GIFT

May 30th, 2010 — 12:01pm
ribbon iseshrine
Ribbon Cutting

 

Many young architects want to be the maverick wunderkind, who ‘comes out of nowhere’, as they say. Significant first projects are critical, by conveying a rare ability to fulfill a compelling, individual vision at a young age. One project leads to another, so that one may have decided to be a Jon Jerde rather than a David Adjaye without realizing he or she had made that choice. This fear results in ubiquitous fantasies of the believing, generous client—an independently wealthy or politically influential relative, for instance—who can rescue the architect from the quagmires of political negotiation, dogmatic clients, and any other obstacles to individual vision.

 

From Imhotep’s devoted Pharaoh to Peter Eisenman’s Suzanne Frank, patronage in architecture is a tradition as old as the profession. This gift confers autonomy to the architect and his or her work. The gift-giver’s elevated position in society, whether obtained through money or influence, frees a comfortably shady plot upon which the architect can build without the messy heat of compromise that distorts vision. But, as Marcel Mauss, the 20th century sociologist, tells us, a gift is never free, and the given cannot be divorced from the relations that exchanged it. Architects, however, feign ignorance or neutrality to underlying power dynamics, while necessarily materializing that power, thereby fulfilling reciprocity. They fancy themselves autonomous even from this symbiotic relationship, a further condition of the gift they have received Extricating themselves from potential ethical quandaries, they can invest themselves in perverse fascinations with the effectiveness of authoritarian political regimes, corporate capitalists, and other gift-givers of global power. Gift upon gift, architects dream of the carte blanche, an allowance to design free from the rigorous demands of society—another incarnation of the tabula rasa.

 

Ise Shrine, Ise, Japan, 4 BC (source)

 

Art is both a gift and gifted. It is the product of a gifted spirit and, when successful, it gives (space, time, inspiration) to those who subsequently witness it. A piece of art is inexhaustible. It is always the same and never the same. Lewis Hyde wrote a whole book on this, called The Gift. ‘If the artist is gifted, the gift increases in its passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the one offered to the world in general’.

 

Architecture is not art, but many of us wish it could be. Architecture is too tied up with the world. It is not the product of a single self, but innumerable authors, each mediated by exterior forces (money, power, politics, function, zoning…). Buildings must also be logical, and ‘Logic is the money of the mind’, writes Marx, ‘logic is alienated thinking and therefore thinking which abstracts from nature and from real man’. It is the building’s job, literally, to abstract the human from nature, to place her in a room of her mind’s own making.

 

Perhaps, as architecture become less strict, as it veers closer to the art object, it can become gift-like. A memorable piece of architecture creates space—real space, of course, but also new space in our memory. The space created of seeing something beautiful, or interesting, or weird. Great architecture is effusive, like art, though it often has to do more to establish itself as such.

 

And there is also the literal way in which a building is a gift. We give a building to the future, where we know it will be (for a while, at least). Those after us can come to it and see the things we did well and the things we got wrong. The Ise Shrine… more

 

Henry Ng

Aleksandr Bierig

 

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REVISION

April 28th, 2010 — 2:14am
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.

 

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… more

 

Henry Ng

 

 

Aleksandr Bierig

 

3 comments » | Guest Contributors

 

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