On the outside, looking in

Jonathan Sergison

I am often reminded that the most profound critics of the architecture of the United Kingdom were outsiders who were capable of accurately commenting on what they could see, and interpret it without the burden of familiarity and habit. I think of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s fascination with the industrial buildings he encountered in the north of England, or Hermann Muthesius’s extraordinary cataloguing of English country houses and the three volumes he produced (first published in 1904-05) that attempt to order and offer an understanding of the ideas he was so evidently inspired by. It is arguably his work that exposed this aspect of English architecture to wider appreciation.

The list can be expanded by including Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s somewhat personal account of the urban character of London in his book, ‘London, the unique city’ first published in 1934. But the most thorough and rigorous study of British architecture was undertaken by a German émigré, Nikolaus Pevsner in his ‘The buildings of England’, started in 1947 and containing 32 volumes he wrote and another five he supervised. As is the case with any guide, it is selective and reflects the interests of the author. Pevsner could be very opinionated and at times brusque in his criticism. Yet ‘The buildings of England’ series is a great work and I would argue that it was the combination of Pevsner’s erudition and scholarship combined with the liberty he enjoyed as an outsider free of cultural familiarity that make it so.

The examples I am quoting relate to the architectural culture I stem from. It is certainly possible to offer examples of outsiders documenting and interpreting the architecture of Switzerland with the same freedom, such as Sonya Hildebrand’s vast study of the work of Karl Moser or Irina Davidovici’s ‘Forms of Practice, German Swiss architecture 1980-2000’. With more thought this list could be longer and include others, Akos Moravansky and Vittorio Magnago Lampugnani among them.

Our work in practice has increasingly exposed us to the challenges of working in other cultures as outsiders. One of the first opportunities of confronting an unfamiliar context was an invitation to take part in a group exhibition of London-based practices curated by Peter Allison and Arno Ritter in Innsbruck and Bolzano in 2000. This represented an important moment in the exposure of a group of London architects who were then working on a similar set of architectural ideas and had similar positions. It would be fair to say we were not all the very best of friends, but there was a sense of commonality and mutual respect, enough to allow this collective enterprise to be undertaken.

The title of the exhibition was ‘Outside/In’, and while I cannot imagine it was visited by more than a small number of interested parties, the catalogue that was produced quickly sold out, and I understand it sold more in Switzerland than in any other country.

Nearly fifteen years later, I can reflect on the cumulative effect of such exposure for the group of architects involved in that exhibition, and on the different directions their careers have taken. Almost all have found greater opportunities to build outside the UK than in the country where they are based.

Tony Fretton has built substantially more in the Netherlands than in the UK, partly as a result of his involvement in teaching there. Florian Beigal, Philip Christou and the Architectural Research Unit they head have built a number of projects in South Korea, where they have also planned a new city, and have worked on a number of very large urban planning projects in Germany. Caruso St John have a studio in Switzerland that is nearly as big as their London one, and have certainly profited from the openness of the Swiss competition system. While they are arguably the most recognised by the English establishment – they have just completed a substantial remodelling of the Tate Britain – their work is broadly European, and seems to find particular favour in the German-speaking world.

David Adjaye has become the most truly international of the group of architects that took part in the exhibition. His work has also, arguably, adopted the greatest change in direction. The sensitive readings of place and enthusiasm for craft acquired through his exposure to the Porto architecture and a period of employment in the studio of Souto de Moura have been replaced by a truly global form of practice supported by several studios in different countries.

East are the only practice that has remained solidly London-based, producing beautiful and sensitive urban projects and remodelling the public realm. Their work is embedded in their understanding of the complex and contradictory character of the urban conditions that are unique to London. This is a noble task, a bulwark against the damage that has been inflicted upon London in the last twenty years – a period of unprecedented opportunity to build – by the lack of a coherent and robust urban plan. The general character of the public realm in London is lamentable, despite the city’s wealth and resources - as my own self-imposed exile reveals ever more clearly when I return.

There is, in my opinion, an Anglo-Saxon reluctance to invest in cities, certainly in recent history. Priority is given to individual interests, which means building with more emphasis on profit and capital return. This is something I have never understood. The act of building is, to me, too great a responsibility. Buildings consume too much energy in their making and they last considerably longer than the ‘building life’ they are commonly ascribed.

Of course this is not the whole story. There are parts of British and North American cites that are inspiring, but the tendency is to employ architects to provide a service – except when their fame becomes a marketing opportunity. This helps us understand why many of the UK’s best architects have been forced to seek opportunities in countries that are more open, or willing to support their architectural skills. An architect who has a critical approach is seen with suspicion, and anyone who combines teaching with practice is simply not taken seriously.

From the moment I was able to travel on my own, I journeyed to the south of Europe and sought exposure to the classical world. My enthusiasm for the European city and all that it contains now extends beyond my initial forays, and in many ways I feel that my life is a continuous version of the Grand Tour undertaken by the English aristocracy between the seventeenth and nineteenth century.

Invariably, my journeys are now associated with work, projects, commissions, competitions, lectures and teaching. I see this as the accidental character of my working life, but while I cannot predict the location of new projects, I welcome the opportunity to discover new places and the continuing informal education this offers.

When I travel through Switzerland, I am impressed by the incredible quality and care of the planning and urban structure of cities. This collective commitment is special and unique to this country. It is something to be proud of and stems from a socio-economic history I cannot profess to know intimately. While my encounters rarely reveal the same conditions I find in Switzerland, my journeys through Europe expose me to other kinds of qualities and characteristics that have developed through different circumstances and for different reasons.

The images that illustrate this paper are a project I undertook last year. I took at least one photograph every day, wherever I found myself, of something that captures my attention. The result is a highly edited version of my daily experience. I set myself the task of recording places that have been affected by human intervention, something which itis almost impossible to avoid in Europe. I also tried to record examples of domesticity.

In doing this, I recorded the incredible qualities of various corners of Europe, and the way in which the act of building has, over many centuries, resulted in localised building traditions, but also much invention.

We live in an age where movement is so easy that it leads to complacency. This is something I try to resist. Every week, as I travel by train from Zurich to Mendrisio, I reflect on the enormous human effort the building of the Gotthard transport infrastructure involved, and continues to require.

When we work on a project in one of the many places we work, we always start by trying to make sense of the context in which we move. As I have already noted, this does seem easier when looking at a culture that is somewhat unfamiliar, free of the conditioning of habit that impair our ability to see things clearly. This does not mean that we have a deep understanding of every situation, but we hope to be able to glean the essence of a place. We also know that we inevitably bring something of ourselves to the task, our own sensibility and intuition. This is unavoidable, and it explains why people recognise our work, as we are building upon an ever evolving set of ideas that inform and structure our work rather than applying what could be described as a method. But we are constantly reacting to the character of the places we work in. This sensitivity to place is the fundation of our working practice, and we are grateful that opportunities to build have taken us far and wide and resulted in an endless journey through the architectural cultures of Europe.

Module translation not found: LABEL_AD