Pamphlet Architecture: Visions and Experiments in Architecture
On View‘T’ Space
September 4–October 16, 2022
How does architecture bring us closer to utopia? Most architects don’t address this question. They’re too busy being professional. Yet the question nags some architects, or so I gathered from Pamphlet Architecture: Visions and Experiments in Architecture, an exhibition on view this past October at ‘T’ Space, a building in the wooded hills near Rhinebeck, New York. Physically compact, the show was vast for the imagination. At its center stood a reading table covered with copies of Pamphlet Architecture, the publication launched in 1977 by the architect Steven Holl and his colleague William Stout. On the walls and in corners of ‘T’ Space’s luminous interior were images and models by the four finalists in an open-call challenge to address several questions, among them “How to design new architecture for a new consciousness?” Impossible to answer, one might say, and one would be right. But the point of the question was not to elicit a definitive answer to a clearly formulated question. It was to say: architecture is about ultimate things, most of which we can’t know in advance, so feel free to take an intuitive shot at something that matters deeply to you. The possibility of utopia, for example.
That something like utopia is possible, however remotely, was the never explicitly enunciated article of faith that inspired Pamphlet Architecture and sustained it through thirty-six wildly disparate iterations. “We were interested in idealistic architecture,” Holl said in a recent conversation about the project’s beginnings. “So we had plans for buildings but no commissions. The mainstream architectural magazines weren’t interested, which meant we had something to say but nowhere to say it. The pamphlets met that need, and as the series continued, from year to year, real interest developed.”
Pamphlet Architecture 13, entitled Edge of a City, presents Holl’s plans for remodeling the outskirts of Milan, Manhattan, Phoenix, and three other metropolises. Each plan is monumental, surprising, and alive to its site. Thus the editor of this pamphlet says that Holl’s projects are “idealistic” but not utopian, a distinction that turns on an important point: utopias are non-places; that is the meaning of the word. Except for Ken Kaplan and Ted Krueger, whose Pamphlet Architecture 14 unfurls a brilliantly acerbic diatribe against the business of architecture-as-usual, the visionaries who contributed to the series ground their visions in specific places; their proposals are anchored, to borrow a word from a 1988 statement by Holl, which insists that “architecture and site should have an experiential connection, a metaphysical link, a poetic link.” Hence he and his fellow pamphleteers are not, strictly speaking, utopians. Yet they all have the optimism, the belief in tangible human progress, that animated Thomas More’s detailed account of the original Utopia or Nowhere (1516) and the imaginary City of the Sun that Tommaso Campanella patterned on the solar system in 1602.
“These lacustrine cities,” says John Ashbery, in a poem by that name, are “forgetful, although angry with history.” Holl and his co-authors were not so much angry with history as exasperated by it. In the 1970s, the architectural profession had taken two divergent paths. One led to the refinement—or attenuation—of a supposedly timeless ideal: pure functionality. This was the modernist path. The other, post-modernist path aimed at ever more incoherent and kitschy conglomerations of bits and pieces of historical styles. Not in the least forgetful of history, the Pamphlet Architecture writers filled the series with oblique reflections on the meaning the past can have for the future.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the French architect Claude Nicolas Ledoux worked on plans for the Ideal City of Chaux, a utopian metropolis defined by rectangular symmetries within symmetries, with an occasional curve. A bird’s eye view of Chaux suggests a plan for one of that era’s rigidly geometric flower gardens. Among the buildings Ledoux designed are a House of Education, a Double House for Two Artists, and a House for a Father and His Three Sons. Ledoux, it seems, expected Platonic clarity to foster learning, artistic creativity, and familial harmony. A comparable clarity shapes the “10 Californian Houses” proposed by Mark Mack in Pamphlet Architecture 2, yet these buildings would not be at home in Ledoux’s Ideal City. Untouched by the slightest trace of a communitarian spirit, each of Mack’s imaginary buildings is isolated on its site. House on a Dam, for example, clings all alone to the upper reaches of the dam’s surface; the condominiums for Highdivers and Surfers stands in seclusion at the edge of a lake.
The plan of Mack’s House for Two Fighting Brothers—a knowing variation on Ledoux’s House for a Father and His Three Sons—is a hollow rectangle as precisely detailed and symmetrical as any building in Chaux except for the barrier of dirt that bisects it and keeps the fighting brothers apart. Mack notes that the dirt can be removed, little by little, “by a daily ritual of small earthworks.” Brotherly reconciliation is possible but not inevitable. If they prefer to remain separated, the fighting brothers will leave the dirt in place. Utopians from Thomas More to Claude Nicolas Ledoux to Walter Gropius and his colleagues at the Bauhaus believed that humanity is perfectible and that smoothly rational form would lead inevitably to that goal. Despite their diversity, the Pamphlet Architecture authors agree on one point: rationality goes only so far. Clearing the way for improvement, visionary design may well inspire us to be as imaginative and resourceful as its creators are, but even the freshest vision guarantees nothing.
The Roman architect Vitruvius claimed that his profession originated with the construction of primitive huts, a notion revived in Ledoux’s time. I’m reminded of this origin story by the “Small Buildings” documented in Pamphlet Architecture 17. Conceived and built by Mike Cadwell, they are all hut-like and all scaled to the human body, which Vitruvius saw as the proper measure of every building, even the grandest. One of Cadwell’s huts stands on a short bridge, another floats on a raft, and still another perches atop a tower. Each is made of untreated lumber and looks, in photographs, eminently habitable. Or, possibly, the architect means these “Small Buildings” as habitations for early memories, those of childhood and of humanity. Vitruvian myth is powerful. Still, history tells us that Cadwell’s structures descend from the vernacular “House Types” documented in Pamphlet Architecture 9 by Steven Holl.
Leaving behind that down-to-earth tradition, Lebbeus Woods imagines, in Pamphlet Architecture 6, a building “journeying outward on a beam of light.” This sublimely quirky monument is his Einstein Tomb. Pamphlet Architecture 6 (1980), an admiring riposte to Étienne-Louis Boulleé’s 1784 Cenotaph for Sir Isaac Newton. Unbuilt and no doubt unbuildable, the Cenotaph’s majestic geometry pays homage to the stern lucidity of Newtonian mechanics. Woods envisions a building whose travels beyond the reach of Newton’s logic will bring it back, after eons, “to the world of its beginning” and “on that remotest day the dark corridors of the infinite will again become thresholds for departure.”
With War and Architecture, published in Pamphlet Architecture 15, Woods returned to earth. Written in 1993, as the destruction of Sarajevo escalated, War and Architecture is a polemic against the efforts to restore bombarded cities. Woods argues that these restorations can never recapture the richness that was destroyed; buildings rebuilt become caricatures of themselves. Worse, they perpetuate architectural forms that mirror society’s hierarchies as well as the ahistorical ideals of authority and power on which those hierarchies rest. “When peace comes to Sarajevo,” says Woods, “the impulse to restore must be resisted.” Whoever the postwar powers turn out to be, they should grant architects the freedom to fill war’s dreadful chasms with new forms. Not obscuring history but acknowledging it, these unprecedented responses to disaster will inspire “new ways of thinking, living, and shaping space, arising from individuality and invention.”
Ashbery’s “lacustrine cities … are the product of an idea: that man is horrible.” Noting that humanity can indeed be horrible, Woods argues in War and Architecture that we have nonetheless a talent for self-redemption—and architecture can be its medium. In their various ways, the Pamphlet Architecture writers all espouse this tentative utopianism. And Holl must have felt it when he invited young architects “to design new architecture for a new consciousness.” At ‘T’ Space, presentations by the competition’s finalists looked like the tips of four extremely complex icebergs. Conveniently, each display was accompanied by a QR code that led to the contestant’s website.
Valeria Rachel Herrera’s Suspended Reflections I, II, and III (all 2017) fill large sheets of mylar with layered accumulations of architecture’s basic elements: lines, angles, planes. Order is elusive for she rejects “notions of the ideal” and “the reductive,” cultivating in their place “conditions of fragmentation, distortion, contradiction, and instability.” The point is not to celebrate chaos but to point the way toward an architecture in sympathy with the world’s contingencies. Encouraging her pigments to drip, Herrera charges her Reflections with a flickering vitality. (valeriarachelherrera.com)
Lawrence Blough constructs small models of complex buildings—or building complexes—with a preternatural precision that sets them at odds with the jittery grandeur of Herrera’s improvisations. Yet he, too, builds ambiguity into his forms. For Blough, interior and exterior space are continuous and sometimes indistinguishable. As a building defines its site, it is, in turn, defined by it, and sites deemed private intersect with “shared commons.” (graftworks.net) Another finalist is a team, Mark Laverty and Alec McCulloch, British architects who spent the first COVID-19 lockdown in a Victorian house at 12 Chester Street. As far as I could see, they do not name the city where this house stands, either in their ‘T’ Space exhibit or on their website. I may have overlooked it; 12chesterstreet.com is labyrinthine. And their project, The Haunting of Number 12, is a dauntingly detailed account of their investigation into the domicile’s “hidden narratives.” Most architects focus on the immediate present. Utopians, whether traditional or the pragmatic kind found in the pages of Pamphlet Architecture, address the future. Laverty and McColloch examine a complex fragment of the architectural past, looking for connections across time in an era when we are ever more disconnected from one another.
It may not be strictly true that architecture is frozen music, and yet this Goethean catchphrase gets at a distinction as important as it is obvious: one stands still and the other moves through time. A corollary distinction: music is impalpable, whereas architecture offers paradigmatic instances of palpability. Catty Dan Zhang, the winner of the ‘T’ Space competition, does not of course deny the solidity of familiar architectural materials; rather, she adds a new one: the air that fills interiors ordinarily understood as voids. For her, air is an architectural medium in which we immerse ourselves whenever we go indoors, and with her recent work she renders visible its constantly shifting forms. (cattydanzhang.com)
At ‘T’ Space, Zhang showed a selection of elegantly mysterious pieces of hardware, among them a set of wall brackets supporting a cluster of transparent, lidded pods. Now and then, their lids rise in an unpredictable pattern, allowing puffs of vapor to rise into the room. Before it dissipates, each puff is pushed this way or that by currents of ambient, invisible air. Viewers generate some of these currents, in support of Zhang’s argument that, if we include air among architecture’s mediums, our presence in a building does much to shape the building itself—an argument one could expand to include the effects of shifting viewpoints and foci of attention. A selection of Zhang’s startlingly innovative projects will be published in Pamphlet Architecture 37, and thus an enterprise begun in 1977 finds its way into the future.