|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:
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:
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.
|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.
|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:
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":
|Alexandra then sent me her poem "I am":|
John then sent in his musical composition entitled "Trimusica" as well as his statement about the piece:
Finally, Alexandra created the following summary for the competition:
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:
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.
Seattle - July 4, 1995
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