U-Build : Adrian Gollner. 1-18 SEPTEMBER, 2004

Canadian Artist visited to create U-Build, 'a small one person dwelling which explores utopian architectural grand schemes and design princples of late modern institutional architecture'. It was installed in the Botanical gardens on the Archers Field.

U-Build has its origins in 2003’s Modern U, a project in which Adrian Göllner addressed the architectural style of the Carleton University in Ottawa. Built between 1952-72 Carleton University was shaped by a modern aesthetic that designed an infrastructure that sought to control and influence the inhabitants and users of the campus. Hence Modern U is half satire, half sincerity. The very title mimics a kind of sartorial TV show, or handbook, which directs one across the heady waters of provincial parochialism into a furtive and surface orientated (read consumptive) ‘modern you’ of post-war, egalitarian optimism. However, Göllner ’s satire (if indeed it is that) never reads so simply. The tone is, in some manner, extremely earnest. What one commentator writes off as the architectural experience of a bland ‘fast food restaurant’ Göllner celebrates as a grandiose architectural conception which deigned to build ‘outside of the sullied urban core, [so that] the young minds could be formed in an idyllic atmosphere of trees and dynamic new architecture’.

Göllner’s banner works for Modern U mimed the original architectural promise, bringing back the arcane knowledge that formed its conception and structure. For instance, the poster which accompanied the Lanark dormitory was accompanied with the snappy slogan, “Up all night philosophising” which is riducoulsy funny, but just the kind of notion and enthusiasm, a post-war, egalitarian sensibility would think. Göllner’s banner plays off that initial planning, showing the way the dormitories were structured to organise, or at the very least encourage communion. These smaller satellite congregations would then feed into larger networks in an ongoing circuit of enthusiasm and shared experience. The very stylisation of Göllner’s graphic mimes the plugs of electrical circuitry, a much more obedient and subservient system – which is precisely why so much trouble goes into inducing the environment at Carleton University. Such is habitation control – you should see what biologists need to do to test fertility-breeding programs. Which I suppose is what one could think of the whole Carleton University – Modern U experiment in which the next generations minds are to be shaped and nurtured for the future.

But if Modern U was concerned with the communal and organisational structures of campus life, U-build directs itself at the atomised individual. A solitary dwelling designed for one seems the complete opposite of a Lanark residency designed for hundreds. No longer underpinned by the structural logics of interplay and communion, U-Build operates around the stand-alone individual, sheltered and cut off from such habitational encouragement or sociability. It therefore presents itself as the quintessentially cube of solitary behaviour, cut back to a simplicity that seems to be all about surface deflection and refining the individual. As Göllner expressed:

I suspect that the U-Build house will have an equivocal presence. This neat plastic form set amongst trees would be the very essence of the modern dwelling. At the same time, the house might seem like a rather sad and naïve attempt to rekindle the collective societal aspirations of an earlier generation, albeit on an individual basis. I am also aware that this modular building kit may recall some Bauhaus projects of the 1930s. Gerrit Rietveld’s depression era Crate Chair, for example, was very much a people’s project. In fact, that the house will be made from sections of brightly coloured Coroplast, it may well resemble one of his primary coloured DeStijl buildings.

So in some ways, Göllner’s U-Build seems quintessentially caught up in that modernist drive towards a Utopian simplicity as a refined dwelling, pleasantly set amongst the trees, not to mention its ready-to-assemble egalitarian mobility. But for all this, there is something about its pragmatism and announcement as retreat that I can’t help but want to compare to Henry Thoreau’s little hut in Walden.

Harassing his contemporaries for their secession to the world of material want, and the superficiality of slick surface ‘decency’ (‘it would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon’) Thoreau takes to the woods as a counter-charging spur of self-sufficiency and self-actualisation. Bemoaning the lot of the city dweller trapped into high property prices and the escalation and poverty cycles of rent and the forlorn mortgage, Thoreau sets out his retreat to the woods as both example and experiment. Reminding his reader that ‘many a man is harassed to death to pay the rent of a larger and more luxurious box’ (29) Thoreau attempts to lead a life of simplicity by paring back his dependency on ‘food, shelter, clothing and fuel’ to a Spartan kind of economy. At this reduced edge, Thoreau abhors the ornamental, criticising such architectural decadence as ‘literally hollow’ and insubstantial to the to the ‘September gale [which] would strip them off, like borrowed plumes, without injury to the substantials’. For Thoreau, ‘architectural beauty’ grew from within, following a sort of order of necessity, allowing for an ‘unconscious truthfulness, and nobleness, without ever a thought for the appearance’ (47). Hence:

The most interesting dwellings in this country, as the painter knows, are the most unpretending, humble log huts and cottages of the poor commonly; it is the life of the inhabitants whose shells they are, and not any peculiarity in their surfaces merely, which makes them picturesque; and equally interesting will be the citizen’s suburban box, when his life shall be as simple and as agreeable to the imagination, and there is as little straining after effect in the style of his dwelling (47).

It is with this in mind that he warns us, ‘if one designs to construct a dwelling house, it behooves him to exercise a little Yankee shrewdness, lest after all he find himself in a workhouse, a labyrinth without a clew, a museum, an almshouse, a prison, or a splendid mausoleum instead’ (28). Yankee shrewdness indeed. What Thoreau really means is a certain sort of dogmatism, a willingness to follow his self-actualised, Spartan simplicity. His argument then, centres around a kind of diatribe which valorises the poetic sentiment of freedom over a misanthropic resentment at society’s economic infrastructures:

There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simple and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged. But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes (46).

It would seem then that U-build seems peculiarly prone to a belaboured occupation as though it was a re-enactment of Thoreau’s hut. Built from such self-sufficient and Spartan material as coroplast, U-build is exactly that less ‘luxurious box’ Thoreau so eagerly wanted society to adopt. That it is so thoroughly convincing in its ornamental colouring and surface slickness as a quintessentially contemporary building seems to mark out U–build as a troubling decoy that enlists that modern palette of refinement and ornamentation back into that peculiar quotient of form, functionalism and nature. It is this that so complicates the very notion of actually inhabiting, or deploying U-build, as either aesthetic object, or as mobile, self-sufficient residence. Ultimately it comes down to a certain willingness, an engaged enthusiasm, that will need to go back to that aesthetic-ascetic/endurance-enjoyment kinda scale if they’re ever to make up their mind.