A life more ordinary

In a new regular column, Charles Holland and Elly Ward of newly-minted Ordinary Architecture consider and celebrate ordinariness

What is ordinary architecture?  For us it means a number of things. Architecture itself is profoundly ordinary. Unlike most art forms, architecture is encountered in the everyday, in a ‘blur of habit’. We use buildings all the time without necessarily appreciating their aesthetic or formal qualities, at least not overtly. Architecture is mostly a backdrop to everyday life rather than its focus.

At the same time architecture is clearly something different to building. It is an aspiration, a commitment to building as a cultural act.  All buildings, however ordinary, should aspire to be architecture. Not in the sense of being excessive or bombastic or, worst of all iconic, but because they have a level of thought and care and artistry that contributes to the city and confers meaning and even nobility on the activities they house.

There is also a deadpan, pop quality to the word ordinary. Andy Warhol said: “I love boring things”. Well, we love ordinary things. Things that aren’t always considered architectural or of ‘high’ aesthetic merit. A blinking neon sign on a seafront or particularly well-planned and convivial boozer. Extraordinary architecture can be found in some very ordinary places.

Ordinary Stock Brick.
Ordinary Stock Brick.

The word ‘ordinary’ itself carries a certain lineage within architecture. Perhaps most obviously for us, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown loom large with their Theory of the Ugly and the Ordinary, a polemic against what they saw as the increasingly hollow bombast of “Heroic and Original” modernism. There is a more English and cross-legged appreciation of the everyday to be found too in the work of Alison and Peter Smithson and in particular their book Ordinariness and Light.

In both there is a commitment for architecture to engage with and accommodate the stuff of ordinary life. At the same time they were equally committed to Architecture with a capital A, their work often achieving resonance by playing off the contradictions between idealism and reality. The compromises of architecture, the fact that it is never pure or purely contemplative, also offer opportunities for aesthetic meaning and invention.

Andy Warhol said: “I love boring things”. Well, we love ordinary things.

None of this should sound like a call for a return to functional pragmatism, or like we’ve donned hair shirts and banned style or decoration. We remain suckers for Mies as much as motorway service stations, Soane as much as seaside signage.  But architecture offers the opportunity for a deep and profound engagement with ordinary life and the difficult mess of human relations. All this suggests that architecture has a life beyond the architect’s vision, one where buildings get loved, loathed, adapted, amended and generally lived in.

Over the coming months, we will use this space to explore the idea of ordinariness in architecture further. Each column will focus on a specific building typology. Some of these might be very ordinary indeed, perhaps not even usually considered architecture at all. Others will be more exotic, the kind of buildings architects dream of designing.  But in looking at them we will celebrate the profoundly ordinary pleasures of architecture.