A brief addendum on architecture and habituation

Claude Shannon setting
“Theseus” into its rat maze.

Just to clarify, in case my recent post on Bourdieu and de Certeau was misleading, I do not intend to dismiss the role of habituation in art and architecture wholesale:

The human need for shelter is permanent. Architecture has never had fallow periods. Its history is longer than that of any other art, and its effect ought to be recognized in any attempt to account for the relationship of the masses to the work of art. Buildings are received in a twofold manner: by use and by perception. Or, better: tactilely and optically. Such reception cannot be understood in terms of the concentrated attention of a traveler before a famous building. On the tactile side, there is no counterpart to what contemplation is on the optical side. Tactile reception comes about not so much by way of attention as by way of habit. The latter largely determines even the optical reception of architecture, which spontaneously takes the form of casual noticing, rather than attentive observation. Under certain circumstances, this form of reception shaped by architecture acquires canonical value. For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points cannot be performed solely by optical means — that is, by way of contemplation. They are mastered gradually — taking their cue from tactile reception — through habit.

Walter Benjamin, “The work of art in the age
of its technological reproducibility” (1935)[1]

There is probably more to this, as well. Frampton’s insistence upon the tactile, tectonic dimension of architecture as opposed to the visual, scenographic qualities celebrated by postmodern architects, likely stems from a similar reasoning.


[1]  Translated by Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 2003). Pg. 120.

Modernity for penguins — modernity for all!

Berthold Lubetkin’s celebrated
Penguin Pool in London (1934)

Image: A penguin pauses
midway down the ramp
of Lubetkin’s pool (1934)

Aviary, London zoological garden

Reyner Banham

From The Architectural Review.

(№ 138: Sept. 1965). Pg. 186.

Collapsed goal-posts among the trees — this, undoubtedly, is the first impression of the North Aviary from Primrose Hill, and equally undoubtedly it is a very belated contribution to the Arcadian tradition in British architecture. But, within that tradition, it does not belong to the gimcrack wing that gave us so many fake ruins and other collapsed objects among trees; rather, it belongs to the tough-minded stream whose triumphs are the palm stove at Kew Gardens, or Paxton’s Victoria Regia house at Chatsworth.

Lubetkin and Tecton's Penguin Pool (built 1934, photo late 1930s)

Lubetkin and Tecton’s Penguin Pool (built 1934)

In common with these great temples of acquisitive botany, the aviary is a walk-through exhibition-environment. This is not a total innovation at Regent’s Park Zoo, because one is also permitted to share the same physical space as the humming-birds, for instance. But to build on this scale and in the open is a very different problem from the creation of the small, totally artificial environment in which the humming-birds enjoy a manufactured climate secured by double-doored light-trap entrances. In the North Aviary the problem was more that of taming a piece of the existing topography and covering it with an enclosure high enough and broad enough for large birds to fly convincingly — and yet keep the public close enough to avoid the “Whipsnade effect” of sheer distance and natural surroundings making the exhibits invisible. With very little ingenuity, the form and levels of the present site would probably have made for better-than-average visibility even with an enclosure that permitted observation only from the outside. The creation of an internal observation route, by means as complex as a dog-leg bridge without intermediate supports, therefore proposes a significant improvement over outside viewing — and if the design failed to deliver this, then it would fail as architecture however handsome the covering structure. But quite obviously (though not so obviously that one does not have to explain it, alas) the bridge offers a bird’s-eye-type view of the cliff-face that no rearrangement of the solid topography could afford, except by making an equally high cliff directly opposite, and cliff-nesting birds do not nest on the sides of trenches. The other views, of birds washing and wading in the cascades for instance, are supernumerary benefits by comparison, though their sum-total is a substantial additional justification for the bridge. Continue reading