Donald Judd & Adam's Hut
[Conference Paper. Written for 'On Adam's House in the Pacific,' delivered at Auckland University, November 15, 2008]
If Adam were to stumble across Donald Judd's series of huts at Marfa, Texas, immediately after eating his apple, they may well come as more of a surprise to him than some of the examples discussed in Rykwert's book. Judd's work uses twentieth century industrial materials; they are joined using careful and sophisticated techniques, and the strong geometries would provide a scene closer to the opening shots of Space Odyssey 2001 than the Book of Genesis.
However, Judd's Paradise at Marfa has more in common with Adam's Hut than we might think, and Judd's goals at Marfa are not unlike the underlying objectives of the Huts described in Rykwert's book. The work at Marfa definitely interrogates the relationship between humans and nature, it relies on apparently rational form and techniques, and it even implies a possibility of the divine.
Imagine an anachronistic Adam landing at Marfa something like the way the young Superman arrived in an area not too far from Marfa around the time Rykwert's book was published. Imagine him cleaning himself up on the side of the road buying himself at tidy suit, and wandering across the fields to what are arguably the simplest of all the primitive huts, the 15 Untitled concrete works that Judd made between 1980 and 1984. Judd's own expedition to the core of the spatial arts was not by way of invoking his artistic ancestry as some linear development that he must continue, far from it. Judd wanted to short circuit that history and return to another beginning. Judd went to Marfa as a proxy for Adam's Paradise: for the purity and integrity available in Paradise, and for the potential to forge the beginnings of a new history.
At Marfa, Adam would see some core tenets of a new culture of construction. He could see the beginnings of that history that Judd worked on. And those tenets play out themes similar to those found in Rykwert's book: the fundamental relationship to nature, rationality, and even to the divine.
Natural: specificity of material and space
The relationship to nature at Marfa appears like a far cry from Laugier's conception of architecture's roots, or many of the theorists that produced their own versions of the Primitive Hut, but they have surprisingly common approaches to nature. Judd's concrete constructions in the field appear to emerge from the ground no less than Laugier's pediment emerges from the trees. They extend the natural condition of the ground like Laugier's hut extends the natural condition of the forest canopy. Not only do Judd's works extend the natural condition, but like Laugier's Hut they transform it: as with all the primitive huts, there is the inevitable act of artifice: the claim to culture from the edge of nature.
What is more, Judd's work emerges from the nature of things: the nature of a material, the nature of a site, the nature of an artist, and the nature of the discipline. Judd takes the inherent qualities of a material - be it copper, paint lacquer, concrete, glass, or plywood - and he makes it do what it can do. He polishes a metal so that its reflective qualities collapse into its innate colour. He lets paint be absolutely what it is: just paint. Judd was on a crusade against the insidious preoccupation the arts have for representation and illusion. Judd denied all that. Judd asked us to look at the nature of things themselves. He asked us to look at things before history: it is actually reasonable to expect that he made these things for Adam himself.
One of the major reasons for going to Marfa was to avoid the museum. Judd could not stand the irreverence museums had for specificity. Judd's work at Marfa was for Marfa, it was not for the Metropolitan Museum and it was not for the Tate Gallery. Work made for a room at Marfa was made only for that room: with those windows and that light. As our imaginary Adam stumbles around Marfa untangling his critique, he cannot separate the site from the intervention. The nature of the place is critical to Judd: and his work at Marfa is the whole of Marfa. It is not a collection of works, but one work, and this continuity between work and site, between culture and nature, is a core tenet of Judd's work, as it so often is with the Primitive Hut.
Rational: efficiency of form and technique
The means to achieve that continuity are utterly rational. Malizia may have been deeply confused about the objectives of Judd's work, but it does not seem hard to imagine him buying into his forms and techniques.
FormJudd is clearly not alone with his persistent use of the right angle and the circle. These geometries are efficient strategies for creating spaces. Perhaps Adam would also see the connection between Judd's forms and the rooms or fields that they sat it. He would make sense of the need to economise with form.
Adam might even appreciate the pragmatic way in which Judd selected paint colours from a paint chart book. While Marfa is, at one level, absurd it is also completely obvious. It is absurd because it is a ranch far away from an audience that might engage it, with a whole series of buildings to house objects without any apparent utility. But Judd's precise industrial techniques for fabricating and detailing the work, including his commissioning of the fabrication to others; his attitude to material; and his regard for place is also utterly rational. What else, in fact, does one do with disused artillery sheds - as the main buildings at Marfa once were?
The absurd nature of the work lends itself more to the divine than the rational. Where else did these concrete forms come from? Why are there precisely one-hundred aluminium boxes in this room, and why are they all slightly different? How does the presence of these boxes affect the mortal viewer standing in that room.
Judd's primitive hut
The work at Marfa is highly reductive, as primitive huts must be conceived, and it makes an emphatic statement about the relationship between culture and nature through a fundamental fascination with material and site specificity. They are executed with a clear logic of form and technique. They have a presence that could easily be considered divine. Judd's work, it seems to me, could easily be added as an appendix to the next edition of Rykwert's book: though not as a mythical hut, instead, as a real-time manifestation of the Primitive Hut.
Judd's expedition to the core of the spatial arts was not by invoking Primitive Huts of the past, it was an attempt to manifest a Primitive Hut of his own. He wanted to pull his work away from the loft in New York to the fields at Marfa, away from the distractions of contemporary art to the core of his thinking: creating space. It was a profound denial of contemporary practice: a denial of the museum, a denial of representation, a denial of the frame, a denial of the plinth. He denied all this to make something new.
Our relationship to nature, our ability to rationalise, and our capacity to entertain the divine are ideas very familiar to New Zealand architecture. To this end, we know the all sorts of Primitive Huts well. But we have much to learn about the kind of denials Judd was making, and Laugier, Durand, Malizia, and all the others who denied some critical aspect of their own time in order to reinvent.
New Zealand has a strong tradition of building an aesthetic that extends nature. We have such a history of building 'sympathetically' with our context that it runs through our legislation in the form of District Plans and their nostalgic Design Guides. We also have a strong tradition of building an aesthetic that underscores the rational. This aspect of the Modern suits us well. We can even build an atmosphere of the divine when we have to.
But do we have a history of self consciously denying contemporary culture in order to produce the new? Are we comfortable taking on global tendencies, understanding them, critiquing them, and then throwing them away so that they can be replaced? Are we as comfortable operating on our discipline as we are rationalising it? We need work like Judd's not to show us the core of our disciplines; not to show us how we can engage with nature, but to show us how to walk away from the apparent centre like Judd left New York. We need Marfa like we need all Primitive Huts to know precisely what we should not be doing: to enable us to operate on our own thinking and that of our discipline.
- Small Steps to Paradise
- Introduction to Great Figure!
- Architecture in the House of Art
- You Are What You Eat, You Better Build What You Believe In
- Fantastic Responses to the Unreasonable
- Re-establishment of the New Zealand Company
- NZIA Canterbury Branch Lecture
- Idea Farming
- Useless Bastards
- Interiors in the Land of the Great Outdoors