Monday, February 20, 2012

Attributing Modernism

Antonin Raymond, Summer House at Karuizawa, South and East Facades, Nagano Prefecture, Japan (1933) (Source: Kurt Helfrich and William Whittaker, eds. Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noémi Raymond (New York: Princeton Architectural Press), 155)

The idea of copying necessarily invokes problems of authorship. Before a quick-minded reader evokes Benjamin Franklin’s calls to “Imitate Jesus and Socrates”[1] or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s invective that the “imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity,”[2]  or even before any heart-wrenching calls that decry the loss of the “aura” in the face of rampant “mechanical reproduction” or “technical reproducibility”[3] can be made, I only offer the idea that a copy presupposes an author. There are two ways in which this can happen. On the one hand, there is the unauthorized copy, a canvas, novel, or piece of music that is actionable because it was not sanctioned by the original’s author. On the other hand, there is the authorized copy, the so-called “derivative work”[4] that merits its own recognition though it incorporates another author’s work. An example of this would be a translation of a foreign-language novel, or a scholar’s annotations to a previous work. Thus a copy also invokes a chronological lockstep: it summons or copies a piece of art that existed before. The actionable counterfeit, fake, or simulacra cannot exist without a previous source.

Copyright, patent, and trademark laws provide a series of useful cultural barometers that shed further light on authorship. These statutes contain some very important boilerplate language defining the deceptively simple question: what is copyrightable? The United States Copyright Acts of 1909 and 1976 maintain a tried and true formulation and affirm that a copyrightable work is an “original work of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”[5] All the non-conjunction words in that definition have been the subject of countless litigations and exegeses in American and international jurisprudential circles. But for our purposes, the words “original” and “authorship” are of greatest importance. This is because though the author may be able to copyright an “original” work, he or she can also assign the right of that work to a third party. Should an author decide to copyright a derivative work, however, then he or she must recognize the copyrighted material that inspired the new material. This is done through attribution; quite literally, through quoting and giving cognizance to someone else’s work.[6]

A specific instance from Czech-American architect Antonin Raymond’s career in Japan may shed some important light on the architectural significance of attribution. Raymond’s Summer House and Studio in Karuizawa, Japan (1933), is one of the architect’s most well-known and critical successes. Built on a mountain retreat near the Karuizawa Golf Course, the house is nestled between a series of ponds and grassy berms. The house plan reveals a distinct emphasis on observing these landscapes. By ignoring the biaxial plan common to regional Japanese architecture, and by subsequently adopting a distinct asymmetrical scheme inherited from Weimar modernism, Raymond’s plan allows the house to take in different views of the landscape. The house also is not perpendicular to the plot of land, a strategy that allows for a maximized view of the surroundings.

The desired effect, if not of a house that blends into its immediate surroundings, is then of a project that at least indexes the region via a carefully deployed articulation of material flourishes and tectonic strategies. Raymond used chestnut logs for the supporting structure as well as cedar for other structural elements as well as siding and other furnishings. The house’s metal roof is covered with branches of Japanese larch, which not only protect the roof from heat, but also deaden the sound of frequent summer rains. The house’s interior provides more evidence of what Fritz Neumeyer calls a “viewing machine,” a “set of frames and sequential spaces” that emphasize the role of the observer.[7] The house circulation patterns center around a main living room and fireplace, an area opening up into double-height spaces and allowing an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside.

Yet the elision between inside and outside is only one of a set of binary oppositions that characterize Raymond’s project. Although the building’s foundations are of poured concrete, they also feature the use of local woods and other strategies that “mask” an otherwise European building into the rolling, grassy berms of Nagano prefecture. At a glance, the regional vestments literally dressing the Karuizawa house exemplify Raymond’s “initial idea of an architecture unified with its regional landscape and culture … an ideal that transcended the context of an individual country” yet was “deeply connected to these settings.”[8] In the end, this combination of disparate elements and inspirations, combined in a single, small-scale domestic project, emphasized Raymond’s “self-conscious understanding and appreciation of these materials to compose the poetics of ‘country life’ and ideals of the ‘natural’ and the ‘country.’”[9]

(Top) Le Corbusier, drawings of Mattias Errázuris House (1929-1930) (Source: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Oeuvre Complète de 1929-1934, Willy Boesiger, ed. (Zurich: Les Editions d’Architectures, 1964 [7th ed.]), 48.
(Bottom) Raymond’s Karuizawa House, as it appeared in Le Corbusier’s Oeuvre Complete (Source: Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Oeuvre Complète de 1929-1934, 52)

Except for material flourishes, such concerns were not far from Le Corbusier’s mind when he was busy conceptualizing the Mattias Errázuris house (1929-1930). He designed the project for a coastal resort in Zapallar, Chile, a small town on nestled between the tall escarpments of the Andes Mountains, and the ultramarine hues of the Pacific Ocean. Like Raymond, Le Corbusier sought to create circulation spaces that allowed the residents to partake in these stunning landscapes. Yet the similarities between these two projects do not end there. A comparison between one of Le Corbusier’s renderings of the Errázuris House and the interior spaces of Raymond’s Karuizawa House and Studio will reveal some uncanny similarities. In addition to a double-height ceiling, both featured circulation ramps (reminiscent of the promenade ramps from the Villa Savoye) and a distinct preference for local materials. The floors of the Errázuris House were also of local woods, and a series of sparse cross-hatching on the walls suggest the use of local stone.

And when Raymond published photographs of the Karuizawa House in a November 1935 issue of Architectural Forum, Le Corbusier noticed. A review of Raymond’s 1935 monograph, Antonin Raymond: His Work in Japan, 1920-1935 in the same issue criticized the Karuizawa House for its less-than-subtle nod to the Errázuris House. The negative criticism both stung and bewildered Raymond. In a letter to the editor of Architectural Forum, he countered, “I feel … that you lay too much stress on the question of the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright and Corbusier on my work at the expense of those vital qualities which make it valuable. Even to speak of the Japanese influence in my work is to see the truth only from a superficial angle. There is a strong Japanese influence in my work, but it is one of spirit and not of form … Should we be too afraid of precedent or influence we could do nothing at all.  It does not matter from where we take anything but what we do with it.”[10] Le Corbusier was equally astonished at the Karuizawa House, so much so that (in addition to accusing Raymond of plagiarism) he was inclined to feature a picture of Raymond’s work along side his own in the third edition of the Oeuvre Complete (1935). Le Corbusier makes note of this in a May 1935 letter to Raymond, written shortly before the two architects resolved their differences:
Dear Sir:  
I have received your letter of April 8th, which I found upon my return from a trip abroad. 
I am pleased to hear from you. Please be assured that there is no bitterness between us, but — as you yourself say — you made a slight mistake, that is, you neglected to send me a note when you published the images of your Tokyo house, which is very pretty by the way. I do not have time to read the journals that I receive; I just laid eyes on the photographs, and since I have rather quick reactions – and since in addition, I was at that very moment in the process of dictating the captions for the book published by Boesiger – I seized that opportunity and introduced a little dig that would wake up the book’s readers. Incidentally, my note was not mean; on the contrary, it praises Japan for its technical achievements and you for the taste of your intervention. I would even go further, that is, you give such a pretty interpretation of my idea that page 52 of the Boesiger book is perhaps the prettiest of the whole volume. I will even extend my compliment further: if I allow all journals to publish my works, it is not in order for my ideas to remain buried in people’s drawers. On the contrary, it is for them to be of some use. Yet my designs are often copied very badly, very unskillfully, or very stupidly. This is where my compliment comes in: your interpretation of my drawings is quite witty, and this is a sincere compliment. I hope it will please you.
In any case, please be assured, dear Mr. Raymond, that I bear no grudges and am quite incapable of doing so. You may use as you like the note I am writing to you, for the end of your letter appears to call for some involvement on my part that I do not fully understand. It is now my turn to give you license to use the present letter in whatever manner will appear most pleasant to you.
Le Corbusier [11] 
One of the most remarkable things about this incident is Raymond’s and Le Corbusier’s casual attitude towards issues of authorship and plagiarism. Although Raymond’s attitude is a distant echo of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s claim that copying is unavoidable, he not only admits the Corbusian influence, but casts that issue aside in favor of the more pertinent issue of “spirit” and “form.” Le Corbusier also recognizes potential plagiarism, but in a brilliant masterstroke, he still wins by dint of his larger-than-life personality. The ability to print a small version of the Karuiazawa house along the Maison Errázzuris is a powerful gesture indeed: in lieu of being slighted by an upstart follower or devotee, Le Corbusier is still able convey the power of his creative spark and the breadth of his influence. Attribution, therefore, could be conceived as a measure of power and influence.

Though the architects summarily disposed of the issue of authorship and plagiarism, at least the subject came up. Litigation surrounding the copyrighting and patenting of modernist design continues to this day. But in the early 20th century, such adversarial lawyering did deal with some pertinent issues of the time, such as original versus copy, or form versus process.[12] Architects and designers in the 20th century tended to be a savvy lot, especially in legal and business matters. As a matter of fact, both Antonin Raymond and Konrad Wachsmann made prolonged efforts to patent their designs.[13]

Raymond, “Window Construction” U.S. Patent No. 2,282,885 (Filed June 23, 1939)

Antonin Raymond’s patents provide additional guidance on issues of attribution. On June 23, 1939, Raymond submitted a patent application for a “Window Construction," a type of window that allowed for “horizontal-moveable” sashes.[14] The patent abstract, in addition to stating why the invention is significant, states that the horizontal sash is a new type of architectural element that improves on window-making techniques.[15] This patent application is significant because it is in stark contradiction to his cavalier handling of the Errázuris house. Whereas Raymond seemed naïve in his claims that too much significance was made of the Karuizawa House’s overt Corbusian influences, here, he has not only found a specific architectural detail, but has also located one that is patentable and profitable.[16]

Raymond, Architectural Details (Tokyo: Kokusai Kenchiku Kyôtai, 1938)

It is significant that Raymond’s métier was to exacerbate a tension between the grand project of incorporating Japanese “spirit” and “form” into his designs and the didactic enumeration of building elements. The latter is especially poignant as it is the subject of Architectural Details, a book he co-authored with his wife Noémi in 1938. Consisting of 250 photographs and 530 measured drawings, Raymond considered the book as a vital contribution to modern architecture, consisting not of “abstract phrases, but also of actual work considered.”[17] Architectural Details also operated on the level of polemic: the layout of the book emphasized how traditional Japanese architectural elements could be utilized in modern architecture. Whereas the right-hand page contained Raymond’s measured drawings of roof, ceiling, and window details, the left-hand photographs showed such elements being used in contemporary buildings (some of which, like the Tokyo Golf Club House of 1931-1932, contained such details). It is worth noting, for instance, how pages 15 and 16 of Architectural Details not only show drawings of “horizontally-moveable” sashes, but also suggests that such sashes and window units are commonly used in the wood-sliding windows and shoji (sliding doors) in traditional Japanese construction.

Revere Brass and Copper Advertisement featuring Raymond’s Louis Stone House, The Saturday Evening Post (7 August 1943) (Source: Helfrich and Whitaker, eds., Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noémi Raymond, 54).

The enumeration of these architectural “details” and their subsequent economic potential and attribution potential becomes evident in an 1943 magazine advertisement for Revere Brass and Copper featuring Raymond’s Louis Stone House (1939), also known as the “tri-level” house. Published in The Saturday Evening Post, the advertisement is typical of those from the era. Under a black-and-white watercolor wash of the Louis Stone House is a heading stating “A Hillside Built this House: Copper and Brass Keep it Snug and Trim.” Beneath that is an extended quotation from Raymond that also suggests a binary opposition between larger design philosophies and the minutiae of everyday construction: in addition to abating “stiffness,” “falseness,” and “fussiness,” the ad makes a special note of copper used in roof-flashing and window screens. The ad also features a small profile of Raymond, who implores the reader, “I urge you to send to Revere for a free booklet with complete plans, photographs, and information. It may inspire you to build a better house!”[18]

The idea that an architect would willingly send off plans and drawings to anyone seems ridiculous at first. And although it is not known whether anyone took up Raymond’s claim or took the ad seriously, it was one of several ads promoting future (i.e. postwar) uses of copper products. The Revere Copper and Brass Company also enlisted the services of other architects and designers, including R. Buckminster Fuller, Norman Bel Geddes, Louis Kahn, Walter Dorwin Teague, and William Wurster.[19] It is worth noting how Raymond and others were willing to lend their name to a series of print commercials — less than a decade earlier, criticisms of Raymond’s Karuizawa House’s summarily invoked the names “Wright” and “Corbusier.”[20] It is reasonable to believe that the two masters would never lend their plans and drawings to anyone requesting them.

(Top) Konrad Wachsmann, “Building Construction” U.S. Patent No. 2,491,882 (Filed June 22, 1945); (Bottom)  Raymond, “Airplane Hangar” U.S. Patent No. 2,590,464 (Filed March 2, 1946)

A cursory examination of some postwar transactions show a similar willingness to deal with corporate interests. Both Antonin Raymond and Konrad Wachsmann were busy securing patents for airplane hangars and trying to solicit bids from the United States Army Air Force. On June 22, 1945, Wachsmann filed a patent for his “Building Construction,” the famous space frame he developed for the United States Air Force. The application states that the frame “relates to building construction and is more especially concerned with portable structural wall units primarily designed for buildings of huge proportions, as for instance for hangars capable of housing dozens or hundreds of large planes, but applicable also to warehouses, auditoriums and other types of building constructions.”[21]  Wachsmann did not, however, reserve all the rights to the space patent: he assigned one-fourth interests each to Albert and Charles Wohlstetter.[22] Likewise, on March 2, 1946, Antonin Raymond filed a patent for an “Airplane Hangar,” an invention that “relates generally to buildings and more particularly to airplane hangars.”[23] Raymond assigned all interests in his hangar to the National Steel Corporation of Delaware.[24] And though Wachsmann only assigned one-half of his interests to the Wohlstetters, he and Walter Gropius did assign all their legal interest in their packaged home system to The General Panel Corporation.[25]

Konrad Wachsmann and Walter Gropius, “Building Structure” U.S. Patent 2,421,305 (Filed August 10, 1945)

Attribution has a decidedly political function as well. The very instances where Raymond and Wachsmann assigned their interests and their name to particular interests were all in service of the war effort.[26] But a look at one last patent reveals the true nature of this type of attribution. On November 1, 1943, Harvard chemist Louis F. Fieser filed an application for “Incendiary Gels,” his contribution to the war effort that would eventually be known as “napalm.”[27] The patent abstract states that the novelty of Fieser’s invention lies in “the production of new and improved gelled hydrocarbon fuels and gelling agents therefore, for use in incendiary munitions of both the burster and tail-ejector types, in flame throwers, in hand grenades, in fire starters and generally, in any incendiary munition which utilizes a combustible liquid or low-melting solid or gelled fuel.”[28] The heading to the patent abstract not only states that Fieser is the “assignor to the United States of America as represented by the Secretary of War,” but the opening paragraph indicates “The invention described herein may be manufactured and used by or for the Government for governmental purposes without the payment to me of any royalty thereon.”[29] The sentence is a boilerplate clause that requires inventors to assign their interests to the United States Government particularly for matters of national security of military intelligence.[30] Although Fieser never obtained any royalty for his patents, his application is often quoted for applications concerning similar military technologies. For him, as well as for Antonin Raymond and Konrad Wachsmann, intellectual property law provided a vehicle that recognized their status as authors or inventors.

The above documents reveal some tried and true assumptions about authors and their artistic products. First of all, the correspondence, patent abstracts, as well as magazine advertisements presuppose not only the existence of an artistic work or invention that merits legal protection, but highlight that such work can be attributable to an author or inventor. This means that there are also certain circumstances when a person can suspend legal protection for a work of authorship or invention. For example, an architect can assign rights in a design drawing or building process to a third party such as the United States Government.

But the parrying between Antonin Raymond and Le Corbusier over the Karuizawa House, as well as Raymond’s subsequent involvement with Revere Brass and Copper provide a useful conundrum. In both of these circumstances, an architect is fast and loose with the idea of authorship. As Le Corbusier freely lets Raymond use his letters and drawings regarding the Maison Errázuris, Raymond seems all too willing to let people have drawings of his Louis Stone house. The idea here seems to be one of comfort and power: even if Raymond were to publish and republish drawings of the Karuizawa House as well as the Maison Errázuris, or if he were to send off thousands of copies of the Louis Stone house to a Saturday Evening Post audience, no one’s reputation as an architect would ever be tarnished. Each would still be recognized as the designers of their individual houses, and this despite the fact the architects have evaded some typical legal issues.

[Author's note: This article is based on research completed at the Yale School of Architecture from 2005 to 2007, as well as on papers presented at the University of Virginia in September 2006 and Harvard University in February 2007. This article was also inspired by my MED thesis, completed in May 2007, titled Built to Destroy: Erich Mendelsohn’s, Konrad Wachsmann’s, and Antonin Raymond’s “Typical German and Japanese Test Structures at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. An earlier version of this article appeared in Pidgin 10 (2011)]



[1] Benjamin Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Leonard W. Larabee, et al., ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), 149.
[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson and Stephen Emerson Whicher, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson: an Organic Anthology (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 113. On the other hand, Emerson’s “Quotation and Originality” provides a different point of view. There, Emerson writes, “We prize books, and they prize them most who are themselves wise. Our debt to tradition through reading and conversation is so massive, our protest or private addition so rare and insignificant, — and this commonly on the ground of other reading or hearing, — that, in a large sense, one would say there is no pure originality. All minds quote. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. We quote not only books and proverbs, but arts, sciences, religion, customs, and laws; nay, we quote temples and houses, tables and chairs by imitation.” See “Quotation and Originality” in Letters and Social Aims (J.R. Osgood, 1876): 158.
[3] A further source of ambiguity is evident in the different translations for Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1936 essay. The most oft-quoted is the Harry Zohn version, known to generations of architecture students as “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” A more correct translation of the title (“Das Kunstwerk im Zeitaler siener technischen Reproduzierbarkeit”) is provided in Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings’ volume of Benjamin’s selected writings. There, the essay is titled “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility.”
[4] The United States Code defines a “derivative work” as “a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a ‘derivative work’.” 17 U.S.C. §101.
[5] The Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. §102(a) indicates that “Copyright protection subsists … in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device.”
[6] See 17 U.S.C. §106(a)(1)(B), et seq.
[7] Fritz Neumeyer, “A World in Itself: Architecture and Technology” in Detlef Mertins, ed. The Presence of Mies (New York: Princeton, 1994), 78.
[8] Ken Tadashi Oshima, Constructed Natures of Modern Architecture in Japan 1920-1940: Yamada Mamoru, Horiguchi Sutemi, and Antonin Raymond, PhD dissertation, Columbia University (2003), 120.
[9] Ibid., p. 209.
[10] Antonin Raymond, “Letter to the Editor,” Architectural Forum 63 (November 1935), 4, quoted in Kurt G.F. Helfrich and Mari Sakamoto Nakahara, “Rediscovering Antonin and Noémi Raymond,” introduction to Kurt G.F. Helfrich and William Whitaker, eds. Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noémi Raymond (New York: Princeton, 2006), 26.

[11] Le Corbusier to Antonin Raymond (Paris, 7 May 1935) in Helfrich and Whitaker, eds. Crafting a Modern World, 332.
[12] A famous example of this are the famous “Chair” lawsuits: the first was a 1929 claim by Hungarian furniture impresario Anton Lorenz against the international furniture company Gebrüder Thonet Aktiengesellschaft (AG); the second, a 1936 claim by Mauser Kommaditgesellschaft (KG) against Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In the first lawsuit, the form of a cantilevered chair was considered evidence of authorship. In the second action, Mies’s attorneys won by claiming that the industrial processes used to manufacture a particular chair were copyrightable and patentable. For a good discussion of the significance of form in furniture design, see Marcel Breuer,, “Metal Furniture and Modern Spatiality” (1928), in Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg, eds. The Weimar Republic Sourcebook (Berkeley: University of California, 1994). For a more detailed discussion of these two lawsuits and their significance, see Otakar Macel, “Avant-Garde Design and the Law: Litigation over the Cantilever Chair,” Journal of Design History Vol. 3, No. 2/3 (1990), 125-143.
[13] In the United States, patent law was established “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries,” U.S. Constitution, Art. I, §8(8) (1796). As opposed to legal frameworks in other countries, patent law in the United States is based on a “first to invent” as opposed to “first to file” system.  In other words, patent protection extends to first-in-time inventions. In the United States, a patent is a right to exclude others from making, selling, offering for sale an inventor’s device. The right to obtain a patent belongs to “Whoever invents or discovers any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof” 35 U.S.C. §101. The term “process” is defined as an “art or method, and includes a new use of a known process, machine, manufacture, composition of matter, or material” 35 U.S.C. §100(b).
[14] U.S. Patent No. 2,282,885 (June 23, 1939).
[15] Ibid. “It is well-known to architects and other skilled in the design and construction of buildings that window constructions in which the sashes are horizontally-moveable offer certain and considerable advantages over the usual vertically-moveable arrangements, and many constructions embodying horizontally-moveable sashes have been proposed. It is significant, however, that none of these proposed structures have been adopted, in spite of the known advantages of the horizontally-moveable sashes, the reason being that no practical construction, which may be simply installed and operated, has yet been proposed.”
[16] Ibid.
[17] Antonin and Noémi Raymond, “Preface” in Architectural Details (Tokyo: Kokusai Kenchiku Kyôtai, 1938) quoted in Helfrich, “Antonin Raymond in America, 1938-1949” in Helfrich and Whitaker, eds. Crafting a Modern World, 47.
[18] Ibid., p. 54.
[19] Each completed a pamphlet to be distributed by Revere: in addition to Raymond writing "A Hillside Built This Home for Revere," other titles in the series (all from 1943) included "Better Homes for Lower Incomes" (Buckminster Fuller), "Tomorrow’s Homes for the Many" (Bel Geddes), "You and Your Neighborhood" (Kahn), "New Homes for Better Living" (Teague), and "A Flexible House for Happier Living" (Wurster). Ibid.
[20] It is likely that if Raymond ever sent away any of his drawings, they would have a copyright notice.
[21] U.S. Patent No. 2,491,882 (June 22, 1945).
[22] Ibid. Albert Wohlstetter was a consultant and senior strategist for the RAND Corporation from 1951 to 1963 and is known today for his theories on nuclear proliferation and mutually-assured destruction. He is also known as a seminal figure in the neoconservative movement. For more about Wohlstetter and his affiliation with design circles as well as his dealings with Meyer Schapiro, see Pamela M. Lee, "Aesthetic Strategist: Albert Wohlstetter, the Cold War, and a Theory of Mid-Century Modernism" October No. 138 (Fall, 2011), 15-36
[23] U.S. Patent No. 2,590,464 (March 2, 1946).
[24] Ibid.
[25] U.S. Patent No. 2,355,192 (May 30, 1942). The principal reason for this was to shield both Wachsmann and Gropius from any personal legal or pecuniary liabilities incurred by the General Panel Corporation. The assigning of all interests to a corporation or business association is fairly commonplace for these reasons. For more about Wachsmann’s and Gropius’ Packaged House System, see Wachsmann, The Turning Point of Building: Structure and Design (New York: Reinhold, 1961 (translation of Wendepunkt in Bauen [Wiesbaden: Krausskopf Verlag, 1959) and Michael Tower, “The Packaged House System (1941-1952)” Perspecta 34 (2003), 20-27.
[26] In 1943, along with Erich Mendelsohn, Raymond and Wachsmann were both employed by the Standard Oil Development Company and the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service to design “Typical German and Japanese Structures” at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah to test the efficacy of the brand-new AN-M69-X napalm incendiary bomb. For more on this project, see Enrique Ramirez, “Fata Morgana” Thresholds No. 33 Form(alisms) (July 2008), and “Erich Mendelsohn at War” Perspecta 41: Grand Tour (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2008), 83-91. I have also written about this project, albeit in a more interpretative manner in “A Sphinx in Utah’s Desert” <> and “An Ithaca of Sorts” <>.
[27] For a brief overview of Fieser’s involvement, see Ramirez, “The Harvard Candle” <>.
[28] U.S. Patent No. 2,606,107 (November 1, 1943).
[29] Ibid.
[30] The statutory language enabling this type of assignment is as follows: “Applications for patent, patents, or any interest therein, shall be assignable in law by an instrument in writing. The applicant, patentee, or his assigns or legal representatives may in like manner grant and convey an exclusive right under his application for patent, or patents, to the whole or any specified part of the United States. A certificate of acknowledgment under the hand and official seal of a person authorized to administer oaths within the United States, or, in a foreign country, of a diplomatic or consular officer of the United States or an officer authorized to administer oaths whose authority is proved by a certificate of a diplomatic or consular officer of the United States, or apostille of an official designated by a foreign country which, by treaty or convention, accords like effect to apostilles of designated officials in the United States, shall be prima facie evidence of the execution of an assignment, grant or conveyance of a patent or application for patent” 35 U.S.C. § 261. Other patents that borrow from Fieser’s application offer similar language. See John A. Southern, Lloyd J. Roth, Francis J. Licata, and Joseph Cunder, “Fuel Compositions and Their Preparation” U.S. Patent No. 2,570,990 (April 26, 1944) and Jerome Goldenson and Leonard Cohen, “Thickener for Hydrocarbon Fuels” U.S. Patent No. 2,769,697 (April 29. 1953).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Aerodynamic Lightness of Being

Louis-Pierre Mouillard (1834-1897), Nile Vulture (Otogyps auricularis), from L’Empire de l’air (1881)

The year is 1881. Convalescing in Alexandria, sketching images of Nile Vultures gliding in the sweltering Mediterranean skies, the French ornithologist and engineer Louis-Pierre Mouillard writes of an air teeming with life. Appearing early on in his influential treatise on bird flight, L’Empire de l’Air, Mouillard’s powerful, sublime description of the air casts a prophetic eye to the future: “O! Blind Humanity! open thine eyes and thou shalt see millions of birds and myriads of insects cleaving the atmosphere. All these creatures are whirling through the air without the slightest float; many of them are gliding therein, without losing height, hour after hour, on pulseless wings without fatigue; and after beholding this demonstration given by the source of all knowledge, thou wilt acknowledge that Aviation is the path to be followed.” [1] Here, then, is a plea to view the world differently. It is a new sensibility that does more than call attention to the changing air; it asks us to look at the numerous denizens of the air as something altogether different. This is because for Mouillard, these are not birds or insects. They are airplanes.

In Mouillard’s world, these creatures maneuver easily through the air thanks to their nearly weightless bodies. This was the predominant view for centuries. Even that most dedicated chronicler and student of animal flight, Étienne-Jules Marey acknowledged how those before him thought that insects and birds were able to “float” in the sky because of air-filled sacs that made them no different than balloons. Marey and his contemporaries looked to the flight mechanisms of birds and insects as models for human-powered, heavier-than-air flight. And during its initial moments, heavier-than-air flight was only slightly heavier than air. This was the case with the earliest airplanes: delicate, cumbersome assemblages of cloth, wood, and wire that strained to escape the surface of the earth only to fly slowly, elegantly, and effortlessly on currents of air. This was not a common sentiment, however. Franz Kafka referred to the various machines lined up like flying mantises at the 1909 Brescia Air Show as “suspicious little wooden contraptions.” [2] For the budding modernist, aircraft were no different than Gregor Samsa, the scarab-like tragic figure from The Metamorphosis: insects with uncontrollable appendages that were “continually fluttering about.” [3]

Samsa’s fantastical predicament moored him to some very real concerns. And despite Kafka’s plodding verse, we can think of another modernity that follows Nietzsche’s clarion call to “kill the Spirit of Heaviness.” [4] Here, instances like F.T. Marinetti’s descriptions of pilots, who upon returning to earth, leave their machines “with an elastic ultralight leap,” [5] or Le Corbusier’s observation that airplanes are a “sign of the new times” advancing forward “in a winged flurry,” [6] tell of a modernism imbued with a lightness. It is a physical and metaphysical lightness. An aerodynamic lightness.

As stated by James A.H. Murray in the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (1858), “Aerodynamics [is the] branch of pneumatics which treats of air and other gases in motion, and of their mechanical efforts.” [7] Murray’s definition is based on an earlier entry from the Popular Encyclopedia of 1837: “Aerodynamics; a branch of aerology, or the higher mechanics, which treats the powers and motion of elastic fluids.” [8] Though these definitions speak more of laboratories and experimental chambers, consider how Siegfried Giedion, that most stalwart promoter of architectural modernism, puts forward the laboratory as a metaphor for the creation of new architecture. Using ferroconcrete construction as an example, Giedion makes much of how concrete is not only a “laboratory product,” but also made in a laboratory. [9] This language is more than metaphorical, as demonstrated when he places new advances in iron construction on an aerodynamic footing:
Instead of the rigid balance of support and load, iron demands a more complex, more fluid balance of forces. Through the condensation of the material to a few points, a creation of the airspace, des combinations aériennes that Octave Mirabeau recognized already in 1889. This sensation of being enveloped by a floating airspace while walking through tall structures (Eiffel Tower) advanced the concept of flight before it had been realized and stimulated the formation of the new architecture. [10]
Giedion’s reference to Eiffel Tower is not accidental. Since its construction for the 1889 Exposition Universelle and until the early 20th century, Gustave Eiffel’s iconic structure was the ineluctable center of aviation in the world. In 1901, the Brazilian aviator Alberto-Santos Dumont won the Deutsch de la Meurthe prize after circling the Eiffel Tower in his No.6 Airship. Similar feats would have more lasting influences on architecture culture. Hence in Aircraft (1935), Le Corbusier writes of his early days as an apprentice in Auguste Perret’s office in 1909, sequestered in a “student’s garret on Quai St. Michel,” and hearing the noise of the Comte de Lambert’s Wright Flyer circle the Eiffel Tower. [11]

Le Corbusier’s life-long romance with flying machines is well known. And not surprisingly, Giedion would describe Le Corbusier’s own architecture in aerodynamic terms. Writing about the Cité Frugès à Pessac in Bordeaux, Giedion describes the building as something not unlike a wind tunnel: “Corbusier’s homes are neither spatial not plastic: air flows through them! Air becomes a constituent factor! Neither space nor plastic form counts, only RELATION and INTERPENETRATION!” [12] This is a description of a new kind of architecture comprised of light structures, many appearing “as thin as paper” that transform buildings into “cubes of air” and make an “immediate transition to the sky.” [13] Architecture, now aloft, seems to have taken on the qualities of the airplane.

André Devambez (1867-1944), Le seul oiseau qui vole au-dessus des nuages (The Only Bird That Flies Above the Clouds), 1910, H. 45; W. 68cm, © ADAGP, Paris-RMN (Musée d'Orsay)/Hervé Lewandowski. A reproduction of this painting would appear in L'Illustration (September 17, 1910)
Consider, for example, André Devambez’ painting of an ungainly aircraft grazing the clouds high above Paris for the September 17, 1910 issue of L’Illustration. The machine — an Antoinette V monoplane — was one of the most celebrated aircraft in early twentieth century French aviation. Designed by the engineer and inventor Léon Levavasseur, Antoinette aircraft were lightweight machines that were as pleasing to the eye as they were to fly. One reason for this was that Levavasseur, who began his career as an engine designer for speedboats, created a lightweight, aluminum-cast, gasoline-injection engine with a high power-to-weight ratio for all his aircraft. His engines powered some of the most important aircraft of its day: Farmans, Blériots, Esnault-Pelteries. Not wonder, then, that Devambez portrays the Antoinette as a bold, graceful, dragonfly-like machine, freed from its earthly shackles, hovering lightly above a bank of cumulus clouds. Like others, he would have known that French aviator Hubert Latham prized the machine precisely for these characteristics. A dashing figure known as “The Storm King,” Latham set multiple records in Antoinette aircraft. And despite two failed attempts to cross the English Channel, Latham and his Antoinette were a familiar presence in the skies of cities like Paris and Berlin.

(Top and Bottom) From A. Cléry, “L’Aéroplane ‘Antoinette V’” L’Aerophile: revue technique et pratique des locomotions aériennes (Jan. 1, 1909)

(Top) Wing assembly for Antoinette V, from A. Cléry, “L’Aéroplane ‘Antoinette V’” L’Aerophile: revue technique et pratique des locomotions aériennes (Jan. 1, 1909); (Bottom) Advertisement showing Levavasseur’s lightweight Antoinette engine, from L’Aerophile (Jan. 1, 1909)

In January 1909, the French aviation impresario Georges Besançon published a lengthy article about the Antoinette V in L’Aerophile, the Aéro-Club de France’s monthly journal. The article celebrated many of the airplane’s innovations, and yet focused especially on its construction. Images and drawings from the article show the wings and fuselages before the application of painted and lacquered fabric as skeins of wooden spars joined with aluminum gussets—these give the aircraft a fragile, skeletal appearance. The author, A. Cléry, reminds readers how the Antoinette’s wings and fuselage are made from combinations of triangles and pyramids—a construction technique that not only accommodates traction and compression, but also does so with a minimum amount of materials. This, Cléry observes, is “the same principle of the construction of steel bridges and the Eiffel Tower. Its application to the construction of airplane wings has resulted in an absolute rigidity and strength, combined with the greatest possible lightness.” [14]

(Top) Alexander Graham Bell’s “Siamese Twin” kites, from Alexander Graham Bell, “Aërial Locomotion, With a Few Notes of Progress in the Construction of the Aërodrome,” National Geographic Magazine (Jan., 1907), 1-33; (Bottom)  Bell’s “Cygnet II,” February 25, 1909. Bulletins, from January 4, 1909 to April 12, 1909, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress, 1862-1939, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Cléry was not the only one to make a connection between Eiffel and Levavasseur. As one of L’Aerophile’s most avid readers, the American inventor Alexander Graham Bell would take a particular interest in Cléry’s article about the Antoinette V. Since 1899, Bell had been preoccupied with building kites that improved on Lawrence Hargraves’ “box” designs. He settled on kites composed of multiple cells of tetrahedral structures, a design that would increase the amount of surface area with a minimum of materials. His first kites were small, wood-and-cloth pyramids consisting of smaller tetrahedral units. And as he became more ambitious with his designs, he created large, ungainly tetrahedral space frames that had to be towed out into the open water in order to be set aloft. Of these, the largest were the “Cygnet” series, which were gigantic structures comprising of 3,393 tetrahedral cells. Tested out in the waters of Keuka Lake, near Hammondsport, New York from 1907 to 1908, the Cygnets were temperamental things. In the words of their pilot, Thomas Selfridge, the Cygnets “persistently refused to fly.” [15]

(Top and Bottom) Alexander Graham Bell’s Tower, from “Dr. Bell’s Tetrahedral Tower,” National Geographic Magazine (Oct., 1907), 672-675.

Despite the Cygnet’s perceived stubbornness, Bell found solace in Cléry’s emphasis on tetrahedral structures. Later in 1909, Bell noted how the Antoinette “seems to be constructed throughout upon the tetrahedral plan.” [16] The emphasis on “construction” should not be taken lightly, for Bell’s Cygnets were more architectural than aerodynamical. And in a series of spreads for the October 1907 issue of National Geographic Magazine, editor Gilbert M. Grosvenor depicted what would be the fullest architectural expressions of Bell’s aeronautical work. Titled “Dr. Bell’s Tetrahedral Tower,” the piece shows images of an 80-foot observation tower built in 1907 at Bell’s estate in Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia. With legs made of tetrahedral-celled trusses that intersected high above to ground to form a platform, Bell’s structure was touted for its lightness and ease of assembly. Its use of eight-pin joints to hold the frame no doubt foreshadowed similar innovations by Max Mengeringhausen, Konrad Wachsmann, or R. Buckminster Fuller. Bell’s truss system resulted in a kind of building that was light and that, echoing Giedion’s description of the Eiffel Tower, gave one the sensation of being aloft. It was an aerodynamic building in the sense that it could accommodate moving air. But it was also aerodynamic because it was a structure originally designed to fly. When we normally think of flying buildings, we immediately conjure images of architecture outfitted with streamlined forms not unlike those made memorable by Erich Mendelsohn or Norman Bel Geddes. Bell’s tetrahedral tower is radically different from these, however. As an assemblage of pipes joined into lightweight pyramids and tetrahedrons, Bell’s tower nevertheless captivates us because it is one of the few instances where we can talk of a flying machine that has truly evolved into architecture.

(An Italian version of this article appeared in September 2011 in Materia 70. Many thanks to Daria Ricchi for her beautiful translation.)



[1] Louis-Pierre Mouillard, “The Empire of The Air,” Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, Showing the Operations, Expenditures, and Conditions of the Institution to July, 1892 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1893), 398. This is an abridged translation of Mouillard, L’Empire de l’air: essai d’ornithologie appliquée a l’aviation (Paris: Masson, 1881).
[2] Franz Kafka, “Die Aeroplane in Brescia,” Bohemia (29 September 1909), quoted in Peter Demetz, The Air Show at Brescia, 1909 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 115.
[3] Kafka, "The Metamorphosis," in Joyce Crick, ed. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories (London: Oxford University Press, 2009), 82.
[4] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Of Reading and Writing,” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, R.J, Hollingdale, trans. (New York: Penguin, 2003 [1961]), 68.
[5] Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Teoria e invenzione futurista, Luciano de Maria, ed. (Milan: Mondadori, 1968), 116, quoted in Jeffrey T. Schnapp, “Propeller Talk,” Modernism/Modernity Vol 1.3 (1994), 165.
[6] Le Corbusier, Sur les 4 routes (Paris: Gallimard, 1941), 125.
[7] “aerodynamics, n.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 3d ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 10 June 2011 .
[8] John D. Anderson, Jr., A History of Aerodynamics and its Impact on Flying Machines (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 5.
[9] Sigfried Giedion, Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete, J. Duncan Berry, trans. (Los Angeles: Getty Center Publications, 1995), 150-151.
[10] Ibid., p. 102.
[11] Le Corbusier, Aircraft (London: The Studio, Ltd., 1935), 6.
[12] Giedion, Building in France, p. 169.
[13] Ibid.
[14] A. Cléry, “L’Aéroplane ‘Antoinette V’” L’Aerophile: revue technique et pratique des locomotions aériennes (Jan. 1, 1909), 7-8.
[15] Report of Flight of Cygnet II, Monday, March 2, 1908. Notes by Thomas E. Selfridge, from September 24, 1907 to July 24, 1908. “Series: Subject File, Folder: Aviation, Aerial Experiment Association vs. Meyers, 1908-1912, undated.” Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress, 1862-1939, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
[16] Bell, “The Antoinette V.” Bulletins, from January 4, 1909 to April 12, 1909, Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress, 1862-1939, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Exit Strategy

Timofey Pnin's Isometric Head (Source: ccassidy)

February, 1957. A wintry day at fictional Waindell College, somewhere in the fictional Northeastern United States. The world is at its greyest. Bare-armed campus elms, no longer adorned by leafy crenellations, offer no resistance to the freezing air. The sun carves a shallow transit against the cirrus formations: silvery, aeriform scars illuminated by a hovering pale orb in the withering light. The previous year is only recently dead, and the new year, fraught with growing pains, is just coming to terms with its own anxieties. The future, unclear, is inevitable, looming.

Atoms have just been spilt, their energy uncontrolled and dangerous. Boundaries, thought and drawn, calcify East and West. Sputnik is yet to become a wandering star. Yet even within the secluded groves of this Waindelled world, the faintest flickering of distant events prime the murmuring heart. All is not well in the world that is the University.

An imaginary professor of Russian literature has just found out, to crushing disappointment, that he has been assigned to teach a theater course in the French department. His name is Timofey Pnin. Son of an ophthamologist, survivor of "The Hitler War," sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of a failed marriage, Pnin mulls over his latest failure. Tenure was not guaranteed, but in the fantastic, cobweb-ridden corners of Pnin's mind, it was a possibility as distant, tangible, and impossible as a nebula.

Witness the exit strategy, the transition, the turning-over. Lists are made, appointments canceled or confirmed. Our elderly professor, defeated, collects his meager belongings in a small valise: tortoise-shell glasses too narrow for his crown, an omnibus volume of Sherlock Holmes stories, a fob of linen, a brilliant set of false teeth. Everything else seems like a film played backwards. Dishes are emptied of food and leap into the covert in neat, ceramic ziggurats. The sink fills and empties repeatedly, trash disappearing into the whorls and eddies of an infinite drain. Table and bed linens crumple into orthogonal forms and fly into closet drawers in spectral choreographies. These are the last days. Pnin writes to his landlord: "Dear Mr.___ : Behold the instructions for closing a bank account."

Our esteemed professor enters a small, four-door blue sedan, and takes the driveway out from his rented house through the tall trees onto a busy street. A sure, if not steady driver, he leans into the gas pedal to avoid a swerving truck. Waindellians remembered a bluish blur leaving acrid smoke and petrol in its wake. "Did I just see Pnin?" they ask, commenting on an image-like composition of bald pate, glasses, and brilliant teeth accompanied by guttural threnodies of vrooms and even more vrooms. Pnin sightings increase in frequency as the car speeds away to some unknown terminus. And he is gone.

In the wake of this noisy, smoky departure, there’s nothing. But wait: Is that a rustle of leaves? A cool breeze stirs the budding boughs. An icicle falls from a tree and shatters on the soft earth with a plink. Spring is not as far off as it seems.

(Note: A version of this article appeared in Fulcrum, the Architectural Association's student broadsheet, in May 2011)