Fred Scott: Building on the Built
Transcript - King’s Cross, May 2016
Fred Scott was invited to give a talk at the first Building on the Built event, a retrospective of the work of Jonathan Tuckey Design, in May 2016. Practice director Jonathan Tuckey had taught with Fred Scott and Scott’s book, On Altering Architecture, was and remains, a frequently consulted source on the nature of adapting and transforming existing buildings, the practices’s main focus and interest.
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Jonathan Tuckey I welcome everyone for this last in a series of lectures that we’ve been having here for the last two weeks entitled Building on the Built, and I couldn’t think of a better way to end it than with two speakers we have tonight, both I suppose in their different ways, well certainly for me, contributed to this subject of building on the existing as much or more than anyone. So the format we’re going to follow is to have the two lectures, I think we’re not going to have questions and answers afterwards so we want to just hear as much as possible in the time that Fred Scott and Victor López Cotelo are going to give us. We’ll start the evening with Fred Scott. Fred certainly got me hooked on this subject, and as far as I can tell, anyone I’ve met in this world in the last 15 years seems to have had some brush with his teaching or critiquing in one way and another. And anyone who hasn’t read it, which there might be some people here, his book On Altering Architecture is just a knock-out, I suppose it intends to bring some theory into a subject that is probably widespread, but not often written about. So it’s a great pleasure to welcome Fred Scott.
Fred Scott In the last century there was this urge, there was a belief in the future, and art students said it’s the only thing to look forward to. It’s a sort of excitement and the sort of optimism about what would come.
And if you look at the 20th Century I think there are striking things about it. This is from a book published in 1933, which, as you can see, is about the development of the car design over 33 years, you know, you think back, you take the car now 33 years back, and you think, what’s happened in 33 years. The only thing that’s happened is you’ve got somewhere to put your cappuccino in. So in a funny sort of way, progress has sort of ground to a ... somehow the world has ground to a halt. (1)
And so the age of technological optimism is past, it’s past. Peter Reyner Banham, Buckminster Fuller, boy scouts of the galaxy. All this is sort of somehow behind us now. (2)
And we are stranded in this sort of desolation through the collapse of modernism, through the collapse of the great modernist project, to deliver to us one way or another a world of ethnic purity or a world of absolute equality, or whatever it promised. And our resort back into the past is just this. It’s to help us in our existential loneliness in this atmosphere. (3)
So my book takes on these two propositions, which as you can see are sort of exclusive to one another, they really contradict one another. (4+5)
One is John Ruskin saying that restoration is the most utter destruction that a building can suffer, and Viollet-le-Duc, saying “to restore a building isn’t to maintain it; to repair it or rebuild it, it is to recover a perfection that may never have existed at any given time”. Quite different. And one you can see is a view looking backwards, and one is a view looking forwards. And it’s a thesis and antithesis, and to all you people with classical training, I know a lot of you have been to public school, so you will have come up with this sort of thing, of course, it’s a sort of fundamental of dialect. Money well spent...
One thinks of Heraclites, the Greek philosopher of whom just fragments remain. He famously said you can’t walk into the same river twice, and that’s a sort of essential of dialectics really. That’s a contradiction between something that is always there but is flowing away from you at the same time. And this is Hegel describing the essence asked about what dialectics is all about. So the synthesis of opposites, contradictions, it’s a Bacchic delirium, that somehow these contradictions are hand-in-hand, dancing with each other. And as he said, they’re all drunk, so this is a sort of nature of dialectic. The nature of reality itself. (6)
My book comes down in favour of Viollet-le-Duc, apart from one criticism regarding completion, Viollet-le-Duc would go for completion. A Martian, if given these two pictures and asked which was before and which was after, would get it wrong you know? They’re not that smart. But that’s before, at the top, and that’s after, at the bottom. (7) Carcassonne, Notre Dame, Vezelay, there are all these great Viollet-le-Duc projects.
So I came down in favour of Viollet-le-Duc because it’s forward-looking, it’s progressive, but also you can’t deny what Ruskin says, not just that he says it so beautifully, he’s not just persuasive, it is the truth, because he says it with such elegance, and maybe the book came to the position that an alteration must somehow look both ways, must look to the past and to the future. An altered building is something that somebody maybe before you has worked on and somebody after you will work on it. So an altered building is something that is continuously in process. Consequently it’s always unfinished. Consequently you can sort of think of it as an inhabited ruin because the essential of any ruin is that it’s a sort of unfinished thing. But it is somehow constantly trying to get to the perfected state that Viollet-le-Duc proposes, and designers working across the generations, if they have a common language, this can be a dialogue across the ages.
So we used to teach collage at Kingston in order to try and emphasise the complex nature in altered buildings, as it is of the past, of the future, and it’s also got its new use, and the rest of it. There was this sort of ... it had to be this. And the author of this picture (8) is here this evening, and he’s come all the way from Iceland. I’m delighted to see him here.
Last time I saw James Gowan he had my book at his elbow, which wasn’t unusual, and he had it open at a page which shows the mosque at Cordoba. ‘You know’, he says, ‘that’s a bit like Leicester’. And I just thought, oh, blimey what a beautiful observation. (9)
I pinched this picture for my book from Rossi’s The Architecture of the City and never gave it another thought. You know, that’ll do. I then got a postcard from Warren McFadden on a field trip, slightly emotional if you know what I mean. I guess written in the early evening, going on about this church. So I went onto Google because I’d only really used it to say that this is what the difference between pure architecture, where you need a clear sight, and interior design, which is what we called it, was. The difference was that you had to deal with the world as it existed.
So I went onto Google and looked at some interiors. I sort of already knew, but I’d been to a lecture years ago and it talked about Islamic architecture, and the mosque at Cordoba is one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture. It has these square bays, and every dome over the bay is different. It’s the most extraordinarily beautiful thing. And I suppose you have to say this is the wonderful pay-off from not trying to paint what Jesus or God looks like. (10+11)
And at some time it was turned into a cathedral when the Christians pushed Islam out of Spain, who were born and bred there, in Spain. Spain was once Islamic. They weren’t invaded or anything; it was very a settled.
So it was converted into a Catholic cathedral and it was done beautifully. I guess this is what struck me, how beautifully it was done, whereas I thought it clearly is an act of fantastic brutality. But nevertheless it’s carried out with just incredible skill and grace and it made me think that perhaps all changes of use are heretical; they’re all sort of heresies in a way. Like a mill where people who’ve spent their working lives for bugger-all being driven deaf by the machine, converted into luxury flats, that’s a heresy isn’t it? Sorry, I didn’t mean to make it so loaded as that; it could be much gentler than that, but the whole sort of question of propriety is a very difficult one I think, and one I’m not going to address this evening. After the war there was a film made in England called The Ship That Died of Shame, which was about a brave little battleship that spent the war sinking Nazis. Then after the war it was used for ... I don’t know, smuggling whiskey or something incredibly shameful. And it sort of sank as if this change of use, … you get it, …don’t you get it?
So I suppose it’s the same thing; there’s something about restoration and doing up old buildings, which has a sort of colonialist spirit about it. The luxury flats in mill buildings are a case in point. It removes buildings from their social context. This is a photograph by a wonderful guy called Phil Maxwell (he’s actually just moved to Liverpool) who had a sort of monthly blog of photographs taken in the Brick Lane area. (12)
So Christ Church, Spitalfields, a great church by Nicholas Hawksmoor, a church with the strangest of narratives. It’s very difficult to get photographs of it. It’s stood empty for years, and it’s incredible there’s nothing on the net, almost nothing. You can’t get any photographs so it’s very interesting. But anybody in the know knew that you’d get in there at certain weekends, and it was the most glorious place. It was the most magnificent ruin: handsome beyond belief. (13)
The Mausoleum at Castle Howard by Nicholas Hawksmoor, which you’d never get to; it’s always stood out there in the cornfields. It looks like the best building in England and this is close to it. Very, very beautiful.
And this is what Louis Khan says about building, “When a building is completed it wants to say, look how I’m made, but nobody is listening because the building is fulfilling function. When it becomes a ruin, the way the building is made becomes clear, the spirit returns”. And I think it was absolutely concisely true of what Spitalfields was made of. That’s what Christ Church Spitalfields was like.
It’s now been restored. It’s a fucking disaster. It’s spitting distance from the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings. Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings - what does that mean? Did they do anything? Did they? Nothing. So these tragedies happen, you know. I’m sorry.
OK, so that’s the notion of some sort of colonisation from above, but equally there can be colonisations from below. These are two pictures of Havana and the one at the bottom, the one that John and I know, is in the hourly quarter of Palermo, where there are baroque palaces which are lived in by poor people, which are astonishingly beautiful places, with huge mirrors intact, statues intact. (14) Extraordinarily undamaged. Extraordinarily beautiful inhabitations, colonisations of a different sort. (Bottom Left) This is the disgusting Duke of Windsor in Batista’s Cuba, before the Revolution.
And this is Paddington, the year before I moved into the area. It’s the law of London housing that the rich take over the houses of the poor and the poor take over the houses of the rich. This is the law. It will happen again, and it might happen soon. (15)
The first alteration to the Westway was that somebody wrote on it, ‘This too will burn.’ I’m not sure whether it was that old lady who did it or not. (16)
OK here’s a photograph taken by one of the partners I would think. I don’t think it’s Freddie, it’s not him. It won the Stirling prize. It interests me how architects have moved into working on old buildings, so this suddenly begins to be the sort of prime project - the thing to do. It’s quite interesting where a year or two ago it really wouldn’t be much significance, which is in a way another sort of colonisation. (17)
It was interesting that when Astley Hall won it, which is a lovely job and absolutely beautiful building, Park Hill was also in the running for the Sterling Prize. I’m glad that didn’t win. But it does show an incredible infirmity in the thinking in the RIBA about what is good work and what isn’t good work. Extraordinary shiftiness. Jumping on a bandwagon.
But also, somehow, it’s also this. (18) I apologise. I’m sorry. But it is somehow. You think it’s this way of approaching old buildings which has been going on for a bit of time, and it’s a bit CSI, you know, like don’t leave any fingerprints. Not me Guv, you know?
When I first hit on this idea in a museum in Ischia, looking at old pots, I thought - that’s it, that’s it, I thought I’d absolutely solved the whole problem of alteration. (19) That’s it, that’s it! It led me to think that somehow if you use modernist interventions, pure surface, pure geometry, it would always work, and you’d get away with it, and I was very convinced about that for some time.
That sort of smooth surface approach is something that had been worked on in continental practices, in particular in Italy of course, just to show how far England is behind in terms of this sort of practice. This is the sort of thing that was being worked on in Italy 30 years ago, and this terrific book Adaptations, by Philippe Robert, used to be absolutely standard work for us, it’s a terrific collection of continental work of adaptations, that seem to be doing what we wanted to do.
And also, if you want to look at this self-effacing approach to restoring buildings, then you could look at Francesco Venezia. Gibellina was wiped off the face of the earth by a terrible earthquake in 1968, and the Palazzo at the bottom of the hill was left ruined, and they rebuilt Gibellina some 60 kilometres from the original site, and Francesco Venezio got the job where the Palazzo was transported, and he made this reconstruction. (20+21)
Look, you can see what he did, he took stone from the rock that they built the original Palazzo with, and did an analysis, and matched it to the thing, so equally, using this sort of modernist thing about surface that somehow one can only use a pure surface, he produced this most wonderful result. So a sort of self-effacement, but also something that is contributory.
Perhaps a greater example is this, when the Arno in Florence burst its banks in the 1960s, and the great Cimabue crucifix was in the basement of Santa Croce on trestles having a bit of work done to it and it was flooded. It was reported, I can remember it, that it was completely destroyed.
Now, look at these, who else but Italians could have that look on their faces when they drag a crucifix thousands of miles away. (22)
The tragedy unified Italian industry; if you don’t know the story, it’s the most wonderful story. They were all drawn in: Olivetti, what’s the tyre company called, Pirelli. Pirelli invented ways of lifting - they lifted the whole of what remained of the paint surface and the rotted wood on the back of the crucifix was replaced with this wonderful patchwork. It’s just astonishingly beautiful. In a way it worships the original thing. In just restoring it, you’re also sort of worshipping it.
And painters from all over, like trying to herd cats, trying to get a painter to come to do it. They worked out this hatching which they then just filled in on all the damaged surfaces, really not being assertive in any way. It can bring enormous richness just in the mending of things. (23)
But inevitably there’s copying in restoring buildings. These are the pictures I use, taken by myself in Bolsover Castle, one of my favourite places in the whole wide world. (24 + 25)
And Dennis Skinner, the MP of Bolsover is called the Beast of Bolsover. I once stood by him on the tube and I said keep it up Dennis, he said “Oh I will mate, I will”. But this is a lovely castle that sits above the town and of course they bloody copy things, you know. They pretend that they don’t but it’s a pretence because it’s a sort of activity below what nice people do. Us architects and artists we don’t do that, craftsmen do that, i.e., the fucking working class do that, and they’ve got no fucking judgement have they? Which is untrue and a lie, but you know the tension between the classes…
But even given that of course, craftsman do all the work. Like beautiful London was built by illiterate Irishmen and beautiful brickwork - you can hardly find a fault with it wherever you look. But apart from that this copying does go on inevitably, and it’s fraught with all sorts of difficulties. First of all, as Ruskin says, everything’s lost in the first inch. He’s right you know, the first inch is where everything is lost, so if you’re going to restore then you’re guessing, you’re guessing. And the second thing is - is a person doing the carving as good as the first person doing it or worse than the first person doing it? You know, these are all in the air, all matters of chance. So it’s necessary to bring the practices of copying within the strictures of the theoretical thought.
But we are afraid of copying you know of course because there are questions of identity and of authenticity. It’s also this sort of terror that we have deep inside of us. It comes to us through fairy tales, this is the thing of doppelgänger you know. As Ruskin says, a thing described in false terms, your grandmother being a wolf for example, or whatever it is which is in the fairy-tale. But it’s like a terror we have of something that looks just like something we know and it’s something quite foreign. So I think the practice of copying is resistive. I find it a quite human thing. (26)
But in painting there’s a realisation at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century, 1908 really, that the more accurately you describe something the more delusional it is, the more illusionist it is, the more you’re confounding in people. This is a foundation for cubism and modern painting then comes in the 20th century. This realisation is a wondrous thing - once you realise it you can’t get it out of your head. (27+28)
It’s sort of interesting to me that at that same period in cubism when Saussure publishes his book, he detaches words from objects. He just rips them apart and so there’s no connection between them, the same way that sometimes a painting rips apart representation and the act of painting and in particular I think it rips apart the notion of the perspective. It’s very interesting these two things are coincident and have a lot to with one and the other you know. (29)
But once that had been realised in the visual art, it allowed him enormous freedom, in particular which Picasso exploited, he says “Copy everybody except yourself” at one point he says and later on he says “I don’t copy I steal’ and you can see in his work that copying gives him terrific licence. Particularly with the later work; as with the famous Matthias Grunewald altarpiece (30) and his painting Crucifixion (31), it gives him enormous strength, creative strength.
But somehow in building it’s sort of stuck in the literal, copying being something about the exact depiction of something, it had to make that crucial modernism step somehow. I just want to look at this - it is the domino house, 1914, at the same time in a matter of two years. The cubists were in full flow at that point and the domino house appeared. (32)
Just to work through this thing with the idea, with the problem of context and authenticity. It’s a sort of corner post to the modern movement, the domino house and it looked so innocuous. I always say to students compare this with the Paris Opera House of the late 1890’s, and Garnier’s Palais. That’s the paradigm of Beaux-Arts architecture. And the domino house - how can there possibly appear a bigger contrast, these two paradigms. This paradigm outweighs the Beaux-Arts one.
I mean in a way renaissance architecture is much simpler than Gothic architecture, so that was a sort of simplification, which also elbowed out something more complicated. Certainly this happens with the modernism.
Well just think about context in a way of authenticity. It’s a half formed thought that I’m still working on, but he certainly imagined the Villa Savoye (33) as a realisation of the domino house as an enclosure. He used pot bricks you know, a really quite primitive peasant building method, whereas it was meant to be built of this magic, modernist material which was white and rectilinear, which they never discovered. Kept proposing houses in it, but fuck it.
So I just thought of this beautiful project by my friend and neighbour Valentin [Bontjes van Beek] for rebuilding the domino house. Have you seen this? They had it made in one of those German factories that make houses - those wonderfully precise houses. And here it is at the Biennale Giardini (34). Well this is sort of a notion of a copy hey? And it’s something that doesn’t try to be the same as the original thing but it gives a reference to it. It’s in no way a parody or a plagiarism it’s absolutely clear of all those. Through a creative act copying can be a worthy activity.
(35) This is a joke that blew up in the cartoonist’s face, because it proves he can’t do anything, which the cartoonist in his stupidity thought it showed. But it shows exactly the opposite. It shows that alteration does need a structure to free form. It absolutely needs a structure because it works with the existing. And it does go back to one question that Julian Powell Tuck said to me when we were walking to the pub. We were going to the pub for a pasty and half a pint of bitter when we were teaching at Kingston and he said to me, “There’s only one question, how much can you change building”? That’s right, that is exactly right, that is the only question.
I know you shouldn’t do this. This is another form of destruction; to destroy, to change the original style of a building is wrong. It is wrong. It shouldn’t be allowed. I wrote to Leon Krier on this and told him what I was going to say, so in his generous nature he said, “That’s okay”.
So you have to think about style. Corb, when equating three of the five points with a tent, says, “Where is the style in this? Where are the styles in this?” And two pages later in The Radiant City it then has all this pipework and then a picture of the Cité de Refuge. Of course, he’s establishing what we all know is the modernist style, as strict as Baroque or neoclassicism or any of the others. And it is a question not of style, that style is morality. It’s not simply about appearance. (36)
This says more elegantly than something that I think I’ve been trying to say all night, which is simply that really it is about the double nature of things. I’ll make this proposition - that the past and the future are Siamese twins, inseparably connected in the present. (37)
So the best work of interior designers looks both back and forwards. It’s a sort of double sensation. (38+39)
And the greatest works aspire towards a double ecstasy.
Published 17th October 2018
“Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed. Do not let us deceive ourselves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.” John Ruskin (4)
“To restore a building, it isn’t to maintain it, to repair or rebuild it, it is to recover a perfection that may never have existed at any given time” Viollet-le-Duc (5)
“When for example, one of us was about to stoop to possess himself of a pretty daisy, and the other at exactly the same moment, was on the point of stretching up to pluck a ripe fig,... The interrupted gesture of one twin would be swallowed and dissolved in the enriched ripple of the other’s completed action. I say “enriched” because the ghost of the unpicked flower somehow seemed to be also there, pulsating between the fingers that closed upon the fruit.”
Vladimir Nabakov, Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster, The Reporter, March 20th. 1958