Architecture and writing are not the two most synonymous concepts. Glance at an architecture student’s portfolio and you will see it consists of intense, almost constipatedly detailed drawings, with text relegated to illegible corners. Moreover, architecture students are the only undergraduates that spend all-nighters fixing models rather than in coffee shops hunched over their notes. However, there is a creative and conceptual legacy powering these drawings and models, one that is born out of a writing movement that originated with a few thinkers in the sixties and seventies. These architects sought to supplement, counteract, or explore the conceptual potential of architecture through articles, books, new institutions, drawings…and jokes.
An exhibition called “Take Note” is currently on display at the Canadian Centre of Architecture (CCA), and centres on this movement. Beginning with essays such as “Notes on Conceptual Architecture” (1970) by Peter Eisenman, the movement was propagated by the founding of academic institutions such as the Institute for Urban Studies and Architecture by Eisenman in 1967. The movement’s landmark contributors, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Bruce Mau, Bow Wow, and Frank Gehry, produced publications that continue to impact modern architecture. These professionals mixed or supplemented architectural design with conceptual, graphic, and academic publication.
“Take Note” offers some interesting archival material from the sixties onward, in the same footnoted style of Eisenman’s “Notes of Conceptual Architecture.” Annotated drafts of Eisenman’s book include the salient advice, “this is bullshit,” written by Rosalind Krauss as she edited a particular paragraph. Although many of her scribblings were obeyed, the “bullshit” was, in the end, published, and can be seen in the display cabinet above. Also amusing are the Bernard Tschumi Advertisement for Architecture posters from 1976-78. Although it may be hard for some to agree that “architecture is the ultimate erotic act,” as one poster states, Tschumi pairs eye-catching photographs with cryptic architectural quips, which, if nothing else, serve to ignite architectural curiosity. The poster that reads, “To really appreciate architecture you may even need to commit murder” shows a woman throwing a man out of a window. Intellectually, this relates to the concept that form, dictated by architects, can never shape how a building is used, or how the life inside it is experienced. For the layperson, the work has the same amusing yet sinister effect as all Tschumi’s graphics. Another poster shows a man who is tied up, coupled with the words, “the rules of architecture have the erotic significance of bondage. The more numerous and significant the restraints the greater the pleasure.” So at least it gives the viewer insight onto what architects enjoy.
Typifying the word-and-architecture relationship at the exhibition is a full diagram from the 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas that shows a dense strip of bars, restaurants, and hotels in the middle of the city. The diagram of overlapping words represents the spatial relation of signs on top of the buildings to their position on the strip. These signs made modernist buildings decorative, articulating their function and form through signage. As a whole, the book hoped to rebuke orthodox, functional modernism, in part by pointing out that architecture was bringing back ornamentation through its grandiose signage. Hence the diagram, which only consists of the sign names, successfully conveys the architectural significance of words in architectural study.
The CCA exhibition might not blow you away, but the building itself houses an interesting collection and it makes a nice change from the Museum of Contemporary Art if you need a contemporary culture fix. Make sure you check out the Rem Koolhaas lectures for exciting stuff; or his books Delirious New York, S,M,L,XL, or Content to get your own little piece of architectural history.
“Take Note” is on display through May 30 at the CCA (1920 Baile).