April 28, 2010
variations yale gallery
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:


There is, in Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes, as they say, a method in this madness. For what we find is the ‘system’ of compulsion, of the obsessional’s unwavering ritual… It is in that sense design without reason, design spinning out of control. The obsessional’s solutions to problems, strike us as mad, not because the solutions are wrong, but because in the setting of the problem itself is a strange short-circuit in the lines of necessity.


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.


Henry Ng


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’.


Aleksandr Bierig


Edited by Erandi de Silva


3 Responses to “REVISION”

  • Kari Rittenbach says:


    In British English, “revision” has a slightly different temporality: it is something which happens in the space of time leading up to events, and not after. For example, “exam revision” doesn’t imply a second chance. An accidental conceptual undertone, perhaps?

  • Henry Ng says:


    Interesting. So in a sense, the British use is more like “review” or “survey.” OED says, “The act of re-examining, and related senses,” and also “Educ. The action or process of going over a subject or work already learnt or done with the aim of reinforcing it.” In a way, this definition is more logical according to the word’s construction. “Revision” and “review” ought to mean the same thing. I wonder how revision came to mean “redo.” To see and to do…

  • Paul Whelan says:

    Logic or Intuition?
    A dutch researcher has spent time figuring out how we make choices – ie logic or intuition. Apparently the more choices we have, the better our intuition works while with a limited range of choice rational pros and cons works better. Who knew or would have guessed that outcome? So the long involved process of elimination to decide which are least bad choices might better be replaced by “just pick one”. The multiplication of choice is a dangerous game. The rational decision-making we pretend to engage may be meaningless. Instead there is a careful game of removal until the preferred option is left standing. Of course maybe once the choices get down to two or three, the rational process may kick back in and knock off the intuitive front runner. So tread carefully in the creation of options. As a final note I remember creating three options for a client. They selected my least favorite. I then had to spend considerable effort to bring them back to the right choice!



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