Beyond the Walls: Mari Lending
Professor at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design (visiting Scholar at the YSoA in 2014 ).
Author of Plaster Monuments: Architecture and the Power of Reproduction and the forthcoming Sverre Fehn, Nordic Pavilion, Venice. Voices from the Archives (co-authored with Erik Langdalen).
LP: Rudolph Hall has often been described as a building-scale pedagogical device, especially since its restoration in 2008. Do you think Rudolph intended the building to become the Memory Palace that we now understand it to be?
ML: What Paul Rudolph managed with his grand architectural gesture, played out in the sensual juxtaposition of the textile-like concrete walls and the fragile, ancient plaster casts, was unforeseen. Yet, more than a matter of memory, my impression is that his passion for what he termed chance encounters is part of the radical poetics in play across the school. Of course, the eccentric mounting of the casts also had to do with a very tangible staging of what he conceived as the unfulfilled potentials of the Beaux-Arts, by introducing these remnants of an abandoned pedagogical regime into a place and time when he was preoccupied with the cul-de-sac of modernism. But honestly, I believe that Rudolph genuinely found the discarded cast collection (or what was left of it after Josef Albers’ Yale iconoclasm) touchingly beautiful, and that they were all about the present, rather than about the past.
Still, I do get intrigued when you introduce memory as a perspective on the building. We did the final crits in a seminar on the trajectory of buildings relating to the Warburg Library yesterday – from the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg and the Planetarium in Hamburg to the four architectural projects commissioned by the Warburg Institute in London – and after a semester I’m obviously immersed in things and concepts Warburgian. Today, it is tempting to try and characterize the casts across Rudolph Hall with the beautiful German word Bilderfahrzeuge. We have the same word – “fartøy” – in Norwegian, I see that it is translated into English as “image vehicles.” Perhaps “image vessels” is even better. Anyway, I believe this idea of how images, forms, and ideas travel, or migrate, and often in surprising ways, might capture some of the magic of those casts – both as experienced in situ in New Haven, and the way we can think about them these days, from the other side of the Atlantic.
LP: Which buildings and communities do you think of as its neighbors, relatives and progeny (across time and space)?
ML: This is maybe too big a compliment to Rudolph and your school, but my frank and immediate answer is Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. There is no end to the differences, obviously, but to me there is still some kind of kinship at work here. I believe it has to with the combination of idiosyncrasy and generosity, and that both places, with their many weird, lovely, and surprising spaces, is so much the work of one determined mind.
MK: Do you think you might have carried a piece of Rudolph Hall with you to the AHO? Has it changed the way you relate to its Oslo counterpart in any way?
ML: Yes, I have carried a piece of Rudolph Hall with me, if not to Oslo, then in my imagination. I can at any time take myself on a tour across the building, from cast to cast, ascend and descend your sublime narrow stairway from the shell in the smooth concrete wall in the sub-basement, and up, passing the vertically mounted Parthenon frieze, medieval saints, rare Assyrian wonders, and enter the Egyptian vegetation – is it on the fourth floor? Of course, I could check and get this correct in a moment, but that is not the important thing here. Whenever I think of the penthouse in your school, that memory transports me directly to Hatshepsut’s funerary temple in ancient Thebes, and back to Yale, it feels a bit like a magic carpet. From my apartment in Oslo, I can travel back and forth between Luxor and New Haven, fully furnished with the smells, the sounds, the heat, the light, and on top of that everything I know about the incredible casting operation connecting those to unlikely places on earth. I’m quite sure COVID can do nothing to change such phenomena.
LP: Would you like to share some thoughts on how the building’s mnemonic function might be compromised or complicated by the current situation?
ML: Something I’ve found interesting during this era of COVID, is that since March, after nine months already (!), I still keep imagining everyone I’m communicating with in their normal, daily environment. My imagination is apparently stronger than the realities. When the three of us are talking on zoom now, I still find it surprising to realize that you are not in school, although I did of course understand when you wrote to me that the context for this conversation is the fact that your school is also more or less closed. I never stop being surprised when realizing that my students are not together in the studio, but alone in their homes, and in my mind I still place my colleagues across the world in their institutions. Memory is strong, and perhaps conservative – and in a good way. All these awkward private snap shots into everybody’s homes will not in the end flatten or domesticize the world, I’m quite sure. The reality and memory of communality and social life is too strong, at least I hope so.
But going back to your previous question, there is one object in my school that could almost compare with any cast in Rudolph Hall: a concrete cast, at full scale, of Sverre Fehn’s audacious roof construction for the Nordic Pavilion in Venice. Patrick Sture, one of our students, made it last year from Fehn’s 1:1 drawing of the impossible roof (two layers of concrete slabs in 100x6 cm) and measurements made on site in Venice, with rebars, the fiberglass roof covering, and the wooden lath. It is a gorgeous piece. I was elated when I managed to convince our dean and janitor to have it placed in the lobby, at the entrance to the main auditorium and the gallery, and it is a great conversation piece when receiving guests (Fehn is perhaps to our school what Rudolf is to yours – indeed a defining figure.) When back in school after summer and the long first lock-down in the spring, I realized that this sculptural fragment was gone – it is really heavy, so the move must have been deliberate, for whoever bothered to move it. Finally, I found it hidden in a non-space, covered in derelict furniture and buried in garbage and dust, something close to an archeological corona victim. Thinking about this, I’m realizing that I have to take measures to salvage it. What can get lost and destroyed these days in everyone’s absence is hard to say.
MK: Could the current crisis be seen as an opportunity to re-imagine our institutional collections and spaces, with schools taking on the responsibilities of curating, exhibiting and caring for student work in a way that was previously unimaginable?
ML: Empty museums are always attractive and often magical, personally I love visiting museums on Mondays, when while heading towards archives or storage spaces one sometimes gets to cross deserted, un-lit galleries. Reimagining pristine and museum-like schools are to me more of a disturbing scenario. In the flood of emails from my school when we went into something close to a new lock-down last week, the students were instructed to clear their desks and evacuate immediately, and assured that plenty of dumpsters had been placed outside the building so that they could dispose of their stuff. It made me think that from the perspective of the administration, the result of almost a full semester’s work, that is the actual architectural work, is seen as little more than glorified debris, that is happily cleared away. That, combined with current discussions on the future benefits of digital teaching, desperately makes me miss the ostensibly chaotic nature of the studio, where it is not always easy to distinguish between an empty pizza box and a model-in-the-making. It surely makes me doubt the curatorial efforts of a school administration, and the idea of clean and neat school environments.