Saturday, February 19, 2005

Gardens of Architecture

In my quest to piece together some scholarship on Architectural Graphic Standards, I’ve given our inter-library loan staff some impressive challenges. There’s now a huge backlog in my name and every few days I get a magical email that summons my presence to the education library (good temporary parking) to pick up yet another dusty tome that some intrepid librarian has dug out of a long-forgotten collection. Yesterday, I received a beut.

The photocopied article in front of me is barely legible and certainly indicates the short-comings of copying technology. The source manifestation of this work—had to watch the vocabulary there—must be a remarkable thing: each page is covered with watermarks and subtle diagrammatic icons. The paper itself must be somehow coloured and textured. Unfortunately, in my barely legible photocopy the depth of presentation has been flattened and I’m left with a document without pagination, or margins and apparently suffering from a sever case of impetigo. I can only imagine the original texture of the pages or the crackle of book’s spine but given the rarity of this thing, I’m happy to have a (very insufficient) copy. In front of me sits a copy of George Barnett Johnston’s Gardens of Architecture: Reflections on the Plates of Architectural Graphic Standards originally published in the exceedingly rare 1988 book edited by Rob Miller called Implementing Architecture.

I can only imagine other researchers meeting with a similar level of frustration when looking for Johston’s work, so I am making some choice pull-quotes available. Of course, the précised text of a copied work strips out much of the reading satisfaction but I figure my efforts are better than nothing. Please note the pagination is mine and starts from the first page of my copy which happens to be Johnston’s title page.

“In its beginning Graphic Standards served as a handbook for the accommodation of technical progress within the bounds of the existing building custom; today, it serves as an instrument for the promotion of the progress of technology as the single motive of a new and unbounded standard.” (Pg. 1)

“The challenge for today’s Graphic Standards, and one must assert for contemporary architectural practice as well, is not how to put buildings together but rather to conform to a logical system by which they might be divided into parts. Evident form the pages of Graphic Standards is that the manipulation of information holds primacy over the mastery of material. The craft of building is reduced to the assembly of standards parts. While the connection of components lies within the realm of the systematic, the integration of systems into a larger structure is either absent or opaque.” (pp. 4-5)

“Each division of Graphic Standards is a self-contained subject, complete with its own rational determinants of optimal testing. Unlike encyclopedic order, the plates of Graphic Standards are fragmented but not cross-referenced, leaving the knowledge of architecture in a state of disassembly. The movement from building custom to constructional standard, first codified in the early editions of Graphic Standards, has here become the assertion of an economic-functional-technological determinism engendered through graphic convention. The individual plates are graphic texts without context: flat, disembodied, and drawn with an eery sense of detachment which neither instructs nor inspires.” (pg. 5)

[There’s a lot that I could take Johnston to task for here… but he’s given me some rhetorical scope!]

“From the first through fifth editions, Architectural Graphic Standards is a handbook of practice in the service of the draftsman; graphic standards are treated as tools of circumstantial accommodation.” (pg. 6)

“Because of the standardization of building components, the intuitive adjustments made by the mason or carpenter in the field were gradually being brought under the control of the draftsmen. In the pages of Graphic Standards, therefore, custom and practice were being systematically redefined as a controlling standard from which circumstantial deviation in the field was becoming less tolerable.” (pg. 6)

“Because Graphic Standards was, metaphorically, the building unfolded, anyone familiar with construction knew where to open the book. The graphic plates, which were hand-drawn and hand-lettered, still convey the warmth of their humanity which is their main clue to an architecture of material reality.” (pg. 6)

[In a riff on something seemingly unrelated to AGS, Johnston provides a passage that deserves a wider audience. I feel like I should put it in italics to open a chapter or something…}

“The Anthropometric Man is also ergonometric, the one measures for optimum work. Every joint is emphasized and centers of gravity localized, while lines of force connect points of stress to trace the limbs in motion and rest. Institutions exist to correct the maladjustments which are inevitable according to the statistical sages with actuarial tables. The courtroom provides social surgery while the hospital administers an anesthetic justice. If just a quick-fix is all you need, may I recommend the Automatic Tithe Machine, or perhaps Drive-Thru Absolution?” (pg. 9)

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