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San Francisco’s William Stout Architectural Books is located on the periphery of North Beach, just a few blocks from the better known City Lights. Both bookshops are labyrinthine and lushly overstuffed. But Stout and me, we have a mystical connection. I never leave that narrow two storied jewel box without some treasure under my arm. And the latest find is my all time best: Nesting: Body, Dwelling, Mind, by Sarah Robinson.
This small book is an exquisite set of essays that goes well beyond the domain of architecture. Her world view blends philosophy, poetry, biology and wisdom to offer a concise and clearly written meditation on how to think about who we are as humans in this grand adventure. My library has a shelf full of books that explore these complex themes of art making and human consciousness (Gaston Bachelard, Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Edward Hall, E. V. Walter among many others), and Robinson references many of them in her notes. But none of those writers offer up what she has achieved: A human sized, perfectly tuned invitation into the world of these ideas. Malcolm Gladwell refers to “amplitude” as the gastronome’s measure of how flavors come together in such exquisite compliance that the recipe cannot be improved. Robinson’s book is high amplitude in written form.
And as an object itself, the book is also a feast. Small in format, the book includes images that sit well positioned amid the beautifully laid out printed words. (Like other William Stout Publishers books, Nesting has been designed with great attention to detail.)
The introduction was written by Juhani Pallasmaa, an architect and theorist I have written about many times on Slow Muse (and the author of one of my favorite books, Eyes of the Skin.) Robinson’s chapter headings say something about the range of her purveiw: Of Havens, The Mind of the Skin, Practically Unconscious, Dark Matters, Love is Paying Attention, Belonging, To Dwell in Possibility. Each of these chapters could fill several posts, full of provocative insights and the fresh comingling of ideas.
And how timely. To read this book about the nature of place and how we are with our world is particularly apropos at a time when all of us are freshly aware of the devastation of homes and communities caught in Sandy’s force field.
That’s a worthy place to start. Here are a few passages that speak to those complex circumstances:
Our environment mirrors what we have come to believe about our relations and ourselves: that all are re-place-able, the palpable echo of Cartesian solopcism. The natural environment, local culture, and social patterns, once dominant factors shaping the character of a place, are now only marginal determinants…Dislocated from the tissue of community, people are routinely forced to start tabula rasa, a norm all the more insidious because it is equated with freedom.
Places [in the past] were not commodities, they were dense contexts of communally-lived history as well as a source of one’s personal identity.
Our feelings about a particular place may be personal, but the feelings grow out of collective experiences that do not occur elsewhere. They are specific to and belong to the place. People and place participate in one another’s sustenance, and places perish along with the disappearance of people who cherish them. We dwell in places in a paradgim of mutual influences.
Perhaps we can understand place as a basin of attraction, a matrix that evokes and sustains our imagination. E. V. Walter writes:
“Towns may die for all sorts of reasons, but expressive vitality depends on how a place engages the imagination. A place is dead if the physique dos not support the work of the imagination, if the mind cannot engage with the experience located there, or if the local energy fails to evoke ideas, images or feelings…’Where do I belong?’ is a question addressed to the imagination. To inhabit a place physically but to remain unaware of what it means, or how it feels, is a deprivation more profund that deafness at a concert or blindess at an art gallery. Humans in this condition belong nowhere.”
More, much more, to come.
More information about Sarah Robinson’s architectural practice here.
Sharing experiences from travels is a bit like sharing dreams: The iconography and narrative are personal and not well suited for public discourse. So other than sharing the rudimentaries, my report on my time in India will be succinct.
A phrase or two from Mira Schor‘s juicy and very personal book, A Decade of Negative Thinking, captures much of what I am feeling now that I am back home: “I’ve wished that I could give my students and myself the gift of time, time to work or not work in the studio, and, more importantly, to forget about ART; time to just take a walk…”
That is what this trip to southern India was for me: time away from the studio, a hiatus in thinking about art making and the world we have created around that rarefied activity. Yes I took 2600 photographs which serve as a kind of quick capture sketchbook/scrapbook. But making art was not on my mind at all. In a culture that old and that confoundingly complex, stepping away from my life was a much better way to offer up an open, fertile, receptive spirit. The resonance is outside of language and still echoing.
The gap that exists between theory and practice is a challenge in so many pursuits, and Minimalist architecture is just one that struggles with that perennial problem. In 1908, Adolf Loos wrote a memorable essay, “Ornament and Crime,” that advocated for a more streamlined aesthetic. And yet to create that illusion of austere perfection, the process cannot be carried out in line with the ethos of simplicity.
From Thomas De Monchuax‘s article in the New York Times, Why Less Isn’t Always More:
Today’s most celebrated Minimalist architect, John Pawson, counts among his clients both poverty-sworn monks and the fashion designer Calvin Klein, whose own designs specialize in enabling you to pay much more for the right much less. Pawson’s work happens to be beautiful and kind; its proportions are the natural ratios that you find in shells and flowers. It gives you room to breathe. And yet it’s subject to elegant deceits.
A building of few details would seem to be a building of few secrets. But austerity in architecture connotes a visual and functional transparency that it completely fails to provide. Any seamless-seeming building is full of complex joints and junctions, fixes and fudges that make a thousand parts look like a single monolithic, sculptural whole. To look as if you left everything out, you have to sneak everything in. What seems spartan is usually, invisibly, baroque.
Monchaux’s article draws parallels between this often obscured reality and the hidden costs of the fiscal and economic austerity we are witnessing around the world. “Austerity may be aesthetically pleasing, but that rarely translates to good policy.” And the irony plays out in what those Minimalist spaces speak to as well:
Austerity…is as much glamorous as solemn. As an aesthetic category, it’s strangely aspirational. It can become a mode of luxury, even excess. The difference between a minimalist room and an under-furnished room is freedom of choice.
Today’s minimalism conjures a life of such intangible ease that the mere creature comforts of visibly abundant stuff are transcended. It makes a near ethical virtue out of an aesthetic practice of refusal (perhaps extending, disconcertingly, to notions of physical aesthetics in which obesity is associated with poverty and to be too rich is to be too thin). While Mies and his contemporaries introduced their skinny-framed, flat-roofed, white-walled architecture in the context of prototype public housing, they perfected it in deluxe retreats like the Farnsworth House.
The irresistibility of this aesthetic is so powerful to me that I am seduced instantly into its illusion of perfection. This article is a much needed reminder that everything needs be seen in a fuller sense, a view that incorporates hidden costs and implications.
Michael Kimmelman’s New York Times piece about the architect Peter Zumthor is full of nuggets worth keeping on hand, easily accessible. I first began paying attention to Zumthor after visiting his Kolumba museum in Cologne. It was such an unexpected blend of old and new (Zumthor incorporated the ruins of a Gothic church as well as a chapel built on the site after World War II) in a way that both honored the past and melded it with the future. And the spaces were unexpected and yet organic. Zumthor is not tricky, clever, ironic or manipulative, all important qualities in art as well as life IMHO. Architectural critic Peter Rüedi pointed out that some may mistake Zumthor as an ascetic. He is instead an “essentialist of the sensual.”
I like Kimmelman’s comparison of Zumthor with some of the high visibility starchitects we read about constantly:
As the designer of some of the subtlest and most admired buildings of the last quarter-century, Zumthor has hardly been toiling in obscurity. But he has eschewed the flamboyant, billboard-on-the-skyline, globe-trotting celebrity persona, setting himself apart from, and in his own mind clearly somewhat above, some of his more famous colleagues. His works, even from the most superficial perspective, differ from Frank Gehry’s or Zaha Hadid’s or Jean Nouvel’s or Norman Foster’s, for starters, because they are not flashy: they often don’t grab you at all at first glance, being conceived from the inside out, usually over many painstaking years. Moreover, because Zumthor runs a small office and doesn’t often delegate even the choice of a door handle, he hasn’t taken on many projects, and most of the ones he has completed aren’t very big.
And later, this passage:
I’ve heard Zumthor’s detractors respond to this sort of argument by saying he’s a Swiss clockmaker. They stress that he thrives in a small pond but that the rough-and-tumble of global-scaled 21st-century projects demands a more flexible and grander vision. It is true that his projects are not enormous; there is an intimacy to his work. At places like Bregenz or the Bruder Klaus chapel, visitors respond not just to how his buildings look but also to their sounds, smells, to the light as it changes around them, even to the feel of the walls and floors — to what Zumthor has described as the “beautiful silence that I associate with attributes such as composure, self-evidence, durability, presence and integrity, and with warmth and sensuousness as well.”
Zumthor is easy to compare with Louis Kahn and for good reason. His artistic proclivities and perfectionistic style sound familiar for those of us who are Kahn fans. He talks about being influenced by the work of sculptors Richard Serra, Walter De Maria and Michael Heizer, and he also references Joseph Beuys. “With Beuys,” Zumthor explained, “my interest has had to do with the mythology and sensuousness of his materials, the importance of his personal life in his art. He was looking at objects with history, with a past.”
The description and photos of Zumthor’s Vals spa hotel and baths are evocative and memorable. “The spa invests ordinary leisure-time bathing with a sacramental gravity. It lends existential weight to even the simplest, most banal rituals — walking from room to room, looking out a window, reclining on a bench, gazing up at the sky or hearing the splash of water and the echo of footsteps. Bathers move like supplicants through wet stone chapels,” writes Kimmelman. “Vals is not about an outside object,” says Zumthor. “It’s not about lap pools and slides and gadgets. It is about what happens inside, the bathing, oriented toward the ritual, as if in the Orient. It’s about water and stone and light and sound and shadow.”
A few more phrases from Zumthor that are worth pondering:
I think the chance of finding beauty is higher if you don’t work on it directly. Beauty in architecture is driven by practicality. This is what you learn from studying the old townscapes of the Swiss farmers. If you do what you should, then at the end there is something, which you can’t explain maybe, but if you are lucky, it has to do with life.
Solid wood has almost disappeared as too expensive, complicated and old-fashioned. I reintroduced it as a construction method here because it feels good to be with, to be in. You feel a certain way in a glass or concrete or limestone building. It has an effect on your skin — the same with plywood or veneer, or solid timber. Wood doesn’t steal energy from your body the way glass and concrete steal heat. When it’s hot, a wood house feels cooler than a concrete one, and when it’s cold, the other way around. So I preserved the wood-beam construction because of what it can do for your body.
I believe in the spiritual value of art, as long as it’s not exclusive. It is the same with architecture.
I finally received my copy of James Magee, The Hill, by Richard R. Brettell and Jed Morse. This publication accompanies a show of Magee’s work currently on exhibit at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas through November 28.
The Hill is hard to describe. Yes, it is a structure constructed by Magee in the west Texas desert outside El Paso, and any number of words could be used to capture its essence: architectural, sculptural, land art, monumental, personal, esoteric, spiritual, minimalist, sublime, symbolist, open, closed. Other artists who touch into the transcendental come to mind as well: James Turrell, Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Maya Lin, Nancy Holt, Olafur Eliasson, even Bill Viola.
From Willard Spiegelman’s description in the Wall Street Journal:
It consists of a quartet of 14-foot-high, flat-roofed buildings (one of which still lacks a finished interior), in a cruciform shape, sitting atop two intersecting elevated stone causeways. All is stone and metal. Light seeps through fiberglass panels from above. There is no electricity. Mr. Magee has done all the work, by hand, with the help of hired assistants who come and go. For the sake of the lucky visitor, they open and close the large metallic doors into the three edifices. Nondoctrinal religion, a pervading spirituality, defines the place and the experience of being there. Mr. Magee is the creator, the servant, the priest and—for the most part—the congregation.
The photos in the book by Tom Jenkins are sumptuous, with deeply saturated color. The high contrast light is particularly dramatic in large format as is the intoxicating absence of anything human. Jenkins’ photos capture a haunting timelessness that is reminiscent of the mystery of the ancient Nazca lines in the Peruvian desert or the incomprehensible grandeur of the Neolithic stone circles that dot the Celtic coastline of Great Britain.
It is a singular accomplishment. And not surprisingly, the Marfa-style art pilgrimaging has begun. And who would not want to experience this setting? I would love to be able to visit in person some day.
Turns out Magee’s story is much more complex than it might appear. Magee (who looks more like one of the prospectors in John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre than a sly art world type) actually has more in common with the persona-bending Marcel Duchamp than meets the eye. In an effort to answer to all of his many parts, Magee has invented two other artists, one male and one female, to drain off the parts that would not blend into the supramacist purity of The Hill. These two artist personas, Annabel Livermore and Horace Mayfield, have successful careers making and selling art that is unrelated to the numinous perfection of the Hill. While some may view that splintering as a from of deception, I have come to think that Magee found the perfect solution to the many and often conflicting force fields that most of us carry inside. Approaching his artmaking in multiple has allowed him to craft something extraordinary and other worldly while still having a rooted existence on the terrestrial plane.
The value of this approach is described well by Pamela Petro in her piece for Granta:
Annabel is pure colour. She’s the gendered expression of place and time: Juarez nights and the desert at dusk and dawn, Pickerel Lake in Michigan when Jim was a kid. Horace (born in Chicago in 1932, as one catalogue notes) is campy and allusive; if sex doesn’t spill onto the surfaces of his work, it roils beneath.
There is no home for these passions in the exacting geometries and grave dialogues of The Hill. Rick Brettell says that ‘Annabel and Horace are necessary because they keep The Hill pure. Horace is a queen who likes to work on shower curtains. So God bless Horace from keeping The Hill free of shower curtains’.
The Hill isn’t a repository for interpersonal relationships or emotional responses. It may generate them, but it doesn’t exhibit those of its creator. The Hill is nothing if not the product of great passion, but the erosive effects of time, intellect and the desert make for passion distilled rather than passion paraded. In my mind I complete this process. I see the complex as I never saw it in person — as it hopefully will never be until a very long time from now: stripped of people, the doors ajar, shadows slowly circling the structures like rearguard troops left behind after the war, when everyone else has gone home. The installations house colonies of insects and animals who come and go uninterrupted on the beautiful stone causeways, unconcerned about whose God made their home.
Waiting for Hurricane “My Name is Earl” to gather over the Northeast. We will be descending nonetheless on Cape Ann for a weekend of nuptial celebrating with Alexis and JP. So begins a month of wonderful wedding weekends. Life happens like that, big shifts that occur all at once, like the culmination of storm systems that become a hurricane. Nature does excess so effortlessly (which could be used as a defense for my own proclivities to go too far, too big, too much.)
Meanwhile here is another set of ideas from Juhani Pallasmaa that speaks to the concept of the eye (the human version that is):
An essential line in the evolution of modernity has been the liberation of the eye from the Cartesian perspectival epistemology. The paintings of Turner continue the elimination of the picture frame and the vantage point begun in the Baroque era; the Impressionists abandon the boundary line balanced framing and perspectival depth; Paul Cezanne aspires ‘to make visible how the world touches us’; Cubists abandon the single focal point, reactivate peripheral vision and reinforce haptic experience, whereas the colour field painters reject illusory depth in order to reinforce the presence of the painting itself as an iconic artifact and an autonomous reality. Land artists fuse the reality of the work with the reality of the lived world, and finally, artists such as Richard Serra directly address the body as well as our experiences of horizontality and verticality, materiality, gravity and weight.
The same countercurrent against the hegemony of the perspectival eye has taken place in modern architecture regardless of the culturally privileged position of vision. The kinesthetic and textural architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the muscular and tactile buildings of Alvar Aalto, and Louis Kahn’s architecture of geometry and gravitas are particualarly significant examples of this.
The gift that just keeps giving…I don’t think there is a single page of my copy of Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin that isn’t marked up and annotated. Although Pallasmaa is an architect and writing primarily about that metier, his book is full of passages that are a parallel reflection of my own views on the visual arts (and painting in particular.)
I hope my ongoing reference to his work is of interest to some of you too.
Beyond architecture, contemporary culture at large drifts towards a distancing, a kind of chilling de-sensualisation and de-eroticisation of the human relation to reality. Painting and sculpture also seem to be losing their sensuality; instead of inviting a sensory intimacy, contemporary works of art frequently signal a distancing rejection of sensuous curiosity and pleasure. These works of art speak to the intellect and to the conceptualising capacities instead of addressing the senses and the undifferentiated embodied responses. the ceaseless bombardment of unrelated imagery leads only to a gradual emptying of images of their emotional content. Images are converted into endless commodities manufactured to postpone boredom; humans in turn are commodified, consuming themselves nonchalantly without having the courage or even the possibility of confronting their very existential reality. We are made to live in a fabricated dream world.
Another book that sounds like it is right in my sweet spot: Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship, by Yael Reisner. Ah, beauty… It continues to be an issue of dispute in every contemporary métier—visual art, music, literature. This topic continues to engage, divide, provoke, perplex.
I know a bit about the constituencies on this topic within fine arts, but I appreciated finding an article by Jay Merrick in The Independent that drew the architectural battle lines. Given my current interest in the writings of Juhani Pallasmaa, I was not surprised to see his name show up in Merrick’s lay of the land:
The troubled relationship between architecture and beauty is being re-exposed at just the right moment. For at least a decade, the life has been squeezed out of potentially fine architecture by developers or clients who talk the enlightened talk, but walk the value-engineered walk. But are buildings like Will Alsop’s the Public in West Bromwich beautiful or ugly? Is there anything about the architecture of Thom Mayne or Hernan Alonso Diaz that even triggers the idea of beauty? And what about Wolf Prix’s extraordinary BMW Welt building – is it a nightmare, or pure heaven?
Let’s set the scene. In the blue corner, the visionary American architect, Lebbeus Woods, who says that aesthetics is rarely discussed in schools of architecture because “it’s still a legacy of the Jewish-Protestant ethic. You can take Calvinism as an extreme example, but generally all Protestant religions are very anti-visual and very anti-aesthetic”. Hence, Modernism’s purified, quasi-socialist Detroit production-line mantra, form-is-function. “Before Modernism,” adds Woods, “architects were just decorators.”
In the red corner, one of architecture’s most important historian-philosophers, Juhani Pallasmaa. He deplores current architectural cravings for “novelty based on a shallow understanding of artistic phenomena”, and delivers a crisp left uppercut to doubters by quoting the poet Joseph Brodsky: “The purpose of evolution is beauty.”
And somewhere in the middle – let’s call it the royal purple corner, though not necessarily By Appointment – are architects such as the classicist Francis Terry, who started a recent essay in The Architects’ Journal with this miserablist sentence: “Given all the terrible things about life, it is sometimes easy to hate the world.” How about: “Given all the beautiful things about life, it’s very easy to love the world”?
What a palaver. Faced with the threat of beauty, architects tend to default to particular design trenches, or utter that duplicitously exclusive word, taste. Rather than looking through cracks in their avoidance of beauty as a creative motive or perception, architects Polyfilla them with blurring obstructions; they’re shadow-boxing in a Plato’s Cave where beauty can never quite be experienced as real. Just as super-articulate philosophers are often regarded with suspicion by colleagues embalmed in infinite chains of hair-splitting, so too do most architects prefer the safety of a bunker of clichés rather than risk exposure to the languages of cultural exploration.
More on this once I’ve actually read the book (which is on its way from the UK where it costs half as much as it does in the US for some reason…)
The dominance of the eye and the suppression of the other senses tends to push us into detachment, isolation and exteriority. The art of the eye has certainly produced imposing and thought-provoking structures, but it has not facilitated human rootedness in the world. The fact that the modernist idiom has not generally been able to penetrate the surface of popular taste and values seems to be due to its one-sided intellectual and visual emphasis; modernist design at large has housed the intellect and the eye, but it has left the body and the other senses, as well as our memories, imagination and dreams, homeless.
–Juhani Pallasmaa, from The Eyes of the Skin
Note: I am in New York for a few days. I have queued up a few small-scale directionals, gentle proddings that shift the way to view the familiar.
Another evocative passage by way of Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin. (More quotes from the book here, and more will be posted in the future since I have been in a state of awe regarding this book for some time.) The role of the hand and the body in creativity is not trivial and yet easily overlooked.
The computer is usually seen as a solely beneficial invention, which liberates human fantasy and facilitates efficient design work. I wish to express my serious concern in this respect, at least considering the current role of the computer in the design process. Computer imaging tends to flatten our magnificent, multi-sensory, simultaneous and synchronic capacities of imagination by turning the design process into a passive visual manipulation, a retinal journey. The computer creates a distance between the make and the object, whereas drawing by hand as well as model-making put the designer into a haptic contact with the object or space. In our imagination, the object is simultaneously held in the hand and inside the head, and the imagined and projected physical image is modelled by our bodies. We are inside and outside of the object at the same time. Creative work calls for a bodily and mental identification, empathy and compassion.