Phillip Denny, “What’s a ziggurat to you?”
06 April, 2018
Dear MOS Architects,
As is the case with most things I like these days, I saw them first on Instagram: two squat ziggurats, rectangular in plan, one nudged up against the other, and both lifted up on blocks. It almost felt like I’d seen them before. (Was I thinking of Louis Kahn’s Washington University Library Competition? Or perhaps Le Corbusier’s Mundaneum?) This was familiar but different. It had something that neither Kahn nor Corb did—two ziggurats! And there was a house beneath them. (I forwarded your post to a friend: “Don’t know what to think,” he said. “I’m not sold. I don’t like the proportions. If the roofs were taller it would be stronger. But just like… why? This is going to leak so badly.” We agreed to disagree, but we were both curious to see the reflected ceiling plans.) As is the case with most things I like on Instagram these days, I more or less forgot about the post and scrolled on.
Then came the paintings. I saw them first in print: canvases shaped like Tetris blocks, covered all over with ziggurats painted in Day-Glo orange and electric green. They held the glossy-page of this art magazine, and when I went to Chelsea the next day to see them in person, they were even better than I could have expected. They had presence. These were the ziggurat paintings of General Idea, the art collective that became famous for work that addressed the AIDS crisis, most of which was produced after the group moved to New York City. For General Idea, the ziggurat was a monumental icon of power and domination, and in the 1980s it was a motif that seemed to appear everywhere. They saw it in the new New York architecture of the 1980s, such as in Der Scutt’s Trump Tower, whose ziggurated corner (what we now, post-BIG, might call “pixelated”) facing Fifth Avenue (where a President, the tower’s namesake, could “shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters”) produces innumerable reflections, not of the city, but mostly of itself, like an architectural Narcissus gazing upon its own bronzed visage, a perfect cipher for the depthless vanity “for which it stands.”
And then something happened as I looked at the painted ziggurats in the gallery: The Instagram image of “House No. 12, A Foam House with 98 Blocks of Foam and 8 Doors” came rushing back to mind like an involuntary memory. (It was one of those strange moments when you can recall seeing a something, but can’t recall a seeing some-where. Information and memory are environmental, after all; they are always already there.) Nevertheless, House No. 12 had been inserted in my image feed by mysterious algorithms, and it came back to mind all unannounced. A picture of a foam-block model of a foam-block house whose parts never quite disappear into the whole. Looking back at the gridded paintings: were these painted pixels, or blocks of color stacked on a canvas? (Like Frank Stella’s black paintings, these ziggurats affirm the shape of the canvas through the pervasive repetition of a single module.) The paintings in Chelsea—first images on a page, and then canvases on the wall—have a distinct object quality in the gallery. (“Objecthood.”) As in Minecraft, the paintings are subtended by an irreducible geometric monad and tend toward an architectonic play of the pixel: the size of the painted module always reiterates the depth and shape of the thing it’s painted onto. These are shaped paintings that vibrate between images and objects.
House No. 12 tends toward shape without ending up stranded there. (Albeit a play in three dimensions that I’ve only ever seen in two. It’s abstract and iconic, with a sharp silhouette that prevails in photographs and, presumably, “in person.”) The ziggurat is a generic form with a structure and logic that is self-evident, but deployed here—built of exactly ninety-eight (I take your word for it) rectangular, foam blocks—the seemingly matter-of-fact is manifestly ambiguous. (The medium-specificity of architecture is, in part, that there’s always more architecture than you can ever see at once. There’s always a hidden side or another interior, and the real is always in excess of what can be imaged.) What is it that’s being simulated in this digital photograph of a model whose ground is littered with papercraft rocks and debris?
A single stereotomic unit—the block—is stacked and arranged to become the basis of an image. In one register, these are blocks toward a shape as are pixels toward an image. (Is this not the simulation of architecture’s “reality,” its situation, in the sense that Friedrich Kittler uses the term?) In the end, both the “real thing” and the model become the antecedents of images, and in both cases the object remains foam—a material that is patently artificial, just as fake as the paper boulders sitting on the ground are heavy. Both blocks and boulders stand in for the creation of images that will circulate on screens and visit upon their viewers without warning. (The architecture is “already an image,” as we’ve recently been told.) These are parts of the whole against the paradigms of a Carl Andre pile or a Sol Lewitt pyramid. Some of your foam blocks are floating, cantilevered, seemingly held aloft by an unseen skeleton, and the ziggurats themselves sit like hats on top of a two-headed building. (By the by, when General Idea turned ziggurats into hats for their 1977 project “The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion,” the ziggurats hung off of the models, as ziggurats-in-suspension, against the tectonic definition of a stepped stack.)
Some people think that the contemporary prevalence of shape is a symptom of an “unacknowledged pessimism” shared by practitioners and students, but I can’t agree with this diagnosis. It simultaneously gives too much credit to shape and not enough credit to practitioners and students who are acutely aware of the morass and nevertheless try to turn pessimism into architecture.
I know “House No. 12” is a work-in-progress (#WIP), but I have to ask: what’s a ziggurat to you?
Author: Phillip Denny
Title: "Phillip Denny to MOS Architects"
Publication: Open Letters
Place of publication: Harvard Graduate School of Design, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Date of publication: April 6, 2018