A New Corvinian Library

This year’s Kingston School of Art, Department of Architecture and Landscape end of year show catalogue (it is so much more than just a catalogue) and current department theme is called Dwelling in the Periphery. Above is the front cover and below a list of those whose superb efforts made it happen this year. It is a beautiful object where, unusually for an architecture catalogue (and although the images work well) the words predominate. My and Nana Biamah-Ofosu’s studio chose to wear this theme seriously, but lightly – in Budapest.

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For centuries until their unification in 1873 the cities of Obuda and Buda to the west and Pest to the east faced each other across the Danube. Wider than, say, the Thames, the waters of the Danube both divide and draw together the city and the city. At both the dead-centre of Europe and simultaneously at the edge of both east and west the architecture of Budapest is at once made of recognisable city-blocks of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century baroque interspersed with Gothic, and art-nouveau. But a visitor is also conscious of a curious doubling: familiar forms overlaid by startling scale shifts and unexpected stylistic juxtapositions. Vast rustication, classical orders hoisted high above wide boulevards, gigantic and inscrutably deep urban blocks and all interspersed with Hungary’s own organic style of architecture.

Architectural critic Edwin Heathcote refers also to, “the difficulty of the Hungarian language and the country’s peripheral location, at the edge of both east and west”,[1] because the language too is an outlier. At the periphery stylistically, linguistically and geopolitically, the double city of Budapest would be our studio ‘centre’ for the year.

Titled after China Miéville’s book within a book[2] this is what I wrote for our Studio, 2.2, in the catalogue:

Between the City and the City

How do we design and build in dense, historically and archaeologically rich urban locations? Places often steeped in myth and legend, places which constantly renew themselves, build over themselves, become defined in part by their own representations of themselves: the London of Conan Doyle or Patrick Keiller, the Venice of Canaletto or Marco Polo or, this year’s location, the Budapest of Liszt and Bartok, or of Le Carré’s Smiley.

For studio 2.2 this network of deep cultural associations is revealed through its constant replaying in ordinary acts of city-dwelling. We have designed schools and workshops and markets and libraries asking always how the extraordinariness of urban places might be revealed through the extraordinariness of the everyday.

London and Venice are recurring venues for Studio 2.2. In these ancient metropolises and in others like them the dominant context is not always the physical place. Here space is always contested by the ghostly doublings of those cities’ mythical doppelgangers. Where the Portland stone of Wren meets the Stone of Trojan Brutus on Cannon Street. Where the travertine, bronze and terrazzo confections of Scarpa’s Venice meets nonagenarian blind Doge Dandolo’s legendary and infamous sack of Constantinople. And again in Budapest, where the local hyper-baroque of the House of Terror or the cool yet politically charged post-modernism of Memento Park are set against the exploits of the Black Army of King Matthias Corvinus in Hungarian Transylvania – the same King Corvinus for whose astonishing library our students designed a building this year.

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Matthias Corvinus depicted in Johannes de Thurocz’s Chronica Hungarorum, Viennese Imperial Library, late 15th or early 16th century.

Material and its thoughtful, contextual, coming together through drawing and modelmaking are our tools of course but in these places, and in places like them, tectonics alone cannot suffice. Instead we promote a tectonics in the service of the architect as storyteller and myth-maker of the ordinary. For us an interrogation of place is always also an interrogation of time (precedent) and event (use), because these are what tell us how and, crucially, why to build.

Yet myth-making through making buildings is not a solitary endeavour; never absent from our conversations in studio is a questioning of the role of the architect as co-producer with other designers, craftspeople, builders and building users and the architectural alchemy needed between them. Recent Studio 2.2 co-productions have included:

2013/14 a market in Chatham Historic Dockyard and urban food production in Rome.
2014/15 a bell tower and other function of the students’ choice, astride the ancient city walls of London and a residential film school in Venice.
2015/16 live-work units on Brick Lane and a residential ceramics school in Lisbon.
2016/17 an immigration centre and a newly (and fictionally) independent ‘London City’ embassy in the also newly (and fictionally) independent ‘New Republic of Venice’.
2017/18 in Budapest a new market bridge across the Danube and a library combining a nationally important historic collection alongside a library-related community function of the students’ choice.

Alongside this restless curiosity about the city runs a thread of interest in how the deep roots of ancient urban places reveal themselves in the ordinary and sometimes extraordinary things we do now.

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Models by Ama Ofori-Darko, Nick Pascalli and Daniel Jowkar. Studio 2.2, 2018.

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Models by Sasha Boyko, Tom Parish and Hussein Al-Saedy. Drawings by Priya Kana. Studio 2.2, 2018.

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Heathcote, Edwin. Budapest: A Guide to Twentieth-Century Architecture. London: Ellipsis, 1997.
Miéville, China. The City & the City. London: Macmillan, 2009.

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[1] Edwin Heathcote, Budapest: A Guide to Twentieth-Century Architecture (London: Ellipsis, 1997), 13.
[2] China Miéville, The City & the City (London: Macmillan, 2009).

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