The Embedded Message in Architecture: Or, What Can Architecture Teach Us About Writing?


On the group-hosted writing blog Murderati, Toni McGee Causey has written a MUST READ article “Positive and Negative Spaces” that absolutely knocked my socks off (and, judging by the comments at the end of the blog, much of the blogging world’s too). She refers to a book 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School  recommended by literary agent Janet Reid, and says that 

“the entire book… has as much to do with writing and living as it does architecture. And I hadn’t expected to have a startling revelation about my own life.” 

In her critique, Toni posits that we dwell in positive spaces (think about your house where you dwell and do all of your cooking, living, spend most of your time) and and move through negative spaces (a street intersection that facilitates the quick itinerant movement of people).

And from there, she rocks out the article, comparing and contrasting life in negative and positive space. And wow, it’s an incredibly interesting ride. Here’s one (ok, three) snippets that I’ll leave you with:

When I thought about [positive and negative space] in relation to writing, I had a twofold appreciation for the term. First off, just the physical aspect of the page—the words and paragraphs create positive space and the white space around it is the negative space. If you pick up any manuscript and it’s filled with long, dense paragraph after paragraph, it feels cluttered and heavy, weighted and overwrought, even before you’ve read a single word. A reader brings with her the expectation of balance, and you need white space to achieve that balance. Too much white space, though, feels bereft of weight, of value, of deeper meaning, and so it’s the writer’s job not only to craft the words, but to pay attention to the space those words take up on the page.

Positive spaces are almost always preferred by people for lingering and social interaction. Negative spaces tend to promote movement rather than dwelling in place.

I’ve had people hand me novels in the past for critique and they spend a couple of chapters (or more) “building the world” – telling the reading about the political and economic machinations which have brought this world into being, into the state we find it in at this moment in time. It’s a huge mistake to do this. For one thing, the story hasn’t started yet until the characters are moving through that world and experience conflict within it. For another, the writer isn’t trusting the reader to extrapolate the positive and negative spaces from a select few examples.


Cheeky to Eeky: Where Public Art Went Wrong

Declared unacceptable: A huge yellow sign spelling out “United States” on the Canada-facing facade of the new border station in Massena, N.Y., is being dismantled because of security concerns.

After years of working closely with the architects, the New York firm of Smith-Miller & Hawkinson, the Customs and Border Patrol (part of DHS) signed off on the final version of a new border-crossing station in northeastern New York State in 2007. Yet three weeks ago, less than a month after the station opened, workers began prying the big yellow letters off the building’s facade on orders from CBP. “There were security concerns,” said Kelly Ivahnenko, a spokeswoman for CBP. “The sign could be a huge target and attract undue attention. Anything that would place our officers at risk we need to avoid.”

I kind of agree. However I don’t think CBP was necessarily balking at the idea that public art would attract undue attention; it was the choice of the huge neon letters that caused the controversy. The big yellow letters of welcome seem almost Disneyland-esqe; not quite the image that a security agency wants to promote. Save that for the welcome center with their big, showy gardens of flowers.

I love the idea; it was the execution that went haywire!

Even the View Waxes Poetic

duomo.jpg image by emillyorr

Hold on to your flying buttresses: the Milan Cathedral, the 600-year-old Italian Gothic structure, will hold its first concerts on the building’s roof…[for] the first time in more than six centuries

How different would the experience be sitting on a rooftop as opposed to a concert hall? I can imagine very different. The rarity of the experience would make it more acute. The timeline would come into play. I’d be consumed thinking about the concert that happened six centuries ago. Time would revert back. You’d start to envision what different instruments would appear before you. The different sounds. The different horizon line. The music would achieve its ultimate goal: to move you to a different place.

Frank Gehry’s Symbol of the City

The Guardian (UK) is reporting that Los Angeles has named Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall as the symbol of the city. Can that be for real? Drop kick the Hollywood sign into oblivion? Every major city has it’s Gehry. It’s certainly not unique to LA.

Though, in spite of myself, I can’t help it. I really do like the feel you get from it. Cool, calm, mysterious… (And in the daylight too).

Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall

Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall

Inserting Yourself in Art

Is there a better way to capture the essence of art than to insert yourself in it? This is exactly what Antony Gormley is trying to do with an empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. But do you think it will resonate more to the exhibitionists balancing on top of the monument or to the gawkers walking by?

Antony Gormley's One & Other

Antony Gormley’s fourth plinth commission is built around volunteers from the public. Photograph: PR

The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, London, was built in 1841 to carry an equestrian statue of King William IV but the money ran out. Since then there has been much discussion – and no agreement – about what to put permanently on top of it. The latest idea, from artist Antony Gormley, is to let 2,400 people stand on it for one hour each, 24 hours a day, for 100 days. “This elevation of everyday life to the position formerly occupied by monumental art allows us to reflect on the diversity, vulnerability and particularity of the individual in contemporary society. It could be tragic but it could also be funny,” Gormley says.

Get Too Fancy, Lose the Message

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Prada’s Transformer structure in Seoul, South Korea

In its efforts to combine architecture with fashion, Prada has created a bohemeth of a structure to display a 100-skirt exhibition in Seoul, South Korea. And by bohemeth, I mean sort of bizarro when the twain meet. I like the skirts, and I like the structure. But the two doth not mix.

“Waiste Down — Skirts by Miuccia Prada” will be displayed in the Transformer, a white tent-like structure that will metamorphose into various new shapes/structures. In successive morphings, it will host an art exhibition, film festival, and fashion show.

Cool idea. At first. But then when you think about what the real point of it is, I’m not so sure. Mustn’t Prada sell skirts to stay in business? However, in the designer’s obsession to engage the “cool factor” I think I’m forgetting what the whole darn point is about. Which is… the skirts! (Right?) But I’m more blown out of the water by the structure than the skirts. In fact, skirts? What skirts? I guess the bottom line doesn’t always have to be about the business line, but in this case, why bother if you lose the skirts for the metaphorical trees?

It’s important to create a marketing environment that doesn’t overpower what you are trying to sell. The environment should enhance, not overwhelm the VIP (or VIS – Very Important Skirts). A little more “white space” perhaps would give the viewer more breathing room to enjoy those skirts. Prada, don’t be so overzealous. Though I’m still jealous. Of your skirts.

In Art: The Constructive Process Is Where It’s At

Christopher Pekoc Gallery Image 1
Christopher Pekoc’s Night Visions 1975-2000 at the Tregoning Gallery, Cleveland

When I walked into the Tregoning Gallery on Saturday to see Christopher Pekoc’s exhibition “Night Visions: 1975-2000”, I took one look at a collage comprised of a to-scale black and white photograph cutout of the looming Cleveland Public Library’s Reading Room (see in above photo, far right) and said “Gothic.” The gallery owner looked at me pleasantly and said “Well, not Gothic.” Wince. I see a black and white photo of a big gothic-looking building and it reminded me of something out of Batman – Gotham City, Gothic City, whatever – and “Gothic” because of its ornamental detailing. I can parlay the architecture allusion into contemporary mixed media, right?

But for the next 20 minutes I switched gears to ask about the gallery building itself. The owner told its tale: built in 1905 with roots in carriage manufacturing, it’s still sprouting from the weeds of West Side Cleveland. Just the building made me want to move in and pop an artist’s lifestyle. Shiny floors, thick brick everywhere, lots of open windows, miles of track lighting… (and for real cheap too! according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.)

Back to the art. Pekoc’s collages were striking, yet they were all very different in composition, technique, and construction. His evolution: First Vogue magazine cut outs pasted together on canvas. Then pieces of photos arranged and shellacked, accentuated with gold leaf. Some studies with random materials sewn together, hand stitched as he turned his mother’s machine’s carriage manually, and then glued it all to handmade paper from Cambodia. Then chalk rubbed – layer upon layer, its pigment deepening — into canvas with a thumb. An enormously architectural, to-scale photograph cut out and overlaid with vivid paint (in a fusion of confusion, to me). And on and on.

Collage is my favorite media. I like it best when an artist takes trash, crumples it up, and glues it to a canvas (or a rotting piece of wood. Whatever.). First, I get riled up trying to figure out how it all came about. Then I (try to) calm down, take two steps back, and ask “What the heck was (s)he thinking?”

One other thing became evident. Going too long without submersion into a contemporary gallery renders one absolutely haywire when one gets there. And so I was all over the place. Jumping to conclusions about composition, structure, theme (as with the Gothic example, you often miss the mark!). It was hard to reign myself in as I tried to quickly reconstruct how something was made. It’s ok to take this unleashed, wild ride, but then to really figure out the piece, you’ve got to center. It’s about immersion and getting into the artist’s head. Getting there is the most challenging part. Is that the exercise that art is all about?