Sehwail + Zimmerman

On Almost-ness

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Framework Houses, 1959-73

On Almost-ness

We like things that cannot be easily defined. These things might be best described by the notion of almost-ness. We’re interested in qualities that make something almost the scale of a building … almost ornamental … maybe almost structural. How can an object seem almost too big, or exist as something almost familiar? The effects of almost-ness aim to expand the ways we consider architectural objects or elements to operate beyond the singular definitions to which they are usually confined. almost-ness also makes room for things typically marginalized within a disciplinary context, blurring boundaries within the clichéd distinction between “buildings” and “architecture.” What follows is a few speculations on these interests.

Serial Banality
Water towers, blast furnaces, grain elevators, barns, gas tanks, and Framework Houses were objects of fascination for the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher. They were not interested in heroic or iconic structures. The Bechers, who worked in collaboration from the mid-1950s until the mid-2000s, were known for their serial photography of mundane architectural objects. These were objects of the everyday, often fulfilling utilitarian services. The way the Bechers photographed and presented their work demonstrated an obsessive interest in capturing a certain deadpan quality exuded by these objects, a bunch of things seemingly dumb and overly familiar. In doing so they revealed a particular strangeness in their groupings … the objects sitting in their frames so lackluster, yet there’s something else not fully accessible to the viewer.

Much of the Bechers’ work offers material for an architectural investigation … things like typologies, industrial aesthetics, or maybe even structural principles. But our interests have more to do with their attitude and representations. For our purposes we focus on the series titled Framework Houses(1959-73). The Bechers photographed each house from a frontal point of view, cropped tightly within the frame as to remove the object from its context, except for the overcast sky in the background and the ground upon which each house sits. The images of the houses are then placed within a grid and presented as a series of similar types. The Bechers represented nearly all of their projects in this way, serialized by type and removed from context. The collection within each grid then becomes the context for evaluating the work. The aesthetic of the series demands the viewer make a simple observation—despite commonness and commonalities something is not quite right.

The series that make up the Framework Houses include photographs of houses in the Siegen industrial region of Germany that were built by immigrants who traveled to work in the mines between 1870 and 1914. The photographs highlight facades that reveal a timber framework, which resemble a version of structural expressionism at first glance. However, when the photographs are collected as a series, it becomes evident that the houses did not follow a singular logic. Rather, the collection amplifies the idiosyncratic qualities of the houses and their frameworks. As one studies the series as a whole, new characteristics become primary to the composition, such as almost symmetries, clumsy detailing, and awkward combinations of disparate parts. Known categories of structure, ornament, facade, and silhouette are not so easily discernible;each element behaves in ways almost similar to any other. Blurring these distinctions invites speculation that might further push against known relations of architectural elements.

Lousy Circles
Lousy circles are a degree too clumsy—crafted, but not perfectly—and arranged as a series of repetitive almosts; almost identical, almost figural, almost primitive. They stand as supplemental design products to the 20th century’s industrialized ethos of perfect repetition. Lousy circles are clumsy yet sophisticated. The work of Carey Maxon, a New York based artist, uses lousy circles though she simply calls them “dots,” resonating with a sensibility of almost-ness. In particular, her series titled Influence Schematic depicts clusters of two-dimensional dots, each one hand crafted on the page. Each dot possesses recognizable differences from the rest of the group due to subtle faults or disfigurations in silhouette. They are not perfect dots in the form of pure primitives. The series tolerates imperfection as a method of accumulating distinction between self-similar parts. Amongst the lousy circles similarity is evident, but one sees their struggle to align in an elegant, functional, or scripted fashion. In this series Maxon draws the dots almost the same size and almost organized within a gridded structure, but the dots meander along wiggly lines. The viewer’s gaze moves along the lines, taking note of each idiosyncratic bump among the dots, simultaneously attempting to grasp the series as a whole.

Influence Schematic, I, 2015. Lithograph on Koller HMP paper, 16.25 x 13 inches. Edition of 20. Image by Carey Maxon
Influence Schematic, III, 2015. Lithograph on Koller HMP paper, 16.25 x 13 inches. Edition of 20. Image by Carey Maxon

We might speculate that the wiggly lines constitute some sort of ground for her dots to sit upon. Sometimes each dot has its own ground line. Other times a line groups several of her dots together. The slight relationship between the dot and line provides a moment for the two to come to terms with one another. By scanning across the various dots, one notices the difference in how each one molds and blends into the line. Typically it appears as if the dots flatten out to ground themselves against gravity, giving each one an identity through subtly unique posture. If we imagine Maxon’s dots projected off of the surface to take on spatial qualities we might be left with almost spheres. One could see an almost spherical form to be embellished with lumpy qualities. Its new lumpy features and almost edges offer conditions to ground the object and further explore its elevational qualities.

Straw Hut, Ecuador. Photo: Jeanne Burnham
Zulu Hut, South Africa. Photo: John Atherton

Thatched Huts
There are some building types that could be considered almost architecture. Thatched huts typically lie on the outer edges of architecture’s disciplinary discourse, yet claim a renewed relevancy for a contemporary project ... just consider the previous discussion on almost spheres and clumsy primitives. Thatched huts are useful in projecting from Carey Maxon’s two-dimensional lousy circles towards an architecture based on lumpy, generic primitives. Posturally, huts tend to be almost pure reproductions of what one may understand as a geometrically defined sphere, or at least half of a sphere, yet they lack an overall smoothness of form and silhouette. As a result, in profile we see lousy circles while the volume itself remains almost spherical. The thatched material itself, placed on top of an almost spherical framework, possesses a range of fitness to the exterior. While some huts are tightly bound to the exterior framework, others remain loose and produce a thicker layer of outermost material, which is then manipulated to produce unique elevational qualities that diverge from the purity of the underlying dome structure.

Thatched huts also offer a curious *almost-ness in the way different elements and scales are introduced. Where traditionally a building is made up of walls, doors, windows, ornaments, columns, etc., thatched huts are predominantly roofs. A thatched hut is an almost dome sitting on the ground with a poorly articulated entrance. Unlike lousy-articulated artifacts or almost spherical small objects, huts claim an entrance ... an entrance that negotiates between the outside world and the hut’s interior. This negotiation is a factor we use to judge whether the hut can catch our interest. An almost sphere’s articulation positions an architectural element such as a roof to be viewed out of scale, out of place, and out of shape—so much so that entire huts situate themselves on the ground as large roofs. These huts simultaneously posit roof as entrance, roof as wall, and roof as roof. The idea of roof as entrance questions the role of architectural elements functionally, compositionally, and aesthetically. We see this case to be a point for departure to project what a roof as entrance could produce, embracing the almost spherical and lousy circle qualities produced by huts, and the dots of Carey Maxon’s almost op-art.

We know huts come in various materials, colors, and forms, but their sizes seem to be a key factor in our exploration of finding almost-ness in architecture. Similar to a hut’s unarticulated, almost-sphere qualities read through elevational profiles, we find an interest in a hut’s spatial quality in regards to its surroundings through a planometric or perspective view. Some huts are almost small enough to be considered a single room, yet we find it to be too large to be a room ... and almost large enough to be considered a house, yet still we see it too small to be a house. This becomes a moment of productive reflection on how an architectural object’s scale conflicts with its relationship to the background functions of domesticated environments. We use this almost size classification on program as an artificial perspective of a possible fiction to argue a position through the hut typology as a case study on how objects sit around other objects in space. Simple considerations in this regard are huts found in a multiplicity, an aggregation could be understood as a village ... or cases in which the hut is conditioned as an interior piece of a larger architectural space it inhabits.

Despite many promising characteristics, there are certain pitfalls for thatched huts. As almost domes they typically rest flat on the ground, only to differentiate between interior and exterior by the thin thatched covering. In this case, Maxon’s dots offer a more productive approach for the relationship between building and ground. The dots claim a subtle position to the ground as one gently infects the other. At times, the dots are nestled by the ground, and in other moments there are dots that approach the ground skeptically. In either case, there is an opportunity for the almost sphere to consider a more precarious relationship to its ground.

Cluster of Zulu Huts, South Africa. Photo: John A Forbes

Fuzzy Edges
Four series of elevational drawings investigate the banality of repetitively similar objects of various scales and functions: primitive spheres, classical doors, barn houses, and framework houses. These are objects that find their place in the discourse misfit between familiar categories of representation, form, and scale. Yet, this interest is all external and superficial—pressing fuzzy edges onto each object to shift them into series of almosts. The series demonstrate a disjunction between an interior (its primitive form) and its exterior (the treatment of the fur). The fuzziness of the drawings produces depth and variation of surface quality yet also provides a reading into gravity’s directionality, suggesting how these elements can sit on a ground ... but still drawn as absent of that ground. They float autonomously, provoking subtle quality shifts between the repeated objects.

Presented as a series, the objects take on an elusive disposition as the viewer’s gaze is lead from one to another through understated distinctions in form, silhouette, and character. Some objects appear well groomed while others are left unkempt. In each image, the “hair” is estranged from the “body” through a representational technique that renders just the shadows, producing an allusive aesthetic experience. At once, the viewer is presented the objects in plain sight, yet something is off … not quite right … something almost detectable.

Sehwail and Zimmerman, Series of Almost Spheres, 2016
Royer, Sehwail, and Zimmerman, Series of Extraordinary Classical Entrances, 2015
Sehwail and Zimmerman, Series of Barn Houses, 2015
Sehwail and Zimmerman, Series of Frameworks, 2015

Walaid Sehwail received his M.Arch from the University of Pennsylvania where he was awarded the Dales Travel Fellowship and the Faculty Prize design award, and earned his BS in Architectural Studies from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He has professional experience in award winning architecture offices including Norman Kelley, Young & Ayata, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in Chicago. He is currently practicing in Chicago

Michael Zimmerman is a designer and educator currently practicing in Philadelphia. Michael earned his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, and received his BA in Architectural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. He has previously worked at Canno Design, Manifest Architecture and Design, and Front Studio Architects.