dossier

The Philadelphia School, deterritorialized

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2000.12.02
aesthetics? (etc.)
Picking up on Paul's comments on Frank Furness and whether he is contextual, I'd first off say yes Furness is very contextual, but not exactly in the same way contextualism is generally thought of today. Furness architecture is (unfortunately?) one of those architectures that really has to be experienced in person, pictures just don't suffice. Anyway, the buildings are often very clear albeit uncanny responses to the surroundings; the buildings also often indeed make the 'place'; but, more than anything, it within the compositions of Furness buildings themselves where the contextual dialogue fully occurs--there are virtually always incredible juxtapositions of interior spatial scale, then also tremendous exaggerations of scale among individual elements. None of this is arbitrary because the various scales always reflect various aspects of program and function, and even structure. Aesthetically, the architecture of Furness is all hybrid, or, as Venturi would say, "a difficult whole."
On Kahn, I have to (respectfully) change some of what Paul said, for example that "Kahn has always been more object-oriented, in a traditional architectural sense (and Kahn was indeed a traditionalist)." Kahn for sure had a 'traditional' training, pure Beaux-Arts via Paul Cret, but, as Kahn matured, the orientation was not on 'object'(ness), rather that of conceptually forming the building program as a much higher priority than figuratively forming the building. This at least is what I learned from those of my teachers that studied with and/or worked for Kahn. The figural forms of Kahn's compositions always changed radically during the design process, and this (evolution?) occurred, and is indeed reflective of, the serious ongoing pondering of just what the program of the building "wanted to be." Kahn very much took program to a somewhat spiritual level, and, lucky for him, he found a way for bold and complex geometrical compositions to manifest the conceptualized resultant spirits. For Kahn, context did not so much involve physicality, rather the spiritual realm, specifically that spirit that good architecture should embody, thus making good 'place'. That's why Kahn could simple say, "Order is."
Soon after I graduated from Temple U., I participated in an alumni exhibit hosted by Temple's architecture program, and, among other things, I hung up a sign that said "Order is. . .OK." Most 'Philadelphia's' that saw the sign got what I did immediately; a few appropriately laughed, while most smirked and got stern in the face. Of course, I was commenting on (and hybriding?) Kahn's "Order is." together with Venturi's "Main Street is almost all right." Anyway, Rick makes some interesting comments on Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, e.g., "It was surprising to me to see how thoroughly Contextual (in the philosophical sense of Peirce's Pragmatism) that this work was. Surely, it is the first apology with an Architecturally Contextual base? Not that it was perfectly so, for as I recall, there are a few cases, such as the Jasper Johns Flag on Flag illustration, which a better fit for popular notions of taste, not for thoroughgoing Contextualism." Between 1974 (my senior year in High School) and 1984 I've read Complexity and Contradiction five time, four times reading the chapter in consecutive order, and once reading the chapters in reverse order (and one of the readings was done while on an Italian study tour, which is the best "context" to read that book in). [The only other book I've read multiple times including once in reverse is Revelations, the last book of the New Testament. What I found through that experience is that Revelations actually starts making sense when you read the chapters in reverse "order".] I'll touch upon Rick's insightful focus on Jasper Johns Flag on Flag illustration because it represents Venturi's relationship with POP Art taking precedence over Venturi's relationship with popular culture. The whole aesthetic notion of POP Art flatness (as best described in Tom Wolff's The Painted Word) is an aesthetic that Venturi still to this day strives ardently toward in many aspects of his designs. This 'style' is rarely, if ever, discussed within the plethora of writing on or by Venturi, yet it is definitely a substantial part of Venturi's design psyche. Let me explain further so as not to begin sounding like, as Alex once described, Kenneth (Civilization) Clark when he (Clark) was adamant about what Michelangelo "must have thought." One of my best friends, RE, a former Temple U. classmate, was an associate at Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates for 10 years. Whenever R and I discuss the 'flatness' issue, it gets very intense; R offers lots of actually working examples of the quest for flatness in the design process, and then we inevitably agree that it is somehow amazing that hardly anyone (else) knows about this very integral component of Venturi's style.


2000.12.04
"Elegance", Aesthetics and Formalism
You might be interested to read:
Christian Norberg-Schulz, "Kahn, Heidegger and the Language of Architecture" in Oppositions 18 (MIT Press, 1980).
plus
Robert Venturi, "Context in Architectural Composition", in Iconography and Electronics Upon a Generic Architecture (MIT Press, 1996). "Context in Architectural Composition" is a reprint of Venturi's M.F.A. thesis project from Princeton 1950. An excerpt from the 1996 introduction to the thesis:
"I include this work because its subject, context in architecture, represents almost a cliché in our field and because the origin of this idea has become almost forgotten: a Philadelphia architect, for instance, recently confidently referred to context as an architectural element that evolved in the seventies. But I vividly remember my Eureka-like response in 1949 when I came across the idea of perceptual context in Gastalt psychology as I perused a journal of psychology in the library in Eno Hall at Princeton and recognized its relevance for architecture..."
--Robert Venturi

2001.01.26
the couch is on ebay again
...as to Larson's book. he's been around since 1994(?) when Progressive Architecture published the Hurva Synagogue images. I was always suspicious of him, however, because he received a grant from the Graham Foundation (I don't know what year) to do the Hurva computer model. In 1991, I applied to the Graham for a grant to do the same thing, along with many other buildings. Of course, I never received the grant, and I wonder whether Larson or someone else read my grant proposal, and since Larson was/is associated with MIT, he got the grant. If Julia Converse, curator of the Kahn archives, ever admitted it, she'd have to say that in 1985 I requested to see all the drawings of Kahn's (unbuilt) Dominican convent, and I then started to build a computer model in my spare time on Penn's GSFA Intergraph system. The GSFA sold their cad system in early 1987, and since at that time there was no way to translate the data, the model I worked on was lost. I still have photocopies of the Kahn office drawings I used to build the model.


2001.02.19
museum collecting
04. Arts and Crafts Museum
07. Kimbell (barely)
14. Ryerss Museum
15. Franklin Court
16. Philadelphia as a museum of architecture


2001.03.10 10:48
Re: George Washington's Presidential...
I recently read four chapters on the 'preservation' of 'historic' Philadelphia (temporary capital of the United States 1790-1800) in L. Mumford's Highway and the City. I actually found out about these texts from John Young vis-à-vis 'talk' about reenactment and "re" words. It seems that Mumford was lecturing at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1940s and that was when the historic districts around Independence Hall (actually the Pennsylvania State House) were being newly planned and 'preserved'. I was surprised at how unprecedented American historic preservation was at that time, and then how the preservation actions taken in Philadelphia in turn set America's historic preservation precedents and standards. Growing up in Philadelphia in the 1960s and going to architecture school here in the 1970s (the Bicentennial and all that, like Legionnaire's Disease) made one hyper aware of historic preservation; I didn't think then at how 'new' it all was.
Another interesting factor I found out is that half of Philadelphia's historic district is run by the Federal government and half is run by the State of Pennsylvania--I'm pretty sure Independence Hall is still owned by Pennsylvania, and the ruins of the Morris House are within the part run by Pennsylvania as well.
Like Franklin Court (a few blocks away) designed by Venturi and Rauch in the early 1970s, the Robert Morris House is just another example of Philadelphia's great collection of premiere virtual houses.
You'd think I'd seen it all here too many times already, but the truth is that with each recent visit to Philadelphia's Historic National Park (the area run by the Federal government) I become more impressed by it each time I'm there. Maybe it's because I'm getting older myself and like to see things that endure time, but I also think it's because a nice job was done in the first place. Independence Mall (the area run by Pennsylvania) was oddly dear to me as well, even though most didn't like it because it really was lifeless, thus it is now being redone. Maybe the best plan for the Mall now is for it to be redone every twenty years or so--American [metabolic] Dreaming at its best?

2001.08.14
notes
06. gourmet aesthetic -- Huff; deconstruct "Geometry"
14. A completion of Hurva; holding up the roof.
15. Do I now make other Kahn completions?


2001.09.13 14:58
Philadelphia churches, etc.
Louis I. Kahn taught his masters architecture class within the Furness Library at the University of Pennsylvania. Kahn refused to teach within the then new (modern) facility of the Graduate School of Fine Arts. Kahn greatly admired Furness.


2001.10.20 15:47
went traveling to hyper-reality
Earlier today I took lots of pictures of architecture in and near Philadelphia by Venturi Scott Brown & Associates. VSBA's latest (1996-2000) local project is actually in Camden, New Jersey, the Camden Children's Garden, which is also the entrance to the New Jersey State Aquarium. The best shot I took [inactive link] there was from the top floor of the parking structure across from the entrance--the Aquarium Entrance and Children's Garden and Philadelphia's downtown skyline across the Delaware River.
Yesterday I went to the Philadelphia Zoo, specifically to take pictures of the 'Treehouse' which is also a VSBA project from 1980-84. This is a children's play (like animals) environment fitted within the old elephant house, an original zoo building by George Wattson Hewitt, 1876
I know the Treehouse is very much the work of Steven Izenour, and I'm betting the Camden Children's Garden is also very much an Izenour work.
I'm now wondering if anyone has done a study on the role of children vis-à-vis the designing of hyper-realities.


2001.11.10 16:39
Louis Kahn's son
Here's part of an email an architect friend of mine sent a few days ago:
Speaking of Kahn, I don't know if you are getting The New Yorker again. There is an article in the recent issue on him by Paul Goldberger. A particularly interesting section of the article talks about where Kahn lived in Philadelphia growing up. Kahn had two mistresses. I knew about Anne Tyng but the other was Harriet Pattison with whom he had a son, Nathaniel. He is making a documentary about his dad, and filming both at his buildings and where he lived in Philadelphia. Here is an excerpt from the article:
"As part of his film project, Nathaniel, along with his producer, Susan Behr, visited the neighborhood Kahn grew up in, an area just north of downtown Philadelphia called Northern Liberties, which has diagonal streets, narrow alleys, freestanding houses, and, most striking of all, a number of red brick factory buildings. When Nathaniel and Susan (the film's producer) walked through the streets of Northern Liberties, it became clear that the roots of Kahn's style are not in Rome but much closer to home. The big factories are remarkably like many of Kahn's buildings. One of them has large square windows and a sliced-off corner, and it looks for all the world like the exterior of the library Kahn designed for Phillips Exeter Academy. The most unusual industrial structure in Northern Liberties has a kind of zigzagging façade of brick and a series of open loggias, like brick-enclosed balconies, set into the façade, with solid brick walls behind them. The brick window openings are topped by concrete lintels. It is a composition of light and shadow, solid and void, with a solemn grace.
The similarities between the factory buildings in Northern Liberties and the architecture Kahn designed, not only at Exeter but also in India and Bangladesh and elsewhere, are too great to be accidental. The impression the old buildings made on Kahn could have been unconscious, or perhaps he carried it around with him knowingly, afraid for years to make much of it. Nathaniel, who went to Northern Liberties in search of a personal connection to his father, seems to have come back with a scholarly insight."
I've never heard Northern Liberties quoted as an influence in his work before, have you? Might be an area for an interesting photo trip to look at those factories.

2001.11.10 20:51
Re: Louis Kahn's son
That Kahn also had a son and a second mistress is all news to me. I imagine most of my teachers at college knew of the situation, but it was never a topic I heard discussed. Anyway, 'great' architects are mostly portrayed as gods throughout architectural education, you know, the ones we should emulate. I guess it would kind of be illegal to portray polygamy as one more 'architectural' aspect to emulate.
What really bothers me though is the notion that Kahn's architecture being inspired by his youthful surroundings is now seen as some new insight. The truth of the matter is that North Philadelphia was jam packed with an incredible collection of 19th century industrial architecture. Sadly, a lot of it is now gone, and virtually none of it was ever appreciated. For me, it was riding the old Reading train line into town through North Philadelphia that provided one of Philadelphia's best architectural tours. [This train route is now called the R8, and it still runs regularly, but many of the old factories are now gone.] I guess what I'm trying to say is that apparently there were and still are great buildings in North Philadelphia (akin to Exeter Library, no less), but, because they are not designed by someone famous, they are not noticed. Why isn't this architectural greatness recognized all along? Is it perhaps architectural education itself that somehow makes us less observant? Or has it always been that nothing is worth it until some article or book says it is?


2001.12.01 12:46
Re: eHomes
There have been times in the past (and sometimes still on occasion) when I thought that one's own electro-magnetic waves either meshed well with computers or they didn't. Early on, I even wondered whether different musics meshed well with computers or not. When I first worked with CAD at Cooper Pratt Vallhonrat Architects (1983), the big two-screen INTERGRAPH workstation was run by a PDP-11 (a pre-VAX mainframe about the size of two small refrigerators). All this hardware was in the same room/space somewhat partitioned from the rest of the drafting room. The other architects in the firm did not use CAD, but they always had to walk past the back of the PDP-11 to get from the front of the office to their desks. Everytime Carles Vallhonrat walked by there was a slight blip on the screen. I only noticed this because it actually happened most of the time. Carles was a true Kahn disciple (as in project architect of Salk Institute), he taught at Princeton at the time, and wasn't really happy about his situation at CPV Architects. Plus, although he never said so publicly, I believe he hated what CAD was doing to an otherwise traditional architectural office. I should also mention that Carles continually worked at projecting a strong personal character. Could it be that Carles' otherwise unseen electro-magnetics was at least registered by the PDP-11? After I told my CAD co-worker about the Carles/screen blip coincidences, he started watching for occurrences himself. Within a day of observation, Bernie confirmed that the computer system does appear to 'notice' whenever Carles is around.

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