The hand appears everywhere. It is not the Hand of God the Architect, a.k.a. Le Corbusier, waving over Paris wiped clean and replaced with rows of cruciform towers. Nor is it the hand of the artist/architect, poised in so many photographs with a pencil in hand over a sheet of paper, about to produce space with a few strokes. Instead, it is a hand splayed out over bush-hammered concrete, fish-scale tiles, finely grained granite, or rough wood timbers. The appendage belongs to either the architect Eric Höweler, his wife and partner, Meejin Yoon, or one of his friends. It provides scale and contrast, measuring exactly how rough the material is, how closely spaced its joints, and how lustrous its sheen. It is the hand of love that you can imagine, if these images were animated, caressing the wall and perhaps even letting itself be scratched or bruised by the often-brutal constructions the photographer favors.
The photographer is the same Eric Höweler, an architect based in Boston, and the images appear on social media, mainly Facebook and Instagram. Höweler provides little or no commentary, giving only the name of the building and its architect (which is sometimes his own firm, Höweler+Yoon), and sometimes a link to documentation about the structure. Each image is a paean to a particular bit of building that the original architect has chosen to transform into architecture by the way they have picked, worked, or joined the stuff out of which the object is made.
If you follow these posts, as I do with great pleasure, you soon come to realize Höweler’s preferences and biases. He obviously loves Brutalism, with a special penchant for the work of Paul Rudolph and the early designs of I.M. Pei. He gravitates towards surfaces that have a great deal of articulation and variety, whether because of the way the architect has ordained that they be tortured by hammers or sliced by machines, or because of their inherent grain and variety. He also has a penchant for the ingenious ways in which tiles, bricks, or sheets of metal are joined in a manner that either overlaps or leaves gaps, so that each separate piece is clear in its own shape.
Those interests expand when he pulls back his camera (which I assume is embedded in his phone) to take in fragments such as windows that jut out in alternating directions in an apartment Rudolph designed in Providence, Rhode Island. He also turns his focus to the ground, whether it is the point where a cruciform column disappears at an angle into a metal floor grate in OMA’s Rotterdam Kunsthal or the radial paths curling into steps in Rudolph’s campus for the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
When Höweler finds a building that fascinates him, he digs into the archives, giving us construction photographs of Gordon Bunshaft’s Beinecke Library at Yale University as a skeleton, or Cornell’s art museum in the model I.M. Pei presented to the University to show how it would address its site. Wall sections, which clarify how the architect accomplished the complex surfaces of which he is so fond, are another staple of his social media streams.
Beyond that, Höweler also has a penchant for the unusual and the obscure. This is evident in how he chooses his buildings, pursuing structures across the United States and the world. I travel a great deal and always make it a point to seek out the historical architecture of the sites I visit, but Höweler’s passion is extreme. He pursues moments of high design by Sigurd Lewerentz in small towns in Sweden and buildings by Minoru Yamasaki at Wayne State in Detroit. When he is in Philadelphia, he seeks out not only Frank Furness’ less well-known buildings, but also goes back to Venturi Scott Brown’s Institute of Scientific Information (now owned by Drexel University) to admire its shifting pattern of tiles.
When he gets to Essen, Germany, he does not let himself be distracted by the grand industrial heritage that is the Zollverein cultural center, but hones in on SANAA’s concrete box there, originally intended to house a business school, and concentrates on the way in which the architects embedded a drain in the sill of each window so that they could do away with more intrusive ways of channeling water away from the building exterior.
His trip to Essen also shows his biases. Not only did he not photograph –or at least post a photograph of—any of the dramatic structures that surround the recessive block SANAA designed, but he only provides one perfunctory scene-setting overall view of that building. The same is true in most of his other posts: he gives you the whole building or complex, but only so you can understand the context in which the detail appears.
In addition of the usual money shots or the historical material he uncovers to help you understand the overall structure, Höweler often uses another trick to explain what he has found: he shows you one of an exit diagram posted in the building he is admiring. When that structure is a hotel designed by the late John Portman for Atlanta or San Francisco, or the Elbephilharmonie, Herzog & de Meuron’s iceberg floating over Hamburg, the effect is to reduce the spatial complexity for which the building is famous to a two-dimensional diagram.
Space, it seems, does not interest Eric Höweler so much. That is evident also in Höweler+Yoon’s work, which is masterful in its manipulation of exactly the kind of moments of architecture Höweler photographs but provides few spectacular (in both senses of that word) moments. With a sub-specialty in monuments of finely curved concrete and stone, and another in academic buildings with skins that match the most complex ones Höweler finds, Howeler+Yoon’s work is above all tight. It is all about the drip–again both in the technical and slang sense.
I look forward to these postings every day, and they appear with almost that frequency. I am envious of Höweler’s hunting skills, and of his ability to find just the right moment, once he has tracked down his prey, for the kill shot, with the hand owning the structure he has conquered. That is not only because of the beauty of the subjects, but because of the –and I hope he will forgive me for the phrase –focused devotion to the discipline his posts reveal. Höweler indicates, in a text he wrote for Höweler + Yoon’s latest monograph, Verify In Field (and, how nerdish can you get?) that he is merely following the logic of the internet (the book also starts off with a grid of the photographs of hands on surfaces). I think, however, there is something more fundamental at work here. For Höweler and even much more for the generations that he and Yoon have educated, the building as monument or even object is becoming less and less important. It is the moment of high affect and effect, the fragment of sense and sensibility, and the piecemeal appearance of order, that is the true work of the architect in an era shaped by the technologies through which we communicate. Eric Höweler’s posts, like the raw data that goes into the AI constructs that are becoming our next architecture, are the buildings he not only reproduces but, in many ways, produces.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.