Strange Forms and Good Solutions
It’s over a century since the American architect Louis Sullivan wrote these euphoric lines in his essay ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’, coining the formula that would become one of the most powerful slogans of modernist design and architecture in the 20th century. Before the grandees of high modernism seized upon the idea and turned it into one-size-fits-all style, Sullivan’s ‘functionalist’ approach elaborated a fundamentally pragmatic and organic relationship between the outward appearance of a building and its given purpose. Before right-angles, plate glass, concrete, steel and white walls became the signature style of international modernism, Sullivan was arguing for an architecture that refused any outward appearance or material solution that prejudged the practical resolution of the needs of a building’s users.
Whilst Sullivan could not foresee how a sensitive functionalism might turn into an austere, often authoritarian modernist style, it is this rigid notion of modernism that the British born architect Laurie Baker has spent his fifty-year career in India opposing and subverting. Architecture is for Baker the outcome of a constant, vigilant sensitivity as to how to recognise the functions that it satisfies. It is an acknowledgement that architectural function is not some abstract problem about how to organise space and mass for an unspecified type of human being, but one that is determined by the all-too-evident constraints of everyday life for real, living individuals in the present circumstances of the developing world.
The notion that ‘form follows function’ in modernist design is therefore haunted by a simple problem: what decides which ‘function’ the architect should take into account? For Baker, a central function of his architecture is to reduce the cost of building to its most essential minimum, whilst yielding the greatest quality of life benefits to its inhabitants.
This is not necessarily the kind of function other architects might recognise as an important part of what they do. So Baker draws on indigenous forms of building technique and style, not out of some misplaced reverence for cultural tradition, but because he realises that those traditional forms often represent the best solution to a functional problem, if only an architect makes the effort to realise it. For example, the large overhanging eaves of pitched roofs are a particular size because they shade the building from the hot midday sun, keeping the outer walls, and therefore the interior, cool. Yet Baker brings a modernist understanding of physics to bear; walls are often curved, not for aesthetic reasons, but because, as the builders of mediaeval castles knew, curved walls are stronger, allowing more economical brick patterns than a straight wall.
So the functions of a building are always connected to the nature of the society it is a product of. The tall buildings Sullivan could see appearing in nineteenth-century America were not the products of a style, but the ‘organic’, intuitive response of architecture to a rapidly growing society, for which the concentration of commercial space was a vital concern, and which, with metal-skeleton building techniques, would finally give rise to the extraordinary vision of New York. A booming economy was the external given that limited Sullivan’s conception of the functions his architecture should satisfy. For Baker, redressing economic inequality through ingenuity and innovation is the function of his buildings. Solving a problem first of all requires that you define what the problem is.
This is perhaps why Ben Ravenscroft and Sam Basu found in Baker such a resolute and productive counterpoint to their own exploration of what functions art might satisfy. Above Baker’s mango/paisley shaped reading stand, Basu’s installation perverts the explicitly moral ambition of modernism; to make human society and human life better through reason and innovation. Rather than creating an architecture fit for human habitation, Basu has let loose a set of structures which, if we let our irrational fears or our imaginations get the better of us, appear inhabited by malevolent, inhuman entities.
‘Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function,
and this is the law.’ Sullivan, Louis H. ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’, in Lippincott’s Magazine, March 1896
The white rafters of the gallery have apparently been taken over by a giant spider’s web. This spider weaves its web in vivid primary colours, as if the spirit of the great geometric abstract painter Piet Mondrian, turned evil in despair at the souring of modernism’s promise of a better world, had possessed the body of a monstrous arachnid, ready to snare the careless post-modernist visitor as they read Baker’s writing, or contemplates Ravenscroft’s paintings. In amongst these webs, geometric structures made of gingerbread further upset our acceptance that functional form is necessarily good. The witch’s house, made to lure unwary children in Grimm’s tale of Hansel and Gretel, was made of cake and sugar, and as Basu mischievously suggests, is a perfect formal solution to a child-eater’s needs. Necessity is thus never as clear, nor as morally unambiguous as modernist rationalism might once have hoped: modern society is shot through with ambiguity, contradiction and conflicts of interest, and gingerbread architecture, satisfying consumer culture’s need to lure us to the next hamburger or the next pair of designer shoes, enmeshes us in webs of neon and mirror-glass and glitter.
A similar creative ambivalence is also at work in Ben Ravenscroft’s strangely compelling paintings, works which, behind their apparent spontaneity, reveal multiple levels of premeditation and intention. Ravenscroft’s paintings start out as loose, splashed brush marks of white primer; once dry, these strokes are then repainted with carefully planned tonal ranges of the five primary colours in his palette. But Ravenscroft’s system is further complicated as he glazes over one colour with its opposite: depending on the precise tone, these vivid colours paradoxically cancel each other out, producing ever darker tones that end in shifting, oddly colourful blacks.
Ravenscroft’s paintings return to the founding oppositions of abstract painting, and the assumed possibilities of paint, in order to question accepted notions of how such painting works. If geometric order was once contrasted to gestural spontaneity, Ravenscroft’s paintings are spontaneous yet ordered. If abstraction supposedly represented nothing, his coloured paint strokes ironically re-present the white strokes they are painted on. If modernist painting celebrated the pure difference of the colours of the spectrum, Ravenscroft’s equally vivid tones celebrate the equal but opposite value of their recombination, from white, into black. In doing so, Ravenscroft suggests that a painter’s sense of painting’s potential is determined from the outset by the assumptions on which he bases his activity, assumptions that often rely on the negation of one or other in a pair of opposites. Ravenscroft’s paintings play such opposites back into each other to question whether they are really that different, or whether our preconceptions make them so.
Back in Sullivan’s day, art defended itself from fulfilling any specific function or purpose with that equally famous slogan ‘art for art’s sake’. Today, art’s function might be to explore the ways that purpose or function is too readily determined, to play in those moments in which open and speculative culture grinds to a halt, becoming dogma and orthodoxy. It’s what Baker does through his constant rethinking of the needs architecture seeks to satisfy. It’s also what Basu’s work suggests, in its sinister absurdity, about modernism’s unquestioning utopian belief in the link between good form and a good society. Finally, it’s what Ravenscroft proposes when his paintings reveal the expectations we make of painted colour, that it should vividly impose itself, make its mark on the visual world. They are all assumptions we make, often valid and alive, at other times habitual and repetitive, and always open to question.
These assumptions are the functions on which the forms we make depend; but they themselves depend on other beliefs and realities, in an ever expanding web of connections that makes up the wider world, where art plays its game of strange questions and new solutions, of forms that reinvent their functions.
'Charon ... ruined by the installation of a wire footbridge over the Styx.’ Grandville, Un autre monde, quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Ben Ravenscroft (b.1971) and Sam Basu (b. 1967) live and work in London and met while studying at Goldsmith’s College in the early nineties. This is their first collaboration.
Ben Ravenscroft’s paintings combine linear navigational marks with a deliberate layering of colour, to expose a tension between control and guidance. Solo exhibitions include shows at Hales Gallery, London (2002 and 2001) and One in the Other, London (1999). His work has been included in numerous group shows, including Some Things We Like, Asprey Jacques, London (2003); Sight Mapping, Konsthallen-Bohuslans Museum, Uddevalla, Sweden (2002) and ‘By Hand’, Hales Gallery, London (2001). Forthcoming exhibitions include ‘The Futurians’, Taro Nasu Gallery, Tokyo, Japan (2004). He is represented by Hales Gallery, London.
Sam Basu’s practice incorporates a wide range of materials and media, including drawing, video, sculpture and sound. Recent exhibitions include solo shows at One in the Other, London: ‘Avenge my Death’ (2002) and ‘The World As It Is; Transform’, (2000). Selected group exhibitions include ‘The Golden Resistance’, Tate Britain (performance with Petcar as part of Tate & Egg Live series); ‘The Lost Collection of an Invisible Man’, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle (both 2003) and ‘Tombs of the Fantasy Undead’, Bart Wells Institute, London (2002). Sam Basu is represented by One in the Other, London.
Laurie Baker (b. Birmingham, 1917) travelled to India in 1945 to work as an architect for a worldwide organisation dealing with the treatment of people with leprosy. Based in Trivandrum, Kerala, since 1970, Baker has designed schools, leprosy treatment centres, homes and hospitals, which combine modern techniques with local materials and resources. Known particularly for his use of exposed brickwork, Baker’s architecture is based on the integrity of his approach to materials and function. His human-scaled buildings are designed to be as low impact environmentally as possible and are created with the happiness of their future inhabitants in mind.
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