Angels and Devils

James Williamson received his master of architecture at Cranbrook Academy of Art, and studied the history and theory of Architecture at the Architectural Association. He is coeditor of the book The Religious Imagination in Modern and Contemporary Architecture: A Reader, and is currently serving as director for the Undergraduate Bachelor of Architecture program at Cornell University, Department of Architecture.

Interviewed by Jose Ibarra (B.Arch.’16) and Whitney VanHouten (M.Arch.’16).

Jim, we are interested in talking to you for this issue of the Cornell Journal of Architecture, because it seems to us that, more than anyone else, you are somewhat of an expert in the realm of the spirit in architecture, not only because of your book, The Religious Imagination in Modern and Contemporary Architecture: A Reader, but also because of your relationship with John Hejduk, whose work is riddled with imagery of angels, devils, monsters, and apparitions. Let’s start at the beginning: How did you initially meet Hejduk?

Basically, he was a mentor and a friend. I first became aware of his work as an undergraduate in Texas, and even more so when I was a graduate student at Cranbrook. After graduation, I began teaching in Atlanta at Georgia Tech, during an extraordinary time for that school but also for what was going on in architecture — a time when almost every discussion centered on the struggle with the relationship between theory and practice.

The year was 1986, and the director of the Department of Architecture at Georgia Tech, Alan Balfour, had the idea that we would engage architects like Hejduk, who were creating the most speculative work of the time — work often unallied with building — to build things as a way of engaging the so-called theoretical (although Hejduk would hate this term applied to him or his work). This way, we would to expose students to the work of particularly interesting architects, theoreticians, or poetic builders, but also engage in matter-of-fact issues of materials, of construction, and technique. Hejduk was the first architect we approached, and I then led a group of students to help design and build the House of the Suicide and the House of the Mother of Suicide. In doing that, I began to know Hejduk and the work quite closely.

Would you say these Houses were partially designed by you and the students as well?

It’s certainly Hejduk’s design, but as Michael Hays has said, of all the Masque constructions that were built, this was by far the most collaborative — at least between Hejduk and me. It took a long time and was a struggle for a lot of reasons, mostly financial and political, but also due to tragedies among some of the participants. The students and I built almost everything ourselves, but the metal fabrication of the spikes that rise out of the top of the structure had to involve work with a metal fabricator, because the spikes were such a large scale. Soon after we started work on the spikes, that man committed suicide ... it was very strange and not a little bit haunting.

Afterward, Hejduk invited me to come teach at The Cooper Union, and we got to know each other even more. Just before this, the communist government in Czechoslovakia had fallen, with a democratically elected government taking its place, and with Václav Havel becoming its president. When Havel shortly after visited New York, he brought an entourage that included people in the Ministry of Culture, which also included some Czech architects. A group of these architects, having known about Hejduk, his work, and his teaching, arranged a visit to Cooper Union. During the meeting, Hejduk told them that he was building a project with students in Atlanta about Czechoslovakia ― about Jan Palach ― called the House of the Suicide and the House of the Mother of the Suicide. Palach was the famous Czech dissident who set himself on re in 1969, to protest the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring. He died a martyr a few days later. One thing led to another; John Jay Iselin, the great president of Cooper Union at the time, became involved and we were soon planning to rebuild the projects on the grounds of the Prague Castle. They have been built four times, by the way: in Atlanta, in Prague, in New York City at the Whitney, and now again in Prague as a permanent monument to Palach next Jan Palach Square.

Hejduk’s projects seem to be made in series, therefore evoking different worlds and conceptual grounds. Do you think it could be said that the Texas, Diamond, and Wall Houses are more him attacking something he was really interested in, while the Masques and Angels, were him letting the context have more influence?

Hejduk spoke about how his architecture went from an architecture of optimism to an architecture of pessimism. In all the projects or series, I think that he plays out a particular kind of theme and tries to exhaust it. It’s as if he had certain epiphanic moments where he discovers a set of architectural ideas that he then pursues ― rather relentlessly. But in the latter projects, he seems to both respond to context (a poetic one) and take a very critical stance toward architecture at the same time.

I was reading something the other night by Robert Harbison,1 where he writes that Hejduk’s projects (specifically about the Bye House) are never intended to be inhabited. I actually don’t think that is true; Hejduk is perfectly willing to inhabit them and have people inhabit them. But there is an idea of inhabiting these building propositions that is both physical and existential, and that was clearly challenging the idea that the architect was simply a problem solver whose primary concern was to fulfill the client’s brief.

The Texas (1954 – 63) through the Diamond Houses (1962 – 67) ― even though they come from Hejduk, and even though there is a clear syntactic and formal program―still imagine an inhabitation that would be understood in a conventional way. They wouldn’t be discomforting in the psychic way that the Wall House
(1973 –76) and the other projects that come after clearly are. He decided at some point that he could provide the program — an existential program that he needed to provide for the work to actually be architecture.

This was a time when architects like the Archigram group, the young Koolhaas, and Tschumi, Raimund Abraham, and many others were challenging the program in different but very important ways. It seems to me that these architects were trying to find a reason to build that they found genuine and authentic to the time. Ultimately I think the Wall House is Hejduk doing just that, and he liberates himself, as a result.

You have said that there’s a predominantly existential notion behind Hejduk’s phases and houses. Would you say that this is the way in which he dealt with the struggle you mentioned between theory and practice — by really conceptualizing this existentialism or way of inhabiting more than he would about the actually inhabiting of the place itself?

Let me clarify something: I think architecture is always about existence, and it is therefore always existential. It’s always speaking to us about the place of human beings in the world — or with the cosmos, if you will.

What I think Hejduk begins to do in the Wall House is take on the questions about existence that were being (and are still being) asked by a number of authors and artists and a few architects of that time. With Hejduk, there was an interest in both literature and in painting, which is why he refers to both ― as opposed to theorists ― so often. The Diamond Houses are, of course, related to Mondrian, and there are houses related to cubist paintings (to which Hejduk returns in the “wallpaper” houses at the end of his career); he thinks about architecture with a very painterly interest and obsession.

Now that you’ve mentioned Mondrian, we could say there were many influential figures in Hejduk’s career, which changed how he worked and thought (e.g., Le Corbusier, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Piet Mondrian, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Paul Celan, Emily Dickinson, etc.). Were these ghosts that were haunting him? Do you feel his works were exorcisms of these influences, or were they instead methods of maintaining a communion with them?

Certainly not an exorcism and most certainly a communion. The architects and the artists were there, and I think that those authors and others and literature in general must have always been there also, but they seem to become very important and pivotal in Hejduk’s attitudes toward program that occur after The Wall Houses. And this is where I think the overt existentialism comes in. As opposed to just being concerned about existence in general, Hejduk is concerned about an existentialist attitude or position often informed by one of these authors. What follows after the Wall Houses―especially the Silent Witnesses project, and his own poetry―make this clearly evident.

In the essay I wrote in the book on Religion,2 I write about Hejduk, Le Corbusier, and Rossi―but I could have included several others as well ― searching for a context for their work, and finding that Western culture, especially American culture, was not providing them with a context in which they could make a meaningful body of architecture. I argue that the essential parts of this context are the drawings, but another part of it is the audience that they are speaking to. For Hejduk that context is always going to include other architects and artists, as well as authors. Those are the people that he wishes to be part of a community. But he’s not really an elitist: the work is immensely approachable to anybody; anyone can recognize and identify the figures in the Masque Projects objects, for example. Anyone can participate in the open imaginative eld that he creates.

It seems to us that Hejduk employed mnemonic devices in his projects, and relies on memory associations for experiential qualities. How would you say memory operates in the world of John Hejduk?

Hejduk uses relatively ordinary things as a basis from which to make his architecture. When we are talking about the Masque Projects, or those projects associated with them, we can recognize qualities in them relatively easily. For instance, if you look at the House of the Suicide, it’s quite easy for you to see Medusa and a number of other associations that were important to Hejduk. When we were building it initially, the students saw the fight promoter, Don King (!); and pineapples, and any number of other things. Hejduk was certainly thinking about figure of Medusa, but the projects have the ability to trigger other images, other associations. There’s a familiarity to them that I think operates in the mnemonic realm: we remember, we associate what we see with something. But, I think there is something even more profound than association, in that they are a kind of Memory Theater.

During the Renaissance, a philosopher named Giulio Camillo conceived and built the Memory Theater, or the Theater of the World. It was a small piece of architecture, large enough to be inhabited by a single person, and similar to a very small theater for children. But it was really a kind of amazing indexical system of images, words, and associations that allowed the participant to make an almost in nite set of sensible connections. I think Hejduk’s work operates in that way — you see this and you think about that, which is associated with a third thing that then allows you to think about yet a fourth thing; as I mentioned before, there is an open eld of association that is really quite structured, but very rich at the same time.

For example, if we go back to the House of the Suicide, one might first think of Medusa (because of Hejduk’s Book: Mask of Medusa), but in Hajduk’s description of the project, he writes about the suicide being fascinated with the fractured patterns of light in the paintings of Paul Cézanne. And when you look through Cézanne’s paintings, you find one titled The House of the Suicide, a house that has a tree in front of it, painted in late fall, so there are no leaves on the branches. Because of the way the Cézanne plays with depth, it looks like the branches are coming out of the house: a box with spikes coming out of its roof, which is basically what this project of Hejduk’s looks like. But ... Hejduk writes that the suicide was also drawn to the “claw-like hands” of the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Here, Hajduk is referring to the Comtesse d’Haussonville, a painting at the Frick Collection that he truly loved. If you turn these “claw-like hands” upside down, you have a crude image of the House of the Suicide, or Medusa, or ...

Additionally, the poet David Shapiro, who wrote the poem of Jan Palach’s death that inspired the House of the Suicide in the very beginning, spoke about the spikes coming out of the Suicide as visual metaphors for the flames coming off Jan Palach’s back, or the straight ones coming out of the House of the Mother of the Suicide looking like crematoria stacks. Finally, they also recall the spires you see rising from many of the important historical towers and churches in Prague. What seems to happen, at least to me, is a game of references that operates very much like a memory theater. Recalling this and recalling that: the project operates as kind of an indexical system of in nite possibilities ― the open eld I refer to. I suppose you could say that the project is even haunted by these apparitions.

I think the same things happen in the Masque Projects in general: the words, the narratives, the images, the objects, and the glyphs all conspire together to produce a fabulous and imaginative world. It’s not just a chaotic collection of images, references, and recollections, they all somehow are layered together in a poetic resonance that somehow makes sense. This is the genius of the work.

So in his work, other than memory, we see other elements related to time constantly being represented. Like the clock tower, for example, it seems like there is a game between ephemerality and specificity. Why do you think this was such an incipient interest of Hejduk’s?

He was certainly aware of his own mortality and this plays an increasingly important role in his work. He is clearly aware that time is passing, and he is aware of what that inevitably means to human beings. But there is something else: in the movie Interstellar, there is a character played by Michael Caine who says something like, “I am a physicist. I am not afraid of God, but I am afraid of time.” And I think there is a dimension like that to Hejduk’s meditations on time. It is not just mortality, but it’s this incredible conundrum that time ultimately represents to us. It is this specter that lurks behind everything.

Why was Hejduk obsessed with angels and devils, why does he need them, and how do they operate in his work?

The short answer is because he believes they are real; it is not so much that he needs them as knows they are present.

Hejduk was raised a Catholic, and although he was not religious in the conventional sense, he felt the world was an animated place, and there was a reality beyond the kind of factual, secular reality that many in architecture people would describe the world to be. You might say he was an adherent to a kind of pagan Catholicism within architecture.

I can put it another way: there is an interesting book by a woman named Carolly Erickson about the medieval imagination,3 which she describes as being importantly polyform. She writes of a fairly common artistic expression called Imago Mundi — an image of the world. These are stories as well as images. Erickson describes one: a story about three monks who go on a journey and along the way come across many remarkable things: they find the tomb of Alexander the Great and later they cross the Tigris and the Euphrates, and then come to a land of constant darkness and then another land of pigmy-like people, and then they go to a mountain where heaven and earth meet, and finally they meet a religious hermit who tells them to return home. For Erickson, the point was that in the Middle Ages people were not ignorant of facts: there is, in fact, a Tigris and Euphrates, and Alexander the Great was a real historic figure, but there were also theology, fantasies, and folk stories as well. It wasn’t that medieval people were primitive, but that their imaginations were broader than ours. The world was larger than the world of facts and verifiability. The world was polyform and multiply layered.

Hejduk is like that: he was someone who had a polyform view of the world, which included angels and devils. He clearly felt that he had met people that were demonic; he clearly felt that there were certain figures that he viewed as evil―architectural figures sometimes. He told me once about someone he met, a potential client about whom he had a profoundly strange feeling. When they shook hands, Hejduk recalled, “Jim, his hand was a paw!”―as if he had shaken hands with some devilish, possessed creature. And he also believed objects had these qualities, too―for good or bad―they had a type of animated quality that was part of their form.

So we could probably say that Hejduk was more spiritual than he was religious, then?

Well that’s the word we use, right? Spiritual, rather than religious? But, yes, in the most general view, but only if you include the occult as part of the “spiritual.” And the occult is really the key here―as an alternative to the calcification of normative spiritual practice.

By the way, I suspect that Hejduk’s inclusion of devils and angels―of good and evil―parallels Le Corbusier’s Manichean dual presence of the irrational and rational, which is most graphically seen in his self-portrait: half-Medusa and half- Apollo; half-rational and half-irrational. I suspect that this mutually dependent existence of opposites in the world is related to Hejduk’s angels and devils, and may be his own interpretation of the duality. Le Corbusier’s image of the ow, or day and the night with its predominant sin curve, is also picked up in Hejduk’s work in various ways. Certainly there was this struggle between good and evil in Hejduk’s work that was also present in his worldview.

I was interested in a quote we found of Hejduk’s, which reads, “Does the context construct events, or is it mere background? Are subjects replaceable, exchangeable or are they fixed?” One of the spirits that springs to mind when we talk about spirits in architecture, particularly at Cornell, is the genius loci, the spirit of the place. How would you respond to Hejduk’s questions?

In the book on religion I have written that Hejduk and others create their own context, in which the work makes ultimate sense and we must see as the imaginative site of the work, and even if the work has a real physical site we must see this imaginative site as equally important. For example, Le Corbusier creates a context for his work in his painting and printmaking, particularly his Le Poeme de l’Angle Droit. But I you could also say the context comes out of the work; there is always an interplay between these things, it is never one or the other, or ever completely fixed. If anything, Hejduk’s work aspired to resist being fixed, or having any singular interpretation. In fact, if there is anything fundamental about the work, I would say
it is this desire not to be fixed. To always be moving and always be between. Some could call it ambiguity, but I think that is too vague of a word. I think this is an ethical position that Hejduk takes, that you can’t x things, because if they are fixed, they die. So things, people, ideas must be in flux, and always should be.

How, in light of all this, do you critique your own personal work (that is actualized projects or studio work with your students)? How have Hejduk’s ideas and concepts influenced you?

I ultimately think that, in the end, the student’s own place in the world is really what you try to help them discover. So I suppose in my teaching, it is the students’ experience that is the most important context.

Their particular perceptions and their sets of ideas are the things that you want to draw out. I have never been the type of teacher that has a real personal agenda; I have never been someone who taught a studio where everyone approached the problem in a similar way, or a problem that had to do with my own research agenda. Quite frankly, I have a hard time with that and with research studios per se. I worry that what we are doing is forcing the student to learn an agenda that is not their own. And I suppose that could be a way of learning and a way of helping position yourself in the world, and it certainly gives you a set of tools, but I never wanted to do that.

I really thought that the individual was really the most important thing, so I never really tried to structure studios in that way.

That certainly has affected my teaching, and Hejduk has affected my teaching in that way, because that is how he did things, and he conducted his thesis studios in that way. Students really took on their own projects, and never tried to take on his. In fact, that is the last thing he would have wanted.

It would be really impossible to do a Hejduk project. People have tried it but it really looks like they are just imitating Hejduk, and in fairly unsophisticated ways. Likewise, in my own work, I aspire to have my own voice.

So, right now you have been the leader of the first-year design studio, along with Lorena del Río, and it seems like what you were doing with students for a big part of the semester, and perhaps what you tend to do, is to deal with the animation of an inanimate form. What role does breathing life into these objects play in education?

Well, you know, I never really thought about it this way consciously, but I suppose if you want objects to have a life of their own, modeling them after a creature (which is often what we assign) wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Ultimately that is what we really want: the projects to begin to develop a life and a trajectory of their own. But what is really behind what I think we are doing in first year, and I think it is similar to what other schools do as well (and I think that Hejduk is someone who influenced this) is to defamiliarize what a work of architecture and the work of the architect is. We very deliberately start by looking at these creatures as an attempt to put the student in an unfamiliar place, where drawing upon their previous experience with architecture, or more precisely, their presumptions or prejudices about it, is difficult.

You start by saying, “Whatever you thought architecture is, that is not where we are starting,” instead you start with something unfamiliar and find in it the possibility of an architecture to be built upon.

So overall, the method could be distilled to defamiliarization and refamiliarization?

Well, a couple things happen: (1) They learn, hopefully, to trust their imaginations; (2) to develop a kind of familiarity and comfort with process and rigor; (3) to believe that they don’t need to know what is at the end in order to get there; and (4) to have faith in their own intelligence, talents, and perceptions to make something meaningful and valuable and that we can call architecture. I think that is a very Hejduk-like thing to do.

When I was an undergraduate, everything was about architecture―a very normative architecture. You learn the things that will help you make a building: no one questioned what building really was or what building might be in a speculative sense, and there certainly were never any real efforts to defamiliarize you―not to the extent that we do here.

You, as Hejduk did, seem to enjoy and get something important out of religious figurations. We found this doodle while doing some research, and frankly, we thought it was Hejduk’s at first. What do these figures personally mean to you, and what are your thoughts and feelings toward them?

First of all, I hardly think that Hejduk would have done something so whimsical. He certainly could be playful but whimsy is not a word one would usually use to describe his work. Secondly, it’s really just a doodle done during a college faculty meeting, so it may tell you more about how I feel about faculty meetings than my thoughts about John Hajduk.

If you would like to see what my work at the moment looks like, you might consider this drawing. I will leave it to you to determine its connection to Hejduk, if any.


1 Robert Harbison, Thirteen Ways: Theoretical Investigations in Architecture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press: 2001).

2 Renata Hejduk and Jim Williamson (eds.), The Religious Imagination in Modern and Contemporary Architecture (New York: Routledge, 2011).

3 Carolly Erickson, The Medieval Vision: Essays in History and Perception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).

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