Selected Texts by AOC
Selected Texts about AOC
Tom Coward
Geoff Shearcroft
A building is not something you finish
"You know it is always life that is right and the architect that is wrong..." This rare admission of failure by Le Corbusier, referring to the residents' adaptations of his houses at Pessac, suggests a fundamental conflict between architects' intentions and occupants' wants. The designed versus the inhabited.

Ever since Corb's carefully constructed photographs of his own work, architectural photography has focused on the designed, capturing newly born buildings naked, save for a few choice props. The proliferation of 'iconic' buildings and architectural media have inflated the importance of designed image over lived experience, seriously distorting our criteria for both assessing existing buildings and designing new.

One of the few recent attempts to successfully challenge this emphasis in architectural representation is the work of documentary makers Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoîne. They first rose to prominence with 'Koolhaas Houselife', an hour long film following the characters responsible for maintaining OMA's Bordeaux House ten years after its completion. 'Living Architectures', their exhibition showing concurrently at the AF and Storefront, features 25 minute excerpts from Houselife and three similar films, documenting Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao, Herzog and de Meuron's Refectory in Pomerol and Meier's Jubilee Church in Rome. The AF's lo-tech, ad-hoc arrangement of projectors, speakers and low seats allows the committed to enjoy comparative sampling between the four films whilst the linear geometries and chairs of Storefront provide a more traditional cinematic experience. For London's architectural community, that can appear international in its constituents but inward looking in its practice, evidence of the AF actively seeking dialogue with similar institutions abroad must be seen as an encouraging sign for debate in the capital.

At first glance these films reinforce Corb's observation, that life triumphs the architect every time. Missing fundamentals, spectacular leaks and impossible maintenance requirements allow the viewer to laugh out loud at the absurdity of modern architects and the apparent distance between their aesthetic aspirations and the lived world. Yet at the same time the films also provide a compelling advert for the architecture. The Bordeaux House may appear structurally dramatic in photographs but this is nothing compared to the drama of the Altman-esque long take following an elderly cleaner around the house that concludes with an exhilarating walk along an unguarded upper storey edge as she draws a gold, flapping curtain around the building.

Film footage focused on buildings is rarely very interesting. Perhaps this is because buildings, viewed as purely visual objects, are not that interesting. Bêka and Lemoîne overcome this problem by basing their films upon the stories of people whose lives are intimately entwined with the building. This ensures that the stories you hear and the building you see are both vying for attention. At times they combine to illustrate a point. Far more revealing, and enjoyable, is when they contrast; my personal favourite was the purity of Herzog & de Meuron's concrete-framed view being tempered by Wild West themed curtains. The films appear to support Stewart Brand's maxim “A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start.” They are personally specific but generally relevant post-occupation studies that offer real clues as to how buildings can be designed to better accommodate users needs.

Few architects gain the opportunity to visit their buildings once finished/started, let alone learn from their occupation. Consequently I propose all standard building contracts include provision for a 'Living Architectures' type documentary to be made ten years after completion. The films would be made by architecture students, an essential part of a re-orientated RIBA syllabus, and viewed at a decade-completion event by the reassembled design team, client and occupants, past and present. The first new wave of UK hospitals and schools would be screening soon and I for one would like to see how life and the architect have got on.
Published by Geoff Shearcroft
Review of 'Living Architectures' at the Architecture Foundation, London and Storefront for Art and Architecture,
New York
Building Design
5 February, 2010