Part of a lecture series related to the Write the City events, Uncommon Building saw its creators Honour Gavin and Adam Kaasa, describe the ins and outs of their own fantastic project.
A fantastic endeavor, Uncommon Building is a multi-modal project concerned with “excavating” the archaeology of an imagined place or space. It utilises “artefacts” conceived by a wide range of different creatives, all responding to an initial group of questions asking the creatives to individually define different parameters of the building. Each creative, whether they are art practice researchers, writers of fiction or architectural researchers conceives of a piece illustrating their interpretation of the imagined building, however abstract this may be, or whatever aspect they deem most prominent.
These are collated and analysed as “found artefacts” by bringing the contributors together, and from this a picture of this place, construed from the collective imaginations of a group, is formed. It is a wonderful idea tapping into collective imagination, and raised conversation about the nature of different types of “artefact”, and the choice of words and their connotations used in each “genre” of artefact found.
Each genre has its own rules, and has its own parameters for how we construe meaning, whether literal or metaphorical. Its associative, symptomatic of the person with which the work originated, the site of “excavation” and the genre employed to depict or describe their perception of this imagined place, But, this work crucially also draws upon the expertise of the field in which that person operates. It is when these are brought together, discussed and fleshed out, that interesting commonalities emerge and a place is flashed out in the overlap spaces between each piece.
This method aims to parallel the steps used to propose a building for planning permission, or even more so emulate how a case for a historic building in this country is submitted to be protected by the listing process. However, instead of artefacts derived from archival research from a structure that sites itself in the real world, this process has been altered to utilise the imagination itself. This embraces all of the difference in thoughts, opinions and subjectivity that is inherent to people’s association with a building, real or unreal. Most of this happens in the imagination itself, why not build from the ground up for an imagined building?
The methodology of the project struck a chord with similarities I could see with my own. It seems that there could be parallels in the way in which Honor and Adam described the choice of words in writing, say, and the form of your “artefacts” you curated from different people, with the strand of understanding and reading architectural history which I am currently exploring.
This isn’t too far fetched. Professionals in architecture, or art of course, take it for granted that a piece of architecture actively means something. How it actually communicates this meaning, the specific techniques used, and to which audience, is far more of a unexplored sphere. Oxford Architectural Historian William Whyte has a fantastic paper on understanding this process, which considers far more than solely the eventual end result of built form. I will hopefully talk about this in another, upcoming post, but this is essentially, that a message of a place, or building, cannot be read directly as some kind of coded language. It is instead a series of translations and transpositions, drawn from the different techniques that are used to create it. Each technique, whether drawing, comment, sketch, built form etc can be viewed as a “genre”, with its own almost performative elements and nuances and specific aims. It’s in collating these that you can try and understand how a building, or place “means”. There are clear parallels between this approach and the collaborative methodology developed for Uncommon Building which would be fantastic to explore.
Even more so, the idea of excavating, or deriving an imagined building from multiple sources resonates with my own goals in a way. National identity itself is a construct, the product of an imagined community. I’m working backwards from this premise, and using the techniques gleaned from the past buildings of the hill, to create designs which communicate this… or that’s the goal.
Narrative is laboured within architecture. Whether the narrative of an occupant of the envisaged building, the design narrative of the process of carving the building out of imagination or the grand overarching narrative at an urban scale. Architects are storytellers. This point was raised again and again at the talk, and with the premise of how fast the narratives of buildings changed, especially once they have been completed and used, is central to my own investigations. Good architects “ignite the imagination… deal in speculative fiction.” How a designer can pre-empt, or shape the story of a building after the last pen stroke on a page is essential to the premise of my own project. How do architects maintain agency when the processes of heritage narratives take over?