October 15, 2008

Cornell Alums 'Infiltrate' Architecture in Exhibit

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Rumor has it that Alex Mergold ’00 set a scale model on fire during his thesis review — in front of alarmed critics. Research shows that he didn’t actually light the thing ablaze, though the project, a fire house, was provocative in its own way. After graduation, Mergoldd went on to found Austin + Mergold LLC with Jason Austin ’00, and is currently a visiting faculty member in Cornell’s architecture program. A+M’s show at Hartells Gallery, The Four Books of Archiculture, came down this past Saturday after a two-week exhibition.
The exhibition was a retrospective of the two architects’ built and proposed works in Pennsylvania. The projects include designs as varied as a grain dryer converted into a house and a miniature golf course built on a roofscape.
The Four Books of Architecture explored a series of opposing methods in architecture: old-school versus new-school presentation, classical design versus a modern aesthetic, rural life juxtaposed with consumerist culture, A+M as compared to Andrea Palladio.
The premise of the exhibition is a new-take on Palladio’s infamous 16th century architectural treatise, “Four Books of Architecture” — design school’s version of Pimp My Ride. (In this modern day, new technologies of laser cutting and CAD drafting have done for classical presentation what 22-inch rims and paint jobs do for classic cars.)
“Architectural conventions — well … we don’t as much challenge, but ‘infiltrate’ and rethink established methods from within,” says Mergold. “In this case, we’ve infiltrated the 16th century M.O. of architectural drawing production, but using the tools of the 21st century.” While architecture students at Cornell are usually encouraged to stick with traditional drafting, A+M explores a rebellious interest in fonts, stickers, cartoons and archaic modes of printing.
Palladio’s “Four Books,” which are no longer studied by architects-to-be in the new millennium, were painstakingly carved onto wood blocks and hand printed with giant presses. Cornell University has these sorts of facilities in the fine arts department, but they’re rarely used anymore by architects. The works in A+M’s exhibition, however, were engraved by laser cutter onto wood blocks, which were then hand-inked and printed. These 30×40-inch sheets were then mounted on steel shelving brackets.
Palladio’s original texts on Italian villas frequently referenced obscure notions of beauty or truth, themes which A+M utilized in their presentation. “We decided to frame our own work in a similar way [to Palladio’s],” says Mergold. “[We wanted to] draw attention to the fact that a large portion of architectural production in the U.S. is driven by these equally bizarre forces — like the curb appeal, ‘developers’ orders,’ and modern agricultural building typologies.” Because many clients A+M encountered were attached to the appearance of local buildings, they was forced to investigate regional architecture instead using “modern” styles. In the exhibition, many drawings show that they developed a fascination with agricultural kitsch: cows, grain dryers, and linoleum siding.
An interest in cultural kitsch, reminiscent of some A+M’s completed projects, also shows up in the wood block prints. The silhouette of Marge Simpson’s hair, for example, shows up in a seemingly formal black-and-white drawing. Additionally, Serif fonts — widely shunned by architects — play a role in titling. “I can see a relationship between his work at Pentagram [a renowned design studio] and the exhibition because his of relationship to graphic design,” says Sophia Goehner ’09, an architecture thesis student. “Pentagram is an office that combines graphic design and architecture. His work is really graphic; there’s obviously an interest there.”
The actual completed projects (of which The Four Books of Archiculture is a retroactive exhibition) are an echo of Palladio’s efforts. In place of the farmlands of Italy, A+M worked with rural typologies in Pennsylvania.
For example, the “Modern Bank Barn,” a clubhouse in Pa. (built in 2005 with Vladimir Pajkic ’00), shows A+M’s occasionally ironic interest in farm typologies. Historically, a “bank barn” had two entrances on two levels, one for cattle (below) and the other farm machinery (above). Rather than designing a building that resembled a stereotypical country club, A+M’s clubhouse has the shape of a historic barn. Ironically, where cows used to enter the building, the golf-carts now park after a long day on the course.
Andrea Palladio — whose infamous balding hairline, chunky beard and moustache are caricatured all through the A+M exhibit — investigated the farmhouses of Italian aristocracy in his day. A+M, by comparison, looks at consumer culture in rural and suburban areas in the U.S.: Wal-Mart, E.T., golf-carts, the Simpsons, “Buy one, get one free!” deals and pre-fabricated anythings.
“We decided to re-engage at the most basic level, choosing to work with mundane, well-established (often unglamorous) fabrication and construction practices,” say A+M in their statement of purpose. There’s no doubt, then, that finding echoes of 16th century classical beauty in the rural areas of the eastern seaboard — in the language of WalMart — for A+M is the architecture version of a two-for-one deal.