The Afterlife of The Element

(2017-2018)

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Abstract

The architecture of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia is manifested through the different physical elements (broadly classifiable as roof, walls, doors, windows, columns and floors) that constitute the basic identifiable parts of the man-made built environment. While inhabiting a place, we normally assimilate this tangible framework as an integrated composition. Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s creatively orchestrated arrangement of form, space and light, skilfully blend these elements to create a harmonised whole. This is expressed both through the varying treatment of light and form in different spaces and the integration of these spaces within the overall composition. The ability to provide a specific response to unique conditions of their given program is executed through the application of the firm’s encoded architectural principles1. Their buildings consist of layers of meaning which strengthen “the bond created between the architect and the occupant of his work” and are gradually revealed as scale shifts. An atmosphere made of richness and charm defines not only a relationship with prior context but also defines another context existing within their creation that allows the elements within it to playfully work together and lead the occupier through an architectural sequence that “prevents the building being perceptually consumed too quickly”. So, relation to context seems to be an integral part of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s architecture and each element contributes to a carefully orchestrated composition. Indeed, the main subject of discussion throughout this research will be the existing relationship of some key elements of Metzstein and MacMillan’s buildings with their given context and the consequences of their display in the absence of such.

The exhibition that will be held in the Sir John Soane Museum in 2020 entitled ‘Elements’ is intended to examine the qualities of series of abstracted fragments of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s buildings which are transposed from their immediate context through the creation of physical models. By submitting itself to the possibility of successive re-creation, these objects enter a period, as defined by Jonathan Miller, of an ‘afterlife’. Extracting the object from its original context in order to display it in a different one, means we are changing its intrinsic meaning. Exhibiting itself comprises of the act of transferring an object from one place or setting that often bears no resemblance with the original and the act of disconnecting that object from its previous arrangement in order to become a subject of an unforeseen type of scrutiny. And through this act of transformation, the elements of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s buildings would begin their afterlives which is not to be confused with the mere continuing of the object’s life. The renewed existence of such fragments allows them to become independent artefacts that would live their own separate life with unique value as full-blooded representations of their existence now.

Sir John Soane museum is a vivid example of a collection of artefacts with such continued existence. It is an incubator of objects with a fascinating afterlife. The museum comprises Soane’s vast collection of over forty thousand antiquities and fragments perfectly arranged in order to create a balanced composition. Carved pilasters, fragments of tessellated pavements and sections of colonnettes brought from various parts of the world seem to magically blend with each other. Each artefact leads a second life due to its subsequent performances and its current arrangement in another context. Similar to the faith of these antiquities, Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s abstracted elements would also curate a different story about space and time once cast and exhibited.

Aims and Objectives

The primary aim of such process of extracting the element from its intrinsic composition is to allow essential qualities of their original composition to become clearer and more intensified. Theories like the Hermeneutical rule6 where “we must understand the whole from the individual and the individual from the whole”2 would help me explore Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s purposeful and innovative structuring of form, space and light and their timeless aesthetic character through the element. This research also seeks to examine and speculate what is being revealed about the work through this second life of the fragments as afterlives. The notion and importance of context and scale is explored through an investigation of case studies while focusing on a particular ‘space- making’, Gillespie Kidd and Coia’s light openings, as an element of notable significance to its context and as an important apparatus that facilitates exchange between the internal and external. The buildings varying arrangement of light sources are explored and physically modelled in order to be used as an example of how an object could transform its meaning within and outside its context.

Once abstracted, these individual building fragments do not contribute to the context, they are no longer part of or influenced by the original setting. Thus, a careful investigation that considers their fascinating transformation from an element in a building to an independent object can now occur. However, objects or elements have a symbiotic relationship with space. Their original function is lost or changed when extracted from their primary context but when placed in a different one they regain another status. Similar to Sir John Soane’s museum, where numerous collections of assembled antiquities live a second life in a different context and time, part of a now different arrangement and object to another interpretation, Gillespie Kidd and Coia’s abstracted elements would also curate a different story about space and time when exhibited.

 

Investigating the particular qualities of the fragment within its context and how it is perceived in relation to the surroundings would be followed by a parallel interpretation of the object outside its setting as an independent element. In order to gain a better understanding of the notion of space and its symbiotic relationship with the different contextual components and vice versa. This topic intends to question the functionality of the architectural element and the importance of its aesthetic value in relation to its surroundings.

Methodology

The present study’s methodology uses the qualitative method as examined in previous research that has been undertaken within the scope of this topic including Johnny Rodger’s “Gillespie, Kidd & Coia Architecture 1956-1987” and Jonathan Miller’s “Subsequent Performances”. The study shall adapt the definitions of previous chapters to the interpreted arguments thus taking on a qualitative method which is expected to support the argumentative characteristics of the research. Case studies of elements found in Robinson College, Cambridge; St. Patrick’s Church, Kilsyth; St. Bride’s Church, East Kilbride; Kingspark Secondary School, Simshill; and St. Peter’s Seminary, Cardross will be briefly analysed and some compared to fragments from Sir John Soane’s museum in terms of their context and absence of such in order to expand on the topic of the ‘afterlife’ of these elements. In order to support the hypothesis and provide examples for the ‘continued existence’ of the element, physical cast models will be created and photographed with the support of archival materials. The study aims to provoke the reader to see Metzstein and MacMillan’s buildings in a new light curated through the key expressive forms of their architecture primarily concerning with the medium of light and give a better understanding of the qualities and characteristics of their work whilst providing connections with the Sir John Soane’s museum’s spaces, artefacts and their contextual arrangement.

The context

CONTEXT

(noun)
1. The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.

2. The situation within which something exists or happens, and that can help explain it.

Oxford English Dictionary

Before undertaking any analysis of the “element” and attempting to explore its significance as an independent object, we need to look at the primary requirement for its existence – the inevitable presence of its context.

In general sense, context can be understood as “the combination of one phenomenon, circumstance, fact or event with others for the creation of a whole”; and as a result, context is the term that indicates “the generation of items through the combination of all events and circumstances. Context acts as the framework or setting where our actions take place. Its importance derives from its intrinsic ability to reveal the spatial items’ inclusion within a combined unity. Context provides completeness of our spatial experience.

The etymological origin of the word derives from the Latin “contexere” that translates as “weaving parts into a whole” and speculatively the word “contexture” which is considered to be more specific for the field of architecture as it means: “the weaving together of words and sentences, or the structure of a composition.”8 These also form the word “contextual” and similar to “context”, this term evokes the essentials of architecture such as the mix of the elements, the perceptibility of material property, the tactility of surface, the cue to scale as well as a sign of handiwork. Context is the platform which allows the spatial items or elements to interact with each other and the occupier, form a perceptible unity and as Le Corbusier put it “buildings ... like so many people are all talking at once”9. In theory, the absence of context would result in an impossibility to make sense of the elements and their aesthetic properties in relation to the absent whole. Similarly, changing the context would concurrently change our perception of that same element.

Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s buildings seem to form entities highly sensitive to both the external environment and the internal sequential arrangement in such way that both would simultaneously shape each other. The harmonic relationship of the elements in the internal spaces is equally intriguing as the elaborate response to the surrounding external environment. As Gavin Stamp put it “In all, there is intelligent exploitation of the peculiar difficulties of the site, to achieve an articulation of elements which - as in all great buildings seems inevitable”. Carefully crafted fragments of varying scale and importance work in consonance and create spaces with incredible richness and depth. An equal “gusto” will be addressed to “a grand issue of urban policy and the

The Element

ELEMENT
(noun)
1. An essential or characteristic part of something abstract.
2. A part of something.
Oxford English Dictionary

So far this essay has investigated the element primarily in terms of its ability to construct a given context. As previously discussed, objects can be understood as a combined unity of spatial items that create a “whole”. However, a more complex relationship can be suggested where the element could shape the context and the context could shape the element. Arguably, this is possible in a scenario where ideas about space are focused on a fully integrated composition of a building’s plan and section, structure, construction and light control; where one can “exploit the expressive opportunities afforded by any given site and derive its rigour from a sensitive understanding of the building programme, whilst taking intellectual pleasure in the purposeful and innovative structuring of form space and light”. Such is the case with Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s architecture. Their work is evidently comprised of a vast amount of spatial fragments with variable significance, sophisticated hierarchy, scale and materiality. Then, which elements are worthy of selection for further analysis and what makes them capable of qualifying for an “afterlife”?

In “Truth and Method”, Gadamer argues that “we must understand the whole from the individual and the individual from the whole”. “If the anticipation of meaning in which the whole is projected is brought to explicit comprehension, in which the whole is projected, then the parts are explicitly comprehended while still determined by the whole and they determine this whole as well”. In short, he outlines that the element has the potential to clarify the notion of the whole and vice versa. Even though Gadamer’s writing is primarily concerned with language and aesthetics, this rule could still be relevant in the context of architecture and more specifically in Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s architecture. Many elements of their buildings seem to work on both a micro and a macro level – while effortlessly interacting with their immediate surroundings and scale they are also informing, clarifying and summarising the overall concept of the building.

An example of this is the Robinson College Chapel fenestration. “The brilliant and unprecedented stepped section” is mimicked by the “swelling and soaring profile” of the stained glass window with its stepped profile. The monolithic configuration of the college with the size of a small village gently erodes while intimately engaged with the lush mature landscape. The same language is used for the chapel - the extraordinary sculptural stratification of the building in plan and section is echoed by the geometry of the fenestration. Seemingly random at first, the stepping of the fenestration profile gradually folded around the altar, works in harmony with the glass divisions in an organised composition reminiscent of a musical piece played on the bespoke organ adjacent to it. The elegant “erosion” is glazed by an ornamented stained glass window reminiscent of typical Cambridge ivy. Seen from the court, the fenestration is a special moment in the robust brick façade that hints at the important activities happening within. The idea of the foreground and background and the proportions of the window engage with the exterior. The charm of this opening is further revealed as one enters the chapel. The ever-changing splash of green and blue light penetrates the rather dark volume through the stained glass and intensifies the ecclesiastical atmosphere whilst instantaneously leading the eye to the altar. The overwhelming size of the fenestration is balanced by a stepped wall in order to match the surrounding scale. The rest of the interior maintains the same language of erosion with its numerous angled elements varying in size, function and texture.

The fenestration seems so comfortably intertwined within its interior arrangement and external surroundings, that an “afterlife” outside this context and proportions seems almost inconceivable. This is no surprise, of course, since the varied language of Gillespie Kidd and Coia’s buildings consistently “recognises the necessity for a greater specificity with respect to both purpose and place, as well as conscientious appreciation of coupled with the prevailing cultural and social values that surround any building programme”.

In the case of St. Patrick’s Church, light characterises and informs the spaces through form and texture in an equally engaging manner. According to Kenneth Nugent “The architecture of the church has always been one of the most demanding of exercises in terms of single-cell structures, seeking as it does, the embodiment of function and aspiration.”19 St. Patrick’s church is the epitome of such an idea with its numerous creative and vigorously crafted light openings. Load bearing brick diaphragm walls punctured by many sculptural light sources support a copper covered roof on steel gilders above a continuous band of clerestory windows. Abundance of elaborate exploitations and manipulations of light effects make the main space appear almost magical. Even though articulated differently, attention to detail and the intimate relationship between occupier and space remains sacred even in the areas of lower hierarchy. Much like the Soane’s museum, the language of light changes according to the function and the level of intimacy needed. The corbelled light wells of St. Patrick’s church bear a certain resemblance with the Monk Parlour in the Soane’s museum where light “increases the sombre character”20. In both cases the ambience of the light is intensified by the dark space. The exterior of St. Patrick’s light wells appears robust with numerous sharp corners defined by the corbelling. The exterior masonry shell of the light well acts as an envelope of the contrasting soft plastered curves expanding and bending to allow light to flow gently from above. Similar to Robinson Chapel, this imaginative “light giver” seems to sum up the level of craft put in the “expressive fenestration” of St. Patrick’s.

On the other hand, elements like St. Bride’s three light shafts that crown the monolithic body of the church and Kingspark Secondary School’s boiler chimney with protruding concrete sculptural vents are in juxtaposition with the rest of the surrounding context. The deep plan of St. Bride’s is informed by the expressive form of the light shafts creating a dynamic interplay between the elements. Similarly, the boiler house at Kingspark is concealed in the slope of the site with protruding vents and the tall boiler chimney proudly announces its individualistic character and sculptural value. These elements seem to exist in a symbiosis with their present context and are simultaneously independent since one could easily imagine their separate life as objects. Their abstract silhouette reveals Metsztein and MacMillan’s imaginative and sculptural language.

It could be argued that St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross has the most engaging relationship with the concept of the afterlife21. The building is leads a prolonged existence as a ruin even without our attempt to transform its elements through interpretation. The seminary has been turned into an abstract entity removed from the outside world through the intervention of time. Before entering its present state of disrepair, the building had another “afterlife” as a drug rehabilitation centre. This gradual transformation of its existence seems to characterise the building with its fortress like appearance amongst the wooded hills of Cardross. Parallel to its present continued existence as an afterlife ruin, its destroyed building fragments lead their separate existence as they continue their lives in our memory and interpretations. An attempt to analyse its use of light has been made through several casts with varying scale. The first cast summarises the silhouette of the main block with its stepped section and H-shaped plan is sculpted in such way as to maximise the penetration of light. The kitchen block also benefits from the emanating qualities of light through the two curved roof lights and series of randomly positioned openings on the wall. These two light sources are transformed into casts in order to capture their sculptural value and playfulness.

The Afterlife

AFTERLIFE
(noun)
1. life after death.
2. the life, for example in heaven, that some people believe begins afterdeath.

Oxford English Dictionary

The word “afterlife” has been associated with multiple meanings and religious interpretations that evidently suggest an existence that takes place after one’s death - two events occurring in a consecutive manner. However, the term in the context of this study is understood as the possibility of successive re-creation of the spatial element through its displacement from the original setting and it is possible while the object still exists in its own context. The afterlife of the element is a form of interpretation through which the steps of transformation can be traced in order to reveal possibilities of unforeseen meanings.

The word is borrowed from Miller’s book “Subsequent Performances” where he is referring to the studies of “the afterlife of the antique”, a process by which classical culture was revived following its long neglect after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. When pieces of classical sculpture were restored and collected during the Renaissance, part of their appeal was undoubtedly associated with their mutilated transformation. An example of this is the iconic Belvedere Torso. The creator had no reason to anticipate that it could become damaged and disfigured by time, yet it is in this form that it has assumed its canonical status. It is difficult to imagine a restoration that could satisfy any modern audience even if the missing parts could be recovered. Strangely, we do not see the sculpture neither as a complete representation of a damaged torso, nor do we see it as a damaged representation of a complete one. In its present afterlife, the sculpture has a self-sufficient identity so that the restoration of the missing parts will seem “just as vandalistic as the knocking off of the bits that survive”.

In a similar manner, the vast collection of building fragments in the Sir John Soane’s Museum lead a fascinating afterlife. Often, their current state as art objects bears no resemblance to the time when they were part of a building’s entirety where they had a certain social, aesthetic or religious function. With the change of context or as Miller puts it “the intention of the author”, these fragments have enlarged their status to become a masterpiece in their own right with a character bequeathed and enhanced by their previous setting. The fragments are now self-sufficient artworks acquiring unintended values and significance they would never have had when subordinated to the image for which they supplied a decorative border. However, concurrently with their independent existence they are also part of a new larger entity – the museum’s permanent art exhibition.

Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s fragments take this notion of continued existence even further. In this scenario, we are not simply looking at a collection of full sized fragments of a structure which are transposed to a different location in order to be exhibited – the transformation process seems to be more complex - GKC’s elements are a subject of a larger abstraction which distances the original source from its reality even further through the questioning and interpretation of materiality, scale and detail.

The process of transformation begins with identifying the original element’s source and its potential to lead an afterlife. An image of an unbuilt model of a real building is constructed where the element is distanced from its reality as the fragment is no longer part of the original architecture but a distorted fragment in our imagination. Then, in order to examine its essential qualities and characteristics, we interpret and distort this image further as we begin to shape the properties of the element’s conceived abstraction. “Although the work may undergo changes that are sometimes tantamount to anamorphic distortions, something equivalent to topological propriety is preserved from one instance to the next”. When the properties and characteristics of the object are changed and stripped down to its pure essence, new unforeseen meanings and values of that object are reviled as it is further distanced from its original setting while still maintaining a relationship with the previous context. However, this relationship is purely aesthetical since the abstracting of a fragment such as a light opening suggests inevitable loss of its previous function since light is intrinsically connected to context. Materiality and details are absent – a pure plaster object emerges strangely reminiscent of its original; scale is fiercely distorted and the object acquires independence. The new-born pure element begins a conversation with its new context. It would be wrong to describe the object as merely continuing its life; it has a new one – an afterlife. Miller, “Subsequent Performances”.

As this afterlife of the elements becomes perceptible, its renewed existence through the change of its appearance and context allows us to see them not simply as faint or attenuated versions of their previous existences but as full-blooded representations of a new existence. All kinds of associations may arise in one’s mind as they observe the casts in their new context at the Soane’s Museum, as it brings them closer to the appearance of fossils, ancient skeletons, bones, skulls or totems. The Robinson College Chapel fenestration becomes an eroded ancient Egyptian totem; St. Patrick’s light well is transformed into a strange nostril orifice; St. Bride’s light shaft and St. Peter’s kitchen roof resemble fragments of prehistoric remains of an animal’s vertebrae; Kingspark’s boiler tower is an ancient god’s statue; St. Peter’s windows are frozen insects that want to fly; the Seminary’s main block is a tiny fossil of the extinct Hemirhodon Trilobite and so on.

The afterlife of the element is primarily determined by its present contextual arrangement and the observer’s elaborative imagination, creativity and interpretation. The continued being of these objects allows their independent existence whilst retaining certain characteristics of their previous setting allowing the observer to see Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s building fragments in a fresh light. The models attempt to capture the sense of permanence and monumentality that both Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s buildings and Sir John Soane’s museum evoke.

Conclusion

The architecture of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia is an embodiment of function and aspiration. Their experimental, but considered exploitation of the peculiar difficulties brought upon by site and place results in a creatively orchestrated arrangement of spaces informed by an elaborative, fluent and adaptable use of form, light, texture and space. Conceptual clarity and integration to the given context defines their close relationship with the existing external surroundings and the holistically crafted internal setting that allows the elements within it to playfully work together and lead the occupier through harmonious spatial sequences. Light is the primary medium that characterises Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s architecture and emanates through their subtle adoption of varied effects and manipulations. The resulting light sources sometimes referred as “expressive fenestration” are skilfully crafted by the creative use of form, texture and space and accentuates each space according to its significance and character. These articulated building elements are transposed from their context to allow essential qualities of their original composition to become clearer and more intensified. The change of their original setting and the exploration of their “afterlife” period indents to provide a fresh look and a better understanding of aspects of their architecture whilst looking for the possibility of unforeseen meanings. The physical representation of their transformation, from integrated parts of an entity to self-sufficient art pieces, is manifest through series of cast models. The hope of each cast is to depict an element’s newly acquired values and characteristics, invoking a sense of permanence and monumentality that was inherent in the work of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia, the pioneers of Scottish post war architecture.

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