Serendipitous Formalism

Year: 2018
Project Team: Emily Mohr, Jonathan Rieke
Site: Knowlton School of Architecture, Columbus Ohio

In 1755, the critic Horace Walpole invents the term Serendipity. In a letter to Horace Mann, Walpole describes the derivation of the term as coming from the plot of a Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, in which the three travelers “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.”1 Serendipitous Formalism culminates a year of such discoveries by and attempts to construct some conclusions.

As the title suggests, this exhibition originated in a series of travels (or walks) around Columbus in which domestic architectural oddities would relentlessly distract our attention. While it was not initially our intention to study a particular period of American architectural history, but these buildings would simply not leave us alone. Additionally, as we began to draw and model the elevations of houses we admired, hypotheses began to form in our minds as to why we found these architectural brick-a-brac collections of things, known commonly as Victorian, so appealing. As such, we present these hypotheses under the following umbrella:

Serendipitous Formalism is an investigation of the spatial potentials of architecturally thick surfaces as studied through the building envelopes of late 19th century Victorian houses commonly found in the residential neighborhoods of Columbus. The abundance of this vernacular in certain parts of the city produces an urban texture that is characterized by aggregation, collage, and a surplus of parts. Buildings in these zones operate at a middle scale of articulation that produces a sufficient spatial density at the urban scale, in which the City is read as the gap between designed exteriors. These exteriors press against each other, producing overlaps of public and private that are operative politically as well as culturally. As intense points of contact between architecture and the city, these crenelated walls perform a civic action: enabling communication between typically separate worlds. The domain of the interior dweller is indexed on the urban surface and the character of the city is edified architecturally on the walls of private rooms. The complexity of this interface in Victorian architecture is more than just compositionally sophisticated, it can be read as politically progressive. In the sense that the work of the architect – as seen in the Victorian vertical surface - is producing an effect that is projected beyond the limits of property and the delineations of legal autonomy, the designer is effectively serving more than the single constituency of the client, and expanding the role of the building beyond the narrow constraints of the site. Three examples of the way in which this expansion is achieved are described through the pavilions built at the conclusion of the project: House 1, House 2, and House 3. 

1. The Letters of Horace Walpole: Earl of Orford, Vol. II (1842) edited by John Wright