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Luca Cardani

John Hejduk: architecture and its idea

"It's not just building per se. It's building worlds"

John Hejduk with Antonio Sanmartěn, Elena Cŕnovas Mendez e Leonardo Rietti, Torres Hejduk, Santiago de Compostela, 2001-03 (Photo by the author)

John Hejduk with Antonio Sanmartěn, Elena Cŕnovas Mendez e Leonardo Rietti, Torres Hejduk, Santiago de Compostela, 2001-03 (Photo by the author)

Architecture is for Hejduk the form of thought, that manifest itself in the reality. Architect’s mission is find the authentic forms of its own time through the refoundation of programs, carrying out the task of all arts: to watch the whole world and give a vision for the future. This written represent an attempt to outline a unitary thought about the meaning of architecture by Hejduk. A subterranean idea feed the phases of his architectural career, link to each other, under the civic engagement roof, the educator’s passion for the transmissibility of knowledge, with the artist-architect’s exaltation of subjective implication.

«Art, be it painting, literature or architecture, is the remaining shell of thought. Actual thought is of no substance. We cannot actually see thought, we can only see its remains. Thought manifest itself by its shucking or shedding of itself; it is beyond its confinement»
John Hejduk, ’Evening in Llano’1

Through this strong metaphor, John Hejduk explains the value and the meaning of architecture.
Architectures are shells keeping men thoughts on the world; architectures are shells filled with experiences; they narrate life even after the thought has abandoned it; architectures are meaningful because one can recognize their value through what remains.
Thought is the human faculty through which one becomes aware of himself towards reality. In this sense, architecture is the result of a cognitive process, through which thought takes form, reveals and acquires existence, transmissibility and record value which produces culture.
One of the verbs most used by Hejduk’s in his speeches about architecture is precisely ‘to gather / gather up’, which has many meanings2, but, in general, means to accumulate and to collect knowledge. Indeed it means to gather thoughts on the world in order to transmit them through the form. For this reason, each piece of architecture represents and builds a piece of knowledge of the world and it is its record.
On this belief is built the idea of architecture and education of Hejduk, the Cooper Union’s dean, which comes from hi experience during the ‘50s as a young teacher at the Texas School of Architecture in Austin, carried out together with the his colleagues Hoesli, Rowe, Slutzky, with whom he shares the idea that: «Any educational program of a School of Architecture cannot be based on the mechanics of the professional occupation but only on the content of architecture»3.
The “content of architecture” is the essence of his architectural program, is the conception of his idea conceived as the design founding moment, which concerns the question of the meaning of what to be built, with regard to the requests of his own epoch and of the society, underlining how the judgment drives the interrelationship between aims and instruments, by settling together the ethical and the aesthetic dimensions of the work.
Architecture comes from experience, from the world of life, in order to turn the needs and aspirations of human being into something real. This thought greatly owes to 20th century American philosophy, to Dewey’s instrumentalism according to which architecture has to influence the future and remember the past, i.e. the «things that men have hoped and struggled, what they have achieved and suffered»4.
Turning experience into architecture means therefore to adopt reality as a field of research and as a goal.
Looking at Mondrian’s work as a paradigm of the artistic activity, in the essay The Flatness of Depth, Hejduk writes: «Reality is conceived, reality is represented, reality is realized. All are one and the same thing»5. Conception, representation and realization are, for Hejduk, three necessary and inseparable steps of the design process which claim the realism of the artist work, the need to start from the critique of reality and to end with the construction of reality itself, considered as an architectural reality not yet existing but that begins to take form in its relationship with imagination, as Hejduk explains further on: « architect has an architectural image inside his mind’s eye. (...) There may be a series of images one after the other over a period of time, but that period of time, no matter how small, is a necessary ingredient for the evolution toward totality. It must be understood that so-called total architecture is ultimately made up of parts and fragments and fabrication»6.
In the imagination images and fragments of things and objects from experience, preserved by memory, are imprinted and combined to produce the representation of an idea.
One of the greatest contributions of Hejduk is indeed his way of thinking about architecture, through an analogical thinking that introduce new meanings in architecture through the ability of the imagination to create links between different things, in search for a formal synthesis.

But how is the transition from conception to representation and to realization?
How is possible to turn the idea into its form?
For the architect-teacher Hejduk this is mostly entrusted to the individual poetic skills or inclination, but it does not end with it, because the correspondence of forms requires a design method and logic steps of composition according to the goal to achieve. Hejduk’s work is indeed proof of his research of a method, as he points out in the forward to his first exposition hosted by Foundation Le Corbusier in Maison La Roche in 1972: «The following projects are the result of a twenty-year effort to search the generating principles of form and space», in the attempt to fix a point of view on architecture through the analysis and the design, «through a self-imposed discipline, through an in-depth study of the content, through an aesthetic»7.
Hejdux tests this method with students of the Cooper Union, whose pedagogy is based on analysis of the composition of some great art works in order to highlight some basic principles, and on the design conceived as test of the emerged theoretical issues8. This is a true “formal education” which needs the student to have a deep critical ability and it develops through a double movement of extraction of meanings from the forms in the analytic phase and through the filling of the forms with these meanings in that practice. The project is the result of a theoretical speculation that is developed through the design, that is through the acquisition of the awareness of the decisions taken through the architectural composition process and its consequences with respect to the goal, in a continuous dialectical movement: «whether the evolution of form continues or stops depends on the use of the intellect, not intended as an academic tool, but as a passionate living element. (…) In order to have meaningful a-priori principles, and to take on the path towards a total revelation, which should be present in the obtained form»9.
The goal of architecture is thus the transmission of meanings, to be reached through its ability to excite, that is to carry out our spirit from us making it encounter with the thought expressed by the art work, generating a revelation. By finding a thought in the art work, we recognize it, we recognize an idea which becomes ours, a part of our culture. But, in order to achieve that, the forms should reach the expressivity of the thought generating them, through the precision of language, because: «the intellect is itself something tactile, tangible and sensual, and if you catch it into the forms, you come up with something that breathes, that is not dead. Much of architecture today is dead because it is not able to achieve this»10.
«The fundamental issue of architecture is that does it affect the spirit, or doesn’t it? If it doesn’t affect the spirit, it’s a building. If it affects the spirit, it’s architecture»11.
This spirit is made up of the values of an era. Architecture should aim at the representation of this spirit, to be more than its function and to exceed the simple construction and become the medium to describe the lives of men. This is the attempt developed in a clear way through the work series titled Masques12: to find masks/forms for his own time, through the search for authentic of programs13, focusing on the problem of the character in architecture, the relationship between the form and its own destination.
Hejduk analogically links town and Masques14, because he considers the theater as a tool to give rules to the society, to give roles and masks to every citizen in a town that is scenic space and the place where relationships with architecture are made possible15. Each architecture represents a character, one for each inhabitant, for each institution: all these characters compose together the city’s character, by using the architectures narration as a tool to make evident the meaning of the city.
In order to represent the idea of each building, Hejduk starts with its functional value, intended as the expression of the link between life and architecture, and he conceives a city made of architectures representing the relationship between the object (architecture) and the subject (the inhabitant).
In this theater-like town we experience the social contract regulating it, through the roles and the relationships established between architectures and through the manifestation of their character.
With this family of architectures, Hejduk sets up an archive of architectural prototypes, able to «give the genetic code of all the buildings for every possible future town»16; he sets up a canovaccio for each building, as if they were characters in search for an author ready to play their own role on the city’s stage. The value of the masque is indeed to bring back the issue of architecture to its generative principle: what is an architecture, what is its meaning is and which is the form who represent it, continuously rewriting it sense through a story about the fate of the city

«I cannot do a building without building a new repertoire of characters of stories of language and it’s all parallel. It’s not just building per se. It’s building worlds»17
Architecture as a discipline for the construction of the world: this is the lesson to be understood by Hejduk, the educator and the artist. The architect is a “builder of worlds”, a builder of realities to be built, the author of the plot on human events, the director who composes its complex structure and the scenographer who exalts it in through forms.
According to Hejduk, the architect has the responsibility to “dig up into the nature of the program to find the authenticity of its own time”18, in order to search for forms and shapes able to capture the truth value and to build the architecture of his time, in the hope that this will be for all times. This is an individual continuous in-depth research driven by personal imagination, able to set up new horizons and to imagine the future of the city and possible alternatives to the automatic development.
The conception of a thought about the world which grows up slowly in our inner, like an analogous city to the real one, built day by day, brick upon brick, looking for an occasion to arise from its deep foundations.

1 Hejduk J. (1988). Evening in Llano. In AA.VV. Education of an architect: The Irwin S. Chanin School of architecture of the Cooper Union, John Hejduk, Richard Henderson, editors Elizabeth Diller, Diane Lewis, Kim Shkapich. New York: Rizzoli. 1988.
2 gather is the general term for a bringing or coming together [to gather scattered objects, people gathered at the corners ]; collect1 usually implies careful choice in gathering from various sources, a bringing into an orderly arrangement, etc. [he collects coins ]; assemble applies especially to the gathering together of persons for some special purpose [assemble the students in the auditorium ]; muster applies to a formal assembling, especially of troops for inspection, roll call, etc. gather up: to pick up and assemble. In this regard it is recalled Hejduk’s speech in memory of Alvin Boyarsky, the dean of AA School of Architecture of London, in whose introduction he makes a list of all meanings of the verb to gather.
3 It refers to the written “A new curriculum” by C. Rowe e B. Hoesli for the School of Arhcitecture of Austin; selected from: Caragonne A. (1995). The Texas Rangers: notes from an architectural underground. Cambridge (Mass). London: MIT.
4 Dewey J. (1934). Art as Experience. New York: Minton, Balch & Company; trad. it. L’arte come esperienza, a cura di C.Maltese. Firenze.1951.
5 Hejduk J. The flatness of depth, in Hejduk J. Mask of Medusa: works 1947-1983. New York: Rizzoli. 1985 p.68-69
6 Ibid, p.69.
7 Hejduk J. (1972), Statement, from exhibition catalogue Projects – John Hejduk, Architects an exhibition at the Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris. October 1972.
8 See the catalogue of the exhibition at MOMA in 1971 about the students’ works of Cooper Union and the essay by Robert Slutzky who explain the educational methodology adopted in those years: AA.VV. (1971) Education of an Architect: a point of view. The Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture 1964-1971. New York: The Monacelli Press ; e Slutzky R. Introduzione alla Cooper Union. Una pedagogia della forma, in Lotus International n.27, 1980.
9 Hejduk J. (1972), Statement, from exhibition catalogue Projects – John Hejduk, Architects an exhibition at the Fondation Le Corbusier, Paris. October 1972.
10 Interview with Don Wall; in Hejduk J. Mask of Medusa: works 1947-1983. New York: Rizzoli. 1985. p.125
11 Hejduk. J. (1993) Education of An Architect. Voices from the Cooper Union, directed by Michael Blackwood Production.
12 Gathered togheter these works (names and dates refers to Hejduk’s collection list made by CCA): Theater Masque (1979-1983), The Lancaster/Hanover Masque (1979-1983), Berlin Masque (1981), New England Masque (1984), Victims I (1984).
13 «The Masques have to do with a search for new, authentic programs. … I am looking for those programs that are authentic. And I’m not so far from Kahn again, in that way. He said that you have to invent the program, that the needs come out of the design, not the other way around. You create a need by creating something that’s new», Hejduk J. (1983) in John Hejduk-WORKS 1950-1983, konzeption Boga T. Zurich: ETH Zurich.
14 16th and 17th century English interludes often written by Ben Johnson with Inigo John’s dresses and set designs, played at the Stuart’s royal court to celebrate particular events or celebrities through an allegorical representation made of dance, music and masks. See also “I masques alla corte degli Stuart” da: Brockett O.G.(1988). Storia del teatro. Venezia: Marsilio editori. pp. 210-213. “Il masque presentava dei tratti comuni agli intermezzi italiani. In entrambi si raccontava una storia allegorica che poneva in luce numerose analogie tra la persona cui lo spettacolo era dedicato, o l’occasione che era celebrata, e alcuni personaggi o episodi mitologici. La storia e i riferimenti allegorici erano espressi principalmente in forme visive: tramite le scene, i costumi, gli oggetti, la mimica e la danza”.
15 «Masque is theater and ritual theater has been intimately related to the historic regulation of the social structure. Theater is a manifestation, which is capable of keeping society balanced, and that is the point of communitas. In theater we can begin to undertake an investigation of the phenomena on which our present society rests. We can ask such questions as ‘Is a hospital good, an acceptable instrument, as we conceive it today, by which the ends of society are reached? Is a school acceptable? Is high rise? Architecture is touched, transformed, bu such study, thus inextricably connecteed to it», virgolettato di J.Hejduk estratto da: John Hejduk by Franz Schulze, in MASQUES, John Hejduk, The Renaissance Society at The University of Chicago, 1981.
16 Semerani L. (2007). L’esperienza del simbolo. Lezioni di Teoria e Tecnica della Progettazione architettonica, Teca1. Napoli: Clean.
17 Conversation betweeen David Shaphiro and John Hejduk. In A+U, 01/1991, n. 244.
18 «... a deep search into the “nature” of program might perhaps be attempted... a search towards the possibility of renewal... a program that perhaps had something to do with the spirit of our times» estratto da: Hejduk J. Berlin Masque in Lotus International n.33, 1981.

Luca Cardani graduated in Architecture in 2013 at Politecnico di Milano School of Architecture with a design thesis about Fortezza Albornoz and Colle delle Vigne in the historical center of Urbino. Ph.D. candidate in Architectural Composition at Iuav University with a thesis on John Hejduk’s works with the title “John Hejduk. The fabrication of character”. Teaching assistant at Politecnico di Milano. He collaborates with Monestiroli Architetti Associati studio.

John Hejduk, Renovation of Cooper Union, New York, 1969. Detail of the central atrium of the library with quotes of the facades of Villa Garches and Villa Stein (Photo by the author)

John Hejduk, Renovation of Cooper Union, New York, 1969. Detail of the central atrium of the library with quotes of the facades of Villa Garches and Villa Stein (Photo by the author)