Essay by Ellie Abrons
In 1933, James Hilton published the novel Lost Horizon, which would go on to sell millions of copies as the first mass-market paperback and be one of the most popular American novels of the twentieth century. The legacy of Lost Horizon is not its plotline or its characters, but its setting—the quasi-fictional paradise of Shangri-La. This utopia was not intended to be a depiction of any real place, but it nonetheless spawned decades of speculation, expeditions, television specials, and geopolitical maneuverings that continue to this day. The legend of Shangri-La that Hilton manufactured took on a narrative life of its own, gathering up our collective desire to bring paradise into existence and folding it into new, shared cultural realities.
The same year that Lost Horizon was published, the first photograph of the Loch Ness Monster was printed in a daily newspaper. A year later, in 1934, the famous “surgeon’s photograph” showed the beast’s smooth head and elongated neck, catapulting the story of the monster into popular culture and catalyzing an industry built around the continual proving and disproving of the existence of this legendary beast. The legends of both Shangri-La and the Loch Ness Monster are still thriving today, more than eighty years later. A lesson for architecture is embedded in their success as narrative devices and cultural icons.
A legend is distinct from other forms of folklore. Unlike a fable, it does not try to convey a moral. Unlike a myth, it is not an origin story or an explanation of a phenomenon. And unlike a fairy tale, if a legend isn’t actually believed, it is at least believable. It has a slippery relationship to truth whereby it could be true, but it need not be. As such, a legend’s purpose is not to communicate facts. Rather, a legend is a reflection of both the culture that produces it and the one that perpetuates it, illustrating our changing concerns and anxieties as it slides across cultures and time. What follows is a reflection on the merits of the legend as a model for architectural performance and a way to think about how architecture might go down in history.
The American publication of Lost Horizon in 1933 coincided with the Great Depression. The prospect of a geographic, temporal, or even imaginary place that offered permanent happiness and immortality resonated with the book’s readers; it sustained hope in a time of immense suffering. In the decades since, the conception and significance of Shangri-La’s paradise has evolved. Today, it has more down-to-earth and didactic concerns. Recognizing the potential for tourism revenue, various provinces in China and the Tibet Autonomous Region have claimed to be the site of the “real” Shangri-La and invested heavily in their marketing. In 2001, a state-sponsored contest resulted in the Tibetan town of Zhongdian being officially renamed Shangri-La. Now understood to be a commodity, it no longer matters that none of these geographic locations actually offer the utopia that Hilton originally described. Instead, the legend has morphed from one that entertains the plausibility of eternal joy to one that accepts paradise as a mere fantasy, and insists on offering itself for sale as the next best thing.
Located on the other side of the world is another instantiation of the Shangri-La legend. The Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center in Orange, Texas provides a more didactic dimension. Inspired by Hilton’s mystical site, H.J. Lutcher Stark created the center in the early 1940s, borne from a desire to construct his own slice of paradise in East Texas. After a snowstorm devastated the center in the 1950s it was closed, and remained so for fifty years. Today, the center has been reborn, and in 2008 it reopened as a nature preserve and demonstration site for conservation and sustainable practices. It is the first project in Texas to earn LEED Platinum certification and touts itself as “one of the most earth-friendly projects in the world.”1 Paradise no longer points to Buddhist-inspired visions of inner peace and immortality. Now, it’s a much more urgent and despairing notion: to prevent the end of human civilization by way of global warming. In this way, the legend of Shangri-La endures as a respite from, and vessel for, our shared anxieties and struggles as they shift over time, moving from the economic collapse of the Great Depression to the very real challenges of climate change today.
Similarly within architecture, OMA’s seminal building, Maison à Bordeaux (1998), illustrates a legend-like ability to soak up and encompass shifting sociocultural associations over time. From the outset, the project has been described as an update to Le Corbusier’s famous dictum, “A house is a machine for living in.” This relationship stems from the architect’s own description of the villa2 as well as the incredible number of actual machines that populate the house—most notably the room-sized platform lift, which transports occupants between floors and serves as an office in and of itself. It should be noted that OMA’s machines serve a practical purpose in accommodating a partially paralyzed, wheelchair-bound client. But it cannot be denied that the architect was working intentionally on the legacy of Le Corbusier in any case. This emphasis on the machine is important because it highlights the radical reorientation necessary to understand the project in its current conception—a thoroughly humanist site for the formation of new social relationships.
In 2012, the designer Petra Blaisse intervened in the Maison à Bordeaux through the use of textiles. The bold insertion of curtains and floor coverings profoundly changed the nature of the house’s interior spaces and opened up the building to an entirely new set of associations. The motorized hum of pistons and actuators was replaced by the whisper of cool breezes and gauzy sunshine. The legend of the insular, machinic shelter for a broken man is now transformed into an open-air parlor for communing with the world. Writing of Blaisse’s work in the architecture magazine Domus, Niklas Maak describes the space as one that refers to “Bauhaus ghosts,” “darker shades of the earth and forest,” “oilskin,” “1970s children’s toys,” and “the deformed surfaces of a glossy object, or a car.” He conjures the entryways of North African souks and the heavy, velvet curtains of a performance stage.3 And with that, Blaisse’s lightweight additions force a total reinterpretation of the house: from the solitary to the social; from the tragic to the luxurious; from the pragmatic to the utopian. Like Shangri-La, Maison à Bordeaux assimilates shifting cultural contexts, enduring as an architectural icon both for its status as canonical precedent and for its ability to reflect a contemporary condition.
Legends are open to debate because they exist at the periphery of truth. Their origins, their status, and their veracity are always in flux, caught in a continual cycle of proof and disproof, of denial and affirmation. Images of the Loch Ness Monster, for example, have been proven time and time again to be the result of hoaxes, illusions, and downright willful delusion. And yet, as recently as last year, newspaper articles were raising the question of the beast’s existence.4 In fact, cryptozoology—searching for animals whose existence have not (yet) been proven—is a vibrant and active field of study. (If Wikipedia can be offered as evidence: it currently lists over 200 cryptids.) Each time scientists make an argument for the implausibility of a large creature such as the Loch Ness Monster existing undetected over such a long period of time without concern for breeding and food supply, true believers counter with a contorted “burden-of-proof” style argument: just because we can’t prove that it exists doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There is no presumption of innocence, or in this case, nonexistence. And so the legend endures, spinning off a multimillion dollar tourist industry and countless expeditions, articles, television specials, and Internet comment streams. It’s perplexing, really, that our culture would place such value in the perpetuation of this silly story about a large water beast in a remote region of Northern Scotland. (From where, one wonders, are these scientists getting their research dollars?) In part, it’s the innocent fun had by indulging in childlike fantasies of monsters and beasts, but there’s something much more serious at play as well. If the legend of the Loch Ness Monster once embodied man’s anxieties about taming the wild (as a tale of man vs. beast), it now represents a larger cultural debate over scientific evidence and empiricism, where one person’s truth clashes boldly against another’s, and where, extended further, one person’s climate change is another’s conspiracy of big government to regulate our lives.
How, one might ask, can a building occur at the periphery of truth? How might it exist with one foot in the real and one in fantasy? It stands before us as stacks of brick, sheets of glass, and slabs of concrete. And yet, it is clear that architecture always exceeds what it literally is. Certainly arguments have been made in the past for an architectural metaphysic of universality or transcendence. But here I’d like to substitute modes of essentialism for something more nuanced and consider what happens when architecture engages its own continual cycle between opposing dualities such as denial and affirmation, the new and the familiar, or the natural and the synthetic.
In 1975, the Argentinian architect Emilio Ambasz designed a house for a site in Cordoba, Spain—the Casa de Retiro Espiritual, or House of Spiritual Retreat. Published widely, the project is an astonishing one. Two stark, white, vertical walls form a ninety-degree corner and soar toward the sky. Two treacherous staircases traverse their expanse, meeting at an intricately carved mirador perched high above the landscape. At the base of the walls is a triangular courtyard, resolving the plan into a perfect square. Nearby, the site is narrowly sliced, revealing smoothly curved subterranean cavities and a staircase. But to where? And where is the house? Where would one sleep? Eat? Go to the bathroom?5 The house does not rely on the expected marks of domestic space or on familiar architectural concepts of its time. It does not use vernacular or overt historical references, explore autonomous manipulations of architectural form, or lean on the tropes of high modernism. After all, 1975 is the year of Five Architects,6 the era of Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art (1974), Richard Rogers’s and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou (1971-77), Peter Eisenman’s House VI (1975), and SOM’s Sears Tower (1970-73). Instead, the project achieves an almost mythic quality, teetering between something we have never seen before and something eternally familiar. It is not radical in the sense of Superstudio’s Continuous Monument (1969) or futuristic like Archigram’s Walking City (1964). This version of the visionary is different because it is grounded in a world that we know. There are familiar elements like stairs and columns and doorways. There are courtyards and windows and walls. Ambasz does not obliterate tectonics, materiality, or ground; this is no tabula rasa or science-fictional future. And yet, it is maddeningly and seductively withdrawn. Its origins, its intentions, its veracity are withheld.
Like much of Ambasz’s work, the project oscillates between being of the earth and of the sky, being of nature and being of man. The house simultaneously reaches upward and digs down, melts into the ground and violently marks its presence on the landscape. Collectively, these ambivalences, these willful confusions, are the key to its endurance. It allows the house to remain at the forefront of our cultural imaginary, unable to settle neatly into known categories or classifications. It bounces between dualities, denying entrenchment and codification. Rather, it floats to the top, prolonging its presence in our psyche; a persistence proven by its construction on a site near Seville, Spain in 2004, almost thirty years after its conception.
The legend offers an approach to architecture that allows it to age gracefully, if not to stay young. It does this by demonstrating how something might be layered with new meanings or enfold new sociocultural associations over time and by showing how a nuanced relationship to reality or truth can enable the imaginary and the instantiated to coexist. Among architects today there is pervasive hand wringing over how architecture will remain relevant and vital as a source of culture and imagination. I’d like to suggest that architecture stop beating itself up, stop deferring our expertise and knowledge to other fields, and stop relinquishing our rightful claim to the visionary with apologies for taking up space and consuming resources. Indeed, sustainable practices are a must. So is clean water, social and reproductive justice, and economic equity. But instead of working on our culture’s collective challenges through a negation of architecture, let’s double down on our ability to superimpose fantasy with reality, physical encounters with conceptual intrigue. This is how architecture not only imagines, but produces unforeseen possibilities. Isn’t that how we want to be remembered?
1. As stated on the Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center website. “About Us,” Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, accessed July 21, 2016, www.starkculturalvenues.org/shangrilagardens/about. ↵
2. On their website, OMA states, “The movement of the elevator continuously changes the architecture of the house. A machine is its heart.” “Maison à Bordeaux,” OMA, accessed July 21, 2016, www.oma.eu/projects/maison-a-bordeaux. ↵
3. Niklas Maak, “Maison à Bordeaux: A Textile Revisitation,” Domus 966 (February 2013): 96–105. ↵
4. Oliver Smith, “Has Google found the Loch Ness Monster?” Telegraph, April 21, 2015, accessed August 21, 2015, www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/uk/scotland/11549549/Has-Google-found-the-Loch-Ness-Monster.html. ↵
5. Underground, it turns out. ↵
6. Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier. Five Architects: Eisenman, Graves, Gwathmey, Hejduk, Meier (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975). ↵
Ellie Abrons is a principal of T+E+A+M and an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan.