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Entries in modernism (16)


material permanence for an impermanent architecture

Rau. Triodos Bank, Driebergen-Zeist, 2011-Thomas Rau was recently speaking at Ryerson; the notification was illustrated with his 2011 Triodos III project, a values-based bank in Driebergen-Zeist, which encapsulates his thesis that Nature is a bank and if we treated it as such we wouldn't exploit it as we do. By extension, every building should be considered as a bank of materials, valuable because finite, like currency, which circulates over and over again through time and society.  Triodos III is an example of such an architecture.  A logical extension of the idea of a building as a bank of materials would be an architecture that is demountable, with individual pieces salvageable as whole units rather than the pulverising demolitions that usually happen when a building reaches the end of its usefulness (not necessarily its life, but the limits of appreciation of its value).  In this it is assumed that buildings have a life span.  

from: Shaun Fynn. Chandigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier's City Today. Princeton Architectural Press, 2017Was this a consideration when Le Corbusier was building Chandigarh, seen in a new book, Chandigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier's City Today, by Shaun Fynn?  His was a hugely complex architecture built with a single material, concrete, that once cast cannot revert back to its original ingredients – the chemical reaction when water meets quicklime cannot be undone.  Correctly built, this kind of architecture was forecast to have an infinitely long lifespan; deconstruction and reuse of the materials was not considered.  

Unlike concrete buildings regularly demolished in the western world, despite the new-found mid-century love of béton brut — so much of it already gone, Le Corbusier's Chandigarh project persists: there has been little development pressure to constantly rebuild in what was the de-colonising, developing, third world.  Modernism was the architecture of liberation: it promised a new start, in all senses, and for this it retains a political and historic power that we don't recognise here.  New Generation Thinker Preti Taneja, Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Warwick University, read an essay recently in the New Generation Thinkers series, about 'The first generation of post-Independence architects [who] built on this [modernist] legacy, drawing also from Le Corbusier, who designed India's first post-partition planned city, Chandigarh, with its famous 'open hand' sculpture; and from Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Gropius, to create some of the most iconic public buildings across India today.' 

There is something about the utopian socialist roots of modern architecture that meant something in the developing world but which passed the developed world by. Here, it is seen as a style, not as something for social good. Indeed, by the 1970s, projects just twenty years old, such as Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, were totally discredited as the social ambitions of the architecture did not match at all the political fears of race and poverty.  

Rau: TurnToo, a declaration of material rightsRau's architecture as material bank refers to a pre-industrial model of building, where buildings were assembled and dis-assembled by hand.  He extends it to industrial processes, with the circularity potential of each material as the pre-condition for its use.  It has the potential to redevelop modernism without the extravagance of material exploitation that came so easily to us in the west, where the environment was assumed to be infinitely patient with us, self-healing the wounds we inflicted by fire, by mining, by impermeable cities, by voracious appetites.  His architecture of circularity assumes an impermanence to buildings whereby they can be constantly in flux, parts replaced, parts repurposed.  This is such the polar opposite to the still, eternal, immoveable architecture of Chandigarh.

from: Shaun Fynn. Chandigarh Revealed: Le Corbusier's City Today. Princeton Architectural Press, 2017


Hal Leavitt: Morse Residence, Palm Springs 1961

Tom Blachford, photographer. Morse House, Palm Springs, from Midnight Modern: Palm Springs Under the Full Moon. Brooklyn: Powerhouse Books, 2016

What I like about this particular Hal Levitt house (Theodore & Claire Morse Residence) is how horizontal it is, as is the 1957 Thunderbird: one could cast a level on the body and have it precisely parallel to the road.  This was the kind of house that even on Vancouver Island in the 1960s, signified Architecture, rather than the cottagey English-y steep-roofed 1930s houses we were all living in. For most at the time, this kind of modernism, prosetylised by Sunset Magazine could only be exercised in the yard: breeze block walls proliferated, front doors and garage doors, previously windowed, became blank.  Picket fences disappeared, as did gardens, rockeries and perennials, replaced by green landscapes and lawn that stretched flat to the street.

Blachford's photographs were taken by moonlight, giving them a curious source of light that picks up pale colours and sinks darks such as asphalt into deep shade.  It is not clear in the publisher's blurb whether or not the cars are stage design or the owner's allegiance to the era.  Le Corbusier put a contemporary car, all wood, canvas and spoke wheels in front of the 1927 Weissenhof-Siedlung Houses 14 and 15 to show how architecture should be as streamlined and as instrumental as automobile technology. It was a long time, as Will Wiles points out, before there was any sort of stylistic alignment between houses and cars.  It might have come close in the 1960s.  

All of this cool flat minimalism promised great freedom from convention, busybody neighbours, maintenance: wealth could buy this level of abstraction. Under the theory of the 60-year nadir – that things in their sixth decade of existence are unloved, scorned and often demolished, both this house and this car qualify.  Again, only wealth could buy such preservation.  For the less wealthy most things 60 years old come under the heading of mid-century modernism which is eminently collectible as here (unloved, etc. and not in LA or Palm Springs) it is quite cheap.  

The Morse house (not at all cheap) has a Class 1 Historic Site designation and is described thus:
One of the most interesting modernist homes in the prestigious Vista Las Palmas neighborhood of Palm Springs, the Theodore & Claire Morse Residence (1960) started life as an Alexander tract home designed by the firm of Palmer & Krisel. In 1961, the Morses commissioned renowned Los Angeles architect Harold "Hal" Levitt to glamorize and expand the home turning it into a Hollywood-style "entertainment residence." The Morse Residence is considered by many to have the best pool and bar entertainment combo in Palm Springs.

Well, there we go.


Agnes Martin: 1912-2004

Agnes Martin, Untitled, 1963

The minimalist of all minimalists, Agnes Martin, presents us with surface, often inscribed to a numbing field of equivalence.  She came from Maklin Saskatchewan (born on a homestead NW 19-38-27-W3), grew up in Vancouver, moved to the States at nineteen, taught through the 30s and 40s, moved to New York for the 60s, discovered Taoism and Zen and ended up spending the rest of her life alone in New Mexico.  Below is a minimalist interview: talking Agnes Martin in front of a white stucco wall, fixed camera – a numbing field of equivalent statements about not being an intellectual, or having ideas: she just responds to the inspiration. I'm not sure exactly what that is, but it leaves her with a clear mind, she says. 

Above: interview by Chuck Smith & Sono Kuwayama with painter Agnes Martin at her studio in Taos in November 1997. longer version here


Agnes Martin in her NY Studio, 1960. Photo Alexander LibermanAn earlier image, when studios were uninhabitable and unheated spaces. Martin's work demands contemplation; there is no image, just surface which has been touched, by her. The importance of Martin to twentieth century painting, and her massive influence on the conceptualists, mocks, a bit, her statements at 85 that she has an empty mind and so when inspiration crosses that empty field she can see it.  Painters are rarely wordsmiths, most are inarticulate when talking about their work after a lifetime of doing it.  I'd rather see an interview of Agnes Martin at 48 as she was in this photo when New York was the centre of the new art world afire with experimental art, when critics such as Rosenberg and Greenberg were defining and undefining painting and installation.  On the other hand, perhaps she was seemingly as unconnected to things then as later, but the climate of ideas picked her up and ran all over the field with her.  In the interview she sounds overly simplistic, and one wonders if this was a terrific defence – goodness knows the robust masculinity of the twentieth century New York art scene made short work of women artists.  To be a Taoist and to work minutely, almost obsessively, on huge canvases must have been unassailable.

In a fine and revealing essay in artcritical, Deborah Garwood mentions the increasingly violent politics of 1960s America: Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the Weather Underground.  In such a world the calm, investigative studies that are Martin's works from the early 1960s perhaps codify that turmoil – the grain of sand that contains the universe.  Much has been written of her shared sensibility with John Cage: both erase noise and let the ears and eyes register some sort of deep space.


Denys Lasdun: modernism deeply dyed

Denys Lasdun. Royal College of Physicians, London, 1960

Lasdun felt his best building was the 1960 Royal College of Physicians, set into the Georgian terraces of Regent's Park, London.  We don't get this kind of outside space anymore, noir-ish, uncompromising, heroic: terraces for the dark life of the soul.  Instead, having looked at an archive of drawings over the last year of contemporary civic public space proposals, according to the renderings, we must all gaily trip through our cities in full colour, casual clothes, balloons flying, children laughing.  

The public spaces of modernism were adult spaces. They weren't spaces of power but of public access, and that was, given the history of European property ownership and display, a serious business.  History wasn't interesting – it had caused two ghastly wars and in the 1960s the tall capacious houses of Regent's Park were likely to either be offices or carved up into a dozen cheap bedsits.  The bones of the elegant curved terrace could be honoured, but not much else.  

Denys Lasdun's son, James, seen below in an excerpt from a talk at the New York Writers Institute in 2009, speaks about the fierceness of the modernist tenets he grew up with.  Ironically, especially when he says that postmodernism was anathema to Denys Lasdun, James has recently published a book, Give Me Everything You Have, on the ultimate postmodern crime: he has been cyber-stalked since 2006 by a student he once taught at NYU.


Edith Sitwell: poet, brick

The extremely generous Edith Sitwell, modernist poet, interviewed by the BBC in 1959:

And a younger version, in 1928:

Dame Edith Sitwell, 1928. National Portrait Gallery, London


Центросоюз: Tsentrosoyuz Headquarters, 1936

ⓒ Richard Pare. Chromogenic colour print: Centrosoyuz headquarters, Moscow, 1999.

Tsentrosoyuz [Центросоюз] headquarters [Central Union of Consumer Cooperatives], Moscow, 1929-1936. Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Nikolai Kolli.
The astounding architecture of Soviet bureaucracy: offices for 3500, restaurant, lecture halls and theatre.  

The construction is reinforced concrete with 40mm thick blocks of red tuff used as insulation. Tuff is volcanic ash – small pieces of magma < 2mm – blown into the air during a volcanic explosion and consolidated into a porous aerated easily carved material.   The tuff used in the Tsentrosoyuz headquarters is from the Nagorno-Karabakh region, an area rich in limestones, tuff sandstones and clay shales.  This is all starting to sound familiar.


oscar niemeyer

Oscar Niemeyer, Museu Nacional da República, Brasilia, 1958


The Deep of the Modern: Manifesta 9

Coal Sack Ceiling homage to Marcel Duchamp, Manifesta 9. Photograph: Kristof Vrancken/Association Marcel Duchamp, Paris

This year, the biennial Manifesta is centred on the Waterschei mine in Genk, in in the coal-mining region of Belgium.  Adrian Searle has written a fulsome review of it in the Guardian, and there is a slide show of some of the work here.  
Searle talks about the Bechers and their recording of the industrial landscapes and infrastructure of eastern Belgium, Holland and the northern Ruhr, where Manifesta 9 is being held.  The Bechers are in this exhibition as well, but the arresting image of the coal sacks indicates the interventionist nature of some of the work, beyond the recording of landscapes that shock by their mere presence alone.

The catalogue is here.  The first paragraph of the curatorial concept for Manifesta 9 states, 'The Deep of the Modern intends to create a complex dialogue between different layers of art and history. Its point of departure is the geographical location itself—the former coal-mining region of the Campine in north-eastern Belgium as a locus for diverse issues, both imaginary and ecological, aligned to industrial capitalism as a global phenomenon. Manifesta 9 takes its cue from the previously abandoned, recently restored Waterschei mine complex in Genk.'

The Deep of the Modern.  What a title.  The image above is an homage to Duchamp's 16 Miles of String of 1942. This free ranging through the twentieth century of art and industry, production and politics shows how they inflect each other, rather than presenting the isolation of each of these activities into the discrete silos that they have generally pretended to be.  This is an obvious and natural discussion of the world in which art is an integral part, however it signals a big change from late twentieth century art discourse.

On Site 26:DIRT looked at the surface of the earth, issue 27:rural urbanism investigated in many of the articles how the earth, the dirt, agriculture, the mines and resource-extraction industries locate cities.  On Site 28: geology, next spring, will be continue this discussion of geological consequences and how we are both shaped by them and try to intervene in them ourselves. 


Frank Stella

Frank Stella. The Pequod meets the Bachelor (B-11, 2X)

I used to quite like Frank Stella's work because he used the tools of our trade: protractors, compasses and by the mid-1980s, french curves and something all the notes about Stella call railway curves.  When I was teaching in Halifax in the mid 1980s I bought a set of ship curves, it being a ship-building sort of place. One was about three feet long.  I was working on an architecture that would result if one did all the drawings using these curves: flat, gentle sweeps where even the intersections gave a slightly odd, open angle.

I saw Stella's Pequod series in New York, somewhere; all the pieces of a drawing that normally indicate some sort of coded ground plane, as in a site plan, were lifted off the ground and floated in a complex set of layers. These layers, which had shapes recognisably from french curves, were painted over with gaudy pattern.  These pieces cast wonderful shadows: another kind of drawing.  They were enchanting.

Thinking about these works and the legacy of the abstract expressionists of New York given that Frankenthaler and Chamberlain both died last week, and looking up the Pequod series (I had forgotten all the Moby-Dick chapter heading names: Pequod meets the Bachelor, Pequod meets the Virgin, and so on), I found this description: 'In this and other ways, they tackle the issue of narrative, visual metaphor and subject matter more directly than before.'  This was written in 1989, and god knows I was keen on narrative and textual matters then too, but looking at the work now, seeing everything as narrative and metaphor does the physicality of this work a disservice.  Pequod meets the Bachelor is a nice reference to an American classic about obsession and is perhaps a metaphor for the artist in an obvious sort of way, but it isn't inherent in the work. The work has a physical presence quite independent of the haze of words around it.  

Here he is in 1972, very articulate and 34 years old.  At one point he says he became interested in aluminum paint as it was fairly repellant, all the action is on the surface.  Surface was the issue, not metaphor.


the impossibility of dissidence

Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell's defaced library covers. The Guardian. Comment is Free, October 14, 2011

Click on the image and it will take you to an article by Jonathan Jones on the impossibility of dissidence in art today.  Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell, young unpublished writers in the early 1960s used to take dull dustjackets in the library and change them into something subversive, definitely something very funny.  They were sent to prison for it.

Jones points out that outrage has become such a general condition of art that it is impossible to actually be outrageous.  One just has to read The Daily Mail, that stalwart of conservative ladies of middle England, to see how far outrageous celebrity culture has penetrated a most unlikely society.  

Something in this reminds me of the architectural conversations of thirty years ago, when modernism all of a sudden was named a rupture in a more organic development of traditional spatiality.  Modernism was the outrage, and the radical position was to excise it.  Yet the very notion of radical acts is itself a species of modernity.  

Is it more that there is nothing one can do in art, or architecture or design that is so offensive, so radical, that it shakes the viewer out of complacency?  Is it that we are immune to shock as the time-space continuum is so compressed that we have seen it all?  This would seen to indicate that the passivity of consumption has rendered us complacent on a grand scale.

Will the Occupy movement be consumed in the same way?  Perhaps, and it is this that will drive people to violence – the impossibility of dissidence in a 'liberal' society.


later, this very same morning, I came across Chloé Roubert's post on just how riots are being commodified. 


Cy Twombly (1929-2011)

Cy Twombly. Leda and the Swan (Part III), 1980. Oil on reverse of an artist's proof on handmade paper. 64.7 x 50.3 cm

Cy Twombly, died Tuesday at 83.  I had a note about him last fall  in the context of artists' lists.   Tacita Dean made a film about him recently, Edwin Parker (2011) showing all this summer at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.
Of all the artists of the 1960s, Ad Rheinhart's black canvases, Rauschenberg's dense messy collages, Frankenthaler's stains and Morris Louis's pours plus pop and op art – all exploring the carrying capacity of the canvas surface, Twombly was the most calligraphic, the most like writing and drawing: no erasure of the hand here.
The early work was so delicate, it seems to get louder and in a way angrier with each decade.  Young man's work in these two pieces.

Cy Twombly. Untitled 1970. Distemper and chalk on canvas. 70.5 x 100 cm


souvenirs: opening borders/opening objects

Sofia Isajiw. A plate from the Veselka Restaurant, New York.

Opening Borders/Opening Objects is an online curated exhibition from the University of Western Ontario: little information on it, such as who was the curator, just a map showing where the contributing artists are from and where they live now, a really interesting curatorial statement and a list of artists that link to a souvenir they chose to explain.

'Opening borders' refers to Bourriaud's 'fertile static on the borders between consumption and production'.  It questions the modernist view that artistic production somehow has an authenticity lacking in objects of consumption – souvenirs, tourist rubbish, reproductions, things from WalMart, or any sort of market anywhere.  Opening Borders/Opening Objects presents often mass-produced objects of little obvious inherent meaning as embedded in a number of very personal factors: who chose it, where was it, where does it live now, what memories does it trigger, what were the circumstances of its first sighting, what is it?

Opening Borders/Opening Objects also places the artist in the twenty-first century as among the most mobile people in our societies: they travel a lot.  They come home.  They bring things.  They give things away.  They get gifts.  What aesthetic or cultural values reside in these objects? for this isn't about money, rather it is about indifferent objects that conjure other worlds, other times, other places.  

There is a good reference list with the curatorial statement: a defining discussion of material culture theory in 2011.

The exhibition will be online from May 1, 2010 to August 30, 2010

Victor Trasov. An S-Bahn ticket from the Berlin of the DDR. Jamelie Hassan. A Syrian glass jug.


Friedrich to Gropius: winter tragedies

Caspar David Friedrich. background detail of das Eismeer, 1921

C D Friedrich's das Eismeer is explained at length in an entry on de.wikipedia.  The English wikipedia entry is about 3 paragraphs, the German one is a great long essay that links the tragedies of Arctic exploration with the tragic failed hopes of the German state, plus a lot of painting analysis, studies, influences, parallel works, modern reinvestigations.  The google English translation of this long entry is anarchic in the extreme, sometimes giving up and leaving whole chunks in the original German.  It says something about the metaphoric habit of critical writing on art that a word for word translation is so hilarious. 

The proportions of Friedrich's das Eismeer are very familiar: a great pile of rock or ice leaning to the left, seemingly aspirational but looking backwards.  The focus is at the right hand base of this great pile.  It is a diagrammatic lens that painters still use for the Rockies, especially Mt Rundle which from the Trans-Canada highway lookout, leans steeply to the left and could be neatly mapped onto das Eismeer.

The entry includes Gropius' 1922 Monument to the March Dead in Weimar, memorialising the victims of the Kapp Putsch – again, failure, conflict and defeat.  The vantage point of the photograph take at the time shows the same left-leaning precipice. 

It is the Werther at the heart of the German soul.

Walter Gropius. Monument to the March Dead, 1921-22. Weimar, Germany


Driss Ouadahi, Densité

Driss Ouadahi. Fences 4, 2010, oil on linen, 70 x 79 inchesFifteen large oil paintings of Driss Ouadahi are on exhibit at Hosfelt Gallery in New York.  The press release states:
Ouadahi's exploration begins with images of the enormous public housing developments in Algiers that had been modeled on France's habitation à loyer modéré (housing at moderated rents). In North Africa, these monoliths accommodate displaced rural populations; in Europe, they house immigrants from former colonies. 
Ouadahi studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf under Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Sigmar Polke, Andreas Gursky and Katharina Fritsch.  Well, the press release says they were at the Kunstakademie when Quadahi was there, then it veers off into unforgivable editorialising:
 Ouadahi's oil paintings of the ubiquitous high-rise, the legacy of Modern Architecture's failed promise to improve the human condition, are renderings of impenetrable boundaries of steel, glass and concrete. They are symbols of the politics of class, religion and ethnicity. Reminders of "otherness."

Maybe.  Poor old modern architecture, what a scapegoat.  This is Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation in Marseilles that is being talked about here.  Granted not all habitations were as well considered, but did they ever intend to be symbols of class, religion and ethnicity?  No, quite the opposite and perhaps in their very even-handedness there was nothing definitive or positivist enough to withstand the blaming of modern architecture for social ills. 
Every European city has dreadful zones of low-income, immigrant housing towers.  The banlieus of Paris are the sites of much North African immigrant unrest, although those on the streets are French-born, and seemingly without prospects in contemporary French society.  Modernism's great delusion was that it could solve social problems.  It can't.  It can only house social problems that must be solved elsewhere.  


John Pawson

Monastery of Our Lady of Novy Dvur, Czech Republic, 2004. phot by Stefan Dold.From the exhibition 'Plain Space' at The Design Museum from 22 September 2010 until 30 January 2011



Kurt Schwitters. Mz 129 rot oben. 1920 Collage on paper, 10.60 x 8.30 cm. The National Galleries of Scotland.