Oakland, California–based Endemic Architecture’s most recent exhibition, Mind Your Mannerisms, at Jai & Jai Gallery in Los Angeles, examines the existential meaning behind San Francisco’s variant of the Victorian turret, what the firm refers to as one of many “architectural darlings” that populate our world.
For the firm, “darlings” consist of fundamentally architectural symbols that convey meaning in built form universally, like the column, the pediment, or the chimney. These “darlings” are the elements that are both widely understood by laypeople as words used in architecture’s formal language and simultaneously deployed (or subverted) by architects themselves to say, “this is (still) architecture.”
In Mind Your Mannerisms, the selected “darling”—turrets—is poked, pinched, and puckered in an effort to not only lend a sense of intellectual rigor to its whimsical forms, but to also induce new layer of new meaning and understanding resulting from the anipulation of its symbolic, anachronistic geometries.
The firm utilizes collections of contextual photography showing the diverse manifestations of the turret typology in San Francisco’s built environment as a starting point in order to generate generalized drawings of particular, observed tendencies. In the process, the darling gets redefined from an object made up of discrete architectural components into a collection of quasi-digital surfaces where a series of formal maneuvers have been applied to two disparate objects: the turret itself and the so-called “Victorian” building to which it is attached.
The firm uses these guiding considerations to generate interventions enacted upon a handful of existing and observed turret types, focusing on these aspects of each and amplifying or deforming their found conditions. These interventions are initially explored through a series of beguiling, shaded line drawings, side-by-side comparisons of found and manipulated elevation views displayed in gold-painted frames. The turrets take on the formal ambiguities of M.C. Escher drawings, as cornices become tangent to and sweep around rounded corners, conical roof forms loft to meet simply sloping ones and sections of walls are deleted or extruded up and down the form. Shingles and siding are along for the ride, too; they are scaled, alternated, and shifted accordingly.
The drawings are then taken into three dimensions via three large, ambiguously-scaled maquettes. Two of these objects are installed directly on the gallery walls, which have been painted with the black silhouettes of generic Victorian building forms. A third form is freestanding, its bulbous and rumpled masses sagging in an exaggerated, Pablo Escobar–style paunch. The turrets are lent a scale-less distortion by the firm’s use of repurposed, full-scale turret windows salvaged from recently-demolished structures in the models. The relic windows, one with panes fritted, the other with a set of secondary, chamfered interior surfaces located just inside the window frame, again obscure the true nature of these sculptural objects. Is each one actually a turret-shaped building? Are they one-to-one mock-ups of diminutive turrets? It’s hard to tell, but that’s partially the point. This transformation from orthographic drawing to object-in-the-round gives each turret conflicting, multiple meanings, as the physical properties of their material components clash with one another. One wall-mounted turret is clad in sheets of woodgrain veneer, cut out and styled so their ends curl up. The freestanding turret is topped with a tiara of faux-fur.
And if we can look past the Seuss-ian forms the turrets take and look at them for what they are—geometric abstractions—something clicks into place: Thenhaus and his team are using San Francisco’s turret as a learning tool. By imposing an order and then manipulating that order, working to generate new forms that still fit the decided upon definition for what a turret is, the designers lend clarity to something that is otherwise shrouded in mystery. The question is: Are the new creations Victorian turrets, still?
It’s hard to tell because Victorian architectural forms juggle many considerations simultaneously: They are typically proportioned in accordance with light and air, are aggressively ornamented, and do a great job of breaking down massive buildings into pleasant agglomerations of cute things like cornices,windows, porches, and yes, turrets. Victorian architecture makes no sense at all, however, from the point of view the rationalist, diagram-driven, methodology of contemporary practice that has been applied to its formal existence here.
By subsuming the particularities of the Victorian ecosystem of styles in this way, the researchers point out the barren lexical memory of their profession and the ways in which building components, once discrete, measurable and observable objects, have been replaced in contemporary discourse with digital modeling processes and “if, then” reactions, in which collections of dots, lines, and planes are swept, lofted, tweened, and booleaned to generate form. In both cases, meaning results from the processes undertaken in order to generate form and not, as is the case with Victorian architecture, from the symbolic and physical properties of the forms themselves.
Viewed through this lens, the works presented in the exhibition can be seen not merely as generative, architectural by-products begat from architecturally-focused observation, but as a part of that conversation in their own right. That is, Endemic’s turrets, with their quizzical proportions, jiggery-pokery of material, and side eye toward playful formalism are as helpful in Endemic’s attempt to define the turret typology as the observed turrets themselves.