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How to Build the Unbuildable House

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By Mike Sula

Ben Nicholson is not allowed to call himself an architect. He was warned about this last spring when an employee of a prestigious Loop architecture firm saw an exhibition announcement that read, "Architect Ben Nicholson has never shared the presumption that there is a truth in architecture," and filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation. Nicholson, who teaches design and theory at the Illinois Institute of Technology's School of Architecture, received a letter from the IDPR reminding him that he is not licensed to practice architecture in the state of Illinois. Though the announcement was someone else's gaffe, Nicholson apologized for the semantic crime and promised to do everything in his power to prevent others from referring to him as an "architect." Most people don't see it, but he insists there's a difference between a building and a work of architecture.

Nicholson has never put up a building; nor would he say he's completed a work of architecture, because architecture is an unattainable ideal. He has done a house, but you can't walk into it; it doesn't exist in any physical sense. According to Nicholson, it only aspires to architecture; it is "of" architecture--and that's the best anyone can do.

The Loaf House, which he describes as "an orphanage for suburban and urban experience," exists on a CD-ROM titled Ben Nicholson: Thinking the Unthinkable House. (An older, incomplete version appears on Nicholson's Web site at www.nicholsonren.com). The product of a six-year collaboration with students, colleagues, musicians, artists, philosophers, and two (licensed) architects, the Loaf House looks like an impenetrable, geometrically infatuated tumor. Multicolored angles, spheres, curves, steps, awnings, flagpoles, and cubes seem to sprout haphazardly from it, but click on any of these and a complex interior emerges.

A triptych of computer windows offers a number of ways to experience the house. Clicking on the image of the structure sets off a cacophonous sound track; the image rotates and draws closer, pulling the visitor inside. Clicking on a particular object prompts a narrator (Nicholson) to read one of almost 200 "Loaf Notes"--abstract writings on the absurdity of domestic life that illustrate a corresponding feature of the house. A gray area located down a treacherous corridor leads to the bathroom, where Nicholson recites in his clipped English accent, "Shit should go directly into the ground, dark and dankly....Excreting and cleaning the body are wholly different acts: they have been forced together by the plumbing industry into an unwholesome quasi convenience." Clicking the bathroom sink leads one to the adjoining Tub & Tubroom, considered "one of the two worthwhile legacies of the yuppie movement (the other being the awareness of good food)...bathing should never be done in the dark during daylight hours. Tubs need access to outside air and a terrace: sunshine for the naked body to bathe in, and remember that people using hot saunas are always rolling around in the snow!" Click on a showerhead and the third screen shows a dancing paper skeleton. Click on the kitchen and the screen accesses an Internet recipe archive. Featured prominently on the far right of the screen are links to other projects on the CD.

"The responsibility of the Loaf House is to point out the paradoxes and oxymorons of our consumptive lives," says Nicholson. "There is no question that it is a work of satire. I would like to show the possibility of a graceful life by showing those things that are a bit wacky." Architecture, he argues, should give humans a sense of place in the world, incorporating every aspect of their lives, including humor. Soon, he says, we might be able to accomplish such lofty goals without actually building anything.

"This is a very important time we're living in," says Nicholson. "Because we're right at the point where we're saying, maybe we don't need to build. You go to a work of architecture as an individual. You stand in it. You walk around in it. You buy a postcard of it. You have a very deep, profound physical experience. All of the real architectural experiences are sort of epiphanies. You have them when you go to the building, but then you leave, and you don't need to go back. A work of building is still the most successful way to give you that experience. But the fact of the matter is that the world within the digital realm is running on the heels of that experience."

The CD was published by the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago in conjunction with an exhibit in fall 1996. It's Nicholson's attempt to create an epic from the bits of his past work, including some designs that are arguably unbuildable. In its own way, it's a Borgesian work of architecture, one that can be experienced in an infinite number of ways, depending on which icons one clicks. It includes not only the Loaf House but Nicholson's 12-year study of the pavement tiles in Michelangelo's Laurentian Library in Florence, his designs for the Kleptoman Cell (a reliquary for "all aspects of the nuclear culture"), a detailed study of the iconography of the B-52 bomber, films, interviews, music, sketchbooks, scholarly publications, and links to hundreds of Web sites. The CD is the accumulation of a career spent entirely within the academy, working in pure architectural theory, often under the raised eyebrows of his peers.

Nicholson was born in Newark, a rural village in the English Midlands where his father ran a factory that made agricultural equipment and steam engines. His mother, who grew up in Australia, came from a long line of colonists and adventurers. His great-great-uncle was the Edwardian painter Sir William Nicholson, and Sir William's son, Ben, was the famous cubist. "It's a real left- and right-brained family," he says. "You were either involved in art or machines." He remembers visiting the factory as a boy and marveling at the multifaceted production process. "We made everything from scratch, so there was a big furnace, and sand, and drawing tables and patent charts and a forge with a giant steam hammer. We made incredible, beautiful things, but they were just complete dinosaurs."

In the late 60s the factory, which had been in the family for five generations, went belly-up, a victim of Britain's postwar decline. The Nicholsons fell on hard times. Their 250-year-old stone farmhouse lacked central heating, yet it was packed with paintings, army uniforms, swords, and other remnants of the empire. "There was this incredible irony of eating off silver but shivering to death in bed. Father never let us use electrical heating because it was too expensive." At 19 the atmosphere of decay drove Nicholson to the U.S., where he hoped to earn money for his education. A friend of the family set him up on a whirlwind tour of American architecture: in a single week Philip Johnson welcomed him to a 25th birthday party for the architect's glass house in New Canaan, Connecticut; Richard Meier gave him the keys to all his houses on Long Island and set him loose, and Edgar Kaufmann Jr., the owner of Falling Water, gave him a personal tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece. "I even met Robert Motherwell standing at the entrance of his Chareau house in the Hamptons," he says. "Architecture was presented to me as a profession that had a handle on that which is of science and that which is of art."

Nicholson applied to the Architectural Association in London, where he studied for three years under Daniel Libeskind. "He taught me a way of thinking about architecture that put it as a very large cultural project," Nicholson recalls. "He taught me about its interconnectedness with the other tasks of mankind. And he taught me grace, which in many respects is the most important thing." Nicholson later won a place at the Cooper Union School of Architecture in New York City, but he gave it up to follow Libeskind to Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where Nicholson earned a master's degree in architecture and met his wife, the fiber artist Laura Foster-Nicholson. In 1983 he took a position as an assistant professor in the architecture department at the University of Houston.

In Houston Nicholson began studying the Laurentian's pavement tiles. Commissioned by the Medici family, the library was designed to hold 3,000 books, which encompassed all of Western knowledge. Its ambition appealed to Nicholson and inspired many of his later projects. In the encyclopedic spirit of the book collection, the library's 15 pairs of pavement tiles were meant to represent everything known at the time about two-dimensional geometry. But the pavement's text was coded in intricate geometric designs; Nicholson has spent 12 years deciphering them while a professor at Penn State, then UIC, and now IIT. He's made three trips to Florence to study the tiles, and with his collaborators he's reconstructed them a half dozen times. Every year a new group of his students analyzes the pavement with the aim of eventually creating a taxonomy, a map that would show how every geometrical shape relates to the others.

When Nicholson shows me this map, a family tree of intricate symbols, I ask him how to read it. "You weren't meant to read it," he says. "Geometry has always been a secret art. People still don't really understand it very well. In all the great works of classical architecture the geometry was there, but very few people knew about it. If I show you a circle and you've never seen one before, and you don't know I have a compass in my pocket, you're not going to know how it got there. You're going to find it magical. If this was like the guilds of old, I would be burned as a heretic for having said too much." Because the language of digital architecture is so inaccessible to most people, he says, it preserves this tradition of secrecy.

Nicholson was hired at IIT in 1989. The architecture school's new dean, Gene Summers, had studied there under Mies van der Rohe in the 40s and had been brought back to shake things up. "When I showed up they were trying to teach the same things Mies taught me in 1949," says Summers, speaking by phone from his ranch in northern California. "These people could not even teach it as well. They copied from somebody else who copied it from somebody else who copied it from Mies. I was looking for new faculty that were exciting and had new ideas." Summers asked Nicholson to design and build a house on the IIT campus so his students could learn how an idea relates to its end result. The finished structure would be used as student or faculty housing.

The Loaf House began as a series of intersecting collages assembled by students from fragments of Nicholson's earlier theoretical projects. "I proposed a three-dimensional collage where forms would come in at different angles and velocities and make an architectural space. These collages were philosophical discourses. We would talk endlessly about what they implied and what their responsibilities were." By 1993 Nicholson and his students had already met with structural engineers and were just beginning to discuss the material problems of building the house when Summers resigned. Nicholson says he lost his political support for the project and decided instead to build it on a computer, funding the virtual construction of the house through a combination of grants, fellowships, and money he earned exhibiting his work. The Web site was developed in December 1996, shortly after a wooden model of the house was placed on display at the Renaissance Society.

For Nicholson, the Loaf House asks the question, what is a work of architecture? "A great piece of architecture must touch on every aspect of human endeavor," he says. "Vitruvius said that a work of architecture must have firmness, commodity, and delight. Delight in a work of architecture is when you breathe in and say, wow, I'm in something that I didn't know I could be in." The issue of delight has dominated Nicholson's work. He once suggested building "wave trap spiracles" along Lake Michigan to "enclose the wave and channel its spurt up into the air to form a nature-forced blowhole, so that the daydreamers watching the waves can witness in the vertical column of water the horizontal relentlessness of its force." He's proposed a crocodile habitat for zoos designed as a suburban backyard swimming pool, so the reptiles can "instill fear into their captors from a cage that sensually turns itself towards the audience." As a student at the Architectural Association he designed Palandromic Man, an Escher-like swimming pool in the shape of a man with his head between his legs.

Yet this sense of play is what seems to irritate Nicholson's critics the most. When I talked to the licensed architect who'd complained to the IDPR, he asked not to be identified, fearing political reprisals should he attempt to get a teaching job. He said he had nothing personal against Nicholson, but he referred to him as "one of those big-named, highly theoretical European professors that schools like to blend into their curriculum" and dismissed his projects as "big stupid models that appear to resemble buildings." Edward Keegan, a contributing editor at Architecture Magazine, says that Nicholson "violates the basic idea of firmness. He would like to defy gravity. He would like to defy cultural constraints. From a pure theory point of view it can be interesting, but my problem is that a lot of his students that I've come across get into this mode where they think that's the way to do architecture now." Even Summers questions whether much of Nicholson's work is practical in the material plane: "I'm quite sure that a lot of his work is not architecture. It's more pure art. But I think great architecture is made by great artists."

Nicholson's supporters think there is a practical application for his ideas. Doug Garofalo, director of graduate studies at the UIC School of Architecture, taught with Nicholson at UIC and IIT. "The Loaf House is a totally buildable project," he says. "He's given thought to all the things architects think about--structural systems, environmental systems. It would really push the boundaries of what a building would be, but it is buildable. I'd like to see him get something built out there."

Though Nicholson has no plans to build Loaf House from its current design, he's gearing up for the day when he'll go through "the formality" of obtaining a license and build something that aspires to architecture; first he wants to write a novel about the inhabitants of Loaf House and a book about the Laurentian Library. In his mind, the pantheistic requirements of architecture demand a much more substantial program of study than state certification. In the last decade, he argues, few of the architects who scored the big commissions in Chicago undertook the proper amount of cultural scholarship to come up with their own ideas.

"Chicago has enjoyed this massively opulent period," he says, "but it's given its great public buildings to people who are not quite architects of international repute. They've already had the great acts of thinking done for them, and then they take those ideas and mold them into something that's appropriate for the town. But they haven't gone through the tough rigor, the scholarship, the monastic life of what it takes to be an architect. What would have happened if Eisenman designed the convention center? What would have happened if Calatrava designed the United Center? It would have put Chicago back on the map."

Until he builds, Nicholson considers it his responsibility to engage the public in this kind of debate. He's begun giving public multimedia "performances," guiding audiences through his CD on a digital projection screen "like Virgil guiding Dante through the Inferno." He hopes to show people the possibilities of architecture beyond works of building. This Friday at 8 PM, Nicholson will perform at the Chicago Project Room, 1464 N. Milwaukee, second floor, 773-862-9209. Admission is $5; a classical soprano will sing the Loaf Notes.

But what will Nicholson build once his self-imposed tenure of scholarship expires? "When I finish saying good-bye to the projects of observing rather than the object of participation," he says, "I believe I will be engaged in architecture which is of a monumental nature. It will give the body its rightful place in proximity to itself, to the people, to the heavens and the city. It will address cultural issues. I will make a building where ideas can be sorted out rather than laundry." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ben Nicholson photo by Nathan Mandell; Loaf house, north facade photo by Schopen; Palandronic Man illustration.

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