiling design at the stage when the project to 'complete' the Rotunda interior was abandoned.

I have hesitated, for many months, to unveil it, for there is a huge difference between a completed design and the actual painting that is built. I could illustrate this by showing the stages through which the Rice ceiling passed, and the improvements made by the Client Committee. The wonderful thing about working with American Clients are that they not only feel free to participate in artistic decisions, but are actually competent to do so.

There is a long process of iconic 'sharpening' to be done on this design. But it needs to be shown for its story. When I have the energy I may delve into its iconography. Suffice to say, here, that, because it was in the Netherlands I put Man at its centre, whereas in Texas, I put the Big Bang.

JOA had been working, for 20 years, on the problem of how to restore intellectual discursiveness to Architecture through the direct inscription of iconically engineered surfaces. The Shaper Ceiling, in Houston, had been in existence since August 1986, that is for four years, by the time the Groenmarkt ceiling was abandoned. Needless to say no European Client (except one) has ever flown over to Texas to see itsee it.

My proposal using proven 'Rice' technology, would have cost an extra-over (on the plasterboard dome) of £38,000. The Tenant, one of the most successful mass-market clothing firms In the Netherlands spent £250,000 erecting a new building inside the rotunda. He put up a ring of thin steel columns and then a heavy stained glass dome. He was unable to light this from above, at night, as planned, because MAB's Project Manager, against every precedent in JOA's work, had built solid concrete walls across the interior of the Service Columns. The Structural Engineer explained this as the tendency of the Dutch, ever since the Post-War Housing programme, to build everything of precast concrete. By filling-up most of the Service duct MAB prevented their tenant from climbing up the columns, as they can in the Judge Institute, a mere 50-minute plane ride over in Cambridge - a trip no one from MAB ever took - to access the false ceiling void.

As the Tenant explained to me, "I always do a stained glass round thing in my shops. I first saw it in a Pub". His chain of clothing stores are called "The Sting" -after the film. Apart from the stained glass 'round thing', he paints the interiors cream and has scrubbed wood plank floors - very much like the Royal Opera House in London, or the Tate Modern. Compared to them Sting's interior is slightly less 'dumbed down' as, apart from the 'Ecstasy' colour-bomb 'pub ornament' he does his handrailing 'cowpoke style' in turned wooden balusters.

I found it ironic that his twin inspirations were Britain and the American West, a recipe which had produced my Shaper Ceiling. Who says the soul of Europe is dead?

Whereas the exterior of our Groenmarkt Project is everything that I could desire, and has been the source of pleasure and one day, when iconic literacy revives in architecture and city design, intellectual reward to thousands, the interior is now a 100% travesty of our ambitions for these same subjects. Events like this interior can destroy more than they create -especially amongst people of taste. For they prove to these sensitive (and influential) souls that Karl Kraus was right when he said "If anyone has anything to say, please step forward and remain silent". What can one say concerning the 'dumbed-down' interiors of the Minimalists when a great City-Planning bureaucracy of a city like Den Haag, and a Client as civilised as Anton Meijer, build a beautiful and cultured thung like our Groenmarkt buildings, 'privatising' as they did, the site of a 'beton brut' Public Building and a monument to a hero of the Resistance (in bent wire) and allow its 'Temple' to be crowned with such intellectual crassness?

Anton Meijer, the Chairman of MAB said, when it was already too late to act, "Well, in fact, we could have done the ceiling. The Tenant would simply accept it as a mosaic ceiling from an existing building".

I think he voiced a solution to the problem of the 'Centro Citta'.

In the USA the old cities have simply been erased during the late 20C "cold war tax revenue economic churn". In Europe, out of some sense of desperation, the 'old centres' have been preserved - no one really quite knows why. I was invited to Pescara, a city on the other side of Italy from Rome. Pescara had a huge railway complex in its midst, around which it had grown. Then, after the War, it was removed. Pescara had a great opportunity to build. A huge site had opened in its very centre. But Pescara was not pleased. In fact it was in agony. Being a self-respecting Italian city of more than moderate size, but rather young in years, it felt a terrible void at the centre of its being. It had no 'centro citta'. Here it was, in the 1980's, bemoaning its extreme lack of a useless collection of antiquated old ruins blazoned with the quarterings of long-bankrupt Aristos!

In Europe, now, we have two lifespaces - the new one of 'economic churn', out on the freeways, where everything is grist to the Taxman's mill, - and the old one, preserved in the Old Centres.

It is as if, with the 19C railways and the trams and the Metros, the rich upped and left their palaces, their cafes, theatres and expensive shops. In Den Haag the Cathedral is shut down and become a 'room-to-rent'. The Town Hall has been sold and rebuilt as a faceless white sheet metal 'consumer durable'. Like a returning tide, the poor, in the 20C, came flooding in, wandering around Palaces converted into Department Stores and Cinemas built to look like Palaces. The New Consumer Cohort, Mr. and Mrs. Ordinaryman, paid their entry fee and gazed in amazement and misapprehension at all the marble and gold. Then, in the 1950's, they were followed by their Kids. Today no one is seen in Oxford Street, London's Mainstreet, over the age of forty. The Cities of Europe have become 'dating-spaces'. My Temple in the Groenmarkt has become one of their 'monuments'. It sells that peculiar uniform that the young like to wear, half grunge and half combat gear cum jungle survival kit.

I actually have no problem with that. Youth turns into old age, anyway. They might get some style one day. My argument is about the Architecture of the 'Centro Citta'.

Everyone, today, is very unsure as to what it should be. I am quite sure what we should be building.

I regard the departure of the 'power elite' from the Centro Citta as, on the whole, a good thing. It is true that they built Palaces and Opera Houses and so on. But what of the interiors of these Monuments? Their exteriors were disciplined by the rules of propriety invented by Alberti. They did the job he prescribed for them, and have left us with Cities which, looked-at from the outside, most people love and admire (but do not understand). When we go inside them we are amazed at their luxury, all that gold and marble, but depressed by their infantilism. All those Kings and Dukes and Prelates being carried up into Heaven -'apotheosis' is the polite word - by bevies of fat pink girls demurely wreathed in clouds! Yet these interiors can be wonderfully discursive. The best of them bring to life the undying mysteries of the Hellenic Myths that continue to be used by those who seek to look into the depths.

What we should be building is a 'straight-line' extension of the best of 'Western Urbanity'. We should be making it better where it is weak and using its strengths where it is strong. It is weakest in its attitude to Science, that is to say in portraying Truths, as understood today. The 'Centro Citta' should be built, and continue to be built, as a complex of 'monuments'. Adolf Loos was flying 180 degrees off-course here - a sure way to crash and burn - as his generation did - into the unforseen storms of a mass-media culture from which the rich and cultured deliberately absented themselves. All buildings, including the most modest, like a row of inexpensive workshops, ought to be 'monuments'. That is what Modernity means - that all constructs, even the most banal, tap into the 'high culture'. See JOA's recent 'Welbeck' project and our 1986'Isle of Dogs Overflow Foul Water Pumping Station'. But to do this all buildings have to be 'exemplary', that is to say examples of a generalised medium - which can only be called 'The Culture' - to which they refer and with which they 'converse'. Linguistically all 'monumentalised' buildings are 'paroles' in the total 'langue' of the Human Lifespace as 'understood'.

To say that this strategy is unfashionable is to understate it. 20C Architecture began by cutting all of its links to any other medium. It attempted autonomy and achieved lobotomy. Now every project has to begin at ground zero and stand on its own feet. From flying off in the wrong direction the craft, now, does not fly at all. Avant Garde Architecture today goes from chaotic construction shop to smoking (deconstructed) wreck without the intervening pleasure of lift-off. Not only that but the Designer is careful to burn the drawings, and forget his 'deliberately inconsequential' formulae, in order to increase the 'unheimlich' (unhomely) air of mystery and unease that this Generation sees as its chief addition to the long history of Human lifespace-making. Ironically, they see it as mimicking 'the best of the old'. By this they mean the 'picturesque' old cities of Italy (cf. Eisenmann).

Right place - wrong History - the Italian Mediaevo-Humanist City is the cleverest, most cunning, Urbane strategy ever conceived - see "Alberti's Golden Bomb" . Modernity has to improve on it, not show how feeble-minded it is by comparison.

The Central City is, in a very precise sense, the 'People's P(a)lace'. They own it today. But why should the same Albertian strategy not be applied to 'the People' as was applied to the Bankers, Bishops and Princes of the past? Alberti argued that there would always be people who aimed for self-aggrandisement and power. This was the engine that fuels Architecture. The purpose of his 'Architectural Culture' was to use this energy to 'install philosophy'- as Mark Jarzombek describes it - "by stealth". Why should 'the People' be exempted? Does one believe that they are capable of 'naturally' exuding 'philosophy', like sweat from discos? Is it not the 'mysterious' urbanity of the 'old city centres' that they appreciate?. Why were they 'educated' anyway, and what for? Was it just to make them more capable Factory-Workers and more hungry Consumers? Why should not The People enjoy the same, or better, standards of lifespace culture as The Court. Do we think that a person living in 2000 is less capable of engaging with an iconically scripted surface than one who lived in 1700? Are we not, by light-years, the most icon-rich, information rich, culture in History?

In Duncan Hall, and indeed the whole of Rice Campus, the Governing Board sees its role as precisely Albertian. It requires every project, whatever it is, and whoever it is for, and whoever paid for it, to struggle be an authentic and worthy 'utterance': both keeping the 'Medium' of their Campus Lifespace alive by rehearsing it, and giving it further life by its wit, erudition, and novelty.

This seems easier to do in the USA than in Europe - and I include Britain. Europe remains very hesitant and unsure. The 'high culture' dissimultes itself at every turn most especially in Public - going very white at the gills. It is afraid to reveal itself, contemptuous of the Pop culture of the Image, and entirely pessimistic of breeding healthily between the two genealogies. In Europe the Past is a beautiful corpse and Modernity a (high-tech) confection of Dr. Frankenstein. The Text and the Image seem not to lust after each other as they do in the good old USA. They should try a course of photolithic trabeation, it works wonders with the mating urge.

The Groenmarkt took five years from briefing to opening. Most of that time was spent in the extended planning process that keeps European towns from being erased by the same forces that have destroyed the American lifespace. Yet, time after time, with depressing regularity, the ultimate achievement of JOA's work, the crowning statement of Architecture as a high-culture Medium (that is at the same time public and popular) is thwarted and denied.

It has become very obvious, that without the USA, JOA's 'project', which is, as we said at the beginning, to bring a discursive intellectuality to the human lifespace by the inscription of iconically sophisticated surfaces, would have never succeeded. Hard though it is, after struggling unsuccessfully in Europe, for 30 years, to see this place ever believing in the possibility of a real marriage between Pop and High culture - producing real, Mainstream, novelties, one goes on trying. What else is there to do - except work in the USA - oh! if only!


"Groenmarkt" Development for MAB at den Haag (the Hague) in the Netherlands.