"Judith Beheading Holofernes" by Caravaggio
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons "Judith Beheading Holofernes" by Caravaggio

Sitting in the far north of this country, attending thesis reviews at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning at the end of last semester, Caravaggio came to mind. A week before I was in Ithaca, N.Y., helping to evaluate the student projects, I had been touring “From Guercino to Caravaggio” (through Feb. 8, 2015), an exhibition at the Palazzo Barberini. One of its highlights was the Palazzo’s own Judith Beheading Holofernes (1599). It is a particularly gruesome picture: Judith is three-quarters of the way through slicing off Holofernes’ head. He appears to be alive, despite our being able to see his windpipe, arteries, and viscera exposed and cut through. His face is in agony, but so is Judith’s. A woman of great beauty, her brow is furled with both the effort of the cutting and the horror at what she is doing. Next to her, Abra, her maid, is all wrinkles, old age having made the trials and tribulations evident on the surface of her skin.

Caravaggio shows us the violence of the act and forces us to look, to consider, and to make that moment of utter horror our own. His art consists of painting. The question that arose for me is whether architecture can or should show the terror of our times, the violence we do to ourselves and others, or merely the truth that our pursuit of beauty and youth will go the way of all things despite whatever technology or airbrushing we throw at it.

It should, certainly in academia. Architecture schools are places of experimentation, and the best studios and student projects go to the heart of the world this discipline shapes even as it shapes its forms and aspirations. I have sat on many reviews recently in which students confronted war, terror, big brother watching us, or our own evanescence. At Cornell, two student projects stood out for me for the manner in which they addressed these issues.

Courtesy Lily Chung

Lily Chung took as her thesis the design of a new abattoir to be located between the White Sox Stadium and the IIT campus in Chicago. Her researched showed how Le Corbusier had been inspired by the ramps that led cattle to their death in his predilection for such alternatives to stairs, however inefficient they are for people.

The Cowpenter Center, a study of Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center rendered as an abattoir.
Courtesy Lily Chung The Cowpenter Center, a study of Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center rendered as an abattoir.

In Chung’s rendering of what we do to animals that have already been imprisoned and often tortured for most of their life, the building’s elegance gave way to the exposition of horror. The intricate loops of the ramps, designed according to the latest standards so that the cows will not see what will be happening to them, led to a slaughter floor fully exposed, in good Miesian fashion, to our examination.

Courtesy Lily Chung

Thesis model.
Courtesy Lily Chung Thesis model.

As an alternative to the raising and killing of “beef,” as we call it in our masking language, Chung proposed a lab that would take the technology of stem cell research one step further by growing the meat instead of killing it—but only by using the placentas of unborn calves. The result of all these operations would be made into sausages displayed in façade tubes in a restaurant so that they formed the building’s skin. The beauty and its moments of horror were intricately bound both in the building and its presentation. Just to make sure we couldn’t turn away, she offered us all “Happy Meals” to get us through the crit.

Courtesy Dillon Pranger

Courtesy Dillon Pranger

Dillon Pranger’s project for the former Gdansk shipyard was altogether gentler. Leaning on the style, model-making technique, and drawing methods Morphosis developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Pranger spun bits and pieces of dead tech—unused machine parts—out into built form. The resulting buildings, fragmentary and battered in nature, would serve as permanent reminders of the site’s past, both industrial and political (this was where the Solidarity Movement, and thus the fall of the Soviet Empire, started) as it becomes redeveloped for yuppie housing and trendy offices.

For Pranger, it is not the clarity of horror, but the sense that our world is inhabited by ghosts whose presence we see not in sheets or twinkling lights, but in the buildings we inherit and try to make our own. Architecture becomes, as in Chung’s project, a way of making evident what we usually hide inside our buildings.

Architecture should not be horrible or difficult for no reason. It should however, act like all arts and all our creations to help us see, know, and do something about the world we make, including the violence we perpetrate on ourselves, others humans, other beings, and our planet. I hope these students, as they develop into architects, will find a way to keep us looking.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.