Introducing the Black Bird

Five Points. © Grant Gibson.

 

A conversation between architect Grant Gibson and his late partner T.E. Cames

 

Most of that summer, we would drink cheap gin on Thursdays. T.E. would use those afternoons with me to offer advice on how I should interpret books that I had given to him. He had long determined that, while I was introducing him to ideas central to contemporary architecture, he would teach me about life. On one particular afternoon, sitting under an umbrella outside the bar, he didn’t ease into his lesson.

 

“Revolution can be avoided . . . really?” T.E. asked, as he threw the book on the table.

“You didn’t like it?” I asked.

 

“No, it was good. It was kind of hard to follow at first. Images of grain silos, factories, classical architecture and steam ships, airplanes, and cars; he’s talking about a pretty scattered set of thoughts.”

“He was still pretty young for an architect, only thirty-five or thirty-six, and this was his first book.”

 

“If he hadn’t become famous, doubt there would be so many copies of this thing floating around.”

“He was first notable because of this book and his writings. Especially this book, as it paints a clear picture, as he saw it, of a world rapidly changing. That, alone, made it an important document. It had real influence on the field, when it came out.”

 

“I can see how that part of it would be important. My indifference is more toward the middle section of the book. But, I gotta admit that I still have a hard time with architectural terms like ‘mass,’ ‘surface,’ and such . . . and what the hell is with all those lines that he kept drawing on things?”

“You mean his chapter on Regulating Lines? It is a way of understanding proportions.”

 

“Do you sit around and draw over things to make sure things are the right size?”

“Not often. I mean, I really care about producing well-composed things. But, there is a wider range of what can be considered good composition these days.”

 

“As there should be.”

“The section on housing was something! There is some really great work in that section.”

 

“Yah, those drawings were great. There’s ideas about living in those designs, and a good range of housing types.”

“Did you notice this little perspective drawing below the first house shown in that section? It is this bare structure with no walls—just footings, columns, slabs, and a stair.”

 

“Oh, I see it now. And here it is again a few pages later. I gotta admit, I didn’t read the text in this section. I was distracted by the drawings and more focused on understanding them.”

“You sound like a real architect, only reading the text if you cannot get the point from the drawings! That is a structural idea of a reinforced concrete structure that unifies all the different buildings that he is showing. He called it the Dom-Ino system.”

 

“Was he the first guy to figure out how to build with concrete?”

“Well, no. He had worked for another architect in Paris, years before, who built in reinforced concrete and did a lot of innovative work with reinforced concrete. I think that I had read somewhere that a couple engineers, who had also worked for this other guy, helped him come up with this structural system. But, no one gives them any credit.”

 

“So, who really knows just how well he knew the intricacies of it. Who was this other architect?”

“Auguste Perret. He is important. But, I do not know his work as well as I should. His work tended to be more classical compared to what is in this book.”

 

“Ah, that is why he’s not as well known. Media prefers the spectacle. That’s why you gotta keep doing the shit that you’re doing. Sooner or later somebody will notice.”

“Right. What I am doing is not really radical. Strange? Sure. I do not have things figured out well enough for it to be radical. But, the bigger question is: If I ever do get my act together, will there be any sympathy for the work, like there was for this guy?”

 

“Well kid, that isn’t something you can actually control. But, I guess you’re generally right; if the world doesn’t care or isn’t capable of making your designs, it doesn’t matter how good you are.”

“Unless you can alter the cultural context in a way that makes it care or be concerned with the things that you are interested in. Because, you know . . . that would be an easy thing to do in our highly atomized world.”

 

“I guess you could say that is what the first and last part of this book was trying to do?”

“Exactly. I think that is the motivation for the entire book. In fact, it is really a compilation of writings that he first published in an art magazine that he helped create. It was called ‘The New Spirit’ or something like that in French. I think he had just moved back to the city, did not have any potential architectural work, and was spending a good amount of time painting, reading, and hanging out with other young artists and intellectuals who were interested in shaping the cultural landscape.”

 

“Youth and their grand visions.”

“It was a moment when the world must have seemed primed for change. Europe was still rebounding from the First World War, industrialization was on the rise. It must have seemed like if there was ever a time for radical transformation it would have been then.”

 

“Little did they know that another war was on its way. But, back to this magazine; I thought you said it was about art, not architecture?”

“They published pieces on a wide range of topics, not just fine art. Again, I do not know much about it. But, I think the motivation was to find a new sensibility, mindset, or spirit—thus, the title—for the changing world.”

 

“So, this young architect is working with engineers and contractors on these concrete structures and hanging out with artist/philosopher types at the same time? That’s abnormal, right? Architects are typically the last to catch on or architecture is the slowest form of art, or something like that?”

“Fuck. Those who typically control the built environment might be the last to catch on; real architecture and the best practitioners are always amongst those that form new movements. There is just a lot of things required of our work. It is slow to produce and the rate of realization is low, especially with those that have challenging ideas. Beyond grand visions of bending culture to our motivations, this is really why a lot of architects write. It allows us to address the moment.”

 

“Here I was thinking that it just made sense to write about buildings, when you don’t have any to build.”

“Funny . . .”

 

“But seriously, this image of the architect as the artistic intellectual capable of being useful on a construction site seems too good to be true.”

“He definitely contributed to that legend. It probably is too good to really be true, but we try.”

 

“Sometimes believing in legends is more productive to perseverance than a grounded picture of history.”

“I defer to you on the topic of perseverance, old man.”

 

“Damn right. While we’re on the subject of myth, we gotta talk about this name.”

“I do not understand why he needed to give himself a new name. It is not like his life was in danger for doing this kind of work. The first explanation that I heard was that it meant ‘The Raven.’ But, I think that is wrong.”

 

“The Raven. I like that. I’m going to call him The Black Bird from now on. Do other architects rename themselves?”

“Some have adjusted their names, Wright added the Lloyd, which was his mother’s family name, to his name. And, there is a young guy that just started teaching at our school, who adopted a great western name when he immigrated to Canada. But, I can’t think of anyone that gave themselves a totally invented name that sounds like a title or object.”

 

“Those examples kinda make sense, they are partly business decisions like what people in show business do.”

“Maybe Muddy Waters is a similar example?”

 

“But, Muddy got that name from his grandmother, who raised him. It was a family nickname that he took on as his own. That is different from a grown man who is living his life and then suddenly just changes his name.”

“He didn’t do it in such a dramatic way from what I understand. Remember how I mentioned that he had produced a publication with another guy before he wrote this book? Well, they both wrote under pseudonyms. The other guy used his mother’s maiden name. If he had done the same thing, he would been “Perret.” You remember who he used to work for, right? So, you see why he couldn’t do the same as his partner. I think they just make this name up from another word
or name.”

 

“That’s funny.”

“After the publication started to become known and his views on architecture were that of the pseudonym, I bet he just kept going with it.”

 

“So, The Black Bird was meaningless . . . just silliness that stuck. That is so good.”

“I don’t really know . . .”

 

“It would have had benefits for someone trying to become known in a new place. Think about it, the moment that he is introduced like that, it would have signaled to others that he is different in some way.”

“You think it would have had an effect on others’ behavior. That is an interesting way of understanding it.”

 

“But, it only works if he’s the only one doing it. If others had started to rename themselves Le This and Le That, it wouldn’t have worked. It also helps that he was a pretty serious guy. At least I would assume he was . . .”

“And, he had built a number of villas back in his home town by the time he changed his name, so he did have a portfolio of realized work to help his cause.”

 

“I think The Black Bird was really on to something with this. The oddness of it surely generates rumors and created a heightened curiosity. Then, when someone meets him and he has that pile of magazines or this book that get to the point of what he’s chasing . . . and he could follow up by showing a bunch of buildings already built—proving he can get shit done—it had to be convincing.”

“So, you are admiring it as an advertising tactic?”

 

“No, I think it’s more than that . . . the work was radical, right? And, he seems like he was a rather stable guy, at least based off his writing. Was he?”

“I do not know. I have not read enough about his life and never met him! There is a guy in Ohio that worked for him, but I have not heard his stories about him.”

 

“Well, for the sake of my argument, let’s say he was a pretty normal guy with family and friends, did things that your average guy would be doing in Paris at that time. If he’s going to dedicate himself to a range of work that is rather extreme, it would help to have a psychological device to help him somewhat detach from the normal concerns of daily life . . . the name becomes a type of costume or role that he can occupy and then operate differently.”

“You are saying the name puts him in character? It’s a persona that he has created?”

 

“Like you said, who really knows, but it seems like it could be useful in that way.”

“He is often considered one of the first architects to fully utilize the power of media to propel his career. But, what you are suggesting is that he made himself into a form of media.”

 

“Which, I guess, means that your point earlier about it being like a stage name is right. That is kinda sad.”

“Until, you consider all that he accomplished, then it is great. He realized a number of amazing projects: houses, a cathedral, a monastery, a big governmental building in the Soviet Union. He had a strong hand in the design of the United Nations Headquarters. Hell, he built the capital of India! And, he did it all with a silly made-up name that means nothing.”

 

“When you put it that way, it’s like running and winning a bunch of marathons while wearing a tuxedo.”

“That’s good.”

 

“So, all this work that came later in his life . . . was it all based off of this structural idea of using reinforced concrete?”

“The majority of his work was built with reinforced concrete, but he wasn’t a one-trick pony. I bet that if you saw his later work, you would really be surprised. It is rougher and more raw than these early designs.”

 

“So, he moved away from this style of work?”

“You know I fucking hate the term style. Thinking about styles is a superficial way of understanding aesthetics of any kind.”

 

“He got away from these aesthetic values? Is that better?”

“It was not that he moved away from what he was doing early on; he just kept growing and evolving.”

 

“You would have to, I guess. A lifetime stamping out buildings that are all composed around one construction technique or look isn’t a career.”

“That structural diagram was really just the beginning of his development of a larger set of compositional ideas, The Five Points of a New Architecture. I should have shared those with you. But, they are architectural elements that were not available until this period in industrialization. Let us see if I can remember them all: piloti (structural columns), free plan, free façade, roof garden, ribbon window. Here look in the designs in the book, I bet that some have these things in them, even though he hadn’t fully identified them at that time.”

 

“Hmm . . . still sounds prescriptive.”

“It was for many that followed him. But, the points were seen as being really flexible things that would allow a lot of freedom in how they were used.”

 

“Like a language.”

“Right. But, what I find most interesting is that, as the inventor of it, he found ways of personalizing it, rather than further codifying it. More often than not, he worked toward complexity rather than clarity, and his artwork played a role in that. I cannot remember if there are any images of his paintings in the book?”

 

“Not that I saw. And, I haven’t seen any of his artwork, so what do I know. It sounds like it was a back and forth kinda thing between some universal standards and an individual set of aesthetic values.”

“Man, we should go downtown! One of his paintings hangs beside a Picasso at the Art Institute.”

 

“Really? That would be cool. I gotta say for someone who is always trying to play it cool and not be overly influenced by any single architect, you really like The Black Bird, don’t you?”
“He was one of the best. You are not into him yet.”

“I can see how he is important and why you thought I should know something about him. But, I keep thinking, why did we look at this guy before Mies? We’re in Chicago, man. After Wright, isn’t he the guy that you gotta know if you’re from here?”

 

“Hmm . . .”

“Well, give me his book and let’s deal with him next time.”

 

“He did not write a book like this. Sure, he was well published. I guess I could pass along his curriculum for IIT and we can bitch about how they still cannot manage to effectively update it to our times?”

“Look at you! You are a Mies hater!”

 

“No, it is . . . just that, he is problematic to study in this town, as his legacy tends to cast his actual practice in a weird light.”

“Oh, so you haven’t given his work proper time, because of some unease with the types of people that do get into his work? And you are on me for not being enthusiastic enough for The Black Bird.”
“You are really reaching now. But, I think you would really be into this guy. I mean, you were cool with Wright and he was a much bigger asshole. What gives?”

 

“I don’t know . . . I guess it’s what I mentioned when I first came in.”

“That this book was too scattered?”

 

“No, before that. It is the very last bit of it, about architecture and revolution. At one point it seemed like he understood some of the alienating aspects of modern life; but, then he suggests that a more modern home life will be the thing that makes it all better. That is about as logical as tempering my buzz by having another drink.”

“The machine for living was a scary phase for me too. But, we are surrounded by machines when we are at home, are we not?”

 

“The point is, regardless of how much technology we have at home, if it is all made and controlled by a small bunch of rich people, then we’re still just a bunch of indebted peasants, like we were before industrialization. If The Black Bird wanted architecture to have a role in a good revolution, he needed to advocate for a machine for economic justice or some shit like that . . . rather than for industry to help us relax, be entertained or be more healthy.”

“You wanted a politically principled architect? Those kinds of architects, especially amongst historically noted designers, are hard to find. Most have been good at dodging the issue of power. But, let’s deal with that topic after I come back with another round.”

 

“Yes. Make sure to ask for Plymouth Gin.”

 

Grant Gibson is a Chicago-based educator, registered architect, and founding principal of CAMESgibson, Inc., an architecture and design practice committed to creating environments and objects that are cross-pollinated with common social, political, and economic interests, as well as individual experiences and desires. Engaging the full spectrum of the discipline of architecture, Gibson is the author of “A Performed Memoir” and architect for Hyde Park Art Center’s new Creative Wing.
www.camesgibson.com | @CAMESgibson



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