|Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes, Sol LeWitt, 1974 (source)
||Where JMW Turner’s ‘Dort, or Dordrecht, the Dort Packet-boat from Rotterdam Becalmed’, Photo by Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art, 1818 (source)
Having three options rather than one to select from is better practice in architectural design. To create something useful, beautiful, and capable of managing all the contingencies a design encounters requires trial and error, because perfect solutions do not exist. This seems self-evident to any designer. But a hyperbolic strain of this belief has become increasingly common: the more options, the better. Make a hundred, blue foam variations on a cube, because ten will not do.
What kind of architectural subjectivity is this? Rosalind Krauss perhaps had foreseen it in her essay on Sol Lewitt in 1978. Discussing the artist’s proliferation of forms and objects from a single ‘concept’, she writes:
The mind is mechanized like a script. In design, this thinking emphasizes a lateral, proliferating production over an iterative, revision-oriented one. Multiplying choice by mechanized production, the designer selects from soundbyte forms—pixel, donut, or squiggle option—and endless deformations of each. Significantly, the operative design strategy is selection rather than postulation. No longer is the architect brandishing the willful hand, in which lies a perfected, principled design. Instead, the architect has become the critic—a post-human(ist) factory that produces and reproduces culture. One moves forward by deciding what is not good rather than what is good. Conviction and will are continuously deferred.
Revision is another word for process. Every idea, every sentence, once it is formed, begins the process of revision.
Revision is another word for erasure. A revision is new, it is renewed, a re-vision, a looking again.
A building is revised endlessly, but it is a machine for resisting revision. You move furniture around, you fix a door handle, you add curtains, take away blinds, you add a floor. Eventually, the building is bought and someone else wants to make it their own, and it is revised again, invariably.
Architects are almost never able to give revisions, but one notable exception exists in New Haven, Connecticut. There, two museums by Louis Kahn—the 1953 Yale University Art Gallery and the 1977 Yale Center for British Art—face each other on Chapel Street, bookending Kahn’s career in an unreasonably poetic way.
In short, the program and size are very similar—gallery space, a circulation core, administrative space, a street entrance. Kahn’s British Art Center alters and perfects his first try. A too-flexible open plan is changed for an interchangeable grid. A heavy, dour façade is changed for one that opens along the street and along the sky. An inscrutable structure is changed for a clearly legible concrete frame. One likes to think that architects learn from mistakes—their own and others—but these two buildings prove that a lesson is never absorbed unless one has to contend with its final, physical manifestation. Only then can revision begin.
In 1977, Vincent Scully compared the two buildings, tying both back to the legacy of Mies van der Rohe’s minimalist envelopes. The 1953 Art Gallery, Scully writes, ‘had employed the Miesian envelope and had also fought it, as something inherited and unwanted…But now, in his last urbanistic dialogue, he turned around and went back to Mies, as if he were saying, all right, let’s do it right this time’.
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