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Houses for Sale

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Two posts ago when I was searching for more information on Arata Isozaki’s 1980 house project House of Nine Squares, all references led to this article on Art Forum. You can also read it here.

Actually, the ArtForum article is a reprint of this next one, and might come from the second of three catalogues produced to accompany the exhibition. could come from one of two of the three catalogues generated by this exhibition. The first was for exhibition goers to purchase. The second, and which I think this article was from, was designed to reach “a wider audience” (such as university libraries for example), and the third, Drawing on Architecture tells me, was to “disseminate the work completed for the exhibition, in a wider cultural context”. This wider cultural context turns out to be Spanish speakers as the text was in Spanish due to “the high level of interest from thaat country.”

The same article was also quoted at length in Jordan Kauffman’s book, Drawing on Architecture: The Object of Lines, 1970–1990 that I searched in the hope of finding better images of the other houses, or at least seeing what they looked looked but, alas, images weren’t included in my Google sample. The exhibition was called Houses for Sale II and was the second of three exhibitions at New York’s Castelli Gallery. The architects selected for this second exhibition were Emilio Ambasz, Peter Eisenman, Vittorio Gregotti, Arata Isozaki, Charles Moore Cesar Pelli, Cedric Price and Oswald Mathias Ungers, all friends of the gallery owner. Whether or not this makes them representative of the architecture in 1980 I don’t know, but it’s probably as good a sample as any. They were asked to submit a house design. There were no restrictions on site, clients or program but all eight architects designed a family house anyway. The only condition was that the house be buildable. The real task was to articulate a “position” on “the house” and “architecture” in the late 20th century. These “drawings” would then be sold, presumably – as is the way with galleries and the art world – to the highest bidder.

The conceit was that the new owner of the design would thus own the rights to build the house and be declared the owner of the masterpiece. The logic was a bit like that of NFTs and just as dodgy but I’ve no problem with this because architects’ designs often wait around for the right client to come along. The architect retains the right to be identified as the author but the owner of the design only has the rights to the “performance” of that design much as is the case with music. The Castelli Gallery was therefore attempting to create a market for the drawings rather than the designs. , their logic being that if the house is a work of art then its representation must also be. This doesn’t transfer to architecture. With music, there may be a separate market for the original handwritten scores that are “the drawings” of the performable work but this market is separate from that for the performance rights. With architectural ideas, the representation of a building is not the same thing, let alone better than the thing itself, But, it was the 1980s and this post-modern fallacy was already accepted as truth. We still have a healthy art market for original drawings by post-modern architects, particularly if Aldo Rossi’s name is in the corner.

Aware of this, the organizers of the Houses for Sale II exhibition were exhibiting and putting up for sale representations of architectural ideas. Many of these representations were little more than elaborate concept sketches with maybe some drawings of design intent. Now, working drawings and bills of quantities aren’t part of this deal so one intriguing aspect of this exercise is that the purchaser is expected to bid for or otherwise purchase a house design without knowing how much that house would cost to build were it to be built. One can’t really object to this as many clients with perhaps too much money commission an architect under similar conditions. By making this explicit, the Houses for Sale exhibition normalizes this situation or, perhaps more accurately, encourages it to remain normalized. Parallel with all this is a secondary market selling exhibition tickets and catalogues to persons who can’t participate in the market directly. Contemporaneous commentary on the exhibition would be part of this secondary market or, in investment commodity terms, a derivative of it. This blog post is a tertiary derivative that will kick around some of the ideas raised by the reproduced ArtForum article about the exhibition about the designs, forty five years after the event.

The author, Hal Foster, begins by voicing his concern that the houses are claimed to be masterpieces but, rather than adding to his concerns, I just dismissed it as generic art hype because, forty five years on, if any had indeed been masterpieces then we would’ve heard more of them than we have. More relevant is that the invited architects are forced to take a theoretical position on what a house is now (i.e. then) and this is where it gets interesting.

Arata Isozaki: House of Nine Squares

The Isozaki house we know from the previous two posts. The author dismisses it as neoclassicism dressed up as a modern house and I find it hard to disagree. Can it be said that Isozaki’s House of Nine Squares is even indicative of a position and, if so, is it a serious position, a lazy position, or merely a trivial one? It’s difficult to care now but, if this design is to have even historical value, then it’s what ideas the house was presented as embodying that’s important. We could always refer back to past issues of the Japanese magazine New Shinkenchiku [新建築] to find out what was said about them at the time, but I’ll let some future historian of the 1980s do that.

Charles Moore: Hexastyle, Texas Style

History is equally silent on Moore’s contribution. All I could find was this image was this next image in a 2014 post on the blog and even that was via Pinterest. There was no description. A few months ago I attended a symposium and one of the presenters was describing research into reconstruc ting lost Chinese gardens by interpreting fragments of Chinese poetry. I feel we might have to do something similar with this house. Here’s what was written about it in the ArtForum article.

Charles Moore

That sounds neither surprising nor a good thing. Given the abundance of commentary on the other seven houses in the book Drawing on Architecture: The Object of Lines, 1970–1990. I’d like to check out what was said about it but sadly pages 180–190 weren’t included in my sample. True to its name, Moore’s submission does have six columns in a row but what else can be said about it other than what’s been said above, I don’t know. In serach of other text, I visited the website of the Castelli gallery.

The photographs only show that something happened at the gallery once. There’s no attempt to show individual proposals, or even describe them. The first image (above and top leftmost below) is of the Isozaki submission. The others aren’t much better. As an exhibition, the level of content looks on par with The International Style exhibition it seems to be wanting to evoke memories of with these poor quality black and white photographs. Below, I’ve put names where I can.

Peter Eisenman: House El Even Odd

Peter Eisenman’s proposal is at least recorded by the Canadian Center for Architecture, albeit without text. This proposal may have been produced either concurrently or immediately after Eisenman’s House X that was the object of an A+U special issue in 1979. Eisenman was to drop this particular line of architectural enquiry soon after. And here’s some of what was written about it. The ArtForum article is in the middle column and the Drawing on Architecture in the right one prove the architectural maxim that true architecture generates an endless stream of writing about architecture. The house may be buildable but as we can’t see the house we can’t make any judgment on whether it can be lived in. A house is a machine for writing about the house as a representation of itself. The author seems to get off on this. Despite its extreme position, Eisenman’s submission is as much a reflection of architecture in the late 1970s as any of the other submissions.

Emilio Ambasz: Arcadian Berm House

Ambasz’s proposal is a “green house” in that it is expected to mesh with the landscape. Whatever that means, it sounds like it might still have relevance today for persons owning a piece of Arcadia. So far, the houses seem to be extensions of the then ostensible preoccupations of their respective architects. Marketing exercises, in other words. Anyway, below is all we get in the way of images. As you can see from the gallery photograph, Ambasz’ submission consisted of fourteen renderings and no description but any deficiencies in description were later filled in. Since Duchamp we’ve been told that anything that can be considered as art if it is presented as art but for those not able to visit art in its natural habitat, talking about something as if it were art works just as well. The description below focusses on the ideas being represented, irrespective of drawing and location of drawing.

Vittorio Gregotti: Una Casa

Vittorio Gregotti’s was the only submission that included construction drawings but I can’t find gallery images matching the description of the hanging. Gregotti’s submission was probably seen as lacking in conceptual rigour because of the inclusion of detail drawings but this approach could be seen as radical nowadays. Either way, it was an outlier amongst the eight and discussion of this submission seems to have been confined to him taking the brief seriously. The book Drawing on Architecture is from 2018 and the commentary below shows how what we expect of these drawings has shifted over the past forty-odd years. Vague to begin with, the design intentions are being reinterpreted for our times. It’s not really about the buildings and it’s not really about the representations of them either.

Vittorio Gregotti

Cesar Pelli: Long Gallery House

Cesar Pelli’s submission didn’t generate many words in either source. “The perfect house, perhaps, for a collector” is faint praise.

pelli x

Cedric Price: Platforms, Pavilions, Pylons, and Plants

Unfortunately, these are all the words I have on Price’s submission that asks good questions but seems reluctant to think about them let alone be a design for them. A house that a user can re-form as they wish and use how they want to use it would be resistant to criticism. We will never know. Just as his Fun Palace didn’t look much fun, neither does this.

Oswald Mathias Ungers: House Within a House

Just as the two authors of my sources must mentioned the submissions of each of the eight architects, so must I and Oswald Mathias Ungers is the final one. Reconstructing this house from a non-original text is a non-starter with sentences like “As it works with factors like climate and season, it exaggerates them, and so comes to work against them” and “insides are set against the outside”. I understand this as words but don’t know what to make of it as then contemporary criticism. Again, it seems to speak of what these designs were expected to speak of at the time.

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And the same problem still exists for us now. What to make of all this? Does this whole exercise have any relevance for us today? Was it even relevant at the time? Paul Goldberger, writing for the New York Times, thought so.

Ada Louise Huxtable had this to say about the first exhibition although it could apply equally to the second.

Henry Wollman, a New York planner at the time, wasn’t so sure and he voiced his concerns to the gallery about the first exhibition. Again, his concerns apply equally to the second.

Stuart Greenspan, writing for ArtForum thought along the same lines.

Adolfo Natalini had been invited to submit to the first exhibition but had the following to say.

My conclusion? This book Drawing on Architecture: The Object of Lines, 1970–1990 looks like a good description of these three exhibitions either side of 1980 and discusses not just the submissions but their role in the exhibitions and the role of the exhibitions in what we now refer to as “the discourse of architecture”. I think it will contain some important clues for how we arrived at where we are.

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  • Coincidentally, I discovered “Drawing on Architecture” five years after it was published, recently reviewing it on my blog and touching on the Castelli exhibitions that “Houses for Sale” was part of:

    If any of the houses in that show have longevity all these years later it is Ungers’ Solar House, because it was the subject of a book, “negotiating ungers,” that came out in 2019, around the time of Kauffman’s book. I also reviewed that on my blog, by chance:

    Seems that, among other things, these two books point to a strong interest in 1980s, postmodern architecture taking place five or so years ago (to wit, that’s when “Revisiting Postmodernism” by Farrell and Furman came out). Time now to move onto deconstructivism and the rest of the 90s?

    • Thanks for that John – I’m a follower of Archidose. I will check out both those posts of yours. I’m no fan of postmodernism although I have to accept it as something that happened.I’m not sure it needs a revisit because we’re still living with all the processes since and that it set in motion – an architecture based on image alone being one of them. I will have to get myself a copy of both books, but especially Drawing on Architecture. There must be some intentional ambiguity in the title but it escapes me. Cheers. Graham.