Unresolved Legibility in Residential Types
By Clark Thenhaus
Applied Research and Design Publishing
The new book from California College of the Arts assistant professor of architecture Clark Thenhaus, Unresolved Legibility in Residential Types, is an idiosyncratic rumination on ten different types of American residential architecture, their histories, and the rich content and compositional operations they offer students of architecture to lift from. Each chapter follows a structure that begins with a definition and description of a vernacular type (log cabin, Queen Anne, Federal, ranch, shotgun, etc.), moves on to diagramming the type’s formal variations, and ends by extracting principles to generate a set of design speculations. This format allows a measure of unpredictability in how each type is handled but always includes insightful essays, historical reportage, drawings of found buildings, analytical diagrams, and renderings of the author’s own projects.
The purpose of the book’s diversity of content, tantalizing in different ways, can be difficult to apprehend at times. Unresolved Legibility both shares and deviates from the approaches of other well-known architecture books. Like Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction, it is a collection of essays penned by a single author (Thenhaus) involving the formal analysis of buildings. However, because the many formal principles are subsumed under typology, one is unsure if these principles are forever tethered to their host type or can be decoupled as itinerant drivers of new design activities. Also, like Preston Scott Cohen’s Contested Symmetries, the book contains both analytical case studies and the author’s original designs. Contested Symmetries quarantines Cohen’s own projects to the last chapter, leaving an interpretive gap between the content of analysis versus design.
Unresolved Legibility presents both side by side, which makes for a more direct and uncomfortable juxtaposition. As Thenhaus acknowledges, appending his own projects under his office’s moniker, Endemic Architecture, does not mean that his designs are the conclusive outcome of each chapter’s analytical readings, just that they are somehow situated in proximity to them. Still, in including his work this way, the book leaves the reader wondering about forms whose sources and motivations can’t be situated within the boundaries of each chapter. And finally, Peter Eisenman’s metaproject of architectural literacy (where design is a process akin to reading and writing) looms large here. Happily, Thenhaus chooses not to be shackled by Eisenman’s project of autonomy; Unresolved Legibility celebrates the cultural politics of building practices and the many audiences that exist beyond the navel-gazing expertise of architects. Thenhaus devotes a considerable number of pages to sociocultural descriptions, content not found in Eisenman’s Ten Canonical Buildings. In sum, though the book’s priorities and organizations are sometimes inscrutable, there are plenty of delights throughout.
One such delight can be found in the chapter “Kit Homes & the Mathematics of the American Foursquare,” which demonstrates how an overlooked tradition in American architecture can have renewed relevance in dialogue with today’s obsessions. Thenhaus situates the American Foursquare within a succession of theoretical discussions on compositional ordering systems passed down through Rudolf Wittkower, Colin Rowe, Peter Eisenman, and Greg Lynn. He suggests that if Lynn was interested in the manipulation of an object’s “anexact” geometry by way of an expanded field matrix, the evolution and genealogy of the Foursquare can be understood in reverse: as an object’s local effects on a larger material and cultural field across space and time. He goes on to underscore the freedom of stylistic expression and configurable adaptation of the kit house as a nonideological fulfillment of democratic universality that modernists aspired to but could never achieve with their own dogmas of standardization.
These points, taken along with Thenhaus’s speculative drawings of wildly recombined kit houses, begin to imagine the kit home as a progenitor of a new aesthetic regime based not on postmodern semiotics, nor on parametric morphology, but on an emergent recognition of internet media and its effects on cultural forms that are deeply recombinant and developed collectively across platform-specific protocols. While my reading may be indulgent and overly determined in this instance, this chapter is an example of where Thenhaus’s unique combination of description, analysis, and design speculation overcomes its overly specific concerns and becomes an overture to shared cultural inquires.
While this book is admirably conversant with and extends upon current topics, terms, and forms familiar to those in certain corners of the architectural academy, it remains vague in its advancement of a contemporary project. The author makes several self-conscious statements about what the book is not: It is “not a guide book…not a monograph…not an advocacy project for the quotidian…[but instead] welcomes the proliferation of alternative conceptualizations.” Although this negative expression is a common critical maneuver, it is important to speculate on how this book can make a positive claim for what it might be. To claim it is not a guidebook, pattern book, or monograph suggests that it could be something new. If anything, Unresolved Legibility is another example of work by an emerging generation of academically minded architects who are explicitly experimenting with the admixture of historical forms and digital processes.
To be sure, this is not a revivalist approach to architectural design, but a project to stimulate the open-ended evolution of content and form—architecture renewed by a reciprocal exchange with culture and society. In the book’s final essay, “Disciplinary Whimsy & Darlings,” Thenhaus stakes his claim on the importance of bridging the perceived divide between the internal (formal, disciplinary, novel) and external (social, political, environmental) motivations of the discipline. And while his book clearly demonstrates the payoff of a practice engaged with both formal invention and contingent realities, it is perhaps more noteworthy that the most radical claim a young architect can make today is one that is all too reasonable.
Max Kuo designs with ALLTHATISSOLID and teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.