Monday, December 7, 2015

ON WEATHERING – BUILDINGS AND TIME



It was only a thin publication, but the name on the spine caught the eye – On Weathering. The title seemed too good for the book to be slotted in amongst all of the other recycled art books in this secondhand bookshop. The shelf was full of the usual Great Masters, Cathedrals of Britain, and the You too can be an Artist / How to Draw books that seem to inevitably find their way together into the cliché tatty rows of texts that have proven to be general failures – or was it the owners that were unsuccessful? This little book looked humiliated in this context. When removed and opened to be given the attention it seemed to require, one discovered a further disgrace: the leader page was doubly stamped CANCELLED in red around the title that hovered on cloudy paper; and the following title page was chunkily underscored with black, smudged stamp ink: ALBERT SHIRE LIBRARY SERVICE. Clearly no one wanted this little study. It had been discarded and had found its way into the world of Art for All and Sundry.

Maison du People (1937-1939)
Jean Prouvé et.al., Clichy, France

A quick flick through the book revealed many black and white, full-page photographs. The images were interesting. The subject was intriguing. The aging of buildings with time is a subject much neglected in our era that concentrates on slick appearances boldly promoted as the 'brand': the brand new, just finished, bold and glossy forms. Time changes appearances, but few want to talk about this fact. Only the present, and the next present, is of interest. Little wonder that the study had been discarded by the library service. Who in the Albert Shire, (now incorporated into the Gold Coast), or anywhere would want to borrow this today?

Casa del Girasole (1947-1950)
Luigi Moretti, Rome, Italy

The book was purchased and taken home to be perused and put aside for a time when it could be read. Corbusier, Fuller, Gropius, Wagner and Scarpa were mentioned, along with Alberti. The images were thumbed through. There were many different buildings and details in this array collected to illustrate weathering. It should be an interesting read: if not, the photographs alone were worth having.

Sanatorium Zonnestraal (1926-1931)
J. Duiker, et.al., Hilversum, Netherlands

Like most things put aside for tomorrow, they get neglected in favour of other interests that demand time until discovered again months, perhaps years later. This little book was no different. When moving a bookcase, this publication appeared on top of one pile by the sheer cross-sectional chance of grabbing manageable bundles of books to relocate. Now one had time to read this small publication that had such an interesting cover. On Weathering The Life of Buildings in Time was printed over an image of what one assumed to be a nicely patterned soiled facade. Looking at the rear page to discover what one was looking at was unhelpful: Cover photograph by Charles H. Tashima. Mmmm; why was there not more specific detail?

Palazzo Ducale (1340-1419)
Filippo Calendario, Venice, Italy

As one started to read the book, a vague sense of a rambling spirit encompassed the reader. Although the title was specific, the text seemed to start wandering off into other subjects. This did not make for uninteresting reading; but it did leave one perplexed, asking why the subject had been treated in almost an offhanded manner. One soon discovered that the photographs filling so much of the book, had been left stranded, rarely being referenced in the text, and titled formally only with subject, architect and location. It appeared that the reader had to use some creativity in understanding why a particular image had been chosen to be included. This felt particularly odd, since the images were of such a number as to make the publication look like a coffee table book: the photographs were the book. Yet, apart from the front cover image, no photograph had been given any accreditation. The front cover, the title page and the copyright page only mentioned Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow as the authors, no one else.

Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye before refurbishment.
Th authors get distracted by the issue of 'white'

Looking to the rear of the book, on page 139 that was followed by two blank pages, one found the Acknowledgements, all grandly titled with another separate, full page. A feeling of self-consciously filling up space arose. Was there a struggle to add more pages to match the number of those with photographs? The 'Acknowledgements' text told: Most of the photographs for this publication were especially commissioned. We owe a great depth of gratitude to Charles Tashima for his meticulous attention to detail and his passion and perseverance on a journey that followed our imaginary grand tour. Why was Charles not mentioned as one of the contributors? There are 75 photographs including a couple of graphic images in this book of 120 pages, plus notes and acknowledgements that boost the page count up to 139, with two blanks not numbered. More than half of the book is made up of photographs. Now it is not as though the text is crammed into the pages. The typical page has twenty-five lines with large top and bottom margins. The words are set out centrally in what is effectively a single column of what could be a two-column page, leaving huge side margins of blank space. The letters hang as a rectangle, a postcard in a self-conscious void of white. Assuming about 12 worlds per line and allowing for the blank pages, a quick calculation gives something like 12,000 words. This equates to a couple of blogs. Yet the photographer gets no recognition other than a mention on the rear cover, and with a 'thanks' on the last page of the book! Who are these authors?

Sant' Andrea (1472-1514)
Leon Battista Alberti, Mantua, Italy

The Acknowledgements continues, telling that: The text was developed during a series of visits to Cambridge and Philadelphia. The delights of these brief meetings would not have been possible without the generous and giving support of . . . etc. Were the authors a couple of pushy students keen to get into smart print with their ad hoc research developed from chats, as if it was important? The rear cover was checked. Gosh: Moshen Mostafavi is Associate Professor of Architecture and Director of the Master of Architecture 1 Programme at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. David Leatherbarrow is Chairman of the Department of Architecture and of the Program in Urban Design at the Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvannia. Given these credentials, one wondered why the book appeared so sloppy, amateurish, almost careless. Was it rushed? Why was the time not taken to explore weathering beyond a few 'brief meetings'? It is an important subject. The text mentioned very little of the mechanics or science of weathering, but the authors apparently had time and space to wander off into issues that seemed to be the potential subjects of other studies, like the modernist 'white' that sought moral and physical health; how we know buildings through photographs (Mies's Barcelona Pavilion); how Corb set up his internal images as still life photographs; how sun screening had to be added to Corb's Salvation Army Refuge; how Adolf Loos's white was different to Corb's; how the Loos interiors were the antithesis of Corb's; etc. It was only with Scarpa's work that it was mentioned specifically how the detail had been shaped to manage the flow of water and hence the staining. That the photograph of Otto Wagner's Anstaltskirche Heilig Leopold shows classic copper staining gets no mention in the text even tough the subject is raised, is astonishing; just as are all of the other obvious images of weathering that are rarely cross referenced or explained. One is left asking: What has one missed?

Page 41 What? Why? How? When?

These sundry subjects seemed to be diversions that had little to do with weathering. One was left trying to make a fit. It was not until page 41 that one discovered that the cover was an image of the facade of Marcel Breuer's Die Bijenkorf Department Store (1955-1957) in Rotterndam, Netherlands. There was no mention at all of what one was looking at in either the text or the title, although it appeared interesting. No material was mentioned; no explanation of what one assumed was staining was given: there was nothing but the patterning of the image for one to look at, even though this was the cover identity. The photograph just sits in the book alone, waiting for one to make guesses. The assumption is that the dirt is washed down from the top to an ever-greater accumulation of grime as it carries the particles to the lower panels of – what material; what detailing? It is susrprising that this book has been published by such academics. What was The MIT Press thinking? Was the publication edited, or did the material that was supplied to the publisher by the authors just get printed? The credits mention no graphic designer. Why would this acknowledgement be important when the photographer was seen as almost an aside?




The publication seems naive, somewhat indulgent. There are many images of old Italian buildings, a mix of Renaissance, Baroque and Mannerist structures. These are all very intriguing, and make it clear how Robert Venturi developed his thesis in Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, but they seem to be a part of something else too. Perhaps the clue is in the Acknowledgements? - a journey that followed our imaginary grand tour. What does this mean? Is this book truly interested in weathering, or merely the 'philosophy' of weathering along with other accumulated theoretical issues discussed by curious, chatting academics? This book has much of interest: the Alberti facade is stunning when viewed as a whole, in part, and as a drawing. It establishes a debate on joints, yet another possible separate study – see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/06/architecture-as-joints.html and highlights the post-modernist's delight in pieces and parts, assemblages, just as many of the other dramatic images do too.

Palazzo Rucellai (1446-1451) 
Leon Battista Alberti, Florence, Italy


Change with time

These visions are delightful, but what about weathering? Why is the subject left as a series of suggestions when it could have been much more rigorous? One is left wondering if the brief meetings . . . during a series of visits during which the text was developed were just natters over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. Did one author think that the other was going to do all of the editing, leaving the text as a rambling shambles of interesting things hovering around weathering? Surely MIT Press might have done better than to present what is such an important study as a casual chat illustrated with a set of almost unrelated, random photographs? This publication is a good example of why one should never judge a book by its cover, or its graphics. Still, it is worth perusing and pondering, for it does touch on many interesting matters that will have to be developed in depth by others. Is this the intent of the publication: to stimulate students? The authors are, after all, educators, and educators like to structure the world as a set of 'learning experiences' for others. Maybe the book should have been called just that: Learning Experiences Buildings and Time? This title might have better described the content.


Weathering as added character

Weathering as a stain



On Weathering can be summed up as briefly presenting the case for weathering to be seen as a staining, a deterioration in the appearance, or as an additional, enriching aesthetic quality. The publication suggests that the specific design approach and detailing will define how weathering has been perceived. Our era clearly sees it as a staining that destroys the perfection of the image of immediate completion: the empty, unused 'arty' building that gets published for all to know: yet another matter for separate study: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/seeing-what-we-believe-idyllic-visions.html If we are to get a more comprehensive understanding of weathering, we need a more rigorous, in-depth study than this simplistic 'essay,' as Alan J. Plattus, Associate Dean, School of Architecture, Yale University has rightly called it in his review on the rear cover. One is left wondering if this book is the result of the pressure on academics to publish. We need better than this gathering of meanderings that is presented as a substantial study: Mohsen Mostafavi and David Leatherbarrow On Weathering The Life of Buildings in Time The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993. It may be old, but it is still worth a look, if only to stimulate other more serious, committed research.





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