Second Construction: Writing Center

 (click on all images to enlarge)

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To chart a place on earth—that is the supreme effort of the built environment in antiquity. Shelter, of course, always takes precedence. But its issue transcends self-preservation and comfort. Shelter engages human alliances and rank, and so it becomes the task of residential architecture to advance the pattern of collective existence. From family to empire, the stages of social and political gradation affect the scope and intricacy of this extendable pattern. But in the end organization only tidies up; it cannot satisfy darker anxieties of being afloat in a mysterious design which is not of our own making. To mediate between cosmos and polity, to give shape to fear and exorcize it, to effect a reconciliation of knowledge and the unknowable—that was the charge of ancient architecture.

It is a charge that is no longer pressing, that no longer has meaning. Geomancy had no place in the laying out of New York or Teheran; Buckingham Palace was not planned to be the pivot of the cosmic universe. At some point we chose to keep our own counsel, to search for self close at home.

from Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture

We can build now almost anything we want in any shape and size, and open up our walls to the endless world and endlessly let it in, and do so with little visible external support. The restrictions once imposed by gravity, that necessitated placing beams on posts, thus limiting openings and keeping us close to the ground, distant from the heavens, that constrained the building of an esthetic, have been transcended by modern technologies of construction and materials.

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Yet transcendence itself has been dismissed as an illusion, a vague desire. We are moved to wonder by our technological constructions and devices, these ever propelling us to the threshold of something else, something newer, something taller, something somehow better, but our conversion to scientific outlooks—and scientific looking outlooks—has removed any base for awe. The only thing we have left to wonder about is wonder itself. We have no compelling reason or fixed set of beliefs upon which to build anything, no cause to look up or outward. Whatever geographical moorings we once had have been diluted by our movement away from centers or dissolved by the abstract ways we define our lives together, most of these of commerce, where we pay allegiance.

We keep looking forward, and in doing so we have cut ourselves from any past, leaving us in a perpetually decaying present moment. Our anxieties are quieted by pills or sent soaring in steeply pitched narratives of destruction set on vast battlefields—actual war zones where we try to preserve a declining empire that we do not recognize as an empire, thus depriving ourselves at least of the clarity of that definition, or on battlefields imagined on screens, video games and movies that simulate depth and reach in vast space but have no grounded theme, no point other than the plotting of their own climax. We do not know what to be afraid of, have even put the thought of fear aside, but somehow have bypassed the suspicion we should be afraid of ourselves.

Art itself is seen by popular sentiment and our ruling commerce—the two cannot be separated—as a diversion or distraction, not a structural part of cultural foundation, and many artists have rushed to meet the demand. Other artists, instead of engaging the world, have retreated within the self, all they find authentic, creating works that are self-absorbed or self-refractive or self-destructive. Meanwhile the arts themselves have challenged everything that once held them up—tonal scales, perspective, point of view, plots and frames and planes, even the right or need for art to exist.

And that is where we have been for nearly a century. I set the date, arbitrarily of course, at 1917, when Marcel Duchamp signed R. Mutt on a toilet. The difference now is that ours is an era of heightened exuberance and insecurity, our mood a free floating anxiety that escapes in fantastic projections and collapses.

It is also an era that invites the kind of breathless generalizations I have just made. Whether the world was ever better built, whether the balanced faces of past creations only covered greater disturbance, is another matter.

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So it is within this context I set my next project, a writing center loosely modeled on the low residency MFA writing program at Vermont College, which I attended. The building would be the primary center for the school’s functions. I assume other buildings, such as housing, but it provides most of what a small program might need. It could also accommodate the other arts and serve the surrounding community as a cultural and civic center when school is not in session.

I wanted to design a building that reflects the uncertainty and uneasiness of the times as well as contain esthetic debates without resolving any. It would be a place for starting over—once again.

I see its character as being modest and problematic. I debate many cultural containers of the last years. Gehry’s museum in Bilbao is a marvel, yet I wonder if it doesn’t call more attention to itself than the service it provides, that its hugely expressive and complicated and ambiguous design may not condition reception of the work inside, if not overpower it. A great deal of its mass, half its height, is not used for exhibition or any other purpose. Form follows form without regard to function. Gehry’s buildings remind me of the vast inflationary marvels we have seen in the stock market and elsewhere the last years, and maybe these phenomena need to be expressed and preserved. Or maybe they give us a chance to drift freely without being tied down to our crowded streets and narrow visions, always a vital need. The museum’s relationship to the distant hills is suggestive and intriguing. I can’t hear the dialogue it has with the rest of the city, however, and have trouble getting one started.

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I have a similar problem with the Piano and Rogers Pompidou Center in Paris. The building playfully and pointlessly exposes its skeletal structure and entrails, which I like, yet when set against a Parisian backdrop, scale looks grossly off. It is a massive monumental non-monument that ignores a city that once took monuments too seriously, but it also violates a reserve that kept Paris close to the ground for centuries and on a more human scale.

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Then again, it also exposes the sterile, abstract projections of the tall buildings behind and makes us question what they hide.

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Still, lost in the non-dialogue, whatever might be inside the art center itself.

Our containers for creating and discussing and showing art should be unassuming. Let the expressive energy come from within. The best place to house a writing program might be a resurrected warehouse in some central urban location, where the world and its creations can meet and clash.

Nonetheless, I had to give it a shot.

My site, as before, is the blank slate of suburbia, where I live, where traces of the past and architectural heritage are faint or nonexistent. As in my first construction, I continue my attachment to the character of brick, which textured my life growing up in the South, whose rough surface provided both permanence and friction to all I once found attractive and all I resisted, there and elsewhere. It has to be a building we want to touch.

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Design

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Greek thinking is at once typal and specific. It takes on an idea (or a form, which is nothing other than a congealed idea), nourishes and perfects it through a series of conscious changes, and in this way informs it with a kind of universal validity that seems irrefutable. The process is in fact ideal, that is, based on “the perfection of kind.” It presupposes orderly development and the practicability of consummation.

Kostof once more

Of course we don’t know what the Greeks were thinking and maybe they didn’t either. Still the desire persists that forms matter and mean something, that our buildings, like our activities inside, have purpose and extension. With the Greeks, it was most in temples they left their architectural legacy.

Greek temples served simultaneously as the symbol of a broad union of Greeks—a union predicated upon a common religion, a common tongue, and the belief in a common ancestry—and also as the symbol of each city’s special involvement with one of the immortals. . . .

And again

The language of classical architecture has provided the longest lasting influence on syntax and diction in western building, and there have been many revisions. Ironically, new orders have been created by looking back to it, most notably in the Renaissance and Neoclassicism. In our early history, Greek Revival took hold and lingered many years.

Then there was the purity and restraint of Geek architecture, its simple lines and tame decoration, the neat logic of the trabeated structure.

Ancient Greece appealed to this adolescent eagerness to appear worldly, independent, and paradigmatic. She was the birthplace of democracy. Her culture, typified liberty, learning, and beauty.

And again

The style was used for decades in government and commercial buildings, as well as churches and homes. It was also popular in the South, leading to the creation of restrained and attractive plantation manors—the residences of slave owners. As Kostof notes, we can put a composed face on anything we want.

In these buildings, temple fronts were placed at the center of a symmetrical design and enclosed and covered the main entrance. The temple front, a row of columns supporting a pediment, offers a proposition of poise, order, and purpose, a context for entry. You only have to put a triangle on top of a box to suggest some larger thought. It anchors the box to the ground, concluding it with a single point, while at the same time asks us to look up.

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In my building the temple front has been broken into two parts moved to the corners. Also the columns on the left sit in the grass and support nothing, while those on the right do support the second story and roof but are contained within a glass wall, cut in half by the floors and put at hand’s reach, denied external presence. Challenged then, a sense of structure and its relationship to support, to anything. The main entrance is nowhere to be seen and has to be discovered. There is no motif work between the beams, no frieze of bas-relief or pattern of triglyphs and metopes, and since the upper beam is supported by bricks the same color as the building proper, it seems to float in air. We have to fill the motifs in ourselves. The pediment itself is only suggested by brief fragments, at the corners.

Modernists, in the International Style, rejected both embellishment and reference to the past as nonessential and detrimental to their desire to create a new order for the modern world. Postmodernists restored both, but did so with irony, if not whimsy. I can’t decide where I stand. I was tempted to play even more with the temple form, placing the columns horizontally in the rooms at the right and scattering pieces of columns and pediments about the site. Yet I liked the look of the corners and pulled back, resisting sarcasm. Esthetic appeal is hard to ignore when you’re trying to create a work of art.

The_Parthenon_in_Athens

My front might also recall the Parthenon as we know it now, whose pediment is fragmented itself, its present ruin suggesting incompletion against consummation, fragmentation against perfection, decay against against permanence—eternal contradictions, timeless themes. The ruins of the Parthenon have engaged us all these centuries, not the original form, and they have an expressive power, like Rodin’s sculptures of fragmented bodies. It’s a modern bias, but I find full reconstructions of the original Parthenon overwrought.

We have a problem in giving our buildings some kind of distinction. Economy and modernist principles have resulted in monotonous buildings without expression at all. Only the most careful modernists designed buildings of character. And it’s hard to find a language of embellishment in our current culture that might stick. Nor do we have real cause or strong roots to attach ourselves to the Greek or any architectural past. Attempts to do so often lead to work that is sentimental and artificial, wholly unconvincing. But at least the Greek temple, in its modesty and simplicity, is not presumptuous or self-absorbed. My reference might stand in as an abstract symbol that, while not tied down to a direct heritage, encourages us to look back—somewhere. At any rate, I like the thought of listening to a lecture in the building on the right while sitting next to a partial column and debating its inclusion, its relevance to what is being said.

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My columns, I suppose, are roughly Doric. Kostof on this order:

Perhaps inevitably in the light of their self-awareness, the metaphor of the Greek column has to do with the human body. It is as though we are there bearing the load of the superstructure and would know in our own bodies, empathetically, what is too much or too little for the constitution of the columns.

The principle of empathy is central to the understanding of Greek architecture. It comes about intangibly, through the proportional interlocking of the members, which evokes the proportional relationships of a standing human. Proportion, according to the Classical theorist Vitruvius, “is a correspondence among the measures of the members of an entire work, and of the whole to a certain part selected as standard. . . as in the case of those of a well-shaped man.”

The human scale should always come first, yet we are at a loss now to define it. In the past too often classical architecture was used not to bring order to our lives but impose it and compress the scale, one reason it has been rejected. In our nation’s capital we have a network of government buildings influenced by classical styles that are regular, orderly, and extensive—and controlling and bland. The Nazis returned to the Greeks and Romans to produce massive constructions that were repetitive and oppressive, distended and pathological.

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The proposed Volkshalle, “People’s Hall,” never built.

My building, of course, is small, but I kept it low profile. All my ceilings are high—I wanted some lift and openness—but not diminishing. I have moved away, however, from integration into any internal and consistent system of proportions. Instead of a centrally planned, hierarchal scheme, I have broken up the building into separate and competing parts. The sections, roughly delineated by their perimeters and different roofs, indicate the separate rooms and their separateness, allowing debate about the relationship between form and function. The building itself has been taken apart and arranged around a two-tiered courtyard at the center. I have placed a single tree up front, but both tiers can be developed with landscaping that competes with or complements the rest of the building. Assume also full landscaping around the building that does the same. Or the courtyard can just be left as a lawn, green abstract planes.

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In general, I wanted a play of openness and closure, privacy and exposure, of closed and open views, and throughout, a circulation of light and air. Most windows can be opened to let in fresh air, and the white roofs cover louvered glass which can be opened as well. The building also echoes past and recent solutions—abstract geometric volumes in cubes made of sheer brick walls and whole glass curtains, these set against the more traditional sections articulated by brick piers and the white pilasters that separate and support glass fronts—without any dominating or much interrelationship between them. I wanted to avoid chaos, however, and maintain some kind of balance, but it is a balance of discrete parts and disproportions. The effect would work better if I moved the back right and back left parts of the building out more and not contained them in a square, but I was limited by materials at hand, in this case a 25 inch square base, which scales to about 130 feet on each side.

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Thus the building echoes many solutions, past and present, without settling on any, and offers two opposing propositions: pull the building back together or push it further apart. Writers are encouraged to do something analogous in their work.

I refuse to consider the word “deconstruction” in describing the design. The term has been overworked, used to define, defend, or attack just about everything, and academics have taken all the fun out of it.

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Program

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I would not change a thing about the campus at Vermont College or its program. The school, located in Montpelier, sits on a hill above the downtown area. Its grounds are quiet and open, and all facilities are within a short walk. The main building, College Hall, above, was originally built in 1872 to house a seminary. Second Empire in style, like New England it is elevated but not imperious. The arrangement of buildings is casual, and the campus has no central plan following a hierarchy of functions. The residency does have a place of special focus, however, in a large room in Noble Hall, where faculty, graduating students, and visiting writers give readings, open to the public, where the creative product is provided a frame and an audience.

The MFA writing program consists of two ten day residencies during the year. That time is largely spent attending lectures and other readings held throughout the campus from which students freely choose, small workshops to discuss student work, and individual conferences with mentors of the past term. Other time goes to informal social activities, planned and spontaneous. There is a dance and a mock talent show and an auction of artistic odds and ends. The poets take on the fiction writers in a softball game on the lawn before College Hall. Discussions continue in the bars down the hill or are abandoned. Students from the New England Culinary Institute prepare the food. The rest of the year, students are left to focus on their work at home, supported by monthly mail correspondence with their mentors.

Aside from the conferences and workshops, there is no set schedule. Nor are there definite curriculum requirements other than those worked out by students with their mentors. Most governance for the school comes from the faculty themselves, whatever they can agree on. The administrative offices are small, and the two directors are most helpful and friendly. I never learned their titles. Students largely set their own goals, and while standards are raised, they are open to discussion and are not measured in grades.  Few forms are handed out. Vermont College avoids the rigid standardization and bureaucratic tedium found in most other schools, and it is this absence that gives it meaningful coherence. What most holds the program together is the collective desire of a group of individuals to pursue their separate interests. The Greeks would be proud.

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My building would accommodate most of these activities. There are three mid-sized rooms for lectures and readings, all facing the front and most likely a public road, all of different character. I didn’t pursue this fully in my model, but I’d like to see a school in which every room is different in some way, providing students and teachers a different experience that breaks up the regimen of going from class to class.

MFA floor 1

On the right, on two floors, are four seminar rooms for the workshops. (They are too narrow in the model and need to moved out a few feet. Also a late adjustment led to the top rooms being too tall.) With their large windows, the two on the top floor could also serve as studios for the visual arts. The seminar room windows all face out, away from the court, which would be blocked by the hall anyway.

BlogMFA2nd floor

There are two entrances inside, by the court, one to the seminar rooms and the other to the larger part on the left that, on the second floor, houses the main lecture room. Stairs from that entrance would have a series of flights, giving divided motion to the ascent. At the top, a gallery leads to the main room and gives a full view of the interior, a place to pause and contemplate spaces, a place for intermission. The main room would have several glass doors and windows at the gallery, which would give from inside a full view as well. If noise is not an issue, these could be opened for circulation. I hope air circulation would not be an issue for the windowless part of the main room and that some purpose can be found for the part that sticks out, perhaps storage or sound equipment. Otherwise design has taken precedence over function.

The windowless room beside the classroom on the first floor could provide a variety of uses. It could be a screening room or house a small gallery or bookstore. Vermont College has a store to sell faculty work. It also has a residency for the visual arts. Or it could be a cafe. I’d like the building to be a place for small, informal gatherings throughout the day and into the night, outside of any schedule. The interior of this part of the building, in the back, could be open on both floors. The roof of the model is supported by brick columns about every ten feet, floor to ceiling (not visible), and these divide the room into smaller square areas where chairs and tables could be put. I have in mind the two levels of Caffe Med on Telegraph in Berkeley, once a place of thriving mixed-use talk. Or there is space for other rooms in the back, such as a computer lab and administrative offices. The glass section in the middle and at the back, that connects the two sides, not only provides communication but also is wide enough for tables as well, a place, perhaps for student conferences. Partitions could be added to separate the passageway.

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A note on the model

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Much of the design is determined by the limitations imposed by Lego pieces, which lend themselves most to abstract, modern buildings. Diagonal planes cannot be built convincingly, so I couldn’t construct roofs and pediments anyway. Windows and trim can only be suggested, and structural articulation is exaggerated in my model. My main inspiration came from going to the local Lego store, finding the column pieces in a bin, and deciding I had to do something with them. While fluted, my columns, of course, cannot be tapered or given entasis, the slight bulge Greeks gave theirs to suggest compression and offset an optical illusion that makes straight cylinders look inwardly bowed. Just as well. I would have been tempted to make them overweight.

All pictures other than those of the model from Wikipedia Commons.

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