Surface Reflections, 2013

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‘Tis the season to be wrapping. Wrapping gifts to wrap up the old year, presents to celebrate the present. Architecturally, we’re enjoying a season of wrapping, as well—and more than a season, an age. For me, the earliest hint came in 1987 with Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, the first building I knew that made something of material and technical interest out of the urge toward patternmaking that the Modern Movement had largely suppressed and Postmodernism had tried—with far too much tongue in its cheek and consequently without lasting success—to revive. The Institut’s façade was a tour de force—thousands of stainless steel camera shutters arrayed in patterns that recall the Arabesque blinds known as Mousharabieh and that are designed to open and close in response to the brightness of the day. (“Designed to”—as a colleague and noted wag at RISD remarked at the time, “It’s so French: high-tech and broken.”)
 

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Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 1987, Jean Nouvel, photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (CC BY 2.0); mechanism detail, photo by Serge Melki (CC BY 2.0)


 
I would love to see the drawings and hardware schedules for the Institut du Monde Arabe. We delight now in a wealth of computational facility that had barely begun to emerge at that time. In particular, the seamlessness (note this word) between design and fabrication has transformed building design as fundamentally as the curtain wall did a hundred years previously. In a lovely symmetry, it has returned to us the rich possibilities of the building surface that the curtain wall had stripped away. Or, more accurately, that machine production stripped away, by reversing the material/labor ratio and carrying substantive ornament out of the range of our pocketbooks. Again the lovely symmetry, since it is an advance in machine production—the infinite variation afforded by CNC hardware—that makes solid ornament again possible. We can once more make complex patterns in three dimensions and vary them at will. Consider three projects from the Emerging Talent at this fall’s Monterey Design Conference: Freeland Buck’s Technicolor Bloom, Oyler Wu Collaborative’s Screenplay, and Future Cities Lab’s TriLux.
 
H.H. Richardson, Freeland Buck, Future Cities Lab, William Butterfield, ornament, Kent Bloomer, façade, architecture, digital design, brick, masonry, Grasshopper, Monterey Design Conference, CNC, Oyler Wu Collaborative, Jason Kelly Johnson, Nataly Gattegno, David Freeland, Brennan Buck, Dwayne Oyler, Jenny Wu

Technicolor Bloom, Vienna, Austria, 2008, Freeland Buck, photo by Christof Gaggl


 
H.H. Richardson, Freeland Buck, Future Cities Lab, William Butterfield, ornament, Kent Bloomer, façade, architecture, digital design, brick, masonry, Grasshopper, Monterey Design Conference, CNC, Oyler Wu Collaborative, Jason Kelly Johnson, Nataly Gattegno, David Freeland, Brennan Buck, Dwayne Oyler, Jenny Wu

Screenplay, Los Angeles, 2012, Oyler Wu Collaborative


 
H.H. Richardson, Freeland Buck, Future Cities Lab, William Butterfield, ornament, Kent Bloomer, façade, architecture, digital design, brick, masonry, Grasshopper, Monterey Design Conference, CNC, Oyler Wu Collaborative, Jason Kelly Johnson, Nataly Gattegno, David Freeland, Brennan Buck, Dwayne Oyler, Jenny Wu

TriLux Pavilion, San Francisco, 2011, Future Cities Lab, photo by Peter Prato


 
Lively stuff, and welcome, as so many of our cityscapes could do with some enlivening. Yet, for all of the information deployed so expertly in the algorithms of its production, this work isn’t fully informed. It neglects—and we all tend to neglect—the legacies of urbanism and ornament, each of which is a way of thinking about how something at one scale connects to something at another scale. The problems of the fluidly self-referential construction are found at its bounding scales—the door and the street. How do you put a door in a very curvy building, and how do you put that building into a street? These are questions of field and figure, of pattern and event.

The most thorough accounting of such issues may be in the literature of ornament, much of which comes out of or draws upon late nineteenth century ornamental exuberance—some would say excess—in England, the field of play of George Edmund Street and William Butterfield. Perhaps my favorite detail from the period is a crazy brick pattern of Butterfield’s Keble College at Oxford. It’s not as crazy as the brickwork of All Saints Margaret Street, his most well known building. In fact, it’s a simple thing, just a zigzagging string of light bricks uncoordinated with the rhythm of the windows.
 

H.H. Richardson, Freeland Buck, Future Cities Lab, William Butterfield, ornament, Kent Bloomer, façade, architecture, digital design, brick, masonry, Grasshopper, Monterey Design Conference, CNC, Oyler Wu Collaborative, Jason Kelly Johnson, Nataly Gattegno, David Freeland, Brennan Buck, Dwayne Oyler, Jenny Wu

Keble College, Oxford University, 1870, William Butterfield, photo by Aidan McRae Thomson


 
It could almost be a mistake, except that the building is otherwise so tightly composed. Why Butterfield did it, I don’t know; but I can say what the detail itself does: it creates a virtual surface, slipping across the differently ordered matrix of the façade. (William Butterfield, meet William Gibson. Bill, Bill.) More generally, it suggests the possibility of ambiguity, of multiple readings, of surfaces that are metaphysical as well as physical.

Another favorite example, from this side of the Atlantic, is Sever Hall at Harvard, where H.H. Richardson has managed to make a brick building feel taut. Not something one would expect of brick, and it’s a fascinating puzzle to figure out how it works.

H.H. Richardson, Freeland Buck, Future Cities Lab, William Butterfield, ornament, Kent Bloomer, façade, architecture, digital design, brick, masonry, Grasshopper, Monterey Design Conference, CNC, Oyler Wu Collaborative, Jason Kelly Johnson, Nataly Gattegno, David Freeland, Brennan Buck, Dwayne Oyler, Jenny Wu

Sever Hall, Harvard University, 1880, H.H. Richardson, left photo by Daderot (CC BY-SA 3.0), perspective corrected; detail photo by Tim Culvahouse


 
My view is that the building is detailed in such a way as to heighten the status of the surface, producing a relationship of “tension between the volume, which is expansive, and the surface, which constrains. In this tension lies the possibility of tautness.”

So I wrote in “Figuration and Continuity in the Work of H.H. Richardson” in Perspecta 24, an essay that owes much to Kent Bloomer, who was a teacher of mine in graduate school. The further removed I am from that experience, the more I realize how indebted I am to him for my understanding of how the built world can be wrapped together coherently, with all its surprises. Kent’s The Nature of Ornament: Rhythm and Metamorphosis in Architecture (NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000) is perhaps the smoothest re-entry into the world of ornamental thought available today. It would make a nice Christmas gift for the young architect who already has the Grasshopper manuals.

And that’s a wrap.

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The Nature of Ornament: Rhythm and Metamorphosis in Architecture

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Tim Culvahouse, FAIA

Tim Culvahouse, FAIA, is Editor-in-Chief of the AIA California Council and an architect specializing in the public communication of design ideas through his firm, Culvahouse Consulting.

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