Cemetery for the Ashes of Thought
A woman lives in the house; she has taken its name.
A house knows who loves it.
An empty house is one that metamorphoses into vacant space.
The breath of a house is the sound of voices within.
The house is only afraid of gods, fire, wind, and silence.
John Hejduk spent his life developing a set of characters. The stories they inhabited are the elaborate architectural drawings he called Masques, after the sixteenth-century European tradition of masked ceremonial dances in the royal courts. Hejduk’s Masques moved from Lancaster to Hanover to Berlin to Riga and to Vladivostok, but the stories they embodied were never exactly told. Resembling a cross between a playground and a concentration camp, each design maintained a silence. But you could begin to imagine the tales behind them if you saw yourself in one of the character-buildings. The play would come to life the moment people entered the animalistic/anthropomorphic structures. The action would begin when you found yourself behind the mask, inside the building.
As dean of architecture at the Cooper Union in New York, the city where he was born and lived most of his life, Hejduk (1929–2000) became one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century, even though he built barely anything. His drawings and writings, his essential approach to architecture, continue to function as a blueprint for a practice without clients, commissions, or even realization. What he built was a world of images and words.
I imagine myself walking into one of his drawings, stepping into one of the characters—maybe the house that looks like a fox. Do I become a fox? Once inside, will I be able to communicate with whoever has stepped into the House of the Reaper or the House of the Musician? Is the building just a mask for me to wear, via which I become the character it represents? Or is it that by wearing the mask I join a Masque that resembles a phantasmagoric concentration camp? If the Masques are inhabited by Victims, as Hejduk’s writings often suggest, do I play to survive or should I just accept a predetermined fate? Could we imagine the Masques as first-person shooter video games or as eulogies to the fallen of history? The action in the Masques was never expressed; it’s a production we’ll never see.
Hejduk heard the multimedia murmur behind Rossi’s silence. The daemons of the analogous city were whispering to him. And he wondered about unleashing all that Rossi had suppressed.
Like the animals in a fable that speak with human voices, Hejduk’s objects seem, impossibly, to be aware of us, to address us. And yet we see not the gratifying reflection of ourselves we had hoped for, but another thing looking back at us, watching us, placing us.
—K. Michael Hays, Architecture’s Desire
I’ve been haunted by this “multimedia murmur” for quite some time. I had always thought I understood the silence in Aldo Rossi’s work. Somehow I had been thinking that Hejduk’s buildings were silent as well. But if Hejduk heard this murmur in Rossi’s designs, and if those sounds gave him direction, should I be listening for the strange sounds Hejduk’s buildings might emit too? What does a multimedia murmur sound like—those fantastic delayed explosions in a Star Wars prequel? Surely Hejduk’s buildings would speak in sounds like whispers or maybe screams; like otherworldly animals or analog modems wailing, desperate to finally log back onto the networks that history had disconnected them from.
A colorful hut stands facing the empty shell of the Molino Stucky, in Venice. In proposing a refurbishment of the nineteenth-century mill, Hejduk positioned instead a small structure across from it, a new building that would speak to the old building, and perhaps explain to it how the world had changed in the last hundred years—how modernism came along, and then the wars, and then the altogether different moment that we find ourselves in now. We were postmodern and postwar, and Venice was quickly becoming a post-Disneyland, a city turned into a tourist attraction.
If modernism represents an attempt at organizing the world, and postmodernism an attempt to understand it, then Hejduk’s work seems to be rooted not at the crossing where these two attempts meet but deeper, at the horizon of the subconscious where organizing and understanding are not enough, not even necessary.
If we had to invent a category for Hejduk’s work, we might be tempted to call it post-expressionism. Scandinavian in temperament, Germanic in character, American in origin but Eastern European in reality, Jewish Christian polytheistic atheist. Perhaps the buildings are ancient Greek, like the representations of mythological structures one finds in illustrated versions of the Classics: Trojan horses left astray for someone to come along and invent a use for, to activate with an emotion. Hejduk was part of a generation of avant-garde architects that reacted to the commercial lure of postmodernism with work that was never meant to be built, with buildings that challenged the notion of building itself. With Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, and Richard Meier, he was part of the New York Five, but he stood apart from them all: neither postmodernist nor deconstructivist, too poetic to be a starchitect, too oblique to be consumed by the world of mega-commissions that lured almost all his peers.
When I look at the Berlin Masque, I always think of it as the nemesis of an acropolis. On the sacred plateau of ancient Athens, structures were placed in complex relation to one another, caught in a heated discussion under the bright sun. They welcomed you there and guided your gaze to the main temple in a design that made sense not as a plan but as an experience. But whereas with the Athens Acropolis, the architecture is made by the play of light on volumes, in Hejduk’s Masques, the play seems to occur through silence; the architecture is made by what is not said, by words implied but never spoken. You don’t know what the House of the Reaper wants to whisper to the House of the Mother of the Suicide, or what the chatter of their greetings sounds like. Where the Acropolis is a lively Southern conversation that you follow on your way up to the Parthenon, the Masque is a Scandinavian maze of muteness, a playground of unexpressed emotions filling the air with tension, perhaps frustration, fear, and anger, or even defeat and the silence of sadness.
In a time when cartoon images increasingly take the place of words, Hejduk’s characters could be his own cryptic architectural emoji. What could you reply to with the House of the Suicide? But while custom emoji sets are also used today to abbreviate someone’s life into a readily marketable battery of hieroglyphics—the Kim Kardashian Kimojis come to mind, where a life that became a reality series is further condensed into icons of Kim sticking her butt out to break the Internet, doing her nails, or contouring her face—Hejduk’s emoji set expands into myriad possible relations between his actors, his masks. Instead of emotion transmitted in blips, bits, or bytes, we confront a Bergmanesque silence surrounding what took place when the House of the Reaper stood across from the Merry-Go-Round. What happened to the children who rode it?
A reading of Hejduk’s buildings as emoji seems like the perfect conclusion for a body of work that was all about writing, with Hejduk often presenting texts or poems instead of buildings, or buildings presented without any words at all. If we knew how to read the Masques, we might enjoy them as a beautifully composed essay; but if so, they might not have the same haunting quality of a text whose immanence and structure you can sense but can never fully decode. Likewise, these scattered text fragments of my own might form a “cemetery for the ashes of thought,” as Hejduk called his Venice project, scripting a haunting counter-structure or ruin-invested narrative, though one always in conversation with the architect and writer himself.
And, as if his buildings were a true alphabet, Hejduk released them to the public, preceding today’s open-source ethos by forty years. Anybody could take up his character-structures and build them, as long as, per his stipulation, students worked out the detailing as part of an educational process. His sketches could continue to become buildings long after his death, and they do, the latest being the set of structures for the House of the Mother of the Suicide built in late 2015 in Prague.
Hejduk’s magnificent cast of buildings/persons/things appeared in his projects over and over. They followed him like a herd all his life, evolving from work to work, mutating like that mid-2000s, Japan-only Nintendo game Animal Leader, where you start off with a simple cube that over the course of the game grows legs and hands and evolves capabilities: it learns to protect itself, overcome obstacles, and understand situations. Hejduk’s characters start with diamond-shaped houses and continue to the wall houses, where the wall becomes a face—a mask. Then on to the animal- and human-shaped buildings, the homes for the suicides, the centipede bridges and the jungle gyms, the Victims and the Merry-Go-Rounds. They followed him into the Masques, and traveled along as the Masques made their way east; their playfulness was locked up in concentration camps where some sinister activity was just about to take place, though what it was you never exactly knew. They followed him into his last project, the Cathedral, where they all converged in a single building through which you could trace Hejduk’s entire career. Maybe this was his Noah’s Ark, but for death. A way to bring his friends along as he crossed the River Styx.