Finding the Human Form

I finished an excellent book this weekend, The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. There is so much I want to say about it because it made me think deeply and differently about architecture. What I appreciated is that the author actually attempts to explain the psychology behind why we find certain buildings beautiful and how beauty is linked to goodness and, ultimately, happiness. More on that another week.

One of the chapters entitled “Talking Buildings” discusses how abstract sculptures convey meaning. Understanding how simple steel, concrete, or wood objects speak can help us understand how larger-scale objects (like houses and buildings) convey meaning through the arrangement of 3-D materials into form.

de Botton argues that everyday objects speak to us—whether it be a chair, a window, an arch, a lamp—because even though inanimate, these objects tell us something about being human. These objects have human forms hidden in their wood, concrete, glass, metal, etc.

To feel that a building is unappealing may simply be to dislike the temperament of a creature of human we dimly recognise in its elevation—just as to call another edifice beautiful is to sense the presence of a character we would like if it took on living form. What we search for in a work of architecture is not in the end so far from what we search for in a friend. The objects we describe as beautiful are versions of the people we love.

We recognize the human form in the slightest hint of an abstract object. We take slender legs of an antique table for a feminine, elegant character, and a wide, solid armchair as a stout, stubbornly old man.

an elegant, refined soul with a propensity for heels

old and set in his ways

Since reading the book, I’m having fun analyzing the objects in my apartment. What does my couch/reading chair/coffee table/lamp/bookcase say about what/whom I find attractive? Which of my friends would represent these objects?

So when walking around VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver today, I had my eye out for the human forms portrayed in the abstract art exhibit Touch Wood scattered throughout the 50 acres of gardens. The 20+ pieces were built by BC artists and made of salvaged, recycled, or scavenged wood to reflect the garden’s environmental mandate (you can read all about the award-winning architecture of the new petal-shaped visitor centre here.)

VanDusen Botanical Gardens’ Visitor Centre

It wasn’t difficult to find the human form in these sculptures, since many are explicitly made to look like humans.

I initially read “Confidence” to mean “someone who’s confident” but I couldn’t really find signs of this attribute in the figures. Then when I looked at it again when going over my photos, I interpreted it more as meaning “In confidence.” The two forms leaning in towards one another slightly—woman on the left with a curvy profile; taller man on the right with a rectangular profile.

The man and woman are given the same weight though. When I say weight, I mean mass or presence. Both hold their own, sharing a secret tryst in the woods as equals. In this way, maybe they also embody “confidence” whilst sharing something in confidence.

“Nine Sentinels” was one of my favourites. Sentinel: “a soldier or guard whose job is to stand and keep watch.”

I couldn’t help but recall the Council of Elrond in Lord of the Rings, a circular gathering to decide the fate of the ring where tall and slender, distinguished characters like Elrond collide with bulbous balls of stocky energy like Gimli.

Elrond in the foreground; Gimli behind

Elrond

Gimli

Gimli

Speaking of councils, this next one displayed on the Great Lawn is called “Council of Elders,” although I still think the LOTR connection is more pronounced in “Nine Sentinels.” These elders look older, wiser, more distinguished, more uniform, like they’d have less disagreements. I picture some of them with capes.

“Archetype” reminds me of the mannequins you see in clothing stores, waiting to be dressed; a blank slate from which to start the creative process. Archetype: “a very typical example of a certain person or thing” or to go Jungian on you because I think it might apply here: “a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.” Even the gender isn’t as apparent in this work. We look at this piece and we immediately recognize the human form, even without the head. It shows we don’t need all the parts to make a comprehensive whole. We read symbols all the time and draw conclusions.

IMG_6115 IMG_6116

There were many more sculptures but unfortunately my camera battery died on me halfway through my walk, but I think the examples above give you an idea of how the human form exists in “non-human” materials like wood. de Botton paraphrases from psychoanalytic critic Adrian Stokes who offered an interpretation of Barbara Hepworth’s Two Segments and a Sphere. Stokes’ conclusion, de Botton writes, is that

if a sculpture touches us . . . it may be because we unconsciously understand it as a family portrait. The mobility and chubby fullness of the sphere subtly suggest to us a wriggling fat-cheeked baby, while the rocking ample forms of the segment have echoes of a calm, indulgent, broad-hipped mother. We dimply appreciate in the whole a central theme of our lives. We sense a parable in stone about motherly love.

Two Segments and a Sphere by Barbara Hepworth. 1936.

What parables do the objects around you speak about?

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the people are the city

The Wall on the CBC Plaza, Vancouver

“the people are the city” by Paul de Guzman, 2013

 

red letters by Charlene Kwiatkowski

 

on Hamilton Street in Yaletown

red letters on a concrete wall

reach me with their lower-case lives

 

not big enough to record in history books

but big enough to stop me

a traffic light on the street

 

that’s me on the ladder

that’s you measuring the frame

that’s him showing us where to lay the beam

 

we are building on a building

stories in a story

texts on an architext

 

isn’t this an image of us all

working on our lower-case lives

carpenter clothes like lab coats

 

experimenting with an idea

incomplete, we can’t see

but we dream dream dream

 

the excitement is building

the building is excitement

we are the building

 

but look at all the walls

we don’t touch, talk about, or share

and this image is not at all like us

 

people work together

people work together

people work together

 

is this real or wishful thinking?

is the city plural?

are we together or are we alone together?

 

say it three times

the holy trinity of incantation

that makes the imagined real

 

read the red letters

again and again

and again

 

Description of The Wall. Click the picture for a bigger view.

The artist’s statement, which ties into my poem. Clicking on the picture will take you to a website where you can also read it.

Teardrop Windows Crying in the Sky

How many times do musicians write an entire song devoted to a building? I can think of the occasional reference (e.g. FUN.’s “We Are Young” – my friends are in the bathroom getting higher than the Empire State), but not one sustained throughout a whole song.

Then when listening to 102.7 the Peak, their “1 thing about 1 song” feature came on which I’m always eager to hear since I love discovering the stories behind songs. So I learned about “Teardrop Windows” by Benjamin Gibbard that personifies the Smith Tower in Seattle.

Smith Tower: the hero in this story

Completed in 1914, it reached 38 stories and 149 metres – the oldest and tallest skyscraper in the city and on the West Coast until the Space Needle overtook it in 1962. It’s a rather sad song that goes in circles. The Smith Tower starts off lonely because there are no other friends to share the view with when it’s first built. Then the Space Needle comes and steals the view. Teardrop windows of the Smith Tower are left vacant, Seattle rain falling from their shutters. The building goes from lonely to lonely.

Space Needle: the antihero

Gibbard gives the Smith Tower such character, as if it’s a real person – not just named after a real person, Lyman Cornelius Smith. He gives the building architexture. His song demonstrates how similar people and buildings really are – the same relationship the Argentinian movie Sidewalls emphasized.

This story makes me want to drive down to Seattle and give the neoclassical building some love. Who doesn’t love the fallen hero? I also want to ride its elevators that are still operated by people (yes, actual people!), or at least were as of 2008 according to Wikipedia.

Elevator operators in the Smith Tower, Seattle – one of the last buildings on the West Coast to use them.

I even love the slogan on the Tower’s website. Instead of “brand new” which is such overused marketing speak, they call it Grand Old. Grand New. Simply Grand. There’s so much nostalgia captured in that phrase. Grand has that connotation: magnificent, eminent, distinguished, but also old. Like a grandfather. Like a person with many years, like a building with many stories. Forgotten stories to pass down to a younger generation with eyes open wide like windows. To fill.

Teardrop windows cryin’ in the sky
He is all alone and wonderin’ why
Ivory white but feelin’ kind of blue

Cause there’s no one there to share the view

There’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And as the sun sets over the sound
He just goes to sleep

Built and boast as the tallest on the coast
He was once the city’s only toast
On old postcards, was positioned as a star
He was looked up to with fond regard

But in 1962, the needle made its big debut
And everybody forgot what it outgrew

He wonders where the workers are
Who once filled every floor
The elevators operate
But don’t much anymore
Anymore
Anymore

Teardrop windows cryin’ in the sky
How the years have quickly past her by
Gleaming white ‘gainst the deepest baby blue
He is lonely just like me and you

Cause there’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And as the sun sets over the sound
He just goes to sleep

There’s too many vacancies
He’s been feelin’ oh so empty
And when the maids they turn out the lights
He just goes to sleep

-“Teardrop Windows” by Benjamin Gibbard

Sidewalls

Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, and if you’re looking for a quirky, indie-type film about finding love in the age of urban alienation, I recommend Sidewalls (2011). It’s in subtitles. I’m not just recommending it for couples — in fact, I think it appeals more to those who often find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to love. Like the store windows Mariana designs and displays her mannequins in, the film navigates that lost space between inside and outside where you don’t really know what space you want to stand in and commit to. You want the city to see you but you also want it to swallow you.

I knew nothing about Buenos Aires before watching the film. I still don’t know much, but I did learn that it is a poorly planned city, a hodgepodge of architectural styles that looks like a blindfolded kid was handed way too many pictures and not enough cardboard and was told to make a collage. Just glue them all down!

Next to a tall one, a small one.
Next to a rational one, an irrational one.
Next to a French one, one with no style at all.
These irregularities probably reflect us perfectly. A esthetic and ethical irregularities. These buildings, which adhere to no logic, represent bad planning. Just like our lives:
We have no idea how we want them to be. We live as if Buenos Aires were a stopover. We’ve created a “culture of tenants”. (Martin)

the sidewalls between Martin’s and Mariana’s apartment buildings

There’s one way out of the oppression that results from living in a shoebox. An escape route: Illegal, like all escape routes. In clear violation of urban planning norms, there are a few tiny, irregular, irresponsible windows that let a few miraculous rays of light into our darkness. (Mariana)

You can probably already tell the film delves into the philosophical – and, of course, the architectural. I really liked the emphasis on how the architecture of the city reflects the architecture of our lives. People are not that different from buildings.

Martin and Mariana live in next-door apartment buildings and are perfect for each other in a city where they keep meeting other people who aren’t perfect for them. The only problem is Martin and Mariana have never met. A sidewall (medianeras) between their buildings separates or connects them, depending on which way you look at it.

I responded to the film with a poem. It probably only makes sense if you’ve seen the movie and, if you have seen it, you’ll recognize some lines taken directly from it:

Sidewalls by Charlene Kwiatkowski

power lines crisscross

rooftop to rooftop

apartment to apartment

 

buildings stack like dirty dishes

new china with old paris

a leaning tower of pizza

 

there is no view

behind this curtain of concrete

 

where’s waldo?

you find him at the airport, at the beach, at the mall,

but never in the city

 

if you can’t find a person when you know who you’re looking for

how can you find a person when you don’t know who you’re looking for?

 

winter is always long

full of existential questions

 

where’s waldo?

are his red and white stripes

these power lines connecting us

or dividing?

 

these buildings like faces

fronts and backs

boarded-up entrances

we don’t use anymore

 

we slip in and out by the sidewall

walk the same street, watch the same people

live such parallel lives

our lines never meet

 

Don’t let my poem mislead you though – watch the film yourself. And on the subject of side-by-side lives, check out this piece.

Talking through Walls

How do you renovate a historic building to respond to structural concerns while still keeping its heritage look that people have come to know and love?

This is an old architectural dilemma that frequently comes up for those involved in restoration work.

Take the Victoria Memorial Museum Building in Ottawa (more commonly known as the  Museum of Nature).

Museum of Nature

Canadian Museum of Nature

Built between 1905 and 1911, it mimics the Neo-Gothic Parliament buildings on the opposite end of Metcalfe Street:

Parliament, Ottawa

and the Beaux-Arts museums of its day, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Unfortunately, the Museum of Nature was built on bad foundation that started sinking a century later and endangering its one-of-a-kind collection of minerals and fossils inside — including those of a huge blue whale.

real skeleton of a blue whale

The top of the museum’s tower already had to be removed back in 1915 because it was too heavy for its unstable clay foundation.

The solution: seismic upgrades that blend the old with the new. People liked the original Gothic tower that fit with the building’s crenelated, castle-like roofline, and so the three principal architects (Bruce Kuwabara, Marc Letellier, and Barry Padolsky) erected a new, lighter tower to recall the building’s history while simultaneously evoking the museum’s future.

3 stages of the tower. © Canadian Museum of Nature

The renovations to this building weren’t completed by the time I finished my undergrad at Carleton, so when I returned to Ottawa for a visit last fall, this museum was one of the first places I checked out. Coming from Vancouver, it was odd to see this conservative city pull a signature Vancouver with the bold addition of a glass box or a “glass menagerie” as a Carleton architectural prof called it in this article.

The Museum is an example of a palimpsest – a word my sister once unforgettably referred to as “a gross combination of pimp and incest.” Ah, sisters. I spent grad school writing about palimpsests and the word has never sounded the same to me since.

example of a palimpsest – Codex Guelferbytanus B 00474

It actually means “any surface that has been altered or reused while still retaining traces of its earlier form.” It could be a writing surface, like in the picture above, or a building surface. The preservation of heritage buildings are often great (or not so great) examples of palimpsests.

With the addition of the glass tower called the Queen’s Lantern to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Victoria Memorial Museum, the Museum of Nature is a not so subtle palimpsest – a dialogue between cultural memory and present renewal. Of form and function. Before the Lantern, there was only public access to the second floor. Now the Lantern houses a much-needed staircase to provide access to all the upper floors.

And let me tell you, climbing that butterfly staircase to the lookout platform had something sacred about it. Cathedralesque. Maybe because the windows echoed the stained glass windows in a church.

cathedral windowsI had a similar feeling when I walked the ramp of the National Gallery. Maybe that’s not such a coincidence – both the National Gallery and Museum of Nature are important cultural landmarks that now have a glass affinity to one another.

National Gallery of CanadaIt’s fascinating how one building can reference so many other contexts. Here’s a historic fun fact that further connects the Museum of Nature to the Parliament buildings: it was the emergency meeting place for MPs and Senators when the Parliament buildings burnt down in 1916. The new glass tower in 2010 was meant to face the Centre Block’s tower as they both bookend Metcalfe Street, as if the two buildings really are talking to each other across time and space.

Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

So what do you think – is this conversation working?

The Excitement is Building

If I was into Lego, I would be all over this new Architecture series, launched in 2008.

On their website, they have over a dozen products including the Burj Khalifa, the Sydney Opera House, Fallingwater, Robie House, Big Ben, the Seattle Space Needle, Brandenburg Gate, the Guggenheim Museum, Rockefeller Center, the White House, and more.

Big Ben:

Big Ben

Big Ben. Neo-Gothic clock tower in London. 1843-1859. By Augustus Pugin and Charles Barry.

Rockefeller Center:

Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center – 19 commercial buildings over 22 acres led by Raymond Matthewson Hood. Modern, Art Deco style. 1930-39. New York.

Lego store in Rockefeller Center

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum:

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum by Frank Lloyd Wright. 1943-1959. Art museum, New York.

Villa Savoye:

Villa Savoye

Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier. Modernist style. 1928-31. Country residence, outskirts of Paris.

Farnsworth House:

Farnsworth House

Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe. Modernist style. 1945-51. Glass pavilion/one-room weekend retreat outside of Chicago.

Fallingwater:

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater – most famous private residence. Pennsylvania.

Kids have the coolest toys these days. I’m sure this new series actually appeals more to adults though–the styles of these structures, the materials used, why they’re landmarks, etc. To apppreciate the significance of a house built above a waterfall, so that the inhabitants would hear nature instead of just see it, or an art museum that orients the viewer to experience a new way of walking and viewing an art gallery–in circles.

If you visit the Lego website, you can learn a bunch of cool facts about the buildings and the stories behind them. What a way to make architecture come alive to young, curious minds and small, active hands.