A Model Staging Area or, Why Ann Bergren’s Thesis is so Beautiful by Rachel Allenny

Ann Bergren had taught architecture in Los Angeles at SCI-Arc and UCLA since 1987. In 1996 she interrupted this influential career to attend Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Her M. Arch. thesis, a Theater for Architecture and Dance, extends some of the concerns of her previous work into new territory – a complex and delicate building.

At the review, one critic said, “You have started from a position of irony, a good position for cultural criticism, but you have squandered that initial advantage and ended in poetry.”1

Ever since the publication of Learning from Las Vegas irony has held a special role in avant-garde architecture. “Irony is a tool,” its authors wrote then, and proposed “moral subversion through irony and the use of a joke to get to seriousness” as “the weapons of artists of nonauthoritarian temperament in social situations that do not agree with them.” Their key example is the Guild House, a group home for the elderly in Philadelphia, noting that the gold-anodized aluminum TV antenna at its top is “somewhat ironical.”2

Site Map

Irony here means that an educated consumer should understand that a project’s architects “couldn’t really mean that” (that the lives of elderly people spent watching TV are heroic and deserve a monument), and furthermore that what they did mean was the opposite (that those lives are tragic, not heroic). A gold TV antenna as a symbol for the elderly is transparently disingenuous; it is sincerely insincere.

It thus implies a stable and knowable opposition between appearance and reality: if you can see that something is ironic, it is because you, unlike Oedipus, for example, who does not realize the irony of what he says — you know that what seems true is the opposite of what really is.3

Site Model

Irony is well-defined here. Whether or not the gold TV antenna is offensive, whether or not the joke is a good one, it is an easy riddle to solve. It is to this recent tradition of irony in architecture that Bergren’s critic referred.

It helps a little to think of it in terms of the ironic man, in terms of the traditional opposition between eiron and alazon, as they appear in Greek or Hellenic comedy, the smart guy and the dumb guy…You must keep in mind that the smart guy, who is by necessity the speaker, always turns out to be the dumb guy, and that he’s always being set up by the person he thinks of as being the dumb guy, the alazon.4

Topo Map

Who is smart and who is dumb at the Guild House? The smart guy, the speaker, could be the antenna itself, saying, “I am a monument to old people watching TV!” We would have to be pretty dumb to believe this, but we are straw alazons, never really because only provisionally dumb. Instead, identifying the true speaker as an architect behind the antenna and identifying with him, we make the antenna the dumb guy, because we know better. It, like Oedipus, cannot realize the irony of what it’s saying. This is the useful role the architectural object contributes to the scenario. We presume that it is necessarily dumb, and it relies on us to ventriloquize it.

Circulation Flow Diagram

When we are being smart guys, speaking for architecture, we would do well to ask ourselves, are we being set up? It would certainly feel terrible if we were missing a joke. In any case the project at stake here, Ann Bergren’s Theater for Architecture and Dance, is not ironic in this way, as her critic rightly pointed out. The project is a building for two teachers: Diane Davisson, a tap dance teacher, choreographer, and director of a twenty-five person dance company, and Michael Rotondi, of ROTO Architects, formerly of Morphosis, and co-founder of the Southern California Institute of Architecture. It is a hybrid building program, combining a tap dance company and an architectural firm onto a single site.

When he first said that, I didn’t even understand what he meant by irony here, but he explained that what he was referring to was the high cultural status of the architecture as opposed to that of tap dancing.5

View from East

Deliberate hybridization has been one of the topics of Bergren’s work already, in her writing and teaching practices so far and now in her design practice. Bergren’s architecture courses in Los Angeles since 1987 have been a sustained challenge to the institutionalized presumptions of architectural education. Preliminarily trained as a classicist she has had recourse to a Greek term graphé, meaning both to write and to draw, to help her articulate her thesis that for architects the two activities of intellectual enterprise on the one hand and craftsmanship and design on the other, of mind and hand, need not be mutually exclusive.

The contradiction of this is clearly legible in the structure of all the most prestigious architecture schools. Theory courses, which engage in reading and writing, are separated from studios, and those instructors considered competent to teach in one area are, by virtue of that very qualification, unqualified to teach in the other. This is obvious; this is the most obvious thing to say. In Bergren’s courses the work her students produced often included writing, drawing, and modelmaking in integrated pieces.

Lobby Structure

Needless to say some of these were more successful than others. And indeed the idea might be glaringly obvious or just patently contrarian. Bergren’s forefather in educational reform could be none other that John Ruskin, who similarly opposed the suggestion that there could ever be either pure thought or pure sensation. In Modern Painters, of Walter Scott and Wordsworth’s claim that their enjoyment of nature was purely sensory, he wrote, “[their] delight, so far from being without thought, is more than half made up of thought, but of thought in so curiously languid and neutralized a condition that they cannot trace it.”6 It is the institutional endorsement of the curiously languid and neutralized thinking of architecture students that Bergren has been working hard to challenge.

In 1996 she interrupted this work to attend Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and obtain a Master of Architecture degree. And her design projects there continued some of the same interest in refashioning the dualistic structure of everyday assumptions about theory and practice, high and low, smart guys and dumb guys.

Structural Study

For this project and for others, I’ve been developing this notion of a kind of tropos, from the Greek word for turning…The relation of irony would not be lost be simply reversing the relation — making the formerly low category into the high, for example — since the two categories are still opposed and there is still a clear difference between them. And irony would not be lost if the difference between the two categories were dissolved. The possibility of irony as a tool of knowing and evaluating is lost when the categories are different, but not exclusively.7

Irony is already lost as a tool of knowing and evaluating because categories are always different, but not exclusively.

Lower Level Plan

If this project were ever built, a visitor arriving at the site from the south by car would face an initial choice: to enter the Dance and Architecture building on the right, driving into its underground parking areas, or to travel a long, straight ramp, up and through the building above ground, passing between the Dance and Architecture building on the right and a Theater on the left. One would travel around the theater counterclockwise, following the northern ridge of the site and cutting across it as it dropped away to the west, then dropping down into parking levels cut halfway into the hillside. Ann Bergren has been dancing with Diane Davisson Dancers since 1991.

The focus of our private work has been on turns. Tap dancing turns are amazing — you experience not only the interaction of balance, revolution, and forward motion that comes with any turn, but also, at the same time, the execution of fast and complex footwork, a music making with your feet.8

Mid Level Plan

The lowest level of the Dance and Architecture building is lit by cuts through the building above, each one traced by cascading water. Tucked among the cars are temporary vendor’s stalls and a model staging area, to be shared by architectural models and sets under construction. At the lowest level, in a workshop along a row of dormer windows, architects and set designers alike would face a 145’ long alley of fountains supplying pools and the site’s canal, muffling the noise of the dance studios. A pedestrian would ascend into each building by reversing the downward path traced by the flow of water, climbing up through the cuts on open stairways into the floors above. At the upper levels the dance and architecture studios, libraries, and office space are linked by a series of linear arcades and punctuating terraces, which stage opportunities for reciprocal viewing between the two occupant communities.

The more massive building to the west of the central entry ramp is a black-box theater seating 500 on a combination of fixed seating and moveable bleachers. The interior of the theater is inspired by the designs of a Swiss turn-of-the-century stage designer of Wagner’s operas named Adolphe Appia, who used movable steps and platforms to create a changeable set on which actors could move up, down, and around in any direction, deliberately transgressing the traditional proscenium plane.

Upper Level Plan

Appia’s designs reminded me…of the topological variety of the site I had found for the project — an undulating 12-acre parcel of land which climbs 15’ from the end of the Marina Freeway up Slauson to Bristol…The project is, in a way, one large circulation by means of steps, platforms, and the grand ramp that is the “ride.”9

This building performs some fancy footwork, but not by building in riddles for us to solve. This is architecture that refuses to play dumb, neither modest in its intelligence nor refusing to speak. Like a tap-dancer it shows off its assets with a flourish and a twirl. And while all its clients’ functional requirements are conscientiously provided for in well-appointed rooms of the correct size and arrangement, it is the paths between the rooms that soften their edges and their differences one from the other. A body in this architectural system would move through it like a paper boat.

Theater Plan and Section

This is a blurry architecture that allows for its own potential dissolution, leaving room for unforeseen influences and change and the occasional hesitation and doubling-back. Its circulation passages erode it from within and all around, as if its massing is out of focus. We could squint to try to make it out more clearly, but why? The building is not protecting itself from its own internal threats. Its two clients do not protect themselves from each other. The only separation, that of the acoustically protecting fountains, is so elegant a device as to conceal its own role as concealment — like the beautifully carved arabesques of Victorian wood molding.

(The irony is everywhere, it’s not just in specific passages.) There are ancient and modern poems which breathe in their entirety, and in every detail, the divine breath of irony.10

Ballona Creek

1 Ann Bergren, unpublished letter, June 2000.
2 Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1972, pp. 161, 100.
3 Bergren, Ibid.
4 Paul de Man, “The Concept of Irony.” Aesthetic Ideology. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, p. 165.
5 Bergren, Ibid.
6 John Ruskin, Modern Painters, quoted in Dave Hickey, “Reading Ruskin Writing.” Art in America, November 2000.
7 Bergren, interview, April 8, 2000.
8 Bergren, Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Friedrich Schlegel, Lyceum Fragment 42, quoted in de Man, Ibid., p. 177.