Siah Armajani ( American, b. Teheran 1939)
The First House, 1970
Stained balsa wood
17 1/2 x 11 7/8 x 62 1/8 in. (44.5 x 30.1 x 157.9 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Annalee Newman in memory of Ruth C. Roush with additional funds from the Friends of Art Endowment Fund, 1979
First House is one of a series of works from the late 1960s and early '70s in which Siah Armajani explored the properties of different building types. The Oberlin First House exists as a model. As he did with other works from this period, Armajani also built a temporary large-scale version, which remained in his Minneapolis studio for three or four months in 1970 before being dismantled.
The First House was preceded by a group of bridges starting in 1968, in which Armajani explored structural elements, relationships between interior and exterior, and the experience of space as it unfolds to the viewer. The bridges, whether in the form of models or temporary large-scale structures, were not meant to be functional: they did not span any type of expanse, and passage was hindered or prevented in various ways. The immediate antecedent of the Oberlin work was House with Base (1969; current location unknown), which served as a transition between Armajani's investigations of the conventions of bridges and those of houses. During this same period Armajani also produced a series of conceptual works for which he used a computer to calculate complex problems.1 According to Janet Kardon, "Armajani's houses are not houses but functions of their properties," reflecting Armajani's interest in Early American houses and vernacular architecture.2
The First House is made up of two spaces: an enclosed lower level, and an attic, open in front and back, with a pitched roof. The front and back walls are both at acute angles to the right side wall, which is therefore longer than the left side wall. Physical access to the interior of the lower level is blocked by the walls that enclose all four sides, but visual access is provided on the left side through cracks between the horizontal slats and on the front by three openings in the wall.3 No doors or windows provide circulation through or between the upper and lower spaces in the traditional sense, yet the two levels are visually and conceptually unified by the parallel openings in the slats that describe the roof, in the ceiling of the lower space, and in the front wall. These openings correspond to the three beams (6 x 6 in. beams in the large-scale version) that run the length of the house, articulating the spaces and their relationship in a manner both logical and eccentric. While the beams and analogous openings give a conceptual order to the space, the lack of symmetry in the angled ascent of the beams suggests the happenstance eccentricities characteristic of vernacular building practices.
The beam that runs along the inside of the shorter side wall juts out from the front of the house; the beam in the middle juts out half as far as the first, and the third beam, which runs along the inside of the longer side wall, begins flush with the front wall: together the ends of the beams describe a second, imaginary plane at right angles to the side walls. The two beams that run along the interiors of the side walls extend to the slatted roof, whereas the middle beam runs only to the top of the lower enclosure. Because of the angled roof, the angled front and back walls, and the varied extensions of the beams in the front, each extends upward at a different angle, and each intersects the ceiling of the lower space at a different point: after five crossbeams on the left, after six in the center, and after four on the right. These varying points of intersection with the ceiling create different visual experiences of space when viewing the interior through the three openings in the front of the house.
Siah Armajani was born in Teheran, Iran, in 1939. He arrived in the United States in 1960 and received his B.A. from Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1963. Starting in the late sixties he took part in a number of group shows focused on Conceptual Art, including Art By Telephone (Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1969); Information (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1970); and Art in the Mind (Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, 1970). During this time Armajani was also exploring various building types, including bridges and houses, through sketches as well as small- and large-scale models. In the seventies these explorations expanded to include various types of communal spaces, as well as a series of objects that Armajani called his Dictionary for Building. During the last twenty years, Armajani has used these explorations as the basis for a number of temporary and permanent public installations and projects.
Kardon, Janet. Siah Armajani: Bridges, Houses, Communal Spaces, Dictionary for Building. Exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1985.
Ammann, Jean-Christophe. Siah Armajani. Exh. cat., Kunsthalle, Basel and Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1987.
Purchased from the artist, December 1979
Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, 1980. From Reinhardt to Christo: Works Acquired through the Benefaction of the Late Ruth C. Roush. 20 February - 19 March. Cat. no. 26.
Philadelphia, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 1985. Siah Armajani: Bridges, Houses, Communal Spaces, Dictionary for Building. 11 October - 1 December. Unnumbered cat.
Klein, Michael R. "Siah Armajani." In Scale and Environment: 10 Sculptors. Exh. cat., Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 1977, p. 18.
Kardon, Janet. Siah Armajani: Bridges, Houses, Communal Spaces, Dictionary for Building. Exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1985, pp. 20-21. (Model and temporary version illustrated p. 21; Oberlin model included in exhibition.)
Ammann, Jean-Christophe. Siah Armajani. Exh. cat., Kunsthalle, Basel, 1987. (No pagination; Oberlin model and temporary version illustrated; not included in exhibition.)
The work is made from balsa wood, primarily square balsa studs and balsa lathe planks, which are nailed or glued together and stained with a mixture of three-fourths Spanish Oak to one-fourth Spanish Walnut stain from Sears. The square balsa studs protrude from the front wall of the house through gaps between the lathe planks. The inner ceiling and roof are supported by seven parallel beams at evenly spaced intervals, and by angled beams at both the front and back ends of the structure. In the left side and in the roof there are openings between the lathe planks that allow visual access to the interior; on the right side wall and back wall the planks fit tightly together.
The piece is in generally good condition, although the lowest plank on the right side wall has been broken.
1. Armajani's conceptual projects were included in a number of seminal exhibitions (see Biography). He was also included in Lucy Lippard's Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (New York, 1973). The conceptual approach was to a certain degree combined with architectural exploration in Armajani's Dictionary for Building, made first in the form of small-scale models in 1974-78 and enlarged starting in 1979.
2. Janet Kardon, Siah Armajani: Bridges, Houses, Communal Spaces, Dictionary for Building (exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1985), p. 24.
3. A similar opening in the top of his Noon Bridge (1969) established a connection between the structure and the orientation of the sun. Kardon (Siah Armajani: Bridges, Houses, Communal Spaces, Dictionary for Building [exh. cat., Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1985], p. 10) describes the Noon Bridge as follows: "At noon, a line of light falls directly through an open channel in the attic floor, then traces and bisects the narrow plank that is the bridge's only walkable area."