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. It also gives a physical means of engaging in the practice and ritual of construction. And it 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 soaring into thought once again.

Eisenman, in fact, intended his project to look like  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. And perhaps we are left with the realization that perfection is an illusion, or if apparently obtained, has questionable value and reference.

Then we have to decide 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.

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Heart of Darkness

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I’ve wanted to make a city in Legos, or a section of one, and this is a first effort. But it is an architectural model of a novel, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The project was inspired by Matteo Pericoli’s work in his Laboratory of Literary Architecture. The model tries to capture the transparency and corruption of the western world in Africa at the time of the novel, in a city-like form. Matteo’s laboratory and my project are explained in full at Numéro Cinq here.

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I started with a 10 inch base and divided it into a grid of 6×6 streets for 36 blocks, and took it from there.

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Pruitt-Igoe/Housing for the Rest of Us

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Building a model of a building you are planning to destroy and that has caused so much controversy is an odd and sobering project. The hours spent building it gave me time to contemplate an essay I was writing, “Housing for the Rest of Us, A Non-Manifesto,” which can be found here. I revisit Pruitt-Igoe to take on issues of housing, many still relevant today, as revealed in these two graphs.

Income Disparity

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Opening paragraph:

It is Minoru Yamasaki’s misfortune that the two works he is best known for, the World Trade Center and the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex, are best known for their collapse. The World Trade Center, or its site, has attained the status of a shrine, so reflection upon its design and influence will have to be postponed for another time. Postmodern apologist Charles Jencks hailed the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe as the death—prematurely—of Modernism, and critical smoke from that debate still lingers. In both cases, however, the major factors that led to their destruction came from structural tensions outside the buildings, not within, from design flaws in the larger world. And many of the same forces that shaped Pruitt-Igoe, social and economic, direct the design of homes for most of us today and determine where we live and how well.

Unfortunately, I built it too well. The model was difficult to demolish, and I couldn’t simulate accurately the pictures we have come to know so well. More pictures of the model and the actual photographs come after the break.

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Context: Culture/Supermarket, Other

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From my short story “The Adventures of Little Willy”

Yet dread flies to sudden rapture when he drops his guard and lets the calling in and follows it where it takes him, to an elaborate, specialized physical world of special preservatives and boosters and enhancers, compounds that only a chemist could understand, all capable of God knows what; a sheer verbal universe with a language unto itself, its own way of spelling the names of its brandz and produx—Huggies, Jell-O, Drano, Nexxus, Gas-X, Durex, Zantac, Ex-Lax, Renuzit, and, at the head of one aisle, a special on Cheez-Its—and its own way of giving special meanings to ordinary words—Pampers, Depend, Resolve, Glad, Glade, Gentle Glide, and Joy—or which frees itself from conventional meanings and creates its own; a whole new culture, or cultures, or a multitude of cultures, with styles ranging from the delicate and floral and herbal to the unabashedly ramped up, with signs and pictures that point in all directions.

Such utter diversity of voices and choices competing freely with each other for his attention, and not just for his but for that of all the faces in the store from around the world and of anyone and everyone everywhere, taking him and them all to some special place, or places, or to seemingly infinite places unto themselves—it is empowering, and exhilarating, and still something else.

But after passing through three aisles of morgue-like freezers filled with packaged foods, he feels a chill and rapture falls to somber reflection.

There lie underneath, he knows, issues of limited resources and delicate balances in nature disrupted, and of labor, of working conditions and status, of distribution of wealth here and across the globe, which, if investigated, would raise many questions. Still, the exuberance is compelling and it is hard not to believe that something would remain after the leveling of such analysis, that there is some whole much greater than the sum of all the parts, or vastly, ecstatically less, or which has nothing to do with parts, a passion that cannot be dissected or suppressed.

What would Adam Smith have to say?

Or Karl Marx?.

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Above picture detail from James Rosenquist painting F-111

Situation/Cities: Paris 1973-74

From my photo essay:

Contrast my black and white pictures with pictures of Paris now, their confident display, their bright colors. Compare them with what we see in Paris itself, the sharp, clean lines of its monuments and buildings, the polish and refinement of the restored neighborhoods. But look, too, at the neighborhoods where it may no longer be safe to walk, most on Paris’s borders, where the immigrants now mass in simmering dislocation and disaffection, where there are breaks into violence, what you see in the movie La haine. And watch Entre les murs, where cultural conflict erupts in a middle school classroom.

It’s what cities have become, spectacles for our wealth and containers for our contradictions and exclusions. The decay and violence of the latter, however, can divert us and give our lives texture. Paris has its policier EngrenagesSpiral. We have our own, The Wire, etc.

There were intimations of the future, towering abstractions, void of past reference:

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La tour Super-Italie. It was the Montparnasse tower, however, just completed in the heart of Paris, that most broke the city’s low skyline and raised the most protests. Pomidou, however, looking forward, wanted his towers, and more were on the horizon.

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It’s what our cities have also become, platforms for rising skyscrapers of soaring ambition, solid yet ethereal, forward gazes that look past us,  past themselves, past anything we can see.

Appeared in Numéro Cinq, November 2015

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Situation/Material: South/Bricks

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From my short story “Willy”:

Time at the kiln was measured in bricks: twenty to fifty bricks a pallet, depending on their size, two or three pallets an hour, sixteen to twenty-four pallets a day. Cramped between a mound of bricks and the curved wall of a kiln, we moved time, lifting, lowering, stacking, and thus diminishing it, only to return to a kiln full of bricks the next day. It was a time of endless subtraction.

Now I see him in a kiln, crawling crablike over a pallet of bricks, his face covered with soupy, reddish paste, as if he secreted it, as if he were made of it, not flesh. Now I look at him on the chair beside my desk and see the same dark color, the same man—

While my body got stiff from the bending, the lifting, the lowering, my head grew sharp. Holding the bricks, I felt the weight of ideas, in the repetition of the labor, sensed an outline of new order. From the fatigue, the burning, the ill use of our bodies, I extrapolated the possibilities of meanings. And in the darkness of a kiln, I could see the afterimage of invisible cities, radiant, harmonious, and light—

The old man, one of the guys told me during a break, had been there twenty years. I only lasted a few weeks. Profoundly retarded—what could twenty years at Triad do to someone’s mind?

Full text can be found here, at Fictions.

Mies van der Rohe: The Brick Villa

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For Mies, architecture was neither a technical problem nor applied sociology but rather, as he wrote in 1928, using words that are as ambiguous as they are emphatic, “the spatial implementation of intellectual decisions.”

—Christoph Asendorf, “Ludwig Mies van der Rohe—Dessau, Berlin, Chicago”

The full essay, “Completing the Mies van der Rohe Brick Country House, An Odyssey” can be found at Numéro Cinq here. It is a literary essay that I hope adds some extension and insight. It looks back to the Greeks and forward to recent architecture, adding reflections on Modernism and raising questions about current work along the way.

Pictures of the model can be found after the break.

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The Bauhaus: S/M/L

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Click on all images to enlarge

A few quick thoughts

Johannes Itten, one of the early instructors of the preliminary course at the Bauhaus, who was influenced by diverse spiritual leanings, some esoteric, built his rules of form around these assumptions:

Square: calm, death, black, dark, red;
Triangle: intensity, life, white, bright, yellow;
Circle: infinite symmetry, peaceful, always blue.

It is impossible to know what to make of such a theory. It cannot be grounded in the actual world or fit in any scheme, rational or spiritual, and contradicts the esthetic evidence of art before and after. And yet anyone who knows the theory will see work that follows such rules charged with significance, that it has a presence that, while difficult to pin down, is complete and undeniable. Even if the rules aren’t known, a viewer will still find the work to have a coherence that is more than formal, that it is suffused with—something.

Similarly, Walter Gropius, in the manifesto he wrote when he created the Bauhaus school, concludes:

So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavoured to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.

The manifesto was published in a pamphlet, and to reinforce the heavenward aspirations Lyonel Feininger’s woodcut Cathedral was placed on the cover, a black and white image, expressionist and cubist, of a seemingly transparent church placed within a dynamic of lines of light and other buildings that rise upward to a point, above the spire. Gropius’ desire was to create work that brought art, industry, and society together in some meaningful form, this at a time the western world, especially Germany, was recovering from the mass destruction of World War I and suffering economic distress and political upheaval.

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Cultural Center

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This is a revision of the writing center, whose design ideas I explain below. I kept the front parts of the building but changed the back. Again, its general purpose is to provide a variety of rooms to support the arts in a community—classrooms, studios, a gallery, a screening room, lecture rooms, with possibilities for administrative and still other uses along with space for informal gathering.

Really, such a project provides an opportunity to test out several ideas beyond commercial or residential uses and gives a chance to explore, my main interest. My general design principle is to combine various styles without attempting to integrate them, yet still keeping a sense of a whole. Here you see Greek Revival, with the split temple front and odd use of columns, a restrained postmodern glance. Other parts of the building I suppose are slightly gothic, along with modernist presences—glass walls, geometric solids in the brick walls, and the open grid at the back, absorbed into the rest of the building. I had Sol LeWitt’s cubes in mind with the grid but have just discovered Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Arts that does something similar. I repeat here, however, my reservations about art centers that call too much attention to themselves, perhaps at the expense of the functions they contain. This is still a modest attempt, even self-effacing.

Click on all images to enlarge.

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Second Construction: Writing Center

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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

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First Construction: A Multiple Use College Center

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Ritual is the transcendence of function to the level of a meaningful act.

Public architecture at its best aspires to be just this: a setting for ritual that makes of each user, for a brief moment, a larger person than he or she is in daily life, filling each one with the pride of belonging.

Spiro Kostof, A History of Architecture

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Preliminary

I have taught college English for over thirty years at eight different schools. Add my own education and most of my life has been spent in an educational institution of some sort. With the schools’ programs comes their architecture, their buildings, their classrooms, the designs and functions of those. Little has left a lasting impression and most has diminished what should be a memorable experience.

Most schools where I’ve taught have been places of division and isolation, both physically and psychologically. There are few places for informal gathering, while departmental and administrative conflicts make interchange difficult. Disciplines and governance are kept separate without meaningful integration, even without casual personal contact. Their architecture itself often exerts mass control, based on hierarchies that lack vital priorities, on a process divorced from real purpose. Their design is simplistic and standardized, if not sterile. Everything looks the same, making a walk across campus monotonous.

So I thought I’d try to design my own school. This is a conceptual study, really a diversion, and a great many details have not been worked out. One consideration that needs to be made in any effort to start afresh is why good ideas often go wrong, and mine may well prove to be no exception. Any plan must not only be grounded in a substantial set of ideas but also tested by extensive use and practice.

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Site: What It’s Like Where I Live

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Fall 2011

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Cupertino is about process.

The process is about—

The process is—

The town, when I moved there, was a quiet, somewhat pleasant place at the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, with rather basic homes and cherry orchards here and there, half bedroom community, half unresolved. Most I ran into, like me, were starting out in life, on their way up and out. I largely knew Cupertino by the streets that led to the highways of my commute, 35 miles north to Hayward State on 280 and 30 miles south on 17 to UC Santa Cruz. I was a part-time college English instructor.

That was twenty-four years ago.

Marriage, a job in town at the community college, later a son—it was time to come to terms with what it was like where I lived. But also writing. Memories of other places had decayed, and those places had changed, perhaps beyond recognition. Writing, like life, is a matter of taking what you have before you and seeing what you can figure out. So I tried to discover the world I had bypassed.

I couldn’t find it.

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Cupertino now. Of course it looks like a blowup of an integrated circuit. Cupertino is in the heart of Silicon Valley, which is more a concept than a precise physical area, extending roughly from Stanford University down to San Jose. During the boom years the tech firms screamed for more green cards, and programmers and would-be entrepreneurs and still others poured in. Ranch houses started going for a million or were leveled and replaced with huge, stucco palaces on small lots. It amazed me anyone had that kind of money. The orchards are gone, and there is housing all the way up into the hills.

Full text appeared at Numéro Cinq

An updated version can be found under different title at Archinect