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The Amphibious Architect

Part 1 Dissertation 2001
Benjamin Gibson
University of Sheffield Sheffield UK
I am interested in architects. I am interested in architectural production – in how the stuff of architecture is produced by architects.

I am also anxious.

I am anxious about the architectural intervention, that attempts to engage with the complexity of a contemporary society and that in the same instant must accept that it has failed in some way. It is this tension, and how architects position themselves within it, that predicates the dissertation.

The positioning of the architect is frequently the consequence of the profession. The work, therefore, interrogates professionalism and asks whether its procedural framework and institutions are able to respond to the contingencies of its societal context. I ultimately advocate a broader modus operandi, which I refer to as Amphibious Behaviour. I suggest that the architect oscillates between a state of engagement and retreat and exists in a state of flux.

The Amphibious Architect attempts to engage with the complexities and contingencies of an environment, but is ultimately able to retreat in order to mobilise his/her own political and ethical prejudices. This, I suggest, leads to critical production, concerned with the realities of a situation and avoids abstracted autonomy, on the one hand, and an insipid responsiveness, on the other.

The dissertation is concerned with an architecture broader than that described by the profession and resists the type of closure its institutions attempt. However, Amphibious Behaviour does not subvert professionalism, rather it is strong enough to support it, and at the same time transcend its praxis. Whilst the refusal to be constrained by a distinctive realm of engagement might lead to a supposedly ‘weakened’ position, I argue that it ultimately leads to a position of genuine empowerment, rather than resulting in a state of impotence.

Benjamin Gibson

Ben Gibson’s dissertation tackles a topic rarely addressed by students – the actual practice of architecture. The subject is at first sight not the most compelling. Just to address it, rather than a more immediately captivating or fashionable subject, is brave. To do it well and with interest is really impressive. The treatment could have been dry and consisted of little more extracts from the practice pages of the professional journals. However, Ben avoids this trap, moving from a rigorously researched background to a more critical and original foreground. The result is a dissertation that is both extremely scholarly (the footnotes alone are worth a read) and speculative.

The argument is founded on a metaphor for architectural production as an amphibious activity, neither drowned by the waves of society nor isolated on a rarefied desert island beach. Ben briefly inspects the history of the profession identifying its increasing isolation and protectionism, as well as its obsessions with form and aesthetics. This leads him a deep distrust of the state of fruitless autonomy that architecture has reached and as a result he proposes a more empowering mode of architectural production. Along the way, Ben has the intellectual confidence to make acute criticisms of accepted positions, as well as drawing on a broad of range of sociological, philosophical and professional sources – for example Koolhaas rubbing up against the Warne report. What I finally like about the work is that it is an extremely relevant – and personally useful – prompt to future practice, without being worthy. If he doesn’t win the dissertation prize, then at least put him on the RIBA Practice Committee; they need more people like Ben.

Jeremy Till

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