Shoot the Cartoonist

Already some time ago I discovered the joy of observational freehand drawing. Aside from benefiting my mentality (I can count it as meditation) and its use as a learning tool as I observe the physical world, drawing opens channels to engage the people around me. The cold stoicism of modern strangers melts away when they see me drawing, especially when I draw portraits. They approach with curiosity, and often a conversation will start. When a subject sees me drawing them, they immediately fix their posture, smile, and continue what they were doing with a gently glowing pride. Last week in Alameda Central I was drawing celebrities from memory when a meek ten-year-old boy approached me, with two or three of his friends behind him, and complimented my sketches. I said thanks and asked him if he drew. He said he did a little, so I invited him to do one in my sketchbook. It was of Emiliano Zapata. I tore it out and let him keep it—his smile was so broad as he walked off that it touched his friends’ shoulders. Whenever I go to a bar I sketch a portrait of the bartender on the back of the customer receipt (which I never keep) and leave it with the bill. With just a little more effort on my part (surprise, surprise), I can break down barriers!

It didn’t come to me easily. Like many my age, I came to art through photography, which is a younger, more technologically advanced medium (that is to say, it’s much more convenient for the user), but which in contrast carries much more baggage. To begin with, it’s an impersonal gesture to lift a black box to your face, putting it in between you and someone else, blocking the possibility for direct eye contact. We know of the superstition that being photographed is an intrusion onto the soul. This belief is reflected in the baked-in metaphors we use to describe the act: “To take a photograph.” “Sacar una foto.” These verbs imply an extraction from the “real world,” never to be given back. In 2002, the year I took up photography seriously and exchanged my iPhone for a Minolta X-700, I visited Guatemala with my parents. We took a ferry across Lake Atitlán to tiny Panajachel on the north shore, whereupon disembarking we were greeted by a local woman selling souvenirs for quetzales on the dollar. Instead of buying or even responding I raised my camera to take a photo, and immediately she wrapped her free arm around her four-year-old daughter and turned her back to me. In an instant, in front of everyone else on the boat and the villagers on the dock, I had changed the mood from optimistic to sullen. I felt like a bad human being. If it had been ten years later, I would have instead taken out my sketchbook, gotten a smile, a pose, and maybe even a compliment. I could have given the woman 5 quetzales to pose for me for 5 minutes, then I could have sold it to someone for 20.

Though the art establishment (that is, the faction of society that has looked at this from all angles and analyzed it to death) has decreed that neither drawing nor photography have license to the truth, that neither is extracting something from the world any more than the other, there are qualities of the latter that simply don’t sit well with the human intellect. Because our species is so dependent on, indebted to, and entrapped by its sense of sight, it is difficult to convince oneself that a photograph is not a product of our own vision, but something so comparatively rudimentary, so mechanical (with mirrors, chambers, hinges, and electric signals), that the only justification for its existence is the creative impulse. The internal debate rages on between our intellect and our instincts, and it’s our own fault for inventing so deceptive a medium.

Drawing, in the meantime, has for ages remained comfortable in the middle ground where I think art should reside: between reaping a fruit that nature has spent time cultivating on the one hand, and inventing a fruit supplement in the laboratory on the other. I discovered this after paying a man in Central Park to do my mother’s portrait for her birthday. Not only did he do it swiftly and accurately, he then became my teacher. As a matter of fact, I should be grateful to photography, because it has taken over the role of documentation (and the scrutiny that comes with it) for which drawing used to be responsible (the vestiges of which are found, for example, in the portrait etchings in The Wall Street Journal). Where before kings and presidents had to commission a life-sized painting for their official portrait, they can now come into Annie Leibovitz’s studio, pose for 15 minutes, and be done. Humans are much more comfortable encountering something unknown than they are coping with the loss of something they knew.

This is not an indictment of photography—I just had to outline certain problems that it can’t seem to get rid of in order to highlight the ease with which those same problems dissolve with drawing. When all I want to do is record the characters of the world, their bumps and curves, doing so in pen and paper is my E-ZPass around these modern existential complications.

So there I was, in the Jardín de la Bombilla in south-central Mexico City on a hot March afternoon, drawing the cleaning personnel with their medieval straw brooms, dogs, children eating mangoes, the monument towering like the Taj Mahal at the end of the fountains, and stout security guards (the latter have always been my favorite, partially because their expressions never change, but especially because I visit a lot of museums and sketching an on-duty security guard in a well-lit room of Renaissance paintings feels like poking a sedated lion in its own den). Suddenly I noticed that one guard was slowly approaching me. She stopped in front of me and then spoke an order I had never heard in my life:

“Young man, I need to ask you to stop drawing, or leave the park.”

All of the Spanish responses I had been preparing in my head shriveled up, and I had to stare dumbly at her for a moment while I divined something to say.

“What do you mean?” I finally managed, “I’m not doing anything wrong or illegal.”

At this point, according to normal security guard protocol, she would have simply repeated the order, and would have continued repeating it no matter how I protested until her patience ended, leading to the last step which is physical enforcement. However, another astounding thing happened. Rosa (as her nametag said) looked down at my drawings, and her expression softened. She threw the prepared responses out of her head, and told me the following story.

“Listen, do you see that monument there? Do you see “OBREGÓN” written above the door? Do you know who that is? Álvaro Obregón was first a general in the revolution, and then president. He had many famous battles, like against Pancho Villa and the División del Norte, and lost his arm in the war. He was for the separation of church and state, like you have in the United States. But maybe as you know, we are very Catholic in this country, so the resistance to that separation was very strong. On July 17, 1928, Obregón was having lunch in a restaurant that was located exactly in this park, called La Bombilla, when a cartoonist approached him and offered to draw his portrait. The cartoonist’s name was José de León Toral. Obregón saw the beginning sketches and gave the man a seat at his table. When none of the deputies were paying attention, the cartoonist pulled out a pistol and shot Obregón five times in the face. He was executed soon after. Obregón was given a state funeral and this area was made into a park to remember him….”

Rosa had finished the story already some moments ago but I sat in silence. It dawned on me that this harmless act, to her, signaled danger. In fact, it was its harmlessness which made it so insidious, since cartoons are never judged on photo-accuracy (a great retronym) but by the strength of the caricature. I wondered how it had been remembered that the assassin posed specifically as a “cartoonist” (I couldn’t imagine he announced it out loud), but it’s possible that detail wrote itself. José de León Toral used my E-ZPass to gain access to his mark. Since this story was probably as known to Mexicans as the name John Wilkes Booth was to Americans, I suddenly found myself reinterpreting all of the looks I received these past weeks in Mexico City’s parks, cafes, and museums. Were all of those passers-by quietly frightened, but ultimately held silent by common sense or self-disgust? Did their paranoia just seem too far-fetched and disconnected, until this day when I chose to draw in the lion’s den? Was it like the collective rejection of the mosque that was planned down the street from Ground Zero in Manhattan? I had many questions. But the only one I managed was, “Does the drawing of Obregón still exist?”

Rosa’s eyes remained soft. “In fact, yes.”

At my request she wrote the address and directions in a blank corner of my sketchbook. I thanked her, apologized for the disturbance, and got up to leave, before she stopped me and held a page open—the page where I had drawn her some time ago.

“That’s pretty good,” she said. “May I have it?”

I thought for a moment, then said, “15 pesos.”

There was still time in the day to take the metro to Balderas which is directly in front of the Biblioteca de México. I knew where I was going—down the central passageway, left at the Octavio Paz Patio, through the airport-like Galería Abraham Zabludovsky, under its northwest arcade, and into the wooden room housing the personal library of Mexico’s darling writer, Carlos Monsiváis (all places in which I had sat and drawn before). Just inside the room, before passing the front desk, there is an enormous wooden cabinet with a broad display case housing the tip of the iceberg of knickknacks that Monsiváis, a known hoarder, collected. I had only glanced at it before, but that day I stopped for the first time. After a minute of searching, I found it. Still in the original leather sketchbook, held precariously upright and open by an unexplained action figure of a cat, there was the fated sketch. Álvaro Obregón looking out at me from his comfortable dining chair. Or was it him? His clothing was unclearly rendered, lacking any defining marks of a president-elect and former general, the eyes were too narrow, the arms too long… behind him there was no indication of place, only blank paper… his right leg was entirely unfinished, ending at the calf with a hurried twirl, which killed the relationship of figure to ground… there were no tags or descriptions of any individual pieces (partially because there were too many of them)… I thought that if it weren’t for the tip from Rosa, I would never have guessed that this was Obregón at all. I had looked up the president on the way to the library—with his sharp eyes, paunch, hairline, and moustache, doing a good caricature would have been kid’s play. My worst competitive instincts came to the surface, and pulling out my sketchbook I made my own quick cartoon of Obregón (aware of the security guard lurking in the corner) to compare.

So maybe José de León Toral just wasn’t a good artist. Chillingly, this was only 20 years after Adolf Hitler was rejected from the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. Despite the best efforts of the establishment, it seems bad art manages to creep into the history books one way or another.

Uncharted Territory dot com

In man’s early years, he had still to occupy the entirety of the globe, on top of which he didn’t even know how much of the world was still unoccupied. Imagine: knowing your territory, but facing a frontier at all sides. How much further does it go? How big would primitive man have imagined the uncharted territory to be? With respect to this unknown unknown, those early times were correspondingly quite violent. Wars and genocide were constantly going on as men coped with the conflicting notions of discovering the world and sharing it with others.

Over time, the discovery was made that the world was round, and humankind swiftly moved to occupy it all. Wholly overtaking the planet, closing the loop, is an act that justifies itself. It ties the knot of discovery within a perfect package. Our unconscious must have felt immense relief circa the Enlightenment. Though we still have wars and genocide, violent deaths connected to the control of territory are decreasing, now that that territory is no longer unknown. We comfortably analyze the violence of the past as primitive and barbaric.

However, humankind’s drive to seek new frontiers is insatiable. Sometimes, when the frontier is either unseen or unfeasibly remote (like the bottom of the ocean or deep space), we resort to creating new frontiers ourselves. The latest example of this is the internet. The world wide web is a brand new world, also full of uncharted territory. Notice, too, how our exploration of that world has reverted us back to our violent past. We are turning against each other because we have become unknown to each other once again.

Do we create worlds because we strive for the thrill of creation, or for the thrill of discovery? Do those impulses overshadow the artificiality of our surroundings? Does that thrill cheaply distract us from more difficult undertakings, like learning to get along with each other?

Fixing a hole

A model lives and dies just like the building it poses for. It’s preceded by dreams and drawings and logistics and a budget and a construction schedule…….. and of course a sharp drop in market value shortly after its completion. After that the name of the game is either find a can of spraypaint and a prominent shelf, or be dismantled for parts.

Learning to build a physical model is also learning how a building gets physically put together, though this is never emphasized. Without realizing it, I’ve been the Architect, Owner, GC, and Building Super of a hundred microcosmic architectural works throughout the past decade.

I was part way through building a light fixture model at half scale when I realized a problem: scoring & folding 1/2″ thick foamcore, while stable, exposes the crackling foam innards inside valleys with gaping shadowlines which at this scale can no longer be ignored. If the thickness of a sheet of museum board telescopes through a site model of a house, no one is expected to ask annoying questions about whether you actually intend for that joint to be part of the design. But I’ll be a dog if they don’t ask it of the 1/2″ vales and glens I’ve now proposed in their light fixture… which is another annoyance: every single thing you present to a client can be assumed to be your “proposal,” and boy does it irk me when they say things like “so, are you proposing the walls to be this color?” “So, are you proposing the walls to be made out of foam?” No, assface, I am not. We got two realities overlapping here in this model, you better get your 3D glasses on or stop asking dumb questions.

Back at my model, in deft anticipation of those questions that would inevitably happen, and already sweating about it, I had a choice about fixing the holes: I could either cover them with a thin layer of paper before painting, or I could fill them with joint compound. Now this may seem like a simple choice, resolved based on what’s around me and how much time I have, but at the root of it is actually an important distinction. If I went with the former, I would be doing something that would never happen in real life, only in the life of this microcosmic architectural work. If I went with the latter, I would be mimicking the actual contractor as he troweled paste into all the cracks when the eventual GFRG emerges from the mold. This, then, is the distinction between “model” and “mockup.” And I reached for the joint compound, because I had to treat this object as closely to its final form as I reasonably could.

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Despite of all this, however, there was a diagram on the back of the container that said not to use it for surface imperfections deeper than 1/8″.

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Dammit.

Re: some ideas to stir up inspiration

Not to give away too much, but The Satellite Collective is beginning to wiggle its fingers again. A new piece is in the works. To get the juices flowing, Kevin Draper sent out an email to the core creative team with initial ideas. The theme would be “Time Machine,” and all sorts of media would be represented as Satellite Collective always does. After a few glowing responses, I decided to chime in. Here’s what I wrote:

Re: some ideas to stir up inspiration
Thu, Dec 8, 2016 at 6:03 PM

I want to put in my two cents:

One of the most difficult things to get right in a performance of this kind is striking the right balance between all the different media. Spoken word, dance, opera, music, moving images… these all have their own strengths and limitations. How to have them co-exist in a performance piece without overcrowding?
Most of Satellite Collective’s works have deliberately separated different pieces in different media into a kind of medley, which are presented in sequence. This is a distinctly different approach than trying to create a fully immersive multimedia thing. Opera is closer to the latter, but for the fact that it’s bogged down by the proscenium. You could make an argument for both with the Time Machine theme: it supports the deliberate sequence because that’s how we experience events in time (which you can reshuffle to some cool effect), but it also supports multimedia because a Time Machine is a fascinating, fantastical, complex piece of machinery, with millions of parts working simultaneously in order to transport someone to a different place. Whichever direction it ends up taking, I think it’s best to be deliberately one or the other. A performance that lands in neither/nor might sacrifice pacing or fail to hold the audience’s attention or fail to carry a single idea throughout– ie the intangible stuff that is the true magic of performance.
I hope this makes sense.
BTW, walking back my own words somewhat, I like the idea that our image of what a Time Machine is has itself changed over time. It has gone quite a way from HG Wells to the Twin Paradox. I remember I saw William Kentridge’s Refuse The Hour at BAM a couple of years ago, and he has a monologue where he explains that if a single photon can be considered a snapshot of the thing that emitted it, then we have been broadcasting snapshots of ourselves out into space since the dawn of time. If you could go out and catch each of those photons discretely, you could piece together the film of humankind.
Whether or not that makes sense to anyone, I highly recommend watching this video of highlights from the show. A lot of Satellite parallels.
whew.
-Ivan Himanen, RA
No one has responded to the thread since.

The Noble Shed

Transportation Centre, Incheon Airport, Korea by Terry Farrell
‘Tropical Islands’, Berlin, Germany
Will Pryce’s large photographs, his large subjects, and the title of his book all point to a purer kind of architecture. An architecture unburdened by program. It may be difficult to imagine such an existence, but there indeed was a time when the builder was not concerned with shaping a building precisely to fit the needs of its future inhabitants. As a matter of fact, in that time the boundaries between architect, builder, and client were quite blurred themselves. The dwellers built the dwelling. With such a setup, it’s easier to see how rigid expectations of ‘occupancy’ and ‘program’ were not even part of the picture. But even though times have changed, I believe there is still a chance to return to that. The sheds photographed by Will Pryce are evidence that it still happens, given the right circumstances.
I recently read an article in Science magazine about how humans are coping with urbanism and congestion. It says that our Paleolithic brains are unaccustomed to living in huge clusters with other strangers, that the human brain is only capable of maintaining about 150 meaningful relationships at a time (this is the famous Dunbar Number). So to cope with this, we developed things like fashion and dialects and architecture — in order to help sort strangers into known categories, and make life comfortably predictable. From my point of view it is an intriguing theory because it liberates architecture from prescriptions of program by pointing to a rather arbitrary heritage. If “facades” and “bedrooms” and “bathrooms” developed mainly for that reason, then there is absolutely no reason to hang on to it. Architectural program is not as hard-wired as it may seem. If humans could be nudged into this new state of freedom, we could start making buildings more like Hundertwasser imagined, or the rest of the 20th century for that matter: where the architect designs the “shell,” and the inhabitants come in and fill in the details themselves. Not only does it remove an unnecessary step from the making of solid buildings, but it gives everyday people the opportunity to participate in the making of their own dwellings. Then, the architectural shell itself would be liberated, free to explore form and materials that before weren’t practical because of use restrictions. It might not be so bad to live in a city composed only of noble sheds.
Laban Centre, London, UK by Herzog de Meuron

Architects – the backup band

This will be both an album review of Vulfpeck’s The Beautiful Game and a general thought on architectural practice.

In general, Vulpeck, the four-or-five-or-six-or-more-piece band from Michigan, has been solidly my favorite band for the past couple of years. Their music infuses funk, R&B, rock, jazz, and you never know what else (Klezmer? Bach? Swing?)– they back it up with undeniable chops, too– and they just seem like they’re having a good time making music.

Take a listen to their latest release and try to give me a definite answer on what genre it could fall into. Hard to do, right? As evidence, Vulfpeck’s music has appeared in as broad a range of music Top Ten charts as German Pop:

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Wait. What?

….. and R&B!

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WAIT. WHAAAAAT?!

Part of the band’s essence is versatility. And it’s useful here to think of it not in terms of genres, but more in terms of the kind of music they want to play. Sometimes a musical mind thinks of a tune, and the art is in figuring out how to physically create that sound. Or, say a band starts jamming, and something that just sounds good emerges from that session. If it’s improvised, that good sound may have emerged from a specific hook or beat that the guitarist or drummer heard. This deft skill allows a band freedom to create a palette of sound that transcends categories. Listen to Animal Spirits, the opening track. You hear all kinds of genres in there. The tight drums sound funky for sure, the piano vamps are poppy, the vocals R&B, but then the syncopated claps and the jingly keys make it sound like a theme song from a kid’s TV show. But for a band that sees itself first as a rhythm section, that’s par for the course. Like The Wrecking Crew, The JB’s, or The Muscle Shoals house band, you’re supposed to be able to perform for anyone at anytime. It’s how you 1) sell your services, and 2) make pure music come first. I remember Genres are just gloss anyway, right?

NOW. In architecture, the challenge is the same. You spend your years in school learning Greek column orders, Roman concrete vaults, and cruciform churches from the Middle Ages, you mimic Le Corbusier with cube-houses Mies van der Rohe with kissing planes, you master the art of the airbrushed axonometric like Peter Eisenman, the glossy disjunction of Tschumi or Stirling… then you spend much of your career as a member of the backup band for a famous frontman like Bjarke Ingels, Michael Maltzan, Tom Kundig, Cecil Balmond, or Patrik Schumacher, adapting to their style. If you have foresight you get licensed behind the scenes, studying on the tour bus. Then after a couple of decades, the moment of truth arrives and you start your own firm, the first step of which is having a conscious direction of your own. By now you have absorbed enough variety for something personal to emerge. You have acquired an ability to work with a range of building types, clients, budgets, and styles, depending on the demands of the project.

A purist would say that by definition, this ability transcends style because it runs deep. Everything you design yourself from then on has the weight of all your training behind it, and therefore is coming not from mimicry, but from a palette of experiences.

I’ve spent years as a drummer, a bassist, a backing vocalist, an audio engineer, a marketer, even a groupie, and hopefully in the next few years I will start my own band. A band that can top the high-end residential, performing arts, and research Hot 100 Charts.

McWhorter’s Similes

When Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield said they would be abandoning Lexicon Valley, my beloved linguistics podcast, for other projects, I was crestfallen. Not even withstanding the fascinating content of the show, half of the reason I listen is for that comic pairing. Who could justifiably replace them?

Though the name John McWhorter didn’t mean anything at the time, the Columbia Professor has acquitted himself as the solo host well, and uniquely so. The best moments of these episodes is when his speech breaks out into a sort of trot: fast enough that it stops sounding like a monologue and starts sounding like a manic brainiac talking to himself. In these moments, he fires off similes that make you stop what you’re doing and rewind… just to make sure you heard him right. Here’s a sampling.

Feb-RU-ary sounds like a shoe on the wrong foot.

Why does English put “is” in simple sentences like “she is my sister?” Other languages don’t do it. Little things get stuck into sentences, like food getting caught in your teeth.

English kept becoming easier. Things just started blowing away as if English was a sick tree and the leaves were falling off.

But of course “yall” and “youse” and “yuns” are things that we giggle at. If you’re synaestheitc, you think of “yall” and “youse” and “yuns” as smelling like a sandwich full of cured meats with various sauces. It’s somehow not something that you bring out for formal occasions.

“He” probably did not become “she” because “h” gradually came to be pronounced “sh.” There was some support for the case but it was always thin. It was like a fence blowing in a tornado.

Languages don’t borrow pronouns much [from each other]. it’s kind of like people don’t use each other’s toothbrushes very much.

If I say “tell each student that they can hand in their paper tomorrow,” is that wrong because “they” is plural when we all understand that in that particular usage “they” is singular? Of course, some of us like to keep our food apart on the plate. I am one of those people, actually….

When you have an “r” at the end of a syllable, it’s kind of like fingernails, they get worn down. Because sounds are always changing like clouds are always blowing away in the sky.

So, “he,” “she,” “it:” it used to be “he,” “heo,” and then, was it “it”? No, it was tidy. They all began with “h.” They were ducks in a row. Quack. It was “he” “heo”… “hit.”

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Keep it up, McWhorter.

On Standing

Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects On Slowness.

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Billlllllllie Tsiennnnnnn and Todddddd Willlllllllliams

Using Tod Williams & Billie Tsien’s outlook on architectural practice as an opening chapter, you could write a whole book about the importance of treating yourself right physically, being present in the world around you, in order to improve your work. Architects always wax philosophic about “the body in space,” and yet we spend 90% of our time sitting in chairs. Unless we can consciously treat our bodies well (and connect that to the way we run our offices), our license to discuss others’ should be revoked.

The thesis of the book would be that the best experiences of architecture by architects take place during times of physical activity. Times like:

  • Jogging through the park at dawn.
  • Site walk-throughs.
  • Taking the stairs to your walk-up apartment.
  • Going to the dog run and conversing with fellow local dog owners.
  • Bicycle-commuting over a bridge.
  • Traveling to a foreign city, walking around for 6 hours.
  • Standing while drawing.

You can imagine the body as a largely unused vehicle. A deep-sea vessel that only gets used for snorkeling. A turbocharged V8 engine that never goes above 40mph. At the very least, you should try to keep the joints well-greased. The more moments of physical activity you can insert into your working day at the architecture office, the better. At the Bauhaus, students dedicated time before class to stretch and meditate. I imagine these warm-ups were quite tai-chi or yoga-esque: not strenuous, but using minute shifts to invigorate the muscles. The practice was closely tied to the school’s love of dance.

A stretching session before Johannes Itten's class. Weimar. Image via kaufmann-mercantile.com
A stretching session before Johannes Itten’s class. Weimar. Image via kaufmann-mercantile.com
Bauhaus Gesture Dance, feat. Oskar Schlemmer, Werner Siedhoff, Walter Kaminskii. c. 1925. Image via thecharnelhouse.com

Frank Whitford’s book Bauhaus (Thames & Hudson, 1984) mentions Johannes Itten’s forcing students to stand in order to loosen their bodies.

Two of Itten’s exercises were especially important. The first required students to play with various textures, forms, colors, and tones in both two and three dimensions. The second demanded the analysis of works of art in terms of rhythmic lines which were meant to capture the spirit, the expressive content of the original. Before attempting such exercises the students were asked to limber up their bodies and minds by physical jerks, controlled breathing and meditation.

Alfred Arndt remembered attending Itten’s Vorkurs on his first day at the school. Itten made the students repeat their ‘Good morning’ to him but ‘thought that we were still sleepy, cramped. “Please stand up. You must loosen up, get really loose, otherwise you can’t work! Turn your head! So! Still further! Your neck’s still asleep…”‘

Going deeper, I realize that our whole paradigm for architectural representation is linked to standing. Plans, sections, and elevations are artificial views of buildings which are never actually experienced but which are 100% better at carrying information about how to build. They are orthogonal projections, that is they collapse all of the points, lines, and surfaces of a building onto a flat plane: e.g. a piece of paper or a computer screen. And ideally, to preserve that flatness, I have to position my eye perpendicular to, and centered on, the surface. But if you consider the way we sometimes work– seated at a desk, with the drawing facing up to the ceiling– that perfect position is impossible. KM_C654e-20161109132532

In a way, working like this is an ineffective hybrid of old-school ergonomics and new-school drawing techniques. Look at the way old-school architects draft: on a vertical or slightly inclined table, standing or sitting on a tall stool.

The COVER IMAGE of Wikipedia’s page on “Architect”.

Then look at how new-school architects draft: seated in an office chair, 3 feet in front of a computer screen. Both of these satisfy the perpendicular-viewing rule that preserves the accuracy of our drawings. But if we want to keep blood flowing as Johannes Itten demanded, slow down as Tod Williams and Billie Tsien demand, we have to stand up again. Hoorah for standing desks.

I experienced the same today while sketching a markup of an elevation. What I thought were beautiful receding lines suddenly became parallel!!

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Architecture or Rap Lyrics

Entering the 11th hour, the ground beneath the brain thins out. What in daylight was a pleasant stroll along a train of thought now becomes a tightrope walk. All it takes is one slip for focus to collapse completely. Architecture is full of these triggers: double entendres that turn work flow to turn into uncontrollable giggling. I’ve started calling it Architecture or Rap Lyrics.

If stone facing is deemed the most appropriate method, proper detailing of joints is critical.”

“Because long span members are usually large, correspondingly large erection stresses can be developed.

For small jobs, hand compaction can be used. More typically, it is done with vibrators.

“When it is away from the joint, the member is in tension.”

“For proper bearing in wood members, nuts should be tightened using the turn-of-nut method and in uniform contact with the wood surface.” 

“The standard approach of nesting, sometimes called Butt And Run, combined with the Six-Course, Six-Inch, Stepped-Off Diagonal Method…”

50_cent_in_concert - Butt and Run

DMX in concert - Stone Facing

This Will Kill That

Once a year or so, which is as frequently as my pride will concede, an old lesson from a professor pops out of my memory and hits me with a that’s-what-they-were-talking-about! moment.
The most recent one came while walking around Paris, the professor was Anthony Vidler, and the lesson was a pantomime of Claude Frollo’s “THIS WILL KILL THAT” line, from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, on a dull evening in his Modern Architectural Concepts seminar.
Poster from 250List, illustrating Aaron Sorkin’s “What Victor Hugo really meant by this will kill that.”
hunchback-of-the-notre-dame-disneyscreencaps.com-2292-claude frollo
The gist of this moment in the book is the declaration that the printed word will usurp architecture as the prime conveyor of information to the masses. Up to that point, buildings were designed always with the illiterate inhabitant in mind. Through their placement in the city, their facilitation of public assembly, their material connection to the earth, and their ornamentation (gargoyles, friezes, mosaics, stained glass windows), they told a story about themselves and their world. These stories were told in pictures, sculpture, sound, and more. We believe that people were likewise more attuned to these messages when words and written language was not front and center. But then it did become front and center, and architecture lost its need to tell stories in pictures– why bother meticulously crafting a work of art through the collaboration of a stonemason and a painter when you can more easily etch words onto a blank wall? Even further– why bother carving words when you can print them and hand them out as pamphlets at the building entrance?
A time when architecture and pictorial storytelling were still intertwined. The life of Joseph, depicted in stained glass in Chartres Cathedral. Image via wikipedia.
How fitting is it that such a poignant statement in literature is set in Paris?

Paris is very well-decorated. It is ingrained in the spirit of the city. “How do I make it beautiful?” is a separate but equal question with “How do I build it?” They don’t call it the City of Lights for nothing. But there came a time, in the 20th century, when Paris became so saturated with historic architecture that it became like a huge museum. I imagine myself as a Paris city planner. For fear of destroying its history, I avoided new additions to the urban fabric. I forgot that the very history I was preserving was founded on baroque sensibilities– whimsy, emotion, sparkle, darkness– that prefer volatility over permanence. Worse, I no longer spoke the language of pictorial architecture, so I couldn’t see this plain fact literally carved into the city around me. When I looked up, I saw beautiful containers worth preserving when I should’ve seen living, breathing artworks that are unafraid of death.

If I look at it the way Victor Hugo did– that books have killed buildings by sapping them of their beauty– modernism was not a great revolution in architecture, but more like designers grasping for straws, realizing that austere aesthetics are inevitably becoming the status quo, and reactively finding justification for it. But it is harder that it seems to eliminate ornament entirely.

I took a morning to visit the Centre Georges Pompidou. The museum was described in the guidebook thus: “by exposing the plumbing, HVAC, and other systems that run the building, the architects put form before function and found the ultimate expression of modern architecture.”
I thought wait wait wait. No one required Piano & Rogers to paint the pipes different colors. Au contraire, the systems were exposed in order to become decorative!  The reason Pompidou is a great building is that it goes against the form-before-function tenet of modernism. It recognizes that each building contains thousands of opportunities to add a little humor, whimsy, or emotion to our environment. Like all multilingual buildings it speaks through light, sculpture, painting, ceramics, metalsmithing, botany, weaving, plumbing, all the details of craftsmen, rather than just architectonics (the English of built languages). Richness of ornament is tied to richness of spirit. Pompidou helps revive the baroque qualities of Paris that once made it playful and alive.
This may be the best lesson of post-modernism.

How fitting is it that such a poignant statement in architecture is set in Paris?

View of Paris from Centre Pompidou.