John Hejduk – Wall House 2

Posted: July 25, 2007 in creativity


Recently I published a brief post on the Wall House by Marc Frohn & Mario Rojas and FAR team. And while I was looking for images relating to it, I came across another building with a similar name (though unrelated, I guess): ‘Wall House 2′ by John Hejduk.

Hejduk appears to have been an artist in the world of architecture, a world that (at least in theory) deals with relationships, in particular those between people, yet in which it seems Hejduk created attractive artistic objects with little or no socially redeeming value. From what I have read about him, pragmatic or utilitarian consideration were sidestepped in favour of shapes, of form becoming an end in itself. In Great Buildings he is described as someone who “detached himself from context, materials, structure, and climate to create artistic environments”.

“[Hejduk] was an architect who largely abstained from conventional practice, and the bulk of his work consisted of theoretical projects, executed in the form of drawings that were combined into poetic, often highly personal narratives. … He was a solitary artist who chose to work in a highly social form of art. But he had a particular way of living out the contradiction. Instead of constructing social spaces with bricks and mortar, he fashioned one from ideas and emotions and peopled it with students and faculty members of the school he led for 25 years.” [Herbert Muschamp, John Hejduk, an Architect And Educator, Dies at 71 (registration required), New York Times, July 6, 2000].

That school was the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, where Hejduk held the position of Dean from 1975 until his retirement in 2000. His arrival at Cooper Union (including the cooperation of many other influential architects such as Raimund Abraham, Peter Eisenman, Elizabeth Diller or David Shapiro) is seen as having transformed the practice and critical thought of architecture in ways that might be compared to Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe’s influence on the metamorphosis of the Armor Institute into the Illinois Institute of Technology. And during his time, John Hejduk developed his personal signature: after moving away from “hard-line” modernist space-making exercises of the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies Van Der Rohe, he became more and more interested in free-hand, poetic “figure/objects” forms which were influenced by mythology and spirituality.

Hejduk’s probably most famous built work, Wall House 2, encapsulates that approach by being what he considered a meditation on the passage of time. “The Wall symbolises the physical transition from past to future through the present, a transition between back and front, closed and open. The Wall, one-and-a-half metres thick, forms the basis of the house. The entrance and living elements literally hang from it. To reinforce this idea, a narrow gap is left between the Wall and the elements. Hence the Wall is not directly manifest in the interiors but can only be perceived visually. It is without doubt a theoretical house, based on an idea about the physical confrontation between space and time, elaborated in complex composed of separate elements. In that sense it is a unique icon, a museological manifestation of an important architectural concept.” [Archined]

Wall House 2 was originally designed for a rural site in Connecticut in the early 1970s as the ‘Bye House’ (after the client’s name) but never realised there; instead Hejduk chose it from his portfolio of drawings when asked in the mid-1990s by town planners Groningen (Netherlands) to select from his designs the one he would like to build. Originally set in the hilly landscape of Connecticut, the house was to be approached from the side so that the entrance was not immediately apparent – which still is the case. And despite it being hard to define what are the front, rear or sides of the building, you had (and still have) to pass along a lengthy corridor and to reach ‘the other side’ of the Wall where you were/are presented with a wide-open vista.

In Groningen this vista is a lake, but the house itself is situated in a quintessentially Dutch suburb with row upon row of new and cheerful but nevertheless suburban dwellings – an environment which represents the extreme opposite end to the rolling hills of Connecticut. Rather than making the building being an inhabitable home, this setting almost forces it to take on the form of a sculpture. Given Hejduk’s relationship though to functionality, utilitarian and social requirements, this character does not seem to come as a surprise. It certainly is supported by such design features as the almost hidden accessibility to the building, the physical separation of living spaces, by and large the absence of windows that can be opened or the overwhelming presence of the wall that dwarfs the interior.

Nevertheless: apparently the building became an instant hit. In the month following its September 5, 2001 opening (Hejduk died on July 3, 2000), it drew 13,000 visitors. And it looks like the form has found its expression in quite an appropriate functionality: the house seems to be used for exhibitions and performances, and also as a temporary housing for artists, who spend a few months in the house, working on their art. A perfect use for a beautiful building designed by a remarkable architect – at least in my books.

[Sources: Metropolis Mag, Great Buildings, Wikipedia, Archined; photos (©) by Liao Yusheng with the exception of last image]

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