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

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era