ISSUE 05_HOW TO TALK DIRTY WITHOUT FEELING RIDICULOUS _BY SIMON GLAISTER _SUBJECTS_ #TALKDIRTYTOME #LECORBUSIER DEAR ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL... _Its hard to go past Corbu when it comes to laconic quotes: “Architecture or Revolution!”(1) he once said in 1922. It’s been said so many times since I’m not sure anyone knows what it means anymore - you repeat the same word over and over and over again and the gap between the sound and its meaning is stretched to braking point - like chewing gum with all its flavour sucked out. The word becomes dirty. If Aristotle was here he would say we had stripped the accidents from the object, the taste from the gum if you know what I mean. But he’s not. Which is just as well because it seems to me that at some point in the last 2300 years newness and essence have gone into business together in way he would find hard to understand and that we have become so accustomed to its almost impossible to see. Simply stated: For us used gum is dirty. Yuck. Chewed gum! But for Aristotle it’s the flavour that’s unclean. Chewed gum is pure gum, and purity is good. The rhetoric of modern architecture is pervaded by purity. And, just like Corbu, it is pithy, brief, terse and succinct, with no room for contradiction. Its history is one of too two many unqualified statements; ‘less is more’; ‘machines for living’; ‘form follows function’; ‘be good not original’; ‘ornament and crime’; and of course, ‘architecture or revolution’. But if purity can wander so nomadically across our psycho-geographic landscape, all the way from used gum to new gum, even over thousands of years, then perhaps it’s not purity that matters so much, as what it is not. Dirt. It’s the inherent contradiction of the world that makes it beautiful; the mixing and merging of otherwise historically created categories that is interesting, meaningful and productive, rather than their supposed autonomy. Alberti likened architecture to music, while Shakespeare thought music and poetry more similar than different. So, I feel confident Aristotle would not oppose my contention that buildings and prose might bear some correlation (2). Take this quote from Hone Tuwhare for instance: “Kia Ora Begorrah Amen!” (3) A Maori phrase rhyming with Irish slang, itself the corruption of a Germanic Old-English contraction, followed by a word that has travelled into the Queen’s English via Latin via Greek via Hebrew. Such as it is, there is no other place on earth where this arrangement of sounds could make sense, and even here, they feel so loosely tethered we hardly need chew it more than once to send them into mild disarray. Like architecture it has many sources, is site specific, and culturally discursive. Both are fortifications and archaeologies of knowledge, have syntax and grammar, changing meaning over time, and the same, ambiguous, menage-e-trios of function, appearance, and authorship. Tuwhare penned this rather wonderful passage as part of his short story ‘Don’t walk past me with your nose in the air’ (4) in 1990. 41 years earlier New Zealand’s first Labour government completed the Symonds Street Flats, the last in a series of 13 Modernist inner-city apartment blocks built in Wellington and Auckland as part of a radical policy of urban renewal (5) . These buildings are of a different time, format, purpose and intension than Tuwhare’s story which the makes it all the more weird to discover that, beyond the abstract similarities between architecture and prose already discussed, they share the same Germanic-English-Irish-Maori-Latin-Greek-Hebrew heritage. The Symonds Street Flats were designed by Fred Newman, who was previously Frederick Hugh Newman, who was previously Fredrik Ugo N’yuman, who was originally Fredrich Hugo Neumann. Born in Vienna in 1900 to the Jewish Austrian painter Hedwig Pilsing and Jewish architect Alexander Neumann, Fredrich was part of the last generation to be raised by parents of Imperial era Vienna. Although Modern architecture found a sure foothold in the city around the fin-desiècle Alexander’s work “reinforced traditional values receiving commissions from the establishment: banks, homes, and offices for the wealthy Viennese bourgeoisie” (6). Following neither the Session nor the anti-Sessionist trajectories he was admitted to the Order of Franz Joseph in 1913 in recognition of his contribution to Imperial culture. While Frederick would follow a different path, his journey ‘towards a new architecture’ (7) , through functionalism, international modernism, and later civil engineering – all of which would inform the Symonds Street Flats – begins with the conservative values he inherited from his father that, while somewhat stretched, chewed and perhaps purified (depending on how you look at it…) never left him. Such conservative values are keenly expressed in his essay ‘A Moral Approach to Social Order’ (8) written in 1944. While the essay starts out plainly enough: “Spiritual leadership and power, which once were the main dynamic forces on earth have been gradually replaced by other forms of power derived through the accumulation of wealth”(9) , going on to align itself with the leftist utopian belief in the power of architecture as an instrument of social reform, its focus of morals and order rather than emancipation and equality give its utilitarian accounting a slightly more than terrifying totalitarian flavour: “Z is considered unfit to administer the key industries under his control. In review of his previous convictions and seriousness of this current infringement Z is convicted to three years imprisonment and a 20,000 pound fine…”(10). None of which is terribly surprising considering the 5 plus years Fredrik and his wife spent in the USSR from 1932-37. During this time Fredrik designed a number of major municipal buildings before leaving Moscow disillusioned by the Soviets state’s shift from ‘the ideology of work’ to the more ambiguous idea of ‘the socialist man’(11). Nevertheless, Nueman’s reframing of the belief in the transformative power of architecture from the revolutionary, developed by Tchrenikov, Tatlin, and Liszitsy, to the reformist, touted by Stalin and Corbusier, was complete. The Neumann’s would hardly have time to unpack before the expanding boarders of Germany set his family, now with young Maria and Fredericks’s parents in tow, off again on their Journey to New Zealand via Bogota, Paris, and London. Arriving in New Zealand, January 1939, only three months after Labour’s historic second term win, Frederick accepted a drafting position in the Department of Housing Construction (DHC). The new Labor government had taken power from a right wing coalition in 1935. The key election issue at the time was housing, an ongoing problem that had begun in the largely Irish slums of Auckland, Wellington, and Dunedin but had, since the end of the 1st world war, become a nationwide perennial crisis. Yet, it was not until 1936 that the Government established the DHC and as if making up for lost time, Labour soon announced it would build 5000 homes before the end of the year at a cost of 3000,000 pounds (12). Amid much fanfare and celebration, Labour’s first state house was opened in Miramar, Wellington, in September 1936 by the Prime Minister Michael Savage. However, despite the government’s best efforts housing supply could not match demand as New Zealand’s economy boomed for the first time since the depression. People were having more sex, raising babies and expectations. The situation worsened in 1941 when building stopped all together as resources were diverted to the war effort. Construction would not begin again in late 1944 by which time there were 26,000 families on the state housing waiting list. A number that would grow as servicemen continued to return home throughout 1945. Even young middle class kiwis now found themselves desperately homeless. Labour’s controversial answer was not just the continued expansion of the exurban suburbs but a proposal to ‘go up, as well as out’. (13). Public reaction to this new policy was scandalous. Labour’s aggressive and successful housing scheme, in conjunction with the pre and post-war economic booms had produced a nation of zombies succumbed to the phantasmagoria of suburban consumption within which extreme gender roles were more normalized than ever, and artificial minty freshness was the bench mark of perfection. Flats were not only “dirty” (14), “unsuitable for procreation” (15) and “the good psychology of children” (16) but they “afforded more freedoms to the many people who [had] interests other than gardening and babies” (17). From today’s perspective the implied consideration for the ‘many people’ who choose not to marry, are solo parents, working mothers, gay couples, single men and a women etc. seems like an obvious and admirable sign of early social progress, but in the early 1940s even indirect appeal to anything other than the nuclear family was a political time bomb, and, so it goes, Labour was to lose the 1949 election on the same ticket that put them in power 15 years earlier; public housing. [Thus began a new era of centre-right flavoured bipartisan politics responsible for the slow shift in rhetoric from socialism to welfare, and the accompanying invention of the deserving and undeserving poor who would, in the intervening years between then and now, magically exchange places without ever leaving home]. However, back in 1947, growing fears that the duel problems of continued suburban sprawl and densification of inner city slums would cause a brake-down in the food supply and pandemic disease respectively, the Ministry of Works was formed through merger of the Public Works Department and the DHC in the hope that housing and infrastructure, alongside the Department of Health, could work together to avoid what was shaping up in the minds of some to be a looming apocalypse. A naturalised New Zealander Fred Neumann had worked on the Maraetai, Whakamaru, and Roxburgh Dams, all of which were now taking shape. As a socialist architect the particular forms of these dams had a powerful effect on Fred, one that he was keen to share, reflecting in 1959 “The national importance of these large structures must, I repeat, must, find architectural expression. It is imperative that these structures become cultural assets because they are part of our social life. The production of Power, precisely because that is their purpose, is not all that matters” (18). He saw in the Maraetie scheme an “amazing likeness to the 10th century monasteries of Greece” (19), while the transformer platform and penstocks “inscribed with the lines of scaffolding and incompletion [reminded him of the] fantastic perspectives of Piranesi” (20). While these latter allusions would be dismantled as the dams were completed it is not hard to imagine that Fred would continue to see them at work beneath their gently curving surface; the history, culture, and life within it. So it is that the long shadow of this far too long preamble is cast across continents, nations, revolutions, genocides, wars, depressions, capitalism, engineering, modernity, suburbia, hydropower, utopia, apocalypse, procreation, desperation, gender politics, and housing to the wonderfully curved façade of the Symonds Street Flats; A dam of course. But of and against what we can only guess…. “Unlikely combinations?” (21)Only one thing is clear: there is something bad about gambling, and something beautiful about racehorses. . . . (1) Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture. Dover Publications, 1985. (2) If A=B and B=C then A=C: Deductive logic from Aristotle’s Organon, Posterior Analytics (3) Hone Tuwhare, Don’t go past me with your nose in the air. Listener, vol.2367. 1990 (4) Ibid. (5) The first being the Dixon Street Flats, Wellington, completed in 1944. (6) Frederick H. Newman. Lectures on Architecture. Ed. Andrew Leach. A&S/Books, 2003. p8 (7) Le Corbusier. Towards a New Architecture. Dover Publications, 1985. (8) Frederick H. Newman. Lectures on Architecture. Ed. Andrew Leach. A&S/Books, 2003. p25 (9) Ibid. p26 (10) Ibid. p29 (11) Manfredo Tafuri. Red Vienna, MIT Press,1980. p190 (12) Labour at Home by Ben Schrader in At Home in New Zealand: Houses, History, People. Ed. Barbara L. Brookes. BWB, 2000. p125 (13) Going Up Rather than Out by Julia Gatley in At Home in New Zealand: Houses, History, People. Ed. Barbara L. Brookes. BWB, 2000. p140 (14) Ibid. p147 (15) Ibid. p147 (16) Ibid. p147 (17) Ibid. p147 (18) Frederick H. Newman. Architecture in Hydro Design in Lectures on Architecture. Ed. Andrew Leach. A&S/Books, 2003. p126 (19) Frederick H. Newman. Beauty in Engineering in Lectures on Architecture. Ed. Andrew Leach. A&S/Books, 2003. p65 (20) Ibid. p66 (21) First line of Phar Lap by Bill Manhire . . .