Review of Human Touch

REVIEW OF HUMAN TOUCH: Constructing a Special Form of Art by Jeremy Woodward

A culmination of ten years of publishing, this fine volume by former chair of Art & Architecture looks back over the myriad but interlocking themes covered thus far and looks forward to where this ‘special form of art’ can take us – as observers, inhabitants and practitioners.

The introduction itself would be worthy of being published as another single volume – and indeed, with a few more illustrations, it would serve very well as a way into why we see architecture and design today as we do, for both the layperson and the professional, who perhaps in particular needs reminding of the disconnects and disappointments of the last century.

It would be too easy for Graham Cooper to dismiss the modernism that has plagued our city scapes or to simply lament the wastelands it has spawned. Instead, the critique is much more nuanced and so much more interesting, drawing on a variety of commentators as well as his own well-grounded observations. For example, the Japanese architect Toyo Ito’s reflection that modernism ‘sought buildings unrelated to their localities’ is followed by Cooper’s sharp paragraph painting ‘a Cartesian nightmare, instead of grounded, contour-sensitive street layouts with unique places, are estates of isolated blocks surrounded by sparsely planted spaces littered with utility and vehicular detritus.’

As Cooper points out, we respond as human beings to variety and contrast – and it is here where his thesis weaves enjoyably, quoting Le Corbusier’s collaborator Ferdnand Leger: ‘Colour is not a luxury but a human need like water and fire. The future for the painter and architect was, above all, team work towards more less social goals.’ And these are the contradictions of the modernist promise which are explored in the nicely-rounded introduction – and beyond.

For Cooper is concerned ultimately with the ‘vernacular’ and how the disjuncture between send professional and ‘user’ has produced the most profoundly disturbing and anti-human spaces. And yet, as Cooper notes, it has been the city which has provided ‘the concentrations of humanity, interacting and networking together, that drive innovation and creativity’, whether it was the city fathers of Florence who commissioned Brunelleschi’s dome for their cathedral, or a ‘grumpy’ Frank Gehry biting the hand that feeds his profession when in October 2104 he complained that ‘there’s no sense of design or respect for humanity anymore’.
Which brings us back to Cooper’s overriding theme that art and architecture must always show the human touch: that ‘it is not so much form follows function, but rather making pleasing forms that operate effectively over an extended period’; that, quoting the Dutch De Stijl movement, ‘painting, sculpture and architecture were supposed to join together in unison on equal terms’, but that we have, instead, abandoned ‘adornment’ in the interests of ‘efficiency’; and that the now-total marginalisation of ‘design’ in the creation of our built environments means that in the UK only three local authorities, the dominant patrons of our time, have an architectural design department.

Instead, as the ‘Human Touch’ unfolds, it is in the imaginative connect between different demands and perspectives which can create a truly human environment – with the interplay between the dominant forms of formal architecture, the assimilation of the landmark building and fine art into a ‘natural’ urban landscape, and the insistence that applied art goes beyond the niche and is integrated into the design of our spaces.
Following the impressive introduction, then, Cooper gives a very rich and personal overview of architectural history – all finely illustrated – with a chapter devoted to the ‘landmark building’, again with astute observations which are a pleasure to read because it is more than a rehash of the usual textbook histories or tedious Wikipedia entries. In the sections on fine art practice and applied art installations, Cooper really does come into his own, drawing on the breadth of experience of the last forty years and the writing of the past ten. In fact, he entitles this main part of his book as ‘the art and architectural design trail’, and the feeling is of a journey, but one accompanied by a knowledgeable and very personable observer who delights in both detail and comment but without any whiff of stuffiness.

This is indeed a very approachable and readable volume for both interested lay reader and serious academic, providing a summary of past work and a stimulating guide through the interaction of design ideas and the urban environment. The impressive text would stand out even more with a professional publication enhancing layout and providing some editing, but for a desk-top piece of work it displays the experience of someone more than comfortable with good design.

The postscript gives the final, very personal word on the exploration of urban decorative art – which takes us from ‘an extraordinary outbreak of street art which was to kick-start a growing interest in environmental design’ in the 1970s/80s to the ‘transformative power of art’ demonstrated in the Seas of Red poppies at the Tower of London in October 2014 set in the Square Mile and its ‘bloated towers of fortune’ – all of which provided just the right finish to a lively and broad sweep of how we interact with the ‘power of art’ in our landscapes.

Jeremy Woodward August 2016

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