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amalgama


amalgama

Robert Bruno’s Steel House

By Harrison Albrecht


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, biological, anarchical, tropical, hierarchical, umbilical, conversational, theoretical, evangelical, hypothetical, astronomical, typographical, ironical, nonmathematical, especially nonnumerical, stereotypical, topological, biblical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying, newspapering, and recording, or in any storage or information retrieval system (Tron), without permission. The book was printed on Neenah Classic Crest Smooth 100 lb paper with an Epson R2000 Inket Printer Typefaces FF Meta, Fummel, and Skolar. Design Harrison Albrecht Photography Julie Villarreal and David Wehmeyer Cover Hannah Wilson Printed in Texas, our Texas


Special thanks to David and Julie, whose company to Ransom Canyon amounted to one of the greatest times of my life.


Bruno’s Dream

Barry Russell, The Architectural Review, 1980

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A 90-Ton Sculpture Over A Canyon? They’ll Soon Call Home 12 Peter Applebome, The New York Times, 1981

Against Interpretation

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Brave New Weld

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A House Made of Steel and Flesh

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References

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Zach Mortice, AIArchitect, 2007 Richard Cook, Wallpaper, 2008 Fosco Bianchetti, Twill, 2009


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1974

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BRUNO’S DREAM BY BARRY RUSSELL


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Bruno’s Dream Barry Russell

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ansom Canyon is a cleft in the dry cotton–growing flatlands of west Texas, just outside Lubbock—a town of 150,000 people that must rate as a prime example of Melvin Webber’s non–place urban realm, with its wide streets and dispersed facilities. The canyon has a lake on its floor and is gradually being developed as a retreat from the motorised grid–iron of Lubbock. High on the rim of the canyon, among the timber frame multiple styled, air–conditioned homes, is perched a striking and unusual object— a creature like house fabricated from exposed offcut 6 mm steel sheets, seam–welded together to give a surface texture like the palm of a giant hand. This is Robert Bruno’s house, constructed entirely by him starting in 1974 and which he expects to complete in another two years, when it will stand 12 m tall, 27 m long and 18 m wide and contain 200 m2 of floor space. Bruno is a sculptor from California who teaches architectural students at Texas Tech University’s Division of Architecture, and who has a powerful and articulate dislike for the anonymous buildings which many architects spend time creating. The idea for the house came to Bruno while he was constructing a sculpture to stand in front of a house further down the canyon. This sculpture, also made from offcut steel sheet, was hollow and Bruno slept inside it to get the feel of its response to climatic changes—particularly the change from hot daytime temperatures to the lows of night. He found that, because of its form, expansion and contraction was self–regulating and this is what happens with the house, the construction of which was carried out using a few hand tools to cut, bend and weld the sheets. The crane seen in the illustrations was only installed about 3 1/2 years after work had commenced. Before that a taller one was used for a few months and before that all the work was done without a crane. Although Bruno started with a general idea of that he proposed to do it has all been worked out as he has gone building. He points out that had he designed a house before building it, he would have been unable to maintain an interest during its construction. His close relation with the site causes him to mould the design to respond to wind, sun and dew as he builds.

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Bruno’s Dream Barry Russell

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The interior spaces are exciting even in their incomplete state. Apart from living areas on the main floor there will be a bedroom and bathroom at an upper level reached by an amazing spiral stair which runs through the house right down to one of the legs, where there is to be a wine cellar and a library. Another leg is to take a small hydraulic life which will provide access from the lower ground level. The windows will be stained glass and designed to catch the breeze: the interior partitions will be plaster panels cast on the human body to give an organic appearance, stained glass and hardwoods. As Bruno says, “All will be worked by hand and show it.” From all this it might be thought that Bruno is offering some Utopian vision of a handcrafted universe. However, he makes no such claims and the comment implied by his work is more subtle. For it is not against the machine, or industrialisation, but against the particular solutions and imagery we have imposed up on the world of modern technology. After all, Bruno’s house is composed almost entirely of the product central to the industrialised world—sheet steel, 90 tons of it. But it is sheet steel employed as never before, in an organic way which allows it to respond to both person and place. It demonstrates that man can humanise this industralised product as he has mastered timber and clay.

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THE NEW YOR K TIM

ES, 1981


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he idea for a house over the canyon came to the sculptor Robert Bruno one day as he stood beneath one of his works, a 16–foot–tall, 21,000–pound steel sculpture that resembled a prehistoric beast lumbering toward the nearest messy bog.

“I was working on the other one and standing underneath it, and it was kind of a nice environment underneath it,’’ Mr. Bruno said. “And I thought, ‘Gee, if a person were to re–create this environment a little bit larger, you could live in it.’” Now, six years later, he is two–thirds of the way toward his goal—a 90–ton habitable sculpture, with 2,300 square feet over its three levels, that he and his wife plan to call home. Poised on a ledge, 150 feet over the base of a gaunt canyon, Mr. Bruno’s house is a massive collection of sweeping steel arches and crests that tower above a vista of earth, water and sky. It is in this newly incorporated village filled primarily with conventional ranch houses that sell for $120,000 to $140,000. Not all of the neighbors were thrilled to have the hulking creation in their midst, but the subdivision’s architecture control board approved the design, and most of the critics have since come to appreciate it. “Some of the people here were, I guess, too conservative,’’ said one neighbor, Dr. Paul J. Harth. “They felt a house like this does not lend itself to what’s expected of this area. Personally, I think it’s great, a landmark.’’ The basic material of the house is one–quarter–inch steel plate, much of it unneeded pieces gathered from local construction


A 90-Ton Sculpture Over A Canyon? They’ll Soon Call It Home Peter Applebome

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projects. The outside will be completely steel and glass. Half of the inside surfaces will be raw, unadorned steel; the other half, plaster and glass. The house will have black walnut floors. Mr. Bruno, a 35–year–old sculptor and former architecture professor at Texas Tech University in neighboring Lubbock, is doing all of the work himself —including welding the 90 tons of steel. He expects it will take another three years to finish the project. Sitting on four 20–foot–tall legs, the house has the same almost totemic power as the sculpture that inspired it. “When I describe this as being organic,’’ Mr. Bruno said, ‘’I don’t mean it’s a free form; it’s disciplined but in a very complex way.’’ “One of the things that relates it to the canyon is the size,’’ he continued. “It is kind of primitive, brutal. There aren’t little rolling meadows and streams here. When there’s a storm, it’s a big storm. When the sun is out, it’s big and hot. And the strength of those elements is part of what I want the house to relate to.’’ Despite the dramatic presence and imposing dimensions, Mr. Bruno stressed that what he’s building is a house—a place where he and his wife will live, and, he hopes, raise a family. The house is built on three levels, connected by winding stairways and an elevator, which will rise 37 feet to the top of the structure. Each of the legs will be functional. One will be a library, barely big enough for a man to stand at its base, but spiraling outward so that a person will literally be surrounded by its books. A second leg will contain the elevator, a simple box with stained–glass walls. The third will be a wine cellar and the fourth, storage space. Most of the living space is on the street–level main floor, which will be

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A 90-Ton Sculpture Over A Canyon? They’ll Soon Call It Home Peter Applebome

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1983

1994


85 feet long and 55 feet wide. The front foyer opens onto a corridor, which leads to a dining room, living room and a huge leaded–glass picture window overlooking the 100–acre, man–made lake at the bottom of Caliche Canyon. The first floor will also contain a master bedroom and an adjacent sitting room and bath; a guest bedroom and another small bathroom. There will be fireplaces in both bedrooms. On the top floor, a study and guest bathroom will be built. Mr. Bruno is happier discussing his philosophy of the house than the mundane, day–to–day details of building it. He hasn’t worried yet about how the house will be heated and said that he isn’t sure what the final third of the house will look like. “Critical to the way this thing works is that it has evolved as I have built it,’’ he said. “To do this I had to know two things simultaneously: one, that you don’t know what it will look like when it’s finished and two, that it’s going to look terrific when it’s finished. I had to know when I began that it would end up better than anything I could envision at the start.’’
Despite the area’s temperature extremes, Mr. Bruno said energy efficiency was not his primary concern. The house will have eight inches of sprayed fiberglass insulation between two layers of steel. ‘’Steel is a less–than–ideal material for building,’’ he said. “It absorbs calories like crazy. But if you insulate properly it’s no big deal. I would rather have the esthetic freedom the material provides and add a few more inches of insulation.’’ Mr. Bruno began work on the project while he was teaching at Texas Tech University. He was denied tenure last May and is now working full–time on the house, while his wife, Patricia, holds a public relations job. He estimates that he will spend about $50,000

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on materials, much of it provided at cost by local merchants. He has taken out a small loan to help finance the cost of materials and hopes to pay for the rest by selling the sculpture that inspired the house. Meanwhile, the couple lives in a $200–a– month apartment. Mr. Bruno said that he has been told the house will be worth $3 million when it’s done. But he quickly noted that it would only be worth that if someone with $3 million wants a habitable sculpture in this part of Texas—and it’s questionable whether such a person exists. His wife almost cringes when he talks about it, but Mr. Bruno does not expect to settle permanently in his house over the canyon. He said he might stay five years, he might stay ten but he expects to leave it before too long. “People always say, ‘Boy, won’t you be happy when this is finished,’” he said. “They assume I’m going through a tedious task so that one day I’ll have a product to my liking. They don’t realize the process itself is a joy. It will be a very exciting place when it’s finished, but this is heaven doing it. Leaving it won’t matter to me—I’ll just start over again.’’

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AGAINST INTERPRETATION

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BY ZACH MORTICE


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obert Bruno’s house of welded steel conjures up many meanings, but it arose without any of them

Summary: The steel house artist and sculptor Robert Bruno has created is a non–conceptual piece wholly informed by Bruno’s own aesthetic choices and direction. Its spontaneous, unplanned complexity hints at the future, the past, and calls to attention the scalar distortion and prevalence of conceptual rhetoric in modern architecture.

How do you … create singular, personal architecture from a non–conceptual basis? For 33 years, Robert Bruno has meticulously designed and built his welded steel house on the edge of a canyon outside of Lubbock, Tex. But, somehow, he’s not sure how many square feet it is (his guess is 2,700) and he can’t explain the influences that have informed his design over these three decades—despite the fact that the house’s otherworldly shape seems tailor–made for free association. A brief jaunt through any design–oriented mind brings you to: an insect’s carapace, an alien spacecraft, M.C. Escher’s hallucinogenic maze–scapes, and perhaps Deconstruction’s ongoing War on the Rectangle. But Bruno isn’t an entomologist, a science fiction writer, or even a Koolhaas/ Gehry acolyte. He’s an artist, and not a conceptual one. “This house doesn’t deal with concept at all,” he says. “I’m not trying to have something re–emerge in the guise of my house.” The medium is the meaning In 1974, while teaching at the architecture school at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Bruno completed a large steel sculpture just tall enough to stand under. He found this space pleasing and decided that it might be nice to live in such a dwelling. This humble and guileless desire is the only impetus for the design of his richly complex house, now almost complete.


Against Interpretation Zach Mortice

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The house hitches itself to no stylistic wagons and has been spontaneously designed and revised over the course of its 33–year construction. “What you’re seeing is 33 years of design, not three months of design and 33 years of labor,” Bruno says. If he would have had to design the house in full initially and then build to this exact standard, “I would feel as if I were working for somebody else,” he says. This is a literal distinction for Bruno. He began the house when he was a young man, age 29. Today he’s 62, and the majority of his years have been spent working on the house; an open film exposure documenting his aesthetic development and intent. Perhaps the house’s only conceptual and planning standby is its materiality. Instead of co–opting an external motif for the project and building form from there, Bruno let his materials speak with their own voice. “A lot of the shapes are helped along by the material itself, saying, ‘This is what comes naturally,’” he says. Naturally, it seems, Bruno’s house wants to express itself organically, even despite steel’s reputation as a primary tool in humankind’s arsenal of the artificial environment. Year upon year of continual revision have evolved dense, idiosyncratic curvatures and layerings that mimic the higher–ordered imperfections of life. The house reveals steel to be an organic signifier not only in form but in surface. It’s pleasingly brusque, ruddy–brown color is only the result of rust and decay. The steel has aged with Bruno, too. “You just leave it out in the rain. One of the things that I actually like about the material is that it does give us the sense of being another living thing that is perishable.” The sculptor’s tools Sited on a sloping plot in the small town of Ransom Canyon, Tex., the house’s four legs stand it up to the top of a canyon wall. It’s imprecisely ovoid shape is composed of a double shell structure, an interior and exterior shell with insulation in between. “This isn’t something draped over an interior structure,” Bruno says. “The structure is the shell.” Bruno estimates that 60 percent of the interior is made of steel, while nearly the

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Against Interpretation Zach Mortice

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entire exterior is steel. The vast majority of it was cut and welded on site and installed with simple tools: a wrench, welder, cutting torch, c–clamps, and a cable pulley for bending and shaping the metal. Bruno, an artist and sculptor by trade, did have to build a few unique tools to help him in his lone quest to complete the project. One example was a hydraulic crane that he could remotely operate from the crane’s bucket. The room layouts and general size of the house were the only elements Bruno planned in advanced. Spread over three levels, the house has three bedrooms, three baths, a kitchen, a living room, and a dining room, all of which Bruno is a few months away from moving into. “What it consists of … ” And when he does, he says he expects the avant–garde dwelling to be exceedingly livable. But, without the commonplace programmatic references of furniture and interior design, those not so intimately connected to the entity’s growth and development may not feel the same way. Bruno’s house is delirious in its volumetric complexity, so much so that decorative and structural elements are nearly indistinguishable. Vertical terraces curve into stairs, a table–like structure slopes out of the floor. Bruno says this type of spontaneous, whimsical design is what creates the aesthetic complexity people crave, missing from most of the built environment around us, and largely absent from the practice of architecture itself. “It isn’t that we’re looking for the silliness of a maze,” he says. “We’re looking at a higher order of complexity.” The crux of the problem: Market realities demand that architects communicate to clients what a project will be before it exists through imperfect, distorting mediums like models. From this point on, Bruno says the scale is manipulated and details are whitewashed in the transition. “Inadvertently, what ends up happening is that the resolution at the model level is potentially quite

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Against Interpretation Zach Mortice

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different from what you would resolve at full scale. I would venture to say that almost all the large buildings we see around us are the replica and the original is the model,” he says. The subsequently full–scaled and improvisatory details of Bruno’s home make it feel somehow futuristic, full of components and volumes seemingly too complex for human comprehension, yet still ancient in its organic decomposition. It’s as if it had returned from the future to be buried in our past, stuck here for thousands of years. Indeed, the house does take a stand against one temporal artistic signifier: conceptual art. Much of art and architecture over the past century, Bruno says, has been self–consciously concerned with shackling itself to specific ideas and concrete themes early in the planning process, making execution perfunctory and raw aesthetics secondary. It’s art where, as conceptual artist Sol LeWitt said, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Bruno uses the example of Swedish–born artist Claes Oldenburg’s giant–sized replicas of everyday objects. His projects are easy to discuss and imagine without ever seeing the actual object. “What it consists of is the wall plate and light switches made big. That’s what it is.” Reliance on this type of design philosophy in architecture is easy to find and easier to explain. Because architects create things using clients’ money and the client wants to know what they’ll be getting, architects had better find a way to explain it. All of a sudden, a conceptual framework becomes a mandatory marketing pitch and much of modern architecture lends itself to pithy descriptions of what “it” is. Examples of this can be seemingly traditional or recognizably Modern. The National Cathedral be can easily understood as a Gothic cathedral decorated with American history iconography, and Eero Saarinen’s Ingalls Ice Arena at Yale doesn’t lose much in

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translation when described as an ice rink shaped like an upturned Viking ship. Robert Bruno’s house doesn’t discuss these kinds of worldly concerns. It speaks only to process and materiality, which yields a summation that might read thusly: “It’s a 33–year–long exposure of a home in steel.”

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WALLPAPER, 2008

BRAVE NEW WELD BY RICHARD COOK


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Brave New Weld Richard Cook

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F

or the past 33 years, sculptor Robert Bruno has been building his crazy steel home on the edge of a Texas canyon.

We are two hours out of Abilene. The highway here runs straight for mile after mindless mile, past wispy comb–over cotton fields and the swampy, slag–heap hog farms that are spreading through this state like an oil slick, all the way out west to the very edge of the mesa. Another hour or so up towards the setting sun is the Pecos River, where the hard caliche of the Llano Estacado collides with the Mescalero Escarpment and the desert proper starts. This is the Texas Panhandle. Naturally, in the circumstances, we are expecting horses: sticky–flanked quarter horses with varicose rib cages; perhaps even a couple of granite–jawed cowboys in stiff frock coats and battered chaps, chewing tobacco with a steely self–sufficiency. we are in a place called Ransom Canyon and we are expecting some cut–price Cooper. What we are getting is a pleasant dormitory town clustered around its own man –made lake, a comfortable commute from the college town of Lubbock. There are good lattes, homemade brownies and even a book discussion group on offer at the local diner. This month they are debating the merits of the holistic self–help title: A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life’s Purpose, by Eckhart Tolle. Pock–marking the eubiquitious Texan pickups, one or two imported sedans are parked proudly in driveways. The darkest faces on view on this weekday afternoon tend to be the ones tending to manicured front yards. It’s all a bit more Desperate Housewives than Desperadoes. The architectural vernacular, too, is distinguished chiefly by its familiarity. Work is progressing nicely on a community of five–bed Cape Cod–style mansions, each with its own lake vista. We could be in any prosperous suburb

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of any faintly prosperous Texan town. Except that, as the road begins to peter out around a corner past yet another bland bungalow, suddenly, squatting on the skyline, is something that looks like it just landed from a planet where straight lines and sobriety were outlawed. This is the Steel House: beauty under some strange spell of its staid, neighbouring beasts. Ransom Canyon is not the first place you’d go to find a remarkable piece of architecture more than three decades in the making. It’s not a place you would ordinarily go to find architecture at all. When would–be sculptor Robert Bruno took a job in the architecture department at Texas Tech in Lubbock, one of his first responsibilities was to attend a faculty cocktail party at a house the college sometimes used for such functions. It was an isolated building located on a tiny island in the middle of the lake in Caliche Canyon, next door to Ransom. In those days it was just about the only house for miles around. Bruno liked the wildness of the unmarked countryside so much that he immediately purchased a couple of plots 150 ft up at the top of the canyon and started work building a house for himself and his new wife. “It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere back then,” Bruno remembers wistfully. He fancied it would take him 30 months at most to build what he wanted. But, 33 years later, and now almost overwhelmed by the suburban community that has sprung up all around it, the Steel house is still at least a couple more years away from completion. Charmingly, this prospect doesn’t trouble Bruno at all. But then, give or take the input of friends and the help of an occasional assistant from time to time, this has been one man’s obsession over those three decades. Bruno even designed and built special tools that enabled him to work alone. He constructed a hydraulic crane, for example, that he could

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operate remotely from the crane’s bucket. Most of the metal he cut and welded on site, then bent into shape using the sort of C–clamps and cable pulley system you could buy at any neighbourhood DIY store. It has been slow, painstaking work. Bruno was 29 years old when he started: he’s now 62. “It’s not like I’ve been building the same house for 33 years and just building it really, really slowly” he says “I have actually been designing it for 33 years. Just last month, for instance, I took out the central stanchion to give me an extra couple of inches of headroom downstairs. That stanchion was, in effect, holding up the entire house. That decision will probably delay things by the best part of a year, but it seemed to me to be the right thing to do. “Architects typically thing in 2D, then transfer that thought process into a building. Or they drape a wild decorative exterior over a simple structure. That’s a process that entails all kinds of compromise. It’s not a truthful process. You could say that architectural models are the real buildings, and that most of what gets built today is just a dishonest replica of that. In my house, the structure is the shell— there’s no pretense, no deception.” Bruno likens today’s architectural process to the very public problems that Washington’s National Gallery of Art had when attempting to build an unrealised mobile design by the late Alexander Calder. The gallerists there wanted to build the mobile based on Calder’s sketches, but scaled up to fill their new atrium space. When they did so they found that the weight of the materials meant that the mobile didn’t move. It took several years and the substitution of super light new materials before the piece could take pride of place in the gallery and fulfil something of the artist’s intention. “I’m not in that position because I’m not an architect,” Bruno continues. “I’m a sculptor and I think in 3D. The good part of that is that I never have to compromise with my design—this house is not something scaled up. I have

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never made a model, never tried out an early design on the computer. The down side is that this is not a quick way of working. Only a mad man would ever commission me to build their own house.” Bruno always suspected that the design would continue to evolve as he built it, but originally he did at least have something specific in mind. Before he ever started on the house, he had completed a 16 ft tall sculpture that resembled a kind of giant arachnid. It, too, was perched on stilt–like legs. “I remember standing underneath its body, shaded by the legs and saying that this would be a great place to live,” he says. “My friends thought I was joking. Unfortunately I wasn’t. That was the inspiration, but don’t think I really had an idea of what it would look like when I started work.” Today, the house does look basically like an inhabitable sculpture, one welded out of 90 tons of quarter inch steel plate, sitting on four 20 ft tall hollow legs. There is somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 sq ft of liveable space inside, spread over three floors. One hazard of Bruno’s organic way of working is that he isn’t really sure of little things like dimensions. The living spaces are finally starting to take shape with stained glass, created to Bruno’s own design naturally, delineating private and public spaces. He has even started making some pieces of wooden furniture for the house, teaching himself some advanced carpentry techniques in the process. And he is now planning a whole wall of delicate blue majolica tiling to offset an interior that currently revels in the dense curvatures and layerings that year upon year of almost continual renewals and revisions have wrought. “People ask me how I can live with all this rusty steel, and they tell me it doesn’t look very comfortable,” Bruno says. “Actually I think the shape gives it life. They shot a catalogue for Neiman Marcus here and the photographer said the house made the models come alive. I think most modernist buildings diminish people and celebrate the space instead, but this does the reverse.” Looking around the fruits of three decades of his labour, he adds, “If this has taught me anything it’s that we need to be bolder when building our houses. Probably, you could say, we need to be just a little bit quicker as well.”

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A HOUSE MADE OF STEEL AND FLESH BY FOSCO BIANCHETTI


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n the 22nd of April 2008, Giulia and I, coming from opposite directions, converged on Lubbock.

Lost in the middle of Texas, a point in nowhere, Lubbock has condensed into a substantial town the fine dust of farms and villages which once spread over miles of farmland. Living in Europe, we would have never known of its existence, if not for a remarkable structure that Giulia had discovered in its vicinity and whose purpose was somewhat obscure to us. The memory of that day is still vivid to me, but many months have gone by since. And, as you will later understand, this lapse of time has now taken on a poignant resonance.

So far, in this play, I have introduced the place and our humble storytellers, but the two leading characters are still missing: Maria and Robert. Maria, shining with the splendour of her youth and beauty, arrived from New York. Robert, our beloved Robert, didn’t have to come. He had been there, on and off, for a good part of his life and was expecting us. The extras reached us piecemeal. With the entire troupe in place, the next morning, we were ready to work on the task of shooting a fashion story for ‘Twill, the very purpose of our trip. And this we did. Or, at least, so we thought. In hindsight, I have the sensation that a mysterious design had called us for the precise mission of acting the last scene of a play started 30 years ago. But let’s step back a few hours, to our first meeting with Robert. The shape of the Steel House, our extraordinary shooting location, was not unknown to us, because our trip had been thoroughly planned for a long time. As anticipated, the massive structure, covered by a delicate skin of thin rust, projected itself towards a deep canyon; its gigantic eye overlooking those lands with a curious gaze. But, when we came close, we felt something that we could not have perceived in the small pictures that had attracted Giulia’s attention: a sort of supernatural energy emanating from the globular roundness of that immovable space ship. Not frightening, and yet, that shell of knitted scrap–iron plates appeared to hide something mysterious. There was a door, but, wisely, no locks

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or bells. We timidly tapped on the entrance and, as you would expect from a piece of art, nothing happened. The elaborate glass panelled gate was ajar and we found natural to push it a bit, and timidly step inside. We paused, in awe of an astonishing, timeless cathedral that did not resemble anything we had ever seen, when Robert, suddenly, materialized from some opening, cheerfully greeting us. Expecting a quixotic artist, his normality took me by surprise, because, with some exceptions, I have always regarded contemporary artists as performers whose fame needs their look, and overbearing ego, as much as their work. It has always amazed me how often their search for the key to universal art drowns in vane pretence, choked by hopelessly egotistic narcissism. Which, in the market, is more sellable than art, thus, as often, conveniently hiding their artistic failure in commercial success. Conversely, Robert’s unassuming demeanour and his curiosity for our work revealed a modest disposition untouched by the arrogance of the weak. Nothing in him revealed any pride for the years of toil and his achievement, but the tender affection that tied him to that inanimate creature was palpable. Timid and gentle, he played the polite host. We played the polite guests. And yet, there was something else looming behind the friendly atmosphere of that encounter, intriguingly touched by just a speck of sadness. The next day was hectic. Giulia, possessed by a creative frenzy and tormented by the anguish of not being able to capture the essence of that place, was taking pictures from all possible angles. Her restless agitation contrasted starkly with the detached calm of Robert and Maria. Robert was casually coming and going, while Maria, obedient and thoughtful, duly executed the usual modelling routine. I tried to help with the lights. But, between each take, the dress switches and make–up fixes let me a lot of spare time to talk. I didn’t want to pry into Robert’s personal life, though, because, the day before, masked by his courtesy, I had perceived a certain uneasiness in letting strangers intrude into his own life. May be, even a certain regret for having let us come so close to his nest. He had not called us there; he had not been paid for the use of the location. He had simply and naively accepted, out of kindness, our request. Therefore, curious as I was, I felt that it would have been unfair to

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punish him with direct questions. Our conversation, for a while, proceeded in the most conventional way, clearly disconnected from our deeper thoughts and from the weight of the past, and of the future. Useless as they were, those fake and formal exchanges, broken by spurts of intense shooting activity, slowly developed into a growing complicity. I told him of our chimerical ‘Twill project and of Giulia’s photographic dreams. Robert told me of his younger days, when, long before Maria was born, 35 years in the past, he had chosen this wild and isolated cliff as the site for his architectural sculpture. He could not exactly recall how and when the project of the house had suddenly become his recurring dream, an artistic urge that he could not escape. The house, though, had never been part of a plan to astonish the world, to redeem humanity with a message of beauty and introspection. Or so he thought. Not that he were spiteful of people, but he had absolutely no interest in becoming a celebrated artist, an oxymoron to him. He was in no hurry, then. With the boundless future of the young fully open in front of him, he had easily committed to an inevitable journey with no destination. He also explained how he had planned to transpose the Steel House from his mind to the real world. The calculations, the foundations, the trusses, the plates… everything had been conceived and put in place by him, all alone. I was listening, deeply fascinated by his fantastic story. And while he was talking, the album open on the table, my eyes glided over those grainy old pictures that had frozen instants of the construction phases and the merciless progress of time on his body. My imagination wandering around that solitary fusion of flesh and metal, my mind pondering the meaning of that affectionate intimacy that excluded everybody else. Then, he described how, plate after plate, year after year, the embryo of the Steel House developed into a fully formed being. To impress those wonderful curves on the sculpture, he had flexed each single steel plate, his muscles pulling a hand– hoist then entrapping the rebellious energy of the springy metal with stitches of arc welding. He was carefully proud to emphasize that the plates had not been “bent”, only “flexed”, ready to bounce back to the native flat, if let loose. Subdued, but not beaten! Each surface had absorbed moments of his life and this, to

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him, was no minor detail. In fact, it was the essence and soul of the house. The rounded forms of the house shared with him the memory of the past negotiations between his artistic vision and the will of steel. Having being made part of this secret, now I could nearly see how, in the constrained iron, his toil and soul were preserved. The ferrous material reluctantly bowing to his genius, the energy of his body, inexorably, transferred to the house. And I finally understood why he had passionately begged us not to scar that silky layer of rust that covered everything: it was his own skin. And the mysterious aura we had perceived the day before found its explanation: over three decades of endless efforts, a tremendous amount of energy had accumulated into the sculpture, finally enveloping the house in a powerful field of force. At this point, you may wonder if my recollections, entwined with my fantasies, can tell the tale from the truth. But does it matter? The luscious pictures of Giulia give enough of a foothold to our story. And a reliable witness, the Steel House, is still there. During the day, I had noticed how Robert had shared, with growing participation, our emotions and, eventually, I considered him part of the group. The evening, we had dinner all together and, at the restaurant, I found a round table. It was clearly too small for the number of people. But I like the cosy feeling of physical contact and we squeezed next to each other, ready to enjoy the comfort of backstage complicity. The thoughtless and gay atmosphere created by our youthful band definitely charmed Robert, the guest of honour. At times, I could even see him radiant with glimpses of childish happiness. The princess of the table was Maria, but Robert, after having watched Giulia at work, was definitely seduced by the energy and devotion that she offered her art. Most of all, I believe, he affectionately envied her na誰ve faith in the future. The next day we started to work early and, like the day before, we kept talking, and talking. The three of us bound into one of those rare and strange friendships that are not based on common experiences or familiarity, but rather on untold feelings and deep respect. Friendships that live in a world, parallel to your ordinary existence, where they can be cherished and forever stay silently close to your heart, needless of constant care. As he was a man of wide

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interests and culture, our conversation touched varied subjects. I avidly enjoyed those casual chats, because the vantage point of his seclusion offered a different and enlightening perspective. But, surrounded by the house and its they can be cherished and forever stay silently close to your heart, needless of constant care. As he was a man of wide interests and culture, our conversation touched varied subjects. I avidly enjoyed those casual chats, because the vantage point of his seclusion offered a different and enlightening perspective. But, surrounded by the house and its more, because, somehow, the gravity of his comment made me fear that his life was at stake. And, in fact, it was, as I later understood. The undertaking he had mentioned was a war. The battlefield his body, evil cells the enemy and chemotherapy his sword. He appeared neither scared nor overly concerned, thought. As always, as working on the house, his focus was in the process, not in the outcome. Hiding my sadness, I let the show go on, take after take, because it had to go on, as we both knew. Soon the curtain had to be lowered and we all had to play our role, ‘Twill being the last paragraph in the story line. The Steel House had been Robert‘s journey for 35 years and now, long expected, but suddenly too close, the decree of time had to be executed. And the transmutation of Robert into his sculpture being completed, the journey was close to the end. As guided from above, we had been called there to celebrate that moment with joy rather than sorrow, to give a happy ending to the play of his life. According to the script, Maria, white skin in white dress, had to be there, standing in sharp contrast against the rusty plates of the house, as a symbol of the ever renovating flow of life. Her innocent face a tribute to a forthcoming rosy future, as it had yesterday been for the young Robert. We finished the shooting in the afternoon, as always, too late. In a rush, we warmly thanked and kissed Robert, the lack of time providentially hiding from me the meaning of that farewell. I quickly escorted everybody to the airport and they dispersed in opposite directions. Suddenly the day had grown colder, and, in the approaching dusk, I began my long and solitary drive to Dallas. When home, as woken from a dream, we all went back to our daily chores, all

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absorbed in self–consuming activities bound to leave no trace. Occasionally, I thought of those two very special days, of Robert and his reassuring peace of mind, of his majestic Steel House and its mysterious secret. And I imagined Robert, inextricably melded with his sculpture, sometimes, thinking of us. With Giulia we discussed the photo–story many times, something always delaying the publication. But time flies so fast, life is so greedy that, lost in the glittering of the world, I quickly forgot the brave fight of my friend. Thousand of miles away, time had another meaning and Lubbock was again a remote point in nowhere. In December, Giulia received the following message from Mark, Robert’s neighbour and friend. Dear Giulia, Many photographers have “documented” the Steel House including Robert himself, but he told me that your pictures were the first to “add” to the art of his home. To me, this is the highest compliment that he could have given. He was looking forward to visiting you in Europe. Alas, our dear Robert is gone. Tuesday morning on December 8 he died of an infection he contracted because his immune system was so lowered from his chemotherapy. Heroic measures were employed, because he was responding so well to his chemo. If only we could have got him over the infection. Giulia, your encounter and pictures gave him joy and excitement near the end of his life. Thank you for that. Sincerely, Mark Lawson Giulia was desperate and cried for days. I felt guilty for not having yet published those pictures, which he liked so much. Our plans to go back to the Steel House and hand him a few copies of Twill, with the Steel House on the cover, shattered in emptiness. Eventually, time healed our grief and I was able to look at Robert and our adventure in a light of beauty, joy and hope. Hope in art as an expression of our feelings, not of our vanity. Hope in the individuality of man that can always redeem, and be redeemed, even when lost in the damnation of the masses. Then, so as not to forget, I wrote this piece.

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Articles Applebome, Peter. “A 90-Ton Sculpture Over A Canyon? They’ll Soon Call It Home.” The New York Times 22 Jan. 1981. Print. Bianchetti, Fosco. “A House Made of Steel and Flesh.” Twill 26 Oct 2009: 48-55. Print. Cook, Richard. “Brave New Weld.” Wallpaper Apr 2008: 194-98. Print. Mortice, Zach. “Against Interpretation.” AIArchitect 16 Nov. 2007. Web. Russell, Barry. “Bruno’s Dream.” The Architectural Review Dec. 1980: 331-32. Print

Photographs David Wehmeyer Julie Villarreal robertbruno.com


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LUBBOCK


RANSOM CANYON


Amalgama  

A collection of articles, essays, and photographs documenting Robert Bruno's Steel House in Ransom Canyon, Texas.

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