Resistance is fertile

Our cities tell us everything we need to know about architecture and resistance.

Our cities tell the tale of architects’ relationship with resistance. In the 17th century, after the Great Fire, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and John Evelyn proposed ambitious rebuilding schemes for London. None of these plans was implemented, scuppered by pragmatism, not least because it was impossible to discover the true ownership of land and buildings and there were no means to calculate compensation to put in place compulsory purchase orders.

Much of the City’s old street plan was simply resurrected, modified by fire-preventative measures (such as wider streets and better materials), improved sanitation and the creation of open wharves along the Thames to boost trade. Logistical resistance may have been fatal to master-planning but it proved to be a vital force in the future development of London. By honouring the medieval street pattern, our capital has allowed a chaos and looseness to prevail, which have encouraged its continual evolution.

In 19th-century Paris, there was no such politesse or resistance to title-holders’ rights. The movement of citizens was deliberately restricted by planning to limit the mob’s ability to resist: boulevards were placed over the existing grain of labyrinthine, medieval alleyways to facilitate military movement. Individual buildings became subservient to the wider urban aesthetic with regimented facades. As beautiful as it may be, Haussmann’s plan for the city did not countenance change. Instead, it became the new baseline that Parisians have had to adopt or adapt to ever since: it’s a coherent city but also an irresistible one. Perhaps it is the legacy of Haussmann’s totalitarian move that is being played out in the conservative cultures of Paris today, a city struggling to reconcile itself to the demands of the 21st century.

By contrast, New York’s grid, laid down by the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, is deceptive in its rigidity. The liberty to defy the grid in the third dimension was the real masterstroke, giving Manhattan one of the great skylines of the world. Occasionally, when the grid is resisted – in cases such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim or, more recently, the High Line – a previously unimagined respite from the city is created and the break is exhilarating.

Resistance is built into the architectural discipline and touches on the essence of what design means to me as an architect – that is, to work with resistance by weaving it into the design process, balancing the tension between complexity and intuition.

There is another more literal aspect to resistance embedded in the process of design, in the territory between thinking and making. We make models to test our thinking in three dimensions. Whether it is kneading a piece of plasticine, cutting and gluing card or folding a piece of paper, it is a precious stage in the evolution of an idea. So much can happen at this fragile moment: the scalpel might slip but suggest a cleverer way of dealing with a difficult junction; the search for a material to take up your imagined form can reveal a structural solution; a chance exchange with a colleague at the model-making table might cause the pursuit of a different route. Equally, the banality of an idea might be exposed – but as the confrontation with failure is so visceral, you are driven to start again.

I make this point to counter what I see as the creep of an unchecked evangelism around the advent of 3-D printing, a technology that offers no resistance. In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett writes of the intimate connection between problem-solving and problem-finding, how a designer is willing to risk losing control: “Machines break down when they lose control, whereas people make discoveries, stumble on happy accidents.”

Chris Anderson, author of Makers: the New Industrial Revolution, writes of the liberation that 3-D printers bring: how they turn us all into designers and how complexity now comes at no cost. It may come without economic cost at a small scale but in architecture, if we are not careful, this is at the expense of integrity. Complexity for its own sake is the path to baroque mannerism and lazy thinking. The second you press that button to transmit your computer file to the machine that builds up your design, layer by microscopic layer of resin, you relinquish all control. There is none of the positive resistance that comes from the relationship between the hand and the intellect. The design process stops right there. Your design is printed as imperfectly as it has been conceived but the conceit is the appearance of achievable perfection.        

Resistance is the fuel in the process of design because it forces us to think more deeply and keeps alive the risk of failure. Cities fail and are never perfect because they are the aggregate of imperfect humans. But the most vibrant cities, such as London, are those that harness the benefits of resistance, accept failures and learn from them.

Amande Levete is the principal of the architectural studio AL_A

The Guggenheim museum in New York. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.