RULES

September 17th, 2010 — 7:22pm
jeu zeus
Still from Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu, 1939 (source)

 

‘If a builder builds a house for someone, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built falls in and kills its owner, then the builder shall be put to death.’

 

—The Code of Hammurabi

 

 

In Judeo-Christian tradition, not since the Old Testament have rules been so codified, eye-for-eye, or really Hammurabi-like. If, after Job, the rise of humanism and man’s self-reflection brought with it hypocrisy and moral loopholes, so too came mercy. Or, to put it more comfortably: the socially accepted subjective interpretation of rules. Rules, however, are not meant to be disregarded altogether – bourgeois society depends on certain rules for delineating murkier areas of ambiguity or, to be sure, having fun. Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu classically trades rule-breaking of one kind (the aviator Jurieux crosses the Atlantic in a mere twenty-three hours) for another (Jurieux loves Christine, a married woman). Life’s a game, and rules are applied or gotten around easily so long as the superstructure remains undisturbed (Jurieux, the bachelor, dies at the end of the film). Of course…more

 

Olympieion, Athens, Greece, 2AD (source)

 

Architects spend significant creative energy designing around rules. To simply follow the rules doesn’t produce good architecture. Rules are bent or broken, selectively ignored, self-imposed, or capitalized upon. They are deformed, repurposed, manipulated, and transformed. Rules ask to be transcended. In architecture school, the adage that ‘cheaters never prosper’ sounds fallacious, as cleverly skirting the regulations can inspire respect as often as condemnation. A professor once told me that it is acceptable to cheat and lie so long as what I make is beautiful and smart.

 

Rules secure continuity and ensure that a work of architecture is always contingent. As one of architecture’s materials, they create connections or formless relationships between part to part, building to building, building to context, or work to time. An architect’s self-imposed rules across his or her works are a means to design the character of their oeuvre. Urban regulations are designed to ensure that buildings relate to their neighbors and occupants. Architecture’s great rulebooks, such as the Ten Books by Vitruvius, have carried and established meanings of architecture throughout its history. Architects, in short, rather than play by the rules, have to play with the rules.

 

Kari Rittenbach

Henry Ng

 

1 comment » | Guest Contributors

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

 

1 comment » | Guest Contributors

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

CONCRETE

March 11th, 2010 — 3:00am
apollinaire tauba
La Mandoline, l’Oeillet et le Bambou, Guillaume Apollinaire, 1914 (source)
MM-HM, Tauba Auerbach, 2007 (source)

 

Concrete represents permanence and solidity. It is possible to claim that its enduring form in the ruins of the Ancient Rome, delivering the ideas of the empire, accounts for much of Western civilization, as we understand it. As architects, we know about its durability, strength, and power to render form sharply. But the material tells a more complex story.

 

The word ‘concrete’ originates in the Latin concrescere, meaning ‘to grow together’. Inherent to itself, concrete describes a fundamental drama about transformation. In its vague, liquid-like form, concrete is much like fat: malleable, composite matter lacking internal structure. Its shape emerges from its container, without which it dissolves into uselessness, like a chameleon without a background. To seep and to mirror are its functions. It is the toti-potentiality of the formless that Joseph Beuys sought in his frequent use of fat in his art. Chaotic and fundamentally dense to comprehension, fat signified a void of form that could be either filled by transcendent potential or remain nothingness. Liquid concrete is much the same as fat, until it achieves its second life.

 

In solid form, concrete is in every way the opposite, epitomizing immutability and structure. It is helpful to describe it by discussing “concrete” in a related use. Concrete poetry is a form of poetry where words aggregate to become an image. Ash and limestone are replaced by language. It is this moment of achieving the gestalt of the image that makes it concrete, when an alternate reading of the poem opens up, which collapses time to the instant of recognition. In reference to language and ideas, ‘concrete’ describes that which has realized a material form or reality, and is thus opposed to the ‘abstract’. The same is true for concrete as a material. When concrete is poured to create a block or beam, it becomes real, and the liquid void is filled by a timeless certainty. And so, concrete tells the story of transformation from non-form to form, of coming into being.

 

‘Dich aber, süße Sprache Deutschlands,
Dich habe ich erwählt und gesucht, ganz von mir aus’.

 

-Jorge Luis Borges

 

 

Etymology always poses the greatest stumbling block to theory: because when it comes down to it, what do we really mean by Geist? But Hegel hasn’t been the only thinker to regress into language for solutions to philosophical problems (although German as the Science of Logic is a compelling argument indeed). Whereas Virno laments the multitude’s ever-shrinking grammar, pooling around inane topoi koinoi, the field of hermeneutics would cease to exist if it weren’t for Greek and Latin roots. When reaching into the abstract for theories sandwiched somewhere in between intuition and rational thought, words fall easily enough into place, explaining concepts in a manner that is deceptively concrete.

 

But how stable is language, and the meanings of words, after all? The beauty of poetry is that it can contain contradictions without ever losing inner consistency. And yet, before I had any sort of fluency in a second language, I felt drawn to the poetic edge of the concrete arts (from the postwar era and thus after Apollinaire, because who wasn’t?) drawn up by Emmett Williams, Eugen Gomringer and Augusto de Campos. But the more I became engaged with feeling out the cultural echoes of the conversational everyday, the less enraptured I was by concrete poetry’s typographical delights. Imagine the word ‘apple’ typed repeatedly into lines tracing a perfectly-formed–well, apple. Word and image have struggled enough on the plane of the representational as it is, and the concrete poem finally seemed like too much brittle surface, sealing me off from more fluid constructions without any means to gauge the depth of discourse layered beneath. So I gave up. No matter how dried-out or defined, words will never be bricks for me.

 

Henry Ng

 

 

Kari Rittenbach

 

3 comments » | Guest Contributors

 

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