Docent, or Non-Docent?

You’ll never see a museum the same way again…

Nora is mildly lactose intolerant. That’s a sad fact for someone as committed as she is to cheese, but she gets over it. Hard cheeses present few problems, but soft cheeses like Mozzarella and Camembert (and ice cream, another long-time family favorite) require intervention, in the form of a pre-dinner Lactaid, an enzymatic digestive aid that helps to decompose lactose into simpler sugars that the intestines more easily absorb.

Hang onto that idea. We’ll be back.


Here’s a photograph of a building.

Simmons Hall, MIT — Steven Holl, architect (2002)

Let’s return to our discussion of William Hubbard’s three discourses of architecture from a few days ago. The client wants the building to be an instrument to reach their organizational goals. The designer wants the building to be an interesting problem upon which to exercise analysis and the development of order. And the everyday user and passerby want the building to act as a cultural symbol of a good life. The grades for this building would be a client B, a designer A, and a user/passerby F, or a GPA of 2.33—a solid C+ across the discourses.

Let’s examine the validity of my quickly-applied grades. The client, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has a vested interest in buying (and photographing, and patronizing) interesting buildings. There are some number of MIT undergrads who are absolutely thrilled that they get to live in Simmons Hall. Who cares if you only get to move the furniture one time when you move in, because it’s then fixed to the floor? It’s kind of like dating Justin Bieber—it’d be a huge pain in the ass, but I mean… it’s JUSTIN BIEBER, dude! And MIT was willing to buy the very most expensive dormitory in American history at over $500 per square foot (twenty years ago!) for the same reason that Bieber buys a $400K Lamborghini Aventador—it’s not a lot faster in most circumstances than my thirteen-year-old Civic Si, but he can brag about it more than I can, and he looks bad-ass in his Instagram feed when he pulls up to a nightclub.

So Simmons Hall does the work of housing a few hundred undergrads. It’s insanely overpriced, but everything at MIT is insanely overpriced, so that alumni kick dollars back to the endowment, so maybe it pays part of its premium. I think that’s a B, depending on its return on investment.

We’ll give Holl his A, taking his word for it. I’m not especially interested in the problems he set forth for himself. Blah blah blah whatever. Good job, buddy, here’s your participation ribbon.

But for the rest of us, this thing is just intellectually opaque. It’s a rectangular prism, with rectangular prismatic voids carved out of it here and there. Why are they asymmetrically placed and sized? Why are they different depths? Why are they less penetrated than the windowed surfaces around them? Which one of those giant garage-door-looking things at the bottom is “the front door,” and which one is where the Zamboni gets parked? Why are some of the crossword cells filled in, and is there really a 38-letter word that fills in 262–Across? Why is it sitting alone on the lawn away from the rest of campus, like the shunned child at recess? What is it about this building that signals “dormitory,” or “higher education,” or “urban campus,” or anything else at all? It is a building that carries no cultural significance, because it has sprung fully formed from the “concept” of its designer.

I’ll quote one of my great mentors, the late architectural historian Spiro Kostof, from the final lecture of his masterful Arch 170B course at Berkeley:

It may be communication, but it’s an exceedingly private communication… The architect has to go around on the lecture circuit, do a lot of explaining… or write books, or have books written about him, where we are told what the particular assemblage really means. Did you know, did you really—now confide in me—did you really know that the unexecuted Classical village on the roof of Michael Graves’ Portland Public Services Building alludes to Proissan, to Rossi’s “Analogous Cities,” and to the roofscapes of Chambord? Did you? Did you? And did you know that that wedge-shaped element there is really a Mannerist keystone of the 16th Century, like Giulio Romano? Did you? Did you see that? Well, of course you did. And if you did know any of these things, did you think what any of them have to do with Portland? Or a public services building?

I don’t know why a sea sponge is a productive analogue for a building. But Holl apparently does. And I’ve spent years studying phenomenology, in pretty significant detail, and I have no idea what the hell is phenomenological about any of his work. But it’s a pretty word, and it lets him charge $500 a square foot for an undergraduate dorm, so, you know, knock yourself out, dude.

The designers of the building I taught in in Boston had some bullshit story about how part of the inspiration of the building hearkened back to Paul Revere’s lamps. Did you see that? Now confide in me, did you? Of course you did.


There’s a whole body of buildings that I call “docent architecture,” buildings that have no communicative power without the guided tour, the curatorial card, the monograph, the docent talk. They cannot be digested without additional enzymatic power. They are, on their own, inert. They have no representational character, no cultural allusion, no contextual borrowing or ecological fit. They “stand out boldly.” They “recontextualize,” in the same way that an aggressive drunk recontextualizes the wedding reception: by being belligerent and uninterested in anyone else’s pleasure.

Lots of Modern and Postmodern art is docent art, meaningless to the lay audience until explained. Don’t get me wrong, we can look at ANY art and learn more about it than it presents us on the surface. We can become connoisseurs about anything we participate in, going beyond its surface pleasures and its genre conventions. But surface pleasures and genre conventions have their own importance. They offer the invitation that allows us to be willing to gain the unexpected second and third layers of richness.

Too much contemporary art, whether visual or spatial or literary, offers no handholds to pull ourselves up from the ground. All we can do is stare dumbly, and wonder why we’re so stupid that we don’t get it. The only lecture I walked out on at the Bread Loaf conference was by a deeply self-impressed writer whose most rousing condemnation for a piece of writing was that it expressed “workmanlike craft.” He pleasured himself with melodrama like “every poem is an aborted suicide note.” And I gave him all of about twenty minutes before I headed for the door. I got no patience for that.

Whole careers are made by explaining the nuances of the work of others, of proclaiming both the subject and the object worthy of acclaim because of their shared conceptual vocabulary, a discourse unavailable to the rest of us. I never had any patience with that, and I have a PhD! I mean, I knew right off the bat that I was never going to make it in architecture studio, because I was asking questions like “who’s going to live there?” and “what is it an oasis from?” I wasn’t interested in ideas. I was interested in pleasure, and comfort, and happiness. And those interests marked me, in the world of design, as secondary, as less-than. Fortunately, I discovered architectural history, and then cultural geography after that. Entire disciplines dedicated to the client’s motivations for buildings, dedicated to a culturally-located interpretation of what mattered. I found a home that valued the questions I raised.

So, to my colleagues in art and design and literature… do you need me to take a Lactaid to help me digest your work? Will your ideas communicate without a docent’s script? To whom are you speaking, and to whom do you offer the insider’s dismissive condescension?