The
  Cornell
    Journal
      of
        Architecture
8
Dinner with Friends



Arthur Ovaska studied architecture at Cornell University, where he received the professional B.Arch. degree in 1974, and further pursued M.Arch. graduate studies with O.M. Ungers. He collaborated with O.M. Ungers in his Ithaca and Köln offices from 1974 to 1978, before founding the internationally known office of Kollhoff & Ovaska in Berlin in 1978. Ovaska has taught in Berlin, Taiwan, Puerto Rico, and Syracuse, and currently holds a tenured position at Cornell, where he has served as director of undergraduate and graduate programs as well as associate chair and department head from 2004 to 2007.

Jerry Wells served as chair of Cornell’s architecture department for two terms from 1980 to 1989. He is a registered architect in New York, and with the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. He has served on the Fulbright Committee, the National Screening Committee for Architecture, and was a member of the board of directors for the National Architectural Accrediting Board. He has served on the editorial board of the Journal of Architectural Education, and was a member of the Architects in Education committee of the AIA.
Daniel
The two of you have watched this school grow and change across the various administrations and, Jerry, you held the Chair from 1980 to 1989. You both have definitely seen the ups and downs and sideways of the department, and you’ve also seen the discipline and practice alongside academia grow and change. This being said, you both teach very important lessons of the discipline that clearly can’t be changed by the zeitgeist, so we’d like to frame the conversation around how math, numbers, and related conversations have existed within the department’s ideology over the last decades. We will start pre-60s, and with each course, we will progress the conversation. Before the first course arrives, we wanted to ask you both what first comes to mind when we say mathematics?

Jerry
When I became Chair, I tried to figure out what makes a good architect. I devised tests that we gave to prospective students that were similar to the kinds of things that Robert Slutzky and John Hejduk used to do at the University of Texas. For example, you start out with an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper and you have certain instructions: you draw a continuous line at right angles and superimpose rectangles over it. The only thing we found was that those who had 700 board scores in math on their sats always made A’s in architecture. I could not figure out why, and now I think it is because they had conceptual minds and that made them good prospects for architecture.


Arthur
It is true that almost every architecture student has higher math scores than they have verbal scores on the SATs.

Nicholas
So it’s not so much that you have to do math with architecture or even in architecture school—

Daniel
They stopped the math requirement for the department a few years ago.

Jerry
Over the years they have diminished it: I fought that battle a long time, because I do think that a conceptual mind is an important thing for an architect.

Arthur
There’s a big difference between geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. To me it’s geometry that is architecture.

Metron System, Lee Hodgden. Courtesy of Arthur Ovaska.
Metron System, Lee Hodgden. Courtesy of Arthur Ovaska.



First Course: Golden Section Salad

Daniel
Arthur, you mentioned geometry’s relationship with architecture, and Jerry, you have referred to proportion in the same light. In 1947, Colin Rowe wrote Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, which was quickly followed by Wittkower’s Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism. How did this emphasis on the role of ordering systems and proportion affect your own educations, since you were in school during this period?

Jerry
Colin Rowe, John Hejduk, Bob Slutzky, Werner Seligman­: they were all my professors. For them, proportioning systems were a tuning device, not a conceptual idea. Hejduk was especially into that idea: if we did not have 54 golden sections in each drawing you were in trouble.

Arthur
I was not yet born in 1947.

(Laughter)

Daniel
Aware of that, but you studied architecture when this was still a hot topic to your professors.

Arthur
I started Cornell in 1969, and I was first taught by a great professor who had been influenced by Colin but did not directly study under him, named Klaus Herdeg. I also had Michael Dennis as a first-year professor, a friend of Jerry’s who had also studied under Colin and under Lee Hodgden at Oregon. Lee had also developed his own type of mathematical systems.

Jerry
Worked on them until he died and never published the book: his version of proportioning systems …

Arthur
I have one of his paintings of the Metron System, as he called it. But I think he always made it out to be more important than it really was. Lee was also heavily influenced in some way by Bucky Fuller’s mathematical thinking, which is a totally different world from systems of aesthetic proportion.

Jerry
We were well steeped in proportioning systems all the way through school. It was Colin who always said it was a tuning device.

Daniel
So the drawings and designs would come first and then one would “tune” them for the eye?

Jerry
Yes. I analyze that in my seminars, because I really like measured architecture. Today, there is this fascination with the computer and curvilinear forms. I tend to not like things that cannot be measured. Things now lack frontality. In my seminar, over the years, we have looked at many, many architects. Almost all architects, including Zaha, use mathematics in terms of proportioning systems.


Jae
But there must be a point where these projects begin to all look alike after this common filter that they all have been through?

Jerry
Not really! It’s infinitely variable.

Arthur
I think it’s an interesting question. I am going to come at it from my experience of working with Mathias Ungers. Ungers did not consider the golden section to be “rational”…

Jerry
He always used the square.

Arthur
He completely dedicated himself to rationality in architecture, but absolutely refused to deal with the golden section. He would deal with the square and with 1.414, the diagonal of the square, which generates a similar series: if you put one inside the other you make a spiral, and so on. That’s the proportioning system that the European DIN paper size works with, for example. But the golden section: no, it was probably a little bit too spooky for him. Any kind of discussion I ever had with him asking, “Couldn’t we try the golden section?” No!

(Laughter)

Arthur
It was hard to even talk with him about other shapes besides squares, although we once did an octagonal project; he would accept the octagon. He was always using platonic geometries.


Second Course: Nine-Dot Pea Soup

Daniel
In 1957, there was a debate at the RIBA on the motion “systems of proportion make good design easier and bad design more difficult,” a motion that Bruno Zevi refused to support, stating that “no one really believes any longer in the proportional system,” and he was agreed with by Peter Smithson who argued that architects would need to look elsewhere in order to generate cultural significance. Did this mark the beginning of the end for proportionality?”

Roosevelt Island Housing Competition, O. M. Ungers. Courtesy of Ungers Archiv für Architekturwissenschaft UAA.
Roosevelt Island Housing Competition, O. M. Ungers. Courtesy of Ungers Archiv für Architekturwissenschaft UAA.

Arthur
It probably marked the beginning of the end for Peter Smithson.

(Laughter)

Jerry
Rem said about proportioning systems a few years back that composition is no longer relevant. I say basically as long as human beings have a brain and an eye, composition will be relevant.

Arthur
I wouldn’t say much about Bruno Zevi because I always liked Zevi’s book Architecture as Space. It was the first book that I remember reading as a first-year student that clearly defined architectural space. Schindler also clearly expressed the idea that architecture is space, and that is basically what I still believe.


Jerry
I believe that too. That is something we ought to be talking about in schools, because it is not an issue anymore. That’s one of the things that made the Cornell education famous—the ability to manipulate space in various ways.

You know what led to Colin Rowe writing Mathematics of the Ideal Villa? He was at the Warburg Institute where Wittkower was his professor. He wrote an article suggesting that Villa Garches was Malcontenta stripped of its content. And Wittkower says: You cannot do that; you cannot compare modern architecture to Renaissance architecture. But basically Colin was right, and he left school because of that argument. He continued to write that article based on his research. You can put the drawings over each other and it is exactly the same proportioning. Another one of my beliefs about modern architecture is that it was in fact traditional architecture stripped of its content. It didn’t have architraves and cornice lines and column capitals, but the compositional aspects were proportionally almost the same. I do an exercise in my seminar where we do a transformation of content, Modern architecture and Renaissance architecture, back and forth, and it works, especially in Le Corbusier’s buildings; traditional Renaissance architecture stripped of its content and made abstract.

Plans and Diagrams of Andrea Palladio’s Malcontenta and Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein, Colin Rowe, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays. © 1976 Massachusetts Institute of  Technology, by permission of The MIT Press.
Plans and Diagrams of Andrea Palladio’s Malcontenta and Le Corbusier’s Villa Stein, Colin Rowe, The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa and Other Essays. © 1976 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by permission of The MIT Press.

And that condition of abstraction goes all the way through Mies. I like to compare Mies and Mondrian because their work kept progressing toward abstraction. Mondrian ended up with a kind of composition that was a few lines, a few rectangles, and some colors. As for Mies, if you look at the Seagram Building, it’s all decoration on the outside. It is the same in every one of his buildings except the Farnsworth House, where the steel was structural. He continued down that line of abstraction to the point where people can walk past his buildings and never even recognize them, because everyone in the world picked up on that way of making skyscrapers. I had a bunch of students with me in Toronto once, who walked past the Dominion Center, which is Mies’s biggest building in this continent, and no one even saw it. What has happened is that the general public is not accepting that degree of abstraction. They want content back in their architecture, and that is a big thing. That’s what Venturi was writing about.

Arthur
You can see the kind of influence Mies probably had on people like the Smithsons; just take a look at the Smithsons’ Hunstanton School. The work that Mies did in the office of Behrens was all about proportion. I like to look at Mies’s first houses; they’re very traditional, very classical, even Schinkel-esque in a way, or almost Tessenow-like. It’s really unbelievable how quickly that transition happened.

Jerry
Again, I think it is interesting to recall that Picasso and the invention of Cubism were really powerful in terms of spatial definition, and people like Bernhard Hoesli and Colin Rowe were really into that the idea of layered space. Picasso never made a painting that did not have either human or animal content. You can always see the content, so there’s a level of meaning there that transcends the abstract condition. Mondrian and Mies never did that.


Third Course: Nine-Square Scallop with Roe

Jerry
What’s nine-square about that scallop? Oh … it’s got a grid on it!

Daniel
So, now we’re in the late 70s, beginning of the 80s.

Arthur
Wow, we got there fast.

Daniel
In Collage City, Colin Rowe discusses buildings such as the Palazzo Borghese, and Sant’Agnese in Piazza Navona, neither of which were ideal buildings; they were compositions altered by their urban context. How is it possible for someone like Colin Rowe, who had been so adamant about internalized proportions, to shift his focus so radically from the ideal to the contextual?

Arthur
Colin had been head of his graduate program in urban design. I think by 1976 Colin was probably much more dedicated to the idea of urban space, and if you think of 1976, there were a lot of strange things going on, with the beginnings of Postmodernism and the whole Venturi phenomenon of reducing everything to the facade….

Jerry
Colin was always a mad dog Modernist until those students from Notre Dame came, and Colin was always criticized because he would never do three-dimensional drawings. My first years here, I taught with Colin both third-year and urban design, and Colin dealt with urban design as a piece of Gestalt psychology, looking at the patterns a city makes and connecting up those patterns. There was very little reality in his way of dealing with cities. If you look at some of that work, like the second issue of the Cornell Journal of Architecture—it’s basically a two-dimensional condition.

The guys from Notre Dame came and had had a very classical education. Colin was gaga over their three-dimensional drawings, and just flipped! Suddenly he was the person who was dealing with Postmodern architecture, well after postmodernism had started.

Daniel
So you think that the interest didn’t actually shift from proportion to contextual…. Do you think there is a way to read one within the other?

Jerry
What Colin was saying was that the context creates the form, not the opposite way around.


Arthur
That a building is determined first of all by its context and then arranged, and then in Jerry’s terms “tuned” within the context. To me those are two different things.

But, thinking about 1976, again. That was also the year, if I’m not mistaken, that the Museum of Modern Art had the big exhibition of drawings from l’Ecole des Beaux Arts. And suddenly people saw those 18th- and 19th-century drawings exhibited in a modern art context and were quite blown away.

By that time, Aldo Rossi’s Architecture of the City was out, or was translated into English. People were already aware of Rossi’s ideas, like how important the Piazza Navona was as a kind of collective memory piece, or how important Diocletian’s Palace was as an idea for something being transformed over time. A lot of things were happening at about that time.

It’s strangely interesting that the tendenza of the “rats”—“rational architecture”—has somehow disappeared in a lot of modern history and criticism, at least in this country, since it was so strong at the time. People tend to want to leave it out.


Fourth Course: Möbius Strip Steak

Daniel
Now we are onto the meat of our conversation, the 1980s. Jerry, you were chair at the time, actually spearheading the first issue of the Journal, and in your introduction, you quoted Le Corbusier on his opinion of how to teach architecture: “If I had to teach you architecture? Rather an awkward question … I would begin by forbidding the ‘orders,’ by putting a stop to this dry rot of the orders. This incredible defiance of the intelligence. I would insist on a real respect for Architecture….” The Vitruvian orders were based on an aesthetic that had mathematical sensibilities based on proportions and ratios. So in 1981, if the orders and rules of proportion were not being taught, what took its place?

Jerry
Well, yes, the stylistic content had changed.

Daniel
So what was being discussed instead?

Jerry
Abstraction.

Nicholas
Abstraction without proportionality?

Jerry
No, proportionality was always there, we never dropped it. That was my whole point about how Modern architecture was simply classical buildings stripped of their content. You have to understand how the word content works and what it means: it’s the stylistic aspects of that point in time in which man is living. Not necessarily ornament. It took a few hundred years to develop the ionic column and it is still on houses in the suburbs today. It is an incredible characteristic that keeps getting subscribed to over and over again. Modern architecture dealt with the notion of stripping that stuff away, and it was a totally abstract condition.

Jae
What form did proportionality take in this period?

Jerry
There were many strategies that were played with the Fibonacci sequence people were spending a lot of time with, Le Corbusier developed the Modulor during the World Wars. He was really incredibly into it, he carried around a tape measure and measured things his whole life. But I don’t think we need to make proportionality into this special thing; it really is just the last touch on a project.

Arthur
Or it’s like getting dressed in the morning. Do you think people can read proportions? We can go back to Dürer and the proportions of the human face. Where is the nose located, what is the length of the forehead and so on, and what is a person’s sense of beauty? People seem to somehow agree on it in some way, which is quite intriguing. Dürer was probably the first person to start investigating the proportions of the ideal baby, for instance. Proportion does not have to be just about buildings.


Daniel
I think the reason why we are asking you both to dissect proportion and its involve­ment in teaching the discipline is because it is a relevant term to mathematics, and we don’t believe that they should be held separately.

Jerry
I can show you many buildings that make incredible use of proportion. Scarpa’s Banca Popolare, for example, you cannot move a single line in that building without messing it up in terms of its proportions. And the relative condition of how it works is based upon the idea of the field and figure.

But, let’s take the idea of mathematics; it’s not always a rectilinear proportion-ing system. An architect like Antonio Gaudí made really incredible buildings that were all based on mathematics. We all know the catenary models he used and wove into his facades. He was a mathematician, but there was an overlay of content that transcended the mathematics. That’s where Le Corbusier got the idea for his roofscape for the Unité.

Proportion of Babies, from Vier Bücher von men- schlicher Proportion, Albrecht Dürer (Nuremberg H. Formschneyder, 1528).
Proportion of Babies, from Vier Bücher von men- schlicher Proportion, Albrecht Dürer (Nuremberg H. Formschneyder, 1528).

Arthur
I would put him in the Art Nouveau period, and there’s a lot of Art Nouveau stuff that is quite amazing that has also been marginalized in history. Not only Gaudí, but people like Olbrich and Sullivan. You look at what they were doing at that time—it was quite incredible, and done without computers.

And there is also another side to mathematics; in producing architecture, the calculator became the most important tool. In teaching, learning, designing, your eyes and your drawing tools are most important, but when you are producing, you are having to deal with money, square footages, zoning, and developers. The numbers become ultimately important. To me, that’s the ugly part of architecture.

But I want to say something different about that time period. I was in Berlin working my tail off at that time, but sometimes Jerry invited me back as a visiting critic, and I was also teaching at Syracuse. What amazed me about that point in time is that you would go to reviews of student work, and in most studios, students would pin up a Xerox along with their project that would be their…

Jerry
precedent.

Arthur
precedent.

Jerry
Funny how we said that at the same time.

Arthur
And that was almost always the case. About that time I decided not to use that word anymore, and now use antecedent instead: that which has come before. There was always the recognition that things have come before, and that one can learn from them, but at that time there was also a fair amount of copying going on, and it wasn’t always about trying to derive concepts from things and reinterpreting them, sometimes it was a little too literal, I think.


Jerry
A lot of that comes from the Texas Rangers’ method of teaching. You always stood on other people’s shoulders but you were also supposed to deal with the ideas of precedents and take them through transformations and reapply them to your work.

Daniel
Would you say this was an insensitive version of appropriation?

Jerry
Architectural ideas happen everywhere in the world and you’ve got to have a mind that can see them.


Fifth course: Apple π

Daniel
So now we are on to a bittersweet dessert. The 90s and the 00s brought advancement in the changed ideals of postmodernism and the rapid growth of design intent based less on theoretical mathematics and more on structural materialistic mathematics. How did you navigate this strange territory as educators?

Jerry
Well, I started the first CAD studios, with Don Greenberg. Way back.

Arthur
As a kind of experimental Option Studio.

Jae
I remember the tension and disagreement there was when I moved into my second year here and the incoming freshmen were already trying to use cad.

Daniel
We entered the program during the last moments of Mohsen Mostavafi’s period here, and I remember still drafting, or wanting to draft well into my second year: this is ’08. There was this very strange and awkward phase where people started wanting to present drafted drawings, but they instead kept tracing things they printed off the computer, because we could not control our computer drawings as well yet in terms of line-weight, etcetera.

Arthur
But I think that we have always kept the pedagogical connection between the hand and the eye, and we have always insisted at Cornell, I think still up until this day, that you have to be able to see and to make in order have visual and mental control over your work, before being introduced to the computer. But what I think we are seeing at some other schools is a certain kind of fetishizing of the computer. There is already some kind of inbreeding of that fetishism, and people are being educated who don’t know anything else. You can’t really talk about the computer…. It’s all invasive now. I remember the first image coming through over the Internet, a picture of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. The thing sort of slowly materialized; taking probably a half an hour until it was done. Everything on the Internet had been text until that point, while people were predicting that we would be sharing images digitally, nobody really predicted that people were going to have this tool in their pockets soon.


Jerry
What has happened is that architectural space ceased to exist; various things have ceased to exist in terms of the way we teach and the way architecture is presented. You get the magazines that do two or three images and never show you the plans of the building, so you can never understand the conceptual workings of a project. Mohsen used to talk about “design by image.” That used to be an embarrassing thing for architects to do: you had some kind of render that came in after the building was done, usually as drawings for the client, and you never referred to them again. You would ask these people to, after the fact, do these pretty pictures, and now architects seem to think that pretty pictures are the essence of the job.

Daniel
Perhaps this has been brought on by the economic times, because so many firms are only making paper architecture, they could care less about plan and section, and just make a good render because, as we know, the sexiest image wins the competition or gets you the clients who are surfing the internet.

Jerry
You can’t research a building on the internet.

Nicholas
Yes, because the only thing you see are these seductive images. What does it mean for the culture of architecture?

Jerry
It is a bit of a disaster, and I think it will rectify itself, because it can’t keep doing that.

Nicholas
But at the same time, using computers and these new tools means that the way you design is not in plan and section, so that these plans and sections simply cannot represent—

Jerry
But the way you design is in plan and section.

Nicholas
Not if you are designing in a digital model. That’s the way people are doing it.

Arthur
There are always these draftsmen or visualizers, or people who can do great images but never really build anything. There always have been.


Daniel
Let’s talk about the hot terms parametric or algorithmic architecture. There is a lot of mathematical terminology in architecture today.

Jerry
You can make really bad buildings using parametrics, if the parameters are bad. Architects use the English language in the most incredibly ridiculous ways.

Daniel
When you guys were educated, and began teaching, it seems like there was a model or single correct way to do things within a single realm. Today there is clearly no right way to do things, at least regarding what is being accepted pedagogically. There is a pluralism that exists in the academic world. Does this make it more difficult to critique, and do we need a more cohesive and collective trajectory?

Jerry
There is something that you have to understand about the schools of architecture. They’re all different. And you have to research really well. For instance, a few years ago if you came from Princeton, you graduated a Michael Graves disciple; if you went here, you came out a Corb freak. Every school has an identifiable characteristic.

Daniel
But now, when we graduate I don’t think we graduate as Corb freaks.

Jerry
No, no, the school has changed.

Jae
Now, more schools have become more like-minded, especially through the use of the computer.

Jerry
I think that it is an interesting change, but I don’t think it is really healthy for the formulation of ideas. I think we are in danger of letting the computer drive our thinking, as opposed to using the computer to create our work.

Daniel
Would you say that the conversation has become more aesthetic-based, versus theory-based?

Jerry
Not with my teaching. But yes, that aesthetic is changing; becoming more and more about the design of the superobject. But really, the superobject has been around a long time, and all of these things change through time. They go through cycles. Like the rest of life.


Arthur
I generally mistrust any word that has ism at the end, but when I see pluralism, and I think about how differently things can be interpreted in different contexts, I actually have to get into philosophy and religion for a second. I was brought up a Unitarian, which means that the way you learn about religion is to study every religion other than your own, which means that you had to learn about religion through thinking about other things, which is sort of like architecture to me. You basically grow up with the pluralistic concept that there are lots of other people that don’t believe the same things that you believe, and you have to learn through thinking to deal with things. I guess at this point, I believe that there is no one architecture.

Jerry
Never.

Arthur
And if somebody is doing computer doilies, that fine with me. It’s just not my architecture.

Jerry
It all has to do with stylistic content: “You looks around you and you makes your choice.” If you don’t want to do anything different, you do what is in the current vogue. Fundamentally, it’s a choice.

Jae
But there is some peer pressure.

Jerry
There should not be. I tell my students that they have to win the courage of their convictions. And I don’t teach them architecture. I teach them how to learn about architecture. And I don’t design their projects. I talk to them about it and let them do it. And you have to realize there will be an aspect of architecture that you will hook onto and love. And if you don’t do that, don’t be an architect. There’s a whole variety of things out there you can love. Basically the education of an architect has to do with loving another architect and mimicking their work. In the end, you will change. Arthur used to love Matthias Ungers, but he doesn’t do Matthias Ungers buildings anymore.

Architecture is a really wonderful world; you make it what you want to make it. You don’t have to commit to anything, and you can create anything. And basically the architectural education should give you the tools to do that; if you don’t pick up on that, you are a bit of a fool. You’ll go into a corporate office doing toilet details for the rest of your life.

Dinner by Caroline O’Donnell with Carly Dean, Jackie Krasnokutskaya, Varvara Larionova, and Ishita Sitwala.




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