April 2015

Dominican Motherhouse #7

About 2 years ago, I stumbled across the book Drawing to Find Out, By Michael Merrill. It was late at night and I was on Amazon.com. I can’t recall what I was looking for, but for certain it was not a book on architectural drawings. This was one of those barely linear escapades whereby I kept following Amazon’s suggestions that “Readers who bought this book also bought that book.” It’s amazing the gamut one can run abiding these recommendations. So multiple clicks along this trajectory brought me to Merrill’s book. I purchased it on a late night shopping whim.

The book documents the creative process and drawings made by architect Louis Kahn in preparation for the building of a convent. The project was called The Dominican Motherhouse and it was never built. The Nuns backed out of the endeavor before construction began and Kahn moved on to other projects. The book describes Kahn’s engagement with the Dominican Nuns and the way he and his colleagues envisioned and developed their plans for the building, which was to be built on a large tract of forested land not far from Philadelphia. The text sheds interesting light on how complex the relationship between an architect and client can be, as this relationship hits upon utility, identity, finances, aesthetics, and ego.

Two things about the book captured my interest. First, the book is beautiful and is filled with intricately detailed drawings by Kahn and his architectural colleagues. The early drawings combine qualities of primitive geometric abstraction and thoughtfully engineered doodles. Below are a couple of the drawings. I had not seen anything like them before. They struck me as being frameworks for abstract thinking with a lot of loosely constructed data embedded throughout each one.

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The second element that drew my interest was Merrill’s insightful writing on Kahn and Kahn’s philosophy of “uncompleted things.” A couple of Kahn’s quotes along these lines include:

The value of uncompleted things is very strong…if the spirit is there and can be recorded, what is lost?”

“Recording of that which has not been done must be made much of.”

“That which has not been built is not really lost. Once its value is established, its demand for presence is undeniable.”

I was immediately fascinated by this philosophy of uncompleted things and the applicability of this idea far beyond the world of architecture and into the very fabric of my life. Often I find myself discouraged when considering the ocean of uncompleted things in my life. But are they uncompleted if I carry the fully formed ideas with me? What a radical shift in thinking this represented.

One more quote that Merrill includes, this one from Martin Steinmann (also an architect/critic), “One aspect of our fascination with good architectural drawings is that through a combination of precision and incompleteness, they make us collaborators in the process of making.”

This idea was my launching point. I decided to approach these drawings as exercises in perceptual learning and abstraction: looking deeply into these drawings, extracting and reducing lines, forms, and movement, and then building upon the perceived patterns and frameworks with ink and paint. Here are a few of the results:

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