• The author’s Cigar Box, produced in Hejduk’s University of Houston Honors Studio (1979). A “dropped note” caught within an orchestrated cross-section of time and space. Courtesy J. Kevin Story.

“How many places are there left where there it is still a joy and honor to teach, to teach architecture?  At the University of Houston College of Architecture there still remains the human touch … It is there at that school in Texas, when I left that student body, did my eyes fill over and over-flow for I truly felt with them a communion.…”1    

– John Hejduk

At its inception in the mid 1970s, the University of Houston College of Architecture Honors Studio program was the only studio format of its type offered by any architectural school in America.2 It represented an experiment in architectural education that offered a life-changing experience for participating students. Each year, the faculty selected what it considered to be the 10 best fourth-year design students for the studio. The numerous visiting critics that made the journey to Houston enriched the lives of the working-class, public university students who would never have had the opportunity to meet, not to mention study one-on-one with, the leading architects of their day. There was a passion for learning and a passion for design that permeated the work ethic of these students, which John Hejduk noted in a telegram he sent to Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa: “My how hard the Texas student works. Their creativity soars in that landscape and in that sun. Clarity and precision are natural to that place….”

When I asked UH Professor John Perry who was the most influential visiting critic on the school and on him personally, he stated: “John Hejduk. I do not have to hesitate at all. Hejduk was very, very enthusiastic about the studio because he had ties to Texas. He had been down at the University of Texas and one of his children was born there in Austin. He was romantically tied to the architecture and the state.”

I was one of the students lucky enough to be selected for the Hejduk Honors Studio. What follows is part recollection, and part analysis of the great educator’s pedagogy.

In the fall of 1979, Hejduk, by then dean of The Cooper Union School of Architecture for four years, arrived at UH as a visiting critic. For one week, he engaged in intense one-on-one student-teacher dialogue and instruction. As brief as it was, the visit changed the lives and opened the minds of many of us young students. Through Professor Perry’s persistence and Hejduk’s many contacts, Hejduk and the others that followed him opened up a floodgate of noted architects that would make the journey to UH as visiting critic. Hejduk was instrumental in putting the institution on the international stage as a place of creativity, clarity, and hard work.

Lessons from a Cigar Box: A Frozen Moment in Time

Hejduk was always interested in the void represented by the in-between spaces that exist in architectural propositions. He envisioned the void as a metaphysical space offering unrestrained spatial possibilities establishing an “otherness” engendered by various design solutions. His preoccupation with the unrevealed otherness in architecture is the root of Hejduk’s 1979 problem statement for UH students.

Prior to Hejduk’s arrival in Houston, he sent his problem statement so that we could begin our investigations. He framed the problem as follows:

Select a musical instrument (non-electronic)

In line (ink) (perfection, please) draw plans, elevations, and sections of instrument. Full scale. Precision.

Select from the history of painting (no chintz please) one painting depicting the playing of instrument or the incorporation of instrument into painting. Study painting. Bring interpretation of painting to first day of class. Some examples: Vermeer, Matisse, Gris, Ingres, Della Francesca, etc. Look at Sassetta.

Bring empty cigar box.

Upon arrival to the studio, Hejduk issued the following project requirements: “Imagine and invent a structure and place at which to play the instrument incorporating both painting and instrument. Represent (having imagined and invented) the structure and place in cigar box. When finished, it should reflect those things in a sensitive and beautiful way. Eloquent. Elegant.”

Hejduk guided his one-on-one student discussions through a philosophical departure. He provided a learning environment to redirect our thinking to reveal a mindset that promoted alternate realities of architectural spatial experience — experiences grounded in a new understanding of architectural polemics established through the analysis of the architectural narrative. Hejduk’s desire was for students to invent new worlds of architectural investigation to explore and imagine, and to not be tainted by the preconceptions of accepted design practices.

For the first time, we were asked to think beyond a Euclidean spatial condition. Our solutions to the “cigar box problem” became intimate personal narratives. It was a transitional moment; we were now diving into unfamiliar territory, into the pedagogical world of John Hejduk, where ideas were not rooted in geometry or organizational diagrammatic concepts. The ideas we pondered were intimate and personal without the pretentions of a didactic coldness typically used in our preceding design studio work. In hindsight, it is clear that we were being introduced to Hejduk’s world of architectural pessimism.3

Out of Outlines into Apparitions: From Fabrications to Reflections

While Hejduk did not discuss his reasons for issuing the cigar box problem, we know that his own investigations were evolving during the mid-to-late ’70s. Up until 1974, he was absorbed with exploring the nature of the flattening of spatial context, as well as his interest in the “most present condition” of space and time. Hejduk “exorcised”4 two-dimensional space as well as cubist space, as evidenced in his Diamond House and Wall House projects, and became fully immersed in his exorcisms of time-space interrelationships. His “image-screen”5 was focused on the absorptions found in his study of the Wall. But Hejduk was transitioning the absorptions of Euclidean space offered by the image-screen of the Wall archetype to a meditative reflection of the possibilities found in metaphysical spatial constructs.

From 1974 into the 1980s, Hejduk worked to redefine his image-screen from an absorber of perspectival physical space to a mirror, reflecting within its flatness what lies underneath physical appearances. His exorcisms focused on a deeper search into the poetic, metaphorical, and allegorical nature of spatial perception. I would postulate that Hejduk devised and issued the pedagogical problem of the cigar box to us as part of his search for a redefinition of the nature of the architectural program.

In the years ahead, Hejduk would slide deeper and deeper into more profound theoretical personal work. He acknowledged that he was moving away from an architecture of “light-filled” European optimism espoused by the “moderns,” toward a counterpoint of “pessimism” in his architectural syntax. His “pessimism” was fully realized through his “architectural masque” investigations.

Heduk used the 1979 cigar box student project as an educational tool to explore an alternative to the typical, optimistic Le Corbusier-influenced student design studio projects. Hejduk’s educational motivation was to expose and reveal to his students an appreciation for the use of metaphor and narrative to create metaphysical spatial constructs.

Hejduk wanted us to capture within our cigar boxes the ability to see beyond the physical three-dimensionality of an object (the instrument, painting, and cigar box), to spatially integrate design components, transforming them into a comprehensive subject re-presented through the design of the interiority of the cigar box. The cigar box interior could be considered a metaphysical synthetic cubist composition. I feel that Hejduk used the physicality of the instrument as a signifier of the most present condition of space, supplanting the aforementioned Wall, to provide simultaneity of spatial compression and tension within the spatial construct of the cigar box interior enclosure. The music expressed through the instrument creates the most-present, all-encompassing yet fleeting condition of spatial context. The music fills the senses and creates spatial connectivity with the listener.

The physical object of the instrument is replaced by the subject of the sound being produced, providing a metaphysical connectivity between the instrument, the musician, and the observer/listener. If the object is supplanted by the subject, it would follow that the disjointed, synthetic landscape of the cigar box interior provides a metaphysical connectivity with the imagined presence and cubist representations of the interior designer.

Contrastingly, the exterior object of the cigar box becomes only an innocuous shell, holding the subject of complexity and concealing the spatial depth of the unrevealed interior flatness. The simple presence of the cigar box is transformed into an architectural masque, hiding the essences of a poetic narrative that remains unrevealed until the box is opened. It is an architecture whose simple outward appearance becomes hierarchically secondary to the complexities of the interior, revealing an undertone and mood, defining the innermost thoughts of the designer. It is an act of self-expression, uninhibited by the design imagery of the enclosure. The cigar box is a pedagogical exemplar of Hejduk’s architectural masque archetype.

Hejduk absorbed the work of the cubist masters for decades and used his exorcisms of the depths of flatness expressed by the cubists to explore spatial constructs as simple as those that can be created within the confines of a cigar box. Additionally, the cubist relationship found in the cigar box is further expressed within a surrealist viewpoint of metaphysical space, as exhibited in the surrealist works of Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978). In 1919, de Chirico stated: “The absolute consciousness of the space that an object in a painting must occupy, and the awareness of the space that divides objects, establishes a new astronomy of objects attached to the planet by the fatal law of gravity. The minutely accurate and prudently weighed use of surface and volumes constitutes the canon of the metaphysical aesthetic.” [Carra, Massimo, “Metaphysical Art,” p. 91.]

From the Cigar Box into the Glass Box

Hejduk, through his teaching methodology, was providing young students with the capacity to exorcise our most inner thoughts. Architectural space was internalized and de-materialized within our imaginations. This was truly an exercise of architectural self-discovery. Architecture became framed as a deep spatial void suspended in time. For the first time, our student architectural work became intimate self-expressions: the cigar box became a pedagogy representing a frozen moment in time defining the metaphysical presence of ourselves, a re-presentation of time, space, and physical essence, simultaneously absorbed by each student. 

At the end of Hejduk’s one-week visit, we met with him for the last time. One by one, we opened our boxes for the professor and our classmates to see. The experience was ritualistic. It was a private event. Only we and Hejduk were allowed in the room — the glass box (a glass-walled exhibit room located below the architecture administration offices at UH’s College of Architecture). Joy, angst, revelation, and tears were shared. In that room, in the glass box, there was oneness of spirit. It was akin to a spiritual rebirth. Hejduk knew — we all knew — that he had released a desire in us to reach into the depths of our souls to find a new way to interpret the resolutions of architectural problems.

The cigar box assignment issued to the 1979 UH Honors Studio would be only one of several times Hejduk made use of this metaphor.6 However, as we came to learn from our experience working with him, Hejduk viewed his experience at UH as a unique encounter and a special intersection in time, not to be repeated, but rather to be held within a special place in the memories of those involved.

In many of us students, the Honors Studio experience embedded a passion for architectural design that would sustain us for decades to follow. Some of us would go on to become teachers and architects, pursuing thought-provoking architectural explorations of our own.

Carlos Jiménez, one of my 1979 Honors Studio classmates, says: “Hejduk had a very important impact on me. … He wanted you to fill that box with something that had a personal meaning for you. … In many ways, what [we] created in that box [was] probably each of us, in some way … to make [us] arrive at something [we] couldn’t really have foreseen. … For me, it was very magical. It was a validation. The cigar box in some ways … preserves the spirit about architecture. Hejduk gave us a mirror where we could see ourselves.”

The cigar boxes we produced for the 1979 Honors Studio were well received by all that viewed them. Several of the cigar box designs were sent to Finland to be used as part of the 1982 opening exhibit of the newly completed Museum of Finnish Architecture. The student work exhibited was a compilation of selected projects from the first five years of the Honors Studio and was published in a 1982 catalog entitled “Explorations,” produced by the museum under the direction of Pallasmaa. Pallasmaa would make the journey to UH the following year, in 1983, to be an Honors Studio critic as well. His preface in the 1982 “Explorations” catalog states:

Education focuses more on practical professional skills than on the poetic dimension of building. Design is based on elaboration of accepted style rather than investigation of the phenomenology of building. On behalf of the Finnish institutions, which are going to exhibit a small collection of student projects from Texas, the Museum of Finnish Architecture wants to welcome this rare insight into an educational approach, primarily concerned with artistic message in building.

The Lessons of Otherness

Hejduk imparted the importance of the poetic dimension in architectural design. We were confronted with the opportunity to see beyond the limitation of form and space to experience firsthand the metaphysical presence of the “liquid densification”7 of the body and spirit — a moment in time that allowed us to reflect on the importance of investigating the re-presentation of time, space, form, and materiality. We were able to gain an understanding that architectural space, while three-dimensionally projected into fixed constructs, can add the component of time and poetics to transform the spatial experience, touching the intangible, inexplicable qualities of the human spirit.

Hejduk taught us to understand that the experiential depth of music, represented by the physical presence of an instrument, does not require the instrument to be played. In fact, for some of us, there was a deafening volume of orchestrations imploding within the void of our imaginations. There also was a peaceful void in the sound of silence. To see one’s soulful reflections caught within the lines of a musical staff lifts the spirit. To transform a musical note expressed as a “dropped note” becomes a poetic, metaphorical expression. Providing a metaphysical re-definition of meaning to the positioning of a point within a spatial condition of linear order is a true lesson in the poetic phenomenology of geometry. 

Writing about his 1979 Honors Studio experience, Jiménez states: “The Honors Studio became a theater of symbols; of intrinsic meanings arrived at by each participant, supplemented by the generosity of each critic. The whole experience evokes an aura of faith in art, like the distant cry of Rimbaud: ‘In the dawn, armed with a burning patience, we shall enter the splendid cities…’”

Within the span of one week, we were transformed, enlightened, and liberated. Under Hejduk’s tutelage, the internal struggle to strategize formal architectural solutions was ultimately not a question of synthesizing functional programmatic requirements or the iterative investigation of a tectonic resolution to form and space. Rather, the architectural struggle was and still is to find within the void of one’s imagination a deeper understanding of the connectivity spatial experience has with the human spirit. This was Hejduk’s gift and legacy to his students and to those who have encountered the complexities of his pedagogy.

1Excerpt from a telegram written by John Hejduk, sent to Juhani Pallasmaa, 1982.

2 Thoughts expressed by Professor John Perry in an interview with the author in December 2010.

3 Hejduk coined the term “architectural pessimism” to describe his interest in looking deeper into the nature and perceptions of architectural space and program.

4 The terms “exorcise,” “exorcised,” “exorcising,” and “exorcism” are used in the context of this work to describe Hejduk’s methodology of architectural investigation. Hejduk described this process as “architectural exorcising.” His “exorcisims” sought to discover the underpinnings of his design propositions.

5 The term “image screen” is a reference to K. Michael Hays’ discussion of Jacques Lacan’s “diagram of the gaze” from Hays’ essay “Architecture’s Destiny,” which appeared in his 2002 book “Sanctuaries: The Last Works of John Hejduk”.

6 Comments provided by Cooper Union Professor Diane Lewis in an interview with the author in March 2014.

7 The term “liquid densification” was used by Hejduk when describing the metaphysical attributes of his 1986 “Victims” project.

J. Kevin Story, AIA, is an architect in Houston. This article is an edited excerpt from a book he is completing titled, “Exorcising Outlines, Apparitions, and Angels: The Phenomenological Complexities of John Hejduk.” Story would like to thank his former University of Houston professors Robert Griffin, Bruce Webb (his thesis advisor), and especially professor John Perry, who created the Honors Studio experience.

Leave a Comment