“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]

Fragments as seen through the lens

I’m beginning to see different aspects of the Art Building – over time now that it is completed and I am able to pause and really look at it….

This image captures a moment for me where there is a condensing of experiences – the perception of physical space is folded, fragmented – partially transparent, partially reflected. Fuzzy edges – as has been coined by Steven Holl… might be exemplified by this photographic moment.

Such is the fragmented experience throughout the building. I do not perceive a final “center” focus… one space is always shifting, leading to the next space, revealing different gazing opportunities – always something around the corner. The experience of being in the building is orchestrated – suggesting a dialogue of program with the site, lagoon, bluff and of self. One can’t help but notice a constant reference – that of looking back at the building from various locations. There is a certain healthy self consciousness that develops I think.

More to come on this later…

Intersecting Images: UPDATE: Cover: Art Building U of Iowa

On O.M.A. and Joshua Prince-Ramus

Mr. Prince-Ramus said

“It’s about a Darwinistic approach to ideas, not where they come from,” he added. “The issue of authorship becomes less and less important.”

From: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/arts/design/14pogr.html

Glenn Murcutt – Lecture at ISU

Went to a presentation last night by Glenn Murcutt – a burst of inspiring energy – borderline mania – an intense display of excitement where the words and pictures simply did not seem to come fast enough for Mr. Murcutt. It was thrilling.

Some paraphrased notes I came away with that I think are relevant from Mr. Murcutt’s work…

Nurture and value the Process….. a product will follow.

Know where you are ….. in as many ways of knowing as possible Culture, people, what works, basics….means, methods, economics, materials….environment – sun, wind, rain, …..spring, summer, fall, winter…..day, night, dawn, dusk…. these are the important things.

Be “in” the place where you are it’s more healthy for all of us, our children and their children….

Draw pictures – the brain…the hand ….the eye.

People understand pictures.

Architects use tools like plans, sections, elevations – to document pictures of places.

Look around you and learn to read and understand what you see from the landscape – learn why the nature you observe is the shape that it is….

It’s been said before, but it is the substance of the work of Mr. Murcutt that is way beyond the current market’s notion of sustainability and “green”. The work is beyond style and fashion – in my opinion – it is the kind of work that should be understood more fully. The basic notions he investigates are core principles that we need to understand to move beyond questions of style and fashion.

Skillful and selective photography – Finnish Modern Architectural Production

Reposted from HELSINGIN SANOMAT
INTERNATIONAL EDITION – CULTURE

Skillful and selective photography helped establish legend of Finnish architecture
Slovenian expert studies modernism of 1950s and ‘60s

By Anu Uimonen

“Finnish architecture was promoted in foreign countries in the 1950s and 1960s deliberately and very efficiently”, says Petra Ceferin, an architect and researcher from Slovenia.
“This is not very extensively known, because Finnish architects have a reputation for ‘not talking’. In fact, these ‘silent men’ were quite successful in promoting their work.”
Ceferin became immersed in the marketing of Finnish architecture when she wanted to find out how the concept “modern Finnish architecture” was born – or made.
“When I studied architecture, Finnish modern architecture was an important model which architects in Slovenia took to heart. For instance, we studied Alvar Aalto as a modernist who managed to preserve a human set of values.”

Ceferin’s curiosity was awakened, and after graduating in Ljubljana in 1995 she decided to go to Finland. She enrolled at the Department of Architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology in 1996.
During seven years that she spent in Finland, Ceferin wrote her doctoral thesis Constructing a Legend: The International Exhibitions of Finnish Architecture 1957-1967. Now the material used in the thesis has been set up as an exhibition at the Museum of Finnish Architecture. An important part of the exhibition architecture by Roy Mänttäri is in the posters and structures of old exhibitions.
“I am very happy that the exhibition is at the Museum of Finnish Architecture, because it was this same museum that organised the exhibitions of Finnish architecture in other countries that I studied.”
In other words, it is the museum that established a legend.

In the ten-year period that Ceferin investigated for her thesis, the Museum of Finnish Architecture organised nine overall exhibitions of Finnish architecture which were on display in 36 locations in different countries.
“The head of the museum Kyösti Ålander was efficient, and the result was an excellent set of exhibitions.”
“I was interested in what kind of an image of Finnish architecture the exhibitors wanted to project”, Ceferin says. “It was always very carefully planned.”
Each of the nine exhibitions had a jury, whose members were named by the museum and the Finnish Association of Architects. However, each year the buildings to be exhibited were very similar to one another.

A total of about 50 buildings were on display, about 30 of which were shown several times. Each of the nine exhibitions got 11 buildings.
“It is clear that if you want to have a strong exhibition, you have to make choices. In Finland the choice was to emphasise modernism, which was much appreciated.”
“At the same time it was clear that most of the architecture produced in Finland was excluded from the exhibitions. Many important architects were not a part of Finnish architecture in any way.”
Ceferin also studied buildings that were not included. The production of Alvar Aalto in the 1950s was represented well in all exhibitions, but his output from the 1960s was hardly on display at all. The Porthania building at the University of Helsinki, by Aarne Ervi, who is now highly esteemed, was also not on display.
The decorative architecture of the 1940s was not accepted; Kyösti Ålander dismissed it as a “swamp of subjectivism, from which we got back to the narrow but strong path of progressive development”.

Photographers had a very special role in the creation of the image of Finnish architecture. The magnificent black-and-white photographs show their subjects detached from their surroundings, almost as abstract compositions of form, light, and shadow.
It was sometimes difficult to say on the basis of interior photographs what the purpose of the building was, because they were clinically clean – with no people or animals. The pictures of facades did not reveal how the buildings were linked with the older urban surroundings. Only the building itself was brought out, and neighbouring structures were cropped out of the picture. When necessary, bothersome details were eliminated by retouching.

The idea was to present the buildings as “absolute architecture”.
“But the relationship between architecture and nature was important for Finns”, Ceferin says.
If nature was not appropriately available, the photographer’s assistant might have held the branch of a tree in front of the camera in order to achieve the right kind of effect.
“The Finnish promotion activities were very successful”, Ceferin says. She has read many articles on the Finnish exhibitions in foreign architectural journals.
“There was much written about the exhibitions. At first the focus was on traditional Finland stereotypes: distance, easterly location, quiet lakes, endless forests, dark winters, and the summer midnight sun. But gradually the tone changed, and people began to write about Finland as a modern, technologically advanced country.”

It is just this kind of a raising of the image of Finland that was the aim of the state-financed architectural exhibitions. Finland’s international reputation in design had been achieved somewhat earlier with the famous so-called “Miracle of Milan”, and now it was architecture’s turn.
The timing was perfect.
“In the 1950s, there was a yearning in the centres of international modernism for some regionalism – a different kind of modernism. Finland was a magnificent case in point. One can say that Finland was needed”, Petra Ceferin laughs.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 14.9.2005

The exhibition of Finnish architecture as seen in foreign exhibitions in 1957 – 1967 will be on display at the Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki at Kasarmikatu 24. Opening hours Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM, Wednesdays 10:00 AM – 8:00 PM.