Truth and Lies in Architecture is a collection of provocative essays, that journey into the vexed circumstance of contemporary architectural practice.
The nature of the great cultural, social, political, environmental and consumerist challenges facing the contemporary architect are explored, interpreted and questioned, while drawing connections from architecture theory, philosophy, science, literature and film sources, in an attempt to negotiate the territory between the truth and lies in architecture.
“Francis-Jones presents a constant dichotomy between what architecture is and what the architect does. Hence: “The Truth of Architecture and the Lies of the Architect”, “The Slowness of Architecture and the Speed of the Architect”, “The Face of Architecture and the Mask of the Architect”, and “The Nature of Architecture and the Extinction of the Architect”
Richard Francis-Jones, Design Director of fjcstudio wrote Truth and Lies in Architecture as an act of professional camaraderie and a mental health exercise during the first Covid-19 lockdown in Sydney.
“It’s one of those projects which takes on its own life. I certainly didn’t set out to write a book and there are probably two main reasons, personal and collective.
Perhaps foremost I wrote this book as an act of camaraderie. The challenges we face as architects are immense, and the pressures we are under are also so great that I really wanted to share with my colleagues and the broader community the extent of these challenges and not skip across the surface but actually go deep into these to explore how entrenched some of these issues are and how difficult it is to address what are some of the most profound issues and responsibilities that we have as architects.
The other reason is actually personal. Most of this book was written during the Covid crisis when I was so stressed and under so much pressure, as I know many of us were in those first few months, so I wrote many of these essays to move into a slightly more rarefied mental space. Something of an escape perhaps from the enormous pressures of those times, and so for me personally it was something of a mental health exercise, a form of solace.
In writing these essays, my target was that they would be about 1500 words; the reason for that was that I thought that’s something someone can realistically read these days. Someone can get through that on the bus, someone can maybe read that before they go to sleep, someone can take that in and maybe I can leave a thought with them. So I made that something of a discipline. Each essay is independent like a series of little journeys or excavations that put together maybe lead somewhere.
I never set out with a beginning or end in mind, nor to write a book at all, but after a while it seemed maybe it was.”
“These essays represent a level of comprehensive critical awareness rarely found within the architectural profession. The entire argumentation is impressive, challenging, intellectually at the highest level and beautifully written.”
Emeritus Professor of Architecture
GSAPP, Columbia University
It is significant that the first essay in this collection should be devoted to the theme of melancholy, a frame of mind to which architects are particularly prone due to the multiple environmental conditions that confront us at this particular moment in history. As Francis-Jones puts it:
“Today is surely not the time for the loud, over-confidence of dominating master architects, those times and what they achieved, good or bad, have passed. The challenges we now face seem to require the pensiveness and sensitivity of melancholy…The melancholy of the architect may be the only true and authentic ‘place’ from which we can begin to work with the vexed conditions of contemporary life. The architect can start here. Perhaps this is the shore from which our projects can be launched.”
Written over the last two decades, the essays reflect on the difficulty of practicing architecture in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. To this end they are as much about the aporia of contemporary society as they are addressed to the difficulty of achieving an ethical and liberative environmental culture in our time. With regard to this last, Francis-Jones finds himself opposed to the various ways in which the profession has attempted to establish its legitimacy in an age dominated by the values of techno-scientific instrumentality. These are the various evasive stratagems by which the profession has presented itself over the past half century as it has oscillated between masquerading as a metier akin to applied science or at another moment as a language or yet again as an abstract culture similar to music or eventually as little more than a ‘decorated shed.’ This last would lead the profession to justify itself by way of branding; as being responsible for designing buildings as if they were primarily spectacular pieces of gigantic sculpture.
At the same time, the author remains acutely aware that neither critical reflection nor architectural theory are capable of assisting in directly applicable to the arcane process by which one arrives at a parti from which an architecture of quality may evolve by way of an informed intuition predicated on the interplay between site, program, budget, durability and the escalating impact of a changing climate.
In this regard, the author reminds us that, as opposed to our increasingly techno-scientific division of labor, architects are confronted with the direct constraints of contemporary reality on a daily basis, in which, amongst other challenges, they have to reconcile the increasingly challenging demands of real estate speculation with the increasingly bureaucratic complexity of contemporary building regulations. It is just this habitual, hyper-awareness that makes architects particularly susceptible to the aporetic conditions that prevail in contemporary society. Hence, in an essay entitled, ‘The Truth of Architecture and the Lies of Architecture’, we read of “…the insidious process that displaced all human values: The parasitic meta-ideology of commodification, an all-consuming valuelessness through which we are reduced from citizens to mere consumers.” Later on in much the same vein we encounter the author’s assertion that: “…alienation no longer bothers us. We accept and indulge in our isolation…only the most extreme acts of human violence and environmental vandalism will momentarily disturb us from our flotation.” Elsewhere we encounter a similar fatalistic awareness when he writes:
“We are overwhelmed with information, more than we can possibly deal with, to the extent that it rolls over us with no time to distinguish between facts, opinions, and deceptions…we have become data junkies unable to distinguish the laboring of life from the laboring of home-life.”
One of the most enlightening essays in this anthology is a piece entitled, ‘The Slowness of Architecture and the Speed of the Architect’, wherein the author reflects on the double-blind attending contemporary building when he writes:
“Building processes themselves have actually changed very little, they are not significantly quicker but the speed and volume of information surrounding the production have increased exponentially. Projects are now developed in a sea of information, more and more information is required to build a building. …But is the work much better and is it quicker, or more compromised, more wasteful?”
Elsewhere Francis-Jones links this informatic overload to the universal condition of homelessness, both literally and psycho-sociologically. He concludes, somewhat surprisingly with the words:
“Therefore the silent architecture of Mies van der Rohe can perhaps escape ideology and mystification through a seeming indifference to dwelling, a deeply poetic testament to its absence. Developing from this, a contemporary architecture that reflects the impossibility of dwelling can succeed in obtaining a form of authenticity. The Farnsworth House in Illinois constructed shortly before the Seagram Building in 1951 is a clear acknowledgement of our non-dwelling. Within the Farnsworth House, ‘liberated’ humanity is suspended from the world in which it can no longer dwell. The sparse and purified platforms permit no masks of comforting self-deception but instead confront us with the reality of our estrangement. While the natural is preserved only through emphatic separation from our corrupting presence.”
In contrast, Francis-Jones cites Jørn Utzon’s first house in Porto Petro, Mallorca and remarks that here, albeit momentarily, is found a place to dwell that, as he puts it, “…does not violate the site because it is the site.” At the same time he perceptively observes, “It has a primordial quality but lies within the project of modernity.” It is ironic that this ‘home coming’ should involve a Danish architect building a vacation house for himself on a remote cliff-top site, sequestered in the Balearic Islands.
This critical tone is complimented throughout by Francis-Jones’s didactic illustrations for this is an architect who, throughout his career, has not only been affected by the iconographic culture of painting, photography and film, but also by two antithetical but complimentary philosophical traditions, that is by existential phenomenology in the first instance and by Marxist critical theory in the second, this last being confirmed by his citation of Frederick Jameson. At the same time the author draws our attention to the largely uninhabitable expanse of Australia through two unforgettable aerial images of the continent as an infinite desert, first, a dramatic aerial shot of the 3,488 mile ‘dingo fence’ crossing in a straight line over the empty land mass and second, a similar shot of Uluru, formerly known as Ayres’ Rock, as seen from an even greater height in Kata Tjuta National Park. Both images forcibly remind us of the continent’s Aboriginal population. It is to this end that he includes an image of Glenn Murcutt’s masterly Marika Alderton beach house, completed in Yirrkala in the Northern Territory in 1994. Here, despite the fact that the architect has made a great effort to respect the domestic mores of Aboriginal life, the aura of an ineluctable homelessness remains.
Foreword from Truth and Lies in Architecture
Written by Kenneth Frampton
“It is not a history (distinguishing fact from fiction and myth from propaganda). It is not a critical account, though it is very critical. It is not a vanity publication boosting the author’s buildings. It is not a manifesto like Vers une Architecture. It is a profound and often poetic investigation of the architect/architecture symbiosis and its discontents. There are none of the platitudes hiding real meaning so common in our architectural and urban discussions.
The essays, and their “arrows,” give a way forward in our sea of advertising and consumption. They are together a road map to an authentic and critical architecture. We urgently need to start the journey.”
“This is an important contribution to architecture. Richard Francis-Jones is addressing some deeply troubling and thorny problems and several parts of his approach are particularly refreshing. First, the focus on deep-seated questions that evade the short-term cycles of practice. Second, the willingness to engage with a wide range of thinkers from politics, philosophy and literature. Third and finally – and most starkly – the refusal to offer a simple solution.”
“Truth and Lies in Architecture” is beautifully illustrated and produced; the quality of production is a counterpoint to the analysis of the dystopias we have created across the globe since the dawn of the Enlightenment.
Programme Director at World Architecture Festival
‘Truth and Lies in Architecture’
First published 2022
150 x 220 mm
Paperback, 208 pp + cover
Softcover sewn binding with cold glue
Copyright © 2022 Richard Francis-Jones
Published by ORO Editions
Author: Richard Francis-Jones
Book Design: Alicia McCarthy
Project Manager: Jake Anderson
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 First Edition
Color Separations and Printing: ORO Group Ltd.
Printed in China.
Maser Nader Ibrahim