House II

Building a model offers a way to experience the physical presence of a work of architecture close hand, over time, to examine its structure, the relationship of its parts, as well as engage in the practice and ritual of construction. It also provides a platform to contemplate structures and relationships in general, what might be suggested analogically, what might be applied elsewhere.

I had no particular reason for choosing Peter Eisenman’s House II, but once I started I became wholly engaged in the process of understanding, planning, and building, and tearing down and revising and rebuilding, and with the construction and destruction came a host of thoughts that hovered but landed nowhere, returning me only to House II, its structure, the relationship of its parts, which sent me flying into thought once again.

Eisenman, in fact, intended his project to look like a model:

Built of plywood, veneer, and paint, it lacks traditional details associated with conventional houses. Viewed without the external, scale-specific referent, House II becomes an ambiguous object, which could be a building or a model.

From the PDF linked on his site. The effect is less apparent in my model. This ambiguity makes us aware of the process of design and construction, of process itself, leaving us with questions that can be answered in several ways—or can’t be answered at all. We can look forward and contemplate the final project, brought to completion and perfection. Just as much we realize neither will ever come, that finality was not the goal. Ambiguity most characterizes the house, and we have to contend with the tentative, the provisional. Perhaps we are left with the realization that perfection itself is an illusion, or if apparently obtained elsewhere has questionable value and reference.

Then we have to decide what to make of Eisenman’s comment:

The “real architecture” only exists in the drawings. The “real building” exists outside the drawings. The difference here is that “architecture” and “building” are not the same.

And think where we’re left when we take all the terms out of quotation.

House II, the Falk House, built 1969-1970, is the second of a series of eleven experimental houses Eisenman designed early in his career, only four of which which built. It changed hands over the years and suffered deterioration and underwent revision and restoration. Last year it went on sale again without finding buyers and was at the point of demolition until new owners rescued it, who plan to return it close to its original form. I studied Eisenman’s drawings; the photographs of the house when first completed, the version I wanted to capture, where revisions to the plan of his drawing were made; and recent photographs of the house after the owners’ changes, as it appears today. The differences were difficult to sort out, and simplifications I had to make aside, I have no confidence I have everything right.

The house is situated on top of a hill in Vermont with long views past its 100 acre plot.

The design attempts to simulate the presence of trees, which are nonexistent on the barren hilltop, through the use of a sequence of columns and walls.

I can’t see that presence, except in an attenuated abstract sense of vertical elements and complex interweaving that might suggest branching. Eisenman’s concerns are purely formal, and the house instead, in its nonobjective forms and stark white and glass surfaces, marks its separation from the land, from nature, from any kind of connection or representation. What the house most reveals is a basic shape, the cube, that has been extensively modified. A physical cube might bring associations of the cube—a unit for construction, a building block, a basic geometric shape, its associations through the history of our culture of solidity, of some truth.

In his design Eisenman started with a grid of nine squares and a two-level cube determined by 4 x 4 posts, evenly spaced. The grid adds suggestions of order and regularity, of enclosure, perhaps of a Cartesian scheme reaching out into space and comprehending it.

All such associations are quickly dismantled. The grid and basic shape go through a series of transformations—shifts, extrusions, displacements, and omissions—all of which required intense study. Constructing a building, and constructing a model of a building, usually is a matter of expectations and repetition. Structure is discovered, the building is illumined, and elements fall into place. Walls and floors align, doors and windows follow consistent patterns, all related to their uses and their relationship to the whole. That almost never happened in my model, and I constantly checked my progress against the pictures and drawings. Even traditional architectural markers, openings—doors and windows—are not clear. Throughout construction, scale drifted in and out in my hands, before my eyes. Often the building seemed quite large, when in fact it is a modest house, about 45 x 45 feet.

The second floor is broken up into three levels containing what could be three bedrooms plus some room left over, and the interior is defined by openness and circulation throughout, especially the first floor, which has scant partition. Frank Lloyd Wright, who introduced architecture to the open plan, gives contrast. Against his integrated and comprehensive flowing space, that space guided by natural metaphors and a program for living, we see in House II the opposite, detailed and intricate openness without program or reference. Everything is up for grabs.

Even, or especially, structure is ambiguous. The structural function of his initial grid is disguised or undercut. Some elements are stranded, posts don’t rise to support what we think they should support or support nothing. One motif inside, repeated on the exterior, is a partial section of a wall topped by a column that reinforces the theme of ambiguity and incompletion. Is it a wall or a column? Or both or neither?

Each of the two support systems–one of columns, the other of walls–is more than sufficient to meet the structural requirements of the house, which forces new readings. Either each system is supporting the house in part, or the two systems are completely supporting the house independently, or one system is only a sign of support. In this redundancy an architectural sign is created: each system’s function is to signify its own lack of function.

We are left with the question as to what is holding the house up. While Eisenman’s concerns are formal, the modernist dictum that form follows function is subverted, and I assume a reaction. His is a formalism that questions formalism, a modernism that cuts away its supports.

Another advantage of a model is that the builder can experience it from any angle while having, because of its small size, an omnipotent point of view.

The gray, glazed strips are skylights, adding to the play of light inside. This view shows how much of the house is devoted to the open space in the bottom corner, a third, the openness from a ground-level view partly masked by walls and beams and columns. I hazard to call that space a porch. Architecturally it is negative space. Philosophically it is the void.

Straight-on views of each side provide the aspect of a stasis that approaches symmetry and stability. That stasis releases with the slightest turn as you move around the house into a complex, shifting dynamic of relationships of elements that continues until you reach the next side. It is in the open space that the dynamic is most active, which would be enhanced by the movement of shadows from a rising and setting sun. With the stasis, the dynamic, in the walls and windows, shifting faces of solidity and openness.

The original grid of the cube can be traced throughout, though often it has to be discovered. Some posts and beams are close to other similar elements not on the grid, throwing us off. Others merge with solid infill, others are omitted and instead implied. In this view the middle horizontal beam of the grid is raised to meet the base of the extending window box, on the upper right, this displacement balanced by a thicker beam below, set inside, which contains within it the expected frontal grid beam and which has no structural purpose except to support a broad vertical post that stands by itself. There is tension and communication between this interior horizontal beam and the window box that pushes outside the cube, the window box itself qualified by a break of two windows beside it, flush with the grid, divided by a floating and extruding beam. Further in another broad beam laid horizontal, seen in the aerial view above, complements and leads to the first but lies outside the grid. This movement, the tensions, are generated by the decision to split the second floor into levels, coming to terms with the highest.

That is only one example. Any line of tension is counteracted by others that lead elsewhere, and wherever you stand you will be presented with options of which to pursue.

Fenestration helps throw our sense of scale. Large glass areas appear as walls that reinforce and modify the grid but are too large for expected use. The narrow horizontal windows reinforce the horizontal cast but seem more appropriate for a larger building. Those window bands and narrow vertical bands also echo beams and posts. We are aware of them as absences on the grid, as negative walls and beams and posts that cannot support anything.

The wall sections at the top take the place of a sloping roof and cap the house, imperfectly. But they serve no structural function or use, except perhaps to shade the porches though not protect them from rain. What they suggest is a third level, partially realized, that would make for a more perfect cube. It is towards this projected extension that the three levels of the second floor lead—again see the aerial view.

Within these upper walls are insets on three sides that articulate the grid yet serve no structural purpose. One is incomplete, left standing by itself. They intrigue endlessly and uselessly, and give relief to the flat surface, in fact provide the bane of modernist work, ornamental detail.

Note on these two sides the wall/column segments, begun in the interior.

This side most has the most solid face and is closest to formal symmetry. It also shows apparent use, three rooms giving out onto a narrow porch above a large room what is close to formal entry. I believe, however, the original door was white not gray, and it blended in with the other elements in the pictures I saw. But note that the two insets on the top left are structural, or appear to be, as they are supported by beams and then support the rest of the frame—or seem to—and the beams visibly extend to supporting structures inside. Those two insets are balanced by the larger irregular wall on the right, also supported by a beam, which stops short of the corner. None of those beams have posts below; all these expected posts are off the grid. The aerial view shows the full lattice of the supporting beams. There are other subtle shifts throughout.

Finally the house brings the greatest surprise, a sheer wall without openings—the stairs to the upper floor are here. This face proposes a solid cube, but staring at it, after a tour of building, we see the afterimage of complexity we have just passed.

I could go on, but the verbal language of details is difficult and tedious. Just start somewhere and see where your eye goes. We could say that the house is incomplete. Better, it presents a complexity not easily resolved. In spite of the ambiguities, or because of them, I find House II compelling. Against its openness and seeming irresolution there is control and proportion, these determined by careful departures from the original regular grid with rich variation and made active by the many lines of tension. I could not capture the proportions accurately in the model and analysis is beyond my means, but while I constructed the model they were the source of constant speculation. The building is complete in its provisionality and has a kind of structural honesty, one that allows questions and doubt.

I’m not interested in locating House II in the timeline of architectural movements. Communication between one movement to the next is usually fractured, often suspect. More, doing so reduces it to a historical artifact, which the house resists. If I had confidence I could make such a statement, I would say it is classical, timeless. Most, placement gives us a false sense of progress and reinforces the illusion we are going somewhere.

Nor am I interested in linking House II directly to theory. Again communication is rough, in this case between ideas and art, and any physical work, the creation of an individual mind and special talent, exceeds thought or falls short, sometimes escapes it, sometimes contradicts. Often theory is the scaffolding that helps create a building but disappears once it is complete and the props come down. All theory leads to impasse, to dizziness.

Still, there is rigorous intelligence at work, and House II gives grounds to think broadly about where we’ve been, where we are now, where we might be headed, what is, what matters.

Whoever thou art, if thou seekest to extol the glory of these doors,
Marvel not at the gold and the expense but at the craftsmanship of the work.
Bright is the noble work; but, being nobly bright, the work
Should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights,
To the True Light where Christ is the true door.
In what manner it be inherent in this world the golden door defines;
The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material
And, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.

The gilded verse on the main doors of Abbot Suger’s renovation of St. Denis.

His addition of the choir, begun 1144, was inspired by Neoplatonist thought, an architectural solution to the problem how the physical world might be reconciled with the ideal, the temporal with the eternal. The pointed arch, vault rib, and flying buttress, elements of the coming Gothic style, distribute load to allow maximum space for the stained glass windows, through which the light of the spirit passes, where the patterns and messages of their figures glow.

However:

Metaphysical transcendence is desire.

Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics.” St. Denis, after all, was a royal abbey rebuilt to glorify the monarchy and enhance its power. Christianity has to be unpacked, belief put in the spotlight, desire brought to light. Yet while belief leads to extension and elaboration, it also blinds, in fact it is only in its blindness that it can exist, the desire flourish. The same goes for the rational schemes that followed, with their hidden faith, the masked desire that projected them. And there is always a distance between what we say and what we think we are saying, which cannot be closed.

The problem [we face now is] is choosing between an anachronistic continuance of hope and an acceptance of the bare conditions of survival… Incapable of believing in reason, uncertain of the significance of his objects, man [has lost] his capacity for signifying… The context which gave ideas and objects their previous significance is gone… There is now merely a landscape of objects; new and old are the same; they appear to have meaning but they speak into a void of history.

Eisenman, some ten years later, after House II, in his essay on Aldo Rossi. Existential doubts have been brought to the fore. For concrete evidence we only have to look at the havoc of the last hundred years to see how much our existence has been imperiled, our survival put in doubt, by holocaust, mass destruction, global instability, and environmental deterioration. Causes, however, elude us. Is this demolition the result of loss of faith or misplaced faith or a surfeit of belief? Philosophically, however, the conundrum of belief has always been with us, as has, empirically, the violence of our behavior, our desires. We have yet, we still have to come to terms, somehow.

Yet we put the past behind us, and keep putting it behind us, and keep looking ahead without good reason to think anything has changed. Modernist architecture dismissed elaborate thought and the ornament of tradition with a simple formula from which emanated a wistfulness for cleanliness and reformation, airy and insubstantial—another kind of blindness that turned architecture back on itself and closed other conversation.

… if the object building, the soap bubble of sincere internal expression, when taken as a universal proposition, represents nothing short of a demolition of public life and decorum, if it reduces the public realm, the traditional world of visible civics to an amorphic remainder, one is still largely impelled to say: so what? And it is the logical, defensible presuppositions of modern architecture—light, air, hygiene, aspect, prospect, recreation, movement, openness—which inspire this reply.

Rowe and Koetter, Collage City. Light, air, hygiene, openness, and play—look at so much that is built now. Modernism in some guise has returned with a vengeance.

As in architecture, so in our life:

The public realm has shrunk to an apologetic ghost but the private realm has not been significantly enriched; there are no references—either historical or ideal; and in this atomized society, except for what is electronically supplied or is reluctantly sought in print, communication has either collapsed or reduced itself to impoverished interchange of ever more banal verbal formulae.

This is our world now, where we vacillate between futuristic utopias and visions of apocalypse. Look at the language of the last election and the state of our verbal culture, at how much we have become fractured into narrow whims and absorbed in broad passions. We devote ourselves to specialized disciplines that do not speak among themselves. Or we delight in personal chaos yet deflect complexity of any kind, giving ourselves instead to the most direct, the simplest expression, which speaks loudest. No wonder many of us promote the purist color and want to build protective walls and throw people out. But the rest of us have to ask whether we have been aligned the last year by anything more than our outrage, our desire for removal of that man. Or we have surrendered to the simplest, purest desire of all, profit, and endowed it with absolute freedom, which means absolute power, and watched it flow to the top. Cathedrals have been replaced with corporate monoliths that dominate our public streets.

The most important characteristic of Chomsky’s model which Eisenman preserves, in an implicit way, is the concept of a system which permits creative action. This concept describes in language the capability of the speaking subject to generate an unlimited number of utterances, making infinite use of finite means.

From Mario Gandelsonas, “Linguistics in Architecture.” Eisenman called House II his Chomsky house, Noam Chomsky the linguist, the social critic. Eisenman’s goal was to find a structure that repeated and varied elements and patterns, as if placeholders for the terms and syntax of a language. A physical creation, one without direct signs, cannot provide the means of filling in the slots, but still there is a picture of active extension beyond what is seen, perhaps indefinitely. The regular grid, with its simple logic, its certainty of solution, has been shifted into complex relationships where extension and solutions are possible but outcomes as yet unknown. We realize there are alternative solutions, that we have to make choices. We are also given a picture of a process to reach beyond what we see, what we think we know. Put differently, we realize living, and thinking about living, is a complex process that requires constant examination and exploration. There is qualified hope here.

The realization of this void, at once cataclysmic and claustrophobic, demands that past, present, and future be reconfigured. To have meaning, both objects and life must acknowledge and symbolize this new reality.

Eisenman again from his Rossi essay. House II, in its fragmentation and incompletion, is a broken house that also raises doubt and brings to mind the destruction in our lives, past and present. Open space can mean possibilities, but it also represents the void, its indifference, our violence, where even our best efforts are futile, our best ideas meaningless. Or the structure simply marks off absence, infinite and undefinable, what we cannot know, about which nothing can be said. It is the greatest ambiguity of the house, whether it offers hope and solution or both are undermined or both silenced. But this ambiguity brings the value of recognition, of sober realization, maybe even humility. It is a starting point and a place to return. Still, the house offers the rigor of thought and careful design and supports projection. Maybe we come to realize that it is our simple, logical certainties that have most misled us.

Disguised or lost, the human scale. It could be argued we’re presented with abandonment, with the crisis of the loss of self, of our frame of reference in the world, of our central place. A counterargument is that this absence is liberating. We are freed from highly abstract, seemingly rational, always restrictive, notions of who are and what we we are capable of, what we are capable of conceiving, from simplified rational schemes where we might be too easily fit, from exaggerated, potentially disruptive, notions of our importance.

House II has been criticized—and ridiculed—for its abstruseness, for not being practical. Compared to what? Most housing today, simplified, derivative, faintly referential, fits us into standardized programs we do not attempt to comprehend or challenge. Living in House II, I imagine, would provide daily reexamination into what it means to be alive. It’s a moot point. Houses such as Wright’s Fallingwater or Eisenman’s won’t be mass produced, few of us can afford them, only a handful live in them. Rather, houses by leading architects serve as statements, and that is how I see House II, as a conceptual home for the self. We need to restore public discourse, but we also need shelter where we can rebuild ourselves, where we create an image of the self that is flexible and active, questioning and assertive. Regeneration, like charity, like revolution, begins at home. Failing that, in a world where we have diminishing influence at least we’d have refuge, a place where we can maintain our vitality and integrity.

And yet cathedrals were built and have been preserved and still exist, and they remain a source of wonder, even if belief has passed. And there is something exhilarating, marvelous even, in the recent language of dissection and disconnect. And wonder still exists. And structures. And the desire to look beyond ourselves, to look up, look within.

It isn’t the stained glass, however, but the buttresses, flying in English, thrusting in French, that most take me, external to the structure yet essential at the time built, yet serving now an obsolete function, yet still standing, solid, stone heavy, yet light and lifting and soaring, breaking space and dividing and containing and not containing anything, individually complete and engaging, in coordinated collaboration a chorus supporting endlessly and endlessly incomplete, eternally, ephemerally, never.

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Notes

Click on all images to enlarge.

Drawings of Peter Eisenman, House II, 1969–70, courtesy Eisenman Architects.

Eisenman’s essay on Rossi excerpted by Michael Hays, editor, Architecture Theory Since 1968, and I use his ellipsis and parenthetical substitutions.

Mario Gandelsonas, “Linguistics in Architecture” also found in that anthology. Of note and consulted, Eisenman’s essays “Post-Functionalism” and “The End of Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End.” Eisenman has written extensively about philosophy and the theory behind his buildings. I’m a writer, and I strive for the poetic. My goal is to see what I can accomplish with the means available to creative language. I have a long argument here as to value, which I’ll put aside.

St. Denis verse translated by Erwin Panosky, from Abbot Suger.

St. Denis drawing via Pinterest.

Notre Dame picture via Wikipedia commons.

Le Corbusier Modular drawing via Pinterest.

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About the model

Special thanks to Nick Barrett, whose model of House II got me started.

The model is about 16 x 16 x 7.5 inches, scale 1:34. The width of the standard Lego unit, a 1 x 1 brick, equals roughly one foot, the minimum width I could use. The minimum height possible was the thickness of a plate, about 4 inches. The actual house has much subtler dimensions throughout, and I spent much time debating losses, which way to compensate. The “real model” of a model is the one you create in your head, where freed of such restrictions. In this case I imagined a model of a model of a house that is either a building or a model. The layers of ambiguity kept me engaged throughout with their elusive presence, always very “real.” I regret not building the interior and constructing from inside out, but for many practical reasons that was not possible.

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