M A D I S O N _G R A Y | deep_SIGHT

The Un-Private House _Museum of Modern Art

I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I had moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights.

_The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler (1939)

Prologue: I've just read Terence Riley's excellent, thoughtful essay on the show, which I hadn't read when I wrote the essay that follows. He emphasizes two ideas that informed the selection of the participants: (1) sociological issues in the changing programmatic landscape of the house -- first with regard to the radical impact of pre-2000 demographics, which involves the conspicuous advent of no-children, house-as-workplace, two-person dwellings; and second with regard to the increasingly intimate relationship between the idea of "privacy" and literal transparency; and (2) formal issues in the changing visual landscape of architecture in general. Astutely, and in a truly catchy, mnemonically effective way, Riley delineates the latter as a dynamic dialectic between "boxes" and "blobs." Both formal propositions are, ultimately, and interestingly enough, predicated on mathematical models. According to Riley, the former refers to architectures that might be regarded as extensions of a newfound understanding of the Miesian glass box, such as Rem Koolhaas's Maison à Bordeaux, where the underlying mathematical model is the orthodox Cartesian geometry of the rectilinear plane. The latter refers to architectures that are researching irregular curves and advanced geometries (signified by the Möbius strip), such as Preston Scott Cohen's Torus House, where the underlying mathematical model is the progressive topological geometries of more idiosyncratic forms. Riley's dichotomization of current popular form-making ideologies -- with Mies and Möbius as fountainheads -- is perhaps a bit limited (e.g., shards, fractures, folds, negatives and holes, wherein the fountainhead is of an entirely different nature, is also informing the work of certain students and architects right now); nonetheless, it is perceptive and helpful. And it goes a long way in providing the museumgoer a basis for appreciating the big-picture formal methodologies that purportedly sustain the architectures included in the show. Does it cause me to reconsider what I have written? No, I think the questions that are raised are still valid, and sociology, Mies and Möbius provide only partial answers.
_Williamstown, MA | 9.4.99
K n i g h t M o v e s: . . . searching for Deep B l u e
1. The current must-see architecture exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art -- "The Un-Private House," through October 5 -- has lots of nice things going for it, especially on the surface. Appealing graphics support captivating architectural displays of some lovely and engaging work. The fiberglass-clad exposed-wood-stud partition system on which the work is mounted is elegant. The holographic "welcome mat" at the threshold is especially cool.
Overall, the show generates a refined aesthetic atmosphere in which to see how architects today continue to challenge (some more progressively than others), through the unfolding idioms of modernity and abstraction, sentimental attachment to pre-twentieth-century images of the house.
2. Moreover, the show impels the serious observer to look beneath the surface of things. And it is there, in the deep structure of these modernistic projects, that a professional discussion of their specific attributes must be conducted...
3. ....must, but, alas, will not be.......at least not by me at this point. It's too complex to recreate in print what's easy to say out loud on site among friends and students with all the models and images right at hand to point to.
So I'm going to employ the device of delay.......delay.............. delay.....................delay............................
......and just hint at the nature of such a discussion as it impacts more general issues.
4. One such issue involves the problem of excellence, which, subliminally if not consciously, is the essence of what the museumgoer assumes to be on display. This is what MoMA signifies. And excellence is what its remarkable permanent collection, with rare exceptions, exemplifies. Impermanent collections ultimately raise the question: At what level has the bar of excellence been placed for such a show? How much lower is the bar than that of the permanent collection? Also, additional questions unique to architecture's complex identity are raised with regard to the relationship between excellence and art. Thus, in this show, at whatever level on the zero-to-ten scale the bar of excellence has been placed, the questions arise: What is it that makes an architecture excellent? Is this excellence synonymous with art? Are all the projects in this show excellent? Are they art?
5. Kurt Vonnegut takes the encouraging view that we benefit from the production of art, whether the art is good or bad, because it expands the soul. And, by one definition -- architecture is the art of building -- all architecture is art. (So, if there is good art and bad art, is an architecture's identity as art independent of its degree of excellence?) But these projects vary widely with respect to the degree to which they explicitly embrace the idea that architecture is art; or, expressed with slightly different emphasis, the degree to which they explicitly embrace the idea that architecture is Art. (Emphasis on the word explicitly suggests yet additional shades of meaning.)
6. Whether they are posited as art/Art or not, there is also the related question: Are they artistic? This was a distinction that Wright was keen to make about his own work (he disliked his buildings referred to as art, but he yearned to be the apotheosis of the artistic). These are philosophical and semantic questions that each individual architect must wrestle with or ignore in her/his own way. While there appears to be little wrestling here, there is considerable talent on display, not least of all in the model making. Among digital models, I especially like Preston Scott Cohen's Torus House. The digital renderings are so convincing that I thought for a moment they were actually photographs of the interior (the project isn't built yet). Among physical models, there are also some fine ones. I'd have to make a return trip for a definitive list, but some that come to mind include the relatively large, simple, and elegant basswood model by Thomas Hanrahan and Victoria Meyers, Architects, of their conservative interior Holley Loft; Diller + Scofidio’s Slow House, which I have admired for years when displayed on the museum's fourth floor; and Scogin Elam and Bray Associates illuminated 64 Wakefield. Hariri & Hariri's The Digital House, on the other hand, would benefit greatly if it were to reflect the formal refinements implied by their cool digital perspective. (Actually, as nice as these and other models are, they're rivaled by some pretty terrific ones routinely turned out by graduate students in schools of architecture throughout the country.)
7. In terms of intellection and formal literacy, the projects are less persuasive. It's possible, as studio critics of architecture know all too well, for a building to be visually interesting and, simultaneously, conceptually problematic at a fundamental diagrammatic level. (It's also possible for the critic to genuinely appreciate the former and, simultaneously, to be constructively interrogative about the latter.) Moreover, it's possible for the skill-level or formal literacy to be very high, to manifest excellence in terms of an aesthetic language, and for a project to be very low on (other) ideas. Vitruvius basically maintained that Other Significant Ideas are what architecture rests on and what differentiates it from mere building. And if houses may well have been exempted from such demands throughout much of history, ever since Palladio first transposed a temple-front to his Villa Rotunda in the 16th century, the idea that the house might also be the signifier, in microcosm, of larger civilizing forces -- larger, that is, than personal expression, function or material aesthetics -- has presented itself for investigation. What are these forces? How might a house function not only as an end-product in its own right but also as the laboratory for the discovery of ideas that might later culminate in significant public buildings? As, for example, the way Le Corbusier journeyed from the Villa Savoy to the Assembly Building at Chandigargh?
8. In the Biblical parable of the two men who built their houses on different types of foundations, we may well infer that the houses were visibly identical. The only difference, and one of no small significance as it turns out, was what they rested on -- the house built on sand collapsed, and the one built on rock endured.
9. I wish there were more rock here. Few projects rest on intellectual foundations that are explicit or convincing. Sociological, functional, and materials issues of buildings are unifying themes. The aesthetics of materials and light is a principal preoccupation, as are various geometries. A surprising array of odd neoclassical and other retro devices characterize many of the organizational and visual systems. (The dates of some of the projects, earlier in the decade, help explain this to some degree.)
The sand might be less of a problem if only more of the projects were more cool. (What is cool? Form. In the '90s, Zaha Hadid's Vitra Fire Department would qualify, for example, as would Rem's Kunsthal II and Tom Mayne's Santa Barbara house [check out "Archi-Design," No. 004, December/January 1998]). It's especially important to be cool if a project's theoretical treatise is not especially extensive.
One figures that Steven Holl, for example, knows what he's doing when he makes an off-beat visual project like his Y House, 1999 -- a split shed-roofed structure that conveys more the sentimental idea of architecture as expression of traditional, indigenous form than of hip research by the avant-garde -- still, you gotta wonder...And it's more difficult to give the benefit of the doubt to a few other awkward projects -- or awkward moves in okay projects -- by less established architects.
10. Even Rem Koolhaas's Maison à Bordeaux, which I think is an amazing project, has its moments. I'd love to live there. But I'm not sure I want my architecture to look like food -- all those round holes make me think of cheese -- and the bifurcation of the plan at the ground-floor level strikes me as a problem that might have been better handled another way. Still, he's Rem, and even though the large (or is it extra-large?) model strikes me as aesthetically challenged in its own right, it's great he's part of the show.
11. Neil Dinari's unbuilt Massey House, 1994, is one of the projects I especially liked. This cool project by an architect that does a lot of really cool work helps identify some basic questions about the exhibition at large. Dinari's project is given hierarchical importance (it's the one you see first upon entering). The residual figure of his metal-clad house -- it reads as an extrusion, and conveys the idea of a manufactured industrial object fresh off the assembly-line and imported to the site (i.e., installed rather than built) -- is in and of itself an advanced multivalent proposition. In contrast, for example, to the univalent neoclassicism and figural autonomy of the T-House by Simon Ungers with Thomas Kinslow -- axial-symmetry and repetition are the principle devices here -- Dinari's project seems sufficiently situated within a post-Cubist-slash-hypermodern realm of progressive research into form and technology.
While the axonometric digital image of Dinari's project, which is included in the museum's free take-home broadsheet that accompanies the show, is the iconic summation of the project, I would maintain that at least as compelling an architectural assertion is the section. It's superior to the plan and site plan (I think the key is to make them more literally like the section). It's simultaneously simple and complex, employing effectively the simple device of inequality, which results in a world spatially subdivided into major and minor precincts -- i.e., a 65/35 world versus the 50/50 world of the plan and site plan. It's really no big deal, he just sort of gets it right...which of course is a big deal if you're a teacher looking for examples for your students to emulate...but then of course there are many architectures...
12. The way in which Dinari's project is displayed on the museum's wall raises other issues. The images are sized and arranged in a way that draws the eye to large and colorful, though sometimes less significant or successful, aspects of the project. More important and advanced aspects of the project -- such as the section discussed above -- are correspondingly downplayed by smaller images positioned in lesser hierarchically significant positions. There's an inherent tension created that isn't entirely positive or coherent. This odd tension and misfit between what is significant about a project and what is represented graphically as significant about it characterizes a great many of the displays. It raises this question: To what degree are these displays a reflection of the way the architect would want the work to be seen versus a reflection of the museum's graphics team? In either case, that section should have been big.
13. Now, the nature of this tension, as I have suggested, involves principally the device of hierarchy, and attendant devices of size and position: Which two-dimensional images of any given project are to be small, medium, large, or extra large (Rem's work is amazingly didactic in so many ways, isn't it?)? And which of these images is to be in the center versus de-centered or peripheralized? And why? Moreover, are the forces of the arrangement intended to be centripetal or centrifugal? And why? Numerous related questions present themselves as one searches for the theoretical premises of form making and space making that underlie the arrangements -- premises beyond "it looks good." The museum is, after all, when displaying the objects/images of each architectural project, effectively creating a kind of painting, is it not? A new and independent two-dimensional visual structure? Organizing figures and images on a field? I think an opportunity was missed here to assert a more advanced proposition. One that ideally extends the deep lessons of the very paintings the museum displays upstairs (I'm not talking about that unfortunate Guston.)
14. Uncertainty with respect to positional theory and hierarchy characterizes the graphics system as well as many of the projects. There's too much preoccupation with the neoclassical proclivity to occupy the center, to bisect it, or fill it -- Le Corbusier thought of solid and void as "full" and "empty" -- versus the Roman and modern proclivity to define it or empty it (like a Rothko or Jefferson's Lawn) or counter-pose it or deny it or recomplicate it or simply downplay it (like UN Studio/Van Berkel & Bos in their Mobius House in this show). Many of these projects could benefit from the advanced researches into form and space by the celebrated twentieth-century painters upstairs in the same museum, whose paintings teach remarkable lessons about the center and countless related fundamental problems in the twentieth-century chess-game of positional -- juxtapositional, repositional, subpositional, superpositional, macropositional, micropositional, oppositional, counterpositional -- structures.
15. How, then, are we to regard these projects -- visually and intellectually -- when placed within the context of the chess game of architecture, as well as within the larger chess game of all visual structures?
16. I would like to simply suggest that excellence in the art of architecture is perhaps far more incalculable than the museum's show might lead us to believe.
If architecture may be analogized to the game of chess -- and Le Corbusier refers to "playing intensely the architectural game" -- then it is a chess game of virtually unfathomable complexity. Architecture requires not only the design of the chess pieces themselves -- something Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov are not required to do -- it also requires, not incidentally, playing the chess game itself. While the chess pieces and the chess game are inextricably related, they are obviously not the same. If the physical materials and light of a building comprise the chess pieces (the visible forms), then the theoretical framework, which informs and substantiates the building's design, at all levels, comprises the game (the invisible foundation: Sand or Rock).
Buildings involve a three-dimensional matrix of interrelated, virtually innumerable, physical and optical decisions. The materials involved are infinitely more complex -- and the scale is ridiculously larger -- than that involving four wood knights, 28 other pieces and a 64-square, two-dimensional chessboard. Architecture is a chess game whose magnitude of difficulty is staggering. It is far beyond anything Kasparov -- or IBM's super-computer Deep Blue -- has ever contemplated. http://www.research.ibm.com/deepblue/
17. Architecture is a chess game (a theoretical framework) of Moves and Meaning. Half the game (Moves) involves the conventions and inventions -- chess calls it classical and hypermodern strategies -- of formal and spatial development. These are the devices and materials of abstraction that form the aesthetic system. The other half (Meaning) involves the deep things of architecture at the symbolic level. This symbolic level might be limited to the Moves themselves, or it might also include metaphorical associations.
Chess itself offers a basis for contemplating this complex, enigmatic relationship. Meaning in chess is simultaneously only in the Moves and not only in the Moves. On the one hand, the knight, king, queen, bishop, rook, and pawn have meaning only in relation to how they move (i.e., the bishop moves diagonally, the rook orthogonally, etc.). Each piece signifies a certain move, and the pieces together combine to form complex and dynamic spatial positioning schemes, whose validity is objectively tested through the merciless process of winning or losing. On the other hand, chess pieces, as the names imply, also have metaphorical or associational meaning. As does the game they are involved in. We associate them with medieval narrative and a hierarchy of valor and royalty. Two countries are at war. Yet these associations are not an influence in the tactics and strategies of a chess game. Though inherent, they are, for all intents and purposes, independent of the game, which is highly mathematical. Unlike games of comparable abstract positioning, such as go (a Japanese game, played with black & white counters on a board that is ruled with 19 vertical and 19 horizontal lines), chess is endowed with perhaps an unnecessary but nonetheless an undeniable and unique level of secondary resonances -- historical, allegorical/literary, poetic.
18. Buildings, like chess pieces and chess games, are therefore signifiers not only of Moves, they are also signifiers, potentially, of Meaning "outside" of those Moves.
19. If, as with every professional chess player, each project were to receive a chess rating, which indicates the level of play -- a finely tuned number between 1750 and 3000, say -- what would each be? http://www.research.ibm.com/deepblue/meet/html/d.1.4.html (Bobby Fischerr: 2785; Garry Kasparov: 2851 -- "In 1989, Garry not only eclipsed Bobby Fischer's seemingly unsurpassable mark of 2,785, but reached a mark thought to be unattainable by a human: 2,800! He is still the only player in history to reach this milestone." http://www.research.ibm.com/deepblue/meet/html/d.1.3a.html#rank)
20. Some of the "chess pieces" in this show are visually advanced, especially UN Studio/Van Berkel & Bos in the Mobius House, which is a stunning project. It is a consummate knight playing an advanced chess game of Move-making. It's a game of inversions, whose underlying premise is, one infers, unequivocally posited: "Form as Content," or "Architecture as Materials and Devices," governed by an underlying mathematical/geometrical idea (as the name of the house implies). Staking out a somewhat similar position is Cohen's project, with its odd-ball plan move -- the centripetal dominance of the odd eddy-like occupied center is presumably justified by the geometrical model that informs the house, the Torus.
Are any of the projects engaged in researching the reciprocity between knight and game in the other way? The way Le Corbusier and Terragni did, for example? The way that suggests that Meaning is potentially also something "outside" of the Moves, outside of geometry and mathematics, as in the actual knight in the game of chess itself? Are any of the projects engaged in the game of what I call Move as/and Meaning versus Move as Meaning?
Perhaps these projects are intended to represent architectural excellence in the sociology of architecture (private vs. un-private). But is the idea of privacy itself sufficient to supply advanced architectural meaning? Inasmuch as the private/public spatial dialectic is a fundamental, conscious issue that informs the making of all buildings, even those of first year undergraduates, what are we to conclude about a project, in a show by this title, where privacy was not an issue consciously pursued in any heightened or non-normative way (which would seem to involve all but Shigeru Ban's Curtain Wall House)?
(Perhaps the architectures in this show are more like go than chess? Yet go pieces resist design. And architecture cannot. Visual decisions are necessary. Still, perhaps this chess/go difference might be the basis for conscious research in future projects.)
21. There are many reasons for the oddity of the knight's move, but the principal reason is the conventionality of art. I write about the conventions in art.
_Victor Shklovsky, Knight's Move, 1925
Perhaps the meaning of the idea of the "un-private" in architecture is more than a factor of sociological conditions (children or no-children), technological conditions (video screens or electronics), or materiality (transparency/opacity). Perhaps it is also a factor of intellectual conditions. For example, perhaps it may find its intersection with the probing avant-garde literary contemplations of Victor Shklovsky, specifically with regard to the dialectic of conventions versus inventions.
If, in an architecture, the un-private represents the conventions, then the private may well represent the inventions. And within any master architecture, as in any master chess game, there is always the potential for brilliance when the two are in conscious dynamic balance.
_NYC | 8.19.99
M A D I S O N _G R A Y | deep_SIGHT
© 1999
http://www.theARCHITECTpainter.com Web site ©2001 JEF7REYHILDNER theARCHITECTpainter.com | New York, New York USA All rights reserved
"It was a little like that game where you have to go from sausage to Plato in five steps, by association of ideas. Let's see: sausage, pig bristle, paintbrush, Mannerism, Idea, Plato......There are always connections; you have only to want to find them." _Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum

SEE also the fine article about this show (regarding what's Hot & Not) by Herbert Muschamp in The New York Times, September 19, 1999, available at http://archives.nytimes.com/archives "Peeking Inside Other People's Dream Houses"

NOTE: for more on chess and architecture -- including a description of the knight's move, see the deep_SIGHT .REVIEW article Rooks Move: the phenomenon of collage | the crisis of abstraction .
___e-mail your comments, which you may designate as for my eyes only or for publication, to: deep_SIGHT@thearchitectpainter.com

READER COMMENTS: MadisonGray@thearchitectpainter.com

1. You left out what from my perspective is crucial to architecture, and a crucial additional difference between it and other forms of art (or chess), and that is its publicness. In approval, plans-making, inspection, building, and visibility during construction and after completion, the acts and ideas are displayed to an audience. One also doesn't have to live in a chess piece, but I live here in this work of art. Bad models or paintings can be put in a closet. Bad architecture can't. If the exhibit at MoMA is indifferent, it matters little. If the building housing that art is indifferent, it is a public eyesore for generations. Thus, the stakes are higher for architecture than chess or other art, particularly for the public. Why, then, is it more passionate about its artists than its architects. Evidence: Look at the prices for paintings, or a Degas drawing, at auction versus the fees received by the top architects for building the finest homes or other buildings. __DZ | Washington, D.C.

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