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The Portfolio and the DiagramReview - The Portfolio and the Diagram
Architecture, Discourse, and Modernity in America
by Hyungmin Pai
MIT Press, 2002
Review by Elissa Tatigikis Iberti
Apr 7th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 15)

Studying history provides us with references to the past that are frozen moments in time. Whether cognizant or not, we are observers looking to gain from the past in order to create our own experiences in the present. The present constantly announces itself through moments of experience and demands for the future. Throughout history the dualities of tradition and progress have posed issues for debate in great times and lesser ones, both destined for change. The machine for some signaled the end of the individual but gave humanity, for example with the camera, the ability to capture moments forever with the photograph. The purview of the historiographer requires expansive vistas and sharp vision with an inherent ability to collect the moments marked for immortality. Hyungmin Pai has this extraordinary, cogent ability to write history, as witnessed in The Portfolio and the Diagram, Architecture, Discourse, and Modernity in America. This book, composed in exacting language with uncommon clarity, is based on Pai’s, MIT dissertation written in the early 1990s, under the guidance of Stanford Anderson.

The author leads the reader through the end of the nineteenth century, as the Beaux-Arts trained architect looks toward a world of problem solving that necessitates replacing the portfolio with the diagram. As the architectural field readies for the next generation of its profession, the mechanical pencil is passed from the academic repository of collected drawings known as the portfolio, towards the demands of an emerging industrial world that no longer had the time for the mimetic equisse or sketch. The discourse of the architect and the changing role of architecture experienced a rapid departure from past practice as a result of a changing economic climate in America after World War I. The rise of automation dictated a new building type, as did advances in science and medicine. Architects were left to ponder their reflections, for suddenly they needed to fit into a system and serve society, at a time when capital and sponsorship waned. Add to this the automated printing press and how it gave the average citizen the ability to design his or her own home via mail order catalog plans, it was a time in which architecture as the art and craft of humanity, stumbled to right itself, as it evolved. What is made clear throughout these two hundred ninety pages, plus generous notations, is that this was a time of enormous change.

Another dimension to this book is the visual support in the form of complete illustrations, drawings and diagrams that are found throughout. Careful study of the included imagery helps reinforce the chronological order of the history being expressed and, on another level, supports the story without words. One fine drawn example is Jeremy Bentham’s 1787 Panopticon. This illustration exemplifies an early shift from the portfolio to the diagrammatic plan. The circular space is noted to be a truly functional layout allowing the discourse of the diagram to be born. In it we can visualize a new work place that contains no dark spaces and provides the employer with full views of the worker in the workplace. Whether factory or prison setting this concept for a fully functionalized space was to revolutionize the architect’s world. Industrial engineering and the advent of ergonomic design were also spawned. One hundred fifty years later Paul Nelson presents another circular design in a diagram executed for the Museum of Science that was “proposed for the 1937 Exposition Internationale, Paris.”(238) It builds on the simple diagram but expands to include an illusion of an axonometric drawing, heralding another format and view of modern architecture.

Nestled in this complex historic framework are glimpses of visual beauty. Witness the composite view of the grand auditorium building, part of (the) entry for Phoebe Hearst Competition, University of California, Berkeley, ca.1899 created by Constantine- De¢sire¢ Despradelle, a “distinguished professor of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries”(263) also at MIT. In this grand theatrical-like stage plan there is fantasy, yet the assertive markings of reality. Another feast for the eyes is Sigfried Giedion’s work, Juxtaposition of New Mexico pueblo, California bungalow, and an Irving Gill’s house design, done for the Architectural Record. This revolutionary method of combining visual resources that unite “photographs, plans of buildings with details, sections, axonometrics, and site plans” allows Giedion to acknowledge Le Corbusier, while maintaining his editorial presence in Space, Time and Architecture, 3rd edition, 1954. Giedion’s clever positioning of images developed a format for the standard text layout with photographs. This is shown in a “double-page spread of a photomontage of Rockefeller Center” (262) and a time-lapse photograph of a golf strike by Harold “Doc” Edgerton, he of MIT, high-speed, strobe photography, milk - drop fame.

As we read through this history we find the architect in a perpetual state of persuasion to quantify existence, lest we not forget the authors of setback aesthetics and the International Style. (261) It was Giedion again, according to Hyungmin Pai who raises “the historical convergence of the new photography and modern architecture.” (261) The lens and special camera angles were associated with formatting and picturing modern architecture. (255) From both disciplines there arose a celebration of the concept of space and time. The photograph rekindled the portfolio format presenting impressions, versus the here and now of real time. It is what Sokratis Georgiadis refers to as “ a perceptive apparatus” (263), and also what the author points to as “an intersection of the camera-viewer and its object, frame and presence.”(263) The human eye was asked, as Pai points out, to be a moving camera.

As with all great storytellers we somehow end where we begin. Throughout these pages is built a structure, if you will, that begins with the ideas, the plans, the codes, and the interior furnishings. We are privy to the ad campaigns and the vying ideologies of the times. As the project is complete we must rely on the photograph to capture the moment and the essence of the structure, in order to sell the space. As Pai rides the waves of change following the discourse of architecture and the birth of modernity in America, he presents the reader with a comprehensive assessment of historic events. This history is chiseled from the vantage point of a dedication to the monumental and how, if successful, it is here that we find inspiration.

 

© 2003 Elissa Tatigikis Iberti

 

Elissa Tatigikis Iberti is an Assistant Professor of Visual Arts and Chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Dowling College in Oakdale, NY. Residing in New York City, she is a practicing artist specializing in painting and costume design.


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