Sunday, August 2, 2009

At the Mountains of Madness

I was rather hoping to move onto some other projects, both imaginary like this

and less-imaginary like this,

but it seems that I am still not quite done with that project that has dominated so many of my posts here.

Dear Colleague -
The jurors in the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) Unbuilt Architecture Design Awards Program (to which you submitted your entry or entries earlier this year) have completed their work and have selected the following submissions for recognition this year.

"Republic of Trinidad & Tobago Primary Schools"
designed by Morris Architects, Houston TX

"ecoFLEX" designed by Shepley Bulfinch, Boston MA

"Urban Rack" designed by Moskow Linn Architects, Boston MA

"Pop Up Café" designed by XChange Architects, Boston MA

"Nordhaven": The City Regenerative" by FXFOWLE Architects, New York City

"Wadi" designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, New York City

"Crook/Cup/Bow/Twist" designed by Schwartz and Architecture, San Francisco CA

"Stormhouse, Deception Island, Antarctica" designed by Lewis E. Wadsworth IV, Assoc. AIA, Boston MA

"Lockgrid - city after the periodic blackout" designed by W. Y. Frank Chen, New York City

"Tulang Tower" designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, New York City

For registration and other details on this forum, which begins at 6: 00 pm on November 18, visit (click on event #SB4) after August 20.

The award-winning projects will also be included in a special gallery exhibit during Build Boston and the same exhibit will be in The Architects Building in Boston in 2010 and will be included in the BSA's annual design award publication.

Copies of the jurors' written comments on the honored projects will be available at Build Boston and thereafter on the BSA website (

So I am a winner. Not to be ungrateful, of course, for any kudos coming my way, but I have to ask: what does this really mean, besides the fact that I will presumably have to do a bit more work on this project in order to make some publishable images and that I may have to make some presumably-awkward small talk about it at the awards ceremony and the ensuing "informal discussion"?

After receiving the note from the BSA, I remarked to my wife, "So, now that I am a famous architect, what do I do?"

Of course I am being facetious: a single win for a single project does not a famous architect make (assuming one wants to be a famous architect, which seems to be a dubious proposition in my view. Among other considerations, I have met and studied with several famous architects, and the more famous they have been the more I have wished I had never met them).

My fellow honorees, in no particular order, include four large corporate firms (one of which won twice, for different projects) which presumably would not enter a competition unless it was worth-their-very-expensive-while; two single practitioners of which I know very little (except that single practitioners are always a bit on the desperate side); an aspiring intern at a well-known but aging "boutique design firm" (that's apparently something of a compliment) which produced some interesting Deconstructivist projects ages ago, and who would presumably like most interns want enough recognition to break out on his own; and a small local firm (run by someone I should but don't know, as we were in the same undergraduate institution in the same "Visual Studies" department at the same time) that seemingly enters every competition that comes up, obviously as part of a deliberate and successful marketing scheme.

If "90+ projects" really means that nearly 90 projects were entered, one tenth of the entrants were honored. Which is not "bad odds." Or did I do that math right?

What were my own motivations for entering? Merely self-advertisement and publicity-seeking, a legitimate agenda in any competitive commercial field where the opportunities for wider distinction and employment are quite limited? A quest for clients or "real" projects?

I sense a contradiction here, for a self-proclaimed fantasist.

Presumably, the award presentation and "discussion forum" noted above will be populated by architects who happen to be at the building show and perhaps media proxies for a more general audience: for instance, an audience that might include non-architects who would be interested in or capable of commissioning a project.

But I am under no illusion that my Stormhouse is anything more than a potentially-buildable pastiche of my memories of the decades-old Deconstructivist projects that I one admired, awkardly paired, metatextually, with an old horror story and some modern neuroses. It's a fantasy. Did I "cross the line" here?

(my poster for the competition, originally 30" x 30")

Would I really want to see a project like this realized, or spend much time with someone who would want such a building? The Stormhouse has already lost most of its charm for me...what would the seemingly-endless elaboration required to create construction documents for something like this do to my regard for my own work?

(The cash prize for this competition, incidentally, will not send me to Antarctica after all. It will only adequately compensate me for the entry fee, the roll of special paper I bought for plotting my poster, and perhaps lunch somewhere.)

Monday, June 1, 2009

Pym's Rest

At the urging of a friend and former student of mine, I recently updated the Stormhouse once again for a design competition which potentially has a small prize. This resulted in some new renderings, which may be tediously similar to ones that already appeared in previous entries.

That is, as you probably suspected, a copy of a famous portrait of Poe, near the end of his tragic life, in the foreground of the interior rendering. The portrait on the wall over the desk in the background is that of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Poe's literary successor and author of At the Mountains of Madness, a sympathetic and Antarctic sequel to Poe's enigmatic and Antarctic The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.

I've quite suddenly arrived at the notion (it's almost like it came from somewhere other than my own mind) that if I earn anything from this activity and thereby convert my subjective value for the project into something objective and monetary, I should apply the proceeds to a trip to the Antarctic. If I stand on the putative site of the Stormhouse, this project for a house where one could await the end of the world, will the world end, or would I have to build the Stormhouse first?

I think this will be the last time I will do any more work on this. I'm thoroughly tired of it after nearly a year, and anyway my Stormhouse project seems to have passed beyond my exclusive control.

Needless to say, the modeling and rendering program that this video is advertising was not used by me in either the creation of my design or the original illustrations of it, although you wouldn't know that from the narration. At least they gave me credit "for the model." I have no intention of objecting to this use of my design or demanding compensation, assuming I have any kind of recourse for doing so (through my own naivety in such matters---if it can be called naivety or carelessness, as opposed to a kind of fate for any sort of idea that can translated to a digital medium--I don't believe I do).

Incidentally, the Stormhouse and the Pavilion for Oblivion do make legitimate cameo appearances in a book published the other day: SketchUp: the Missing Manual, by Chris Grover for O'Reilly. Chris graciously asked to use my projects to illustrate several didactic points and I did give him explicit permission to use images of my work, for which explicitly I expect no compensation at all.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Storming Again

To be very brief about it, I was asked to supply some potential cover illustrations for a course catalog...and suffering from a bit of "designer's block" I modified my old Stormhouse project yet again to fit the required graphic constraints. I was very tempted to throw in some Edgar Allan Poe references or perhaps some visual hints of Caspar David Friedrich, but in the end decided against both.

And a graphically harsher alternate version:

I can't imagine that either one of these will actually appear on the catalog...the idea is simply too far beyond the pale for an architecture school's advertisement for its continuing education program.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Despite my increasingly cynical view of the value of the architectural education and training I received, one of my steadiest employments is as an instructor at an architecture school. I'm hoping that I am doing something more valuable than preparing the architectural equivalent of cannon fodder for the local firms, but I have many doubts. It is possible that the no matter what my own motivations, the regime of architectural education and internship hasnot an ulterior motive, which would be some scheme nefarious on my part or the part of other educatorsbut an exterior one, independent of the impetus of any particular member or institution of the great industry that relentlessly cranks out ever more graduates and interns suitable (or perhaps not) for eventual employment as architects. I have little doubt that the exterior motivation has nothing in it akin to the best interests of those who would become part of the profession. Still, there I am in front of a podium and whiteboard, and I tell myself that I am doing my best to help my students while wondering constantly if there was something else entirely I could do with my life that wouldn't leave me feeling likedespite the best of intentionsI have made an accommodation with something subtly monstrous.

So recently I was asked to teach a course optimistically labeled "3D Modeling and Design." Of course, by Design we mean the sort of things architecture students are tasked to develop in school (unlike in the real world, mainly, where they will probably never be asked to design much of anything soon unless they are strong-willed enough to flout convention and their legally-enforceable status as interns-serfs). And 3D means of course "using computers", still a scandalous notion in a Luddite-infested profession where computers have only begun to be viewed (grudgingly) as a cost-effective tool for production (creating construction documents, in other words), permitting the use of ever fewer of those ignorant, expensive intern-serfs. With this in mind, I tried to recall how the use of computer technology had seemed helpful or even interesting in my own education, ten years ago when I decided in a fit of unwarranted optimism in early middle age to change professions and go to architecture school myself. Whatever facility I have with computers came despite my own educational requirements, because at the time no such courses as I am now asked to teach were really available and no real opportunity was provided for learning such despised technical subjects outside of the formal curriculum.

Looking back through my student portfolio, I find it oddly prescient that the very first project I undertook with a digital modeling program was roughly inspired by Matta's 1946 painted scene, A Grave Situation:

Original image location:

The Chilean artist Roberto Antonio Sebastián Matta Echaurren (1911-2002) was an architect who even worked with Le Corbusier before becoming disenchanted with the field and abandoning it for Surrealist painting (almost the opposite of my own professional trajectory, in fact!). I doubt I am the only one to interpret A Grave Situation as a kind of apocalyptic explosion in a mid-Twentieth Century "International Style" office, a maelstrom of planar tectonics and chromed steel tubing surrounding the central figure. Was the figure an alien visitor, whose presence disrupted the staid predictability of the International Style environment? Or was the mid-century Modernism somehow responsible for the distortion of the figure? In other words, was it a normal human somehow transmogrified by his Modernist surroundings into a frozen faceless alien?

Does it matter?

For a summer-term seminar that almost no other student seemed to take seriously, I used a CNC mill to carve a portion of the alien figure from my homage to Matta into a block of polyurethane foam treated to look like rusting steel.

The letters "DNT" were a last-minute, bitter addition to the cutting-path for the CNC mill. Some educator had earlier called me a "Deluded No-Talent" during an astonishingly unhelpful critique of a more standard architectural school production (a police station "design"), and the almost whimsical pointlessness of the comment led me to incorporate its abbreviation into my "artifact."

Whether or not I am in fact a DNT, some of the computer-assisted products of my architectural education that I still find interesting are available here, in a web gallery of examples I prepared for my own students. And a comprehensive gallery of the work of Roberto Matta is available here.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Well of Vision

While looking for something else entirelyor rather, while sitting here in front of a computer monitor and trusting an advertising-funded idiot-savant-of-a-search-engine to provide me with digital photographs on a certain topicI “found” (or rather, was servedby the same corporate search engine) an image of a different if not completely-unrelated structure.

This photo is part of the collection of a website called The Megalithic Portal. Original image location:

First glance: this strange granite monument seems to consist of a tripled (“six-legged”) Gothic arch, holding a crowned cross, over a natural spring in the middle of an uninhabited, treeless valley set among barren low peaks.

How astonishing!

Clearly not a pointless landmark, even if it isn't doing anything in a pragmatic sense, not even providing a shelter over the spring (which looks muddy, from the various photos I have since "found", as if grazing animals were trampling around its margin.) To use the jargon of architectural educators, the stonework “encloses space,” but it in fact does not protect or shelter the contents of the space in the least. Why? There was a symbolic reason for this ineffective enclosure. But do I know it? And why is there a religious symbol, or perhaps a symbol of monarchs ruling in the name of religion, suspended over the water? For just a moment, until I do a more thorough “search” (and follow some hyperlinks), it's all a mystery. But there was meaning: the builders meant to indicate some fact or facts, something of great importance to them, most specifically with a set of symbols that held transparent values for them.

Does it matter that I don't know what the builder or designer of this structure really meant? And (ignoring for a few more minutes the fact that in seconds the idiot intelligence of the Internet could provide me with more information than I need or trust) that I can't sprint across the intervening damp years and desolate mountain peaks and find out from them?

I have previously asserted (and even had a project dealing with the topic published, after a fashion) that a sort of revenant of the lost meaning, which I called the ghost of intent, can survive the designers, builders, and even the pragmatic purposes of a work of architecture. That sort of architectural "parapsychology" is in fact what leads me to search for information on—and sometimes visit, in my non-virtual fleshsuch mysterious structures as neolithic tombs, stone rings, and and other ruins or near-ruins.

It is my personal, biased, and largely unsubstantiated opinion that the presence of this ghost is more important than any of the other considerations that might or might not qualify something as a "work of architecture", as opposed to a lesser and easier-to-dismiss "work of building," no matter how concurrently well-made, valuable, and otherwise program-satisfying a work of building might be.

But how do you invoke and tie down to a single work such an intangible, ineffable trace? To painfully extend the metaphor, it is like the opposite of an exorcism. I'd like my work to be the vessel for odd, mysterious, and subtle if not invisible do I entrap these things and bind them to an idea for a building, when all of architectural cultureeducation and training—seems to have been relentlessly devoted to robbing me of the capability to do so? Once again, I strongly suspect myself to have been crippled as an architect, by the years of demands for clear paths ("partis") and pragmatic operations, for precedent, typologies, and pointless quibbling disguised as “critical analysis.”

Returning to the mysterious structure which prompted this musing, it is quite possible to find out who built this, and why. There, I've done it in an instant with a few keystrokes: the Queen's Well, (originally the Prince's Well) in a place called Glen Mark in Scotland. Quite a few people have visited and photographed the structure, which is not in quite so out-of-the-way a place as I imagined. In fact, I'm a bit disappointed to "find" photographs that show a trace of habitationa cottage of some kind, behind some anomalous trees in this heathery valleyquite near to the Well. And it was trivial enough to “locate” a reference to the designer (who was probably not the famous inventor of the seismograph), the client, and the monarch this commemorates.

Original image location:

But is the mystery and charm gone, now that I have done more "research"? I don't think yet abides. The ghost is there.

Which leads me to another idea for yet another "project." I'll add it to the list of things I want to finish...and call it another fantasy because I see nothing wrong with the category given the current state of reality. I'll try to invoke and bind that ghost, in a Lewis-idealized version of the Well, stripped of its explicit history and context.

A structure that doe not even shelter a spring...why would a spring need a shelter?...on a hillside that no one deliberately visits...

Eschewing the pointless and deliberately-debilitating combination of cross-examination and self-doubt that the powers-that-be would have me label “the design process,” what image first comes to mind?

Three roofs with greenery growing on them—corrugated roofs that do not joinare elaborately supported in such a complex way that they cannot provide shelter. These almost-pillars, which might be or mighnt not be construed as nonfigurative telamons, stand not over the spring but in a pool created by it. The spring is hidden by the pool, and is thus not only unsheltered but invisible unless you happen to be staring straight down into the greenish water from right above.

The pool itself lays in a sort of not-very-high artificial crater of lined stonework. This crater has a sort of ditch-moat of its own, which receives the spillover from the pool proper and guides it to a streambed that takes the water away and down the vale. The moat is covered by wide rusty cattle-grates that permits access for (careful) humans to the steps up the crater-walls but presumably keeps the local grazing creatures from further fouling the not-very-pure water of the pool.

Right below the surface of the pool are dangerous paths composed of large blocks of stones, a nearly hidden labyrinth that will undoubtedly grow more treacherous over the years. Since the water is not particularly clear, the paths' presence is only indicated by a tangle of oxidizing steel rails that loop and twist around standard railing height above the pool surface.

The point of this? Risking an unintentional, cold and slimy bath, the visitor can walk out onto the water and navigate to the central point of the crater, where (as noted), it is under the right circumstances possible to stare down into the green depths at the source of the water. I don't imagine that it is, really, much of a depth...three or so feet, at best. The up-flow of the water keeps this one point relatively free of drifting algae.

There. That's the vision, unencumbered by the crippling intellectual detritus of a pointless career in architecture.

But a vision exactly of what? Why should I or anyone want this, and why is there a watery ineffable thing in the “murky deeps” of that completely imaginary construct? I can't answer. Yet. But the ridiculously depressing immediate task is to convert those four descriptive paragraphs into a structure both visual and build-able.