By Herbert Muschamp
Published: April 09, 1995When Christo wraps up a monument like the Berlin Reichstag building, the project’s meaning is partly drawn from the involvement of public officials and private citizens in its creation. Architects draw on that level of meaning as a matter of course. It is not only the public use of buildings that makes architecture a social art. It is also the architect’s engagement with clients, communities, contractors and others whose participation is required to alter the material world. If architects can fully gratify their creativity on paper, they are squandering the opportunity they have to activate the creativity of others.
MARTIN FINIO AND KEVIN Fischer, two graduates of the architecture school at Cooper Union in New York, have completed a five-year labor of love: a full-scale realization of a design by John Hejduk, the school’s dean. But the fruit of their labor will be around for only a fraction of the time it took to produce it. “The Conciliator,” a 19-foot-tall, dark gray tower based on one of Hejduk’s drawings, will be dismantled in early June.
Installed on a traffic island on Fifth Avenue at 23d Street, across from the Flatiron Building, the structure is a puzzling, enigmatic object, looking something like an unattended information booth. And without someone on hand to explain things, the design may baffle those not familiar with Hejduk’s (pronounced HAY-duck) work, and perhaps a few who are. But it isn’t often that this revered teacher ventures forth from academe. Indeed, without the persistence of the two young architects Finio and Fischer (who raised both the structure and the money to pay for it), this project would not have seen the light of day. Their persistence is a tribute to Hejduk’s legendary power to inspire students. Yet the project itself barely hints at the reasons for it. Those hints are worth following, however, if only to understand Hejduk’s influence on the next generation.
While not a stranger to building — his 1975 reconstruction of Cooper Union’s Foundation Building on Astor Place is one of lower Manhattan’s gems — Hejduk is better known as the consummate paper architect, an artist who has shirked off the cumbersome apparatus of conventional practice and created entire cities of the mind. His drawings, often gathered together in the form of “masques,” set forth an elaborate personal mythology of angels, medusas, watchtowers, condemned men and other allegorical figures. In these cerebral cityscapes, buildings often resemble costumed performers. They act out the idea that architecture can be as solitary a pursuit as poetry or painting.
The conciliator, a character from Hejduk’s Berlin Masque (1979-83), is among the simpler of his designs. His drawing depicts a slim tower capped with a sharp notched crown flanked by two ramps. Presumably the ramps enable disputants to approach the conciliator to mediate a conflict. The conciliator dwells within, and speaks through windows on either side, a father confessor to strife.
The design, fabricated in wood, has been altered in execution. The ramps are gone, though a vestige of one remains as a sharp wedge that thrusts west toward Broadway, as if to slice the Flatiron Building in two. Rain spouts, minimalist gargoyles, now protrude from the tower’s walls. In place of a live conciliator, Finio and Fischer have substituted a small I-beam; visible just inside the window, it is an homage to the founder of their school, Peter Cooper, an iron maker. Sensitive siting, refined details, spare forms that merge figuration and abstraction: these are Hejduk hallmarks.
If one seeks to categorize the design, what comes to mind is not an architectural style but a personality type: introverted, brooding, theatrically self-possessed. It is the manner of the passive aggressive, the chronic withholder, of those who want others to think they have dispensed with normal needs. As a friend remarked, this style can have an almost aphrodisiac effect. But it contradicts the conventional view of architecture as a social art, and is remote from the bubbly air of sociability that many architects are trying to revive in American cities.
Hejduk’s self-containment, however, is not as out of step with contemporary practice as it may seem. Consider the exterior of malls, atriums, gated residential enclaves: sullen introversion has been the norm for many building types in recent years. A style of solipsism also prevails in many architecture schools, where a preoccupation with theory has gone far toward displacing the traditional emphasis on professional practice.
Some years back I attacked John Hejduk in a magazine article because it seemed to me that an architect’s retreat from practice would just further erode a public realm already damaged by severe neglect. My point was not that only completed buildings deserve to qualify as architecture, or that architects have to be pragmatists, but that something valuable is lost when architects renounce conventional practice. The realization of an architectural design isn’t a purely technical matter. It also has a cultural dimension.
I’M THINKING, FOR EXAMPLE, OF an artist like Christo, who regards the process of realizing as an essential part of his art. When Christo wraps up a monument like the Berlin Reichstag building, the project’s meaning is partly drawn from the involvement of public officials and private citizens in its creation. Architects draw on that level of meaning as a matter of course. It is not only the public use of buildings that makes architecture a social art. It is also the architect’s engagement with clients, communities, contractors and others whose participation is required to alter the material world. If architects can fully gratify their creativity on paper, they are squandering the opportunity they have to activate the creativity of others.
Still, as a pedagogical device, Hejduk’s stance of radical solitude is worth defending. At Cooper Union, Hejduk trains students who will be entering what is, in effect, a reactive discipline; they will be called upon to satisfy the needs of others. But Hejduk proposes that there’s more to it than that: even architecture’s social dimension depends on the creative capacity of individuals. Hejduk seeks to protect the solitary place where creativity occurs, where all our social support systems can become distractions.
The question is whether Hejduk’s approach retains its value outside the academic setting. The answer is that the city today needs Hejduk’s contribution even more acutely than the classroom does. Architects are outstanding at visualizing privacy these days. Decorating magazines provide a monthly update on their successes. But solitude is a much harder quality to pin down. Perhaps that is because, in Hejduk’s vision, solitude is paradoxically an urbane quality, an aspect of interior life coaxed forth by the city’s overbearing passive aggression.
Hejduk’s idiosyncratic practice stands for that paradox: the idea that solitude is integral to the public realm. It’s an idea to set against the homogenized commercial vitality of festival marketplaces and business improvement districts, a warning that these well-meaning, popular and often bland attempts to save cities could cost them their souls.
But how can we measure the value of Hejduk’s idea if he keeps it under wraps? Perhaps the time has come for Hejduk to step up to the window for a little conciliation. New York should have a building designed by him in durable form.