Architects dream of building the City on a Hill. Deep down inside, every designer believes that she can make a place that would not just be of the righteous, as St. Augustine hoped, or the Puritan’s beacon of doctrinaire faith—but rather a beautiful place. Rarely do architects get to build anything large enough to realize their dreams, and when they do, more often than not, the inhabited reality does not live up to the hoped-for vision.
Carl Laubin, who calls himself an “architectural artist,” has assembled such a vision, commissioned by the Notre Dame School of Architecture. Laubin's City on a Hill is not entirely his, however. Rather, it is an assembly of Neoclassical buildings designed by ten years' worth of winners of the Richard H. Driehaus Prize
The painting reminds me not so much of Greece or Rome, however, as of Istanbul, perhaps seen from the back of the Golden Horn looking towards the Hagia Sofia. Colonnaded, pedimented, and gridded buildings tumble down a hill facing a curving waterway. What they do not do is cohere, which is usually one of the arguments classicists make for the virtues of their manner of creating architecture. Laubin has painted the different structures, which range from a small mosque in the foreground, to colleges, office buildings, and private homes, at different scales; and despite some attempts to create a relationship between them, they assert themselves mainly as beautiful objects. Many have porticoes and verandas, opening themselves up to what must be a forgiving climate, though their overall masses appear rather closed.
I was reminded of Laubin’s collage, so seductive and wistful, when I was viewing Cyprien Gaillard’s videos. In one, a friend dives into the equally alluring pool in front of a housing project designed by Ricardo Bofill outside of Paris ( The Lake Arches, 2007). The water’s sweep turns out to be an allusion, and the man emerges with a bloodied nose. Gaillard specializes in tweaking his noses at the utopian impulses of modernism, showing both rebels and frat boys carousing in front of Acapulco resorts ( Cities of Gold and Mirrors, 2005), collaging together photographs of 1960 housing projects with beer labels, or conflating the implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe buildings with Niagara Falls ( Pruitt-Igoe Falls, 2009). He finds beauty not in the posing of perfect structures, but in their decay, destruction, and even inherent violence. His world is rough, falling apart, and more real, but by that token oddly alluring. Perhaps the remoteness of perfection, both in terms of achievability and in its self-enclosed posture, is too alien to us, while the used and the gritty draws out what we want to be. These two impulses come together in the computer-manipulated images of Nicolas Moulin, a French artist who now works in Berlin. After a recent sojourn in Sheffield, England, he photographed the Brutalist housing estates there, then turned them into ghostly places waiting to be reoccupied after some future apocalypse. In another recent project, he replaced the bases of the buildings along the Hausmannian boulevards of Paris with concrete walls, floating their filigreed façades over a zone of exclusion that recalled both prison walls and the abstractions of modern sculpture. In other artworks, he envisions sci-fi structures that extend the reach of the kind of 1970s skyscrapers, apartment blocks, and civic institutions that gave concrete form to social cohesion into monuments memorializing their own brute power.
It is a far way to travel from Laubin’s fantasy to Moulin’s. But I was reminded that, if you turn away from a view of Istanbul’s historic core, you would see many of the kind of structures the latter artist reimagines. I am fascinated by the work of all three of these artists, because all them present that which is inherent, but remains buried, inside built form. They bring out our dreams and our nightmares, and thus put our discipline on the couch. Our repressed desires should perhaps not be built, but we should picture and confront them.