Tony Fretton – Poetry Makes Nothing Happen

Lecture date: 1998-10-13

Tony Fretton, a former AA Unit Master, discusses themes from his AA exhibition Architecture, Experience and Thought. The exhibition represents the architecture of the title. The schemes are exhibited in the simplest forms of architectural representation to show the complexity and excitement of events within which architecture is made, and the formal responses which we make to them. Tony Fretton Architects was formed in 1982.

NB: Drawings are often difficult to see clearly.


Mohsen Mostafavi: We’ve been looking at practices that have continued the project of Modernism and have made a contribution to this project so to speak. We’re part of this group of people who have thought in a very important ways. There is always a lot that is said on the question of minimalism and so on, and I think this has already been rehearsed many times, it is part of the stylistic operation and what I think is critical about the work of Tony is that he works in rather uncertain ways.

TONY FRETTON: Two things to start, one is to address why is the exhibition is called ‘Architecture, Experience and Thought’. I think this flies in the face of a lot of the way in which architecture has been proposing itself sometimes, which seems to entail a belief that there is a theoretical or rhetorical position which precedes making architecture, and then the work comes from that. But actually my experience, and I think the experience of many other architects is utterly different. The architecture is what you do, in the way that people that write would find that unexceptional. Because it is the internalization of all those things which surrounds you as an architect, and I would say also the ability to refract the things that please you outside architecture, all of those things that you see, read, whether they be finely wrote or simply pleasurable, comes with the architect. This aspect is best explained by showing you the work. But the second part of the title: the experience aspect is that, as I design a building, I experience it, I imagine it, i see it, it’s real to me. Then again there are aspects of it which we didn’t consciously put it into that scheme.

It’s very different to the practices that seek precision, let’s say law or some aspects of science. Creative activity produces objects which then provoke, stimulate people to have ideas, impressions. I believe that the thoughts infused when you experience a piece of work or an object, a piece of music, produces genuine knowledge. Knowledge of a type which is re-interpretable, that is the key to me: it doesn’t want to be more precise. So, the experience of it is a fundamental component of what we understand architecture to be in the office. Thought comes very very late, of course, you think as you make the building, as you make propositions for the building, and you reflect on your experience, but afterwards this experience that I’ve described eventually gives you a series of conclusions or deductions on what you’ve done. That is to explain the title of this lecture, which is ‘Poetry Makes Nothing Happen’ it’s a line from a poem that I like very much written by W. H. Auden, which I’m sure I’m misusing, but clearly, poetry and architecture and literature do make things happen, but in a very particular way, they’re not instrumental, and one of the curses of architecture is that it somehow places itself in the world of practicalities, and it isn’t, the world of practicality is actually one of agreements, and fictions, very necessary ones, but they are not as propelling as we think: the capacity of objects, events, or experiences like the ones just described, to act, I believe, on culture as a whole. If it works, it provides tiny components, which together with other tiny components from other fields—could be politics, or fine art—give us the things by which we think, gives us the ideas by which we think. Specially in architecture’s case, gives us the means to see a city, it makes sense of the present, whether you like it or not, even if you design badly, you make the visual culture within the people see the city, and from which their can only escape by their imaginations. So, in the work that we do, we are very conscious of how… there is a particular role that I see that one would adopt, which is to consciously make objects which are highly created, very open to interpretation, and to which people can attach their imaginative self and their fantasies and live out their lives. It seems to me that there is a necessity to provide structure, but you have to do it in a way which is truly libertarian.

The project that we did in Sway, Hampshire, and some of these issues will become clear, I hope. Sway is 7 km or so from the South Coast of England, and it’s a suburb of Southampton, and  I guess it was a rural tow



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