bum note

I’ve made some disparaging comments about Daniel Libeskind in the past, but their critical value was admittedly low as I’d never visited one of his projects in person. A recent trip to Manchester gave me the opportunity to put that right by visiting the Imperial War museum.

So here’s the thing; no matter what you feel about the heavy handed symbolism or the worrying repetition of familiar forms in disparate projects, there’s no escaping the fact that the guy can make spaces that, technically speaking, get you right in the gut. An architecture of the stomach, or heart if you prefer a more romantic reference, that seems all the more impressive coming from an architect who spent so much of his career working with an architecture of the mind.

Although one has to admit that it’s impossible to distinguish the impact of the excellent exhibition contents from the impact of the architecture (which some would argue is the final measure of success), the fact remains that the Imperial War Museum is an immensely moving building.

Sat in the cafe having lunch, attempting to play devil’s advocate to my new found admiration, I was struck by the idea that the counter argument might be that disjunction, disharmony and formal conflict is easy. That clumsy, clashing, calamitous volumes and surfaces are no more difficult to create than throwing a teapot from a window*. This is hardly a building of firmness, commodity or delight, so is it the sign of someone getting away with getting it wrong? So what does it take to ensure you make the wrong moves at the right time? The answer, I realised, can be found in the work of Les Dawson.

A British comedian of the 70s and early 80s, one of Les Dawson’s comedy routines involved him playing the piano very badly. Except that behind the bum notes it was widely understood that he was in fact a very talented pianist. It was exactly that talent that meant he could play the piano badly with just the right comedic timing. He had to know how to get it right before he could so successfully get it wrong.

Daniel Libeskind is the Les Dawson of architecture.

Les Libeskind

Should further proof be required I offer the following two quotes; the first is from wikipedia (with only a minor, but crucial adjustment from me):

He loved to undercut his own fondness for high culture. For example, he was a talented pianist but developed a gag where he would begin to play a familiar piece such as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. After he had established the identity of the piece being performed, Libeskind would introduce hideously wrong notes without appearing to realise that he had done so, meanwhile smiling unctuously and apparently relishing the accuracy and soul of his own performance.

The second – a Dawson gag – demonstrates the parallel between Dawson’s propensity for crashing the high brow into the low brow and Libeskind’s journey from ‘paper architect’ to builder:

In awe I watched the waxing moon ride across the zenith of the heavens like an ambered chariot towards the ebony void of infinite space wherein the tethered belts of Jupiter and Mars hang forever festooned in their orbital majesty. And as I looked at all this I thought…I must put a roof on this lavatory.

Perhaps even, this last conflict is the very definition of architecture itself; valiantly riding the ambered chariot across the sky while waving a ball cock over your head. Libeskind is clearly onto something, I shall invoke the spirit of Les Dawson in all my future work.

* pieces of a broken teapot were used to create the form of the four three shards of the Imperial War Museum building envelope.

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