Architecture as a listening exercise

Pq

The Persistence of Questioning

Kritische reflecties voor de toekomst, over architectuur en meer.

As part of The Persistence of Questioning, critical reflections for the future: ‘What is the state of architectural culture?’, Sereh Mandias explains why she – together with Elsbeth Ronner – launched the narrative podcast Windoog, her reasons for engaging in architectural criticism without using images, and the importance of architectural criticism that does not focus on the object.

printscreen van geluidssporen Windoog aflevering 'Deltawerken // Eenvoud is een handeling'

printscreen of soundtracks for Windoog’s episode ‘Deltawerken // Eenvoud is een handeling’

‘Not great’

A windy afternoon in Nieuw-Bergen, a village in north Limburg. We are standing at the foot of a small tower called Landmark Nieuw-Bergen and asking passers-by for their opinion about the new addition to the centre of the village. ‘Not great,’ came the response. On being pressed, one resident added: ‘It’s an ugly tower.’

Not long afterwards, we are sitting with Sandor Naus and Job Floris of Monadnock, the architects of the building in question. We hear how they designed the tower and how they tried to make it both recognizable and alienating at the same time. It’s a story that we, architects ourselves, have no difficult relating to it, but evidently it does not register with the people of Nieuw-Bergen. So there seems to be a chasm between the intentions of the architects and the perception of the public at large.

In the lead-up to the launch of Windoog, the architecture podcast that Elsbeth Ronner and I have been making since 2018, we noted that written architectural criticism in the Netherlands was not in great shape. The number of specialist periodicals with a large readership had dwindled. A number had survived the crisis but they had lost some of their clout, and for content they were increasingly reliant on texts and pictures supplied by architecture offices themselves. Moreover, discussions conducted on the pages of specialist media usually remain beyond the horizon of the wider public. And the general press pays scant attention to architecture. Only sporadically do daily papers feature reviews of architecture, and when they do, they often approach buildings as isolated aesthetic objects that you can rate on the basis of X number of stars. Well-founded criticism supported by historical, sociological or theoretical context is rare. There is, however, a glut of flashy images that, together with the accompanying texts, yet lacking much context, find their way into coffee-table magazines and design blogs. Elsbeth and I had the feeling that this impoverishment and fragmentation only increases the distance between the context in which architecture is created (offices, professional discussions, criticism) and the social reality in which it is eventually situated, and especially the people who occupy and inhabit the buildings. This is precisely the distance we experienced in the episode about Landmark Nieuw-Bergen. The story from the designers and that from the locals in Nieuw-Bergen were completely out of sync.

We were not the only people to recognize this weakening of debate about architecture. In late 2017 the Creative Industries Fund NL launched an open call entitled Space for design criticism. The Fund wanted to stimulate initiatives to find new forms of design criticism. As podcast listeners, we had already been fantasizing for some time about the potential of the podcast as a medium for architectural criticism. It was this open call that enabled us to turn our speculations into action.

A new medium

‘Each building tells a story. A built manifesto, an abandoned dream, the outcome of random circumstances. In conversation with architects, users and clients, Windoog explores the dreams encapsulated in the concrete, glass and brick of contemporary architecture.’

That is how we begin each episode of Windoog. It defines our ambition and shows what type of podcast we want to make. Windoog is a narrative podcast. In contrast to, say, an interview podcast, the narrative podcast is based much more on storytelling. For this we draw on interviews, sounds and music, complemented by a host who tells the story. It is a complex entity to put together, certainly for self-taught people like us. And then to think that the art is actually to make it uncomplicated for the listener, to plot out a clear and appealing narrative, which contains enough surprises and discoveries along the way to sustain listener interest. We are getting better at it all the time.

When this project started, the podcast was still a relatively new medium, and there were no other Dutch-language podcasts about architecture. So we started with a whole series of questions. What format should we choose? How do you structure a story that you listen to rather than read? What subjects lend themselves for a podcast? But also more prosaic questions like: What equipment do you need and how do you edit sound?
In the beginning we listened attentively to podcasts that inspired us. One of them was This American Life, the ultimate in narrative podcasting from America. Each episode is devoted to just one theme. This American Life taught us how much information you can convey in a short space of time in a podcast in terms of both contents and mood. During the final editing you can select the right fragments in a focused way, thereby letting various perspectives co-exist in a natural manner. By adding music and letting those involved have their say, on site or not, you can evoke a strong atmosphere. All these layers are placed on top of one another in a podcast and, if you choose to deploy them in that way, make it a very compact medium.
We also learned a lot from people in the podcast scene, which our initiative drew us into. We learned the technical tricks of audio editing, and also ways to make podcasts narratively interesting. We learned how to incorporate cliff-hangers to trigger curiosity, such as posing questions for the listener, which we answer later. We learned how to use a voice-over to add meaning, tension or emotion to the story, and how much that means to the listener. Making this podcast also taught us to write in a new way. For although this is audio, we write a complete script for each episode. Making a narrative podcast is therefore time-consuming, and it would not be possible without the support of the Creative Industries Fund NL.

Ingredients

‘So the entrance hall where you came in… was the full three-floor height. And then here, in the centre, we planned a big round desk… where you could buy your ticket.’ The reverberating sound in the audio recording makes the height of the space immediately palpable. The voice, creaking from age, is that of Herman Zeinstra, architect of the Scheringa Museum in Opmeer, a building that never functioned as a museum because Dirk Scheringa and his DSB Bank went bankrupt. Because of what he says, and of the hollowness audible in the sound recording, it takes no effort to imagine yourself by his side during the tour of the building.

It is the opening interview in the first episode of Windoog. Later we speak to the Mayor of Opmeer – ‘a village with 11,000 inhabitants, and twice as many cattle’ – who explains from his perspective what the arrival of this museum would have meant for Opmeer. And we meet Emily Ansenk who, as the director of the museum at the time, acted as client for the new building. With the help of a stack of reports from construction meetings and brochures full of renderings, she effortlessly recalls the ambitions and ideas of the project: ‘[Scheringa] really wanted a museum made of brick. His idea was that it had to exude an intimate warmth. (…) and that was also the connection with the painters in his collection, with the detailing, the craftsmanship, things that are well made and hark back to former times.’

These are the fixed ingredients of each episode. The starting point is one building, which is discussed from three different perspectives. The spine of the episode is the architect, who guides us around the building. Then the client, who talks about the genesis of and the intentions for the project. And then a third perspective, depending on the approach we choose for the episode. We weave these three interviews together with a voice-over in which we make connections and offer our own interpretation of the building. So within the space of 35 minutes we open up a whole world around one building and try to capture the various layers of the architectural project through sound.

Words or images

There is of course something counter-intuitive about talking about buildings, since architecture is such a visual medium. In architecture we are so accustomed to taking in buildings at a glance that it initially feels uneasy to leave its appearance out of the equation entirely. But an image does not reveal everything. It does not show what lies behind a project, the thoughts of the architect and client, the various forces that influenced it, or the reasons why certain decisions were taken. One sense makes way for another. During a guided tour the acoustics carry you through the spaces and bring the building to life in another way. The voices of those involved bring you very close to the personalities and stories that made a project possible.

The absence of images forces us, as editors, to be much more precise in our commentary. How can we describe the building for the listener? What is important and what is not? Where do we stop describing and start interpreting? And what, for that matter, is our interpretation? This is never immediately clear while making an episode, but it emerges from the interviews that we conduct and the discussion we have among the editors. Then it is a matter of finding the right words. That forces us to look more carefully and longer. And slowing down ultimately makes us focus more sharply.

Architecture is a cultural factor

‘For the thing also wants to be what the other things in the forest are. So the decay… the decay has to be evident. And then we let the slabs we had sawn out fall to the north. Then, at a certain moment moss will grow and turn them green. But that will take a long time. That doesn’t bother me at all. It’s a sign of decay. The same way nature is destroying those models, we have given the process a helping hand, so to speak…’ These are the words of Erick de Lyon, the artist who worked with RAAAF on the transformation of the former wave basin in the Waterloopbos into the ‘Deltawerk //’. His speech is very associative, mostly consisting of incomplete sentences, though spoken with feeling.

The form we chose for Windoog, and the format we have developed along the way, relates closely to how we view architecture: not as a technical achievement or an aesthetic object, but as a cultural product inextricably linked to the period of its creation, which both shapes and is shaped by it. Architectural criticism, we believe, should approach buildings as the result of a complex set of interests, possibilities, demands and preferences. In Windoog we try to unravel at least some of that tapestry of forces and see how it is made.
Based on our understanding of architecture, the purpose of criticism is, among other things, to situate architecture within its cultural and social context. When we started the podcast we formulated this explicitly as architectural criticism for a wide audience. We wanted to take the interested, non-professional listener into the world of architectural developments and projects, together with the stories behind them. To anchor this goal firmly within our organization, at the start of Windoog we brought together a wide-ranging board of editors that chooses the subjects and approaches. Besides Elsbeth Ronner (architect) and myself (architect and philosopher), the board includes Saskia Naafs (sociologist and journalist), Stef Bogaerds (urban designer) and Bart Tritsman (historian).

In the meantime, we have had to modify this ambition slightly. Yes, we try to get non-professionals interested in architecture through what we hope are appealing subjects, the social relevance of the buildings, the various perspectives, and the ways in which we tell the stories. At the same time, we also want to let the professionals among our listeners view architecture from this broader perspective.
Up to now, Windoog reaches a mostly professional audience. That is because of our own network and because of our chronic lack of time to promote Windoog properly. We have ideas about collaborating with mainstream media, but we have never actively pursued them. After completing an episode we usually need time to recover. Besides, despite our efforts, we do not always succeed in avoiding jargon or in clearly explaining professional statements to non-specialist listeners. It is a tricky balance. The question that gradually presents itself is whether you actually can make something of interest for an audience made up of both professionals and outsiders. People from both camps have occasionally criticized us. On the one hand because we use too much jargon for non-specialists, and on the other because the architectural subject matter is dealt with too superficially for the architect listener. It is a dilemma we have yet to solve.

The podcast as criticism

‘One very important conversation was when the museum indicated that it wanted to be more visible. So they thought it was really fine that we wanted to keep the entrance in that old Lakenhal. But that blank wall, they found that to be a bit too blank for a museum.’ We are sitting at a table in Museum de Lakenhal as architect Ninke Happel talks about opposition from the city concerning certain aspects of the proposed transformation and how the architects and museum always responded openly. ‘So those people who lodged objections, we also invited them and had many discussions with them, and fairly quickly there came a realization, not so much for us but within the museum, that it was in fact a very special artefact from the past, and we had to take it as a given and search elsewhere for openness, rather than thinking we simply had to clear away the blank wall.’

Good architectural criticism allows one to reach a well-considered verdict about a building or development. So we view architectural criticism not so much as a matter of adopting a particular stance but more as a matter of understanding the significance of a project within broader architectural and social discussions. On the basis of this, in Windoog we clarify the criteria that you can use to pass judgement. We therefore consider architecture from a somewhat greater distance and from all sorts of angles. We guide the discussion through the choice of project and choice of speaker. In that way, we situate the criticism not so much between ourselves but between us and the listeners, enabling them to arrive at a well-founded judgement on the basis of the podcast.

In a mature architectural culture, architecture is rooted in society as something that works in two directions. While the lasting impression in Landmark Nieuw-Bergen was one of mutual incomprehension between architect and user, the Museum de Lakenhal is a fine example of how the architect and client succeeded in embedding the transformation in the city during the process.
That is what we hope to achieve with Windoog. We want to relate architecture again to social questions, but without losing sight of architecture itself in the process. By taking time for a conversation about building and by thinking about how to capture architecture in words, we hope to offer an alternative to the fleeting visual culture in which we see a lot, but understand less and less.

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