The Value of Absurdity

I just returned from a few days in Italy, and a business meeting near Venice brought the opportunity to hop in to Venice proper for a few hours. Even though I have visited Italy many times since my studies abroad there 22 years ago, I had revisited Venice. During my studies abroad in Italy, I got to know the wondrous city on water fairly well, having returned many times to see its many surreal faces: sunny and unbelievably crowded, flooded and damp, even snowy. 

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Visiting Venice always brings to my mind Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities," a mind/eye opening must read for architecture students. In the book, Calvino describes a series of impossibly absurd cities, and after reading several of these descriptions, one arrives at the conclusion that many of these stories actually describe real cities, and many presumably Venice. Calvino isolates certain aspects of the cities, allowing readers to focus on just those, and their absurdity, to imagine fantastic places in which these aspects are ever-present. Venice feels very much like an Impossible City and, in many ways, it is, and it has, in fact, many Invisible Cities within it. It is absurd, and beautifully so, as a whole, and each of its many layers/narratives.

At the time I first visited Venice, I was also very interested in the parallels between architecture and poetry. My architecture thesis was ultimately about just that, and perhaps Venice (or Italo Calvino, or Fernando Pessoa) had something to do with it. Of particular interest to me was the mechanism of transposition or, to put in architectural terms, collage. Transposition in poetry collages different, often unrelated narratives, generating a third, unforeseen narrative: an invention. In poetry, the beauty of that new narrative, much like in Venice, lies in its subtle absurdity.  It is almost real, almost normal, but not quite. There are so many unique aspects to Venice's architecture as a result of its conditions, and they are not all obvious. Overall they contribute to its uniqueness and beauty. The canals are the main narrative, but there is so much more; there are so many layers to it, and so many inventions within it.

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Many architects' work is described as poetic, often without much of an explanation. In my view poetry in architecture comes from its ability to re-present reality to us in a slightly absurd, unexpected way, either through the collage of different realities or, like Calvino, by highlighting certain aspects of a building and forcing us to confront them in isolation, to the point that they take over the narrative. When done right, it is subtle yet self-evident to the discerning eye.

Practicing architecture in a highly regulated urban environment such  as Washington DC, can make one forget the importance of absurdity in architecture. We are expected to design buildings that fit in, don't offend, don't provoke, that are respectful, and certainly not daring, and are often criticized for not doing so. This is particularly the case when proposing interventions on existing buildings, combining old and new, or working in a Historic District. I tend to be somewhat fearless about doing major surgery on older buildings, and non-apologetic about proposing contemporary buildings in Historic contexts. A linear, singular narrative seems to be the only thing people comprehend, preferably one about a bi-gone era. Most of us know that simply regurgitating the past, and designing for crowd pleasing is not how good architecture, or good cities are made. Good architecture, good cities are complex, layered, and absurd, not linear, precious, or apologetic.

Venice is bold in its absurdity, in its refusal to simply be like other cities. Imagine if Venice had never existed and someone proposed building it today in one shot, what kind or censorship would they have encountered? Obviously, Venice, like other great European cities, emerged organically over centuries. Luckily, they were never subjected to an ANC or Historic Preservation review. No one tried to oppose building Venice say for safety reasons, or to preserve the marsh, or to claim the streets are too narrow. It would have never existed. The fact that Venice is a whole city, not just a building, makes its existence even more implausible. Yet it exists, in all its beautiful absurdity, at least for now. 

For better or for worse, Venice is now one of the most protected cities in the world, and one that it is virtually impossible to build anything new in. Its evolution has been halted, and it is now an object to be consumed by mass tourism. What would have happened if that were not the case? Would another layer of passageways/bridges have been built at a higher level, would the roofs have become connected between themselves providing more options for mobility? Where would the seeming absurdity have ended? Would it have ended at all? Would it be less or more memorable if it had continued to evolve?

Often people confuse beauty with appearance, hence the urge to freeze it in time, to mummify it. To me beauty has always been much more about substance, especially when it comes to architecture. By halting a city's natural evolution in order to preserve it, you can also kill its soul. Mummies are dead, after all. Venice has plenty of substance, and will forever be beautiful, but it will never be more beautiful than it is today. Luckily, there is still  plenty of room for growth and invention elsewhere.

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I'm glad I took the time to drop in, even if only for a short while. 

Building Blocks

In the process of adapting the design of a prototypical row house to different site conditions including topography, scale, zoning constraints and programmatic requirements, we have recently developed a series of row house typologies, some of which are illustrated here. 

 TYPE 1, 1A

TYPE 1, 1A

    TYPE 2, 2A

 

TYPE 2, 2A

 TYPE 3

TYPE 3

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Type 1 consists of single family row house dwellings with rear loading garages on a hilly site. In response to the rhythm of row houses on surrounding blocks, and as is common in traditional row house typologies, bay windows are employed as means to break down scale and animate the streetscape.  In Type 1 the bay window spans the height of the top two floors.

Given the length of this particular development, and the fact that the site topography along the row varies significantly from one end of to the other, a secondary type (1A) was developed, in which the bay window changes in elevation and encompasses the lower level and 1st floor, with an open balcony above. The end result is a playful rhythm along the length of the block that helps to animate the streescape while mitigating the changes in elevation between adjacent row houses.

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Type 2 is a variation of Type 1. In this case the garages are front loading. The desire for shared curb-cuts for garage access brought upon the need to mirror the row houses side by side, hence the variation.

As with Type 1, bay windows are employed. In order to avoid creating the appearance of double wide row houses given the mirroring, here the bay windows are differentiated in their massing (2 tall versus 1  w/ balcony), and the color of the siding material varies. Adjacent garage entrances are slipped from front to back with respect to each other, further breaking down the scale of the 2 row-house module and creating an interesting figure/ground effect that further dematerializes the module.

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Type 3 is a 2-family variation, in which a cellar level was added, raising the main floor about 4 feet above grade. This development consists of 2 row houses only, so the need for variety was lessened.

In response the two story scale along the street of this development and the typical covered entrances, the bay windows here have morphed into a larger element that  provides cover at the front door while creating balconies above. The main body of the buildings recede 3 feet back, allowing for the 2 story continuity along the street wall.

Urban Rhythms

We currently have several multi-family projects on the boards at ARC-T, ranging from multi unit building renovations/additions to multiple row house developments. Like typical row houses throughout Washington DC, these projects were conceived of as variations on type, adapting in response to program, zoning regulations, and site context. The projects are in varying stages of development, and are expected to be completed this Spring/Summer.

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14TH ST NW - demolition under way

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SHERMAN AVE NW - pre-construction

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E ST SE - pre-construction

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WEST ST SE - conceptual design

 

Form Follows Thought

No offense, Mies, but in my opinion 'Form Follows Function' doesn't tell the full story. It's a powerful phrase, and it summed up the intent of design in the machine age, but it implies linearity in the design process.  Mies' buildings are stunning works of art, and I would argue they were driven by more than function. After all, architecture is more interesting than pure engineering, in which form only follows function. I would argue that in architecture Form Follows Function and Function Follows Form, and it goes on and on like that in a somewhat circular fashion until the design problem is solved. Form and Function inform and reinforce each other. Although function certainly comes before form, recognizing the power of form and treating it as an equally important participant, and not merely as the result of function, can help to propel function itself to an entirely new level. That's how inventions come about, for example.

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