Oxygen House

[Image: Douglas Darden, the Oxygen House; courtesy of the Darden Estate, via Part].

While writing the previous post, I stumbled across a project called the Oxygen House, by Douglas Darden.

[Images: Douglas Darden, the Oxygen House; courtesy of the Darden Estate, via Part].

In an otherwise almost unreadable essay, we learn that Darden, "a young and very talented architect, designed the house for Burnden Abraham, a disabled signalman for the Southern Pacific railroad, on a site near Frenchman's Bend in rural northern Mississippi. The drawings were completed in 1998. Abraham died shortly after the footings for the house were poured. The construction of the house was abandoned."

[Images: Douglas Darden, the Oxygen House; courtesy of the Darden Estate, via Part].

Intriguingly, the client was actually "confined to an oxygen tent because of disabling chest injuries":
    Those injuries were caused by the derailment of a Southern Pacific train on precisely the spot that was later intended as the site for his house. The house he wanted was to be his oxygen house: a shelter and setting that would sustain and support his life. It was to be, quite literally, the place that "held" his breath and gave him life.
Had the client lived to see the construction of his house, ironically he intended to die in it; the structure would then have been "transformed into his sepulcher and his tomb."

[Images: Douglas Darden, the Oxygen House; courtesy of the Darden Estate, via Part].

The client, however, is a fictional construct: Darden invented the client based on a passage from William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying – a novel that presents us with "the death of Addie Bundren," as well as "the saga of her burial."
Darden's fake client is, of course, named Burnden Abraham.
From the essay: "If one reads the first chapter of As I Lay Dying carefully, and then reads the [client's letter to the architect] attentively, one cannot help but be struck by the correspondences and analogies that appear. Abraham's letter – or rather Abraham's letter as Douglas Darden writes it – takes the first chapter of Faulkner's novel, isolates, and subtly changes some of its phrases. It then weaves them back together" to form the client's approach to the architect.

(Note: This post updated on February 2nd, thanks to a tip from David Maisel).

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Blogger davidm said...

Doug Darden was a visionary architect and a generous teacher. He died of leukemia in 1996, at age 42.

I was fortunate to have taken a drawing class taught by Doug at Columbia University in the late 1980's. His work was dark, mysterious, and graceful. He was an exquisite draftsman, but his drawings were always more than just beautiful- they were a way for him to explore and convey his ideas, and they somehow managed to combine aspects of fairy tales and nightmares.

I have a group of drawings that Doug made on a sheet of fragile yellow tracing paper, of a project he was developing. The elements and emotional resonances of this piece somehow combine aspects of a boat, a bed or cradle, an eye, a sensory deprivation tank, a chambered nautilus, and a tomb.

Good to recall this man and his indelible work.

January 31, 2007 7:49 PM  
Blogger Octopus Grigori said...

It's always exciting to read about the ways in which "technology confronts, opposes, interrogates and subordinates the essential qualities of things . . . ."

February 01, 2007 3:00 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I think that is one of the most interesting programs I have ever heard of, Was that the idea of the client, or the architect?

February 01, 2007 7:31 PM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Hey Ben - Well, I missed part of the story... So it's a long answer.

Expect an update on this post soon.

February 01, 2007 8:45 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Octopus Grigori said...
It's always exciting to read about the ways in which "technology confronts, opposes, interrogates and subordinates the essential qualities of things . . . .

yeah, yeah, especially when it involves a train running into something.

February 01, 2007 10:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darden published a wonderful book before he died called Condemned Buildings, its sometimes hard to find as its been in and out of print, but its well worth the effort. Princeton press made another small run a few years ago, they might still have some.

February 02, 2007 11:20 AM  
Blogger Geoff Manaugh said...

Updated the post tonight, with more of the project's back-story. Thanks, David!

February 02, 2007 11:29 PM  
Blogger John said...

I started to comment last night on the fictional, Fualkner construct of the client, though it looks like you took care of that in your revision, Geoff. But I'm not too sure from the Part7 article -- which I actually enjoyed when I read it years ago -- if the client is completely fictional. With Darden, I think there was always a blurring of reality and fiction, something he used for poetic investigations in his work. From what I recall, the client was real but the correspondence Darden presented was a mix of real and fiction culled from Faulkner, making one question the reality of the client in the first place. Though the reality of the client in the first place isn't necessarily guaranteed by the edited letter I linked to; that reality could just as easily have been fiction, too. Fiction modified by fiction.

To me the complete lack of any solid ground which says this is this or that is that is just fascinating, though I could see it being frustrating for some.

February 03, 2007 1:34 PM  
Blogger Ben Ledbetter said...

For anyone interested, I have a great deal of information on Darden, who was a school-mate and soul brother at Harvard, and then a close friend and colleague unti he died. I also am happy to refer anyone to others who continue to celebrate Doug's work, including a book about his work in progress by one of his colleagues at the University of Coloradao, Denver. I can also send a review of CONDEMNED BUILDING (it's not BuildingS, sic above, as in a collection of objects, but rather the singular act of building) that I wrote for the HARVARD GSD NEWS when the book was published.

Ben Ledbetter
bl@benledbetter.com

February 04, 2007 9:02 PM  
Anonymous barb said...

ben and others,
wanted to let you know that douglas lives on in many forms. i had the opportunity to take a design studio from douglas and work as a studio assistant (of course, he was the studio "master"). i also worked with him on an unfinished project called "sex shop", which i believe someone mentioned that peter schneider at CU denver is writing a book about. what douglas tought regarding the design process is not just applicable to architecture, but i find myself using it in my art and in my everyday life.
douglas darden came to the forefront of my mind today as i worked in a charette with pliny fisk of austin, tx...when pliny realized i understood what he was talking of conceptually in designing sustainable buildings, he asked me (as did a couple of his associates) where i was educated. simple answer, my studio master douglas darden and it brought some tears to my eyes...good ones. see, douglas tought design theory based on chaos theory, game theory and complexity theory over 15 years ago, way ahead of his time and almost as if he knew he was strictly limited in his time.
as we know, douglas loved ambiguity and mystery, he was coy yet unabashedly forthright while looking you in the eye, and his writing/drawing reflects this. if you like this project i highly recommend condemed building (building as a verb, he was verbalizing words and concepts way before it became hip).
and one last word, his drawings are beautiful even without the words that went along with them...

March 11, 2007 11:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Muy bueno el blog. Very Cool !

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May 01, 2007 9:11 PM  
Anonymous Singen said...

That was fascinating to read.

March 18, 2008 6:46 AM  
Blogger Calvert said...

Thank you very much for this post.
Doug Darden was a professor of mine at Columbia in the early 80's and I recently thought of him... and found your posting through google. I am saddened, but touched. He was a wonderfully talented person.

June 29, 2008 8:07 PM  
Anonymous Ted said...

Doug Darden was an asswipe! I was subjected to his inane BS at CU Denver. He never built a thing and had to invent his clients because he could never have worked with one for more than a day. A true master of evasive archibabble, he demeaned any student who didn't kiss his ass, and he avoided all rational or concrete discussions of architectural process, as if to be incoherent and unbuilt was the real goal of architecture. Truly a 9 year old emotionally, he had less to offer than anyone I ever saw pose as a professor, and although I didn't know it at the time, he represented the lowest kind of unrestrained architect ego, like a Liebeskind or Hadid without a portfolio or a friend. My entire architectural career has been defined by opposition to the kind of self-worshipping, useless artifice that Doug Darden spewed. When he died I cracked a smile but couldn't manage a real laugh.

November 10, 2008 2:59 AM  
Anonymous jim smith said...

Doug was both friend and mentor to me while at CU. He was the inspiration to a generation that he taught there. He was a gifted teacher who reached students on many levels. Alternately, a demanding professor, matriarch, Baron of darkness, Narcissus. For his students he inhabited and sought to inhabit a space that felt too close, nearly within. For his efforts, and his passionate and eloquent discourse, he created disciples, now architects still resonating with that pervasive energy.

January 10, 2009 12:55 PM  
Blogger michelle said...

I was with Douglas Darden while he was traveling in Egypt (during his time at the American Academy in Rome). I took him to a hotel and got a doctor for him (as was kindly assisted by an American archaeologist from the University of Chicago who was working in the area at the time... he led me/us to a reliable doctor and the diagnosis that came as a result). I still have in my possession the doctor's orders for Douglas to be admitted into an Egyptian hospital (which we declined at the time, as it was rumored to be a 'hotbed' of disease and a risky prospect). The note is written in arabic and might be something his family or friends would like to have. If anyone has contact information, I would like to send it along to one who was close to Douglas.
The doctor at the time told us we had saved his life by putting him in a cold bathtub to bring down his temperature, which had reached a dangerous level... he was incoherent and terrible weak at the time.
Anyway, it may be a keepsake for someone and I have held on to it for years...thirty, to be exact, as it was written in 1979.
Hope to hear from someone...
Michelle Easson (Price)

March 02, 2009 9:10 PM  
Blogger Ben Ledbetter said...

As I remember Doug telling that story it was either heat stroke or dehydration. Yes? I would love to hear more, and of how you knew Doug, if you would write to me at the email below.

And by the way, it was 1989, not 1979. Twenty years ago.

Ben Ledbetter
bl@benledbetter.com

May 28, 2009 8:28 PM  
Anonymous NiaTrue said...

I'm really saddedned to hear that DD passed away so many years ago. During my time at Columbia in the late '80s, I studied with many great architects. DD was the best of them. Conjurer, inspirer, nurturer, confronter, instigator, he was a fantastic teacher. In his honor, I'll continue to laugh at and respect his hatred of drawings ripped out of sketchbooks turned in with "spiral shit" hanging off the edges.

October 26, 2010 11:35 PM  
Anonymous Eytan Fichman said...

I met Doug Darden in my first studio in graduate school, which was his last one. Ben Ledbetter was there too. It's how we all met and became friends.

Doug was psychologically and kinesthetically attuned to an extraordinary degree in his outlook, considering closely the repressed dimensions of culture in tectonic terms; inhabiting that realm in an interdisciplinary way, dialogically, while incorporating a dancer's refined sense of bodily engagement with spaces and forms.

Where society repressed / condemned was the territory in which he worked to express. I once, with some trepidation, asked him if he had made any work exploring his fears of dying from his leukemia. He got upset with me for having the termerity to ask that question of him. A few months later he mailed me a drawing with just such an exploration.

His cultural readings of the uses of architecture drew deeply and thoughtfully from literature (as in the Oxygen House) and philosophy even as those cultural readings were translated through his words and drawings into windows, sequences, walls, boats, rituals, cranes and hardware.

He could be tender, mean, funny . . . and, for over a decade, he was insanely immersed in the world of his work. After graduating, he continued to create 'studio projects' to do, one after another, for himself; doing all-nighters, getting crit's from colleagues and friends . . . for ten years.

He tried to sustain the kind of dialog students have with one another in studio through his extensive correspondence as well as through invitations to those he respected to see and comment on his drawings and models.

Then he got leukemia. After that there came a time that he confessed to me he couldn't understand how he had produced so much work.

Many times he inspired his many friends, myself very much included. A couple of times he hurt me badly with his criticism of my work, which could be caustic and surprisingly thoughtless in human terms. He seemed, however, to cry more easily than I did - his human sensitivities could leave him as vulnerable as anyone I ever knew. He once said he never 'got strokes' for his work in graduate school until his last studio . . .

I also remember him crying in a different way when he found a method of drawing (big, tall drawings, as tall as he was, that were scraped and abraded as well as drawn on) that allowed him to bodily and spatially engage the surface and its depths - he had found a way to work that let him bring the training he had as a dancer directly to the making of an architectural drawing, down to the big motions and muscular pressures, and, at the same time, actually 'make' space that triggered your senses (not simply 'representing') even as you stood in front of it.

August 16, 2011 8:36 AM  

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