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Tracing The Genesis of the Inhabitable Picture Plane

Part 2 Dissertation 2009
David Healy
University College Dublin Dublin Ireland
"A man that looks on glasse
on it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass
and then the heav'n espie"

George Herbrert: The Elixir

The Picture Plane is both the vertical screen through which Durer's man regards his subject and the horizontal sheet on which he draws. It is the thin surface that lies between us and the world, the immovable diaphane.

This piece traces a phenomenon of architectural thought which dwelt upon that plane, establishing a way of thinking which tended to draw space out of the flatness of representations, rather than using images as a means to develop a spatial whole. This produced an intellectual environment in which architects began to see the plane as being thick with space.

I argue that the origins of this phenomenon are found in the works of Kasimir Malevich whose black square proclaimed the collapse of pictorial space, drawing architectural and painterly surfaces into alignment - paintings, freed of their function as windows of illusion, and walls, freed of their structural purpose, fused.

This transfer and cross-breeding of the work of artist and architect is best played out in the work of Le Corbusier. His 'Casa Curutchet' can be read as an inhabitable painting. Its layered planes have the pictorial qualities of a purist canvas in both plan and elevation. This quality nevertheless comes after a plastic conception of form and volume. Space here precedes the pictorial planes which define it.

In the work of Peter Eisenman space is residual, occurring between a vocabulary of elements (columns, beams, walls). Space arises out of pictures and pictorial conventions, forming a sealed loop of representation whereby the architecture constantly refers back to the tools of its inception.

The work of John Hejduk releases us from this loop. His 'Wall House' constructs a portal leading both into and out of a pictorial conception of space. It confirms the notion that pictorial effects are bound to the flat plane and questions whether we can make space within the thickness of a surface, or simply on either of its two sides?

David Healy

One of the signs of a fully achieved work is that it is difficult to discern from the finished product the pattern and path of its development. So it is with David Healy’s dissertation which, in its finished state, moves from a consideration of Malevich’s explorations of the picture plane to a narrative which leaps confidently from Le Corbusier’s Maison Curutchet to Bernard Hoesli to Colin Rowe to Peter Eisenmann and John Hedjuk. At each step, the investigation of the picture plane is extended, refined and elaborated. Furthermore, this theoretical argument seems at every stage to be underpinned by historical causality – a sense of one thing leading inevitably to the next. And yet, as tutor to this work, I know just how hard won is this sense of inevitability. What began life as an investigation of Constructivist work of Kenneth Martin ends with him featuring only fleetingly in the footnotes. As each piece of this painstakingly assembled intellectual jigsaw was moved gradually into place I was continuously impressed by the maturity of David’s theoretical understanding of space and plane, of representation and display. This maturity was matched by a capacity to make connections across time and space, to discern a common lineage across diverse people and periods. Although Bernard Hoesli was a relatively late arrival into the discussions, he proved the vital link between the twin poles of Le Corbusier and Eisenman, giving the finished dissertation both a narrative continuity and a conceptual coherence.

Hugh Campbell

Professor of Architecture

Dr Hugh Campbell
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