…BUT HAVE YOU SEEN THE ORIGINAL?

M. Arch I (‘18)
James Coleman
Seemingly spawned on the hedgerow garden rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York sits a hulking, weathered Victorian home. Most will immediately recognize the house as the home of killer Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic film Psycho. But it is not just a replica—it is an amalgam of identities.
The original Psycho house—a two-piece, two-thirds-scale, stage-set facade—is thought to have been inspired by the painting House by the Railroad by Edward Hopper, continuing a lineage of the image of the mansard-roofed mansion as a romantic American ideal deemed inaccessible in the progress of the modern age.
British artist Cornelia Parker has christened the piece Transitional Object (PsychoBarn). A conflation of two deeply American images that are part of a shared consciousness, the piece is both nostalgic and haunting—the uncanny realization of the all-American home and an insidious trap. As the title alludes, it objectifies the observer from the familiar.
Parker’s piece is constructed of boards and tin roofing material collected from various American barns—dragging the practice out of kitsch DIY home decorating television shows. But the object does more than just reference the American barn and the lineage of the Psycho house as a form of eclecticism. Consider Don Delillo’s White Noise, when two characters visit a tourist site of “The Most Photographed Barn in America.” Standing on a viewing platform while others snap photographs one states:
“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one.”
Asking later,
“What was the barn like before it was photographed?”
PsychoBarn relies on the viewer’s ability to recall and perpetuate these references as if they’re part of a cultural image-memory that is confused and conflated in the same manner as our personal memories: the meeting of historical matter and a means of memory.
PsychoBarn is certainly photogenic. As the twenty-something sunglassers with cocktails jockey to ‘gram selfies, they rarely frame the shot to include the cleave in the two-piece facade, let alone the tangle of scaffolding and water-weights situated behind.
Unlike in the film, where the home is always set far and beyond the motel, PsychoBarn is uncomfortably close, insidiously hollow, and disallows the distance needed to maintain the illusion of the diminished scale.4
This is not the first time the material of Hitchcock’s film has been duplicated. Director Gus Van Sant remade Psycho in 1998 as a shot-for-shot replica of the original, insinuating that the film’s image itself had become part of a cultural memory and that the subtle deviations, that of the eye of the director, could be sensed by its audience and in fact, gutted the film of its potency. Of the result he stated, “Even if you try to copy a film shot by shot, you still can’t. It’s still your own film.”5
Parker wanted her remake to challenge the manhattan skyline saying, “I wanted to put something architectural on the roof—a kind of incongruous domestic house.”6 Indeed PsychoBarn isn’t the only facade lurking over the 81st block of 5th Avenue. Across the street is something long considered more insidious to the architectural profession—Philip Johnson and John Burgee’s 1001 Fifth Avenue, a building Charles Jencks thought should be “…fined and publicly destroyed by the Nuremburg (sic) Trials of Architecture.”7

While the body of the building was designed by another firm and set for construction, Johnson and Burgee were commissioned to produce a new facade to alleviate the building’s grandiose scale and inelegant appearance. The result was a limestone facade which borrowed the cornice lines and fenestration details of the McKim, Mead, and White building on one side of it and the mansard roof of the French townhouse to the other side. Johnson’s roof, however, is two-dimensional and extends beyond the body of the building, requiring that it be propped up by (very) visible scaffold-like supports.
In 1979, the year of its opening, Ada Louise Huxtable, the then architecture critic at the New York Times, wrote of the “pathetic fallacy” the building embodied. She argued the facade fell into the trap of appropriating and repurposing architectural details in order to justify and contextualize a building that had no place in that neighborhood.8
Huxtable’s criticism parallels Van Sant’s notion that the modern interpretation is devoid of certain qualities present in the original. Though 1001 is not pastiche or parody as ridicule, but can be seen as an alternate understanding of parody as repetition with difference.9
The facade’s blatant two-dimensionality and seemingly temporary structure beg the assessment: less important is how 1001 looks as a building, but rather how it looks like a building. Like PsychoBarn it intuitively attempts to reduce the building to an image by stealing the characteristics of those neighbors deemed ‘appropriate’ and contending they are only two-dimensional. It is not a copy of an original quality, but a fusing of images of architectural references that speaks more and more to the image culture of today’s society.
One critic, when asked why the anomaly is thought to be so offensive said “All you have to do is look at the building.”10 Perhaps that is all there is to do.
Rather than the building celebrating or identifying through its architectural details, it wears them, and even hides behind them. Just as in Psycho Norman must don his wig and dress to appear as he is, as his mother, the building is costumed.
When describing Norman’s psychosis in the film, the arresting officer explains “He was never all Norman, but he was often only mother.” Johnson and Burgee’s 1001 is a building that is often only facade and with the presence of PsychoBarn the appropriate context has come to 1001’s neighborhood.

 

4 The facade reduced to its
two-dimensionality acts as atrompe l’oeil, and commonly necessitates distance to reduce the parallax effect ofthe stereoscopic perception.
Wolf Singer, “The Misperception of Reality,” in Deceptions and Illusions, ed Sybille Ebert-Schifferer et al.
(Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2002). 43.

5 Gus Van Sant, interview
by Briony Hanson, Guardian Interviews at the BFI, The Guardian, January 16, 2009.
https://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/jan/19/guardian-interview-gus-van-sant

 

6 “The Roof Garden Commission: Cornelia Parker: Transitional Object (PsychoBarn),” Featured Media, http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2016/cornelia-parker.

7 Charles Jencks, “Last Judgement (Interim),” ANY: Architecture New York 90
(1996): 34-35.
8 “This particular fallacy operates on the principle that you are going to put an out-of-scale, out-of-context, discordant structureinto a setting where it will be damaging or destructive, you can make it less so by “recalling,” or “extracting” the essence or details of the surrounding architecture.”
Ada Louise Huxtable, “The “Pathetic Fallacy,” Or Wishful Thinking at Work,” The New York Times,
February 11, 1979.

9 See Hutcheon’s Theory of
Parody. Linda Hutcheon,
A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (London: Methuen & Co., 1985), 32-33.
10 Elizabeth A Harris, “Decades Later, a Critic’s Disapproval Still Rings True,” The New York Times,
January 14, 2013.