15 October 2013

Noguchi's Light, 1

Throughout Isamu Noguchi's career, there's repeated evidence of his fascination with light and its wide ranging effects on our understanding and perception of form, space and volume. His great interest in the effects, behavior and uses of light may stem from some early experiences recounted from the ten years between the ages of three and thirteen when he lived in Japan (between 1907 and 1917).

Isamu Gilmour, age 13. His mother Leonie Gilmout included this photograph with his application to attend the Interlaken School, Rolling Prairie, Indiana. Image: Lilly Library.
While one can speculate on his perception of light filtering through paper shoji screen, traditional lanterns and other possible sources, there are stories from his youth that are so specific and meaningful they seem hard to dispute as having taken place, particularly since they were published in an article by his father Yone Noguchi in Sunset Magazine, Volume 25 (San Francisco: Southern Pacific Company Publishers, July–December 1910) entitled, "Isamu and Others: Parental Pointers Concerning Babysan and His Koishikawa Playmates."

Sunset Magazine's masthead. Reference to publication.
As a child, Isamu had an especially strong connection with shadows and light. With regard to shadows his father writes:
He made a habit of playing with our shadows on the walls of the sitting-room after supper every evening. "Mama, shadow gone! Give baby shadow, mama," he will exclaim sulkily, seeing his own shadow disappear. "Go to papa! he will give it to you," Leonie will say; then he will hunt for it, pushing his hand everywhere about my dress. "There it is, baby," I will say, seeing his shadow accidentally appear on the wall. How glad he will be."
Baby Isamu also loved to watch for the moon to rise over the garden. He would insist on remaining awake until his reliable, magical friend would return to watch over him. His father writes:
I doubt if he has any real knowledge of the moon. When I say that he must go to bed, he will push a little outside door, and say that no moon is seen yet. Then I will quietly steal in to the drawing-room and light a large hanging lamp with a blue-colored globe, and say to him: "Moon is come now. See it baby!" He will be mightily pleased with it; a few minutes later, he will be found in bed soundly sleeping.
This story would likely be considered apocryphal (a forced interpretation reading backwards from his later works incorporating light) except for the fact it was written by his father Yone Noguchi long before Isamu became an artist. He even illustrated an essay he published with photographs depicting some of the scenes he describes.

Photographs of baby Isamu illustrating Yone Noguchi's article in Sunset MagazineArticle reference.

It is possible Noguchi later read his father's stories (or heard the incident recounted by his mother) which could have influenced the artist's later interest in creating Akari lights, lunars with embedded lights and other works dealing with the reflection and transmission of light. Nevertheless it's certainly appealing to think those early memories evoked such strong visceral reactions in him as a child that those desires to manipulate and control light remained with him.

When examining Noguchi's career, his output and his writings, it becomes clear that understanding the various ways light interacts with translucent materials (for example, paper and plexiglas) and casts shadows to define volumetric form. In particular he seems to have maintained a fascination with the qualities of lunar reflections from the moon and the manner it pierces the darkness of night.

Many works can be considered exemplars of his ongoing fascination with light's properties. We can find this interest in some of his earliest works within just a few years' time. Over the course of the 1920s, he explored radically different approaches to dealing with light and its manifestations vis-a-vis sculptural form.

His earliest training in the classical mode of sculpting relied on manipulating clay or plaster to create shadows and highlights as a primary means for defining and describing form. His plaster life-size female nude figure Undine (Nadja) of 1926 is a tour-de-force in its manipulation of volume to establish delicate lines separating areas of highlight and shadow. These areas of light, shade and shadow reveal the details of her soft, beckoning erotic form in accordance with the academic techniques he rapidly mastered after leaving his Columbia University pre-medical studies.

The photograph of him looking admiring upon his creation is a classic image representing this early period following his studies at the Onorio Routolo's Leonardo da Vinci School of Art. This image would have been taken in his studio at 127 University Place in New York. Most reproductions of the photograph are cropped. However examining an original photographic print reveals a bare incandescent bulb hanging down above the window. It seems likely that he would have relied on artificial light periodically when he was creating this figure of a water nymph.

Original photographic print from the Rumely Collection, Lilly Library, University of Indiana.
Examining the temporary wood base he's using, it seems to have been constructed so he could rotate the piece and thus view it in under various lighting conditions. The artificial light might have been used to supplement the available light and/or as a means of testing and examining the piece at nighttime. Interestingly, Noguchi was so proud of this image he printed it on a smaller scale to create his own Christmas greeting for the Rumely family who had been his benefactors and supporters throughout his high school years in Indiana, while he was getting his start in New York and even later.

Christmas Card from Noguchi to the Rumely family. Image: Lilly Library, University of Indiana.
In 1928 after working for a period of time in Brancusi's Paris studio, Noguchi undertook the production of a series of works referred to as his Paris Abstractions. He experimented with highly polished, reflective surfaces, not unlike those in some of Brancusi's work. Part of his responsibilities was periodically visiting the Salon des Tuileries to polish Brancusi's Léda of 1926. Brancusi later mounted Léda on a slowly rotating reflective silver disk to further emphasize the changing effects of reflecting upon it's surface.

Constantin Brancusi's Léda, 1926. Image: Centre Pompidou, Paris.
Some of Noguchi's "Paris Abstractions" of 1928 used polished sheet metal ship-brass curled in such a way to create inner reflections multiplying and distorting the reflections of the work in its own surface. In this way, it suggested a sense of dematerialization as one views the piece trying almost desperately to grasp its actual form. The natural response of a viewer to sculpture of this scale (table top display) is to almost imperceptibly adjust the position of one's head as a way of determining, verifying and interpreting the actual form upon which we're gazing. In this example, such an approach to discovering the "objective" form is suppressed in favor of a multiplicity of subjective views which diverge rather than converging on a static reading of the piece.

Isamu Noguchi: Sail Shape, 1928. Photo by Shigeo Anzai, Noguchi Museum.
One of his Paris Abstractions which was to use light in a profoundly different way from what was generally understood to be sculpture was a proposal entitled Zing or Power House (Study for Neon Tube Sculpture). While his prototype was formed using zinc tubing, Noguchi photographed the work and printed it as a negative to suggest the dark metal tubing was actually the light source itself. He intended to produce this work using glass neon tubing to emit light in such a way as to essentially dematerialize the physical object, i.e., what would commonly be considered "the sculpture". While possibly suggestive of an abstracted human head, he also seems to have been attempting to "see into the shape of the intricately curled wires contain within an incandescent bulb".

This proposal for a work in neon tubing was printed both as a negative (left) and as a positive (right) in documentation of Noguchi's designs of that period. It was never realized.

Power House, 1928. Images: Noguchi's A Sculptor's World (left) and Nancy Grove's Catalogue (right).
His mentor and sponsor during his high school years in Indiana, Dr. Edward Rumely, emphasized the importance of new technologies and inventions such as Franklin's experiments with electricity and Edison's invention of the light bulb. Rumely himself was involved in developing lighting technologies in connect with the perceived health benefits of artificial light. A few years later, Rumely engaged Noguchi to design such a light fixture for the Curtis Lighting Company which was apparently manufactured, but no examples or record of its form has yet been located (Deborah A. Goldberg's unpublished NYU doctoral dissertation).

So from his earliest years as a sculptor, Noguchi revealed a subtle, inquisitive understanding of the properties of light and its effects on the perception of mass as well as unorthodox uses of light in the context of sculpture that was difficult for others at the time to fully appreciate.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
This essay is the first in a series concerning the multifaceted career of Isamu Noguchi which encompassed modern sculpture (both abstract and figural), landscapes, playgrounds, plazas, fountains, furnishings, light fixtures, stage sets and many other forms of artistic expression. He was never one who would allow himself to be constrained by categories, definitions or preconceptions (including his own).
These writings are a prelude to my upcoming lecture "Noguchi and 'My Arizona'" to be presented on Thursday, October 24, 2013 at Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey in connection with the sale of "My Arizona" (Lot 994) on Sunday, October 27, 2013. Questions regarding the auction should be directed to David Rago.

Andrew Raimist, Lecturer
Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts
Washington University in St. Louis
St. Louis, Missouri 63130

16 April 2013

5th Annual Exhibit A

Come to Cannon Design's Fifth Annual 'Exhibit A'!

Thursday 18 April 2013 from 5:30 to 8:30pm in Cannon Design's uniquely re-imagined municipal Power House located at 1100 Clark Avenue, Saint Louis, Missouri.

Silent Auction of drawings and sketches from notable architects from around the world. In addition a limited number of winning architectural photographs from the AIA's annual photography contest will be available for auction. (See below for my own photograph.)

Event poster.

This year's photographs include my image "View from Arch" matted and framed.

View from the Arch. Photograph © copyright Andrew Raimist.

All proceeds from the event this year go to support the St. Patrick's Center in downtown St. Louis!

For tickets to this year's festive benefit to to www.CANNONDESIGN.com/exhibita

Cannon Design's Power House

Cannon Design achieved a remarkable construction with their St. Louis architectural office ("Power House") which has the feeling of being a elegantly design ship-in-a-bottle (or perhaps "space-ship in an abandoned industrial coal plant" would be more accurate).

Cannon Design –– interior. Photograph copyright © Andrew Raimist.
Their design –– lead by architect David Polzin, AIA, LEED –– floats a series of new suspended floor plates from the existing structural steel columns in connection with two existing masonry bearing walls. By holding the floor plates free of the two facades with monumental sized windows, an incredible sense of lightness, openness and space is created. This structure could have very easily been subject to a developer's logic: jam as many floors as possible into the box and utilize even square inch of rentable space by slamming the new floor plates up against the series of arch top windows.

Cannon Design –– looking down on desk. Photograph copyright © Andrew Raimist.

A new form-language is used for the inserted materials: curvilinear white plastered surfaces which contrast beautifully with the patina of corrosion on the existing steel elements as well as the rich reddish-browns in the heavy exterior masonry bearing walls. The base of these walls is clad with white glazed tile, a functional touch that would allow for cleaning the walls at the ground floor. Originally, the monumental volume was filled with massive boilers and two enormous smoke stacks to disperse the smoke from burning coal which provided steam heat to a section of downtown in the area of City Hall and the Civil Courts Building.

Excerpt from an aerial view postcard of St. Louis with Power House location indicated.

The original Power House structure was massive, monumental and designed in a Florentine Renaissance manner drawing upon Palazzo Vecchio for its inspiration. The following elevation was published in The American Architect with design by Study & Farrar, Architects.

The Power House structure stands taller than the rest of the block with two monumental smokestack towers.
As built, the structure provided an expressive, richly textured contribution to the city's urban design. The structure clearly received a great deal of thought and consideration given it's location (within view of City Hall) and its important function. It's hard to think of a contemporary functional building dedicated to power generation that has the grace, proportions and presence this structure has.

View of 1923 Municipal Power House. The two smoke stacks are cropped out at the top.

Cannon Design intelligently kept the new floor plates away from the monumentally scaled windows. Historically accurate new windows meeting today's energy standards were installed as a part of their Platinum LEED certified adaptive re-use of this ninety year old building.

Cannon Design Power House –– interior nave. Photograph copyright © Andrew Raimist

The entire building will be accessible for touring and viewing during Exhibit A: the silent auction of art by architects to be auctioned this Thursday 18 April 2013.

06 March 2013

Precedents in Architecture

Roger Clark and Michael Pause began collaborating on developing a systematic method for analyzing architecture in the 1980s. I was first introduced to the book in one of my design studios that involved first doing a detailed analysis of a building along the lines suggested by Clark & Pause, but in addition we were documenting a classic work of architecture and creating cut-away axonometrics the revealed the layers within the building. Each student had a different building to analyze and none of them were shown in the First Edition of Clark & Pause. In this way, we could get some kind of idea what this "analysis" was supposed to be about, but the intention was that we were to seek out our own individual understanding of these buildings.

The pages from Clark & Pause I've included below represent two buildings from over one hundred included in the book. For each building, there are facing pages with a simplified documentation of the building (site plan, floor plans, elevations and sections) at a small scale. The idea is to indicate the overall formal concepts, not to deal with details, connections and materials.

The first example is Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House from 1945-1951. This building is an absolute classic of mid-century modern architecture and is located near Plano, Illinois (south of Chicago). I would highly recommend that you make the pilgrimage to visit this building which is simultaneously perfect and flawed. Mies created an idealized composition that is beautiful, sublime and affecting. He treated the project as the creation of a perfect work of art and sought to remove any and all unnecessary details.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House. Documentation.
In the documentation drawings above, I have added the light blue tone to indicate where the physical enclosure of the building is located. Without this color, I believe the drawings can be confusing unless you're already familiar with the building and its configuration.

Below is the formal analysis of the house which appears on the facing page. The categories they use in analyzing each building represented are: structure, natural light, massing, plan to section or elevation, circulation to use-space, unit to whole, repetitive to unique, symmetry and balance, geometry, additive & subtractive and hierarchy.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Farnsworth House. Analysis.
For the sake of providing visualizations of the Farnsworth House that offer some visceral and emotive qualities, I'm providing the following images which are virtual reality renderings of a high level of sophistication. They were created by Peter Guthrie who has posted them on Flickr with a Creative Commons copyright so they can be shared. You can find the full set of thirteen renderings of the structure here.

These virtual photographic representations offer a very meaningful mode of analysis and formal presentation, but one that is highly subjective and individual.

One of the dangers of only relying on a simplified objective analysis is that the diagrams can be overly simplistic and lacking in nuance. Clark and Pause have updated their work several times, with the most recent version published by Wiley in 2012 (Fourth edition). Their decision has been to come down on the side of objectivity, clarity and consistency. This makes their work a very useful reference, however it has the potential danger of seducing you into thinking that "now you know all you need to know" which could not be further from the truth.

A personal interpretation of a work of architecture is based on beliefs, ideas and feelings that cannot be entirely rationally explained. Clark & Pause leave the reader with the impression that this is a scientific and perfectly rational process. For them, that may well be the case, but I think their rigid categories reveal important information is some cases and in others, nothing at all of interest.

My personal take would be that any given building that is a masterpiece will have a multitude of possible readings. Perhaps an infinite number of interpretations (at least theoretically). I would argue that the most important categories and analytical tools should emerge from your immersion in the building's design, form and experience. In other words, I would argue that some structures might be most meaningfully analyzed by means of cut-away axonometric views, while others might require focused analysis of their facade.

Below is a second example from the book: Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building located in downtown St. Louis. This is one of the most important buildings in American architectural history for a variety of reasons: aesthetic, technical, formal, symbolic, representational, etc. You should make a point of visiting this building regularly whenever you're in the area of the Gateway Mall / CityGarden.

I've added the light orange tone on the documentary drawings to highlight the building itself. One of the things missing here is any real sense of the context which I think lessens the value of this analysis since it focuses on the building as if it were a free-standing structure isolated and apart from its urban context. There may well be good reasons for this decision, but I think it is unfortunate.

Louis Sullivan, Wainwright Building. Documentation.
In the analytical diagrams which appear on the facing page, I've restrained myself from applying color. I believe these kinds of diagrams can benefit from color, texture and other means of differentiating form beyond simply lines and half-tone.

If you spend some time looking at the building, the diagrams and attempting to develop your own understanding, reviewing these diagrams can be terribly instructive. I believe this is true particularly if your are actively drawing and analyzing the building yourself rather than simply passively viewing the results of their analysis.

Louis Sullivan, Wainwright Building. Analysis.
The two photographs I'm providing of the Wainwright Building present something that is just as invisible and unattainable in reality as the above virtual reality renderings. These two historic photographs present the building as it existed in 1933 when it was the subject of a HABS documentation. HABS is the Historic American Building Survey. The second image is even more inaccessible to us: a photograph of the Wainwright under construction. One of the key facts that this photograph demonstrates is that the actual structure of the building appears as steel columns that occur inside every other vertical pilaster represented on the facade. This detail is one of the keys to understanding Sullivan's genius in working in this new situation of high-rise buildings accessed by elevator.

Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building. HABS photograph, 1933.

Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building. Construction photograph, c. 1891.

Below is a key to the line weights and symbols used in Clark & Pause's book.

Precedents in Architecture. Key.

Finally, here are the front and back covers. Keep in mind that Clark & Pause offer just a beginning for considering the analysis of architectural form. In a follow-up post, I'll offer a range of alternative approaches that should help to widen your outlook on what is possible for your particular building.

Clark & Pause: Precedents in Architecture, Third Edition. Cover.
Clark & Pause: Precedents in Architecture, Third Edition. Back cover.

21 February 2013

Armstrong's Evens Residence

Harris Armstrong's Evens Residence of 1951 (copyright © Raimist 2012).
The Evens Residence in Ladue is one of Harris Armstrong's most coherent, substantial and elegant expressions of passive solar residential design. Built in 1951, the house is oriented south with large full-height glazing in all of the principle room. Cantilevered overhangs are designed to protect the glazing from the midday summer sun and to admit the lower warming rays of the sun in winter. Armstrong carefully manipulated the house’s form using a butterfly roof (shaped as an inverted 'V') eliminating the distracting visual clutter of gutters and downspouts.

Aerial photograph of property at 9999 Litzsinger Road (courtesy of Google Maps).
This home, presently for sale, is located in the heart of Ladue at 9999 Litzsinger Road near its intersection with Warson Road. The house is set within a verdant landscape featuring expansive lawns and mature trees. The house is set back from the street on the rise of a gradually upward sloping lawn. An over-sized terrace wraps the central section of the house providing a perfect setting for large scale outdoor events. Landscaping and stone retaining walls are arrayed to provide visual privacy from the street.

Armstrong's site plan directs vehicles to the north side and reveals paved terrace to the south. (Harris Armstrong Archives, Special Collections, Washington University in St. Louis; color added by Raimist for clarity).
The home's structure is solid and permanent – virtually indestructible. An exposed framework of steel embraces concrete slabs making the house remarkably resilient. The  inward sloping roofs are supported by open web steel joists not visible from the interior, but exposed on the exterior as rafter tails. Their rhythm suggests a modernist invocation of delicate structural dentils (a decorative embellishment which originally referenced the exposed ends of roof purlins). Armstrong takes advantage of the steel structure to simultaneously open up the house to the landscape while maintaining a visceral sense of enclosure and protection.

Exterior of garage (copyright © Raimist 2012).
The house is positioned near the center of the three acre parcel with a gradually curved driveway providing access to the series of garages and free-standing carport. The home was originally designed and built for Fred Evens (pronounced "Evans") in 1951, the owner of a St. Louis Ford automobile dealership in midtown. While the design makes no direct form references to cars, it is absolutely a product of the mid-century culture which prized impressive cars and open plan modern homes. The carport may be the most beautiful and substantial structures of its kind. It is generously proportioned and created with the expressed notion of showing off the owner's latest model.
Section through garage reveals solid stone masonry, open web bar joist roof structure, butterfly roof and dome skylight (Harris Armstrong Archives, Special Collections, Washington University in St. Louis; color and tone added by Raimist for clarity).
The northern portion houses the more functional areas of the house including the garages, bathrooms and kitchen. Spherical domed skylights (inspired by WWII B-17 "Flying Fortress" bombers) are positioned along this section to provide additional diffused natural light where direct sunlight is unavailable via the glazing. Armstrong kept the roof overhang on the north side of the house shallower to admit more light while still protecting the surface from excessive weathering.

Unique stone masonry features undulating, naturalistic coursing (copyright © Raimist 2012).
Natural materials are liberally deployed alleviating any concerns that this modern home of concrete and steel might be cold and forbidding. Quite the contrary, the house is inviting, informal and open in its planning and liberal in its use of wood, stone, plants, grass cloth and other warmly evocative finishes.

Harris Armstrong's perspective rendering of the house with spacious terrace (published in Arts and Architecture, v. 68, January 1951, pp. 36-37).
The striking entry foyer is filled with natural plantings and abundant sunlight. This notion of incorporating landscapes as significant elements within a structure was a signature of Armstrong's approach to uniting inside and outside. The exterior stacked limestone visible on the exterior walls and retaining walls appear within along with beautifully selected and positioned paving stones which fill the central portion of the house, linking the public and private areas, as well as connecting to the striking circular stone stair positioned directly behind the massive stone masonry chimney.

Three screen doors from the Great Room feature Armstrong's signature "HA" door (copyright © Raimist 2012).
The stone spiral staircase is a tour-de-force of craftsmanship joining stone treads and risers with custom-formed aluminum (with a striking '50's retro form) and encasing vertical wood strips. The cylinder lining meets the stone treads directly without any intervening molding. A central skylight and globe fixture are located appropriately over the spiral's central axis.

Entry Hall with indoor garden, skylights and doors to bedroom wing (copyright © Raimist 2012).
The spiral stair accesses the lower level recreation room which is paved in terrazzo and includes inlaid shuffleboard and an authentic 50's bar. This level connects to the exterior via a short, mysterious tunnel to provide access to a swimming pool (never installed).

Stone spiral stair hidden behind massive stone chimney (copyright © Raimist 2012).
The stair is richly defined by carefully stacked stones, vertical strips of stained wood, a central skylight, globe light and a gracious, custom-designed aluminum railing. These elements are assembled in a pure, minimalist way without moldings and other devices to conceal joints between dissimilar materials (as is so common today). This element exhibits the high level of craftsmanship found throughout the home. This emphasis on simplicity and honesty is clearly derived from a consistent philosophical proposition which is carried through completely in the house's original design and construction. Fortunately very little of the original material has been modified making this an exquisite example of Armstrong's residential work at its zenith.

Stone spiral stair, view down from railing above (copyright © Raimist 2012).
Gazing back up into the spiral stair which is flooded with natural light, one senses a moment in space and time of pure architectural poetry just beyond our grasp.

Stone spiral stair, view up from lower level (copyright © Raimist 2012).
The Evens Residence and Morton D. May House were identified by St. Louis Post-Dispatch architecture critic Frank Peters as modernist landmarks at a critical juncture in 1987. At the time, these two expansive structures (located just around the corner from one another) were potentially endangered. In the years since, the Morton May House was demolished despite a valiant effort to rescue it from the wrecking ball by an ad hoc consortium of St. Louis advocates for modernism. Their generous offer was rejected and a monumentally scaled French Chateau 'McMansion' was built in its place. Without the right buyer who appreciates the character and quality of this home, it too could become just a memory.

Frank Peters article on Evens Residence and Morton May House, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Sunday, June 14, 1987).

This property is listed with Gina Bundy of Gladys Manion Real Estate.

11 February 2013

Givens Hall Remembered

I've just ordered a new book by Constantine E. Michaelides, FAIA (aka 'Dinos') called Givens Hall: 1960–1993. He has dedicated the book to "Citizens of Givens Hall – past, present and future".

Book cover.
The book also features an introduction by Dean Carmon Colangelo of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Dean Colangelo notes that the publication this year coincides with the Architecture's 100th anniversary and the Urban Design's 50th anniversary.

Dean Carmon Colangelo's Introduction.
The on-demand book (in full color) can be purchased through Lulu.com. I was able to get a 20% discount on the purchase by using a Lulu coupon code FEBBOOKS13 (presumably valid through the end of February).

A portrait of the building and residents from the book.
I spoke with Dinos about the book last night at the Society of Architectural Historians annual dinner and he made it clear that the building itself is not really the focus of the book, rather it is the people, events and memories that were created in Givens Hall ("Open 24 hours").

The illustrations used in this blog post are from Lulu.com's book preview.