Designing with Ruins in Post-Industrial Appalachia
This reading list is inspired by the Nuttallburg Studio, taught at the University of Virginia in the spring of this year and named as a winner of the 2017 Studio Prize awarded by Architect Magazine. The pedagogical charge of the studio was the exploration on construction, but our engagement was not the conventional one. The studio was not about “developing” a design. It was not about “detailing” a concept. It was not about carrying the larger of ideas of the building into the small. It was rather about the simultaneous pursuit of a design from both of its scalar ends, about beginning with both the large and the small, about working from the material to the form and the form to the material, about starting simultaneously with a detail and a concept. It was a process in which the inner life of materials, the varying levels of craftsmanship and the structural nature of the building were not considerations but determinants.
The site of this exploration were the industrial ruins of a coal mine ghost town in Nuttallburg, West Virginia. It is a site charged with history: of labor unrest, hazardous working conditions, racial prejudice, and the economic imprisonment of a company town. But the use of industrial ruins was an opportunity to introduce, from the beginning of design, an awareness of the materiality and tectonics of a building system.
Students began with two separate, simultaneous exercises: one developing a programmatic response to the site through an engagement with its ruined fragments; and an exercise developing, through the study of joints, a building system to construct it.
This process grew out of certain assumptions:
(1) That we should use the raw material of our world however mundane. That this material is no less evocative and valuable than Piranesi’s Rome. That what is overlooked is what is central.
(2) That we understand a building not just as a text or symbol but as a body like ourselves, subject to gravity and stress. That we see not just its form, but that we feel the impact on it of natural forces and the stresses they create below the surface.
(3) That a building must contain the mark of the craftsman. That however technically sophisticated, digitally produced, or perfectly configured that building may be, the seamless, jointless, flawless, and perfectly formed assembly is not desirable even if it is possible.
(4) That design must begin by both assembling and constructing as well as shape finding. That the architect must simultaneously be bricoleur and engineer.
These assumptions were built upon the readings collected below, which fall roughly into four categories: Rhopography; Empathy; Ruins; and Material and Craft.
[Image shows a section from “Cliff-Side Dwelling,” designed as part of the studio by Joseph Brookover, University of Virginia.]
Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting
In this study of still life painting, Bryson defines rhopography as ¨the depiction of those things which lack importance, the unassuming material base of life that importance constantly overlooks.¨ Once narrative is vanished, the unimportant objects are then depicted with the greatest degree of refinement, and still life painting becomes an activity ruled only by the internal search for quality.
Species of Spaces and Other Pieces
Perec’s modern classic is a reevaluation of the rhopographic sensibility. It is a text about the importance of the everyday in opposition to the extraordinary. The depiction of these trivial and infra-ordinary things, more closely related to our real experience of the world, will be from that moment the base of his radical literary method.
In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life
The rhopographic focus is applied here to archaeological research. Deetz faces the difficulties in developing an archaeological work in a place, North America, where great ruins of past civilizations cannot be found. He states the importance of the findings of small quotidian objects and their use for the reconstruction of past stages of American culture.
Prolegomena to a Psychology of Architecture
Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893
University of Chicago Press
The art histories of Heinrich Wölfflin were once common textbooks. Once we entered the era of the building as text, Wölfflin fell by the wayside, and something was lost in the process. In Wölfflin’s view we do not read buildings so much as we feel them. We understand buildings by empathy. Because we understand the effect of gravity in our bodies we understand the forces, real or perceived, in a building. This kind of empathy is, in its way, an aesthetics of structural rationalism.
Motion, Emotion, and Empathy in Esthetic Experience
Trends in Cognitive Science
Paired with David Pye's The Nature of Art and Workmanship below.
The Nature and Art of Workmanship
We are told on a frequent basis that the true aesthetic revolution of our time is in cognitive psychology, that we can now scientifically measure aesthetic reactions. While this remains for many a dubious proposition, it has produced some interesting conclusions: one of which is that Wölfflin was right, and that we are genetically programmed to understand the structure of a building in an empathetic way. Equally seductive is Gallese’s argument that we are programmed to respond to the mark of the tool, and that we have an empathetic connection with the carpenter, the sculptor, or the mason through the marks that they leave. In the digital age, the desirability of perfection in joints and surfaces is assumed, but if we are predisposed to prefer the imperfections of what Pye called “the craftsmanship of risk,” then it is an assumption in need of reexamination.
Principles of Art History: The Four Phases of Architectural Style, 1420-1900
Paired with Geoffrey Scott's The Architecture of Humanism below.
The Architecture of Humanism
W. W. Norton
Since the studio was in large part about joints this list ought to contain a definitive work on the subject, but there is no such work. Scott and Frankl will have to suffice because they are about what the joints create: the part. Scott emphasizes the need for anthropomorphic elements in a structure, a quality not limited to the Classicism he advocates. Frankl explains how the understanding of parts leads not just to the understanding of a structure but the society that produced it. This is achieved not through symbolic association, but by an understanding of the various types of equilibrium that an assembly of parts can create. This of course is an essential condition for the types of understanding Wölfflin describes.
Time Matter(s): Invention and Re-imagination in Built Conservation
Architecture has been always a palimpsest over the ruins of the past. This is true conceptually but also materially. Goffi addresses this idea using the simultaneous construction and destruction of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, describing how the old building survives precisely due to its destruction by the new one. This links with Aby Warburg's concept of Nachleben (afterlife or survival) and with the idea of ruin as the counterpart to construction.
It has been forty-five years since Rykwert’s On Adams House in Paradise, but the seductive power of the primitive hut remains. Nagel and Wood examine a variety of similar phenomena - the existence of the original building in the larger architectural complex, whether by the inclusion of spolia or the recreation of the original. The appeal of the primitive hut, of course, is that it offers an alternative source of form than the fickle, unstable, and constantly moving avant-garde, presenting instead a version of architecture at its point of origin, however fictive.
The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America
Oxford University Press
Leo Marx’s 1964 work is another book that has fallen out of the canon. His long list of writers who described the anxieties created by the sudden, disturbing appearance of the industrial object in the wilderness landscape, from Emerson to Fitzgerald, seems a distant memory in the age of the Anthropocene. But while the marriage of the mechanical and the organic, of the merging of the machine with the garden, may have taken place in the minds of contemporary philosophers and cultural historians, it has not taken place in the realities of contemporary construction - in which the distinction between machines and organisms is still quite real.
IV: MATERIAL AND CRAFT
The Savage Mind
University of Chicago Press
The work of the engineer is to distinguish between the contingent and the necessary. The bricoleur, by contrast, turns the contingent into the necessary and adapts needs to contingency. Levi-Strauss writes: “The scientist (and engineer) creates events (changing the world) by means of structures and the bricoleur creating structures by means of events (…) The aesthetical emotion is the result of this union between the structural order and the order of events.”
Yale University Press
Sennett’s book considers technique as a cultural issue. Sennett defines a craftsman as a person who makes any work well for its own sake - someone who looks for excellence. The author then warns of the dangers of obsession, competitive pressure, and frustration that can prevent us from achieving excellence.
In Praise of Shadows
This is one of the first books in which all the maxims established by the modern architectural movement are contravened. Tanizaki values darkness more than profusion of natural light, appreciates the patina of time and even dirt more than modern hygiene and asepsis, and prefers the a-functionality of the Japanese latrines located outside the house to the modern bathrooms imported from the West.
Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek
W. W. Norton
Paired with N. K. Smith's Frank Lloyd Wright: A Study in Architectural Content below.
Frank Lloyd Wright: A Study in Architectural Content
Boman argues that Western thought contains within it two concepts of form. The first is the Greek or Platonic, in which the world is composed of imperfect manifestations of ideal forms - a world in which baseballs, grapefruit, and billiard balls are imperfect manifestations of a sphere. Thus, the Ionic order is the same, whether in marble or fiberglass. The other is the Hebraic or Biblical, in which form has no existence apart from material, thus an altar of copper is not the same as an altar of wood. N. K. Smith uses Boman’s thesis as the basis of his understanding of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright as an architecture in which form is found in the nature of materials. It is easy to find examples contradicting both ideas, but that does not negate the possibility of the concept that Michelangelo first described: that form is always already inside the stone, waiting for us to find it.
The Mind of Primitive Man
Paired with Philippe Descola's Beyond Nature and Culture below.
Beyond Nature and Culture
University of Chicago Press
Boas and Descola, writing ninety-four years apart, describe a world view very different from our own -
animistic societies in which every tree and rock has a soul: whether it is the kami that inhabits the timbers of the Ise shrine, or the spirits inside the columns of a Kwakiutul house. This may border on the mystical, but every craftsman knows that each individual piece of stone or wood has its own personality. This type of thinking would form the basis of a very different type of architecture, and as Descola argues, a more sustainable relationship between ourselves and the natural environment.