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What’s your type”?

Unexpected Affinities,’ by Pablo Meninato

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3 minute read
Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar frequently references the work of Marcel Duchamp in his outdoor mosaics. (Photo by AJ Sabatini.)
Philadelphia artist Isaiah Zagar frequently references the work of Marcel Duchamp in his outdoor mosaics. (Photo by AJ Sabatini.)

I am reading Pablo Meninato’s new book, Unexpected Affinities: The History of Type in Architectural Project from Laugier to Duchamp at OCF Café on 21st and Fairmount Streets, drinking cappuccinos and thinking about Philly architecture and Marcel Duchamp.

Meninato, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, is an associate professor of architecture at Temple University's Tyler School of Art and a principal architect with PMarch. He has worked for Philadelphia firms and designed buildings scattered as far as Mexico and his native Argentina.

Relatively short and clearly written, the book examines the concept of type. This — simply and not so simply — concerns how, since the 18th century, basic architectural forms are classified systematically for the purpose of imagining and designing buildings.

Architectural typecasting
As Meninato explains, architects are perennially faced with either creating buildings that look like others already existing or completely developing new models that challenge or alter familiar types. Ride around the city these days and you’ll see what he means. Check out the newly constructed rowhouses featuring deep-set doorways and protruding metal-rimmed windows jutting out over your head.

Meninato traces the beginnings of thought about architectural types to Marc-Antoine Laugier (1713-1769), a French Jesuit abbot. He conceived of the “rustic hut” as humanity’s first type of dwelling after caves.

Among Laugier’s other insights, he posited that tree trunks were a model for columns in Greek architecture. Columns of wood, stone, and marble are types that, of course, have been forever imitated, just as they stand outside the main entrance to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA).

Inside PMA, the rooms with the singular work of Marcel Duchamp demonstrates how new types emerge. His famous “readymade” sculpture of a bicycle-wheel rim inserted into the seat of a four-legged stool is featured on the cover of Unexpected Affinities, with a receding row of plain columns behind it.

The image shows what Meninato suggestively argues: Duchamp created artworks in which objects are displaced and repeated and that has become a possibility for architectural types. Conceptually, the idea recalls Claes Oldenburg's Clothespin near City Hall, which is mentioned, as are wilder historical forms of non-type architecture such as Jean-Jacques Lequeu’s (1757-1826) design for a building shaped like a giant cow.

This block of Philadelphia rowhouses illustrates Meninato's description of architecture's perennial problem. (Photo by AJ Sabatini.)
This block of Philadelphia rowhouses illustrates Meninato's description of architecture's perennial problem. (Photo by AJ Sabatini.)

Pretzel logic

Before writing on Duchamp, Meninato elucidates how architectural theorists and historians debated for centuries on the difference between “types” and "models." A "type" is a process based on imitation with transformations, a "model" implies an exact replica or copy.

Some thinkers explored possible uses of the concept of type. French theorist Jean-Nicolas-Louis Durand (1760-1834) developed the idea of visualizing types in diagrams of rooms, buildings, and eventually entire cities. Meninato includes drawings of different types of rowhouses to make his point, referencing Philadelphia and other cities.

Architects and planners also related “types” to significant social, cultural, and philosophical issues. Gottfried Semper (1803-1879) thought of architecture as emerging from human needs for warmth and community around fireplaces and the hearth.

In the 20th century, the invention of new technologies and tools opened the way for innovations. These led to designs that included geometrically designed buildings in modernized cities and multi-unit housing complexes.

Meninato surveys architectural movements throughout Europe and considers visionaries such as Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and the iconoclastic Le Corbusier and Antoni Gaudí. Sections of the book are devoted to renowned University of Pennsylvania architect and teacher Louis Kahn and influential Philadelphian architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.

In South Philadelphia, where I live, Isaiah Zagar has wrought dozens of twisted, bent, torn-apart bicycle-wheel rims into Duchampian wall sculptures. On streets everywhere, the remnants of abandoned bikes also echo Duchamp’s gesture. But then again, so do the barstools in taprooms. Has his work become a type of type?

It is a reminder that in Philly unexpected affinities may be as familiar as a pretzel, like Robert Engman’s the abstract sculpture Triune, perched near the Clothespin. For Meninato, types are tools for “generating the architectural project.” For the rest of us, the book generates a richer appreciation of what surrounds and surprises us every day.

What, When, Where

Unexpected Affinities: The History of Type in Architectural Project from Laugier to Duchamp. By Pablo Meninato. Routledge, 2018. 200 pages, $39.95, paperback. Available at Amazon.

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