Books (June 01, 2003)

Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form. Kim Dovey.

New York: Routledge, 1999.

Review by Peter Sampson

In a political climate defined by two apparently conflicting streams of rhetoric–one of reform conservatism on a local level, the other of mass consumerism on a global level–public institutions and their role in cities in particular are being tested. A recent book by Australian critic Kim Dovey addresses the impact of this local/global political tension on architecture and urban space. Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form is a refreshingly accessible approach to the debate on social politics and architecture that asks whether or not the recent trend towards the globalizing of architecture not only undermines local frameworks of social engagement, but actually degenerates the democracies within which they participate.

Taking the position that architecture is like the frame of a painting or the binding of a book in which “it is necessary yet neutral to the life within,” Dovey sets out to demonstrate how, through history, built form has been extremely susceptible to political ideology. Framing Places drifts through a careful selection of historical models which include the architecture of the Third Reich, in which the use of a rigid adherence to classicism on an overwhelming scale saw the subversion of building types and planning strategies to politically militaristic means. Another example is the suburban house type, in which architecture is used to reinforce and convey meaning about the nuclear family, controlling how it interacts within and without its own framework. Arguing that architecture is easily manipulated into a means to an end, Dovey’s historical survey is less concerned with the creation of political meaning through form and symbol, as it is with the control of political meaning through the strategic deployment of space, form, use and texture.

The control of meaning is especially evident in today’s global market. As many cities rush to distinguish themselves on the world stage, they face the tension between a tightening public purse and the desire to attract global investment as a way to offset it. Dovey proposes that this trend to globalization is now the overriding power structure that is redefining public space. In one of the more telling examples of how this has come to be, Dovey looks at the City of Melbourne, which in one case signed a contract with a foreign private toll-highway provider to improve access to the city from its newly modernized airport. Under the terms of the contract, the City agreed not to provide new public transport links to the airport and to restrict traffic on by-pass routes thereby virtually forcing drivers to use the private artery. The purpose of public space and access is manipulated for private motive.

Dovey leaves us with the proposition that democracy and freedom of movement in public spheres face considerable degeneration under the tension that exists between the political will to globalize and the local reality to conserve public funds. As a frame for social engagement, local public architecture around the globe is in jeopardy of becoming a vehicle for the coercive practices of the private global investor. Framing Places challenges the contemporary architect to contemplate seriously the insidious grip that this new global power model places on our cities.

Yolles: A Canadian Engineering Legacy, 1952-2002. Beth Kapusta and John McMinn.

Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre, 2002.

Review by Rod Robbie

Beth Kapusta and John McMinn have produced in their Yolles: A Canadian Engineering Legacy, 1952-2002 an elegant book which should be on the “must read list” of all who are interested in structural engineering in the context of architecture. For me, reading it was, in part, an exercise in nostalgia, reminding me of my time as one of the original Associates of architect Peter Dickinson, working with Mordie Yolles and Roly Bergmann. It reminded me especially of the 20 years up to 1980 which I spent working with Roly Bergmann on numerous projects, the bulk of which were technically complex and required Roly’s legendary problem comprehension, and the production of hundreds of his great technical sketches. The projects which we worked on together included the Canadian Government Pavilion at Expo 67, several hundred projects which we did for Neilson Confectionery, and The Metropolitan Toronto School Board Study of Education Facilities (SEF, 1966-69), for which Roly wrote the Structural Performance Specification, which was one of the first of its kind. The SEF Programme, as the largest and most complex Building Systems Programme ever undertaken in Canada, which had world-wide influence, was surprisingly omitted from the book.

The book has captured the essence of the creative and practical genius that Morden Yolles and Roland Bergmann brought to their work as consulting structural engineers to a wide variety of projects and their architects. There is no doubt that this skill also made a number of these architectural creations better for having been exposed to the Yolles/Bergmann talents. Their genius was of the kind which was not characterized by a flash of short-term creativity, but one which grew and matured with consistency as they and their team found new ways to solve structural and construction problems over a lifetime.

Together with Mordie Yolles, Roly Bergman was “the engineers’ engineer.” But more importantly, together Roly and Mordie became the standard for structural engineers to reach as “the architect’s engineers.” This distinction came not from their willingness to make work whatever strange structure an architect-client might sometimes propose, but from their intuitive grasp of the engineering-aesthetic-economic-buildability characteristics of their architect-clients’ fundamental intentions and objectives. They indeed looked at structural engineering, as applied to architecture, from an architectural viewpoint. This central capability and characteristic of the original Yolles firm has been admirably described by Kapusta and McMinn.

The new partners of Yolles–the firm–have been left with a very significant legacy and challenge to sustain and evolve. It is all about seeing engineering from an architectural viewpoint while still retaining a firm grasp on the practicality of the engineering discipline. One hopes that the firm’s thrust towards the globalization of their practice, better business methods and diversification into non-structural engineering aspects of building design so fully described in the book, do not dull or dissipate the firm’s essential grasp of architecture and the structural engineer’s mastery of this skill so well executed by the firm’s founders. Kapusta and McMinn’s book should serve as not only a celebration of the firm’s first 50 years, but as inspiration for the work yet to come.