Monday, October 24, 2011

Dis Connecticut--Part Two

Normally, I might lament the fact that other projects needed to take priority over this story for a while. In this case, it actually worked out quite fortunately. While this part of the series remained under construction, I got the opportunity to meet the architect of this building in person, purely by accident. I'm not referring to John Johansen, but his partner, Ashok Bhavnani. Johansen's mentor was Breuer, Bhavnani's was Richard Neutra; I can imagine few marriages of architectural lineage with such potential for greatness. How I came to meet Mr. Bhavnani is for a future post, but he told me he was heavily involved with the design of this building. It's the Intermediate School (1968), right up the road from Litchfield High School.

There are three entrances to the building, a new one on the north side (right), that one on the west (above), and one on the south. We first came upon the new one on the north façade, a redesign by the same firm that renovated the high school. They chose to employ brightly-colored corrugated metal as a nod to some of Johansen's later work.

In honor of this post, I decided to finish a book I'd begun a while ago but for some reason never finished. I think it was not quite meaty enough for me, which I'll explain in a second. It's Johansen's Nanoarchitecture--A New Species of Architecture.

A new species it is, but you have to look for it. It's a small book and the majority of it is photographs of models, computer renderings, and drawings, not text. It's a collection of hypothetical projects of Johansen's that he worked on to push boundaries and explore new directions architecture might take as a result of new and emerging technologies. Most of them are extremely interesting conceptually, but I'm tempted to believe most of the conceptual breakthroughs, or at least most of the lines of inquiry that could lead to them, were mapped out by Archigram in the late-1960s. Coincidentally, there are traces of Archigram to be found in Johansen's own Mummers Theater (1970) in Oklahoma City.

The models also come off as being rather homemade. I'm not saying I have any skills whatsoever in taking an Exacto knife to balsa wood and foamcore. But computer renderings that are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from actual photographs these days I think have left me somewhat spoiled.

The last few projects in the book, a discourse on the title subject, and the epilogue are all mind boggling, however. What he calls "molecular engineering" is something I've thought about for years. To oversimplify, the "blueprint" for the house is basically a human-engineered DNA sequence. The organism that results has all the functionality and structure of a house. Nature does pretty much everything a house would need to do, and much more, except for perhaps the ability to connect to communications technology. A single redwood tree represents more mass and structure than most people's houses. Nature can create electricity and light, convert organic waste into energy, moderate temperature. You could even conceivably grow a television or computer monitor by carefully ordering DNA. Once computers start getting more powerful and can be used to analyze genetic code faster and with more precision, I don't think this will sound all that far-fetched.

The epilogue covers what I'd expected more of the book would have, the use of nanotechnology in building. Much faster than a tree, nanobots could be programmed to "grow" a house in much the same way as our organic programming. To me it would seem there are benefits to both. If both genetic engineering and nanotechnology were used together, it's even more incredible to think what could be accomplished. This would have all the capabilities of computer technology and electronics, with all the efficient expenditure of resources and sustainability of the natural world. Certainly people will still want to put up their own structures like they always have. Beyond that, the entire idea of what Architecture even is will change so drastically and in such fundamental ways, it will barely look like the same profession anymore. I'm not sure I can say with any confidence that I will be around to see it happen in my lifetime, but I can only hope.

Back to the Intermediate School, this was a designation I was unfamiliar with and had to ask someone there. "Intermediate" is years four through six. I could find no photographs of what this building originally looked like by Googling around, but it appears that it very much turned itself inward, with the exception of the central entrance. 

At the central façade, seen in the first photo above, windows punch dramatically outwards to meet the street. The addition on the north looks to have broken through a solid masonry wall with its aluminum(?)-framed glass box opening it up. The upper story, like the wing to the south, has no fenestration, although that doesn't necessarily mean there were no windows or doorways on the ground floor.

Subtracting the addition, the main building reads as a transparent glass volume in the center, framed by massive concrete and masonry construction, with a solid, opaque concrete and masonry volume on either side of it. Almost entirely imperceptible in person is the fact that the two side wings are turned outward at the very slightest angles from the central section. The effect is more subconscious than anything.

At the junction of the north and central sections is the first hint that this building is truly a work of art. The first thing to notice is the illusion that these are two separate buildings due to the corridor connecting them being on the ground floor. About a third of it is below grade as seen from the front. Whatever is above grade is hidden by plantings. The other thing, which becomes clearer at the junction between the central section and the southern one, is how the views have been so carefully composed. The two sections have been pulled apart to here reveal a chimney, only very fleetingly, which stands in the courtyard like an ancient obelisk.

The central section does something very interesting with (a)symmetry that reminded me of Breuer's work. The volumes that project outward display a conspicuous, rigid symmetry, while the recessed volume underneath is very much asymmetrical. It's as if the building wants to project a sense of formality to the outside world, but takes a more casual tone for its interior. As I was talking about this, I was evidently being overheard by one of the faculty members, who stared at us out that window in the center until we were out of sight again. I know I'm very interesting to listen to, but it was a little bit weird.

The next junction I found extremely interesting on a number of different levels. First, the two wings are way too close together. In other words, they're so close that they ought to be simply brought together into a single structure. If they were to be separated, they really ought to be further apart from each other. As it is, it frames the view of the obelisk chimney even more specifically than the opening to the north. The corridor that connects the two wings is concealed from view at most angles, amplifying the illusion that these are two separate structures.

Next, a pathway leads straight toward that opening, but then forces a sharp ninety-degree turn to access the doorway it serves. The space between the two buildings, while too narrow for compositional reasons, is just wide enough to appear to be a passageway, probably around four feet wide. But the passage through it is decidedly blocked by a shrub.

Finally, framing this opening--which, all told, must be there only to control views--are two massive, monolithic masonry walls. Beyond the opening, what it reveals is an enclosure with glass on three sides, allowing you to see all the way to the back of the courtyard through first one glass wall and then the second. The contrast this creates between enclosures of opacity and transparency is extremely powerful.

The south entrance is turned at an angle from the great southern volume. Just enough to be perceptible, but not much more.

Around to the right, it's revealed that the wall has been extended out from the enclosure, to call attention to its qualities as a wall, but also drawing attention to the strong, yet false symmetry of the entrance facade. This is further amplified by the fact that it is obviously at an angle from the larger volume behind it that it accesses.

From this point forward, the building completely changes its character about once every yard (meter) you walk.

The first thing you see is this great composition of brick volumes clustered together. The sense of walking into an ancient Roman village is unmistakable and had to have been intentional. Perhaps Brutalism was at its finest at these moments when its Modernism was transitioning into Postmodernism, and recalling our architectural past to create moods.

This one little doorway was especially remarkable. Its masonry frame is easily a mere canopy, but it's deep enough to be surprisingly intimate, while retaining a sense of the monumental at the same time. It also means that from all angles save directly in front of it, the vistas of pure masonry volumes are uninterrupted.

A raised walkway finished in roughly textured concrete prevents the courtyard from coming into view too suddenly, but rather reveals it slowly and carefully.

Once past the walkway, the courtyard is a gorgeous space and truly the heart of this building. The façades on the east and west of the courtyard are the most glazed of any on the building, as I mentioned, turning the building inwards.

The one on the west, while similar to the entrance façade on the opposite side, has an entirely glazed ground floor. In a careful balancing act, these two façades present larger expanses of glass to the courtyard, but are still clearly framed by concrete structure.

To the north and south, glass boxes pop out of the corridors connecting the seemingly separate wings of the building. While smaller in surface area, the structural concrete framing is gone, allowing them to dematerialize more than the fenestration of the east and west walls. The other side of the glass box here, by the way, is the one that can be seen through the strangely narrow opening between the two structures from the front, discussed above.

With most especially these two façades, the architects managed to create something monumental but with intimate moments, as well, formal but not stuffy, somehow ancient yet totally futuristic. There is no doubt a lot of Breuer in this, but it is a fantastic building unto itself. I never did get around to see the east side of the building. It appeared inaccessible, although I suspect it could be accessed around from the north. There were a lot of other things to see that day, and I was getting hungry.

We had a nice lunch in the quaint town center of Litchfield. Only about fifteen minutes from there and out in the middle of nowhere was our next stop, a complete bust. It was Daniel Libeskind's 18.36.54 House.
Photo by Nicolas Koenig courtesy architect's website.
Just looking at the photos of it makes me want to weep at how breathtakingly genius this is. I should have known that a state like Connecticut would never allow something like this to be visible from the road. But that's a complete understatement here. I mean, you can't see anything. It's all the more ridiculous if you can imagine the most rural possible road this is on, it's almost surprising that it's paved with actual asphalt. My point being, if this were visible from the road, probably no more than about ten people would even see it on any given day, and at least one of those ten would be a mail carrier.

Nonetheless, what you see from the road is a fancy motorized gate, not even connected to a fence, and a lonely call box on a stand. Behind that, a cliff rises up about 300 feet (100 meters) at practically a sixty-degree angle, with a driveway snaking up it like Lombard Street. You would not want to try this after even the most minor snowstorm. In fact, I'm surprised there's no staircase up the hill just so they could park at the foot of it and walk up on foot in the case it got icy. Maybe the driveway is heated, I don't know.

In any case, I was not going to let this go so quickly. We turned around, I rehearsed a little speech along the lines of "I write an architecture blog and was hoping, if it's not a terrible intrusion, that I could maybe get a few photos of the outside of your house," worked up some courage, and pulled up to the gate. I pressed the button on the call box. It rang and rang, and rang...and rang. No answer. The thought did cross my mind that, if there were no one home, we could probably just climb the hill on foot and walk around. Who would know? But all along I was aware that just because there was no answer to an unexpected ring at the gate didn't necessarily mean there was no one up there. And ending up in jail for trespassing probably would have ruined the day.


Eventually I would really like to go back up to see it. The problem is that I've now already seen everything even remotely close to that house, so it seems almost silly to drive so far just for that one building (Litchfield took about three hours from the city). I have been in contact with Libeskind's studio about getting in contact with the owners, but the fact remains (as I knew) that this is a private residence. If my experience with another private home I've been wanting to profile is any indication, it may be prohibitively difficult. Cross your fingers.

Stay tuned for Part Three.

All text and images ©2011, Ryan Witte, unless noted.

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