By Galo Canizares, designer, writer, and MIT alumnus (MArch 2014)
For a typical young architecture office, the sequence of events leading to professional maturity often feels formulaic: start by designing installations, scale up to interiors, and eventually graduate into the single-family house — the hope being that each project will evince a singular train of thought or what academics call a project with a capital “P”. Some watershed moments along this professional trajectory are marked by prestigious commissions or winning competitions. Others are designated by receiving one of many prizes acknowledging promising work. Somewhere along the way there might be group shows or solo exhibitions, culminating in the academically sought-after monograph. In the case of WOJR (William O’Brien Jr.’s Organization for Architecture), their most recent publication, Room for Artifacts (Park Books, 2016), signals precisely this familiar coming-of-age narrative. It is a denouement after which the office can no longer be labeled a “young practice.”
On the surface, Room for Artifacts is a simple book. It presents sixteen projects designed from 2008 through 2016, with one image per page, and a set of critical essays by John McMorrough, Dora Epstein Jones, and Nader Tehrani. Its timing will also catch no one off guard. The monograph comes at a point when O’Brien’s office is quite prominent on the East Coast (and as Epstein Jones comments, has recently been welcomed into West Coast circles). The firm’s numerous accolades include two PS1 Young Architects Program invitations, the Architectural League Prize, a Design Vanguard Award, and a Rome Prize Fellowship. It looks like WOJR’s professional trajectory is going perfectly according to our aforementioned formula. As is typically the case with much of O’Brien’s work, however, an inescapable air of mysticism surrounds the book, leading one to believe that this is no ordinary monograph.
Take, for instance, the matter of structure. Beginning with its table of contents, Room for Artifacts immediately asks us to contemplate its organization, specifically the author’s choice to include a perfectly square number of projects. For a firm with nine years’ worth of installations, exhibitions, and built work, the paring down of their oeuvre to 16 hints at some ulterior motive.
Perhaps it has something to do with mysticism. We know that perfect squares are a staple of the architectural mystic — think Louis Kahn and John Hejduk’s four and nine-square grid obsessions — and that many of the office’s projects revolve around harmonics and symmetry. Some even reference numbers’ symbolic power (Seven: A Numbers Game, Seven Objects Since Rome, Five & One). Thus it would be trivial to assume that 16 was arrived at haphazardly given WOJR’s awareness of the meaning behind certain numerals.
Elsewhere in the table of contents, another numerical oddity emerges. Each project is associated with three nonsequential page numbers, suggesting that each appears thrice throughout the book. O’Brien has evidently assembled his content into a triptych; a classical technique for representing a work of art in three panels.
He admits to this unusual albeit precise organization in his introduction, stating that the diagrams, drawings, and images have been arranged as such to construct a tripartite dialogue on architectural representation. In short, the organizational strategy reveals a desire to both represent and re-present.
So what about the three texts? Typically, essays in monographs are said to exist alongside the projects, to offer either a critical introduction or conclusion. For example, in Peter Eisenman’s Houses of Cards (which follows a similar triad of diagrams, drawings, and images), three essays by Manfredo Tafuri, Rosalind Krauss, and Eisenman himself are relegated to the book’s rear, as if to offer a final verdict on the work you have just witnessed. Again, here WOJR plays with expected norms. The projects are no more accompanied by the essays than they are framed by them. In fact, the introduction and three critiques establish an A-B-A-B-A-B-A rhythm where A is a text and B is a set of representations.
Of course, this structural game has its roots in O’Brien’s background in music, but it also recalls Eisenman’s formal analysis techniques, in which rhythmic notation was translated into built form. Seeing as WOJR’s affinity for harmonic progressions and proportion drives a majority of the design work, it would make sense for the monograph to follow a similar line of reasoning. And this is the crux of Room for Artifacts: the book is itself an artifact, created using the same logic as the projects it hosts.
Yet despite this clarity of vision, it sometimes feels as if O’Brien is being deliberately redundant with respect to his projects. For instance, let’s look at the firm’s online portfolio. In addition to exhibiting an elegant arrangement of the work to date, it also contains the exact drawings and images collected in Room for Artifacts. It would be frivolous to assume that this is simply an exercise in re-presentation — or worse, an oversight.
In reality, WOJR circumvents the need to publish never-before-seen content as a means to add value by coyly addressing a question haunting contemporary publishing. Namely, what is the merit of producing a printed catalog of projects in the digital era? The publication is therefore used as an opportunity to revisit and scrutinize one of the tenets of their practice: the making of artifacts. Or put another way, the book is not simply another site for exhibiting the work, but rather a medium through which to reevaluate those other mystical qualities inherent to the artifacts themselves.
From the change in paper weight to the grammatical structure of the project captions, each element feels hand-picked and curated to exemplify an ability to hold meaning. The precision with which the 16 objects were chosen, arranged, and printed is evident page after page. They eschew any hierarchical progression and exist as graphic aphorisms or palindromes that can be read in almost any direction.
As a result, these representational maneuvers introduce a sense of otherness into the work that may not necessarily exist on a screen. Online we expect a certain dynamism, a hypertextual experience that takes full advantage of nonlinear flows of information. Thus WOJR’s intention with Room for Artifacts is to respond to this condition by destabilizing the logic of the portfolio (both digital and physical) and reassessing the (re)presentation of their projects through the making of another artifact. O’Brien’s mysticism is most obvious here.
Like John Hejduk’s masque catalogs, Buckminster Fuller’s I Seem to Be a Verb, or Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Massage, all of which distort the traditional presentation of design projects, Room for Artifacts is a book not meant to be read linearly (page numbers are rarely present throughout). It is instead an archeological artifact to be examined, flipped backward, turned upside-down, browsed, and felt. As such, it is paradoxically more dynamic than their web presence, and certainly much more mysterious.