by Conor Moloney
Is the city an artefact or a practice? Architectural understandings of the city tend to treat it as a static object – a supine body at the mercy of intelligent actors (architects, especially!), or a powerful labyrinth shaping processes and transactions. Sociology, on the other hand, has traditionally regarded urbanization as the interaction of a set of social, political, and economic processes, of which the built city is merely one of many outcomes, a physical crystallization left over. The ‘spatial turn’ in social science forged by Lefebvre, De Certeau, and others, has however sought to spatialize what were previously considered as temporal phenomena largely independent of space. Sociologists and geographers are currently exploring how the seemingly incompatible concepts of artefact and practice can be combined into a more dynamic and reflexive model of co-structuring, where the city structures and is continuously restructured by patterns and distributions of uses.
Urban theory has recently begun to percolate through architectural thinking, and informs to some extent the polemics of Koolhaas, the extrapolations of MVRDV, the anecdotes of Boeri. In architecture, however, theory is the child of authorship and invention – the architect can’t resist intervening in his own experiment – whereas in social science it is begotten of methodology and argument. What distinguishes BAR’s urban thinking from that of other architects is the balance they strike between invention and deduction. Drawing evenly on both fields of scholarship, BAR’s method has been to examine not how architectural sensibility is expressed at the scale of urbanism, but how the processes of urbanization are expressed at the scale of architecture. They conceptualise design as a sort of behaviour, a sort of adaptory performance that mediates the expression of urban forces. Their insights are borne of a rigorous application of conventional methodologies of both architecture and anthropology. These they deploy to unearth the hidden intelligences of the city, to undress the raw motivations of the mob.
What BAR’s work does however have in common with the other urban-theorizing architects is a certain inconclusiveness with regard to what implications such research has for the practice of architecture. Research in architecture is by definition material. Architects pursue formal and linguistic research through practice itself, a most demanding route. In architecture, practice is research. BAR have however mostly favoured independent self-directed research halfway situated somewhere between academy and studio, between workshop and library – but at a cost: how would they build? Would it be informed by their research? In what way?
There are moments where a unique and touching architecture threatens to emerge. The Durchgangsbad or corridor-bathroom is a counter-intuitive but commonsense discovery that is rich with meaning for domestic life. Curious that they have not yet described it with the level of detail they devote to the ‘design behaviour’ of others, such as at the Scardovari fish-market in the Po delta. This is an incipient micro-typology of the first order. Cedric Price would delight in its practical silliness. Ludwig Leo would admire its transformation of the banal processes of inhabiting. The Smithsons would be proud of such an invention, having themselves proposed the ‘kitchen-bedroom’ – perfect for breakfast-in-bed and midnight feasts.
These thinker-architects are BAR’s forebears, and indeed they have few others today to whom they can bequeath their spirit, yet they had a scale of ambition that BAR has so far eschewed. BAR’s concern with making, exemplified in Matuschka’s care for construction, perhaps gives insufficent scope for an expression of their social vision. Craft is the source of their intellectual authority, but continually pulls them back to the scale of the body. How would their work develop at an expanded scale? What if BAR were to dream a little? Patzak asserts that “reality is more interesting than fantasy”, but reality can be dreamt, or, one can fantasise new realities into existence. Buchholz’s fascination in documenting Warsaw’s transcontinental market ‘Jarmark Europa’ suggests such a leap. If this phenomenon had not already existed, could BAR have foreseen it? Could they have invented it? Could they even have had the entrepreneurship to have organised and established it themselves?
Some of Burnett-Stuart’s wonderful Los Angeles writings betray a similarly vicarious fascination with invention. While keen to identify and understand phenomena of ‘design behaviour’, he is hesitant to intervene in or contribute to the ongoing formation of the sublime vernacular he describes. In Belfast, Patzak indeed plans to draw together a range of such examples as a stimulus to the bruised civil society of a city physically perverted by conflict. This is following in Beuys’ Irish footsteps, appropriately enough, and cuts a new profile for BAR as catalyst rather than connoisseur. But there is a challenge implicit in this position: to begin to put this research to work in the material practice of architecture and urbanism.
Subconsciouly or not, BAR is aware of this, and it is latent in their Modellstadt. What does the Modellstadt mean? It is not the simple documentation of work process that BAR admits, nor simply a metaphor for the types of urban heterogeneity they admire. It is an attempt to simulate a scale of work that they have not yet realised, to represent a body of work still unconstituted. It is a stand-in for something much more significant, something perhaps not so easily represented. It is a symbol of their ambitions, an alibi for a full consummation of their work. Dare they realise it?
Conor Moloney is an architect and researcher at London School of Economics.