Edgar Allan Poe, Design Critic

A room furnished according to Poe’s “The Philosophy of Furniture” for a 1959 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (Image courtesy the Brooklyn Museum)

In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Landor’s Cottage,” the author paints an idealized picture of his own New York Cottage. He describes the building in painstaking–some might even say excruciating–detail, but Poe also devotes a short paragraph to cottage’s furnishings:

On the floor was an ingrain carpet, of excellent texture – a white ground, spotted with small circular green figures. At the windows were curtains of snowy white jaconet muslin: they were tolerably full, and hung decisively, perhaps rather formally, in sharp, parallel plaits to the floor – just to the floor. The walls were papered with a French paper of great delicacy – a silver ground, with a faint green cord running zig-zag throughout. Its expanse was relieved merely by three of Julien’s exquisite lithographs….One of these drawings was a scene of Oriental luxury, or rather voluptuousness; another was a ‘carnival piece,’ spirited beyond compare; the third was a Greek female head – a face so divinely beautiful, and yet of an expression so provokingly indeterminate, never before arrested my attention.

This description doesn’t exactly match with the spartan furnishings that currently fill Poe’s cottage, nor is it likely that it corresponds with its decoration during Poe’s residency. However, it does line up exactly with Poe’s personal tastes and his very strong opinions on interior design, which he described in his authoritative, humorous, and confidently written piece of design criticism “The Philosophy of Furniture,” originally published in the May 1840 issue of Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine.

In Poe’s view, the interior of the English apartment is the pinnacle of good taste. Everything else is hardly tolerable. With great wit, Poe decries the aesthetic tastes of the Chinese, Russian, Spanish, French, Italians, who “have but little sentiment beyond marbles and colours and Dutch, who in Poe’s opinion, “ have merely a vague idea that a curtain is not a cabbage.” But no culture has worse taste than Americans. Poe believes that because there’s no aristocracy to imitate or aspire to, Americans created an “aristocracy of dollars” resulting in a display of wealth in lieu of a display of taste.

Like any good critic, Edgar Allan Poe doesn’t just condemn, he offers solutions. He describes his ideal room, a place where every piece of furniture, every painting, and every fabric work together to create a harmonic space. And it all begins with the carpet. Carpet selection is of paramount importance. It is the soul of the room, for its color, thickness, and design influence everything else – “A judge at common law may be an ordinary man,” says Poe, “a good judge of a carpet must be a genius.” But an ideal room is more than just carpet of course. It must be shaped to afford “the best (ordinary opportunities for the adjustment of furniture.” Poe prefers “massive” floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto a veranda.

Continue reading on Smithsonian for Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Furniture”

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Meanwhile, elsewhere…

Robert Venturi’s Duck Hunt

Although there isn’t much original content these days on Life Without Buildings, I’ve been busy writing elsewhere.

Most notably, for almost two years now I’ve been co-writing a book with Robert A.M. Stern documenting the history of the Yale School of Architecture and the contributions its alumni have made to the profession. Working on the book takes up the majority of my time and as arduous as it can sometimes be, the experience has been incredibly rewarding and I’m quite proud of the way it’s shaping up. As part of my research, I’ve conducted more than fifty interviews with former faculty and alumni, including Vincent Scully, Stanley Tigerman, Jaque Robertson, William McDonough, Marion Weiss, and many, many others. This has really been the best part of the process. Almost without exception, these conversations have been absolutely fascinating and I look forward to being able to share these interviews in some form. The book is absolutely massive and although it should be finished this year, it likely won’t be released to coincide with the Centennial of the Yale School of Architecture in 2016.

Most of my blogging these days happens over at Smithsonian’s Design Decoded, where I write about the design histories of everyday objects like espresso machines and drones, as well as pop-culture icons like Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. Please check it out!

The most recent issue of the Journal of Architectural Education includes my review of last year’s “Reconsidering Postmodernism” symposium.  If you have any interest in Postmodernism, the entire issue offers a lot of insight on the movement/style/concept that, in my opinion, is more relevant now than ever. My review focuses on a few of the younger architects and historians who are offering fascinating new perspectives on Postmodernism and sometimes even writing entirely new histories. I hope to post an excerpt soon.

In the February issue of Wired I’ve contributed a fun piece about Die Hard examining the connection between John McClane’s personal relationships and his penchant for mayhem.

The February issue of Smithsonian includes an aritcle I wrote about new research into the origins of rocketry. Spoiler: early alchemists weren’t exactly rocket scientists. And their work frequently blew up in their face – literally.

Coming up, look for my piece in the next issue of Soiled on slapstick comedy and Expressionist utopias. Thanks to everyone who helped successfully kickstart the issue so the editors can put together an even more impressive print run.

And finally, I was on a recent episode of NPR’s “How to Do Everything” podcast talking about the design of the Presidential Seal.

That’s it for now. Back to work.

Design Decoded: When is a Signature not a Signature?

thomas jefferson polygraph
Thomas Jefferson’s “polygraph” device. Today it would be more properly called a pantograph – a tool traditionally used by draftsmen and scientists to reduce and enlarge drawings.

The following post is excerpted from Design Decoded.

President Obama was in Hawaii when he signed the fiscal cliff deal in Washington D.C. Of course, it’s now common for us to send digital signatures back and forth every day, but the President of the United States doesn’t just have his signature saved as a JPEG file like the rest of us lowly remote signatories. Instead, he uses the wonder that is the autopen – a device descended from one of the gizmos in Thomas Jefferson’s White House.

A precursor of sorts to the  autopen, the polygraph, was first patented in 1803 by John Isaac Hawkins and, within a year, was being used by noted early adopter Thomas Jefferson. Known formally as the “Hawkins & Peale’s Patent Polygraph No. 57,” this early copy device was used by Jefferson to make single reproductions of documents as he was writing them. Though obviously less advanced than today’s electronic autopen, and used for a different purpose, the polygraph is similar in that it ultimately created a signature that wasn’t technically written by the President. While both devices are incredibly convenient, they raise a compelling question: is a signature still a signature when it’s not written by hand?

Digital media theorist and architectural historian Mario Carpo has written extensively on the relationship between early reproduction methods and modern digital technologies. In his excellent book, The Alphabet and the Algorithm, Carpo notes that ”like all things handmade, a signature is a visually variable sign, hence all signatures made by the same person are more or less different; yet they must also be more or less similar, otherwise they could not be identified. The pattern of recognition is based not on sameness, but on similarity.” That statement may seem obvious, but it’s important. The variability of a signature denotes its authenticity; it reflects the time and place a document was signed, and perhaps even reveals the mood of the signatory. A digital signature, however, has no variability. Each signature –one after another after another– is exactly like the last. Although the modern autopen includes adjustable settings for speed and and pressure, these options are used for practical purposes and variability is only created as a side-effect. Today, the notion of a signature as a unique, identifiable mark created by an individual, is a concept that may be changing. The signature of a historic figure is no longer a reliable verification of authenticity that attests to a specific moment in history, but a legal formality.

[continue reading at Design Decoded]

Selling Junkspace or One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Multi-Million Dollar Residential Tower

23 East 22nd Street
A rendering of 23 East 22nd Street (image © OMA)

The September issue of Smithsonian Magazine features an insightful profile of Rem Koolhaas written by former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff. As a companion to that article, I wrote a piece on Design Decoded, Smithsonian’s blog on design and everyday life, looking at some of the unbuilt high-rise towers designed by Koolhaas and OMA. I absolutely love these buildings. I find them witty and subversive yet still incredibly respectful and contextual. As a sort of B-Side to the Design Decoded piece, I wanted to elaborate a little more on one building in particular, Koolhaas’s planned Manhattan tower at 23 East 22nd Street, and its connection to some of the architect’s more provocative writings.

According to OMA, 23 East 22nd Street is a “luxury residential tower in a culture of congestion.” This description succinctly expresses Koolhaas’s approach towards both the design and marketing of what would have been his first building in New York City; he appeals to a high-end clientele while simultaneously referencing his own book with a description of Manhattan as a “Culture of Congestion” –  a phrase first coined in his 1978 “retroactive manifesto” Delirious New York.

Like the nearby Flatiron Building, whose triangular shape is a result of Broadway slashing diagonally across the Manhattan grid, 23E22 is also shaped by the local context Midtown Manhattan. However, Koolhaas’s building isn’t primarily a response to the physical context of the city, but to the building and zoning codes that have regulated New York’s streetscape and its iconic skyline. The building setbacks mandated by the city are interpreted quite literally as large portions of the structure are set back to create a series of stacked cantilevers, shifting the building’s mass to the side.  By appropriating of the standard language of the high-rise –a gridded facade of glass and stone– then subverting it with single, deceptively simple move, Koolhaas wryly satirizes city planning policy.

The subversive nature of the structure is downplayed when it comes time to market the building. On OMA’s website, 23E22 is described in market-friendly terms:

“This asymmetrical form simultaneously provides views of Madison Square Park whilst maximizing light penetration to the neighbors below. Mirroring the traditional New York setback, the building’s form is at once familiar and unique.”

That relatively generic pitch uses terms taken directly from Koolhaas’s 2001 essay “Junkspace”.

“Junkspace thrives on design, but design dies in junkspace. There is no form, only proliferation…an authorless world beyond anyone’s claim, always unique, utterly unpredictable, yet intensely familiar.”

Blurring the boundaries between artful critique and real estate strategy, Koolhaas lampoons the authorless high-rises of the city while simultaneously marketing the building with a language first developed in an essay that laments –or, depending on your reading, celebrates– the labyrinthian, generic architecture of a globalized society. Does marketing the building as junkspace undermine his own work? Is Koolhaas just fulfilling a prophecy he wrote himself?

Hyperbolic writings such as “junkspace” are as important to Koolhaas’s career as hyperbolic buildings such as 23E22. His polemics are those of a professional provocateur and often cause people to think his architecture is cynical, or at the very least to question the sincerity of declarations and designs. But hyperbole, whether in writing or in a skyline, is rooted in the context of a basic truth; it’s not a pure fabrication. Independent of any context whatsoever, 23E22 would probably seem ridiculous. In the context of Midtown however, it’s contextual to the point of absurdity, illustrating that Koolhaas is most reverent of context when he is trying to subvert a dominant cultural paradigm. It’s architectural satire. Deadpan humor in built form.

Aesthetics/Anesthetics at the Storefront for Art and Architecture

I wrote a review for Domus of Aesthetics/Anesthetics, the current exhibition running at New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture. Here’s an excerpt:

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Storefront for Art and Architecture was founded in 1982 as a non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of architecture and the built environment. Ten years after its opening, artist Vito Acconci and architect Steven Holl were commissioned to rethink and redesign the façade of Storefront’s narrow, wedge-shaped exhibition space. Their solution, a façade with 12 puzzle-like rotating panels, gave the organization a striking new identity and the Kenmare St. gallery quickly became a New York City architectural landmark. It has now been twenty years since Holl and Acconci’s porous façade first dissolved the boundary between street and gallery, and Storefront has once again commissioned artists and architects to rethink their space. Aesthetics/Anesthetics is an exhibition of 30 architectural drawings depicting Storefront’s gallery created by an international coterie of emerging and established professionals, including Teddy Cruz, Sam Jacob, Jimenez Lai, Luis Callejas, MOS, Interboro Partners, Perry Kulper, Jorge Otero-Pailos, LTL, and many others.

Though the gallery itself is the subject of the exhibition, the content of the drawings address a larger question about architectural representation: “What is it that an architectural drawing does and how does it do it?” This question was prompted by what Storefront identified as a concerning preponderance of new representational clichés that serve only to obfuscate architecture with a variety of utopian — or, at the very least, idyllic — embellishments. These crutches can be found on every blog and in every magazine; they include images of birds soaring through impossibly beautiful skies, children running with balloons, and mysterious patches of “green” that presumably represent the anticipated development of an architecturally-perfect plant. Storefront plastered their interior with these carefully manicured renderings in a chaotic interpretation of the “Post No Bills” wheatpaste aesthetic prevalent in New York City — an appropriate gesture considering that, like the posters adorning the city’s scaffolding, these trope-filled images are little more than advertisements. With drawings covering even the gallery floor, visitors literally walk all over them.

[Read the rest of the article at Domus]