Lynch Architects

'Poetry' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch

03 Mar 2008

I stated rather hubristically last week that architecture is the ‘flowering of utility into poetry’; and even asked ‘how could you teach this?’ I mean, we all studied poetry at school and poets study and copy other poets; but how come architects often study architecture without ‘reading’ other architects’ buildings and writings? I find that in design conversations architects often refer to ‘the section of the Unité’ or ‘the section of Kahn’s library’, or to ‘the plan of St Peter’s’ or ‘the un-built façade of San Lorenzo’ if we want to discuss how light falls into a space or how you might accommodate services or how you could imagine making a vast threshold or how to make a building seem taller and more statuesque than it really is. Now I could go on and suggest some clichés about rhythmic structure in poems and buildings, or stretch metaphors to breaking point an allude to the alliteration of materials, colour as sound, etc.; but all of this would just take us further away from the specific character of architectural problems and disengage us once again from the question at hand.

Carlo Scarpa, the Professor of Decoration at Venice School of Architecture addressed this head on in his 1976 lecture ‘Can Architecture be Poetry?’ which is published in The Complete Works (Elektra, 1984), remarking that ‘architecture is only sometimes poetry. You musn’t think, “I’ll produce a poetic piece of architecture”. Poetry is born of the thing in itself…’ Concluding that ‘Architecture is a very difficult language to understand’ and that we in the West have no real appreciation of Chinese architecture today, favouring the Japanese tradition instead simply because of its coincidental similarities with our contemporary aesthetic simplicity. Scarpa thinks that nonetheless poetic value ‘lies in its expression – when a thing is well expressed, its value is high.’ His own work is elaborately articulated and tectonics flower perhaps too often into embellishment. Insightful if vague, Louis Kahn’s poem for Scarpa suggests the mimetic character of ornament: ‘In the Elements/the joint inspires ornament, its celebration./The detail is the adoration of Nature.’ We know of the tectonic origins of Greek columns in timber ones, and of the vegetable ornamentation of Acanthus leaves in the orders, columns as human figures, etc., and Kahn seems to be suggesting that it is the excessive playfulness of Scarpa’s joints that recall this metamorphosis from one material to another and its memory as decoration. On a more prosaic level, Scarpa’s handrail on the bridge across to the Querini Stampalia Foundation at Venice curves in your palm like an oar, and is disengaged from the metal balustrade so that it appears to float. The ground floor seminar room regularly floods at high tide and water is kept at bay by concrete dwarf walls that make the room appear like an emptied bath. Water snakes around the garden, denying us access to the grass in the manner of a medieval cloister. Eden is implied, Michael Cadwell suggests in Strange Details (MIT, 2007), claiming that Scarpa’s proto-ecological approach springs from his religious convictions. What is clear though is that poetry is a confrontation with the directness of things that enables the raising up of haptic experiences to a state of heightened consciousness. I’ve had this sense in some fine buildings, and in Scarpa’s carefully calibrated swimming-pool library you discover once again the beauty of the world.