Outlines and dark reveals

There’s significance in an outline, especially a black one. Van Gogh began painting objects and subjects with a heavy outline after discovering an aesthetic affinity for Japanese woodcuts, which used the same technique in a flattened space. Consider the pool table in The Night Café (Yale University Art Gallery, 1888), or the coat in Self-portrait with bandaged ear and pipe (private collection, 1889).

In sculpture and architecture, outlines are less common. Objects are three dimensional, after all, why would they require an outline? Yet in buildings where outlines are present, something magical happens: dimensions mix—2D and 3D intertwine. There’s an optical game at play. The world around you becomes a cartoonish, surreal hyper-reality wherein objects gain greater clarity and space recedes. This is a trope in Neil Denari’s work, where dark reveals create outlines at planar junctions. He used this technique in the Alan-Voo House, Endeavor Offices, and L.A. Eyeworks (projects completed 2007, 2004, and 2002 respectively, all located in Los Angeles). At the MUFG sites in Japan, the dark outline is replaced with dark wood against white walls. Another example is a façade restoration of a baroque church in Rome. Sadly, in 2004, when I took this picture I did not record its name. If you recognize it, please let me know; it inspired this post. With black baseboards and an outlined ceiling, The Museum of the City of New York’s lobby displays a similar effect, as shown here with Denari’s “Vert-Eco,” (if you click through) exhibited in 2008.


The subject of the physical outline or reveal, a literal dark boundary painted onto or carved into an object or surface, seems an interesting site to mine—not for meaning, but for progenitors and effects. Perhaps this is the result of the intensely virtual life we live, amongst so many video games with well-defined edges.

He who thinks great thoughts

Now that classes have ended it’s time to return to my research with renewed force. To prepare my brain for the delightful onslaught of knowledge, I watched some documentaries about modern philosophy and modern philosophers. Renewing creative force via distracted absorption is advice directly taken from my Inspiration and Authorship lecture. These films remind me why I care about the intellectual’s life, and why I choose to function this way in the world.

He who thinks great thoughts often makes great errors.

The quote above is Martin Heidegger, and begins a 1999 BBC documentary, Heidegger: Thinking the Unthinkable, which is part of the series Human All Too Human, itself the title of one of Nietzsche’s texts. The film is slow-paced but insightful, the quote above presented as a partial apology for the fact that this great thinker was a Nazi. I try to block that out when enjoying his work, but it’s ever-present. The film can be seen on Google video.

Astra Taylor’s documentary Examined Life (ZeitgeistFilms, 2009) is a set of short conversations with renowned contemporary philosophers who explain either the kernel of their work or reflect on some critical question of our age. My favorite thing about this film is that Taylor decided to interview each philosopher while he or she walks or moves through space. In the New York Times’ article about Examined Life (“Thinkers in Transit, Philosophy in Motion,” Feb 20, 2009), Taylor mentions this idea came to her after reading Wanderlust, a ‘discursive’ look at the history of walking, by Rebecca Solnit. I’ll have to check that out. The notion that motion changes an individual, liberates them, is an intriguing one. As a source of inspiration, Examined Life delivers. I had to pause it several times to jot down incoming thoughts. Here’s the trailer.

Architecture pop songs

During the fall semester my graduate students engaged in an internal competition to design and build an outdoor pavilion using only recycled cardboard. One student, who owns a programmable remote camera, snapped pictures of the build at 30 second intervals. He then made a video by stringing the images together and setting them to music. I was hoping for “We Built this City [on rock and roll]” by Jefferson Starship (released by Grunt in 1985), but the students chose a different soundtrack.

I started to wonder, how many popular songs exist which feature architecture as a core lyrical element? I thought of “Our House” (Madness, The Rise and Fall, Stiff Records, 1982), and “Burning Down the House”  (Talking Heads, Speaking in Tongues, Warner Brothers, 1983), but was at a loss for notable others. “Welcome to the Jungle,” Guns n’ Roses’ song about Hollywood, doesn’t count, because it’s more sociological then architectural (Appetite for Destruction, Geffen Records, 1987).

I’d like to gather a playlist of architecture pop songs. Please post your ideas.

Bathroom stall design

I recently had the pleasure of attending the National Conference on the Beginning Design Student [NCBDS] hosted by UNC-Charlotte. I had a ball meeting new friends and learning new pedagogical techniques. Just prior to the opening night’s keynote by Simon Unwin, participants had a chance to wander around Mario Botta’s new Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. Included in my wandering was the ladies’ room, where I took some photos of the frosted glass bathroom stall:




As you can see, there is nowhere in this 8 foot high stall where a prying eye might see you. In your average bathroom stall, however, there are gaps all over the place, like between the door and the partition on both sides. Two of my lady students, one from Calcutta and the other from Tehran, asked me during a chance rendez-vous in the University bathroom why these gaps exist. I couldn’t explain. I’ve heard the theory that the purpose of these gaps is for authority figures to make sure only one person occupies a single stall at a single time. Clearly, if this is true, it’s only true in the United States. Such thoughts remind me to look around for tiny webcams whenever I enter a public bathroom. Point 1 for voyeurism.

Was Vitruvius the first architecture theorist?

Victoria Meyers, principal at hanrahanMeyers, came to the University of Hartford to speak in our department lecture series on April 8, 2010. She mentioned Vitruvius in passing, relating that his first book was devoted to weather and solar geometry. She pointed out that as Vitruvius was the first architecture theorist, then the first treatise on architecture ever written notably deals with a building’s local climate. As Meyers’ work consistently takes advantage natural light, this is of great interest to her. What interests me is to probe the validity of Vitruvius as the ur theorist of built space.

Most Americans receive a Euro-centric education and generally do not stop to wonder if their beliefs hold true for other cultures, for other peoples, in other parts of the world. I once asked Peter Eisenman if his analytical drawing techniques would prove useful with Eastern architectural prototypes, and he replied yes, citing the Japanese ken as a geometric measure with fixed internal ratios, just like those of classical architecture. Had he actually considered the point before? When one speaks of the first of some thing, or the oldest, its important to consider the entire history of the world, not just Western history. China’s culture is far older than antiquity, with some scholars dating Chinese script to the Neolithic period. Isn’t it more rational, then, to assume that it is in the East where the earliest treatise on architecture can be found?

The uncanny of Wes Anderson

Last night I watched Fantastic Mr Fox, directed by Wes Anderson (Twentieth Century Fox, released 2009). It’s based on a story by Roald Dahl, heavily altered by Anderson. Fantastic is a puppet movie, which is fun in itself, and it’s voiced by some great Anderson regulars (Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman), with a sprinkle of A-list actors, namely George Clooney and Meryl Streep who voice Mr and Mrs Fox. Most of the film’s characters, in fact, are woodland creatures, like Fox, Badger, and Weasel, who wear clothes and walk on their hind legs.

Anderson’s films are always quirky, and often dark, not unlike movies by the Cohen Brothers. After watching, I began to reflect on the uncanny moments in Fantastic. Take for instance the character of the Lone Wolf, who appears only briefly, and who doesn’t speak English like the other animals. Continue reading The uncanny of Wes Anderson