Anne Tyng, Platonic Solids, and Penelope’s Bed

Miranda: Ann Tyng at work

Photo by Chris Taylor

Anne Tyng’s love of form had its roots in her childhood. The architect, now ninety, writes of “the sensual delight of feeling elemental forms of rocks, water and earth under my bare feet.” Born in 1920 in China to missionary parents, at sixteen Tyng toured the world and discovered its monuments: “the pyramids, temples and mosques, the castles and cathedrals.” (1) At twenty-two she enrolled in the first Harvard Graduate School of Design class to admit women (though she says they were warned they would lower the standards), where she studied under Gropius and Breuer. Later she moved to Philadelphia and worked with Louis Kahn before teaching for almost thirty years at the University of Pennsylvania.

In January, ICA will present a show of Tyng’s work and ideas. Anne Tyng is retired now and lives in California, but she spent a week at ICA last month talking about plans for the exhibition. ICA’s architecture shows (Fertilizers, Holiday Home, etc.) tend to find a way to immerse the viewer—literally—in the forms and ideas being presented. The Anne Tyng exhibition will be no exception. Tyng is designing an installation that expresses and externalizes her thinking about three-dimensional forms: how buildings can and should grow out of basic geometries, and how these geometries are connected, in her view, to the human psyche and spirit.

All her working life, Tyng has been fascinated by the Platonic solids, those three-dimensional shapes with equal sides and equal angles (cube, dodecahedron, etc.) that the Greeks discovered, da Vinci drew, and Kepler wrongly but beautifully theorized formed the layers of the solar system. These five shapes are the driving forms behind Tyng’s architecture and form the spaces inside which she envisions life being lived: “living spaces were hollowed out of a consistent geometry as in a bee’s honeycomb.” For the ICA exhibition, the plan is to construct giant Platonic solids that the visitor can walk inside of! These will be connected to helical and spiral extensions, showing how one form is transformed into another. There will also be photographs and architectural plans and models, including an amazing three-foot-high facsimile of Tyng and Kahn’s design for City Tower (1952-6), which was never built.
The Tyng work I’m most excited about, though, is the “Four-Poster House” she designed for a site in Mt. Desert Island, Maine. For this house, the four-poster marital bed becomes the guiding geometry—as well as the metaphoric soul—of the building. The bed is built at the top of the house, and each of its posts becomes a column that supports the structure. The forms of the roof, rooms, dormers, deck, and balconies are all related to the form of the bed. At the same time, Tyng is careful to consider the site and the vernacular architecture of the neighborhood, so that the building, while conceptually radical, does not look out of place.

I love this idea, that the whole house grows—as the family does—from the marital bed. It makes me think of Odysseus and Penelope’s bed, that “pact and pledge” that binds them, though they are separated twenty years; that metaphor and reification of their love.

As Odysseus recounts:

An old trunk of olive grew like a pillar on the building plot, and I laid out our bedroom round that tree… hewed and shaped that stump from the roots up into a bedpost, drilled it, let it serveas a model for the rest. (2)

Let it serve as a model for the rest. Just so with Tyng, though her bed is at the top of the house in the airy trees, and Odysseus and Penelope’s is on the ground. (You see that we are back with the Greeks, who discovered those Platonic solids.)

Thinking of Penelope, one thinks of patience. Anne Tyng, as I said, is ninety. There has never been a museum exhibition dedicated to her work.

ICA’s Anne Tyng show opens in our upstairs gallery on January 13. After a lifetime of patience, there are only six more months to wait.

(1) This and all other Anne Tyng quotations are from her essay, “Architecture Is My Touchstone,” Radcliffe Quarterly 70 (September 1984).

(2) From the Robert Fitzgerald translation of Homer’s Odyssey, published by Anchor Press (New York, 1962).