Reading notes (2020, week 41) — On how the Coronavirus will reshape architecture, how to wait well, and why we should nourish imagination
Reading notes is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, as Michel de Montaigne so beautifully wrote, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s edition: What kinds of space are we willing to live and work in now?; how to turn wait times into chances to connect, muse and think big about the future; imagination as a loop by which we temporarily disengage from ongoing life; Pico Iyer and the shifting nature of home; Artemisia Gentileschi shows “what a woman can do”; Cézanne and Pissarro’s intriguing relationship; a church in Japan, designed to be in harmony with the movement of the sun; and, finally, if Hilary Mantel could steal one paiting from anywhere in the world.
How the Coronavirus will reshape architecture
“We’ve gone from hospital architecture to living in a place like a hospital, and suddenly, in the pandemic, that template seems less useful.” — Beatriz Colomina
“Much of modernist architecture can be understood as a consequence of the fear of disease, a desire to eradicate dark rooms and dusty corners where bacteria lurk,” Kyle Chayka writes in How the Coronavirus Will Reshape Architecture. “Le Corbusier lifted his houses off the humid ground to avoid contamination. Adolf Loos’s ultra-boxy Villa Müller in Prague, from 1930, included a separate space in which to quarantine sick children.”
“Architects collaborated with progressive doctors to build other sanatoriums across Europe. ‘Tuberculosis helped make modern architecture modern,’ the Princeton professor Beatriz Colomina writes in her revisionary history X-Ray Architecture. The industrialized austerity of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Marcel Breuer ‘is unambiguously that of the hospital,’ the empty white walls, bare floors, and clean metal fixtures are ‘surfaces that, as it were, demonstrate their cleanliness.’”
As tuberculosis shaped modernism, so covid-19 and our collective experience of staying inside for months on end will influence architecture’s near future. But “unlike the airy, pristine emptiness of modernism, the space needed for quarantine is primarily defensive, with taped lines and plexiglass walls segmenting the outside world into zones of socially distanced safety. Wide-open spaces are best avoided. Barriers are our friends. Stores and offices will have to be reformatted in order to reopen, our spatial routines fundamentally changed. And, at home, we might find ourselves longing for a few more walls and dark corners,” Chayka writes.
I. Domestic Space
“‘Each age demands its own form,’ the Bauhaus architect Hannes Meyer wrote in his 1926 essay, The New World. ‘Ideally and in its elementary design our house is a living machine.’ In the 20th century, Meyer argued, ‘architecture has ceased to be an agency continuing the growth of tradition or an embodiment of emotion.’ It was instead to be cold, functionalist, efficient. The same year, he arranged a single ideal room, which he called the Co-op Interieur, for the modern worker, envisioning not just an individual dwelling place but a template for an entire civilization. It was a bare box that held a cot, a gramophone on a table, a small shelf, and two chairs that could be folded up and moved. The whole assemblage was endlessly scalable and mobile, fit for the sweeping wave of technological globalization that Meyer observed in his essay. It’s also the last place you would want to be quarantined.
Architects have long been preoccupied with the concept of ‘existence minimum’ or ‘the minimum dwelling,’ as the critic Karel Teige titled his 1932 book. Teige proposed, to solve housing shortages, ‘for each adult man or woman, a minimal but adequate independent, habitable room.’ The idea got an update with the Japanese Metabolist movement in the nineteen-sixties, which envisioned buildings that would expand and contract based on the needs of a city. Tokyo’s Nakagin Capsule Tower, by Kisho Kurokawa, one of Metabolism’s few built structures, is a series of individual boxes set around central spires, each containing what one person needs to live, at least for a brief period: a circular window, a television, a stereo, a desk, a bed, shared showers. The grand vision didn’t pan out; today, Nakagin is under constant threat of demolition, and the apartments now exist more as works of art.
Existence minimum suggests the least you need to feel comfortable in a space. For twenty-first-century city dwellers, that quantity has expanded over time, from Meyer’s bed, chairs, and phonograph to the mobile suite of accessories we carried with us everywhere pre-pandemic, as on a commute: headphones, smartphone, laptop, charging cords. Together, it formed a kind of ‘existence maximum’: as much as possible in as small a space as possible. […]
Neither existence minimum nor existence maximum quite works at the moment. Personal spaces need to be both virtually connected and physically enriching even in the midst of social distancing — not the clean, white, anonymous smoothness of contemporary minimalist modernism but a textured hideaway, like an animal’s den, full of reminders that the rest of the world still exists, that things were once normal and might be again. We have to be able to hibernate.”
II. Office Space
The New York-based architecture practice Deborah Berke Partners is known for a flavor of contemporary modernism that is clean but also contextual. “In thinking about designing for the pandemic, Berke has looked to the example of spaces designed for the deaf, like Gallaudet University, in Washington, D.C. Such spaces need good lighting for signing or lip-reading, and devices like flashing lights to let people with hearing impairment know when someone has entered a room. We’ll have to be hyper-aware of the infrastructure of cleanliness, she told me: ‘Are people taking their shoes off at the door? Are coat closets big enough and far away enough? Is there a place by the door where you wash your hands?’ Le Corbusier solved the last problem by installing a freestanding sink in the entryway of his Villa Savoye, from 1931.
Instead of replicating the old hygienic vacuum of modernism, Berke has been inspired by the vernacular devices that she notices popping up, the lines and barriers that individuals improvise from whatever’s at hand — plexiglass walls, shower curtains, or taped-together garbage bags that protect cashiers. Hula hoops help children stay apart in parks, and athletic trainers are using scaffolding as group pullup bars. ‘People are becoming, if not architects, the craftsmen and makers of safe spaces,’ she said. ‘I don’t want us, the world of design professionals, to lose some of the positives, the democratization that’s coming out of some of this.’ In architecture there’s always the temptation to seek a stable solution, the perfect design that will solve a problem forever, beyond the reach of human foibles. Such was the faded dream of the Bauhaus: a universally perfect space for all people, repeated around the world, imposed from a privileged position upon those with presumably worse taste. The better designs might be those that evolve from the bottom up as we all figure out our post-pandemic routines.”
III. City Space
“So far, the pandemic’s impact on urbanism has shown up in small changes that can be implemented faster than a new building or zoning plan. Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, opened closed streets to restaurants and cafés so that tables could be set up at appropriate distances. New York City has made forty miles of streets pedestrian-only to expand access to the outdoors away from parks. London is laying out a vast network of new bike lanes. Tobias Armborst, a principal of the Brooklyn and Detroit architecture-and-urban-planning firm Interboro, said that these interventions fell under the label of ‘tactical urbanism’: ‘Urbanism that is not master-planned but comes from the bottom up.’ Tactical urbanism had been the province of guerrilla gardens and flash mobs, but city groups like New York’s Department of Transportation have gradually adopted the strategy of iterative, small-scale experiments.
The pedestrian streets were ‘overdue,’ Armborst said, a counter to the dominance of cars. ‘It’s a ridiculous situation that so much of urban space is given up to the stupid boxes standing around most of the time.’ Georgeen Theodore, another Interboro principal, said that the upheaval makes it easier to imagine dramatic changes: ‘When you have a momentary lapsing of the status quo, it allows everyone to see that something’s possible.’ During the quarantine, the firm has been working with institutional clients like universities to figure out how best to reopen. They’re evaluating the strategy of holding classes outside, a model that might be extended to public museums or libraries. Interior functions are expanding into exterior landscapes.
The future of cities will be a fundamental question of density. In the eighteen-fifties, Georges-Eugène Haussmann began his remaking of Paris, demolishing crowded medieval neighborhoods, which were thought of as pestilential, in favor of broad avenues and grand city plans with geometric parks and public squares — the precursor to Euclidean modernist developments in the 20th century. Over the past few decades, urbanism focussed on undoing this model, cultivating organic density through affordable housing, ever-smaller capsule studio apartments, and mixed-use zoning. Now, once again, as a response to disease, Armborst said, ‘we’re in a situation where density is something to be avoided.’ The challenge is reconciling the need for a long-term architectural plan with the pandemic’s ongoing unknowability.”
Post-pandemic architecture will require a larg shift in attitude and ideology, the architect Steven Holl told Chayka: “I don’t see it as something you can handle by changing some aspect of a single space in some city.”
“Holl’s buildings are intensely responsive to their settings; they run on solar and geothermal power, and their windows track the path of the sun. At the right time of day, in winter, rays bounce off the snow and cast white light on the ceiling of Little Tesseract. His work suggests one possible path forward for architecture, away from the orthodoxy of modernism and toward a more colorful, holistic sustainability.
In a brief pandemic-era manifesto that he circulated among colleagues and friends, Holl wrote that architecture ‘should embrace our codependence.’ Buildings can make us more aware of the ways in which we are globally connected — the pathways that spread the coronavirus but can also help us fight it, collectively. The earth’s health is inextricable from humanity’s; connections between the two can be cultivated in the design of a large-scale apartment building — like Holl’s Linked Hybrid, in Beijing, which interweaves public and private space — just as much as in that of a cabin.
A similar attentiveness can be found on our own city blocks as we circle them for the umpteenth time. There is always more to notice in the specificity of a single place or space. ‘We’ll appreciate the local and the regional in a different way first,’ Deborah Berke said. ‘That will positively influence the global experience when we get back out there again.’”
What Tuberculosis did for Modernism, by Margaret Campbell (Medical History, 2005, 49(4):463–488)
How the Tuberculosis Epidemic Influenced Modernist Architecture, by Elizabeth Yuko (Bloomberg CityLab, 2018)
Home Design Lessons From the Coronavirus, by Lloyd Alter (Treehugger, 2020)
Design for the Future When the Future Is Bleak, by Nikil Saval (The New York Times, 2020)
How to wait well
“Waiting has come to characterise much of life in 2020,” writes Jason Farman, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, in How to wait well.
Farnam believes we can wait better, but that requires a radical reorienting of our perspective on waiting. In doing so, we can build a relationship with time that sees it as an investment in our social fabric. By investing our wait times in the social circumstances that people around us face, he believes we can build radical empathy with the ways that others are forced to use their time.
“Mindfulness, meditation and moments of stillness have helped many to centre their thoughts and emotions. These strategies are used for coping with the stress of intense working lives, the anxious reactions toward the upheaval that surrounds us and the accelerating pace of life in the digital age.
Waiting, however, is qualitatively different. While you can choose to pause, be still and meditate, you often can’t control whether you wait for something or not. That’s the rub with wait times: they’re often imposed rather than chosen. So we despise them because they put the power in the hands of others. Waiting precludes a sense of agency over using our time as we see fit. Wait times can even be used by others to remind us about their power, for example, in a relationship where we’re made to wait for them, an action that claims priority over time.”
“Waiting points to our desires and hopes for the future; and while that future may never arrive and our hopes may never be fulfilled, the act of reflecting on waiting teaches us about ourselves. The meaning of life isn’t deferred until that thing we hope for arrives; instead, in the moment of waiting, meaning is located in our ability to recognize the ways that such hopes define us.”
Farman prescibes five practices we can employ to find the benefits of waiting. One of them is to decouple lack of productivity from being forced to wait. “If wait times offer new visions of possible futures,” he argues, “then wait times can be productive. But this isn’t currently the dominant view. Instead, wait times are often seen as robbing us of productivity. When we’re productive and working well, time speeds by and we hardly notice it. When we wait, time is inescapably noticeable.
Yet, such a perspective has only led to a burned-out workforce that is overbooked and lacks creative vision. Wait times, instead, are necessary for us to find creative solutions to complex problems. Waiting, and the daydreaming and boredom that accompany it, unlocks the ‘default mode network’ of the brain. This is sometimes called the ‘imagination network’ and links us with creative approaches and solutions that we couldn’t have found if we sought them out; they only arrive when our thoughts are in a moment of pause. Building long-term solutions that innovate into new futures requires us to sit with knowledge, to have moments of boredom and waiting.”
Yet the current work environment offers none of that. If we build wait times into our workflow, not only could we be less stressed, we might actually be more productive and more creative.
Tactics for waiting (from Delayed Response, see below) and Spinning in Place, both by Jason Farman
Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World, by Jason Farman (Yale University Press, 2018)
Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy, by Melissa Gregg (Duke University Press, 2018)
Boredom: A Lively History, by Peter Toohey (Yale University Press, 2011)
Why we should nourish imagination
“Physical walls cannot confine us. We can roam beyond them, to wherever our imagination takes us.”
“Imagination enables us to leave the here and now, to explore the past, as well as alternative presents and the future, before coming back. Imagination is a loop by which we temporarily disengage from ongoing life,” Tania Zittounis, a professor of sociocultural psychology at the University of Neuchâtel, writes in Nourish your imagination and you will be forever free.
“Imagination is a movement of mind, which can be more or less embodied. It enables us to expand our lived experience, or our ‘lifeworld,’ beyond the limitation of the concrete situation we’re in. Children play, and some create imaginary companions; people with particularly vivid imagination build parallel worlds, some of which they describe in novels. These are forms of symbolic mobility. Yet of course another way to expand one’s lifeworld is to move in the physical realm: to travel, to visit the world, to see other places and modes of living. Now, one might wonder, what is the relation between imagination as symbolic mobility and actual geographical mobility?
The two often enrich each other. It is the access to images, books and films about faraway places, enabling us to imagine all these exotic destinations, that encourages generations of backpackers to cross the world. It is also the diffusion of internet and images of the glowing West, where everything seems possible, that has increased massive migration movements toward Europe and the United States. Here, imagination is supporting mobility. Yet when we meet people who have travelled […] it is their physical movement that triggers our imagination, feeding it with new images, colours and shapes.”
Imagination and mobility can also compensate or balance each other, says Zittounis, for example when we are physically constrained. “Many diaries or autobiographies of long-term prisoners report the same thing — they could survive the wait for freedom by imagining that they were walking in their village, talking to their friends, by reliving past memories, or re-experiencing novels or poems they loved.”
On the other hand, imagination can also balance geographical mobility when it accelerates or becomes too intense. Expats, for example, “develop strategies to maintain a stable sense of home, or family, across place. They invent family rituals, recreate the same living room with familiar pictures and ornaments, and some build a ‘life in a box’ for their children, containing the few toys and objects that follow them everywhere.”
What can we learn from this, according to Zittounis, is that “imagination is fundamental for the development of people and for societies. It brings us to strive, and history to unfold. Our lives are not only made of what we do, where we go and what we physically experience, they are largely symbolic. The worlds of humans are made of the fabric of memories, stories, beliefs, hopes, daydreams, myths and projects. And most of them we explore, visit and construct through imagination. This is important to remember, in our everyday lives, but also in extreme situations. We idealise travelling yet forget that too much mobility can threaten our sense of who we are and where we belong. Here, imagination can ground our integrity. In times of forced confinement, by contrast, when physical exercise supports only half of our experience, we can also maintain our mobility through imagination.”
Whether it is through exploring the world through films and documentaries, visiting the past through novels, discovering new realities when transported by music, sharing memories with others or revisiting some of the places we have been to through online maps, imagination is vital and precious.
Imagination in Human and Cultural Development, by Tania Zittoun and Alex Gillespie (Routledge, 2017)
Japanese Wives, by Noriko Hayashi (Panos Pictures)
And also this…
“More and more of us, I suspect, identify ourselves less by our passports than by our passions; and defining ourselves by our values and our interests, what we care about, can allow us to step a little outside the divisions that nation-states and tribes enforce. I often feel I have more in common with someone who loves Thai food, or relishes the Icelandic post-rock group Sigur Rós, or who feels at home in transit zones, than with anyone who happens to share my Indian name, my English place of birth or my American passport; if you ask me who I am, I will probably begin by talking about my wife, the monastery I’ve been regularly visiting since 1991, my favorite book or film, or what inspires me, more than I’ll need to talk about nationalities. For me, where I come from is much less important than where I’m going,” the British-born essayist and novelist Pico Iyer writes in The Shifting Nature of Home.
“Many around us, of course, are still deeply rooted; they may be living in the same house in which they grew up, and close to their grandparents and generations of forebears. But even they, very likely, are having to think anew about traditional ideas of identity and home as all the world streams into their neighborhood. Certainly, if they’re living in a typical modern city, from Hong Kong to Los Angeles to Zurich or Sydney, they’re likely surrounded by Iranian businessmen and Mexican restaurants and Indian yoga teachers and Ethiopians. Nothing remains fixed in our fastmoving new world, and even if you’re not moving, the world is constantly moving around you.
This raises questions that humans have never had to address so insistently before; it also brings problems. My sense, after 40 years spent crisscrossing the globe, is that our sense of distinctness is not going away, and the more old divisions fade, the more new ones appear. If we don’t discriminate against people so often now on the basis of their race or religion, we still treat them differently if they’re young or old, blond or brunette, from Brooklyn or Savannah or North Dakota or Beverly Hills. It’s not as if tribalism itself has disappeared as clear distinctions have; it just takes different forms.”
“The surge of emotion I felt standing in front of Susannah and the Elders — painted by a 17-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi in the same year she was raped by the artist who was hired by her father Orazio to teach her — was as powerful as any I have felt in my life. In it, a nude Susannah twists away from the two old letches with horror and disgust; unlike many of the nudes painted by male artists, her body is not an exercise in containment, static and mannered as though it could have been carved from marble: it is living, moving flesh,” Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writes in The history of art is full of female masters. It’s time they were taken seriously.
“Why this painting? Why now, as the first exhibition dedicated to the work of Artemisia opens at the National Gallery? I haven’t visited a museum or art gallery in months, so there is that. But also: I have spent years thinking about this painting and this artist. She means something to me, as she does to the many feminist art historians who have dedicated their research to her, and the many, many other women who have admired and empathised with her art. And empathy is of course key: many women will look at Susannah and think, ‘been there.’”
In Blood, Passion and Captivity: Gentileschi’s Life Is in Her Paintings, Eleanor Nairne wonders how we can look at the defiant strength of Gentileschi’s paintings without thinking of what she endured?
“That question has preoccupied scholars of her work since at least 1976, when Linda Nochlin and Ann Sutherland Harris featured Gentileschi sprominently in their groundbreaking exhibition Women Artists: 1550–1950 […] and the two curators included information about the trial in an accompanying publication. How much biography finds its way into artists’ work remains a fraught question. In an essay in the National Gallery’s catalog, Elizabeth Cropper writes that dismissing the experiences that shaped Gentileschi leads to ‘a dismal narrowing of our understanding’ of her life and work, and I am inclined to agree,” Nairne writes.
“Take Gentileschi’s famed Judith Beheading Holofernes, which she painted twice around 1613, after fleeing to Florence with a husband Orazio had hastily sought for her to quell the scandal of the trial. In the painting, Judith and her maidservant pin down Holofernes, an Assyrian general, whose eyes bulge as blood sprays from a wound Judith carves in his neck with a knife. There was a fashion at the time for depictions of strong biblical women (all the more titillating if, like this Judith, they resembled their painters), and plays of Old Testament stories were performed at the court of the Medicis, who were Gentileschi’s patrons during her years in Florence. But can this fully account for the violence and viscera of the scene?
Look at the tufts of hair caught between Judith’s knuckles as she clutches Holofernes’s skull to sever the arteries of his neck. This is one of many occasions when Gentileschi makes Caravaggio look tame: In his rendition of the same moment, a meek Judith leans demurely to one side, bemused and limp-wristed. The stark difference suggests Gentileschi is both drawing on her intimate experiences of the brutality of life at the time (such as the deaths of four of her five children), as well as shrewdly amplifying her notoriety from the rape trial to market herself for future commissions of formidable women.”
For the art historian and writer T.J. Clark, the coming together of Cézanne and Pissarro is the deepest mystery of the 19th century. “I cannot escape the feeling that if we could unravel it, we would have in our hands the key to French painting, in much the same way as the relation of Plato to Socrates, for example, still seems the key to philosophy,” he writes in Strange Apprentice, a wonderful essay for the London Review of Books on the intriguing relationship between the two painters.
“The comparison could be pursued further. Greek philosophy and French painting (meaning the line from Corot to Matisse, from Sardanapalus to Ma Jolie) may be seen as events of equal weight. Both, taken as a whole — the simple fact of them, their coming into being, their import, their purpose — are mysteries. Both speak to a fundamental change in the conditions of representation in the cultures that gave rise to them — some need for a different voicing or picturing of experience, at a turning point in history.”
“It may not be accidental that at such a turning point the discovery of an adequate new form for such recasting depends, for a moment, on the to-and-fro of contrary personalities: a suspension of personality for a time, an impersonation, the creation of a double, all the better to magic into being a dreadful indispensable singularity. The singularities in these two cases being Plato, whoever he may be in the dialogues, or Cézanne, as he finally emerges from his trying or pretending to be Pissarro. What both Plato and Cézanne were in search of, to put it a little differently, was an authority, a voice, a viewpoint beyond the personal — a high and irrefutable impersonality. No doubt in the end they found it. But finding it involved, first of all, not being impersonal, not being the Forms themselves speaking, but being someone else — experiencing a voice or a view that was not one’s own.”
“Modernity is loss of world. Cézanne is the painter who makes that cliché draw blood. And a very great deal of his painting’s intensity derived, I think, from the fact of his coming across this new sense of things in the company of Pissarro. Put Le Bassin du Jas de Bouffan next to Inondation à Saint-Ouen-L’Aumône. The latter is dated 1873. (Saint-Ouen was a few miles downstream from Auvers, a village just beginning to be a suburb.) Look at the stretch of land in Inondation à Saint-Ouen L’Aumône leading off between the trees to the village … and the awkward pomposity of the house and chimney in the centre … the factory smokestack just visible through branches to the left … the birds battling the wind, the clouds still threatening rain … the reflection in the water of the fruit tree’s supports. Humble and colossal. Every observation solid as a rock. A social world. The earth emerging after the flood. What must it have been like to have discovered, under such painting’s spell, that Pissarro’s feeling for time and place — his anarchist confidence in history beginning again — could not be one’s own?”
Shonan Christy Church (湘南キリスト教会), located in a residential district of the city of Fujisawa, Japan, is the work of the Takeshi Hosaka architectural firm. The former prayer hall had become too small, so a decision was made to build a new church with one imperative: that the building be in harmony with the surrounding architecture.
The architects designed the structure of the church so it would be in harmony with the movement of the sun, and those present could be welcomed into an environment lit exclusively by natural light.
The building comprises one block, covered with six curved roofs of different heights, all linked by a picture window that allows light to enter. The carefully considered positioning of the interstices allows light to come into the church directly or indirectly. Thus, when services are taking place, between 10:30 a.m. and noon, the lighting is very soft, reflecting indirectly on the walls, only allowing a direct ray to come through during the hymn at the end of the service.
The construction recalls that of the Church of the Light in Ibaraki (1989) by Tadao Ando. Takeshi Hosaka Architects pushed the level of precision even further: the rays from the moon, when full, also illuminate the interior of the building when it is plunged into darkness.
Source: Shonan Christy Church, an Ode to Light, Pen Magazine International
“Space where direct sunlight reveals various expressions according to times is suitable for one person’s or several people’s prayer. In the afternoon after prayer, it becomes a space for prayer by the small number of people and direct sunlight changes the number of the ray from one to two or three and its angle by the minute.”
“I don’t dwell on time’s arrow so much. I’m looking for what’s cyclical — for old stories taking new forms.“ — Hilary Mantel