Packed

The Architecture of WOJR

Image for post
Image for post
Totems, maquettes

By Dora Epstein Jones, architectural theorist, historian, and executive director of the A+D Museum in Los Angeles

It’s been thirty-eight years since Dean MacCannell’s postmodernism-inspiring The Tourist and 500+ years since the original tourist, Christopher Columbus, sailed at least one sea; and yet, it appears that we still have tourists among us, even now, in this global age. A “tourist” is not just some snap-happy selfie-seeking opportunist, sleeping and eating across the continents. A “tourist” is the quintessential consumer (and hence producer) of culture, carrying away his trophies gained sometimes through cunning exploitation, leaving behind a place and culture changed by his credit-charged presence, reproducing the toured in his hometown as curiosity and sign. Tourism is not neutral. Tourism is almost never benign. All colonialists are tourists. Not all flaneurs are tourists (most aren’t), but most tourists behave as if they were flaneurs.

The history of architecture could well be the history of tourism. We cannot imagine Palladio without the ruins of Greece, or Piranesi without a meandering eye in Rome. The Prix de Rome, the central hall of the École des Beaux Arts, Thomas Cole’s 1820 painting The Architect’s Dream . . . they all speak to an era of classicism contemporaneous to the Grand Tour. Modern architecture is itself a tourist (of the ugliest kind). Le Corbusier’s fantasy of American pragmatism or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Japan-a-mania — any kind of the-grass-is-greener regionalism was probably tourism. Venturi, Scott-Brown, Rauch, and their little family of students were tourists driving around in Las Vegas. Banham was definitely a tourist in the West. Almost any mimesis or historical referent in columns, entablatures, reliefs, and domes that are then quoted elsewhere (i.e., the majority of Western architecture from Alberti to Graves) are touristically charged — historically, as souvenir or spoil.

There was a time when architecture was comfortable with tourism, if for no other reason than the fact that tourism implied a direct encounter with history. In fact, architecture relied on history as a source of meaning and, without question, as a source for its forms. In classicism, as the name implies, the historicity of the forms, and the closeness with ideal referents, was an essential aspect of anything to be called “architecture.” International style modernism (ugly tourists) outwardly rejected the temporal backwardness of history, but the mark of novelty that made it “modern” was, in part, a result of a glancing-away from historical forms — a column narrowed into a piloti or marble reduced to a planar slab — a recognizable, codified revision. In postmodernism, history and codification, canon and “A”rchitecture, of course became “embroiled” — the Tendenza, English town planning, new urbanism, Charles Jencks’ metaphors, Manfredo Tafuri’s labyrinth . . . So much so that the contemporary generation (us) inherited a scene not unlike arriving to a Thanksgiving dinner four hours late: Arguments have been had without you, and all you know is not to mention “you know what” to “you know whom.” Tourism was an ethnocentric dig at postmodernist pastiche (just visitin’). Criticism was ok; theory was an impossibility; historical research was bad unless it was made critically virtuous by, first, gleaning only from popular culture of the postwar period, and second, not using the dreaded archive. “Research” sounded better, if only it remained aloof and objective and driven solely by projective speculation. And so, in the spirit of non-tradition, fully immersed in the production of innovation, motivated by the beauty of forms, we, the late arrivals, went where we should not have gone: We went to Rome.

William O’Brien Jr. and his firm WOJR first captured our attention with a series of the most unlikely creatures to occupy the digital stage: columns. The single-surface, rendered environment of the digital age, intended to make the column obsolete. Instead, inspired by the very contrarian nature that defined our pedagogy, the column returned. In the hands of WOJR, the column was not the load-bearing mother-in-law of order and signification, but rather an exercise in the exact concerns of the digital age: the changing geometries of an extrusion, the filling of space in a diffuse field, the abstraction of index and code into the peculiar and local shapes of a process based in somewhat accidental differentiation. Aptly, O’Brien named them “Totems.” Totems, like totem poles, are thought to be storytellers. However, as Lévi-Strauss argued, totems are part of a classificatory system based on shape names rather than function, structuralist langue rather than local meaning. Totems themselves have very little meaning, but they can carry all kinds of sacred and cultural connotations. In most cases, as Freud noted earlier, totems are a prehistoric signal of the sacred and of cultural taboo. O’Brien created these Totems while in Rome.

Image for post
Image for post
Totems, drawing
Image for post
Image for post
Totems, Zoellner Arts Center

Following Rome, in the summer of 2015, those of us in Los Angeles, the furthest coast from history, were treated to O’Brien’s version of the family trip slideshow in the form of a gallery exhibit at Jai & Jai in Chinatown. The little hallway of light that is the gallery doesn’t need much to fill it, but this exhibition only occupied a small part of the available real estate. In fact, it was part of a larger exhibition that happened in Boston and represented the amount of material from that show that would fit in the car of O’Brien’s Project Architect John David Todd, who drove it all across the country. It was somewhat reminiscent of George Carlin’s monologue about “stuff,” and the ever decreasing piles of “stuff” that represent our belongings as we move from place to place — or, to be more precise, the sense of taking only what would fit in a suitcase or car. It wasn’t much: seven pieces — “artifacts,” as WOJR describe them — seven of the sixteen that would not all fit.

The seven artifacts were laid out in dinner party fashion — each object on the long central table matched its representational devices on the wall: Fortress, Hut, Church, Mask, Dwelling, Labyrinth, and Five & One. Because the objects were fairly simple (a clutch of eggs, a long house, etc.) and the drawings were more elaborate and intricate, the gallery visitor would participate in a kind of referential exchange between the object and the drawings. Instead of seeing the object as an endpoint model, it was used as a primitive for the generation of the drawings — what WOJR refer to as the “three-dimensional abstract genesis.” The “normal” line of succession from object to drawing was thus inverted: the objects are not the project’s terminus, i.e., the project does not end with the object.

Image for post
Image for post
Artifacts: Seven Objects Since Rome, Jai & Jai Gallery

In his 1934 utopian Rush City, Richard Neutra refused the idea of the passenger terminal and rightly observed that there was no “terminal” point in travel. He called his vehicular stations “transfers” and used a heavy black outline to describe a travel flow. The drawing in Neutra’s hand is rushed, hurried, a manifesto of a drawing with a hastiness that could only be ascribed to its urgency. WOJR’s drawings are also transfers, but they are the opposite of rushed. They are iterative, but not at all hasty. WOJR has a heavy hand, graphically, with no fear of ultra-black lines and gradients. The optics are dense and intense, and even the “plans” form a stark contrast against the whiteness of the picture plane. The drawings appear open-ended in intent, but hermetic in spirit. One gets the feeling that their only real enemy may be poor print quality.

Image for post
Image for post
Mask, drawing

Seven Artifacts and, in fact, most of the work of WOJR resists direction. It is instead a transformational exercise in calibrating qualities — qualities that have belonged to architecture “since Rome”: axiality, symmetry, figure, primitive. Unlike their postmodern predecessors there is little, if any, codification of elements, very little representational vocabulary. They are dead earnest, like a four-star hotel that has recently been demoted a star. Even O’Brien refers to them as “deadpan.” The rigor is obvious and unrelenting. The forms are direct and literal. A labyrinth is labyrinthine. The triangle is still a triangle over here and over there. They aren’t quite abstractions, if only because they are very elaborate. This literalness is carried into the drawings as if they were actually plans (they have couches!), thus forcing one to see the density of lines, or the block print, as a kind of elevation below it. It’s unnerving how something so literal also seems so transformable. On the other hand, the idea that the discipline can support such transformation, without directional imperatives, is refreshing and new.

Image for post
Image for post
Fortress, aerial view

Tourism studies today, post-MacCannell, are of course becoming more complex. The seeming unidirection of modern tourism is not as tenable in an age of instantaneous communication. If the tourist has been the locus of the production and reproduction of a Western mode of modernity, then the Othering of the toured was sustained definitively, that is, through its opposition. In a world where we can now Skype with someone in Bangalore to fix our print quality in London, difference-as-opposition is much harder to maintain. The Westernness of the West proliferates into and among the Easternness of the East with such fluidity that discernment has become, at times, impossible.

So, if we extend the tourism analogy to the mimetic quotation of “precedents” in architecture, the fluidity of discernment that pervades global culture today also troubles the direction of attributive characteristics. For the classicists, precedent was subject number one of architectural theory — the correctness of the character translated directly into the rightness, or right character, of the building. In contemporary architecture, however, the emphasis on innovation in form-making, and the priority for the arbitrary and meaning-free, necessarily implies that we are no longer captivated by mimesis. So . . . can we still be tourists?

The short answer is “yes.” Architects are tourists, still. Many cultural producers are tourists, if that’s the case, for what once was considered derivative is now a clever quotation, a sample, a reference, or a preference for a niche. The longer answer is the one proposed through the earnest and rigorous works of WOJR and their many disciplinary qualities. In the critical period of the late twentieth century, the period from which rose The Tourist, as well as Baudrillard’s America and Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality, the place of the mobile consumer of goods and trinkets was a privileged fixture, a trinket-taker. The production of the Western modern Self had depended on the exercise of that privilege, and the direct consequence of that privileging and taking was a skin-crawling, violence-inducing, cultural exploitation horror. But architecture, and its reproductions, is hardly as irresponsible and slovenly as a bunch of kids from Ball State on Spring Break. Architectural tourism, as WOJR show us, is positive and rewarding, complex and rich.

In the gallery space of a hipster edging into Chinatown with a cup of jasmine tea in one hand and a pack of Gitanes in the other, the literal feel to the objects and their representations doubly enforce their immigrant status, if you can call a Cantabridgian an “immigrant.” Here on the West Coast we like our forms a little less restrained. We’re never really happy with just a sphere or a triangle. Instead, we like to project the object back on itself, make it fold, do a backbend, and then say, “Wow, look it made a figure, man.” Literalness is ok, but only if it’s also a misreading. Jimenez Lai saw hearts in the roof of the little house, which probably means that the transplant has taken successfully. It also means that first impressions are not the same as lasting ones. Part of the message of the work of WOJR is sometimes “lost” on West Coast audiences, not unlike the difference between a book and the movie versions, or Preston Scott Cohen versus Eric Owen Moss. Maybe West Coasters have shorter attention spans, are more impatient, playful, or more easily impressed by trends.

The seven (of sixteen) artifacts are ringingly archetypal — the hut, the pyramid, the sphere. The operations are thoroughly and Platonically normative — bisecting, tracing, shadowing. Yet, the permutations of each are divergent and diverse — the gradient lineworks make the sphere and the pyramid appear to wobble and shake, the round torus in elevation appears as a straight bar, the finials extend on and on ad infinitum. While these optical effects may be the stuff of West Coast delight, and therefore suitable for the Chinatown hipster, the archetypal qualities also serve as a discrete and constant source code. For all of their literalness, everything is also discovered on the very terms in which it was found in Rome — buried, reflective, vernacular, resonant. If the Objects since Rome might first appear as souvenirs, it is important to recognize that these are not at all Greenbergian-level kitsch souvenirs. They are “artifacts” — a made art (factum) of archaeological or historical significance.

Image for post
Image for post
Fortress, gallery view

In Stanislavski’s theatrical method, the actor carries what is called a “loaded object.” A loaded object is usually small, but it transmits to the actor a memory of intense emotion and feeling. In touching the object or seeing it on the set, the actor can channel the feeling from the object’s association to the content of the scene. In a sad scene, repeated over and over, for every night plus two matinees on Sunday, a loaded object brings very real tears or very real joy. The Seven Artifacts, in a similar fashion, are architecturally loaded objects. They could be mistaken for other things: a donut, a nest, a puzzle; but to anyone enculturated in architecture, they are inextricably linked to a long and meaningful history, a history that can be tied to a particular place. They should not be Objects since Rome, they should be “Objects because Rome.”

Of course, the sobering thought is that architecture is still, at its base, a European import, and that the ramifications are that an abiding interest in the place of origin is the same as a hegemony of thought, practice, and action. But this is no longer the case. There was a time when the critical project of architecture demanded a super-sensitivity to cultural diversity in architecture, but with greater globalization and high-speed formal differentiation, our sensitivity should also be tuned towards preserving what made architecture “architecture” in the first place. Architecture borrows forms and trucks them back to the desk all the time — so much so, that we even have a word for it­ — “precedent” — which we use as neutrally as possible to indicate a mode of analysis and study. Or we abstract it even further, to say “primitive.” Architecture has archetypes. Architecture has a geographic center. As architects, we might still be tourists, but the discipline is hardly empty.

Image for post
Image for post
Dwelling, exterior visualization
Image for post
Image for post
Dwelling, interior visualization

This essay originally appeared in Room for Artifacts: The Architecture of WOJR (Park Books, 2016). All images courtesy of WOJR.

Written by

The MIT School of Architecture + Planning: Design is the space between people and their environment. This is our territory.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store