One of the prosaic memories I have of my time in grad school is of standing by the entry of the School of Architecture and smoking cigarettes with Professor Ed Eigen. The absence of serious discourse characterized these occasional respites which occurred no more than I can count on one hand.
Recently, I started reading his book On Accident: Episodes in Architecture and Landscape published by MIT Press. And I think I had a grin on my face the entire time I read his preface. What a delightful mind to process such infinite sources and compose an erudite narrative that is diffused yet so cogent! I realized that reading this book in a slow leisurely manner is the best way to appreciate the fantastic sights and landscapes that his words were building in my mind.
The current project I am working on may not have a direct connection or correlation with the thesis of his book. However, I hope that there may be meandering inspirations in the intellectual companionship between the author and reader. It is as if silent laminar flow lines of smoke rising in the air become scholarly discourse.
This is my design from 2010 for a World Trade Center Memorial. This was an early interaction of my thesis, in which the corner condition was expressed in both abstract form and symbolic terms. This project is an inward-facing building located a few blocks away from the site of the September 11, 2001 attack in New York. The massing of the memorial is formed with cubes of varying sizes that represent different but equally important individuals. Indexing a rapid erasure with the absence of a defined corner, individual modules form a unified whole as a cohesive unit. This memorial recognizes the coming together of a nation after a crisis of unimaginable magnitude; expressed through an architectural manifestation of hope and defiance.
The cube logo stands for the creative philosophy of authoring abstract objects with multiple figurative narratives. In this seemingly simple drawing, the following can be seen: the direction of the cube alternates depending on the visual focus; the icon can be read either as a flat pattern or as a volumetric object; the lines of the cube is in an expanded field of focus and blur; and the image functions as a referential/reverential quotation of precedents.
When asked about the key difference between Eastern and Western philosophy, Martin Heidegger (referring to the Buddhist tenet of the spirit’s interchangeability between sentient beings) responded that, unlike Eastern philosophy, Western philosophy is rooted in the position that humans are fundamentally different from animals. Underscoring a parallel sense of exceptionalism, architect and educator Wes Jones taught me that humanism manifested through technology is the ultimate expression of excellence.
There are many artifact origins of ancient technology: including stone axes (tool), spear tips (weapon), beads (ornament), and pottery (craft); Wes Jones was primarily interested in the primitive hut (shelter). His time collapsing fictional composition of techno-machinic Primitive Hut was a precedent for my undergraduate thesis and taught me how to utilize Hegelian dialectic on architectural forms. His projects are exemplars of working through the opposition between intensity and elegance. Somehow, Wes Jones always succeeds in creating buildings, furniture, art, infrastructure, and machines that are unquestionably “correct” in a Mies-ian sense of the word. Wes Jones manages to be a heretic and a historicist; appropriate and contrarian; advanced and traditionalist. The nimble theoretical cleverness of Wes Jones is unmatched by any of his contemporaries.
As a thinker who deals frequently with philosophy and complex concepts, Wes Jones’s texts can be difficult to access for those who do not apply full attention. I recall reading every one of the essays contained in El Segundo, back in 2007, with a considerable effort in concentration. Equally complex and as rewarding is the book Soupergreen!, edited by Doug Jackson. Perhaps more accessible are his lectures and talks that are posted online: I found his talk with Preston Scott Cohen in Harvard, and his lecture in USC to be best illustrative of his ethos.
At Cooper Union in 1979, Aldo Rossi’s attention was drawn to the meticulously realized models of the Second World War planes that cluttered Jesse Reiser’s desk. They discussed fuselage paint scheme utilizing lightened colors on the models than was used on actual aircraft -in order to approximate atmospheric effects that convey a sense of realism. They further discussed the fictional realism of Edward Hopper’s major oil paintings which conveyed realism through imagined settings. This discussion made an impression on Aldo Rossi as he invited Jesse Reiser to work at his Milan office after that semester. While working as an intern, Jesse Reiser was tasked with drawing a unique version of the Modena Cemetery (of which many versions exist). Rather than draw with misaligned corners and crayons smudged around and outside the lines, the drawing by Jesse Reiser entailed absolute perfection done with Day-Glo paint applied with fastidious attention to detail.
I studied Jesse Reiser’s Modena Cemetery drawing while reading Aldo Rossi’s Rizzoli monograph for additional insight. In the Modena Cemetery, the two figural objects arrayed along a strong central axis are the truncated cone (communal grave) and the square (ossuary). In Jesse Reiser’s drawing, these two figures are rendered in the signature red colors of Aldo Rossi rather than the bright and American Day-Glo colors. The square ossuary, rendered with a 45-degree angle cast shadows, is fictionally illustrated as if the cube is a thin and hollow shell —unlike the constructed reality which has a thick envelope loaded with circulation and program. Studying Jesse Reiser’s drawing of the Modena Cemetery made me better understand RUR’s obsession with figural objects with intense presence. For example, the Taipei Music Center with its three figures suspended on a flowing and elevated surface plane appears to be a quotation of the Modena Cemetery and its figural objects floating on an irregular grid. The cube building in the Taipei Pop Music Center is also along a strong axis (this time east/west not north/south) and quotes the ossuary cube of the Modena Cemetery. Just as Aldo Rossi’s ossuary cube stressed a surface reading instead of a solid mass, Jesse Reiser’s Taipei Pop Music Center cube emphasizes a surface reading by differentiating each elevation with different surface treatments and articulations.
I worked at his Brooklyn office in 2010 and had a transformational experience. Stan Allen delighted in working with architectural traditions and exercised careful judgments on formal expressions of conceptual thoughts. Critical of photorealistic renderings, he asked me to explore drawings and images that expressed qualities beyond physical representation. With an effortless ability to see historical precedents in all contemporary design efforts, he taught his disciples to reach into the past to get a better outlook on current conditions. Moreover, Stan Allen practiced precise restraint but had an uncanny eye for carefully chosen moments of exuberance that elevated his projects beyond Modernism.
The book Lateness, written by Peter Eisenman with Elisa Iturbe, introduces a concept called lateness to describe specific types of idiosyncratic and personal approaches to architectural design. The book argues that lateness is a quality (rather than a prescriptive theory) that describes an individualistic architecture, with a unique sense of authorship, which works within existing conventions.
To make the case for this mode of architecture, the authors of this book examine Adolf Loos, Aldo Rossi, and John Hejduk: three architects with little visual congruence with each other. Lateness is not a style that is expressed through a shared mode of representation, but a quality expressed from a personal interpretation of existing formal conventions that are already established in the discipline. To analyze the formal qualities of lateness, Eisenman presents diagrams of plans, sections, and axonometrics that consistently show visual disparities among the three architects. They each operate with unique personal styles that tend to stay within the individuals rather than influence new movements.
Indeterminacy, contingency, and play of meanings factor in the thesis: as the word “late,” refers to a late period in an architect’s life, the entirety of an architect’s career, a late period in an architectural style (as is the case with Loos destabilizing an architectural object in his addition to a nineteen century home), and lateness studied by Adorno in Beethoven regarding the ability to maintain the outward appearance of form while reformulating the codes that hitherto had determined its relationships.
Eisenman barely writes about his architectural projects and their relation to the concept of lateness. In the late stages of Eisenman’s career, he has sought to situate his work closer to the continuing history of architecture rather than as a break from it. The ineffable qualifies of lateness would apply to Eisenman as much as it would to Loos, Rossi, and Hejduk.
Agustin Vidal Saavedra created a fascinating motion graphic based on the “Ecstasy of Saint Francis.” The dome as a tectonic representation of heaven is beautifully expressed in this video montage.
The final passage from Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy comes to mind:
“… and as the pictures came to a stop and stood still in his mind’s eye, St. Peters.
St.Peter’s… He entered the church through its front portal, walked in the strong Roman sunshine down the wide nave, stood below the center of the dome, just over the tomb of St. Peter. He felt his soul leave his body, rise upward into the dome, becoming part of it: part of space, of time, of heaven, and of God.”
During the latter half of the 20th century, the conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher anesthetized mechanical and machinic forms through their extensive photographs of industrial buildings, mines, grain elevators, gas tanks, mills, and water towers.
Shot in the mornings, under an overcast sky to avoid shadows, the frontally photographed “objective” images are displayed on a grid, and always without extensive explanations for the function of the structures. One views the photographs of Bechers with an eye toward formal compositions, and not toward operational performances. Whereas the Constructivists and the Bauhaus Modernists theorized machine and industrial architecture in terms of progress, the Bechers often documented built objects nearing obsolescence and disuse, as if some of their subjects are ruins from the past. Through their photographs, they present technology without instrumentality -and this absence turns their subjects into art.
Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs opened up the possibility to frame technology in terms of affect, and not as a measure of teleological advancements. Their documentations instill a sense of longing and poetry to functionalist structures that have outlived their usefulness: as beams, girders, trusses, domes, braces, towers, ducts, and pipes are displayed as formalistic components capable of eliciting emotional aesthetic responses. These machinic parts that are shown through their photographs parallel Vitruvius’ description of classical orders, as they generate formalistic effects rather than convey functionalist requirements.
The aircraft carrier is the apotheosis of the human will expressed in architectonic spirit. The sheer magnitude, deafening noise, and bone-shaking tremors of aircraft carriers are overwhelmingly astonishing. Extreme cantilevers, moving blast shield decks, huge elevators lifting aircraft and equipment, enormous column-free spaces with exposed steel beams and braces, and the gray and white color scheme are all architects’ dreams realized on a colossal scale. As massive as they may be, the nimble dexterousness of both the whole as well as the constituent parts —consisting of sailors, machinery, and aircraft— are fast, meteoric. Watch the video to witness the agility of this mountainous boat, with over 100,000-tons of displacement, as it changes course.