Christo and Jeanne-Claude,  Running Fence , Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-1976

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-1976



 My path to architecture was indirect, proceeding in diagonal tacks through a degree in philosophy with a minor in art, an apprenticeship in carpentry, and a short stint in art direction in Hollywood. Throughout architecture school I was uncomfortable with the idea of architecture as a fine art. The idea seemed detached and limiting but, more importantly, it ignored the vitality of the collaborative and improvisational nature of the architectural process. I was even more uncomfortable with the obfuscating language architects used to discuss their work. Despite, or perhaps because of, my aversion to architectural theory, I have been teaching, in addition to design, a course on architectural monographs and manifestoes for the last twenty years.

I was attracted to architecture as a practical art, a branch of “applied philosophy” that was not defined within the ivory tower or the art establishment. Architecture, as an art, was at best a dicey proposition, dangerously enmeshed in the compromising realities of everyday life, beyond the control of any one individual, operating in the world without a safety net. The odds seemed stacked against architecture, and the haphazard built environment seemed to confirm that architecture was anything but a pure artform. What was compelling to me nonetheless was the capacity of some buildings, even “ordinary buildings,” to resist banality—to absorb compromise, if not turn it to their advantage, connecting more closely to a sense of purpose and place. This capacity was, for me, particularly evidenced in vernacular architecture, which often possesses the circumstantial quality of a design solution grounded in expediency and motivated by unself-conscious invention.

Sometimes brilliant, sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreakingly sad, the vernacular architecture that appealed to me was about solving problems within defined limits. In the most unpretentious situations (rear elevations, back alleys, loading docks, agricultural compounds), vernacular designs offered evidence, if not proof, of the potential of an overlooked means of architectural expression: the eloquence of the ordinary. Even the most basic project—a bus shelter, utility shed, or recycling facility—was located somewhere and consequently offered possibilities for transforming the experience of that place and the understanding of its function.  

At the time I graduated from architecture school in 1974, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, environmental artists, were constructing their installation Running Fence across Marin County. The piece consisted of a sheet of fabric, 18 feet tall and stretching 24.5 miles across public roads, 59 private ranches, and terminating in the ocean. It had an enormous impact on me. Running Fence was not only incredibly beautiful—it also highlighted the sensuality, resilience, and fragility of the Northern California landscape, revealing nuances that I had overlooked. The artists’ work was instrumental in helping me to define both a process and an attitude that was parallel and sympathetic to the unique conditions of the practice of architecture among the arts. Equally revelatory, however, was their inclusive attitude toward the design process and the way in which modifications to the design (implemented to meet conditions imposed by individuals, agencies, and physical circumstances) only increased the potency of the work. I began to see the architectural design process as a kind of “call and response” (performed between architect and client, architect and contractor, architect and bureaucrat) in which intentions lead to variations that lead to further improvisations. It is a process in which the telephone, as Christo observed, is just as creative a tool as the pencil. For him and Jeanne-Claude, collaboration was a given, and “compromise” was understood not as a lack of commitment, but rather as a test of creative range.  

The artwork of the French writer Victor Hugo, which I first encountered as a student traveling in Paris, was similarly influential. If Christo and Jeanne-Claude provided me with a model for adapting an abstract concept to a particular landscape and social reality, Hugo’s experimental ink spot (tache) drawings provided a conceptual model for exploring a sensibility in random sets of circumstances. He created the tache by folding ink spots which he would then interpret and modify to investigate various themes. In writing about Hugo’s visual work, art historian Florian Rodari described his method as “steering along paths opened up by chance more or less intentionally in the direction of recognizable forms or suggestive scenes” as a means of enabling him to “tease out hidden forms in nature . . . to make unpredictable discoveries.” [1]

Victor Hugo,  Tache  from Western manuscript 1835-1863

Victor Hugo, Tache from Western manuscript 1835-1863

Two ideas of Hugo’s were particularly instructive. The first was the notion of using accidental circumstances to develop fresh expressions of closely held design ideas. The second was the idea of exerting a degree of control over otherwise unpredictable conditions, as in Hugo’s “controlled accident” experiments, in which rather than accepting an ink spot, he attempted to shape the spot by manipulating it before it was absorbed into the paper. These experiments were for me an analogue for the architectural process, in which designers are challenged to draw their intentions out of (rather than project them onto) a mix of haphazard conditions not of their own making and over which they have only limited influence.  

The tache can be compared to the melding of facts and forces (geographic, programmatic, and regulatory) that come together around a specific piece of ground. For us at Fernau + Hartman, a tache, whether it is a particular tract of land or an existing building, is a “found condition” (like the “found objects” of another of our inspirations, Robert Rauschenberg), open to reinvention. It is an aggregation of intentions, constraints, and possibilities. But because of the unpredictable nature of the architectural process—shifts in program, cuts in budget, intractable regulatory agencies, and unforeseen site conditions—we have learned that ink spots can’t be trusted not to bleed, defining a new set of conditions. As a consequence, we design a certain “conceptual bagginess” into our projects to accommodate the inevitable changes and provide room to improvise on a theme, rather than be forced to dilute a rigid concept. We see the core of our work as being the choices and improvisations made within and shaped by the unique intricacies of each project’s set of circumstances. 

[1] Florian Rodari with Marie-Laure Prévost, Shadows of a Hand: The Drawings of Victor Hugo (New York: The Drawing Center, 1998), 48.