Danny Floyd and Jeff Prokash, Discussion on Ocular Windows

Danny Floyd and Jeff Prokash

Discussion on Ocular Windows

This transcription is excerpts from a round-table discussion between Jeff Prokash, Danny Floyd, and Joshua Demaree about Prokash’s piece Ocular Windows which incorporates three windows from the contentiously demolished Prentice Women’s Hospital designed by brutalist architect Bertrand Goldberg.

Demaree is an art and mass cultural critic and independent researcher based out of Philadelphia. He is a regular contributor to the LA Review of Books and Expo Chicago’s The Seen for whom he is developing a feature on Prokash. He has a BA from University of Pittsburgh in the History of Art and Architecture and Philosophy and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies from SAIC. Prokash is a sculptor based out of Chicago with a BFA and a BA in Art History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is an MFA candidate in Sculpture from SAIC. Floyd is also a sculptor based out of Chicago, and a collaborator with Prokash. He runs Ballroom Projects where Ocular Windows was first shown and has a BFA from Rhode Island School of Design, an MA in Visual and Critical Studies, and an MFA in Sculpture both from SAIC.

JD:

I went to the University of Pittsburg which is very much a large public university in the same vein as UIC, and the architectural elements of both campuses are largely brutalist because they come from this very same period of 1960s when the public university really comes into its own. It’s post-war. All of these GI bill people are coming in. It’s a generation after a large influx of money, so there’s a rapid expansion. So what they do is just build really big buildings very quickly, and the form in vogue at the time that really fulfills that is brutalism.

Having already gone to Pitt and having seen that I was thinking “What goddamn ugly buildings these are!” but eventually coming to love them which is very much a big part of the discussion about preservation of brutalist buildings right now. I had already had this affinity for brutalism, and then coming straight to Chicago, the architecture city, and seeing this preservation play out firsthand, that was my own first interest into Prentice. And specifically Prentice because it is such a very specific, very odd form of brutalism that you do not see virtually anywhere else.

JP:

Oh yeah, absolutely.

JD:

For this discussion I did a lot of research into brutalism, its history, the beginnings of the movement back in the 1950s, as well as a lot of the discussions that are happening now. And in a lot of ways your own work, not just with the windows, but your larger work, is really touching into a lot of the ideas that the original arbiters of brutalism were also very much engaged in. Specifically in the British mid-century, because that’s where it comes from. There is one specific phrase that comes to mind a lot that ties back into your interest in class system and class spaces, and the built environment.

Alison and Peter Smithson, who were these original architects of brutalism wrote, not really a manifesto, but ideas about brutalism. I have a little bit written down here that I want to read, and get your reaction. This is from a 1957 issue of Architectural Design:

Any discussion of brutalism will miss the point if it does not take into account brutalism’s attempt to be objective about reality, the cultural objective of society, and its urges, and so on. Brutalism tries to face up to a mass production society, and drag a rough poetry out of the confused and powerful forces that are at work. Up to now, Brutalism has been discussed stylistically, whereas its essence is ethical.

And that is the phrase that comes out of the discussions of brutalism: is it an aesthetic or an ethic? I guess I want to hear a little about your thoughts on brutalism and that idea.

JP:

I think that is actually the heart of the issue with the Prentice Building, aesthetics versus ethics. I think often Prentice got this bad rap for being an ominous, concrete bunker building, you know? And I think aesthetically it hasn’t stayed in vogue because we are now in the era of glass and transparency. So I think that was ultimately what brought along its demise. But I think in terms of the ethics of the structure, the external shell was designed around what was necessary for the function of the interior space, which I think was a separation a little bit from general brutalism in terms of producing a general utilitarian blank slate vessel that can then be occupied by whatever it needs to be filled with. I think that separates Bertrand Goldberg from the general brutalist architect.

But I do think there was a disparity between the ethics and the aesthetics in terms of how they developed culturally. I feel like his ethics are still very much sought after and desired in contemporary architecture, but the aesthetics of brutalism kind of killed it.

JD:

Yeah there is this interesting break down in the ideas where aesthetically it relates an extremely different idea than what was meant ethically in a lot of brutalism, especially with Prentice. This idea that it is constructed of very cheap materials in situ, completely unfinished concrete that they pour in place. And then when they take the wood planking from it it’s unfinished, which you can’t see in a lot of photos of prentice, but you can see itif the light hits it the right way.

JP:

Absolutely, you can see the planks.

JD:

That’s what brutalism was about, unfinished concrete. And so it creates these massive forms even when it isn’t that big. Prentice isn’t huge compared to the buildings next to it. It’s kind of small and tucked away. But it does have this monumentality to it, because it is hanging unfinished concrete. They are very plain looking. There is very little architectural detail outside of the form itself, so something like Prentice is just the clover form of the building and these windows. That is the architectural detail that you come to see, so it was meant to appeal to a lower class, a mass class. It wasn’t meant to look rich, but then also conversely, aesthetically, it was thought of as very fascist, as fortresses meant to keep people out. And a lot of times, inside they became the labyrinth mazes.

JP:

But I feel like Goldberg alleviated some of that. With his clover, quatrefoil shape, and those arches that come down to the pinnacle point and the cantilever design. I think it is in some ways floral, or has its roots in a natural form to move it away from being fascist or something. It’s more womblike than the hardedge brutalist structures that you would experience elsewhere.

JD:

That’s like the other brutalist building of the Chicago skyline, the Walter Netsch at UIC, the university hall skyscraper. That’s classic brutalism. The more I’ve looked into it, the more Goldberg is able to perfect the goals of the movement itself. He is able to make it this welcoming, inviting space without abandoning the ideals of the material.

DF:

A conversation about structural ethics, to me, recalls a lot of questions that have come up while discussing your piece about preservationism. I know that you outspokenly don’t want it to be a preservationist piece which necessitates defining what preservationism is at a point when we are rethinking archives, we are rethinking the way things are preserved in the art world.

We were talking a little bit earlier about the building’s destruction, and the ethic behind it. You said something about how in order to save the building it would have to be repurposed, not only at a great cost, but also in a way that would potentially compromise a lot of these structural ethics that we have been discussing now that went into the design of the building. To me, that really recalls a similar conversation in the 60s and 70s about site-specificity during the rise of architectural sculpture. The most obvious example of which is Tilted Arc, where moving it or changing it would compromise the entire meaning of the piece.

And so, I wonder about that as a history. My natural inclination is to sympathize with preserving the building but I also sympathize with the “to move is to destroy” mentality of site-specific sculpture. So I wonder if your piece sits somewhere in a middle ground of, not preserving the building or memorializing the building, but preserving a set of concepts that it might stand for about the visuality of inside and outside. I wonder if your piece is a different kind of preservation, one that may speak to more contemporary forms of archiving in art that is grounded in creating new content, as opposed to maintaining old content or old concepts. I wonder what you think of that.

JP:

In terms of preservation with the piece, I feel like my natural inclination is also to side with preservation, but that’s some feeling that we all inherently have. We want to connect with loss, because it feels good in its own way, so to fight for something is naturally something we do as human beings. But in terms of what is there to preserve in Prentice, and what happens when you preserve the building, it can no longer function in the way it was intended to function. I think that did relate to why it was lost, but ultimately it still does come down to money and power, and who is in control and what their objectives are. Prentice didn’t fit into the ultimate objectives.

But with my piece, I feel like I have intentionally done wrong towards the standard of preservation by presenting the windows upturned and out of context from the way that they should be. A preservationist would try to recreate the scenario in which they were presented, or would present them as what they are in the most basic sense. I’ve tried to force them into a slightly different context, but still while doing that, keeping in mind, what were the general philosophies behind the structures and building: the panopticon, the line of sight, the use of the oval and why the oval. Those sorts of things I think I have highlighted through my misrepresentation of the windows.

DF:

Yeah, the oval is so interesting to me just as a sculptural problem. And I’ve always seen an important part of the authorship on your part in this piece is adapting the oval in a way that makes use of its visual qualities, but in order to do that you’ve set up a problem of placing them at an impossible angle, and maybe that is mentally very simple; it’s just a 40 degree or so shift. But as a sculptural adaptation, I’ve always seen that as preserving a quality without preserving the very specific, culturally important building which I just feel is altogether a different kind of preservation that’s not at the core of what this is as a sculpture.

JP:

Also, I feel like an object can be lost by just being an artifact, to some degree. By activating the windows in a different way there is a new opportunity to produce a relationship to the philosophy behind the way Bertrand Goldberg produced the building, but also conversely, an opportunity to present the windows as simply formal objects that the viewer can interact with on a different level without knowing what that history is. And ultimately I think that’s the most interesting territory for me, with them: the confrontation of the individual who has an extreme attachment to Prentice, standing next to the other individual who says, “Wow this is a really beautiful, formal sculpture.” They’re specific objects in a Juddian sense. Having those two forces meet each other in the presence of the window, the window informs that conversation, where one will relate his specific knowledge of a specific history, and the other one will relate his unbiased knowledge of the formal experience of the object itself.

JD:

We talked earlier about moving from the general to the specific, but the windows hold this interstice between the two.

JP:

Absolutely

JD:

It’s not or, but and/or.

JP:

I think they are very specific objects in their design, but a window is a general object.

DF:

Yeah, that’s true.

JP:

Since they’re oval we have the connotations of the oval, the connotations of the glass. The scale is on a human scale; the window is just big enough to engulf you as a person, so it becomes womblike on its own, and that both relates to the philosophy of Bertrand Goldberg, but also relates to the person who doesn’t have any knowledge of the history of the object itself, you know?

JD:

Yes.

JP:

This is really the topic of conversation for me right now: “The piece.”  I feel like the windows, if I might speak about them now, are individuals who have a life liberated from the life that they had within the building.  They have this implied memory of what their life was in the building that they actually don’t posses because they are inanimate objects, but we bring that to them because we as living beings remember these sort of things. They have that.

JD:

Which is part of the inherent part of the built environment. That it is always part of something that is lived in, which reminds me of Louis Kahn who’s a Beaux-Arts architect that’s huge here in Philly. Just a total hard on for Louis Kahn, but he had this quote where he kind of differentiated architecture from modern art, where he said, “Modern art can choose any color or canvas that it wants but for the building, the sky will always be blue and grass will always be green,” that you really cant separate them from its function, its lived function, that it is something people will have to be in.  And so, even more different from lets say a found object from any where, its like an architectural found object already comes with this lived connotation that you bring to it.

JP:

Yeah, absolutely.  So now with the demolition of the building they have in a sense been liberated from the confines that they were existing before. So now, I kind of feel like it would be to do them a disfavor to lock them into another permanent configuration, because than all I am doing is switching contexts rather than allowing them to speak for what they are in a material sense and in a historical sense and a phenomenological sense.  It is now important for me that the piece is really about the conversations that are happening in relation to them, how they interact or intentionally conflict with the environment that they are apart of.  You know, these sorts of things are the possibility that the windows are now presenting, but then they are always bringing their historicity, their specific nature.  They are from a specific place and that way we interact with a space, and how that space was designed around how people were supposed to interact within that space.  I think it is bringing that into the context of where it is shown. And that I feel like I can’t lock it into one discrete object. There are three windows that, as a group, produce an effect and a conversation. It’s really about that occurrence to me more than it is about, “what is their physical visual form?”

DF:

Yeah what I liked about the piece in our show is that they really emphasized, if you strip away all of the historical baggage that it has but also if you strip away all of the historical baggage that the Ballroom has, they became two very different intra-architectural systems that were clashing.  I think that the tilt has a lot to do with that; just putting a much more distorted plane within another that cut through it.  I think that the way the armature functioned behind it created a feeling of this side or the other in a way that is reminiscent of inside and outside. The architectural theorist Pauline Von Bonsdorff talked a lot about how architecture is not a separation from the outside world which is chaotic and unstructured but rather, it’s an articulation between culture and that.  I think that has a lot to do with this Louis Kahn quote that you were bringing up, Joshua, about how the outer conditions of human life is always going to be a part of the palette of architecture. I think that that is kind of what this piece is doing.  And then when you mix specificity into it, historical specificity of not only the Prentice Women’s Hospital, but also a place like say the Ballroom, I think that only complicates that intra-architectural clash that this piece is driven by.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s