‘At a time when architects can, technically, do anything, how do they continue to create meaning through building?’
This was the central question that David Chipperfield addressed through his lecture at the V&A on the 21st March. It is one which has seemingly propelled his architectural career, and he unfolded this personal philosophy through the discussion of a number of his building projects, but primarily the renovation of the Neues Museum in Berlin (pictured above).
As a building type whose very purpose is to act as a receptacle of memory and culture for cities and communities, the question of creating meaning is particularly pertinent with regard to the ‘museum’, and nowhere more so than in the contested spaces of Berlin (witness the even more troubled debate over the building of Libeskind’s Jewish Museum).
But what does that vague term ‘creating meaning’ mean? In spite of what modernists would have us believe, buildings are more than simple acts of engineering. Chipperfield’s formulation: ‘Making architecture is the consequence of an articulated struggle between conflicting concerns, resolved in a way that makes sense for the users.’ Buildings have a physical presence and impact and thus, for success, require some sort of connection with their public. But it became clear as he elucidated his theories that, for him, this meaning is inextricably bound to form and material.
Appropriately (for the V&A setting and the topic), he began with two images of Korean white porcelain, a very simple object-type whose material limits create a boundary against which the design of the form can work. Style is shaped by the material, and thus develops its own, recognisable language.
Buildings used to be limited in the same way, but with the advent of modernism in the early C20th, the criminalisation of ‘ornament’ on buildings, the reign of the (‘questionable’) form follows function dictum, the increasing mass production of buildings and the development of gravity-defying technologies, the field of the possible has been blown open. To the extent, Chipperfield believes, that architecture has ‘lost its audience’. By which he means its connection with its public. And ‘making meaning’ requires that relationship, dialogue, engagement, to be strong.
This engagement with the public was something he experienced in the extreme with regard to the Neues Museum renovation in Berlin, a project that took eleven years to complete, and was in ‘dialogue’ with the press and the wider German public for the duration.
The challenge was to renovate for practical contemporary use a building with highly emotive associations for many. The only building on Berlin’s island of museums still derelict, it had remained a ruin for far longer than it had ever been in use, and the refurbishment seeks to preserve elements of that history. This is done precisely through the materials chosen and the way they rub up against the old, not covering the scars, but accentuating the drama of the space, and without being an homage to the ravages of war or a heavy-handed history lesson.
He lamented the tendency for modern architecture, so often put together from panels like lego, to rarely have any sense of ‘physicality’. By contrast, simple, solid materiality is a notable thread connecting all his projects.
Although his argument took time to emerge (a lot of thoughtful pauses) and there was the occasional drift into architect-speak (‘I find courtyards incredibly convincing’), by the end the picture that emerged was of a man intent on putting humanity into his buildings. The observation that ‘everyone loves a good brick wall’ is a perfect example of this, unpretentious, approach.
Creating meaning in the buildings of ‘quotidien’ life, where the ‘spectacular’ is inappropriate, and the norm often too dismissive of complex human needs, is, by the evidence of this lecture, not a simple matter. But his underlying philosophy of care was evident in all of the works he discussed. Clear, too, was the belief that understanding buildings ought to be possible for the people that use them, not the elite few schooled in the interpretation of obscure architectural narratives. A message which, for an architecture lecture, was rather refreshing.