Tony Fretton, Photo by Chris Clunn

The idea that we can create the city via imaginary architectures from our memory bank was put forward in Aldo Rossi’s office, in a ‘Città Analoga’ (Analogous City) painting by Arduino Cantafora of 1973, and later in a 1976 collage made at ETH Zurich by Aldo Rossi with Bruno Reichlin, Fabio Reinhart and Eraldo Consolascio.

Aldo Rossi and the ‘Tendenza’ group in front of the ‘Citta’ Analoga’ of 1973

“L’architettura sono le architetture” Aldo Rossi’ would say. What this meant for the city is that the architecture of the city is made up of distinctive parts, each part is an architecture, distinctive from all the others. The city is fragmented, and tells us many stories at the same time, which ones are revealed to us depend of where we are, and what our cultural background is. What we fail at is being able to read all these architectures with the same level of interest. Like when we walk into a library or bookshop, not all books will interest us in the same way. In many ways, there is an analogy between architecture and fiction. The architecture of the city is in many ways a fiction, to be read by readers of architecture. Architects, developers and builders are the communal authors of the architecture of the city.

Tony Fretton talked about this idea of the fiction of the city in a 1996 conversation with David Turnbull. He talked about the intention behind one of his projects, the Lisson Gallery in London, as ‘allowing the building to say something, to participate critically in the fiction of the city’. When asked about what he meant by the fiction of the city, Fretton replied:

The buildings in British cities have been made mainly not by designers but by builders and functionaries. Each time they build, they alter and slightly improve or disimprove and their work is authorless because unlike architects, they don’t have a position. The dimension they add is populist and homogenising because they are building what people like and in this, they are masters of the art of communication.. Another factor in the way that we see cities is popular fiction, for example the novel, film, TV and advertising. Walter Benjamin, in his essay on the Russian novelist Nikolai Leskov, discriminates between novelist and storyteller. The difference he said is that the storyteller has experienced the events he recounts or heard them from somebody who had experienced them. So the vernacularising of building can be seen to embody the experience of the builders, and to convey a fiction to which we all subscribe, a fiction that is the city.

Twenty years later I ask Tony Fretton whether his view of the fiction of the city is the same, or whether it, as well as the contemporary London we inhabit, has changed.

Robin Monotti: Populism is often used as a derogatory term in contemporary political discourse, which itself is usually defined by a narrow elite, usually dominated by a type of ‘groupthink’. In the British city, some architects, after the Modernist ‘revolution’ have learnt to re-appreciate the pattern book developments of the Georgian and Victorian city, and are incorporating their urban lessons, and the fact that people actually like them, in their architectures. On the other hand, the Modernist ‘revolution’ had a social dimension which is conveniently forgotten in the latest modern looking high-end residential developments. As both historical and modern architecture are now accepted as recognisable categories, what does it mean to build populist buildings today?

Tony Fretton:  I recently wrote an essay called ‘Abstraction and Familiarity’  in which I propose that both qualities- the well known and the new and unsettling are legitimate and necessary in a conurbation. I agree that the social program of modernism is being forgotten, or rather that its aims and achievements are only faintly present in current British architecture. The default settings for public and architects in the Netherlands are optimism and modernity, while in Britain they are doubt and nostalgia. My 1996 interview and ‘Abstraction and Familiarity’ attempted to find some intellectual and creative honesty in the British situation.

RM: In the communal authorship of the city, it seems that architects are often writing the footnotes, and developers are writing the story, is this a fair assessment of the authorship of the fiction of the neo-liberal city?

TF: It can be and often is, but alternatives always exist. W H Auden describes a Brueghel painting where the aged and reverent were occupied by the miraculous birth, while children who did not especially want it to happen ignored it and skated on a pond. I am with the pond skaters, but the ice can be very thin.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Census at Bethlehem, 1566

‘How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood’
W.H. Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts

RM: Was it any different in Georgian and Victorian London, in terms of the terraced housing that we still appreciate, although we have changed the interiors to suit our times?

TF: I cannot say. Peter Smithson said that it took a long time for a new housing typology to become publicly accepted. The occupation of Golden Lane and the Barbican by this generation’s artists and designers show that works of modernism are now accepted.

RM: Can we unsubscribe from the fiction of the neoliberal city, if we don’t enjoy the stories it is telling us?

TF: Yes we can unsubscribe. Even neo-liberalism’s low paid victims make their own sense of the world in the ways I describe in the interview. We can unsubscribe in this way but we cannot escape its extremely bad effects until a more humane system comes into being.

RM: You said that to be a master in the art of communication in terms of creating the city, you have, to some degree, build what people like, not look to satisfy a small minority of experts in the field that in themselves are a type of elite. What is the best way to build a communicative part of the city?

TF: You should always try to build what people may like, in the sense of providing the pleasing sense of place and possibility of contact and neighbourliness. But architecture extends between two poles; satisfaction of human need and desire, and contribution to visual culture and intelligence.

RM: Thank you Tony

See Tony Fretton Architects’ work in this book:

Buildings and Their Territories

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