Out of Character
In 1812, Sir John Soane wrote ‘Crude Hints towards an History of my House’, a strange and perplexing text in which he imagined his home as a ruin centuries in the future, inspected by visitors who speculate on its origins and function. Soane suggested that visitors might infer the Museum to have been inhabited by four characters: a Lawyer, a Monk, a Magician and an Architect.
Written at the time he was building No. 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields – purchased in 1808, following No. 12 in 1792 – ‘Crude Hints’ reveals an author obsessed by his legacy and future reputation. Despite the ruin and process of ruination being recurring themes of his work, Soane was concerned that his reputation might diminish and decay after his death. In part this was a consequence of his failed ambitions to establish an architectural dynasty due to the limited ability of his sons, George and John. ‘Crude Hints’ can be seen as being a reflection of Soane himself, how he wants his legacy to be interpreted, the characters existing as facets of him.
A person’s character is what make them individual: it is who they are. Through Out of Character, 2018, a project with Owen Hopkins, senior curator at the Sir John Soane Museum, we gave life to the four characters as architectural compositions of ornament, colour and form. The pieces exist somewhere between model and building in scale and aim to move beyond mere representation or speculation. Instead, the project is an investigation into character and architecture, exploring ornament as a tool through which architecture can communicate, whether this be factual or fictional narratives.
Too many pieces of architecture are devoid of character: plain, voiceless and clone like. If buildings and architecture are to be more relatable, how can we imbue them with character? And, how can the character of a person, culture or place inflect on that of a building? What could an architectural character be, and what are the tools to convey that?
Out of Character responded to the theme of ‘ornament’ and ran alongside an exhibition of Soane’s Royal Academy lecture drawings on the subject. As it is today, ornament was one of the most contentious issues for architects in Soane’s time. The exquisite drawings displayed show an architect exploring how ornament can locate a project within a broader culture of ideas as well as a direct link to place and user.
Loos’ seminal Ornament and Crime, 1908, makes the case for a culture shift away from ornament in architecture: in a productive and advanced culture is it criminal to waste resource and labour in producing fashionable ornament? Modernism’s relationship with ornament – a long estranged partner, perhaps? – in the years following Loos’ text continues still today, more than 100 years on.
As a practice, we believe ornament shouldn’t be seen negatively as exuberance or indulgent pleasure, nor should it be used as whimsy or fashion. It is, fundamentally, a key tool at architecture’s disposal to communicate with human culture, but also evokes delight and joy. Is there anything wrong with a bit of joy?
Our ornament is specific to place, the peculiar coming together of myriad facets of a project: physical context, cultural consciousness, people, history and folklore, future and ambitions. The four characters of Out of Character are at once ornamental, ornamented and pieces of ornament. They respond to a broad range of source material, using sampling and remixing as fundamental tools to construct a language for the project.
A remix is described by Wikipedia as ‘a piece of media which has been altered from its original state by either adding, subtracting and/or changing pieces of the item.’Remixes can exist in any artistic discipline, but are most commonly associated with music. By definition, a remix appropriates and changes existing materials to create something new. Since the advent of recorded sound in the late 19th century, technology has enabled sounds to be altered and played with, rearranging the normal listening experience. Remixing as we think of it today has its roots in the dancehall culture of 1970s Jamaica where DJs would deconstruct and reassemble multiple tracks, bringing them together at different speeds. Remixing formed a fundamental part of hip-hop when Jamaican immigrants in New York introduced this technique to disco producers, resulting in the ‘real-time, live-action collage’ of cutting and scratching in early hip-hop records. The music became something different, but still offered traces of the source material within it, and it is this principle that we strive for in the projects we work on as a practice. We aim to enter a physical dialogue of our own, cutting and scratching in existing aspects of a place to produce a new language with visible traces from history: a piece of architecture in conversation with its context.
To remix you must first select an original piece to sample. Sampling instantly creates a relationship with a history and produces an outcome that is extremely familiar yet perfectly peculiar. Remixing is a technique that we try to adopt in our practice in the attempt at producing an architecture of inclusion that is in a dialogue with the history and character of its place.
At the Museum we were gifted with arguably one of the richest architectural contexts in London. The characters draw on Soane himself, his house, his work and his affiliations, and suggest a series of new narratives. The Lawyer, looking out across Lincoln’s Inn Fields, uses decorative and formal elements to give the character a stage-like presence, redolent of a barrister in court. The Monk, in the dark gothic space of the Monk’s Cell, draws on monastic architecture and physical devotion to portray a tormented soul. The Magician, appearing as a vulgar spatial impossibility in the darkness of the Crypt, misreads Pagan imagery in a show of illusion. The Architect, meanwhile, is an anxious voyeur in a gallery of large casts, struggling for relevance in a fast-moving culture and concerned with monument, meaning and history.
Through a series of in depth discussions with Owen, a period of site-based research, and our own process of drawing-as-research, the characters emerged. Each character exists at 1:1 and as a large-format tapestry compiling drawn research, extracts of the manuscript text, and suggestive illustrations of their traits, showing the quirks, oddities and richness of an architecture of character – an architecture in close dialogue with its context, at once extremely familiar yet perfectly peculiar.