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THE TEMPLE OF LAUGHTER: HOW IT TURNED INTO A JOKE BUT ENDED IN TRIUMPH

Reprinted with permission from the Summer 1995 Architecture Special issue of ART Ideas Magazine:

Editor's note: The following article should be read before reading this issue's "My Word." The purpose of Mr. Gibson's article and my essay is two-fold:
(1) I thought our readers would enjoy the sights and sounds that ART members created for a "Temple" competition, (2) the story related to you by Fred has much wider cultural implications with which I deal in my essay. It is this larger picture, along with the fact that ART Ideas has hitherto not given space to the contemporary world of architecture, that brought about my decision to devote an entire issue to this subject.

Author's note: The following true story may be appreciated more fully with an awareness of the state of contemporary architecture in general.

What is hailed by the architectural intelligentsia as the greatest Architecture in America today are buildings whose generating ideas lie not on principles based in function and beauty, but on irrational philosophies such as deconstructivism and primitivism. These are projects which attempt to express through form the underlying beliefs of the responsible architects: that Man is trapped in a chaotic flux of irrationality and subjectivity, that absolutes absolutely do not exist, that existence itself is a debatable issue. The forms of these buildings are contorted shapes without purpose which try to make the building appear to be either falling, exploding, or chaotic without, in fact, being chaotic. As much as structural engineers hate these projects, they are able to make them stand through the incredible strength that 20th century materials provide.

The Temple of Laughter Competition

Given this cultural context in architecture, I decided never to enter an architectural competition - to be judged by those who abhor beauty and worship the irrational - until seeing the following competition statement:

"THE LAUGH"

The Laugh is a competition that might well have been named the Temple. That is its program or charge. But laughter is its spirit. We seek an architecture of laughter, in particular, a Temple of Laughter. We do not seek a religious building per se. Nor do we seek a sacrilegious building. We do, however, seek a work of profound significance, meaning, and dignity. We do not seek an ancient temple, a renaissance chapel, a tomb or a folly. We seek a brave new work that challenges history, conformity, tradition, dogma and even gravity. We seek a work of gravity that defies gravity. We do not seek a funny building or a silly structure. We seek an extraordinary new work in spirit, concept and execution. We seek an expression and embodiment of man's greatest joy and celebration of his own existence; the celebration of his own soul, the celebration of his own being, the celebration of his own mind, the celebration of his own reason, the celebration of his own life, the celebration of his own happiness, the celebration of his own body, the celebration of his own hand, the celebration of his own voice, the celebration of his own laughter. In short, we seek a masterpiece.

Copyright © 1994 The END

After reading this announcement in excited disbelief, I called the competition organization "The End" and decided to make an exception - this was a project I had to design.

It started with a Man. Cantilevered from a cliff over a restless ocean, waves crashing against the rocks below, protected only by transparent sheets of glass and steel in tension -- he looks out at the greatness of a city. He feels the greatness within himself and the freedom of his spirit. He has conquered his fear through the power of reason. His is the laughter of triumph, of courage, of liberation.
Architecturally, the generating concept for the Temple was a very simple one - to suspend the visitor in air, anchored in the memory of the cantilevered structure terminating in floating planes of glass at the Temple termination, looking out to the greatness of a city. Aesthetically, the generating concept is the greatness of Man looked at from different perspectives; an expression of the individual, of ascent, of defiance, of triumph, of deliverance. A concretization of the power of reason and the unstoppable will of Man.

The entire temple was designed to make the climax possible. Beginning with glass, air, and an incredible view of San Francisco, I worked backwards toward the cliff on Yerba Buena island where the Temple would stand. Using a radicle structural principle concretized by Santiago Calatrava's Sevilla bridge, I created the two interacting cantilevered concrete masses which serve as the primary structure. I thought of these two masses metaphorically as a man and woman - the dominant male form, tall and strong, leaning back - the beautiful triangular female form elegantly rising up and out over the water. The forces of gravity work to pull the two forms apart, but steel in tension holds them together; the powerful intensity of each form working together makes the extreme cantilever possible.

With the structure in place, I designed the interior in three levels, with the sculpture positioned as the transition between the cliff and the climax at the mid-level of the temple.

The Temple is organized in three levels. The progression begins with spatial intimacy and protection at the top entry level by surrounding the visitor with massive structure and the solidity of the cliff.

At each level transition one is led back toward the cliff by a flight of stairs. In descending the stairs. the scale becomes intimate and secure. This scale modulation enhances the temple space and sculpture when one turns around, and dramatizes the view of the city. This spatial intimacy is then transformed to one of spatial release as the visitor walks through the Temple. The structure and protection recede away to leave the visitor alone with nature and the city at the final climax of the Temple; a place where fear and gravity are conquered through reason and purpose.

Immediately after learning of the competition in March of 1994, I traveled to the East Coast. I visited the Metropolitan Museum of art in New York City, and took several pictures of Frishmuth's "The Vine" bronze with the intention of using this piece as the sculpture in the Temple. The following month, aided by a personal computer and AutoCAD, I created a three-dimensional model of both the island and the Temple design. Using 3DStudio and Photoshop, I then created rendered images of the design, scanned slides of the sculpture and photographs of San Francisco from the cliff, saving them to compact disc, and digitally placed them to scale in the rendered computer model.. With the help of Helen Hamann on the first bass wood model of the temple, the first phase competition entry was completed and submitted to "The End" for judging on May 4, 1994.

Shortly thereafter, the competition results were published by "The End." Although I had created and documented my most beautiful design to date, with disappointment I discovered that my entry had not been selected in the 3-way tie for first place, nor had it captured one of ten honorable mentions. The competition was over for me.

A month after the judging process, I received a letter from New York sculptor Michael Wilkinson who had seen and admired some of my earlier work. The following month, Michael was to have a showing of his work at the Simic New Renaissance Gallery in Carmel,CA. It was here that I met Michael for the first time, and it was here that I found one of the most profound aesthetic experiences of my life, I saw Michael's work for the first time. After the exhibit, I showed Michael my work, and because of his enthusiasm about the Temple, I gave him a copy of the competition graphics from my wall. I was as inspired by Michael the Man as I was by his work.

Strangely enough, more than two months after the final judging of the competition, I received a letter from "The End" as follows:

Dear Sir,

Please accept our invitation to participate in the second stage of THE LAUGH Competition.

Whereas the jury selected three winners and not a single winner, this second phase will definitively provide the winning scheme; to wit: THE LAUGH. We believe this to be in the best interests of the competition, THE END and all competitors.

Additional work will be solicited from the three winners and four other participants in THE LAUGH Competition. Work will be due, received in Los Angeles, on October 15, 1994...

Signed: Wesley van Kirk Robbins, Architect; Organizer and Sponsor

Copyright © 1994 The END

This made no sense to me. Why was I invited to be one of 7 participants in phase 2 of the competition when I didn't even receive an honorable mention? On discovering my total loss in phase I of the competition, I speculated that the judging fell prey to a deconstructivist outcome. But, with an invitation to phase II, perhaps the sponsor was unhappy with the original judging, threw out the phase I decisions entirely, and wanted to try again. After some introspection, I hesitantly agreed to participate in phase 2 of the competition.

Then I realized I had just met a great sculptor; would Michael be willing to create a new sculpture for the Temple? Incredibly, Michael agreed. Soon after, Michael told me about his good friend Alexandra York, whom he thought would be interested in seeing images of the Temple. After seeing the images, Alexandra became excited about my work and ideas, and after many enlightening conversations, Alexandra also joined the phase II team as poet for the Temple. Once Alexandra was involved with the competition, she suggested adding music to the experience of the temple and suggested inviting John Massaro to join the team as composer and musician. With the addition of Ania and Mitchell Stein as model builders for the larger phase II wood model, the complete phase II team was assembled -- an integrating force of Architecture Sculpture Poetry and Music.

As the October 24th deadline for Phase II drew near, Michael gave me the following statement about his sculpture, "I Am":


Bronze Sculpture: I Am

The Man stands at the point, elevated, rising up from the fires of creativity. He leans out over space, defying gravity - feeling not fear, but the gravity of his own power to achieve, as the city fills his vision - the city created by the hand, the reason, the mind of man.

Inspired by the sight before him, his arms raised in victory and celebration - one hand extended forward in a gesture of both reaching and offering. The other hand, palm up, calling upon all humanity to rise. He embraces his own vision of the future and exults in his laughter of triumph and deliverance.

Alexandra then sent me her poem "I am":

I am

That I am

My body a temple my soul enshrines
My reason the light of my mind - divine
Celebration is mine
Hear the clarion chime

Let my laughter rise
Like bells to the skies

Here on earth where I stand
Over all I command
By my will and my hand
I am glad that I am

I am

John then sent in his musical composition entitled "Trimusica" as well as his statement about the piece:

Trimusica

This piece of music is built almost entirely around the number three in order to produce the sonic impression of a triangular structure suspended in the air.

The two chords used throughout the opening are 'Eb' and 'A'. 'Eb' is the third step of the scale and has three flats in the key signature while 'A' is the third step of the scale, going in the opposite direction, and has three sharps in the key signature.

The meter of the piece is in three and the melodic motif consists of three ascending tones which leap up followed by three descending tones which move by step.

The distance between the tones 'Eb' and 'A' are referred to as the tritone because they evenly divide the scale into two equal parts of three whole steps.

Looking at a keyboard and drawing a line from 'Eb' to 'A' and then to the 'Eb' above creates a triangle with its apex pointing towards the player. Doing the same by beginning on the 'A' creates a triangle pointing away from the player.

The struggle between these two tones is symbolic of man's attempt to center himself while external forces constantly push or pull him from this center.

At the critical moment when these two chords are struggling for superiority, the music suddenly changes to the key of 'C'. This is the moment of redemption, a center is found which lies evenly between the two struggling keys and amazingly enough lies a minor third away from each of the other keys.

The music settles down at this moment with three chimes which lead to the reading of "I Am" .

The music then builds up once again to a half-hearted attempt at the earlier struggle but it is too late. Man has found that he is the measure of all things and that all the answers which he has searched for in such disciplines as science and metaphysics are in fact within himself.

The music ends back in the redemptive key of 'C' giving a resonant affirmation of man's future in the universe.

Finally, Alexandra created the following summary for the competition:

The experience and metaphorical power of this temple is that it is the physical manifestation and artistic expression of each individual visitor coming to it, meaning that each individual is (or can be) his or her own living, breathing temple where the bells of laughter may rise from self celebration. The arts of architecture, sculpture, poetry and music that, closely integrated, make up the temple environment will work inestricably together to afford visitors a universal yet highly personal experience of human potential, achievement and glory.

The physical sensation of the building - endless smaller triangles of glass forming the ultimate triangle of the temple - will excite the visitor to experience his own supremacy over the natural world. At the same time, the visitor will feel in complete harmony with nature because in order to conquer nature, its inherent laws must be honored; the architectural design is physical proof of this truth. Thus, the structure of the building itself becomes a metaphor for the harmony between humankind and nature, a harmony that permits man to "rise above" external nature. In addition, the three sides of every triangle become reverberating metaphors for man's internal harmony of mind, body and soul.

The man-created building -- an idea incarnate -- hangs as if suspended in space, but it is securely anchored to earth by the cliff on which it is built. In order to approach the spot where one may view not only a magnificent, man-made city such as San Francisco or New York but also, by turning around, view the front of the sculpture and read the poem, the visitor must follow his reason and surmount his "instinctive" apprehension at being suspended in space without protection. The protection, in reality, is there: glass rails prevent falling and, when the visitor stands upon a glass platform that permits him to see the water far below, the transparent flooring will support his weight. The feeling, then, is one of defying gravity; this feeling, which is the emotional reward for overcoming instinctual hesitation by following reason and walking to the seemingly precarious point of the temple where one can experience this sensation of defying gravity, is one of jubilation. Reason and emotion are then joined as harmoniously as mind and matter, man and nature, consciousness and existence. The joy of such a supreme moment is the pure joy of existing, of being human -- "I Am."

Viewing the bronze male figure in the temple -- depicted at the very same moment of self-celebration -- intensifies the experience for the visitor by translating to a different medium (and reinforcing) the theme of the building in the most tangible and sensuous of visual art forms, three-dimensional sculpture...three dimensions. The arms are raised in a victorious self-salute, a triangular V; the negative space they describe becomes another triangle echoing again the trinity of mind, body, and soul in harmony.

The poem -- three letters in the title with three central stanzas expressing again the mind, body and soul triangle -- verbalizes the primary theme of human joy in yet another art form. The poem is complex but exceedingly "simple" in both design and statement. It may be read and it may be heard, the latter of which adds the very concrete and vitalizing element of the human voice. The experience of reading, understanding and listening to words intellectually augments the theme of man's achievements and abilities. And because the sculptured figure is male, a female voice verbalizing what the male is feeling subtly emphasizes another fundamental harmony, that between man and woman, a harmony both of body and of mind. The poem makes explicit the theme that the building and the sculpture make implicitly. The mind becomes as enchanted as the emotions and the senses; value stimulation takes place physically (the building), visually (the sculpture) and mentally (the poem). The poetic metaphors of the body as the living temple for the self-created soul and reason as man's divine light are climaxed in all that these images evoke -- temple bells which are human laughter rising in happiness and self-fulfillment, the highest and the deepest experience of Life.

The music ties the experience all together. Intricately composed on musical "triangles" and resonating an emotional struggle that becomes a metaphor for human Free Will and choice, the music leads us ineluctably and exhaltedly to the release and resolution of self realization.

Finally, the human, self-produced sound of self-celebration -- laughter -- ringing out softly or loudly with the joy of being alive is the last element to be added to this many faceted experience. That sound will come from each visitor, individually, as he or she experiences a personal Self. The circle of creation will then be compete, for the purpose of the temple will have been fulfilled as the spontaneous laughter of human celebration resounds through the silent air.

On Sunday, October 23rd, the day before the deadline, I created a 15-minute audiotape on which I recorded my own statement, and included the statement of each member of the artistic team, and finally Alexandra's summary, read to the accompaniment of John's music. By noon the presentation was complete. Standing back and looking at what we had achieved was almost as inspiring as the artistic process itself. The beauty of our collaboration was that each of us had created his or her art individually with total freedom, yet we had produced an inspiring integrated whole. We thought no project could beat us, but how inspiring it would be to see a project greater than our own. I drove off to Los Angeles from San Francisco to hand-deliver the presentation to "THE END", exhausted and confident.

Three weeks later I received a letter from "THE END" announcing that the decision had been made by a single judge, and that a forthcoming letter would announce the winner. On November 25th, that letter arrived - the team of Jason Griffiths, Alex Gino and Ed Jessen of London, England had won. The letter included the following statement about their submission:

Mr. Griffiths' project, also known as "The Dumb Box", was selected because of its grand simplicity and total lack of pretentiousness. It offered a dignified humbleness, yet with all of the sophisticated qualities of late twentieth century electronics and computers. The project also owed no debts to any one person, school or site. It was not second-hand or derivative. It was free. The judge noted the obvious fascination, if not obsession with laughter that the project conveyed. This last compliment could not be said of the other projects submitted. The judge nick-named Mr. Griffiths' project "The Tomb of Laughter" and declared it the winner.

Copyright © 1994 The END

Astonished to have lost to a "Dumb Box" and a "Tomb of Laughter," I contacted Mr. Robbins and discovered the following about the winning entry: As he described it, the winning scheme was nothing more than a windowless concrete box, housing only a computer. This structure was not intended to be aesthetically appealing; to the contrary, it was meant to be placed in the middle of a parking lot. One of its more attractive features, Mr. Robbins continued, was that the box could be constructed in any parking lot. Mr. Robbins took pains to explain to me that, given the current cultural climate, a design like mine could have no chance of winning. Beauty was simply not in fashion.

I found it impossible to reconcile this outcome with the competition statement. What could have led to this level of philosophical and aesthetic contradiction? What would motivate an individual to stage an event of this kind, only to mock the very premise on which it was based? Though I cannot answer this question, I did gain some insight into the sponsor's integrity over the ensuing months. The sponsor planned to produce a book showcasing the winning entries. Form Zero Gallery in Culver City, California was to feature the competition entries in mid to late January in an exhibit which would run for six weeks through early March 1995. The book and exhibition never took place - a zero form has in fact been achieved. To my knowledge, the winning design has yet to be constructed. The "Dumb Box" remains just that -- a mute testimony to an impotent philosophy.

I now understand that it was not laughter and joy the sponsor wished to celebrate. Instead, the competition seems to have been a mockery of the human spirit and the art of architecture itself. However, as I consider the fruits of our effort, the Temple, and the remarkably talented team that came together from around the country to produce it -- I realize that in the final analysis, we are the ones who will have the last laugh, because we have experienced the beauty and joy that went into the creation. And that creation is an end in itself.

Frederick C. Gibson

Seattle - July 4, 1995

Copyright © 1995 Published by ART. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means - graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, electronic/computerized scanning, recording, taping or information storage and retrieval systems - without written permission from the publisher.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
1995-2010 by Frederick Gibson + Associates Architecture, San Francisco, California
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