Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Laughing Girls from Troy, New York: Douglas Darden's Unfinished Work

The Delivery of Helen by Castor and Pollux
by Jean-Bruno Gassies, Prix de Rome 1817

Before Douglas Darden died one of the last projects he was working on was called The Laughing Girls from Troy, New York, or simply Laughing Girls. I have run across mentionings of this project several times: LaMarche's article "The Life and Work of Douglas Darden: A Brief Ecomium" mentions the project as an example of how not all of Darden's works were morbid; the obituary in The Rocky Mountain News said he was working on it for the three years before his death; and it comes up in his curriculum vitae 1995 as being published in Chora (publication never occurred, probably because of his illness).

Recently I was able to find a fairly obscure and hard-to-find student-run publication from the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Colorado at Denver, Installation, Volume 2, Fall 1993. In it is an article called "In/n Conversation", which is a three-track conversation between Darden and himself, Darden and a former student of his James Trewitt, and Darden and Keith Loftin III. It is in the second track between Darden and Trewitt that we find some information on Laughing Girls.

It was an "architectural novel" (Darden's widow told me is was a graphic novel of sorts): "What we are attempting is to design and make sites, spaces, forms, objects, details, etc. as the narrative itself." The project centers around three characters, i.e. "clients", who are two fourteen year-old sisters named Cass and Polly, and their nineteen year-old friend, Helen.

These names easily ring a bell: Cass and Polly are feminine versions of the heavenly twins of Greek mythology: Castor and Pollux (better known for being the constellation of Gemini), and their sister, the infamous Helen of Troy.

The idea of the project was to make laughter into buildings—the laughter of these three girls and how that may inform space and produce architecture. As Darden puts it in his part of the conversation with Trewitt: "How could we make an architecture that would not simply represent laughing, but would itself laugh?" It is an unfamiliar approach to architecture. Trewitt discusses in the conversation that architecture often times honors something: values, the site, the client, construction traditions, aesthetic principles, et cetera; so why not honor laughter? Another way the process of this project was stated was that it was not so much about "whether we have made the girls' laughs but whether we have found a way of laughing in approaching their laughs." They continue: "Process is really about finding a set of actions that then become part of the building." In this case, the process is laughter.

In this day and age in which the design of a building is more generated by process of design rather than design principles and elements (i.e. the Classical approach, program, tectonics, et cetera)—how it is designed is more important than the building itself—it is interesting to read about a project that was very much driven by process, but in an extraordinarily different manner: a laughing novel.

I don't know why laughing in particular was significant: perhaps it is a sort of reversa of Oxygen House, or perhaps Darden decided to do something less morbid or controversial.

Ultimately the project was never complete due to Darden's untimely death, and its contents have never been published in any form. I was told by Marc Neveu that about three banker's boxes worth of material for Laughing Girls exists, and that he intends to publish an essay on Laughing Girls in the 2015 Chora issue (the same journal Darden had intended Laughing Girls to be published in).

Further reading:
Douglas Darden and James Trewitt. "In/n Conversation", Installation, Volume 2, Fall 1993.

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