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.
Giuseppe Terragni’s Casa del Fascio, Como, Italy, has been disassembled to build Ilya Golosov’s Zuev Workers’ Club, Moscow. I can’t decide how much contradiction, even irony, there is in that. Both were built about the same time, early 1930s, late 1920s, a period of intense modernist innovation and debate in which both architects were involved. Both buildings followed and were responses to massive turmoil and social change. Both housed functions meant to serve a broad population, these uses based on political ideology, those ideas hotly debated as well. Most, both are original, striking, and memorable designs, what first drew me to them.
My main interest in both, however, is what we might learn from them and adopt for our current world. The larger our cities grow, the more we spread out, the more we become isolated and culturally diffuse. How can we maintain our common identity and keep our neighborhoods vital? Part of the answer lies in our institutions and the architecture that houses them. My own virtual project suggests a possible solution, explained generally in Centering a Town: St. Johns/First Efforts, with more thoughts and designs here. A modest building, designed well, could do much to serve a neighborhood and visually enhance and anchor it.
Terragni, however, was a Rationalist and Golosov’s Zuev is considered Constructivist—there is much to untangle here that I will put aside.
And both, of course, had in sight different political ideologies.
The club in 1929. The passersby give a sense of a past still present, of the transition the Soviets had to make.
Under socialism much of “primitive” democracy will inevitably be revived, since, for the first time in the history of civilized society, the mass of population will rise to taking an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the everyday administration of the state. Under socialism all will govern in turn and will soon become accustomed to no one governing.
If we had seen this government center with that picture some ninety years ago, we would have, by association, formed one interpretation of it, a more favorable one for some of us, a lesser one for others. We might have said that architecturally it expresses how the monolithic mass of the state has been broken down into individual parts, these on a human scale, the independent parts brought together into coherent interdependence where everyone belongs in a structure that is open, light, and transparent. Walls have come down.
Terragni, in fact, says something similar in his interpretation of his building: “no barrier, no obstacle, between the political _______ and the people.”