The Prodigious Builders

When I was a kid, I was a prodigious fort builder. It started indoors, as it always does, with pillows and couch cushions. Once a little older, I headed into the badlands of the backyard. I shot passages through clusters of boxwoods by clearing out undergrowth and strategically snapping branches. I dug trenches with a shovel I could barely handle and roofed them with sticks, crawling into the little hollows and listening to the traffic eroding down the road. Eventually, with much help from my father, I put up a treehouse that survived a decade in a half-rotten mulberry, complete with rope ladder and rickety rail. 

Even as a teenager, I found occasion for constructing a temporary refuge. As a Boy Scout, for my Wilderness Survival badge, I built a lean-to and spent a miserable, sweaty night inside, warding off the rain wrapped in a poncho. The next day, my left eye was swelled shut with poison ivy contracted while I foraged for materials. I put all of these together before I had any formal training in architecture or building. The term of art for this practice is "vernacular" --  of or pertaining to the common style of a time or place, especially the common building style of a time or place.

The Prodigious Builders cover, via Section Cut. 

The Prodigious Builders cover, via Section Cut. 

The Prodigious Builders, by Bernard Rudofsky, grew out of an earlier book, Architecture Without Architects, the catalog to exhibition of the same name at MOMA. Published in 1977, it was Rudofsky's 7th book in a series of reactionary texts questioning the wisdom and utility of modern design. Conservative or anti-modernist theories of the era generally cried out for some return to classicism or formal order; Rudofsky was a reactionary in the sense that he was questioning the very existence of architects as valid arbiters of built form. He opens the book with a broadside to that effect, a quote from the Greek philosopher Seneca: "That was a happy age, before the days of architects, before the days of builders."

Rudofsky himself was an architect by training. Born in 1905 in the Czech Republic, he earned a doctorate in Vienna, Austria at the age of 26. For the next few years, he practiced in Italy, producing at least one notable house. Online documentation of his built work is hard to find, but photos suggest clean rectilinear forms, rounded corners, and large punched openings, a middling stab at the then-ascendant International style. In 1938, he moved to Brazil; in '41, New York, which remained his permanent residence (with long periods abroad) until his death, in 1988. From the forties onward he was heavily involved at the Museum of Modern Art, organizing several influential exhibitions. He is known today largely as a theorist, writer, and curator (and a bit of a crank) as opposed to an architect. 

Bernard Rudofsky, in nearly the only picture of him that seems to be on the internet. 

Bernard Rudofsky, in nearly the only picture of him that seems to be on the internet. 

The Prodigious Builders is a typological study of vernacular shelter throughout history, beginning with caves. The second chapter rises out of the ground, examining structures that mimic those made by animals. Rudofsky traces the history of the dovecote -- massive towers in Turkey and Egypt that enticed pigeons to roost so that their droppings could be efficiently collected for fertilizer. The form is derived by observation of the occupants and the limitations of local building methods, nothing else, in an expression of pure function. He then detours into monoliths, mausoleums, and mobile dwellings. Along the way, he drops barbed asides about modernity, calling life in a trailer park " . . . being kept on that unbreakable leash twisted from tax liens and credit cards . . ." (p. 128) Trailer parks are easy targets, but he also takes potshots at contemporary clothes, cars, education, and tourism. 

Each chapter increases in scale and complexity, moving up to walled buildings and the organization of urban space. Then, Rudofsky invades the domestic sphere, saving some of his most sincere scorn for furniture. "The most calamitous event in the history of the house was the invasion and subsequent occupation by the various breeds of sitting furniture. For a hundred thousand years humanity had been getting along perfectly well without them." (p. 305) He goes on to call houses mere "storerooms for household goods", an industrialized habitation machine that had been stripped of all human dignity. On first read, the strings of ten-dollar words and stilted sarcasm seemed funny; reviewing it again weeks later, it comes off a bit more dystopian.  

Detail from a garden Rudofsky designed with sculptor Constantino Nivola on Nivola's property in the Hamptons, via  Mondo Blogo .

Detail from a garden Rudofsky designed with sculptor Constantino Nivola on Nivola's property in the Hamptons, via Mondo Blogo.

On the whole The Prodigious Builders is reads as an homage to the Citizen Architect: an instinctual builder, uncorrupted by formal considerations, that creates out of necessity with the materials at hand. Over time, vernacular knowledge has accumulated, embedded in both the built environment and the culture itself. Rudofsky calls culture "communicable intelligence", translated through generations by means of myth and tradition. People just know how the stones are supposed to go together, or which direction the front door is supposed to face. As construction has become a science, with rigid rules and mechanized systems, the cultural knowledge has faded. We've been left adrift on a sea of global mediocrity, where everyplace looks like everyplace else. We've lost our myths.

Rudofsky ends on myths, comparing ancient labyrinths to the impenetrable tangle of subway tunnels and shopping malls. He builds a new mythos around squatters, imagining them the guerillas of a new era. "Far from being that lawless lazybones and penniless parasite who insinuates himself into the frayed fabric of society, the squatter who makes him home in the nooks of ruins can be compared to the honeybee. Squatters proved a blessing to architecture; whenever they moved into an abandoned building, its life expectancy increased." (p. 341) But he is worried about the children, future builders that they may be. "The child picks up ready-made notions and acquires mental deformities that later put him in good standing in life. Trapped by television and intoxicated by machined music, . . . young body and mind progressively immobilized, play becomes obsolete." (p. 365)

Well, blessed be the children. And the squatters. Rudofsky could've never imagined what they're subjected to now, from the privatization of the public sphere to the iPad-ization of our children. Sometimes it feels like we live in the autumn of an empire; maybe Rudofsky wasn't so much of a reactionary as a man slowly succumbing to the melancholy of something slowly and irretrievably lost.

At least we've got the ruins.