“Plain Beauty of Well-Made Things”

I came across an article today “The Plain Beauty of Well-Made Things” ,  by Karen Stein via The Design Observer.

Exterior of former artillery shed adapted by Donald Judd to house his 100 works milled in aluminum, Marfa, Texas – source

Stein’s proposition “…that architecture is made not just by architects…” is spot on in my opinion. The question is explored through her writing about Donald Judd.   The challenge to consider – “what is or is not architecture” (and perhaps by extension – who “is or is not an architect”)  is an old question for sure, but it is interesting to see it explored in her writing and through the lens of an artist such as Donald Judd. I think there is a corollary to photography – that photography is not made just by photographers… Perhaps that is quite an acceptable (and obvious) statement – though sometimes, I wonder…

Something touched upon in the article – to consider; refers to Judd’s writing – to be aware of the effects of separating “art from non-art”. Perhaps another careful consideration correlates to the sometimes opposed idea of “fine art photography and the snapshot”…  that it may be more interesting to think along the lines of distinction as a matter of degrees between “forms of art and non-art”…  The context of a person’s intention and the context of which one encounters that form – obviously comes into play… Above, the apparent found condition of an artillery shed – modified by Judd with the curious addition of a tin metal quonset hut above.

Tin Snips - Walker Evans

Tin ships, by J. Wiss & Sons Co. $1.85 – photograph by Walker Evans

With admitted sense of irony, it got me to thinking about photographs by Walker Evans – from the portfolio of  “The Beauty of Common Tools” published in Fortune Magazine – June 1955. Original web source of image via http://www.fulltable.com/VTS/n.htm – Dr. Chris Mullen The Visual Telling of Stories, illustration, design, film, narrative sequences, magazines, books, prints etc”

I think the text accompanying Evan’s photo essay (noted above) deserves to be quoted here:

Among low-priced, factory-produced goods, none is so appealing to the senses as the ordinary hand tool. Hence, a hardware store is a kind of offbeat museum show for the man who responds to good, clear “undesigned” forms.  The Swedish steel pliers pictured above, with their somehow swanlike flow, and the objects on the following pages, in all there tough simplicity, illustrate this. Aside from their functions – though they are exclusively wedded to function- each of these tools lures the eye to follow its curves and angels, and invites the hand to test its balance.

Who would sully the lines of the tin-cutting shears … with a single added bend or whorl? Or clothe in any way the fine naked impression of heft and bite in the crescent wrench…  To be sure, some design-happy manufacturers have tampered with certain tool classics; the beautiful plumb bob, which used to come naively and solemnly shaped like a child’s top, now looks suspiciously like a toy space ship, and is no longer brassy. But not much can be done to spoil a crate opener, that nobly ferocious statement in black steel…  In fact, almost all the basic small tools stand, aesthetically speaking, for elegance, candor, and purity. – W.E.

Aspiring to understand why some utility objects or buildings, unadorned (or not quite unadorned) – yet quite deliberately designed and engineered – seem to cross the boundary in some contexts between art and non-art objects or forms…  What role does photography play in this? What is it that distinguishes some photographs from others? The qualities of a photograph that bring appreciation to those things that occur quite naturally and unassumingly from “out there” in the world?  The degree to which the image causes a distinction among possible images which allow me – or even better – cause me to pause and consider, to notice, to observe – to recognize how I interpret them…?

On the surface – Grit of fact, Allure of fiction

What a wonderful way to consider the potential surface of a photograph:

“… the grit of fact and the allure of fiction.”

See (and hear) more about Jeff Wall and his work here at SFMOMA
And this photo of the Barcelona Pavilion –


Morning Cleaning – Jeff Wall

Mr. Wall calculated his double intentions and the interests of his photograph in a very eloquent and revealing way:

“…cleaning is mysterious, since it is a labor that erases itself if it is successful.” – Jeff Wall.

The pavilion – the “site” of Walls photograph above – is itself a reproduction of the original pavilion designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as the German National Pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition.

It is interesting to consider Wall’s photographic work in the context of one of the most influential objects of “modern” architecture – the Mies pavilion “original” only existed relatively briefly – about a year actually, but what became of that brief existence is an overwhelming influence upon a “modern” architecture. Work began in 1983 and the new building was opened on its original site in 1986 completely re-assembled and reconstituted. A “complete” replication of the original. Explore more about the pavilion here.


Reflection of Alba (Dawn) by Georg Kolbe
35 mm slide from a 1990 – a visit to the pavilion
Matt Niebuhr

UPDATE: Cover: Art Building U of Iowa

UPDATE: Steven Holl – interviewed by Charlie Rose. I was very happy and excited to see a bit of the University of Iowa’s new Art Building be a part of the noted work discussed in the interview by Charlie Rose. I have to say that having been a part of the team for the Art Building and from the architect-of-record point of view, this was one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences I’ve had. I think it is important to note how many times Mr. Holl refers to “we” or “us” when describing the process. It begins with a strong idea that a group can work upon and with.

The “we” expands and contracts of course throughout process but ultimately boils down to recognizing the power of a strong client / architect / builder – with these three willful partners in this process a lot of great work and ideas can be accomplished.

Well, it’s fun to see your work, whether it’s a photograph, or a project, or both/and – published.

Art Building – School of Art and Art History, University of Iowa
Steven Holl Architects – Design Architect (Project link)
HLKB Architecture – Architect of Record

More photo’s of the project here

A review by Blair KaminChicago Tribute architecture critic here in ArchRecord (full article in January 2007 ArchRecord magazine).

Best experienced as is all good architecture… in person…

Intersecting Images: Fragments [as seen through the lens]