'Arch-Anima' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch
There are some writings by architects – including Aalto, Corb and St John Wilson, who feel the need to share their experiences and inspiration and struggles with us. Vain, glorious suffering is part of the job description of course, with a heady dose of self-justifying hubris and sometimes a shot of irony to leaven the pomposity if, which is rare, an architect has a sense of humour. Siza laments, in ‘Living in a House’, that it is always breaking and needs constant fixing - you’re a ‘martyr’ to it - and you get the sense that the ‘house’ is an analogy for architecture itself. There are strong traces of The Messiah complex in most architects, and this comes across as a need to help others, even if clients don’t always know at first what they want or need. Sandy Wilson prefaced Architectural Reflections (Basil Blackwell, 1992) with Aristotle’s view that the pursuit of goodness and truth entails distinguishing between ‘appetites’ and ‘need,’ and Wilson implies that good architecture resolves the conflict between them. We are taught that good design unites necessity and desire, making a pleasurable synthesis that approaches an ideal of goodness, and good practice is often confused with spiritual or moral values. Aristotle is clear that whilst we might desire ideals, ethics are based upon ‘practical wisdom’ and an ethical pursuit like architecture is thus neither science nor art. Ethics derives from ethos, a way of life, and so presumably architecture does too.
A malign version of this ‘need to help’ can be seen in twentieth century attitudes towards housing. Modernist housing liberated us from front door steps and gossip and dirt, providing instead fresh air, deck access, distant views and sunlight. ‘New typologies’, as Peter Smithosn said, that ‘people need time to get used to.’
The origin of this audacity lies in part with Le Corbusier of course, and Flora Samuel’s research teases out his complicated relationships with his home life, noting that when he was at RIBA to receive the Gold Medal his mother insisted on telling surprised journalists what a good and clever boy his brother was. My old friend Tim Bell wrote an M-Phil at Cambridge about ‘Corbu: La Mere et Le Mer’ which put forward the premise that his drowning off Cap Martin shortly after the death of his mother wasn’t a coincidence. When I asked Tim what any of this had to do with architecture, he replied laughing, swigging from his pint, ‘I’m not so sure, but that was exactly the question that my supervisor Joseph Rykwert asked too, and I couldn’t really answer him either.’ Samuel writes wonderfully about the way Corb’s mother Marie is venerated in both the stained glass and the spaces at Ronchamp. The door by the revolving statue of Mary is opened by grasping an hourglass shaped handle, and a mussel shell is embedded in the concrete in homage to Venus, intimating that outdoor worship transforms the Christian chapel into a much older form of devotion to feminine nature.
Sarah Menin’s research has led her to conclude that Aalto’s early loss of his mother threw the boy onto the consolation of forests, where he played alone whilst his father worked as a forester, and in later life he confessed that he preferred to specify timber for interiors because ‘The origin of materia, is mater’, and that wood ‘is most like human fibre’. This is so achingly affecting that I cannot help feeling for the grieving boy Alvar talking to the trees, trying to make them talk back to us.