Allan Wexler: Even when you make that first mark on a page, even if it’s a conceptual diagram– you start the act of building. It may never go beyond the page, but it’s still building. You are building lines that might imply the third dimension.
WASH: This is like your computer project, where your mouse was a literal brick you had to lift to build a wall. Or like your stamps, where you inked 2x4s on a page to build structure drawings…
When I graduated from college it was 1972 at the height of the Vietnam War, there were few jobs in architecture, so a way to work was to build through drawings. Do you have to physically build buildings to change the world? Can you change people’s attitudes by having people look differently at what’s around them? I became more like an artist, working from the outside, looking in.
How to Build a Digital Brick Wall, 2009
That leads to a question, because you often make stage sets that mimic architecture – what can you get out of a model or drawing of a thing that you can’t get from the thing itself?
Poetry is not the real thing, it’s a reduced amount of words that might describe, say, a light-bulb, but it can be more powerful than the real thing. It gets into your psyche, under your skin. A written statement can make you come to tears, or laughter as much as a building ca. There is something very engaging by making drawings, poetry, photography, writing, ways to think architecturally, spatially. If I’m reading a book by Virginia Woolf describing “dusk”, and interior space, and how at dusk, when things are getting darker outside, the inside is getting brighter, because of the contrast between outside and inside. She’s describing a spatial quality in her writing. An architect you can convey that same emotion and sensuality by the way you texture a surface, or how you sculpt the way the sun enters a space? How do people relate to each other the way you choreograph a space?
How do these rocks, concrete, glass, timbers become transcendent? Spiritual? Louis Kahn spoke to that. The medium architects work with is pure function. Gravity, budget, eating, sleeping, bathing. These are the vehicles that convey political statements, emotional and spiritual statements
Is it like the work of Robert Irwin, when he talks about “presence”, who some have called “minimalist”?
He’s a good example of making work ethereal and transcendent. I once saw one of his pieces, constructed from chain-link fence, a boring, mundane material. He floated planes of this material it in a forest of eucalyptus trees. The way the light hit his surfaces, looked like the iridescence of butterfly wings. Take the most mundane material, whether it’s a scrim, chain-link fence… it’s like concrete, it was once liquid, it gives off heat and becomes a solid. That is magical. Or plaster. Wood, that’s a living thing that grows toward the sun, it expands and contracts.
Your design process involves a lot of iterations: do you look at these iterations as a progression toward an optimal design at the end, or is the point to have iterations?
Both! I’m doing it for the sake of the iterations because that becomes a project in itself. It becomes a “sculpture”, an artwork. The stack of 54 drawings for an IKEA Stefan Chair feels good in my hands. I transform each page, folding, scratching it, scraping off the surface, cutting, re-pasting, re-gluing – the act of making these things is very physical to me. I’m not trying to come up with an idea because that’s too scary. I’m just trying to make a new page and another and another. It’s very intimidating if you’re trying to attain a goal. Most American high schools teach you that what matters is the goal, getting the right answer. In other traditions, I hate to be corny, but “it’s the journey.” It’s the process toward that goal.
When Wright talked about “organic” architecture, was he talking about landscape, or was he talking about the process of mental growth, about dynamic making - how one’s ideas grow? How your thought process grows like a tree, it grows toward the sun, and when something happens, like a hurricane that pushes the tree over… It’s dynamic. You have to let the world take over some time.
When I was quite young I discovered the work of John Cage, the composer. He’s famous for that piece called “Silence: 4’33”. He spoke so much about Zen Buddhism, about process, about how you need to become a beginner again, about the awesome experience of discovery a child makes, how do you try to keep that going...
I knew when I graduated from college I wasn’t so interested in practice. I knew I wanted my work to be on edge, and experimental. I’m very conservative, so Ellen and I bought a building in Chelsea, in New York. It had some apartments, so we could make income on the apartments.
It’s a way of living, having shelter, and then if you have the security of shelter and a little bit of income, you can then take risks and choose the clients you find interesting, so you don’t fall in the trap of doing work you’re not happy doing. You want your day to day work to be exciting.
Now there’s also a problem there, because I think if I didn’t have the income from that real estate, I’d have had to struggle to make money: I might have a practice. Maybe not a mainstream architectural practice but when I’ve had clients, I really enjoyed it. I love building buildings. I love the process.
You’re much more than a landlord. What would be a way to describe the kind of work that you do?
It’s a question that I’ve been asked almost every day of my career. For close to 45 years I’ve considered myself an architect. Lately I’ve realized I’m not an architect, “I’m an artist!” I’m a fine artist. But my medium is architecture. That’s what I work with. I experiment with architecture. The program of architecture: shelter, survival, sunlight, physical materiality, landscape… it’s what I do as an artist, but I think architects do this as well. Is I have the luxury of choosing what area to investigate and focus in on. I can say, “for the next year I’m only going to work with the concept of water. Buckets, sinks, gutters. That’s all I’m going to work on.” I’ll get really immersed in that topic. Then when I get tired of it, I might say, “Now I’m just going to work with topography, landscape, earth and sky.” And now I’m going to work through the medium of photography, or the medium of small-scale models, or extensions of body, like clothing. So, I’m a fine artist whose work is about architecture.
So, in your work on The Bucket House, what would you say that it gains in that it wasn’t built?
Well, it was built! I didn’t think the built piece was as good as the model. It was good, but the model somehow was more dynamic for me, it left more to your imagination. The one I had built in Germany had red plastic buckets hanging along the roof, all the same size. Unlike the model, this had same size buckets and different weighted counterweights. The chorography of buckets rising and falling in rain, like water music, was beautiful. I was showing page spreads in my lecture of Absurd Thinking: Between Art and Design. We had to edit out tons of images for that book -- you can’t show everything. You want to tell a story.
If you have a model of a building, and construction drawings required by building departments, try to set them aside build from memory. You build on site - but that’s tricky when you have plumbers and electricians and masons. You must coordinate the trades. If you stick too closely to the drawings and models you might be disappointed. Often the dream is better than reality.
We recently built a house for ourselves on Long Island, and I’m very proud of that. I did a tremendous amount of drawing. Every single detail. I didn’t have to do interior details because I was physically building the interior myself. All the stuff that someone else was building, I had to be exact. I would sculpt the house on layers of yellow trace paper. I don’t do Auto Cad, I’m an old-fashioned drawer, so I kept adding layers, slipping details in and out of each layer. The final drawings are quite rich, pencil on yellow trace. Then I retraced the layers below onto a single sheet, just like you would flatten layers in Photoshop. I love Photoshop and its ability to work in layers.
I love the feel of pencil on paper. If I grew up using digital media, I am sure I would have found joy in AutoCad and Rhino. In scientific research, you need to have multiple points of view to understand any phenomena. As students, you should look at architectural concepts from multiple points of view. Make very quick chipboard models, laser cut models, hand-drawn diagrams, sections, plans, Auto CAD, and pencil. With multiple media, you get the full picture. When you get stuck with one media, stuck with a 2H pencil, use an 8B pencil, then work with charcoal. Changing media will trigger new ideas!
If I listen to a different piece of music in the studio, my work evolves into a new direction or I can solve a problem in a unique way. A new idea might happen. It’s not always easy – in lectures, I only show you successful work. On a day-to-day basis, sometimes I go into the studio and it’s a struggle. You’re dying to have the work take you over - you want to lose control. At the beginning of a project, there is too much of you, the work is not in charge of your own hands. You’re dying to get to those moments in your past where you were out of control in the making.
If you work in the studio long for an extended period of time, the work and its fluid development will happen. But it does take dedicated studio time. That’s what’s happening to me in the studio right now, I am not very productive. I am scheduled to create an installation using glass for a glass blowing facility in Southern New Jersey, but I’ve never worked with glass. I want to be able to render glass studies at small scale and make multiple variations and iterations for different ideas. I need to be able give instructions to glass blowers. Is there something I can do right now that can imitate glassblowing at the scale of a drinking straw instead of a blow pipe? Is there a chemical or a material to blow bubbles that would harden so that I could render blown glass at miniature scale in my non-glass blowing studio?
We came away from your lecture with the feeling that you work with materials, tweak the variables. You have loose constraints. Do you have a plan in your process? Do you let the work guide you?
I want to get into the studio and get into a project that will take me over and that I will enjoy working on. Like that picnicking bicycle project, I showed in my talk. I bought a 23-gauge pin-nailer and I wanted to do a project using it. It’s such a great tool. I made wooden boxes out of quarter-inch plywood that would tightly contain items necessary for a typical picnic. With this pneumatic nail gun, you glue the edge and drive a pin through the edge, and it doesn’t even split the wood, it’s so thin, and it makes a great popping sound. Tools are so important to me.
You work a lot with wood and we’re curious about this difference between Western saws, which cut on the push, and Japanese saws, which cut on the pull. Western ones require a thick blade because the steel doesn’t take much compression, and it takes more effort to cut wood because you have to push and against the wood. With a Japanese saw, it’s on the pull. As an example, if you have a piece of paper and you pull, it stays straight. The cut can be a lot thinner. It’s such a different aesthetic...
The book, Empire of Signs, by Roland Barthes--it was an important influence on me. It’s the difference between Western and Eastern sensibility. The chapter on “The Chopstick Versus the Fork”, is an example. A woodworking tool or a drawing tool is like a scalpel, a probe, and electrode and like a chop stick, it is a direct extension of your hand and mind. Tools are very important. Whether it’s a beautiful MacBook Pro or a mechanical pencil … I had a mechanical pencil that developed a curve in it because I would hold it so tight for so many years of drawing. I mounted that mechanical pencil onto a block of wood next to a well-used chisel point Carpenter’s pencil. Both pencils are green. The negative space between the two pencils had to be just right. I am an old-fashioned formalist at heart.
So, is your studio formally organized or is it messy?
It’s messy! Occasionally when it gets really messy I clean it up, and it’s so nice to come into a clean studio but then I get scared – because I don’t want to mess it up again. For one summer my studio was just a table in the corner of a screened porch. That was my studio, but even that became a sacred space. You know who speaks beautifully about a studio is the filmmaker William Kentridge. He did the stage set for The Magic Flute and he makes charcoal drawings. He does a lot of work where he films himself, always wears a white shirt and black pants, and he’s an amazing artist. And his films are often about the sacredness of the studio.
There’s a psychic journey in climbing up three flights of stairs to my studio each morning. On Long Island, my journey is through the woods to my studio. At night, I leave my studio dirty as I return home. If you leave your studio dirty in the evening, and get into your studio in the morning and you don’t know where to start, you can start by cleaning your studio! As you’re cleaning your studio you’ll think of what you should do next! Sometimes, that’s all it takes to trigger yourself into that energy.
Sounds like writing, the tricks writers use to get going.
When I was a fellow at the American Academy at Rome there were large studio spaces for us. Some fellows shipped their tools to Rome. I didn’t want to do that, so I started writing and learning Photoshop. I did bring a few small tools, an X-Acto knife, utility knife and drawing tools. I built small white forms and topographies with white museum board and photographed them. I imported the digital photos to Photoshop. Using the Photoshop tools, I transformed the images in many ways. In this way, I slowly learned, with the help of younger Rome Prize fellows, Photoshop techniques. I know a lot of writers who talk about writing their first drafts in pencil.
Speaking of writing, advice I could give to architecture students is to read literature. As architects, you are more likely to be influenced by authors and artists as you are by other architects.
How to Build a Digital Brick Wall, 2009
A lot of your work is very honest in that a project about buckets is literally about buckets, or a project about height literally has stilts. Is that honesty in your work hiding some sort of embedded critique about the function of architecture?
Yeah, I think it is. Maybe we can use another Japanese example. If you take two examples, the Japanese tea room which is only one stepping stone above the Earth’s surface. The stone is a trigger that engages and activates the mind and allows us to travel from the profane to the sacred. The columns and structure of the tea room rest on rocks. This architectural detail is both functional and poetic. The visual precariousness to the structure makes you feel that any moment the tea house could lift off and float into the sky. Because of the possibility of earthquakes, the building is allowed shake without snapping off and collapsing. I like when architectural details have two reasons for being, a spiritual reason and a functional reason. So, in Gothic cathedrals, gargoyles: they keep evil spirits from entering the building and they keep water from going back into the building by spitting the rainwater out and away. In Japanese lacquer, for instance, the lacquer is applied so that undercoat is not hidden. Our paint is opaque.
I love when construction reveals the process of construction and the act of making. I like when buildings explain themselves. A fine woodworker, will plug a screw head by aligning the grain of the plug with the grain of the cabinet and make it flush to the surface. I like it when the plug is not sanded flush to the surface and the grain is not aligned.
You said it was a good thing to be absurd, and being an architect seems to come with constraints, expectations, code compliance –
But those constraints, gravity, budget, codes, program, allow you to focus. Artists must invent a way to focus. Architects are given those codes, what are called “restrictions”, but they’re not restrictions! They’re opportunities to search more deeply. Gravity is a great restriction. It makes for beautiful and inventive buildings. If we didn’t have gravity, everything would be a sphere.
Gravity has always permeated my work. Level surfaces. New horizons. That’s why the parallel edge is such a great tool. I couldn’t live without one, and yet I hardly see them anywhere anymore.
You play with this notion of gravity, have you ever played with it in a non-static way?
Well, in my piece called “Coffee Seeks its Own Level”: that’s performative. Four people are drinking coffee. If one person lifts the cup before the others, the coffee overflows. Enforced democracy – I guess.
I did many projects just exploring the idea of “a door”, and the various means and mechanisms that would allow one to walk through a wall. Much of my work is performative and non-static.
Architecture and design is a great profession. It’s such a blessing to be given an opportunity and funding from a client to express yourself. What could be better?
Allan Wexler has worked in the fields of architecture, design and fine art for forty five years. He is represented by the Ronald Feldman Gallery in New York City and teaches in the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons, and The New School for Design in New York City. Allan’s works explore human activity and the built environment. He works as an investigator using series, permutations and chance rather than searching for definitive solutions. He makes buildings, furniture, vessels and utensils as backdrops and props for everyday, ordinary human activity.