Lost and Found: John Hejduk and the Specific Autonomy of Drawing

Presented at the 2013 Wentworth Graduate Symposium “Lost in Translation” and published in WAr (forthcoming).

“Reading is a miswriting, just as writing is a misreading.” —Harold Bloom

One afternoon in 1985, the word spread throughout the Cooper Union architecture studios that the Dean was calling an all-school meeting. Over 100 architecture students packed into the third floor lobby and listened, in an unprecedented moment of candor, as John Hejduk recounted the conversation he had just had with a recent graduate. His former student was excited to have been commissioned to design a house on Long Island. Hejduk’s frustration rose visibly as he quoted him saying, “Of course, I won’t be able to design the way we did in school.” The graduate had articulated what the students took for granted: that the school of architecture had carved out a sacred space within which architecture could be pursued with autonomy from the concerns of the outside world—architecture for the sake of architecture. What was surprising to Hejduk’s audience was not to hear of this disconnect between school and the profession—something we had come to understand as the precondition for our creative adventures—the surprise was in the vehemence with which Hejduk denied such a separation.

At another level, what made the entire event notable was how rarely anyone, much less John Hejduk himself, spoke in such a direct way about the relationship between education and practice. Hejduk’s mission and pedagogy was embodied in the pristine all-white Corbusian interior renovation of the Cooper Union’s rusticated stone façade Foundation Building set like the bow of an ocean liner cleaving the waters of the Bowery’s skid row ambiance into the split wake of Third and Fourth Avenues along which its graduates circled and eddied upon graduation trailing off into uptown design firms. Instead of targeting and launching the professional trajectories of young designers, Hejduk’s pedagogical legacy is found in life-altering disruptions requiring a prolonged recovery period, often a lifetime, of making sense out of experience.

For Hejduk, the key moment of disruption is found in the act of architectural representation. The moment when hands scrape graphite across the fibrous surface of paper, or release a material construction to hold its form in space, is the moment of translation from intention to form. We speak of “drawing” in this larger sense, as encompassing all modes of a dizzying expansion of the media of architectural representation in two, three, or four (time) dimensions. Hejduk invoked this moment of disruption as “making,” annunciated in a guttural breathy Bronx-tinged baritone left to hang in the air as if to permit the full reverberant decay appropriate to its sacred provenance.

As Cezanne made explicit, representation is always a matter of translation. Representation can never fully capture that which it strives to represent. But within this limitation lies its power. At the heart of representation is a forced selection of what comes of translation: what is represented, and what is not. As in language, translation rarely passes from one world to another with isomorphic one-to-one fidelity. Translation thus entails a shift in meaning, and it does so in both what is lost in translation but also what is found. The sense of discovery characteristic of drawing is possible only through a simultaneously deliberate and accidental loss of fidelity that permits other phenomena to rise to the surface of awareness. The power of discovery through drawing is dependent upon both liberties and constraints. The total liberation of non-objective art is a key reference point with which to calibrate degrees of freedom and liberation with which the act of drawing operates as selectively constrained by the ideas being tested. This produces a more specific autonomy of drawing operating parallel to our understanding of a more specific autonomy of architecture—selectively constrained by the conditions of its production and liberated by the power of form.

The 1996 retrospective show of John Hejduk’s work mounted by Jeffrey Kipnis and K. Michael Hays at the Canadian Centre for Architecture advanced the larger project of contextualizing the contributions of John Hejduk’s remarkable career as architect and educator. In his introduction to the 1996 edited volume Hejduk’s Chronotope, Hays characterizes Hejduk’s impact as “monstrous” not only for the invocation of the fantastical, the carnivalesque, the chimeric assemblage of animal parts as architecture, the monumentality of scale without the veneration or permanence of monuments; but also for a simultaneous challenge to both theory and practice while obstinately refusing to engage in either theorization or practice.[1] Hejduk’s refusal to engage the world through the language of theory was a rejection of exterior framings that might distort, diminish or obscure the more direct and immediate translations of “making.” Words were spoken, but in guarded poetic tones as if to preserve the sanctity of a direct personal experience—a deliberate act of translation with attention to that which is lost, and allowing unanticipated findings to emerge. The texts of his books and the theory courses at the Cooper Union were written and taught as poetry or in the mode of literary theory eschewing any fixity of meaning. Similarly, Hejduk’s work simultaneously refused to be constructed within the prevailing conventions of practice and constantly insisted upon the immanence of its making. For Hejduk, the act of drawing becomes a rehearsal for material assembly registering the acts of construction down to the final position screw heads. These then are the two key terms of reference with which Hejduk’s drawings monstrously throw down his challenge: drawing that refuses theory yet asserts its own terms of reference, and drawing that rejects conventions of construction yet renders an almost inevitable material realization.

In his 1984 “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form,” K. Michael Hays offers his reading of work by Mies van der Rohe to establish the operation of a “critical architecture” that simultaneously displaces the embodiment of self-perpetuating forces of architectural production (market conditions, technical systems, regimes of taste, building types) and refuses to exist as an autonomously irreducible ideal object-form for the sake of form alone.[2] Mies was a constant presence in Hejduk’s framings for the capacity of work to simultaneously challenge the conventions of architectural production and silence attempts to impose a priori theory. What then does Hejduk’s “making”—the deliberate loss and discovery through the translations of drawing—offer to our struggles to understand and establish the conditions for producing “critical” architectures? If the key moment of disruption lies in the act of making, how then might we establish the conditions for producing “critical drawing”? Can other modes of representation obtain to the same level of criticality discovered in drawing? On this last issue, the under-appreciated—some would say contradictory—aspect of Hejduk’s pedagogy is the investment in shop facilities (shared with the School of Art) equal in size to the drawing studios, and an eight-semester structures sequence without equal anywhere else including poly-technical programs. The ongoing resonance of this line of questioning is one indication that the longue durée impact of Hejduk’s work continues to unfold.[3]

Hays describes “critical architecture” as neither just an instrument of dominant cultural forces, nor a wholly detached autonomous abstracted formal system. As demonstrated in the German Pavilion of the 1929 Barcelona Exposition, there are elements of both existing dominant order and abstract pure formalism at play but Hays examines the several ways the resulting experience transcends both to achieve its status as “critical.” A parallel construction of “critical drawing” might be delineated as neither just an extension of the existing site and situation, nor a purely un-situated diagram. As demonstrated in student projects throughout academia, the construction of a diagram in three dimensions does not a critical architecture make. To operate within the space of criticality, a drawing must simultaneously transcend the pure formal diagram, and the mere extension of prevailing forces operating within and through a project. But this neither-just-situated-nor-wholly-autonomous delineation of critical drawing, as has proven the case with critical architecture, is soft on the more positive question of what does critical drawing/architecture do?

Any architectural idea worthy of exploration poses a challenge both to existing approaches and to pure abstractions of form for the sake of form. Indeed, a history of critical architectures is one of confrontations between dominant forces and powerful form, just as the critical history of architecture venerates moments of contestation that provoke latent hinge-points in the interplay between idea, meaning and experience.[4] The degree of agency necessary to negotiate such turning surpasses mere “resistance” or “opposition.” Idea must pass into the world of manifest form where its critical power commands theoretical silence, as compelled by Hejduk’s work. Hays quotes Karl Kraus: “Since the facts have the floor, let anyone who has anything to say come forward and keep his mouth shut.” Hejduk’s work demanded understandings beyond what contemporary practice and theory were able to muster. Out of the silence, the idea made manifest in the facts of its “making” generates its own terms of reference. The proper task of criticism is to articulate the criteria generated out of the agency asserted by critical work, particularly as these criteria challenge and displace the dominant agenda that would have otherwise occupied its place.

A critical practice aspires to feed the energy of this loop of idea-form-criteria back upon itself through drawing. The iterative (looping) exploration of an architectural idea framed powerfully by the limitations deliberately and accidentally imposed by drawing feeds into the interpretive step of criteria formation (critique) and back into drawing. The role of drawing is to test form against a specific set of criteria as if to ask repeatedly and with growing insistence: Does it work? In this, every idea demands its own way of asking—its own medium and mode of representation. The question of method in turn asks: How can you tell? This operation of critical drawing fits well the double-sense of the term “reflexive”: the automatic or semi-automatic response to stimulus, and a process that acts upon itself.[5] The development of critical drawing methods that operate at the core of the discipline of architecture in ever-expanding technical modes and formal expressions are the beneficial outcome of so many readings and misreadings of disciplinary “autonomy” since the 1970s. In the 2003 “Mining Autonomy” issue of Perspecta, Somol and Whiting call the shift in architecture from the autonomous object to perceived experience “projective” or “post critical” even as Hays refers to it as an expansion of the critical project itself.[6]

The agency of architecture lies to a large extent in the capacity of the interplay between form and critique, between idea made manifest as a force for generating and regenerating criteria. Whether within (Hays) or beyond (Somol and Whiting) perceived boundaries of the “critical,” architectural meaning is a product of its effects, its reception in experience, its performance. As Forrest Gump would have it: Architecture is as architecture does. To the extent that the specific criteria employed in the critique of what architecture “does” is more or less directly testable through “critical drawing,” the disciplinary core of architecture retains its structural integrity. The power of architecture’s critical processes and capacity for conceptual framing allows it to engage with other discourses, to cross disciplinary boundaries, to take into consideration a multiplicity of phenomena, without becoming untethered from its disciplinary core.


[1] K. Michael Hays, “Hejduk’s Chronotope (An Introduction),” Hejduk’s Chronotopes, ed. K. Michael Hays (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 7-22.

[2] K. Michael Hays, “Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form,” Perspecta 21 (New Haven, The Yale Architectural Journal, 1984), 15-29.

[3] The list of academic leaders coming out of The Cooper Union, we add Kyna Leski (class of 1984) at the Rhode Island School of Design, and Jeffrey Hou (class of 1989) at the University of Washington. Criswell Lappin, “Hejduk’s Legacy: A Great Teacher’s Influence Reaches Far and Wide,” Metropolis (August/September 2003), 122-23.

[4] Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: A Critical History (London: Thames and Hudson, 2003).

[5] The notion of “reflexivity” grows out of a series of “Second Modernity Seminars” taught since 2003. See: Robert Cowherd, “Notes on Post-criticality: Towards an Architecture of Reflexive Modernisation,” Footprint: Delft School of Design Journal: Agency in Architecture: Reframing Criticality in Theory and Practice 4, http://www.footprintjournal.org/issues/show/5 (Spring 2009), 65-76.

[6] Lauren Kogod points to this expansive interpretation of “critical architecture” as a “disciplinary Anscluss” annexation of what the editors and others would see as decidedly outside its discourse. K. Michael Hays, Lauren Kogod, Michael Osman, Adam Ruedig, Matthew Seidel and Lisa Tilney, “Twenty Projects at the Boundaries of the Architectural Discipline Examined in Relation to the Historical and Contemporary Debates over Autonomy,” Perspecta 33: Mining Autonomy, eds. Michael Osman et al. (New Haven: Journal of the Yale School of Architecture, 2002), 68-70.

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