Perverted architecture

Hate and humour, distaste and consideration, aggression and mildness; the string of opposites to be discovered in methodology or results is diverse. After all, it requires quite a bit of violence to break free from the dogmas of modernism.

There is still no good term for design inspired by negative impulses. The closest approximation is ‘to pervert’: corrupt, falsify or distort something in a negative sense. Perversion is not only a matter of direct action but also of inciting, depraving, or leading others into evil. This makes it an extremely useful term with respect to designing, since it is not always clear whether the perversion has been deliberately inserted or is solely a projection of the outside observer. Furthermore, perversion covers a larger area than repugnance or irony, and in its application it can range from extremely subtle to brutal.

The approach is not entirely novel. In the recent and not so recent past there are examples of the use of repugnance as a design method. But the incidents are now growing into a veritable movement in which perversion, irony and voyeurism are very clearly expressed in a design. As has been the case in other forms of cultural expression for a good while longer, this approach is characterized by the ‘in your face’ positing of a number of assertions. Considering the reputation of New Brit Art and New Brit Cinema, it would have been logical if the architectonic variant had arisen in England. Thus far, however, it seems still to be developing most rapidly in the Netherlands. Perhaps this is a result of the relative ease with which commissions are awarded to young architects here. Let us consider what kinds of things come under the heading of ‘perversion’.

Perversion as the product of repugnance

For years, the Cinecenter cinema has stood on the Lijnbaansgracht in Amsterdam, hidden from the mass of visitors to nearby Leidseplein. It recently underwent extensive refurbishement. Immediately after the restyling I could still hear the eyeballs in the blood-red carpet crackling under my feet. Now, as I once again descend the staircase to the auditoria, the carpet is too dirty (that’s pretty quick) to spy on you at all. In the dark – I am deliberately too late to have to sit through the adverts – I find my way down the aisle and sink into a soft theatre seat. The film is especially worthwhile, but things only really get exciting in the interval. When the curtain closes in front of the screen and the lights goes up, it turns out that I am completely surrounded by heavy, blood-red curtain. The auditorium is monochrome to the very last detail. The ceiling is furnished with huge Chesterfield buttons, from which overly simple, thus specially designed, chandeliers are hanging. From the corner of my eye I think I see a little lamp swaying in the current of air from the air conditioning. And another. This cinema is spooky. The threat of horror jolts me awake. Through a hole that is lit in a red so lugubrious that I almost miss the exit sign, I flee the auditorium, order a beer, snap up the very last cowhide-covered stool, and lean back against the cuddly-looking, padded white wall only to bang my head against … sigh!

A cinema is not meant to last for ever, so it is permissible to violate the golden design rule: ‘How often can you laugh at the same joke?’ But the balance has tipped a little too far in the direction of undergraduate humour. This distracts attention from the underlying significance. The repugnance stems from the assignment to create a cinema that stands out from the Pathé chain’s giants. Since it was founded, Cinecenter has made a practice of showing politically sound and art-house films. For a corresponding politically sound design, a club of wildcats like NL Architects should be your last port of call, you might think. Think again. The design intelligently integrates cinematic themes, and as a visitor you are transported away from reality by the architecture as much as by the film.

The mechanism to pervert out of repugnance for a design commission contains more possibilities than humour alone. What do you do if a client asks you to design an extension to his house and it turns out that he lives in a hideous pseudo-farmhouse? Do you allow the commission to pass you by on the assumption that the client’s taste is irreconcilable with yours? Do you propose razing the house – to which he is so attached and which holds such fond memories – and starting again from scratch? Or do you think up a smart scheme that allows you to design the extension completely independently and to make the relationship between the extension and the original house so passionate that the little farmhouse has no option but to surrender itself completely to the will of the dominant newcomer? If the theoretical responsibility for the design is then taken strictly seriously, it is even possible to integrate the little farmhouse into a piece of high-quality architecture.

A comparable consideration can come into play if the building to be extended is historically or culturally important. The manner in which a classical colossus in Budapest was given a new lease of life as an office for ING bank and Nationale Nederlanden insurers makes one suspect the work of a perverted mind. Without touching the beautiful facade (from the street the building looks like a pristine example of traditional bank chic), a parasite has gnawed its way into the roof and nestled there comfortably. The beast has voluptuous curves, and wallows in infinite reflections and extravagant materials, thereby referring to the baroque or, according to connoisseurs, to Lebbeus Woods.1 For many architects it is blasphemy to spend time on baroque architecture in the 21st century, let alone in connection with the conversion of a classical monument. A closer acquaintance with the designer reveals that he did indeed deliberately do ‘something naughty’, but that he was not courageous enough to allow his disgust to express itself. To use the architect’s own words: ‘It’s a strange presence on top of a roof. Of course something like that breaks all the rules, but it provides a tension, because you can never see the object in its entirety’.2

Some designers make repugnance a goal in itself. They become addicted. If repugnance turns sour it begets cynicism, and though that may be amusing for a while, after that it becomes terribly tiresome. In the architectural work of John Körmeling I sometimes sense cynicism. With the little pioneer’s house atop the customs and excise office on the Reeweg in Rotterdam, however, it is not the cynic who is speaking, but an intelligent architect with a socio-critical standpoint. It makes a patently clear plea for the ideal of freedom, the pioneering spirit. Like a parasite, the little house makes the colossus of the customs office seem ridiculous; it perverts the good intentions of the hyper-regulated society of the Netherlands: away with borders, it cries, away with rules, so much for originality, and so much for functionality. It is an icon, an architectural manifesto that needs no explanation whatsoever.

Perverting through irony

There is an inductive connection between irony and perversion: irony can be regarded as a subtle form of perversion, but perversion is by no means always ironic. Irony, the expression of ideas by using language that normally means the opposite, is a form of distortion, of falsification. The intention is fairly innocent and the means – the mockery – mild. Strangely enough, the use of irony in literature, the theatre and cabaret is completely respectable, while irony in architecture is regarded as highly suspect.

Young Dutch architects want nothing to do with dogmatic ideologies. In the capitalized 21st century, the demands of the client are sacred: if the client asks for a Mies then a Mies it will be. The quality of the architect is only revealed in the idiom employed in formulating the ‘OK, then you will get a Mies’ response. For One Architecture, the design process did not start until this point. The Farnsworth house, the client’s favourite architectural icon, was presented in childish sketches as a virile brute that forcefully takes the naive, vulnerable little farmhouse. The seed of the design lies in the crystallization of this rencontre. The harshness of the deed can be clearly seen in the details of the junction. The interior, where the existing little farmhouse effortlessly converges with the Miesian extension, raises the suspicion that there is perhaps some kind of affection lying below the surface. But it is more than just an amusing metaphor; the sample employed is unravelled and transformed. It is no accident that the design methods used could have been devised by Schinkel. Joost Meuwissen, until recently one of the partners in One Architecture, studied Schinkel extensively, but the Prussian architect was above all the model of Mies van der Rohe. Being posthumously improved on by your teacher, and then on your masterpiece, that is true irony.

NL Architects are not avers to irony either. Typologically, the contemporary cinema is first and foremost a box where, temporarily shut off from physical reality, you can project yourself into the mostly recognizable but virtual reality of the film. In Hollywood productions, the illusion of reality has become a goal in itself. Awareness of a physical environment would only negate the bombardment of special effects: slick, unpretentious amusement. Cinecenter is not this kind of cinema. The Cinecenter shows critical, intelligent films for a discerning, intelligent public. The interventions of NL bring about an alienating Droste effect: on entering, the voyeuristic cinemagoer suddenly seems to be spied on from all sides by the eye of the architect. The hunter gets hunted. The architect’s jokes in the various spaces of the cinema are a release for those for whom the films were overly serious. In the foyer I read profound significance in the manifold use of circles (a taboo: Wenn der Architekt nicht weiss, macht er ein Kreis [when the architect doesn’t know what to do, he makes a circle] ). In combination with the cowhide stools and the milk-white padded wall, the origin seems to be terribly simple: the Netherlands is made of cheese and NL Architects design in a Dutch way.3 Wim T. Schippers succeeded in finding a high-paying audience for a stage play performed exclusively by sheepdogs. The intelligent audience imagined there was some deep meaning to it, had a splendid time and Wim had a good laugh at their expense. This same public that goes to see films at the Cinecenter. And I am one of them.

While in the abovementioned examples irony is a means of design, an escape from the prevailing ideology, with Körmeling it seems to be an end in itself, often proclaimed as a new ideology. He also stands out as a fifty-year-old who at times behaves like a naughty young puppy. The little pioneer’s house is part of a series of little huts by which he comments on architectural or social issues. Like a great deal of his architectural designs, few of the works in this series have been realized. Perhaps the most famous example is the prefab hut he proposed to place on top of Piet Blom’s cube dwellings. Blom was to be allowed to remove it as soon as he thought that his work was finished.

In principle, irony has a conscious author and a sympathetic public. When the irony is not understood, the game falls flat on its face. But what happens if the public senses the presence of irony but the author is not aware of it? Something like this must be the case with Erick van Egeraat. His work is rich enough to be ascribed meaning. But if I am to believe his monograph, he has not consciously put it in. Six ideas about architecture, which can be summarized as: ‘Architects should just get on and make tasteful buildings.’4

Perverting history

Körmeling comments on a history that he himself has written. He has devised a splendid construction that turns back time. The pioneer’s house refers to a style known in the United States as ‘Dutch Colonial’. However, the way in which he deals with scale and materials is derived from the idiom of Walt Disney. And this icon, the product of a forgotten piece of Dutch history, is brought back to a homeland that it has never known, and then disguised in a Disney costume on order to help the present-day Dutch rediscover their craving for freedom. A round of applause.

It is no secret that architects make use of quotations. The quote is usually employed in an essay, an architecture theory. Not in the case of One Architects. The Villa Bollen is composed of a series of quotes, samples that, with a heavy beat in Pilarguri slate and stainless steel, resonate like drum ‘n bass with raw rap. There is no narrative, but rather a collection of short stories. Each sample tells its own tale, independently of one another, not in interdependent dialogue. It does not eschew confrontation. If the sliding doors to the bedroom have to dovetail with the facade overlooking the garden, then this is expressly not at the junction with the jamb. The practical problem that arises at this juncture is inspiration for design: the sliding door (a ‘Rem’ quote) is combined with a massive industrial brush, a kind of beard.

This is how the construction is solved. It does not adopt any dogmatic stance, but finds another reason for entering into the dialogue with history. The only column that stands in the space is constructed from four back-to-back, welded angle sections in rolled stainless steel. The detail of the column is pure and simple and lacks the packaging trick of the original. That is also how Mies would have wanted it.

One’s version of Farnsworth quotes Dr. Dré: ‘I only wanna fuck bad bitches.’

Perverting detail

Whether it is green plastic facade panelling, thin-stemmed lamps that are made to seem to float in mid-air by the addition of a double eccentrically rotating band, or a slate facade that appears to be sinking its teeth into a tiled roof: ‘in your face’ means having an eagle eye for detail. The great master of modernism would turn in his grave, but ‘God is a DJ’, so He is no longer in the details. Perverted details have little horns, cloven hoofs and pointy tails.

In NL Architects’ acclaimed WOS8 heating station, the link with fetishism – black paintwork, leather and latex – was quite overt. The Cinecenter is rather more abstract. Here the main thing is the colour. Red carpet, red seats, walls of red curtain, a ceiling draped with red fabric, red loudspeakers, red smoke detectors, and a bath of red light at the exit. Tarantino would feel at home here. In another auditorium, FIN appears in black light on the rear wall at the same time as THE END on the screen. The lobby is white with crackling blue accents at the ticket booth and the bar. The deceptively cuddly wall goes a step further than the retro seventies ‘lounge style’ might make one suspect. It looks soft and caressable because of its form, but it is encased in an outer layer of white polymer. We are familiar with this illusion from the work of Jeff Koons with his chromium-plated, inflatable animals. Here the intention is different. Close up, the wall looks as pockmarked as WOS8 or the salt-water pavilion by Kas Oosterhuis. They are objects that look friendly and caressable from a distance because of their fluid lines. The resilience of the object only reveals itself on closer acquaintance. Choosing a white surface instead of a black one, makes the deception even starker.

Materials in themselves evoke all kinds of associations. This is, of course, related to time and culture and… a dirty mind is a joy for ever. But surely it is not just my own mind that associates shiny steel with handcuffs, piercings and chains? In that case the villa by One Architecture dishes out a spanking dose of SM. The most remarkable element is the classic cornice in stainless steel that terminates the top of the 18.5-metre glazed garden elevation. With a feeling for abstraction it is possible to detect the abacus and echinus, but the form is more particularly functional. There is a phenomenal amount of technology hidden beneath the skin of the cornice. Terrace lighting and heating, and even insect exterminators are installed in a parabolic vault. An enormous sunblind emerges magically from the cornice. And the technology of everything that can be set in motion via the master remote control – the sliding doors, the curtain, the screen – is hidden behind this cornice. I still have the sneaking feeling that there is something not quite right. There must be a trap somewhere that is waiting to surprise you. I don’t see any dead mosquitoes, so what does this machine actually kill? Is the unsuspecting burglar silently cloven in two by a guillotine?

Being consistent is another prerequisite. Actors cannot permit themselves to step out of their role either, unless as part of a preconceived plan. So it is not simply about the choice of material, but also its treatment, about the texture and the arrangement of diverse materials and colours. In other words: perverted architecture requires classical architectonic craftsmanship. And a great deal of it does not come amiss. In this respect there is an essential difference between the much of One Architects and Erick Van Egeraat’s much. A bathroom in dazzling, seamless white, windowless for the sake of privacy but arranged so that you can still feel that you are having a bath in the open air, a horizontal mirror as a substitute for a window, gentle undulations in the floor surface and walls that introduce an imbalance in the space, lots of sandblasted glass and artful tricks with the lighting and positioning of elements. Altogether, it is a bathroom with a distinctive quality, but one that you cannot capture or categorize. The space is immaterial. With Van Egeraat, on the other hand, the much is employed in order to become the eventual denominator. His fascination with the baroque results in a great deal of visual effects, lots of colour, reflection and materials.

Style, trend or game?

It seems rather too soon to propose Perverted Architecture as a new style. Perhaps that time will never come. Styles are somewhat relative. Furthermore, now that we live in a network society, mutual influences have become so intermingled that it is much more difficult to categorize a style. What then remains is the trend, the short-term variant of style that is limited to the present day.

Style or trend, identification and interpretation are still difficult. While for one person the ‘Beer and Piss Pavilion’ that One Architecture designed together with Berend Strik for a competition in Vienna is a vulgarity, for another it is the work of a perverse mind, and for a third, a superficial inanity. But it can just as easily be regarded as the ingenious escape from a cultural condition (which, incidentally, at the very least precludes an appreciation in the sense mentioned above).

The truth, the collective agreement about the assessment of perceptions, stands out in ideology and experiment. Perversion systematically oversteps the bounds of ideology. This creates room for experiment so allowing architecture to be practised in an empirical way. Pessimists will contend that this seals the fate of architecture, that its cultural and social role is finally played out, that it has lapsed into decadence. Taken to extremes the mechanism may result in absolute solipsism or be used as a front for total commercialism.

But don’t let us take the analysis too far. As experiment, as a sounding out of the possible, as an exploration and even confirmation of the limits of architecture, perversion proves its usefulness. Even if it is just a temporary opening in a perpetually closing argument. Not the cynical or immoral end, but the impassioned search for a new beginning…

1. Bart Lootsma, Super Dutch. De tweede moderniteit van de Nederlandse architectuur (SuperDutch. New Architecture in the Netherlands), BIS Publishers, Nijmegen, 2000.
2. Interview with Erick van Egeraat by Corine Koole, Archis no. 11, 1997, p. 54.
3. Tessa Blokland, ‘Take a gooood look’, in: Frame, no. 7, 1999.
4. Interview with Erick van Egeraat by Corine Koole, Archis no. 11, 1997, p. 50. See also: Deyan Sudjic, Erick van Egeraat: Six Ideas About Architecture / Sechs Anmerkungen Zur Architektur, Berlin/Basle/Boston, 1997.


Perverse architecture