Thursday, November 22, 2012


Dan Graham, a major force on the international art scene since the 1970s, toured the Darwin Martin House earlier this week with several artist friends from New York and Toronto. As a gallerist, artist, photographer, filmmaker, and critic, Graham cites early inspiration from Sol Lewitt and UB’s Leslie Fiedler, and has written about many contemporary artists and architects including Mies van der Rohe, Robert Venturi, John Lautner (one of Wright’s original apprentices), and Switzerland’s Peter Zumthor.  Graham was particularly drawn to the vistas within the Martin House where it is possible -- now that the pier clusters have been restored -- to see through as many as six layers of scintillating art glass windows across several rooms and into the bright outdoors.
Left to right: Asad Raza, Jack Quinan, and Dan Graham (photo: Sandra Q. Firmin)

In recent years Graham has produced a series of steel-framed glass "pavilions,” that employ special mirrored and half-mirrored sheets of glass that are both reflective and transparent. The pavilions offer an ambiguous immersive experience that is popular with the public everywhere. His work can be found in parks and art museums all over Europe, North and South America, and Asia. (see below)

Graham, whose work lies somewhere between architecture and sculpture  enjoyed the Martin House but said Wright’s Johnson’s Wax Building in Racine, Wisconsin, is his personal favorite for its qualities of submersion under those lily-pad like dendriform disks. But in time maybe the Martin House will work its magic on his restless creative imagination.

Two Dan Graham pavilions from "I like this Art" blog

Friday, November 16, 2012


"Minding Design: Neuroscience, Design Education, and the Imagination," a symposium organized for November 9-12, 2012, by architect Sarah Robinson, brought together an impressive roster of neuroscientists, phenomenologists, architects, students, and others at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's sprawling desert compound near Scottsdale, Arizona. The general idea was to bring together Wright's intuitive organicism and the philosophy of embodiment and direct experience of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, with the very recent insights into the human brain made possible through MRI and PET scan technologies, in order to explore how neuroscience and phenomenology might be brought to bear on the practice of architecture. Juhani Pallasmaa, Finland's distinguished architect-philosopher and author of "The Eyes of the Skin," shared the stage with Alberto Perez-Gomez (scholar of the History of Science and phenomenology at McGill University), Michael Arbib (Director of the USC Brain Project), Iain McGilchrist (Psychiatrist, writer, and former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford), and Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang (architect of the Aqua Building in Chicago and a MacArthur Fellow). The event coincided with a reunion of members of Wright's Taliesin Fellowship (of which there are around 1,500 world wide). 
Left to Right: Victor Sidy (Dean, FLW School of Architecture (in red tie)), Michael Arbib, Alberto Perez-Gomez, Iain McGilchrist, ,Juhani Pallasmaa, Jeanne Gang, and Sarah Robinson

Drawing upon a broad spectrum of philosophers, writers, artists, and architects, Pallasmaa presented a compelling argument for direct experience, empathy, embodiment, and a primordial timelessness in architecture and concluded that he felt that neuroscience would validate his position. The two neuroscientists -- not always in agreement -- explained various aspects of brain functions as they are currently understood. Arbib posited a neuroscience examination of how Computer Assisted Design (CAD) works as opposed to free hand drawing; what is gained, what is lost.  McGilchrist focused upon the differing functions of the two halves of the brain, the left brain's narrow focus, isolation, and orientation toward detail; the right brain's broad concerns, accepting of the new, seeing the whole, etc., and went on to suggest that the two halves have been in balance at certain moments in history (such as the Renaissance) but today the left brain is dominant.  Jeanne Gang, a rising architectural star based in Chicago, gave a straightforward presentation of her work that, for all of its inherent interest and promise, did not accord with the phenomenological tenor of the rest of the program. Architect Steven Holl, whose work is deeply influenced by phenomenology, was unable to attend as planned.

Eric Lloyd Wright (seated, left) talking to Larry Woodin, President of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy (standing, right)
While the symposium bubbled with ideas and represented an important step for the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture the decision to disperse the audience into three break-out sessions with individual speakers (Arbib, McGilchrist, and Pallasmaa) following the formal presentations obviated an expanded plenary discussion of the interface between phenomenology and neuroscience.  
Phenomenology does have a direct bearing upon the way that the Darwin D. Martin House and other Wright houses are understood and presented to the public. While at Taliesin West I took a tour -- the third in three years -- and paid close attention to what was said to our group. My docent, like docents everywhere, had a wide range of potential subjects to cover in an hour: Wright's personal history, the history of the building(s), the function of each building and room, the materials used, the desert site, and a healthy measure of anecdotes were included. From a phenomenological point of view my tour and most tours that I have made come up short in terms of experience, by which I mean attention to all of the sensory experiences that Wright made available to his clients, an orchestrated onslaught of visual splendor, sound (water, for instance), touch (the textures of stone), the body in space, a sense of movement, time, and even smell all come into play. Wright was good at many things but none more than engaging us through every sense of our being, not only the visual.

Taliesin West: A view toward the drafting room and drawing vault (JQ)

Thursday, November 1, 2012


According to Brian Carter, professor and former Dean of UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, Li Xiaodong, a rising star in the world of Chinese architecture, was so determined to visit Buffalo during his brief stay in the U.S. that in the face of hurricane Sandy, the storm that has devastated the east coast, he and Leslie, his wife, rented a car and drove to Buffalo in heavy rain where they were housed in the Martin House gardener’s cottage and dined in the George Barton House. It all made perfect sense when, in his presentation at UB he outlined the recent history of Chinese architecture and his emerging place within it. By studying first in China, then in Holland, then working in Shanghai where he watched the feverish race to import American and European architects to build entire high-rise cities virtually overnight, Li sensed the loss of significant chunks of Chinese culture and a need for an authentic, regionally-based, sustainable architecture.  His Liyuan Library, glass-enclosed and sun-shaded by thousands of salvaged sticks, is designed to draw cool air off a nearby pool in the summer. The interior tiered hall reveals its timber structure with a hint, perhaps, of Wright’s Larkin Building.  Li’s School Bridge for the village of Pinghe (2008-9) won an Aga Kahn Award for its multiple functions as school, stage, playground, and bridge all of which connect two ancient round castles to form a new civic core for the village.  Given the obvious affinity to Wright’s concern for the nature of materials, we think Li Xiaodong and Leslie slept happily in the gardener’s cottage.
Interior Liyuan Library by Li Xiaodong

School Bridge, Pinghe, China, 2008-9 by Li Xiaodong
Thanks to the heroic efforts of a task force of board members of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, the Mayor and other enlightened persons in Phoenix, and some very generous benefactors, it appears that the David and Gladys Wright House in Phoenix will be preserved. For a Phoenix-based account see Whew!
Frank Lloyd Wright, David and Gladys Wright House, Phoenix, AZ, 1950