Therein lies the essence of these highly controlled, hermetically sealed images.
The objects portrayed in the images—furnishings, somewhat fetishized surfaces, etc.—often refer to the actualized, functional furniture which Howard has developed for a suite of rarified architectural projects. Drawing from mostly classical sources, Howard has given a great deal of thought to the transition between, say, a cast-in-bronze detail and its carved wood receptacle. The polished results transcend mere cabinetwork and take their place alongside the extraordinary fabrications of Bugatti, Moretti, Mollino (especially), and Gaudi. These pieces, beautifully photographed and achingly detailed, form the core of Howard’s architectural imagination, which, with its insistence on rigor, succeeds in joining fantasy and practice without, on the whole, sacrificing the one to the other.
His argument, insofar as he is willing to articulate it, is that “the full meaning of work that is intended as aesthetic experience is beyond explanation.” Jeffrey Kipnis, who penned an introduction, compares the images to the sensations imparted by an exceptional cognac, which must be savored, but never swallowed.
It is we, the architects, who are frustrated by the ambiguity of the images. After centuries, eons even, of architectural representation, we who pass our professional lives parading renderings that purport to show a completed building are baffled, even angered by images that tease but refuse to reveal much. Yet it would be a blunder to demand the full monty if it meant giving up the dark rewards of Howard’s imagery.
Those images, wrought by a wicked mash-up of the hand, the eye, and the mouse, defy any effort to reverse-engineer their creation. Dot for dot and pixel for pixel they proclaim their origin as documentary evidence. Yet by their implausible point of view, their visceral texture, and their mini-Wagnerian scale, they are more painterly than Maya-ish, far more lavish than Rhino. One thinks of the exquisite draftsmanship of Dali (minus the surrealism), or the sleek surfaces of Vermeer (minus the princelings). A rival might exist in the drawings of Syd Mead (minus the Sci-Fi), but certainly not even remotely in the architect’s canon of Lebbeus Woods, Carlos Diniz, or Steven Holl. In mood, in temper, they are more Munch than Giger, more somber than headstones.
This is a big, sumptuous book, suited to pride-of-place on the coffee table or in the study. I am not a fan of such, having been on the wrong side in published comments in this very rag, but, frankly, I’m on the fence about this one. The content, which my personal philosophy would find dangerously indulgent, even decadent, is so clearly a work of passion, rather than conspicuous consumption, that I’m inclined to agree with its presentation in kind. Should still another gilded age lie ahead, Howard’s work should, and probably would, be held in a kind of reverent awe that such a physical work might be produced in our cyber-uber-alles era. And yet… and yet…