Herman On Form.

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      The opening Slide was of his office building design, Central De Beer in Holland. Herman comments, that a revolution in Society facilitated a revolution in Architecture. Nowadays Herman seems to enjoy re-designing schools, more than re-designing office space. Because after 35 years since the design of Central de Beer, this architect still wishes to follow where ‘the revolution is happening in society’. Herman Hertzberger wants a building to become a city. “This is not a building, it is a settlement”. Herman proclaims about Central De Beer. He designed it to promote the working of people in groups. But this response to the program of designing office space is no longer possible, given the widespread engraining of a ‘managerial mentality’ in today’s society. John Meagher made strikingly similar comments on the design of church architecture in his talk, relating how the priest on the pulpit likes to eyeball his listeners at all times. Herman described in architecture today, the use of the ‘sliced sectional diagram’ – the slices in the building’s section, slicing the occupants of the office building into a many distinct and separate social islands. None of who are aware of any of the other ‘slices’.

      Herman even goes further in places, to compare the Victorian notion of school design to sophisticated prisons. The building Herman is interested in designing becomes like a three dimensional city, with lots of open space where socialisation of many different cultures can occur. Contrasted within the brief for a school building should be ‘spaces for concentration’ with a space designed around the concept of ‘togetherness’ and ‘view lines’. Not only that, Herman’s brief for a school project even extends to the entrance spaces, where the kids parents meet one another as they deliver their children each morning and receive them in the evenings. I guess you only have to observe the chaos that surrounds entrance spaces to many schools here in Dublin city, to understand where Herman is coming from. Certainly kids’ parents in Dublin like to meet each other too, but often we do not provide adequate space for it to happen. The resulting traffic chaos saying it all – an opportunity for better social integration missed. We tend in this country to think of the school-run as a cause of vehicular congestion. It only underlines how much we have learned to view environments from the traffic engineer’s point-of-view of the automobile. Note how many schools have featured, in the keynote lectures at the AAI this year. Carme Pinos also described some very worthy school projects of hers in Spain. There must be a revolution happening in society at the moment, strongly centred around the school as a building type. Though in fairness, the lessons derived from hearing a talented architect speak about school design are important to almost any other building type – and as Herman would argue, even the design of cities.

      The issues Herman spoke about, reminded me of the Theatre or Cultural Centre Building projects done in Architectural Schools. Where the project explores at its extreme best, the possibility of social interaction amongst the staff working to produce performance projects –varying in form from small experimental productions, to dance, art exhibition, up to larger commercial productions. The brief for a Cultural Centre will often include an accommodation unit for a visiting artist. Here Herman Hertzberger’s comments about ‘slices of space’ and slices of people are equally as valid. Throughout a career in architecture spanning many decades, Herman Hertzberger has always been interested more in the ‘in-between’ objects, as opposed to the objects themselves. Indeed Herman relates this to being interested in what urbanists are interested in, rather than what architects might be interested in. In his school project, Herman observed how 1,300 people all move around the school at once. So in his resultant design, he maintained stairs in the middle of the building, which were ‘as open as possible’. The school whose occupants consisted of many different Ethnic Groups were encouraged to be in more contact with one another. In another slide for a juniors school, you could see two kids were busy removing the ‘wall’ between the formal space of their classroom and the social space beyond – somehow, from the budget of a school building, Herman was able to organise for this very nice sliding wall/door element, which offered the occupants some flexibility in how they used their space. Architecture is about people – not making architecture easier for people – it is about, what they are. “Everywhere you make steps”, that is, if you wish a building to become a city in microcosm. Space becomes about connection of people, without any separation. Changing the use of the ground, whether it became steps for socialisation, or an outside roof that took the form of a hillock for crowds to sit on, coated in Astro-Turf.

      I thought I had remembered everything I could from the Hertzberger lecture, but while I was walking past the Central Bank in Dame Street the other day, I was reminded of something else that Herman said about young people wanting ‘to be dynamic’. I got nervous that some kid on a skateboard was going to plough into me, and swirved around me just at the last moment. Initially I began to feel angry and to think of something to fire back at the young twit, when I remembered suddenly how Herman manages to turn all of these things, we see as negative, into a positive. Herman was invited to stand in as part of the jury for a competition in France to renovate an area of Social Housing. Herman sifts through some of the eliminated entries and happened to come across one in particular, one which featured a lot of tarmac areas around an existing social housing complex. Although the jury had discarded this entry, Herman instead re-included it in the final ‘shake-up’,… because he decided the entry made an important statement about the reality of young teenagers, ‘who love to appear dynamic’, who have all of this energy they need desperately to release, and how our perception that everywhere needs greenery – a surface not exactly suited to skate boarding – denies the realities of the human condition for kids of a certain ages, in their living environments. The example he showed of a basketball court on the roof of a bookshop/cafe, was also used to drive home the same point. So I definitely learned something from Herman Hertzberger’s lecture in the context of my experience with skate boarders on Dame Street.

      On Form and Significance.

      Herman is someone, who struggles to find meaning first and then form. Hence his use of physical models through which he tries to understand the existence of what he calls ‘view lines’. All of the ideas about the building as a city, and how to raise people – are thereby incubated and encouraged through his process of using physical models. ‘I am one of those older Architects who tries desperately to find meaning first and then form, as opposed to form first and then look for meaning’. Though the above is a rough approximation to Herman Hertzberger’s comments on the search for form in Architecture, the are very similar to the words uttered down through time, by other people in other fields of expertise. I always like this quote from Sun Tzu in the ‘Art of War’.

      What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom nor credit for courage. He wins his battles by making no mistakes. Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated. Hence the skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy. Thus it is that in war the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.

      Herman relates to how young designers nowadays look to the Internet and PhotoShop as a means of squeezing more efficiency from their working hours at design. How a photo can just be downloaded from the Internet, and manipulated to do some funny trick, which produces an interesting architectural form. It reminds me of the speculation on the stock markets during the Internet boom, where the largest and most powerful DOT.COM companies made a lot of money through selling advertising space on their web pages. While the smaller DOT.COMs, who also sold advertising space would rent advertising space on the larger web pages, to promote the sale of their own advertising space. So you just wonder how many iterations through the Photoshop manipulation tools, that some architecture has been through. There comes a certain point I think, when virtually 100% of the original content has been drained away, by the constant downloading, re-hashing and manipulation of architectural form. When he described the efficiency with which young designers can PhotoShop together a design of formal sophistication, I am reminded a lot of a character that appeared in the movie ’X-men’. The character in question was ’Mystique’, a particular kind of mutant known as a metamorph. A description of Mystique, from one of the X-men fan web sites, is quoted down below and it provides a sobering idea of what Architecture could become through the constant downloading, scanning and re-scanning of digital imagery.

      Brian O’ Hanlon.

      Description of the mutant metamorph Mystique:

      Height: 5’10”, Weight: 120 lbs. Eyes: Yellow (no apparent pupils when she is in her true form) Hair: Red-orange (black in her usual human form as Raven Darkholme. Strength level: Mystique possesses the normal human strength of a woman of her physical age, height, and build who engages in regular exercise. Other distinguishing features: Grey-black skin in her true form

      Known superhuman powers: Mystique is a mutant metamorph. She can psionically shift the atoms and molecules of her body and of whatever clothing she is wearing so as to change her and its appearance. As a result she can cause herself to look and sound like an exact duplicate of any human, humanoid, or semi-humanoid being of either sex, wearing virtually any kind of clothing. Her control is so exact that she can precisely duplicate another person’s retina pattern in her own eyes, finger, palm and skin-pore patterns on her own hands and skin, and vocal cords to match voices to the point of corresponding voiceprints.

      Mystique, however, is limited by her inability to diminish or increase her own mass at will. As a result, while she can make herself look exactly like a person who is physically bigger than herself, she will not weigh as much as the real person does. Although she can maintain the form of a person of her height, weight, and build indefinitely (as with her own appearance as Raven Darkholme), the longer that she maintains the form of a person physically bigger than herself, the greater the strain she feels. If she maintains that bigger form for too long a period, the length of which is directly proportional to the difference in size between that form and her normal one, she will collapse and automatically revert to her normal form. Mystique cannot duplicate the powers of the person she imitates: for example, when she turned herself into a duplicate of Nightcrawler, she did not gain the ability to teleport. As yet Mystique has not demonstrated any ability to adopt the form of non-humanoid beings, animals, plants, or non-living objects. It is conjectured that she could not imitate any of these without interfering with the proper functioning of her internal organs and possibly dying, but the truth, like much regarding Mystique, remains shrouded.

      Afterword: Linus Torvalds and Open Source Software.

      “Given enough eyeballs, all [computer] bugs are shallow”.

      The above ‘eyeballs’ quote is by Eric S. Raymond, a well known commentator about Intellectual Property as regarding the open source software movement. It relates to the software projects such a Linux and much of the software that runs on the Linux operating system. Linus Torvalds, in 1991 uploaded his first attempt at a primitive computer operating system onto web space from his home in Helsinki. At that stage the young Linus didn’t even have a name for his creation, but years later Linus is still involved in his on-line distributed computer programming project. Literally thousands of developers around the globe work at improving the computer code of the Linux Operating System. So while it appears that online distribution of source code, and its improvement in a distributed fashion, is good engineering practice for complicated problems like an Operating System – the same may not be true about Architectural Design. So what is Linus’s job in the midst of all this online collaboration – well most of the time, he is just trying to stop various factions from developing that would endanger the project, and lead to its falling apart. Linus doesn’t like taking any sides, and tries to manage decisions about future software development from a distance. So given what Herman has said, that downloading of stuff from the web and working/editing it through Photoshop, is a bad exercise,… I just found it interesting, how the person in charge of the world’s largest online design project, Linus Torvalds, where things get uploaded and downloaded, and patched and fixed, and manipulated and re-engineering millions and millions of times over,… managed in his post here at RWT:


      To say virtually the same thing about software engineering, as what Herman Hertzberger and Sun Tzu have both said about Architecture and the Art of War respectively. The thread I linked is just one of many in which Linus has tried to debate the relative merits of different kinds of software projects.

      Also, to be quite honest, I want my tools to have an
      “architecture”, ie a clear definition of what the goals
      are. It doesn’t have to be all of the story, but it needs
      to be the basics, and everything else has to follow from

      As an example: the difference between UNIX and Windows.
      One has a guiding philosophy behind its design. The
      other is a random collection of “this is what we built up
      over the years”. Nobody has ever come up with a philosophy
      behind Windows.

    • #753041

      An image describing the use of spaces in a city for ‘dynamic’ activities, Meeting House Square yesterday, was using for fencing no less. On the use of Steps, to promote socialisation,… yeah, they work alright, like those nice steps on Dawson Street that have for some strange reason,… (maybe the sociologists here, could explain why)… seem to have become a place where ‘knacker-drinking’ is very, very popular these days. I mean, they have the whole street to do their drinking and for some inexplicable reason, those particular steps are where they always go.

      Brian O’ Hanlon.

      Edit: I also attached just today, a nice pic of the inside of Wright’s gallery in New York, which be all accounts serves extremely well nowadays as a social kind of space, and has inspired the work of others, in the design of public architecture.

    • #753042

      Sergio Larrain, 1950s picture from Paris. I guess that post war Paris was a fairly tough place to live, by the looks of his photos! You can see now why, cities like Paris were such a real mix of different cultures, peoples and opinions, and what it takes to make the great cities of Europe. 🙂 But compare it to the photo he took in London at the same time. The one with the cat in the gutter is of Paris too. Can anyone here dig up some of Herman’s own personal photos, taken by him down through the years?

      Brian O’ Hanlon.

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