'Fehn' in: The Architects' Journal by Patrick Lynch
It’s heartening to see that such responsibly humanist architects as Correa, Zumthor, Pinos and Kuma, were recently being discussed as worthy of the Pritzker Prize. Carmé Pinos is one of my favourite architects, and her boarding school in Andalusia compares well with her late husband’s solo projects, making us question the idea that he was the talent in their partnership. Zumthor turned it down, and Nouvel won of course. I must confess to being a fan of Nouvel’s early projects, with the caveat that it is a bit like admitting to having a nostalgic soft spot for Simply Red. I mean, his rusty-barn Corten hotel is the equivalent of a good soul cover version, i.e. clearly money was too tight to mention on this job, ditto the Novalis housing. It all goes Pete Tong, as the Cockneys say, when the budget is no longer an issue and ‘production values’ take over. The Institut Du Monde Arab is one of the best ideas for a building ever, but the electrical ‘solar-iris-screens’ were already broken when I visited eighteen years ago and the famous view of Notre Dame is from a dank light well. Nouvel’s big idea is that ‘we invented electricity in the 20th century and modern architecture should express this’, and so his opera house at Lyon looks great at night but in the daylight, is a bit, well, plump. But then, like many architects, he has decided to concentrate upon being good at one thing, and to ignore the rest. Although electric lighting sounds like a very 20th century idea now doesn’t it?
Perhaps this is why, despite being Pritzker winners, neither Siza nor Fehn has yet won the RIBA Gold Medal? Both are teachers and artists, combining child-like curiosity with masterful economy of line and cool critical nouse. Both make great plans that seem to tell you where to enter and where to go, and their buildings oscillate between typology and abstraction, between recognizable language and formal liberation, between figuration and play. Their work embodies the twin aspects of what Gaston Bachelard describes in the Poetics of Space as ‘The Formal Imagination’ and ‘The Material imagination’. Architecture requires us to engage both parts of our brains, although often one aspect dominates the other. Learning to do architecture should engage both, but not everyone can balance each, and attempting to do so is often seen as a weakness rather than an essential ability for an architect. Perhaps this is why Fehn and Siza are less fashionable than recent Gold Medallists? They’re much harder to emulate: others you can copy. In reconciling poetic force, pragmatic application and philosophical scrutiny they are able to make beautiful useful architecture, combining the contradictions that often enrage the modern mind into the complex personae of an architect.
You know how I feel about Signor Siza, but perhaps Fehn should win? His architecture appears wonderfully caught between artifice and husbandry, theatre and ancient rite, modern poetry and folk music. His cowshed-like Hedmark Cathedral museum corkscrews and ramps through a stone barn like a running child; his houses tread a thin line between dream imagery and ecological purity; and the magical Fjaerland museum is a concrete glacier through which light falls like ice. You pass up from under to over the building, from the earth towards the sky.