To coincide and disappear

 

 

A series of “Revelations” structure Scenes in America Deserta, Reyner Banham’s 1980s celebration of the desert and late-life reckoning with architecture and its limitations. In one of them we learn “there is a building” on a slide from his first visit to Four Corners country. But:

 

That was not why we took that shot; the intention was to photograph “Phone Booth Mesa” on the way up from Shiprock to Cortez. Neither of us remembers seeing any building in the foreground of that view; but there it is, a standard, off-the-peg, industrially produced Butler building with an air conditioner unit on its flatly pitched roof. It is finished in an inoffensive tan colour, but that doesn’t make it any less outstandingly visible against the background of sagebrush. Why then does the eye of memory not see it? It must be that it is such a usual building in a landscape where only the exotic or the outrageous in architecture tends to look at home and be remembered.1

 

If America Deserta expresses some ambivalence towards architecture and its performance, notably in the unforgiving desert landscape, we can hardly be surprised. Some two decades before, Banham had notoriously redefined architecture’s true ancestors as the bubble and the machine, and had gone on to develop a theory of architecture as a technical envelope, a climate negotiator that was only mildly powerful as a fragment of a much bigger ecology it could never dominate. “A humanized desert is a self-cancelling proposition”, Banham observed.2 In that untameable, primordial wasteland, architecture would be forever a representation of the human struggle for significance, and at best only a temporary source of solace.

 

In some respects, Scenes in America Deserta is the flipside to Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, published at the beginning of the previous decade. There, he had provocatively embraced the architecture of a city that was defined not by traditional ideas of urbanity, but by its confrontation with the ecologies specific to that place – beach, freeways, flatlands, foothills. Banham described the gigantic endlessness of an even-covered field in which building, infrastructure and ecology were all inextricably intertwined. Back then, most saw his vision of a post-urban future as an unhappy hypothesis.

 

What drew Banham to the West Coast in the first place, however, was a fascination with the desert. And the desert is always there, a constant ghost presence in Four Ecologies. Since there is no landscape in the even-covered field, the landscape has to be “out there”, in the untamed wastes. Sprawling LA’s enormous artificial nature needs an equally large expanse of “natural artificiality” to keep the balance. At the same time, the city’s various ecologies function solely through their own superabundance. Since everywhere in a given ecology there is a lot of the same, architecture performs, in as much as it provides its own interiority, as a micro-unit of personal survival. It does not stand out, it merely contributes to the larger fragment. In LA, the field of many, architecture is at best all the same. In the desert, in the middle of nothing, architecture disappears.

 

Scenes in America Deserta is thus a book about disappearance, insignificance and ultimately survival – of the author as well as of the architect. Central to its narrative is the story of the “tenthouse” camp designed by one of America’s most exuberant architects, Frank Lloyd Wright. Intended as a site container for a hotel that was never built, by the time America Deserta was written it was little more than piles of porcelain fittings and crumbling plaster, probably from the mock-up of the proposed hotel facade. Exposed to the voracious elements of the hostile landscape, the last vestiges of the temporary settlement took on the air of a Fata Morgana.

 

The desert landscape is perhaps almost a predictable backdrop for this kind of tale of monumental failure, but in the same chapter, the one on “Wright’s Country”, Banham is careful to offset ready-made conclusions. Ocatillo Camp, like any other desert fiction, is based on the conception that going out alone into the wilderness – a place scoured of all familiar points of reference – is a path to enlightenment. Both Wright and his hippie disciple Paolo Soleri clung to the stubborn belief that by removing themselves to the “strange, linear, well-armed… abstract” desert and battling alone with elements they would (albeit for very different reasons) light upon a new solution for architecture. But wanting to create your own personal cordon sanitaire is an attitude that architecture is never able to survive. Either your work is overtaken by the world – note Wright’s frustration with the high tension wires surrounding Taliesin West, his last winter home and school near Arizona – or it is eaten by the landscape itself, a proposition illustrated in Banham’s book many times over. Yet, is there ultimately any difference between these two positions – one operating inside, the other outside the field? Either the field catches up with you, or you are instantly forgotten. In Four Ecologies, architecture disappears in the blink of an eye, in the desert it happens over time, though admittedly with more heroism. What separates them in the end is a degree of machismo.

 

The cover of Banham’s book on LA features a reproduction of A Bigger Splash, universally the best known of the three “Splash” paintings David Hockney made between 1966 and 1967. Each of the paintings depicts a scene at a swimming pool where no one is to be seen. The only suggestion of human presence is the splash rising from the water, seemingly made by someone who has just dived into the pool. In each of the paintings, the backdrop is a flat view of a small house, a villa. The figure of the pool and the springboard fill the front of the view and some vegetation negotiates between foreground and background. In the first painting, A Little Splash, the pool is kidney-shaped, or something like it. In the other two paintings it is straight-edged. The presence of the vegetation evolves. In the first painting a small bush on the right-hand margin is somewhat casually placed on the terrace between villa and pool. In the second in the series (The Splash) the plants are more elaborate and define a particular figure between the villa and the pool and the mountain in the background. In the final painting, vegetation is reduced to two Washingtonia palms in the leftover space to the right of the villa. The villa, however, remains more or less the same throughout the different iterations, though it is gradually spiced with a different architectural “flavour”. In the first two paintings, it has a pitched roof and probably quotes the “indigenous” hacienda style that Banham so often refers to. In A Bigger Splash, that roof is eliminated in favour of a simple horizontal plane, turning the villa into an abstract “modernist” house.

 

All Splashes depict a specific environment, a specific moment – just after the jump – and a specific place, LA. Hockney would later say this was the first time he had painted a place. Yet, despite the tropes – blue sky, villa, pool – this is a place constituted more by people than by buildings or objects. As Marco Livingstone pointed out in his 1981 monograph on the artist, the LA of the 1960s that Hockney depicts, as much as anything, is about gay culture, as he lived and experienced it. Nothing Hockney paints is there by accident. The buildings and scenes refer directly to specific places that are important in the local gay culture, the objects belong to friends and ex-lovers. Thus all the things we see make us see other things. But in the process of being communicated these things manage somehow to disappear. If the villa in background of the various Splashes conveys one thing through its various transformations, it is perhaps the ‘revelation’ that something in the centre of the view can be remarkably invisible.

 

Despite its evident presence in the middle of the canvas the villa never becomes the protagonist. The springboard and the splashing water deprive it of that opportunity. Although the scenes of the three Splashes are empty, the focus in each remains the person we do not get to see: the man (I think we can safely assume) in the pool. The specifics of house, pool and background may vary in response to the particularities of place, or simply the size of the canvas, but the man always stays the same.

 

Ironically, 50 years after it was made, the Splash series has become something of a reference point for a generation of architects – a seemingly inexhaustible trove of mannerisms, to be endlessly emulated in depictions of a wished-for architecture, lending a sheen of casual glamour and abstract avant-garde. Going back to the ambiguities of the paintings themselves would put pressure on these often empty appropriations.

 

The Splashes are an important series made at a significant moment for Hockney. By the end of the 1960s he was a famous artist. At the time the paintings were first shown, his themes were already well known. So the provocation, if such was needed, was not to be found in their subject-matter. Rather, their virtue resided in their form.

 

The Splashes (and other works made around the same three- to four-year period) are Hockney’s first and perhaps only attempt at painterly classicism. Gone are the complex narratives on canvas. The painting is the perspective. Despite his own very public set of ancestors and references, Hockney manages to paint in the classical manner without a literal copying of tropes from other painters. There are no intelligent – but ultimately tiring – tricks in playing with the canvas as a field, no tricks à la manière de.

 

The Splashes are conventional perspectives. In each successive incarnation a certain refinement and simplification is achieved, and through this the human presence becomes more tangible. The strange abstract purity of a wholly naturalistic painting manages to depict a ‘presence’ that can easily be communicated and shared. In his short text on Renaissance painting John Berger writes with appreciation about the ability of early Renaissance artists like Giotto and Piero della Francesca to efface themselves as “authors” of their paintings, seeming to coincide completely with their pious themes and thus disappear. The generation who followed, though perhaps more talented, were unable to do so as they were already fully preoccupied with themselves. In conversations about that period in Hockney’s work Livingstone and Hockney refer directly to Piero and his composition and abstraction. What is fascinating is that Hockney does not need to quote Piero to make a Piero painting: he just needs the conviction that he will coincide with his topic and thus disappear. Along the way, architecture – like Piero and Giotto – gets instrumentalized. It hints at the scenes it helps create, without ever becoming the protagonist. It appears in plain sight, only to be forgotten. If I have to believe the two British explorers of the even-covered field, it seems that asking for more than this is not only megalomaniac, but bound to fail.

1 Reyner Banham, Scenes in America Deserta (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, 1982), 68.

2 See his Introduction to Richard Misrach’s Desert Cantos (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987).

Kersten Geers

 

 

 

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