Salt crystals on the Spiral Jetty, Utah

When a place is lifeless or unreal, there is almost always a mastermind behind it. It is so filled with the will of its maker that there is no room for its own nature.

–Christopher Alexander, one of my ideological mentors, as quoted by Edward Hollis in The Secret Lives of Buildings.

A mysterious space exists between the need for control and the need to let go, and navigating that terrain is of interest to every artist. Alexander’s comment about architecture is so succinct and accurate, and it speaks to more undertakings than just buildings.

In fact we live in a culture where the proclivity to masterminding in everything from architecture to film making is almost encouraged. And yet the primary thesis of Hollis’ book is that buildings will, over time, take on a life of their own in spite of all our efforts to control destiny:

At the heart of architectural theory is a paradox: buildings are designed to last, and therefore they outlast the insubstantial pageants that made them. Then, liberated from the shackles of immediate utility and the intentions of their masters, they are free to do as they will. Buildings long outlive the purposes for which they were built, the technologies by which they were constructed, and the aesthetics that determined their form; they suffer numberless subtractions, additions, divisions, and multiplications; and soon enough their form and their function have little to do with one another.

Hollis uncovers the checkered past of a number of emblematic buildings including the Parthenon, The Basilica of San Marco in Venice, Gloucester Cathedral, The Alhambra, among many others. In so many cases these structures survived because they were adapted, reinvented and transmogrified.

This exploration reminds me of a quote by Robert Smithson (of Spiral Jetty fame), one that suggests a metaphysical realm for this idea as well: “The artist must go into places where remote futures meet remote pasts”.

I know buildings that feel as if they embody that kind of crossroads of consciousness, spaces that have taken on a life that is so far from what was originally intended. A similar transubstantiation can happen with other art forms as well. Smithson wrote about how he built the Spiral Jetty but then released it into the hands of nature to do with it what it will. For many years it was submerged beneath the surface of the Great Salt Lake. When it re-emerged it was encased in white salt crystals, a very different state from the black, hard-edge basalt rock at its core. And of course the next 50 years will alter its structure even further. Smithson did not mastermind so much as set an energetic gyre into motion.