architecture ideas lit

Readings / Design, westerns, obsolete vernaculars

Thomas Allen - Fathom
This is a pho­to by Thomas Allen. I first noticed his stuff when I saw the cov­ers of Vin­tage reis­sues of James Ellroy's nov­els (like this one for Sui­cide Hill). The pho­to above is from a series of dio­ra­mas that Allen cre­at­ed from cut-outs of 50's pulp nov­els. I love the use of the book-ends as tex­tured under­wa­ter scenery here. Genius. Pho­to: Foley Gallery.

A lot of what I've been read­ing seems to res­onate with my 9‑to‑5 work. Last night, I was read­ing archi­tect Witold Rybczynski's account of a shed-build­ing exer­cise that turns into a much, much more — The Most Beau­ti­ful House in the World, and this pas­sage jumped out at me, most­ly because it spoke so elo­quent­ly of the stuff I val­ue in design work:

The psy­chol­o­gist Bruno Bet­tel­heim once char­ac­ter­ized children's play as an activ­i­ty "char­ac­ter­ized by free­dom from all but per­son­al­ly imposed rules (which are changed at will), by free-wheel­ing fan­ta­sy involve­ment, and by absence of any goals out­side the activ­i­ty itself" …

Bet­tel­heim quotes a four year-old who asks, "Is this a fun game or a win­ning game?" The soli­tary build­ing game is a fun game–there is no oppo­nent. The con­cept of fun is elu­sive and resists easy def­i­n­i­tion, but it is an undis­put­ed element–perhaps the element–of play. In the present con­text, it is enough to note that fun does not imply fol­ly or lack of seriousness–quite the oppo­site … What keeps [the archi­tect] involved for such long peri­ods of time is that the out­come of the design process is unpre­dictable: it is the result of chance, as in play. He does not know ahead of time exact­ly what the result will be. He could save him­self a lot of time and look for a sim­i­lar build­ing to repro­duce exact­ly; but this would make as lit­tle sense as build­ing the same house of cards again and again, or solv­ing the same cross­word puz­zle. The issue here is not orig­i­nal­i­ty but fun.

The empha­sis in that para­graph is mine. This week­end, I was read­ing a New York Times fea­ture on my man Robert Irwin, and I found myself smil­ing at this:

A favorite term is "par­tic­i­pa­tion." [Irwin] cites, for exam­ple, his 1997 trans­for­ma­tion of a room that over­looks the Pacif­ic at the La Jol­la branch of the San Diego muse­um. Rea­son­ing that he could not com­pete with the sweep­ing view, Mr. Irwin cut three rec­tan­gles — squares almost — into the exist­ing win­dows. "At first I didn't real­ize the glass was tint­ed," he said. "So not only did my holes let in air and sound, adding anoth­er dimen­sion to the expe­ri­ence, but they made every­thing seen through them appear in greater focus." You might say he opened the win­dow, that age-old pic­to­r­i­al device, let­ting in a cool rush of reality.

Once upon a time, I wrote a long post about Irwin's biog­ra­phy, See­ing Is For­get­ting the Name of the Thing One Sees by Lawrence Wech­sler; when I say that it blew my mind, I mean that the book expand­ed my mind, made me real­ly think about the way I rec­og­nize, inter­pret and under­stand the things I see. Final­ly: Cor­mac McCarthy. I'm reach­ing back in time, back to 1994, back to the night I dis­gust­ed­ly flung my copy of All the Pret­ty Hors­es out the win­dow of my apart­ment. (Lat­er that night, I saw the same copy for sale at 16th and Mis­sion BART). Any­way, I'm will­ing to recon­sid­er my judg­ment that McCarthy is no more than a smar­ty­pants Zane Grey writ­ing for arm­chair gau­chos. The Road stuck with me, real­ly deeply upset me, and I respect that. So I'm giv­ing him anoth­er try, and so far, so good: I got a nice copy of The Bor­der Tril­o­gy, and was quick­ly trans­port­ed by the prose, though of course I was remind­ed of Owen Wilson's char­ac­ter Eli Cash, in The Roy­al Ten­an­baums. His book, Old Custer, was writ­ten in what he char­ac­ter­ized as an "obso­lete ver­nac­u­lar," exhib­it­ed in this excel­lent bit:

The crick­ets and the rust-bee­tles scut­tled among the net­tles of the sage thick­et. "Vámonos, ami­gos," he whis­pered, and threw the bust­ed leather flint­craw over the loose weave of the sad­dle­cock. And they rode on in the frisca­lat­ing dusk­light. [More quotes from the Roy­al Ten­an­baums]

Damn, that's good.