The Sublime and the Grotesque in American Architecture
This is a challenge to the notion of continuity or enduring principles, arguing that it is impossible for something to mean the same, or even have equivalent emotional value, in the imaginations of different times and places. It's basis does not rest within the usual arguments for discontinuity such as avant-garde precepts of originality (or intention), or the implications of technology (or agency). The opportunities discontinuity affords are an intrinsic part of the self-conscious making of both cultural artefacts and history. As the commentator on the north American landscape, JB Jackson, once stated : "there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity ... I refer to the necessity for ruins (which) provide the incentive for restoration, and a return to origins." There is an essential interval, then, a gap where understanding is half-formed; and prejudice, assumption and expectation are perplexed as a response to the grotesque. Barnett Newman was fascinated with the grotesque and its usefulness, and he was watchful of the "growing aesthetic appreciation of pre-Columbian art .. as works of art rather than as artefacts of history" The inaccessibility of original meaning and the impulse to disregard it anyway had been noted a hundred years earlier by another influential American, Henry David Thoreau :"One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels," he says, but is it out of choice?
Origins are especially ambiguous and complex in a New World like America was, where an intense awareness of the value of discontinuity and difference from Europe was combined with a simultaneous denial and fascination with a 'defeated' indigenous culture. The outcome was a defiant and a self-conscious attempt to create a rupture from the Old World, whilst at the same time reinterpreting the old as an articulation of the new. There is an implicit rejection of linear historical development and progress in this intention, which challenges perceptions of geographical unity and coherence stemming from a Eurocentric view of the world.
The land, in this sense of emotional and conceptual rupture and continuity, becomes important to those thinking about what it is to be American, for two very different reasons. On one hand it embodies a raw state of nature called wilderness, a powerful and essential counterpart to Europe, already a place without wildness except in the imagination of painters. On the other it is the physical surface onto and under which the memories, remains and possibilities of a new culture exist and can be projected. "Only that which has been conceived can be seen: but that which has been conceived has been invented" quotes Edmundo O'Gorman, reflecting upon the origins of America and the reconstruction of Mexico in particular.
Until the nineteenth century pre-Colombian artefacts and ruins in Mexico and other parts of America were reviled - horrible, abhorrent, fascinating, in other words grotesque. Sometimes they were hastily reburied, so disturbing was their presence and its implications. This response was both aesthetic and cultural, since they represented the barbarous and primitive religions of the pre-colonial (evoking images of hearts being ripped out on altars for example) which still resonate in contemporary histories. Wilderness places and frontiers were equally strange; unknown territory was both something hostile to be overcome, and a resource to be exploited. Building on the land was about inhabiting the wilderness and making civilisation.
Whilst the feelings inspired by the physical evidence of indigenous cultures were responses to their perceived grotesque qualities the emotions being overcome in relation to the wilderness were big ones: fear, terror, ecstasy, awe - emotions connected to encounters with the sublime.
It wasn't until the nineteenth century that the wilderness was sufficiently tamed for it to take on a positive meaning. Its transformation from a condition of hardship to be endured and overcome to a concept that could usefully embody what America meant is inherent in the writings of the American philosopher-writer Henry Thoreau. At the age of twenty-seven he went to the shores of Walden Pond in the woods of New England to construct a very particular way of living.
Labelled the archetypal 'privileged protester' Thoreau, both through his deliberately chosen life in the woods and his writings, produced a critique of society and its European origins from its edges, questioning not only its prejudices but its foundations. His protest was based on a fundamental anti-materialism, which disdained the idea of ownership and the very premise of private land and a static life. Thoreau aspired to a spiritual 'awakening' into a new and better state, to something essentially American: "We are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual distilling and drenching of the reality which surrounds us," he said. Each object escapes from its 'money' value to become part of a different system of experience and way of life, not sensual in a material sense, rather of the emotions and intellect, transcendent. Whilst not literally excavating the surface of the land in a search for origins Thoreau was reconstructing the idea of wilderness to invent a different way of life. In assembling his own house he determined a relationship between the builder-dweller and his new conception of nature which sprang from his consciousness as an American.
Until the twentieth century the sites of the sublime were geographical, but by the 1940s the physical wilderness had been overcome. Inhabited, exploited and transformed into a civilised landscape its sublime qualities were subdued. Sites of natural beauty, although not literally visited everyday, were ubiquitous images in everyday life. The concept of the wilderness found a fugitive site in the imagination, which is where it always belonged according to Kant - "it comes that the sublime is not to be looked for in the things of nature, but only in our own ideas," he states in the 'Analytic of the Sublime'.
Involved in both facilitating this transformation and dealing with its consequences was the photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) . He described the ability to approach the wilderness as a source of both inspiration and mental and physical health as a pre- condition of a stable society. For him the wilderness existed beyond its status as a physical commodity to be exploited to become a symbolic experience of spiritual meaning. His strong feelings as a member of the Sierra Club impelled him to reveal the natural beauty of the Yosemite Valley in California, through his photographs, to a wider audience. The extent of transformation that the Yosemite Park was to undergo following the success of Adams' and the Sierra Club's popularisation of the wilderness was beyond the limits of their preconceptions. A place where months-long solitary camping trips were once possible became metamorphosed by the motor car.
An approximately contemporary advocate of the individual and the car within the American landscape was the architect Frank Lloyd Wright(1869-1959). His relationship with the American landscape bears many similarities to that of Thoreau, especially as a believer in and facilitator of an independent individualism, and he emulates him in the statement: "Life itself demands of Modern Architecture that the house of a man who knows what home is should have his own home his own way."
Wright upheld the importance of ground and site in his challenge to the 'old English Colonial tradition' in his RIBA lectures of 1939 on 'Organic Architecture.' He stated that there was an American alternative to the idea of the 'Classic'. This new architecture "- an earnest search for reality" was to be based not upon the "old traditional ... Pseudo-classic architecture (that) ... really hates the ground and looks as though its did so." It was to spring from the premise that any building that is built should love the ground on which it stands. His critique was against a classical heritage based upon a formal historicism. He acknowledged the usefulness of ruins and their grotesque qualities many times in his work, as both 'authentically' American and preceding the classical origins of European colonialism.
His early 'pre-Colombian' houses in California, such as the Hollyhock House, 1917-21 and the Freeman House 1923-4, have very particular relationships with their sites - their formal courts, terraces at different levels and ambiguous boundaries are analogous to the isolated and compact worlds of the ruins to which he was referring. These "substructures constituted a 'landform' language that acted as an architectural extension of the natural topography and connected the temple to the earth." He described them as "mighty, primitive abstractions of man's nature ... the ancient arts of the Mayan, and Incan, and Toltecs. Those great American abstractions were all earth-architectures: gigantic masses of masonry, great stone paved terrain all planned as one mountain, cosmic as sun, moon, stars."
Wright was also interested in the decorative properties of Mayan architecture. Later references to pre-Columbian architecture draw from the more familiar vocabulary of surface pattern and decorative relief. They extended to the surfaces of the ruins, which he saw as being a plastic extension of their structure. He incorporated this idea in his own conception of the organic suggested by Thoreau- "by more plastic we mean the building treated as a whole instead of manifestly being joined up of many features and parts. In organic building nothing is complete as the part is merged physically into the larger expression of the whole." From this he developed a means to making structural planes called the textile block construction system during 1923.
During the 1920s, at the same time that Wright was exploring the potential of pre-Columbian architecture, a more populist fascination was flowering in California and the South. It was generated by the reproductions of Mexican ruins made for various national architectural competitions and exhibitions, including the Panama-California Expo of 1915. This is known as the 'Mayan Revival Style', used most commonly in buildings for popular entertainment - like the Aztec Theatre at Eagle Pass, Texas, and the Aztec Hotel, Los Angeles 1925. Originally designed in the 'Egyptian Style' it was transformed after the architect saw Frederick Catherwood's book of 'Ancient Monuments in Chiapas and Yucatan' 1844. The Mayan Theatre was consciously designed as a pastiche of decorative elements depicting "the exotic spirit of the highest culture reached by ancient people." It was considered grotesque by the press of the day.
The fascination with indigenous culture in America was not limited in geographical origin to Mexico and the South. At the beginning of the twentieth century in North America a vogue for Native American Art started which reached its peak in the thirties. In 1931 the 'Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts' was held at the Grand Central Galleries in New York, and permanent exhibitions were set up at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Natural History. At the same time the cultures of the New Mexican Indians were gaining increasing attention amongst the art community. This was centred on the town of Taos - a colony of artists and intellectuals, including Georgia O'Keefe and John Collier. Pueblo life offered a communal, utopian alternative to the competitive and individualistic approach to life encouraged by industrial capitalism.
Later, during the 1940s and 1950s, the North American group of painters called the Abstract Expressionists used Native American and pre-Columbian art as a basis for their own work. They, more than anyone before, exploited the discontinuous meaning of 'primitive' artefacts. Their primary concern was with the powerful aesthetic value that they had as grotesque objects, intrinsically different from the modern, the political and the civilised, closer to nature and the essence of man's existence. They were a brutal, violent means of reconstructing modern man, separate from the rational world, spontaneous, existential, beyond. Through their work they ostensibly found the sublime within themselves.
'The Sublime is now' wrote Barnett Newman in 1948, drawn to the grotesque and sacred properties of ancient artefacts and their sites. For him their indeterminate and hidden properties were essential, transcendent; their ugliness and distortions of taste disrupting harmony. The "use of ancient materials to construct invented traditions" was his intention; not reproduction but rather reconstruction on his own terms. He knew and used the interval of meaning that they embodied to highlight the separation of man from the physical world in an echo of Thoreau's transcendentalism.
A site that embodied associations of the grotesque and the primitive that so interested Newman was the vast and previously uninhabited lava fields of el Pedregal at the south western fringes of Mexico City. In its natural state it encapsulated many of Edmund Burke's essential qualities of the sublime: a powerful aspect, obscurity, vastness, difficulty and uniformity. The most famous architectural intervention into this place is the Jardines del Pedregal, developed by Luis Barragán. This sublime and grotesque landscape was manipulated by Barragán, who aestheticised these qualities, reconfiguring them in a fashionable and expensive suburb. Treatment of the ground itself was fundamentally important. Its aridity, unevenness and vast scale were fascinating to him. He smoothed and flattened this uninhabitable land, using fountains, steps and lawns experienced with the huge space of the lava field, viewed against the volcanoes in the background. Sometimes, such as in the house on Avenida de los Fuentes which he built with Max Cetto, the rocks would be an integral part of the structure, penetrating the domestic interior.
"Overwhelmed by the beauty of this landscape "he said "I decided to create a series of gardens to humanise, without destroying its magic ... melted rock by the onslaught of powerful prehistoric winds." Barragán's domestication of the sublime landscape into a place both beautiful and desirable subsumed its grotesque qualities. His dream landscape lasted barely more than a decade before the momentum of profit -driven development inundated the rocky surface, and the cleverly exploited discontinuity in time which the ground embodied was lost.