2. Image and Realism in Sergison Bates
“In our view, the experience of everyday life is highly influenced by personal and collective association relating to the images of buildings. By images, we can mean the aspect of an object that relates to appearance and character and which stimulates an architectural and emotional response. While it may be argued that most architectural acts produce images of things, we believe that only few architects consciously work with images”.
How does architecture capture the temporary appearance and the transitory feelings that constitute the perceptual experience? We can find a fruitful answer to this question—related to the debate on images—in the approach of realism to the everyday; it is based on the handling of the richness of the associations that our perception makes from its encounter with the world. In this respect, the historian James Elkins9
states that we must go beyond the images legitimated by high culture in order to analyze those that favour the analysis of reality. Therefore, in a world influenced by fiction and virtual reality and dominated by the commercialized image (Gadanho 2019
), one of the responsibilities of the critical architect could be precisely defending the meaning of the real and the idea of experience in our social and cultural interactions (Vassallo 2016
In this sense, the evolution of the discourse of film and photography has been essential in the development of realism regarding its focus on the everyday (Certeau 2000
). The revision of the iconic, favouring a visual construction of the social sphere based on the real has stimulated a more open look at culture.10
It is worth re-examining the idea of aura by Walter Benjamin in terms of perception, understood as the moment when the collective and personal experience coincide, where an object triggers an involuntary memory in order to establish a specific web of space and time.11
This interpretation is relevant to assess the encounter with the architectural work and stimulate an experience of reality that fosters a more associative and emotional response.
The British architects Jonathan Sergison and Stephen Bates have followed this path opened by realism and have acknowledged the relevant role that images play in their architectural practice. Their approach to images represents an original look interested not only in the idea of the monument or in the symbolic content of a work, but also in the idea of the architectural moment. The iconic, in this sense, takes on a meaning that differs from that associated with works imbued with a strong visual impact. The research by Sergison Bates is not about the permanence and stability of the work, it is about presentation and transition, by constructing an affinity that is closer to everyday life than to the heroic act (Ursprung 2016, pp. 17–27
Some of the latest works by Sergison Bates, such as the Arts and Wellbeing Centre (London, 2018) and the Mansion Block (Hampstead, 2017) are related to the former Studio House (Bethnal Green, London, 2004) or End-of-terrace Housing (Hackney, London, 2002) concerning what we could call a “revision of the urban image”. The first project was an extension to the St. Margaret’s House charitable community to develop a new space including a theatre, studios for artists, spaces for social enterprises, start-ups and offices. They proposed grouping the entire programme within a sophisticated organized volume using a large ground-floor hall that opens and is directly connected to an external space that articulates the other buildings of the community and becomes the heart of the ensemble community life.
One of the main focuses of the proposal is the development of this external space for the community, which, as well as connecting the ensemble with the city, expresses the character of the proposal. The definition of this articulating space shows an interest in bordering spaces or transition areas, both linked to a basic concept of realism, namely the revealing of connections between different parts. Some 19th-century realism artists such as Gustave Courbet or Adolph Menzel were especially interested in pictorially representing the functioning and joints between things, as is the case with social realism and documentary photographers. The proposal also highlights other aspects of realism such as the everyday, history, theatricality and the peculiar chromatic spectrum of greyish browns that dominate the ensemble.
The image that Sergison Bates presented also links the proposal with realism and brings to mind the painting by Johannes Vermeer The Little Street, c. 1658 (Figure 1
). The visual culture historian Martin Jay states that 17th- and 18th-century painting in the Netherlands should be more strongly connected to the empirical experience of observation and less to the Cartesian look, in other words, to a reproduction of the vision rather than to an expression of prior knowledge.12
In Vermeer’s painting, the point of view is one of many, a specific scene, far removed from a privileged point of view and without any centrality whatsoever. Neither the little street nor the hallway extends to any depth and the image appears to be more a reaction to something that has aroused our interest than the precise organization of a representation space. Sergison Bates’ way of seeing the image not only develops a specific urban concept, but it also triggers a very precise cultural association.
Figure 1. (a) Arts and Wellbeing Centre, London, Sergison Bates, c. 2018. © Sergison Bates. (b) The Little Street, Johannes Vermeer, 1658. Oil on canvas. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, NL. (Image in the public domain).
This principle of “no centrality” that is reminiscent of painters such as Witte or Saenredam can also be observed in the images developed for the housing project in Hampstead. The way in which the ensemble appears to be present and absent at the same time is striking; it seems to dissolve into the setting and yet it stays in the memory. It contains the common and the exceptional; it raises difficulties in being distinguished from its location while offering an alternative look that makes it possible to see it in a different way. The importance given to transition spaces (patios, stairways, thresholds, etc.) shows, once again, an interest in joints and transitory elements, in everyday life far removed from the heroic act (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Mansion Block, Hampstead, Sergison Bates, 2017. © Sergison Bates.
Access to the dwellings is through a sequence of spaces conceived as a sum of scenarios that represent the moment of arriving home. The emphasis on this transition between the public and private sphere can be seen at the moment when the domination of the street ends and the home’s power is yet to begin. The idea of comfort conveyed by homes is related to this sum of layers; protective layers such as the sum of successive thresholds between the street and the dwelling—which are required in order to feel at home. Sometimes, the danger of comfort lies in an excessive isolation that leads to loss of feeling. To deal with this, Sergison Bates adds elements connected to the known in each transition area: “familiar” doors, windows and handles that trigger and heighten our visual associations. The idea of comfort, therefore, is not only based on a warm, safe setting, but also on the reproduction of the known and the familiar; a comfort that is neither purely physical nor totally psychological.
The idea of rooms and their grouping represents a reflection on the image of the domestic. Besides tries to not make evident the organization of the space and connect different spaces through the diverse openings and perspectives that allow fixing the inhabitant gaze and its presence. In this regard, Irina Davidovici describes the interest of Sergison Bates in architecture as a “backdrop to everyday life”; an architecture that implies “something two-dimensional, something against which the act of inhabitation is projected” (Davidovici 2001, p. 48
). We can take this idea further and understand that the project has an air of neorealist film in the sense of arranging various scenarios, passages or images in sequence to reflect the acts of everyday life.
The Prototype for Suburban Housing (Stevenage, 2000) also exemplifies the search for an associative and emotional response closely connected to everyday life. With this model, Sergison Bates put the focus on a marginal phenomenon to return an image to the residential architecture genre. The aim was to leave behind the notion of suburban housing (the image of an isolated house) to construct an association: the image of two joined houses. The image is, therefore, halfway between urban density and urban sprawl; an image that combines in a unique way closeness and distance to the neighbourhood (Figure 3).
Figure 3. (a) Suburban Housing, Stevenage, 2000, Sergison Bates. © Sergison Bates. (b) Homes for America, Dan Graham, 1966. © Dan Graham.
This revision of the image of the British suburb is in tune with the look presented by the American artist Dan Graham in his famous Homes for America. Graham photographed a series of dwellings in the suburbs of New Jersey on different dates emphasizing the sequenced and automated nature of this extensive urban planning (Moure 2009
). The influence of realism is obvious, while Graham also shows a clear artistic intent. These images are closely connected to conceptual and minimalist art through the emphasis on sequenced repetitions, simplicity, the use of industrial materials in construction and the precise geometry of the forms. The reference to Sol LeWitt is accentuated in the design of dwellings as a series of cubes, as works that seem to come from one single mould and emphasize one single formal approach.13
The more recent suburban housing in Aldershot (2016) by Sergison Bates also leaves the image of an isolated dwelling behind to assert itself as a group of seven pairs of houses. The ensemble continues the picturesque rural image of the garden city and it is characterized by an internal communal area that articulates all dwellings. Again, the architects show their interest in articulating spaces for community life, linked to the sensibility of realism. The small variations, both in the style and orientation, provide a visual richness and reinforce the picturesque character of the ensemble.
In both projects, the definition of the architectural details revisits the collective suburban imaginary, as is the case with the openings and window frames, the gable roof and its finishes (gutters, drainpipes, etc.). Again, Sergison Bates talks about joints and transition elements, seduced by the communicative nature of social realism photography. The way they used everyday objects also shows an interest in pop art, an interpretation not too far away from what we can find in Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg and Richard Hamilton; a reflection on the visualization of these objects, their everyday appearance, and their nature when they are not subject to the economy of the spectacle. This is about overcoming the dichotomy between images and things, the division of reality and the alienation of ordinary objects.
The critical look of the architects in these projects is close to that shown by the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo in “The End of Modernity”, where he argues in favour of a “weak” or “fragile” architecture or, in our case, an architecture of weak images and structures. In contrast to seduction using a spectacular image and a vigorous articulation of the form, architecture with a weak image is more interested in associative and sensory interaction than in an idealized expression (Vattimo 1987
). These works also echo the debate between the concepts of exteriority and interiority arising from the “Iconic turn”. The dialogue between these two aspects allows for a more intimate and emotional condition of the visual, by adding texture and complexity to our understanding of iconicity in architecture.