The works selected for this post focus on the sublime and the notion of origins.
John Marx describes the abstract paintings as “A mad series of dense brushstrokes that compress the emotional energy of painting into one intense burst of unforgiving creativity”, adding that “They represent the other side of our emotional range, the messy paradox of the human condition, of both the darkness and the light that manifest themselves in our inner being.”
Where You Come from Sets a Tone, 2019
I grew up
in the Midwest,
that vast and transient moment
between two precious coasts
In many ways,
not much happens there.
In those rural areas,
people sustain themselves off the land,
and what little that offers
In its own way,
it is also a profoundly beautiful place,
in the quiet elegance of a simple life
in the deep integrity of the people who live there
This was a place to learn to dream
to seek the world that appeared
so far beyond your grasp
On those gentle plains
the pure will of your imagination
can find the extraordinary
by chasing the tumultuous drama of clouds
that pass over
this slow and persistent landscape
Burning Man, at its most elemental level, provides an opportunity to shift various social norms in unexpected and provocative ways. Is this the basis for a larger cultural shift, or just a capricious indulgence ….?
If we take the point of view that architecture is an art form, it is largely a transactional one, we design on the basis of commissions. We have clients, whose interests we are obligated to serve, we consider the Public, as our creations can have a large impact on people’s lives. As such, most often we design under numerous constraints, such as budgets, programming, and governmental restrictions ….. things that we can adapt to, but ultimately not control.
At Burning Man, one of the powerful experiences is that of 70,000 people being self-expressive. This ranges from the outfits people wear to the 400+ pieces of artwork contributed by teams of artists. At first it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this creative output, but that in itself is not the most provocative part of Burning Man. The aspect that profoundly challenges your normal life experience is that everything along this range of offerings is meant as a gift. Within this context each participant charts the trajectory of their gifting, these gifts might be quite small and heartfelt, or the size of a five-story building. While often times the gift is in the form of art, the process of gifting is an art form in itself.
This year I was asked to join an art team as Lead Artist. The vision began with Team Leader Brian Poindexter, who was inspired by the Burning Man 2019 Theme Metamorphoses, to start an Art Project exploring the myth of Andromeda and the expansive nature of the night sky. We decided to challenge the classical myth of Andromeda, wherein a young woman is chained to a rock, left to be devoured by a sea monster that was sent by the Gods to punish her mother for the arrogance of proclaiming her daughter’s beauty. This led ultimately to the project name; Andromeda Reimagined. Within this new narrative, Andromeda saves herself, with the help of her community. The “rock and chains” have been morphed into a story of her inner journey to find strength and purpose in a world of chaos and absurdity. In the spirit of interactivity, we are asking people to write the names and stories of their female heroes on the inside walls of the structure. Following several reiterations, the final art piece takes the form of a 26 foot-tall, five-sided pyramid.
Rarely, as architects, do we design and build, using our own resources, with a pure sense of contributing to the vibrancy of our communities, where our imagination is only restrained by the amount of time and resources, we are capable of committing. Out of this “blank canvas”, free of normal constraints, we can build our own vibrancy, in the most deeply authentic way possible, with the work of our own hands. This freedom invites us to explore our innermost motivations, to ask ourselves “what would we do?” out in the dust, for one idyllic week, if for no other reason, than to build for the pure joy of gifting an experience to others. Yet, once back from this moment in the desert, the more fundamental question is, “What if even a small part of this sense of gifting came back with us from the Playa?” ….. what a delightful and humane world we might start to create.
This year Burning Man is taking place in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada: August 25 – September 2 For more information about Burning Man visit: https://burningman.org/
– John Marx, Chief Artistic Officer at Form4 Architecture
John Marx’s watercolours, first published in the Architectural Review, are a compelling example of an architect’s way of thinking informing the visual arts. Quiet and subtle, they are nonetheless captivating works in terms of how they explore notions of a sense of place, of how we inhabit built space and how we experience these phenomena in the core of our being. There is an existential quality to Marx’s paintings rarely found in the medium of watercolour and even something of the psychologically piercing observational quality of artists like De Chirico.
It is fascinating to see connections with such powerful work in Marx’s nine by nine inch watercolours. Perhaps it helps to be an architect to be as spatially ambitious as Marx is within this modestly sized series of watercolours. Here, he explores a subject matter usually reserved for much bigger works of art and carries this off with the conviction of someone used to starting with a blank sheet of paper and transforming this into a building.
In this sense, Marx’s watercolours are very much the explorations of an architect, an exploration concerned with an atmosphere created through memory and association and also through our peripheral vision, a seldom appreciated aspect of how we truly experience buildings and places. Too little is made of how painting can explore this type of narrative and meaning. And far too few architects are actively engaged with this medium. Zaha Hadid and Will Alsop have been recent exceptions, while Le Corbusier, the Modernist hero, remains the most celebrated.
As architects strive to communicate their way of thinking, Marx’s watercolours are an example of a humane approach in terms of conveying emotional meaning in relation to our surroundings. As much of Marx’s subject matter reads as “built landscapes” – heightening the role of the manmade while in balance with the natural world – it offers a message and a sentiment that is perhaps more important than ever to relay to wider audiences. As a method of working, watercolours have an inherent fragility that makes the portrayal of this message all the more poignant. Marx’s works also celebrate the poetic immediacy ingrained in working with watercolours where the artist’s hand is forever present and a foil to an increasingly virtual world.
In this vein, Marx’s inhabited landscapes point towards an answer to an inquiry poised by Sir John Soane’s Museum Critical Drawing Talk Series, “If drawing once allowed architects to visualise possible futures, might its rebirth point a way towards recapturing architecture’s optimism and agency?” The optimism of Marx’s watercolours, and also that of his poems to be published in his forthcoming art book, is certainly ingrained in how Marx works as an architect. Their variety reflect the richness he values in the way architecture should be approached. Not as something reductive but as something as widely engaging as possible.
As Marx writes, “We, as architects, and as a culture in general, might benefit from embracing the concept of design value across a much broader spectrum than we currently permit.” And it is in this very spirit that Marx’s watercolours are an all-important supplement to his architecture, enriching his work and allowing a fruitful cross-pollination of ideas and also emotions to create moments – be they in his watercolours, in his poems or his buildings – that dare to be hopeful.
The above is an extract from an essay from John Marx’s watercolour book to be published later this year by Oro Editions.
Form4 Architecture recently took part in their 5th World Architecture Festival. This time around it was staged in Amsterdam at the RAI conference centre with the largest number of delegates in attendance that the Festival has welcomed since its inception in 2008.
There were over 400 architects from around the world presenting their work in the 42 different categories for the World Architecture Festival Awards. This alone creates a mesmerizing overview of what is taking place in the profession be it in the Americas, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Australia or Africa. Keynote speakers included David Adjaye, Jeanne Gang, Rem Koolhaas and Li Xiaodong whose presentation of his Liyuan Library on the outskirts of Beijing was one of the highlights of the talks.
Form4’s Co-Founding Principal and Chief Artistic Officer John Marx chaired the jury for the “Large Scale Housing” category won by an extraordinary project in Mathura, India designed by Sanjay Puri Architects. The project is made up of an 800-room complex devoted to young academics. The design skillfully incorporates the idea of a street following the same urban patterns seen in this part of the country.
John Marx also presented Form4’s projects in three different categories including the practice’s recently completed Innovation Curve in Palo Alto in the highly competitive “Use of Colour” category. The jury for this category was chaired by Sir Peter Cook, an English architect who is best known for having been one of the founders of the legendary and avant-grade Archigram studio in the 1960s and for his own imaginative approach to colour in architecture.
As per usual, in between presentations, talks and the actual awards ceremony at the Beurs van Berlage, there was real buzz of colleagues from across the globe catching up, introducing each other to new friends and acquaintances. All the things that happen in between the official Festival program being what at least half of what WAF is really all about. A place to swap notes on the state of architecture today, be it in San Francisco, London, Valetta, Milan, Dubai, Beijing or Singapore. And of course we saw first-hand what was happening in Amsterdam and were thoroughly impressed by their public infrastructure including the recently opened metro line that transported us effortlessly to the conference centre.
Another highlight at the Festival for us was The Architecture Drawing Prize stand displaying winners of hand-drawn, hybrid and digital categories. We ended our time at WAF sitting as guests at the Architecture Drawing Prize winners’ table and enjoying once again the Festival’s Gala Dinner atmosphere. A great finale to this event and particularly as 2019 will see Form4 focus on ideas around representation and architecture just as we did in the watercolour section of the Architectural Review (AR) monograph published earlier this year; and which was also featured on the AR stand at WAF in Amsterdam. We were delighted!
Form4 Architecture’s Co-Founding Principal and Chief Artistic Officer, John Marx, initiated a highly original publication in the Architectural Review (AR) monograph series. “The Absurdity of Beauty – Rebalancing the Modernist narrative” is a hybrid monograph that features Form4 Architecture’s work as well as a wide range of topics that advocate a fundamental shift in the way architects design through a mix of poetry, essays, and watercolors. This shift is to do with how we tackle contemporary challenges, like placemaking, gentrification and identity in society, through our built environment. Marx’s own essay within the publication, “Dreaming Aloud”, touches on a theme that is at the heart of what instigated the idea of approaching the monograph in this multifaceted way. This theme is the notion of “range”.
“Range” is understood by Marx as embracing inclusiveness in place of exclusiveness. It is about seeing architecture as a plentiful feast as conveyed in the cover image of this blog. “Range” rejects the notion of artistic endeavour only being of value within the confines of conventional and often hierarchical definitions.
The visual quality of the AR publication as realised by Art Editor Tom Carpenter celebrates “range” through the variety of imagery and the richness of the graphic sensibility throughout the monograph. It is all about giving a distinct platform to different voices that in their individualistic ways challenge us to create emotionally meaningful, culturally vibrant places to live and work. Places that we value and that we feel belong to us.
The following extract on “range” from “Dreaming Aloud” elaborates on what John Marx wants to convey when using this term.
“Dreaming Aloud” by John Marx – Extract:
Range is a very balance-dependent concept. On the one hand, we as a humane species thrive (diversity-adaptability are the key traits which ensure our survival) because we don’t all want the same things at the same time; on the other hand, we also tend to form ourselves into groups with like-minded interests or traits. It is the creative dynamic between these two conditions where healthy and vibrant communities thrive. Existing on either extremes of this equation can have undesirable and unintended consequences.
From an architectural object or project standpoint, range includes the way we judge the value of the work that is created. This aspect of range is well illustrated at the annual Burning Man festival, where some 70,000 people gather at a temporary city in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada to celebrate creatively. Among the many events at the 2017 Burning Man, more than 300 artworks were set out on the Playa. These ranged from ‘museum grade’ sculpture, to the Jedi Dog Temple designed by a five-year old boy. The participants recognise that everything on this range has a deep value to them, because, in the case of Burning Man, each art piece is given as a gift, and each was created from the heart. However they also embrace the idea that the nature of each piece is different and adds value each in its own special way. We, as architects, and as a culture in general, might benefit from embracing the concept of design value across a much broader spectrum than we currently permit.
In this series, we are publishing excerpts from Form4 Architecture’s monograph: The Absurdity of Beauty – rebalancing the Modernist narrative. Our third post focusses on an essay written by the British architectural critic, Jay Merrick, who spent his formative years growing up in California. We are delighted that Merrick used his early impressions of living on the West Coast to reflect on what makes Californian architecture distinct as it plays on a unique mythology that has put the state on the world map from the days of the Gold Rush and well into the 20th and 21st centuries.
The inclusion of a chapter on Californian architecture in this monograph examining the Modernist narrative was important to us not least because we are a San Francisco based practice. The story of California and its own brand of culture has therefore shaped the way we design. Californian landscape, light and climate and the early adoption of environmentalism have all played their part; as has its free spirited entrepreneurial outlook that has been the backbone of Californian society from the early pioneers to today’s tech giants. The success of Silicon Valley has also coincided with the Bay Area’s approach to workplace interiors becoming globally influential. These interiors support a collaborative and flexible approach to work that is very much of California. This made us want to reflect on the roots of the innovations that Californian high tech companies have introduced to not only office design per se, but to office life around the world.
The title of Jay Merrick’s essay “Designing at Evolving Frontiers” hints at the way he sees the journey Californians have taken as changing with the times, whilst creating a thriving contemporary culture that is often ahead of its time. How this journey is expressed in the local architecture is something Merrick captures with great flair and insight.
“Designing at Evolving Frontiers” by Jay Merrick – Extract:
“The museum’s curator, Justin McGuirk, links Californian existence with Jean Baudrillard’s definition of an achieved utopia – a place that ‘allowed itself to imagine it could create an ideal world from nothing’.
Facebook’s start-up motto in 2004 was ‘Move Fast And Break Things’, an ethos of fearless invention which had already been demonstrated in architecture such as Greene and Greene’s 1908 Gamble House – the so-called ‘ultimate bungalow’ – and Irving Gill’s remarkable, proto-minimalist 1916 Dodge House in West Hollywood. In the 1930s and ’40s (and leaving aside California’s early Modernist houses), aesthetic-formal frontiers had been breached by vividly outré, neon-edged Popluxe (aka Googie) architecture, such as Wayne McAllister’s faux-futurist Simon’s Drive-Ins, and the boomerang-canopied Harvey’s Broiler outlets.
In 1960, John Lautner’s pedestalled octagonal Chemosphere was the apotheosis of space-age domestic Modernism and, 18 years later, the weirdly discombobulated Gehry Residence in Santa Monica was an instantly legendary lift-off moment for Deconstructivist design.
Simultaneously, the countercultural ideas and output of artists, writers, and environmentalists became key influences on Californian architecture. Ed Ruscha’s laconic photographs in Twentysix Gasoline Stations, for example, were produced five years before the publication of Learning From Las Vegas. ‘I’m interested in glorifying something that we in the world would say doesn’t deserve being glorified’, said Ruscha. ‘Something that’s forgotten, focused on as though it were some sort of sacred object.’
Equally sacred in Californian architecture are compelling fusions of Modernism and environmentalism – contradictory, tense, potentially fertile. Charles Moore’s blocky cascade of clifftop condominiums at Sea Ranch, 100 miles north of San Francisco, was brilliantly novel in 1966. The noted architectural critic Paul Goldberger said it was, ‘the ancestor of virtually every California beach house and Vermont ski house with unpainted wood siding, a boxy form and a slanted shed roof – one of the few buildings of our time that has become part of the vernacular’.”
The above drawings relating to this blog post 11/4/18 are all by Pierluigi Serraino, AIA.
Pierluigi is a San Francisco Bay Area based architect, author, and educator. His work and writings have been published in professional and scholarly journals. He has authored and contributed to several books, among them Modernism Rediscovered (Taschen, 2000), Eero Saarinen (Taschen, 2005), and The Creative Architect: Inside the Great Personality Study (Monacelli Press, 2016). His latest book is California Captured (Phaidon, 2018) on architectural photographer Marvin Rand. His forthcoming book is a comprehensive appraisal of architectural photographer Ezra Stoller (Phaidon, 2019).
Regarding his interest in hand drawing historic buildings, Pierluigi notes, “Drawing is a way of knowing. What is learned in the process of re-drawing the icons of modernity and previous eras? A world of content unfolds and a higher awareness of the scope of architecture as an art form.”
In our series of extracts from The Absurdity of Beauty – Rebalancing the Modernist narrative we wanted to include an excerpt from writer Sam Lubell and his essay “Rethinking Silicon Valley”. Sam edited the California edition of The Architects’ Newspaper over many years and is currently a staff writer at Wired magazine. His interests and knowledge of the Bay Area thus made him uniquely placed to write about Silicon Valley in The Absurdity of Beauty. His essay on the architecture of the Silicon Valley is an insightful description of the urbanistic challenges office developments for high-tech industries continue to face as they are built ever further afield.
As architects at Form4 Architecture, we are particularly interested in this discourse having worked with many high-tech companies in the area. Over the years, we have sought ways in which to improve a sense of placemaking and the relationship of our buildings with their neighbours. We have tried to match the enthusiasm and interest our clients have for creating uniquely forward-looking office interiors to the exteriors of these buildings.
It is a curious phenomenon that in terms of progressive design thinking Silicon Valley excels at space planning and fit-out but less so at genius loci. As Sam suggests, change is taking place and we are excited to be part of a movement that hopes to see the Silicon Valley as a place that people will not only go to work but one in which they will want to live.
“Rethinking Silicon Valley” by Sam Lubell – Extract:
So while today’s glamorous tech entities have brought a welcome emphasis on design with a capital D to the area, they haven’t transformed what remains a placeless place. Collaboration here is internal, not with the community; offices are open – and often they’re arranged with their own internal streets – but that’s as far as their urbanism reaches. Their elaborate contortions and urban simulacra haven’t reached beyond their corporate boundaries; and they’re not ready to rethink the larger social fabric.
Urban change, though, is slowly seeping into this anti-urban culture. Albeit via baby steps. Santa Clara is exploring mixed-use development around its new stadium. San Jose’s Santana Row, while hardly authentic, has developed into a true centre of human activity. Companies such as Adobe are going vertical in San Jose’s downtown core. And downtown Palo Alto, the most walkable and vibrant of Silicon Valley’s places, now demands higher rents than San Francisco.