By Irene Chin, Lara Mehling, Miranda Mote, Chelsea Spencer
The following proposal and subsequent correspondence was first published in On Site 34: On Writing.
Written correspondence has held significance throughout the history of architectural practice and continues to evolve in the digital realm. However, the need for fluent written correspondence has not changed. We suggest that ultimately the letter has always been and will remain a valuable means of design inquiry and critique, especially since design considers nostalgia, the vulnerability and humanness of architecture and architectural practice, esoteric and poetic topics that fuel creativity and ingenuity, social activism,; design criticism,; the practice and business of design,; and most especially gratitude. Design must always acknowledge a debt to the past, present, and future.
Open Letters is a print experiment that tests the epistolary form as a device for generating conversations about architecture and design. Through this project, we aim to question the contemporary value and relevance of this mode of communication while recognizing the pretense and contrivances of editing and publishing personal missives. For On Site review 34: On Writing, or not, we, as former editors of Open Letters, propose to reflect and comment on the project (with 30 published issues it will soon enter its third year of production). We have found that within the context of design and architecture, letters have allowed us to explore many themes within the discipline, represent diverse voices from young students to experienced practitioners,; and convey tones from the nostalgic to the critical, from the esoteric to the deeply personal. To address the aforementioned key values of epistolary writing, we propose a collaborative project: a written exchange between the four of us that would directly reflect the format we are questioning and diversify the types of text featured in this issue of On Site.
Between you in New York, Lara in Zurich, Miranda in Philadelphia, and myself in Montreal there are a couple continents, several time zones, many miles, and even more kilometers (I need to adjust to thinking in metric).
There is this physical distance now, but what feels farthest is your old kitchen in Cambridge where, two years ago, we first met to discuss your idea of a publication to feature writing about architecture and design in the form of letters. It seemed like an obvious idea at the time, but one that was risky too.
I trained through years of reviews and pinups in architecture school, but putting myself out there through writing was terrifying on a completely different level. There is no obfuscating with text like you can with a rendering, little room for interpretation with your choice in words as you might find in a drawing.
And unlike the objective proximity of one’s position in a journalistic piece or the critical distance one can take in a scholarly essay, in signing a letter you consequently expose yourself.1 You embody your writing hopefully, with earnestness. (My favorite valediction so far has been Bryan’s “In upbeat sincerity"). Although, I did break that rule about signatures just once2...it was this vulnerability that we kept poking at with each issue. Trying to tease out emotions and opinions, be it humor or anger, romanticism or criticism.
I’ve always wanted to ask you about your training, in dance. What your experience on stage was like communicating with audiences. It was my sense that this shaped the presence you command on paper. If I could ever learn to be comfortable with my limbs in public, I bet I would in turn become a more confident writer also.
Now the four of us might write to keep in touch, but I would venture that Open Letters was about making a deliberate effort of being in touch with ourselves, each other, and the environments around us. Maybe some designers are accustomed to constructing and shaping in world axis mode, from a virtual distance. But the medium of the letter allowed us to deliberate topics from the value of theory to issues of divestment. It gave us an opportunity to be sentimental 3 and also be held accountable for our politics. Our feather thin publication became a sizeable platform for all kinds of personalities and perspectives.
You wrote in Issue 00, that you were worried about this project turning out “to be a waste of paper.”4 I hope with each 30 lb box of newsprint that we continue to order we are helping to fill in some space between.
It was with great excitement that I received your message last week. I'm thrilled to be in touch with you, Lara, and Miranda, all the more so because we've flung ourselves so far. I've been thinking about how I'd reply for these past eight days , but of course not actually putting fingers to keys. I always do this with writing, and I can't say whether it's productive or the opposite: I fantasize about how I'll phrase certain things – usually a few words, not whole sentences. The problem is that I so rarely get to the sentence writing part and quickly forget those little particles of language fused only in my imagination. My year of editing all day every day has made me come to realize that people write at different scales. My problem these days is that I write at a scale slightly smaller than the clause (i.e., "the smallest grammatical unit that can express a complete proposition"). But I most admire writing that advances at the scale of the sentence.5 I think it is between sentences – the vaulting from one declaration, or question, to the next – that an author's thinking is revealed. Earlier this year I was helping to edit a collection of essays, translated from French, by the structuralist philosopher Hubert Damisch. He starts practically every sentence with mais . Mais je m'éloigne du sujet.
I don't know that I've ever been asked about writing and dance. The two worlds have always remained very separate, neither curious about the other. I think there's two ways you could look at it. One is that dancing and writing draw on two very different, perhaps even opposing, intelligences. The great dance critic Edwin Denby wrote a piece in 1944 called "A Note on Dance Intelligence," which he begins like this: "Expression in dancing is what really interests everybody, and everybody recognizes it as a sign of intelligence in the dancer. But dancing is physical motion, it doesn't involve words at all. And so it is an error to suppose that dance intelligence is the same as other sorts of intelligence which involve, on the contrary, words only and no physical movement whatever." Mind you, this is around the time of Martha Graham's height, when the most modern of dance was a melodramatic expressionism/exorcism.
Dancing on stage – under blindingly bright lights behind which an audience you can't see but know is there sits, watching, ensconced in darkness – is an utterly transcendent experience. Lots of dancers count the music and organize their movement recall that way. 6 I can't do it, because even that degree of articulation – just to say the numbers one through eight – interferes with the articulation that (I hope) is functioning at another register and that, for me, has always been silent and has everything to do with the good ol' mute gaze.
The other way I look at the relationship between dancing and writing is this: Both are performances. In both, you get to decide to be whomever you wish. Of course in dance, you've got a choreographer telling you what they want to see. I think that makes it easier – this wedge of external directions that moves action away from identity. The more ridiculous, the more you must commit to that ridiculousness with total seriousness. Physical limitations impose themselves too: there is no pretending to turn out five perfect pirouettes; there is only doing it. But even the most exquisite technicians can lack what dancers and choreographers call "commitment" – the elimination of doubt and hesitation. I detest the word presence , but it has something to do with the seamless fusion of time, space, energy, and corporeality. (Which quality is scarily instrumentalizable.)
Writing can be more forgiving. Writers need not muster the energy, renew their commitment to every word, every punctuation mark, again and again for the piece to subsist. You can gather facets of your writerly self over the course of working on it. The work of writing leaves a durable (though not necessarily stable) proxy on the page – a score, if you will – and the rest is up to readers. The work of dance can only ready you to start the piece from the top, at which point you're only as good as your fortitude, strength, and readiness in that moment.
At the same time, the necessary immediacy of dancing – the indispensability of repeatedly rehearsing a piece from top to bottom with your own irreplaceable body until you are prepared to carry out and commit to the performance of every gesture with conviction – grants its own undeniable gratifications and possibilities.
With love and eager curiosity,
I noticed the Harvard Art Museum is hosting a symposium this week, Material World . Anni Albers’ 1926 ‘Wall Hanging’ is front and center (you know the one we lingered over with magnifying glasses last Spring —finally, some redemption for our beloved Anni.7 I wonder if the museum will tweet about her weaving? “#BR48.132. German silk 3ply weave textile, complex layering, made by beautiful woman #AnniAlbers in 1926 #itsabouttime.” Could a tweet absolve art history and the Bauhaus from about seventy years of footnoting the women of that studio and their progeny? In June, I walked through the museum one last time and noticed next to Albers’ ‘Wall Hanging’ a curious textual drawing: a typed pattern of ‘X’ and ‘O’s on printed newsprint. It was a weaving pattern composed by Ruth Asawa when she was a student at Black Mountain College in Anni Albers’ weaving studio. It was framed as if it was a drawing, but it was really a complex, coded set of instructions for a loom, which described the relative position of thread in three dimensions across its warp and weft. I suppose, because it was coded with ‘X’ and ‘O’s, mathematicians or software engineers would like to see it as a curious set of syntactical relationships. Well, in this regard, Anni was a ‘coder’, a junky of pattern and nearly imperceptible, luxurious detail that can only be felt when the fabric is wrapped around our sad, cold, ailing shoulders. She also wrote, well. German was her language, thread was her vocabulary, the loom was her syntax.
Irene, in her concise genius, declared that “there is no obfuscating with text.” I write because, in my achey social anxiety, I want to connect with my own and other’s intellect as much as I want to connect and interpret my own imagination. Anni wrote about art and design while in Germany, in the thick of anti Semitic rhetoric (a world saturated with malevolent tweets and judgments). She also wrote about the collective weaving genius of the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus’ administration’s hypocrisy that subjugated women to weaving, but consequently consolidated a team of genius that would code the magic of textiles for modern design . “Art — a Constant. Times of rapid change produce a wish for stability, for permanence and finality, as quiet times ask for adventure and change. Wishes derive from imaginative vision. And it is this visionary reality we need, to complement our experience of the immediate reality.” I suggest that there 8 is little room for hypocrisy in a signed letter. The obligation of writing as a physical, printed, signed act keeps our public selves sincere and disciplined. So yes, I write slowly and with ink. Because, I love you, Anni and everything she valued.
Facebook has just informed me that today is #nationalpunctuationday. I got sucked into taking the Which punctuation mark are you? quiz: Results cast me as a full stop/period, “.” calm, helpful, and distasteful of drama. More interestingly, the quiz describes the punctuation mark itself as nondramatic, calm and helpful. Personally, I am partial to the semicolon. This discovery reminded me of Chelsea’s comment on writers progressing their ideas at different scales. If Chelsea longs to scale up from clauses to sentences, I am stuck at the scale of punctuation. (If clauses are capable of expressing a complete proposition, what can a single punctuation mark reveal? They Punctuation marks are defined as singular characters, which separate sentences and their elements to clarify meaning. But I would argue, they do more; they connect sentences, stitch the elements together.) My eyes catch tiny things; I was the one who found the dropped earring back, the invisible pin, the single, miniscule flower in a world of brown, grey and green. Here, my windows stand wide open so gusts of fresh air will force me to look out while I copy edit. Occasionally, I must extend my depth of vision, give my eyes a rest but they won’t ignore a misplaced comma. Is an obsession with text at this scale connected to the luxurious detail of a textile?
I share your fascination with pattern because I think in terms of digits, units, spaces set into an expansive field. My initial idea for the Open Letters covers was to mine the writing for details, which I could weave into an encrypted graphics that would act as an abstracted background.9 Even as the wallpaper patterns faded, I stuck with details: like a Dawn Redwood’s needles.10Until now, I had never thought to consider why I took on the role of design editor. It appears rather obvious: I gravitate toward looser structures and rather than write to provoke thought, I write to organize it. It’s a bit odd to declare, but I find pleasure in layout, the more physical or spatial composition of thought. With a given document size, a margin, I can draft an idea the way I draft a plan for a landscape architectural design; by treating the paper space as model space. And just as hard and soft materials come together on the ground, text is, for me, only half the equation. It is in the play between image and text that I find meaning. Designing the cover graphics for Open Letters gave me this freedom: to treat text as both a formal organization of thought and an aesthetic composition. Text , more than writing, obsesses me, because it isolates the compositional element, brings it down to the tiniest terms.
In Zurich, there is no avoiding even the smallest elements of graphic design. The big, bold, sans serif type developed in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann catches my eye at every corner. Of course, in Switzerland, its birthplace and namesake (the Swiss name for the country is Helvetia, or Confoederatio Helvetica ), it is no surprise. Thanks to Chelsea’s good taste, we stuck with Benton Sans Condensed and Baskerville for a classic yet contemporary look.
In addition to clean, readable typeface, the Swiss Style established uniformity through a mathematical grid. A standard procedure today, but in the 1920s the use of the gridin the pursuit of minimalism, functionalism and simplicityrevolutionized graphic design in accordance with modernist ideals. I am not a graphic designer but I, too, recognize the grid as the most legible means for structuring information. Using this method, the structure precedes the content. Text is applied to a grid, snuggled into the predetermined order. Like Asawa’s textural drawing, which you saw hanging at the Fogg, communication relies on a composition of units in our case, a system or grid of letters. The International Style cast designers not as artists but as conduits for disseminating information. The semicolon in me wants to say we are, in our different ways, both. The grid is my playing field; it has order, but it is infinite. (We set the frame.) And the reason, I think, for our affinity with Albers’ textiles is our approach to composition. We are writing with warp and weft: First we hold the “composition stick” in our hands and put the lead type into order, and then we set the type into the press bed along with wooden “furniture” (placeholders). Whether by hand, with a typewriter, or on a keyboard, I approach writing like I print text on an analog letterpress: The bed is the field. I am tempted to think that it has something to do with being a landscape architect, rather than an architect. Looser structures allow for visible threads and multiple meanings. Letters are our scale. They are the unit we prefer because each letter can stand alone and yet it is enrichened by a response. And a response could expand the grid in any direction.
I am the full stop, but we know this conversation has no end. A bit homesick for American culture and lit., I am reminded of Emerson’s “Circles” essay: “ Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” Don’t we write/solicit/edit/publish letters in order to grow, to redefine ourselves in terms of each other, in even greater contexts? Ultimately, I think our project embraced the openness of a letter, of inquiring without any guarantee for an answer, because we have learned to accept “do[ing] something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle.” The textual fabric has no boundaries of its own we set and reset the frame. A collaborative editorial team is in constant exchange, sending verbal missives at full tilt. With that, nothing, not even me, is a full stop.
Let the ruckus begin –
1 "Ingrid Bengtson and Sarah Bolivar respond to Anonymous” Open Letters , Issue 20, December 12, 2014.
2 "Anonymous writes to GSD,” Open Letters , Issue 19, November 21, 2014.
3 "GSD Students write to Niall Kirkwood,” Open Letters , Issue 13, April 18, 2014.
4 "Chelsea Spencer writes to Mack Scogin,” Open Letters , Issue 02, October 3, 2013.
5 “Edward Eigen responds to John Davis,” Open Letters , Issue 12, April 11, 2013.
6 “Mack Scogin responds to Chelsea Spencer,” Open Letters, Issue 02, November 01, 2013.
7 “Anni Albers writes to Ise Gropius,” Open Letters, Issue 21, January 30, 2015.
8 Albers, Anni. “Art—A Constant”. Ed. Brenda Danilowittz. Anni Albers Selected Writings on Design. Weselyan University Press, Hanover, NH, 2000, p. 10.
9 “Kiel Moe writes to Open Systems,” Open Letters, Issue 15, September 26, 2014.
10 “Cali Pfaff writes to Dawn Redwood ,” Open Letters, Issue 05, December 06, 2013.