Architectural Fringe 2016
When one of the most significant American artists of the post-war period, Donald Judd - a man famed for his abstract and impersonal works of sculpture - described streets as 'rooms' and noted his preference for eighteenth-century European cities such as Saint Petersburg and Turin for their uniformity and scale, he implied a critique not only of the neo-liberal urban development characteristic of his own United States but also of a hiatus in the developing architecture of the European city.
The former - its parking lots, its 'look-at-me' buildings were enjoyably analysed by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Steven Izenour on Learning from Las Vegas (1972). The European hiatus may be blamed on Le Corbusier - a great architect of individual buildings and the author of a crucial manifesto of Modernist culture (Vers une architecture of 1923) - but one whose influence in terms of the European city was disastrous. John Betjeman, a former editor of the UK's Architectural Review, was distraught but prescient when he wrote in 1945 of what was essentially Corb's 'Vision of the Future' where blocks of flats set in fields would 'tower up like silver pencils, score on score'. In almost every case those fields came to be a no-man's land and those towers 'inhuman conditions of a more subtle order than the slums' as Alison and Peter Smithson put it.
Just as the fundamental requirements of human life remain virtually constant over the centuries so do its physical representations. Think of Pliny the Younger's description of his villa outside Ancient Rome - then add your own WiFi. In terms of the city, Aldo Rossi's The Architecture of the City (1966) was the turning point and the generation since its translation into English in 1982 has been marked by a gradual change in attitude to one where the city may be seen as more important than the individual building and where the street and the urban block return as its framework.
The provocations in this exhibition are a part of this culture.
While of course the creative work of excellent architects is always a joy to behold, here that pleasure is magnified by its focus on the normative, the typical, the standard model - in this case the tenement. We see variations on a theme. The projects illustrate the opportunities that might arise from a study of this building type in relation to both 'high' theory and 'low' practical requirements and regulations. They rejoice in liveability, durability and long-term adaptability. But more than that they do so in the context of another typology, namely that of the particular city from which they take their lessons. Their identity is rooted in a typology of place. These architects have learned from looking.
By chance these projects come before the public just after the UK has decided to leave the European Union while Scotland's vote was to stay. The consequences are far-reaching, but perhaps this is a moment in Scotland's history where a political Renaissance will be matched by a cultural one, where the ideas of our best architects are rooted in a European continuum and where we may observe a welcome sign of a modern and more optimistic culture.
A few years ago I was discussing a student's urban housing project with the Dutch architect, Felix Claus. Looking at a typical piece, he took out his iPhone and asked the student: 'would someone with one of these want to live in one of those?'.
In the examples presented here the answer is a resounding yes.