Alberti is explicit about the character of the ideal church. It should be the noblest ornament of a city and its beauty should surpass imagination. It is this staggering beauty which awakens sublime sensations and arouses piety in the people. It has a purifying effect and produces the state of innocence which is pleasing to God.
For the struggle to express the inexpressible—to create what Le Corbusier called, in reference to his great chapel at Ronchamp, France, “ineffable space”—is one that has yielded few successful results in our time or in any other. The extraordinary balance between the rational and the irrational that characterizes Ronchamp, or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., or Louis Kahn’s Unitarian Church in Rochester, N.Y., or Bernard Maybeck’s Christian Science Church in Berkeley, Calif., to name four of the greatest religious structures of this century, is not something that can be made by formula, and it is not something that can be dictated by style.
The fact that here for the first time the Weimar Republic was given an opportunity to present itself outside its own borders as an equal partner within the community of nations explains the ambitious expectation officially accorded the project. Ten years after the end of the war the image of Germany as a presumptuously conservative state characterized by self-glorifying illusions of empire and a pathetic reverence for its Kaiser was still widespread abroad. The young democracy wished to counter this with a restrained expression of its progressiveness and distinctly international orientation. The government sought a new means of expression, untainted by historical allusions.
That project was Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion for the Barcelona International Exposition, 1929, designed to put a new face on Germany, give an open look on the world.
I can only guess how visitors might have received the Mies construction, the pavilion set off to the side of the ceremonial main axis of the fair, away from the rising pomp and elaboration of the other buildings, their articulation of past traditions, of local variations, those bearing assumptions that had conditioned the attendees’ vision all their lives.
Asymmetric, low lying, simple, close to nothing, really; surrounded by, placed within, beneath, not commanding the life ascending the hill behind; its roofs flat, not pitched, quiet planes suspended beneath an expanding sky—maybe it startled, perhaps it shocked, likely it perplexed. Yet the pavilion has completeness and composure, and its overall aspect is serene. And there is nothing difficult about the Barcelona Pavilion. Rather it goes against assumptions whose difficulty has been attenuated by use, by forgetting, by repression. It challenges more with what it is not as with what it is, raising questions about past assumptions, about what assumptions might take their place.
Some stray event, a random thought touched a memory the other day, an image. I can’t recall where or when I first saw it. I found a copy online, put it on my desktop, and just gazed. It touched me lightly, deeply, taking me outside myself, back within in ways I have yet to define or explain. I keep looking at it but the picture deflects all reason, focused sight, insight, returning me only to what it is, a picture of six persimmons.
The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar,
That spoiled your summer fields and fruitful vines,
Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your embowelled bosoms—this foul swine
Is now even in the center of this isle
Richmond advances on Richard’s forces and reports the damage done, the boar King Richard III’s heraldic emblem. These lines were invoked after the election of our previous president.
In the 1995 movie version of Shakespeare’s play, the final battle is fought at the remains of Battersea Power Station, London. The movie, smart, engaging, rather flip, is set in thrityish fascist times, with anachronisms, but in manner and manners feels contemporary to our times—and is too familiar. As I write this, Ukraine battles Putin’s forces laying waste to its land.
At home, just over a year ago, this building was the setting for another siege.
We have little expectation of a warehouse other than it serve its intended purpose. When we get something extra—surface texture, a distinctive style, embellishment—either we are rewarded with an unexpected bonus for the eye, to the mind, a distinguishing mark in context, signs in history—or see standing in relief an attention that is unnecessary, out of joint, and insignificant before the largeness of the structure, meaningless against the bareness of its function. When the warehouse ceases to be a place of storage, we are left with those stranded efforts, a huge mass, and the vast, empty space within of halted function. One set of unanswered questions has been dropped to open up other sets with more questions, no more likely to be answered. Here there is potential that cannot be contained by structure or defined by style.
Another tribute to the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse in Cambridge, discussed in the previous post. Again, my interest is not to suggest a possible renovation or provide an alternative, but rather to experiment with its basic forms and work within an approximation of its site and program. And once more it is designed to provide a home to public or creative efforts—say an architecture department. I wanted a basic building that has some interest but, like the warehouse, appears rough and incomplete, that might invite completion, exploration, or reaction—as I argue for the warehouse in that post—and that doesn’t try to upstage or direct the work inside.
There is no substitute for the real thing. Age, wear, the historical style, the odd embellishments, the imperfections, the rough mass of the original—these cannot be reproduced in a model or an actual construction. Ensamble proposed a renovation that respects the integrity of the exterior of the original building while adapting the interior for the needs of the MIT SA+P. Their proposal can be found here.
I’m trying to imagine walking up Vassar Street alongside the Metropolitan Storage Warehouse, the minute or so that would take. Ahead, the corner tower a story higher; above, elaborate cornice work, reaching out, lifting up, dividing in crenelation. Further on, circular windows, arches, and stars of decoration. Beyond the tower, the main campus of MIT.
But the tower is distant, the embellishments high or few and faint. What I am most aware of from the ground is the continuing mass of brick pierced by small windows, its texture, its endless division, its warm color—the fact of brick itself, its presence, dominant for well over 500 feet.
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps an infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, with enormous ventilation shafts in the middle, encircled by very low railings. From any hexagon the upper or lower stories are visible, interminably.
Borges/The Library of Babel
The comparison is extreme, but once Borges’s story came to mind, while building this model, I could not let it go.
The Library of Babel is wholly, maddeningly regular, vastly inaccessible, and, again, possibly infinite.
I keep returning to this building, my model on a table, approaching it, imagining entry and exploration of its floors, standing back in contemplation. It’s a modest building, about 68 x 52 and 50 feet tall, four stories if the roof area is included, a fairly simple structure with some complexity yet is solid, elemental, monumental even, but not imposing, direct in expression but open with suggestion. Something important is supposed to happen here that won’t have quick rules or rote answers. The structure rises in relationship to its culture, its environment; it stands apart. In the context of the turmoil the last years, of all time, it raises questions about what can be asserted, what needs to be challenged, what is ephemeral, what might endure. For Bangladesh, specifically, it projects hope.