William Katavolos

by Deborah Gans

The Practice + Theory series is sponsored in part by the Frances Dittmer Family Foundation.

Drawing of a city of liquid villas that would float on the sea. Made by Katavolos and the Guild for Organic Design in the late '50s for the book Organics . All images courtesy of William Katavolos and Henry Harrison.

William Katavolos’s career as an avant-gardist spans 60 years, beginning in the late 1940s when, after giving up painting, he and fellow Pratt students Ross Littell and Douglas Kelley produced a furniture line including the “T” chair, which is now in the collection of MoMA and the Louvre. Katavolos lived the high life of the time in the company of Frederick Kiesler, Eva Zeisel, John Nichols, John Moran, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. He went on in industrial design to conceive furniture collections for the legendary Laverne International, partition systems for Time-Life and Owens Corning, a suspension ring system for the Moscow Fair, and the Agricultural and Solar Pavilions for Salonika. Folklore has it that he and Philip Johnson were in a race to the finish on the construction of their glass houses (Katavolos’s was completed in 1950 and still stands in Cazenovia, New York). His 1961 essay “Organics,” subsequently canonized as a “modern manifesto” in Ulrich Conrads’s book Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture , predicted a chemical architecture grown from polymers, a proposition that has gained him new following among the current generation-genome architects.

It is one of his earliest experiments that is now the centerpiece of his continuing research at the Center for Experimental Structures at Pratt Institute, which he co-directs. In 1947, a dome he induced in a paper lid on an upside-down glass of water and a subsequent vacuum dome he laid out in Gardiner’s Bay near his family’s Ram’s Head Inn on Long Island inspired his liquid architecture—the subject of this interview. As he explained in a New Yorker Talk of the Town in September 2003, “Mies van der Rohe used to say, ‘We don’t invent a new architecture every Monday morning.’ It takes about 33 years to refine a new thing. It is not a young man’s work.”

Deborah Gans Let’s start with your liquid architecture. What’s it like, what’s it made out of, how would you describe the experience of being in it?

William Katavolos Let me put it this way, since you have written about Corbusier and know a great deal about him. Corbusier said that architecture must have mass, surface and space. Now, the only difference between the two architectures, his and mine, is that I believe in the liquefaction of mass, the gasification of space, and the solidification of surface. That’s how it all began.

DG Is that a mixing of senses and experiences, the equivalent of the “acoustic space” that Corbusier talks about? Space is understood as the vibration of air, i.e., sound; and sound is experienced as an emanation through and of space. Are you talking about an experience like this? Or are you really addressing the chemical and physical transformation of states?

WK I spent World War II on night duty in a medical corps unit overseas and slept in morgues during the days, so anatomy was never more than a few feet away. Autopsies were a regular occurrence. The notions of endomorphic, ectomorphic, and mesomorphic led to an examination of architecture. Now, I am using these words here not in the common sense of body types, but in terms of their Greek roots: ecto meaning surface, endo the inside, and meso the middle, or intermediate. A mesoderm is the embryonic germ layer lying between the ectoderm and endoderm, from which develops the connective tissue, the urogenital and vascular systems.

I started off with the question of how to create what is never in standard architecture, a mesomorphic architecture, which would sublimate the standard skin (ecto) and structure (endo) to the connective tissue. So, between two walls of plastic, if you raise water at less than atmospheric pressure, you can form the “organs” of the house, the rooms, within the space created—just as tissue forms the vascular system within it, rather than just putting the rooms inside the gastrointestinal tract, which is what the normal house is—it has an opening at one end, and another opening at the other end. The important thing is what’s in between. There was no way to arrive at a mesomorphic architecture except through a liquefaction of mass and a solidification of surface. I don’t like solids; I like the surface. I like surface that is not surface minimized. If you are immersed in a medium such as water, you can see the surface that separates you from the atmosphere; it is a magical molecular layer that should not be cut, but penetration is permissible. Liquid mass is a building material in which form swallows function. It allows us to be incorporated rather than captured. It is obvious that I prefer tunnels to towers. I remember the tunnels under Jerusalem surrounded by stone and the sensation of silence that makes you feel so singular. It exaggerates existence.

When you are surrounded by water your voice resonates, but sounds from the outside are unheard, both of which I like. Having the transparency of a mass like water is like having liquid concrete.

DG Being in this house, can you feel the thickness of the water? What are the qualities of the light?

WK Well, we built a liquid villa out in the desert, and the quality of light is extraordinary, like Lalique. I once believed that they only belonged in the desert until we mocked one up in Garrison, New York, up in the old Russell Wright estate, and allowed it to freeze and melt again and again during a very cold winter, absorbing heat and then giving off heat. It became a crystal cottage. Freezing creates visible stress patterns that are like veins in marble or the grain in wood. Being surrounded by water is like being in the amniotic sac. It’s a safe haven. So I’ve never been big on towers, but tunnels have always fascinated me: something that has the potential for exploration; something that’s more than just a box with a door on it; something that you can go through via apertures, in almost a peristaltic progress. If you were to think of the house as an upside-down glass filled with water, you could actually enter that water and swim up into the glass, but you couldn’t get out of it; you’d have to swim back down. But if you have an organic valve at the bottom that you could close like a camera aperture and if a valve at the top opened, then you could swim right up through the top and enter the pool that surrounds the house.

DG So you really envision this total immersion and then rising up into the house—

WK Absolutely. I have a fear of staircases; I think they’re the most dangerous architectural invention. Ramps are all right . . . but I would prefer to be raised through water. You know, the Greeks had their tunics and the Romans had their togas, and we’ve got to have another kind of attire for this kind of architecture. You’re not going to wear a Brooks Brothers suit in there. In this place you would wear waterproof communicational clothing.

DG What is communicational clothing?

WK You know, wearable computers, e-broidery—the kind of stuff that is being developed at IBM and MIT.


Drawing of a city of liquid villas that would float on the sea. Made by Katavolos and the Guild for Organic Design in the late '50s for the book Organics.

DG In your speaking of this particular kind of fluid mechanic—for it really has a mechanic; it’s operational—in your feminine/feminist overtones, you remind me of Luce Irigaray—do you know her? She explores female subjectivity and goes so far as to propose an alternative understanding of the material world. I think she has denounced E=mc2 as sexed, because it privileges light and speed, which of course leads straight back to optics and the power of the male gaze. Irigaray would like us not only to dethrone this patriarchal physics but to connect the material world to properties she sees as female, namely fluids and flux. Actually, it does seem as if the fluid mechanics of air is just now an important part of architectural engineering and form finding—like in the work Ove Arup does with Renzo Piano and others. Do you see the parallels?

WK The male glare is everywhere. It is in the way of love. The women, you know, Julia Kristeva and the rest of them, are far more interesting than the men, Lacan and Derrida for instance, who are apologists for a failed France. The Germans lost, but the French failed, because they sat out World War II, and this has affected their philosophy. Existentialism became Deconstructivism. They wanted to make sure everybody could be knocked off a pedestal. It’s not one of my favorite philosophies for that reason. But to answer your question, Ove Arup and Renzo Piano as well as others are working on an interiorization of architecture that allows functions to be felt. Unlike the Green movement, organicism begins from within. It has the ornamental complexity of Jacopo Sansovino’s library in Venice as functional, necessary form. Architecture must evolve to have no other use than that which it is designed for. Liquids and gasses separated by solid surfaces must harvest the wind, the sun, and the rain. The noise of the wind machines is silenced by the roof ponds that protect the plastic from ultraviolet degradation and allow the night sky radiation to cool large quantities of water, which will fill aquaculture tanks in a constant and controlled infusion. The encapsulated mass will fireproof the structure and anchor it against the vagaries of the weather.

DG You mention Sansovino—

WK Yes. I’m a classicist! Organicism and classicism are the same thing. Organicism is the only thing that was left for the Greeks to do. They would never have done the dome. They knew how to do domes; they put domes over their cesspools. They thought it was an ugly form. The Romans were the ones who recognized the potential of the dome. Engineering or anatomy never interested the Greeks. The outer body is what they were concerned with. I’m concerned with the inner body. The Greeks did use the ovaries and the fallopian tubes and the ureters as the base for their Ionic column, and they superimposed on it the testicles, the vas deferens. . . . But I’m including the kidneys and the ureters running through it! The organic is post-pantheonic—beyond bringing the outside in, it is the inside, inside out.

DG When Andrea Palladio talks about the house, he shifts from the sacred to the profane even more than [Leon Battista] Alberti does. Alberti begins the shift, but Palladio domesticates it. And when he is domesticating classical architecture, he says the house is like a body. Like a body, it has an outer casing, which is comely, but can’t work without all the systems inside: the stairs, the kitchen, the waste. But he goes on to say how difficult it is to introduce this new custom of arranging the internal workings of the house within the architectural diagram rather than as its subsidiary. You get the feeling he doesn’t even feel free to express how important the inner workings of body are to him because he is so caught by the culture of the late Renaissance and its codification of ornament and proportional systems. He both invents this system of organs and represses it within the Renaissance cosmological diagram of a square divided into nine squares of space by shifting all the geometries.

WK What can I say, you have said it all. He is my mentor, and his is the model. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Palladio villas, and that’s why I use the term liquid villas. For Palladio, the biblical plan was given: the Solomaic tesseract. The temple was an elongated cube whose six sides were extended outward into rooms. Palladio imposed a secular symmetry on this sacred geometry and humanized it for habitation by the highborn. His rules of arrangement are still valid. Columns, arches, vaults, and domes become hydroforms—hydrocolumns, hydroarches, hydrovaults, and hydrodomes. But now the membrane and the fluid unite in tension and compression, mesomorphically like tissue—a column of fluid. This is the last architecture of the Classical period.

DG I can’t move as fast as you. Let’s go back. So, you’re saying that the Corinthian is the liquefaction of mass.

WK It’s a conduit. The phallus has never interested me very much, to put it in the terms of some of these philosophers we’ve been discussing, but what interests me is the penis out of which the urine pours, kidneys emptying the liquidity of the body. Even the erect penis is just another conduit for another purpose.

DG The writers we were talking about, Irigary and Lacan for instance, make a big distinction between the phallus and the penis. They are not the same thing.

WK No, they are not. The phallus is power! But think of it as a penis you can piss with. Superimpose the kidneys on the Ionic knot, and what you’ve got is a river that runs through them. You know where all this comes from: Joyce’s Ulysses. Early on, when I was in high school, I got a copy of Ulysses. I read Ulysses like some people read the Bible. The liquidity of its language, the way everything runs together . . . If I were to put it in four-letter words, it’s piss, shit, snot, scum, bile, and puke, all of the fluids that are emitted from the body one way or the other. Every chapter represents an opening in the body or an organ. Leopold Bloom enjoys his body immensely. He savors the urine taste of kidneys, prefers long bowel movements to sex with Molly. Stephen Dedalus, on the other hand, is concerned with continuous closings without the possibility of closure. Joyce was another mentor.

DG I can hear it. You were a poet before you were an architect.

WK You never give up poetry. Poetry is more powerful than music. The hardest thing in the world is to come up with a combination of words that holds.


Drawing of a city of liquid villas that would float on the sea. Made by Katavolos and the Guild for Organic Design in the late '50s for the book Organics.

DG Did your war experience affect your architecture?

WK Oh, sure. I got interested in underwater diving at that time. Toward the end of the war, there was a famous raid at Balikpapan in the Phillipines, where I was stationed, and we got a lot of the British wounded, including their divers, who had recently started to use the rebreather [a closed-circuit scuba apparatus] for clandestine underwater missions. I borrowed one of the rebreathers and went out to Subic Bay and learned to skin-dive. The rebreather is beautiful because it doesn’t leave any bubbles: nobody knows where you are. It’s not like the Aqua-Lung. So I got into water early, but I have never liked swimming. I don’t like to be on the surface of the water. It’s very disturbing to me. Whenever I see a sailing ship, I see it as a razor cutting an eye. The old Buñuel thing. When you’re in water, it’s gorgeous—once you penetrate. But supernatance doesn’t interest me.

DG Do your water structures depend on the surface action, on the mechanics of the surface? They use the plastic as the surface.

WK Well, the skin is the largest organ in the human body, and that’s the analogy you have to use. With these structures, we’re covering ourselves with an intelligent skin. The forms of the skin on the skeleton are extraordinary.

DG How would you describe them?

WK They’re like Lalique glass, or Tiffany, very much like Tiffany. I lived at Laurel Hollow on the Tiffany estate when I was designing the furniture we’re sitting on—

DG —which is gorgeous.

WK The owner gave my partners and me the stables, and that’s where we lived. All around us were these discarded Tiffany vases, just lying there. Today they would be worth a fortune. I was drinking coffee out of Tiffany vases every morning, and exploring the rooms of the great house. Then it all burned down, in 1957, and that was a tragedy. There were a hundred rooms, and every room was a different organic form. Frank Lloyd Wright said it would take a hundred men a hundred years to duplicate what Louis Comfort Tiffany had done there. It was an extraordinary space to design in. That house affected me fundamentally. I truly believe that your environment does make you better, regardless of what Phillip Johnson had to say about it. Within certain environments I’m not only happier, but I’m constructively changed.


Backyard Biosphere, or "Haven," designed May 2001.

DG Is there a moral-existential component to being in an architecture of water?

WK Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral, the Sunken Cathedral, had an enormous effect on me as a child, the concept of a sunken cathedral. Editor’s note: Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale engloutie draws on a Breton legend: To punish the people for their sins, the Cathedral of Ys sinks into the sea each day at sunset, rising again at sunrise with great majesty as the townspeople watch. I remember the students at Yale were asking for advice on how to save some of the structures that were about to be flooded by the Three Gorges Dam in China, and Henry Harrison, my assistant at the Center for Experimental Structures, suggested that they build an anchored geodesic dome over the temples they wanted to save, creating a compressed-air chamber, using the water they needed to divert. By evacuating the air from the chambers between the plastic sheets, you force the water up into the vacancy created by the vacuum. It’s not a bad idea, but I warned them how difficult it would be. The structures are not consummated constructions that have been lived in for any length of time. They are full-scale experiments that are becoming environments. To produce a viable villa for $15,000 will require $150,000 to develop. We are dealing with dangerous forces, the most difficult of which is funding.

DG It’s a beautiful idea, though. It’s like fighting water with water.

WK No, it’s fighting water with air. Fighting water with water is what we are proposing for shelters on the Gulf Coast. The Center for Experimental Structures is proposing that prepositioned havens that serve as hydroponic gardens and fish-farming centers in quiet times could house a large number of evacuees who would be encouraged to remain in flood-threatened areas during hurricanes. We are developing low-cost deployable units that would derive their mass from water encapsulated in and around them at their sites. Submersible structures were too difficult to attempt, but immersible structures were possible. It would allow water-filled environments to exist in water on land. The question is: How would you survive the initial surge? If we were back 20 miles from the ocean, it would work beautifully, because the water rises after the surge, almost out of the saturated earth. Now, that water we can handle, but you can’t handle a 30-foot storm surge with anything. Except perhaps concrete buildings.

DG In New Orleans it might have worked really well, because that city is back from the coastline.

WK Yeah, I watched that very carefully. Those people should never have had to evacuate. There should have been prepositioned sites that were properly provisioned to care for those who didn’t leave. There should be safety in your own backyard. Families should not have been separated, and hundreds of miles of cars are targets of opportunity. You have a warning of a day or two. You could create a biosphere of your own. And these are biospheres.

DG Yet they have an aesthetic. What did you say the other day—an aesthetic of security?

WK Yes. The Department of Design and Construction of New York asked me to give a talk last year. I titled it, “Is Security the Next Aesthetic in Architecture?” Security is not fear. It is simply having access to an environment that you completely understand. The way things are now, you’ve lost contact: you don’t know how your air conditioner or your furnace, your computer or anything else works. It’s like living in a black box with a bunch of black boxes, living blind. Liquid architecture would expose everything; you would know how you’re generating your electricity, how you’re cooling yourself, how things are being grown (hydroponically). There’s a great sense of security in that.

DG So you have this combination of being totally enclosed and safe, yet also totally exposed to certain kinds of understanding and the elements. It’s a paradoxical condition, really.

WK The other thing, of course, is that water is the one material that has degrees of opacity and transparency that you can easily change. We are now collectively perfecting the separate attributes of water, such as transparent acoustical mass derived at the site. It is an architecture of mass that does not have to be quarried or carried to the site.

DG Even though you don’t necessarily experience the movement of the water, you grasp the fluidity of the state that surrounds you.

WK Water has no interest in sharp corners; it has no interest in the geometry that we normally associate with contemporary architecture.

DG Do you mean contemporary as in the current fascination with forms that look fluid?

WK Let’s put it this way. In the last century, when classical architecture was embraced by fascism, it fell from favor. Its death and reduction created an architecture of skin and bones filled with a fear of formlessness. The century began with other voices, such as Paul Scheerbart, whose poetry of transparency, transport, and transformation led to the creation of the Glass House by Bruno Taut at the start of World War I. From that came The Glass Chain [a correspondence of architects that formed a basis of expressionist architecture in Germany, initiated by Taut]. It was for Hugo Häring to go against Le Corbusier and Siegfried Giedeon, protesting the preconceived in architecture. Häring demanded that the house as an organism should acquire its essential form in the process of its creation. My work is a continuation of The Glass Chain. The crystal house becomes the liquid house.

In the late ’50s my book Organics was published in Holland. It states that we were rapidly gaining the necessary knowledge of molecular structure together with other techniques that will lead to the production of materials that will have a program of behavior built into them while still in the molecular stage. I called it micromation. Now it is called nanotechnology, a name I dislike.

DG Are you saying that your idea of classical liquidity operates at a micro or nano scale?

WK In classical architecture, the male Doric separates the stylobate from its architrave. The female Corinthian connects the two. It is a conduit, a liquid jet of stone that bursts out of the stylobate and splashes under its architrave. The Ionic is the heteromorphic knot that binds them both. It was left to me to work on the fourth order, the Hermaphromorphic column. This is the shaft and the sheath of self-sexualization.

The Ionic scroll was scrawled on the walls of Neandria and Lesbos and discussed at Ephesus. The original temple mount was used for sacrificial surgery. The blood dripping over its edges was architectualized as geometric dentils. The ovaries and fallopian tubes superimposed on the testicles and vas deferens created the ionic knot. The shaft enters the sheath at its base, which is not just a meld of moldings. It is the labia minora and majora of Artemis. It should be recalled that Athena and the Doric were born from the brain of Zeus, but Artemis and the Ionic is from the uterus of Hera. Architecture is a succession of gender geometries. The temple is not architecture as sacred art and the cathedral is not engineering as sacred sculpture. They are edifications, constructions that instruct.

When light passes through stained glass, it penetrates without puncture and illuminates without opening. It is symbolic of enlightenment and virgin birth. At the Basilica of Saint Denis, when did the architectural anima within masculinity give way to the animus within muliebrity? When did the west facade which mirrors the Arch of Constantine become the Gate of Horn, the woman through which we enter?

DG So what’s the stuff on these walls? Edifications?

WK These are models from my visual mathematics. It began in the cellar of the Ram’s Head Inn off Shelter Island when my family had acquired it in '46. On returning from the war I spent the winter there in a self-imposed exile. In the spring, 35 physicists arrived for the now-famous Shelter Island Conference. It was held in rooms that my mother had just redecorated. Everyone but Einstein and Fermi showed up. This was where and when Richard Feynman introduced what was to be quantum electrodynamics. Their presence profoundly influenced my life. In a year or two I left painting and became a designer. But the nature of number, or the numbers of nature, never left my mind.


Modeled view of the interior of a liquid villa, including hermaphromorphic columns, 2005.

DG You share the center with the renowned morphologist Haresh Lalvani, and for a moment I thought that these were his models. Now I realize that they are not.

WK These are radically different, because they’re for different reasons. Haresh is working on architectural genomics and structures in hyperspace, but these are models of baryons, mesons, and bosons of particle physics: what underlies ordinary matter. Now, there are already models in particle physics, but they are totally arbitrary, because they’re not complete. They would have to model in five dimensions if they’re going to use six quarks. And five-dimensional models are a pain in the neck. They talk about eleven dimensions in string theory—that’s fine for string theory, because you’re dealing with a form of mathematics that is infinitely more complicated. The thing you have to be careful of is when to call in the mathematicians. It’s like using a ten-ton press to crack a walnut! This is a simple problem. My associate Chris Arabadjis, who is a particle physicist, and I have been designing these models for years now and are about to post the results of our research on the electronic bulletin board for physics. It is our belief that what we have constructed is instructive.

The beauty of numbers is that you can begin to predict the numeric masses that are coming out of the accelerator. That’s when this became important: when the sigma and the delta could be arrived at through rigorous arithmetics. . . . I can’t even call it arithmetics, because it’s sub-numeral: good for nothing but describing nature.

The physicist Richard Feynman was obsessed with the number 243. The reciprocal of 243 is 4 11 5 22 6 33 7 44 8 55. This can be seen as a commingling of two progressions of different strengths. Now, Feynman’s 243 is three times 81, the obsession of my dear friend, the painter Jim Moran. My own obsession, 761, divided by Moran’s obsession, 81, is the 939506172839. That number times the palindrome 1234321 = 11596522 which is the magnetic moment anomaly of the electron. g/2 = 10011596522 is the magnetic moment of the electron, arguably the most carefully measured number in physics. It got Feynman the Nobel Prize. Meanwhile, the reciprocal of 761=.* 001314060446780551905387647831800262812089356110381077529566

32851511169513797634691195795006570302233902759526938239159, and Deborah, if you will add portions of this number marked with the asterisks together, you will find that the complementary result is a string of one hundred and ninety nines or numeric transparency.

DG So what I am looking at in these models are the traces of the process of building a geometric order. The orderings line up so that the model becomes transparent. You’d have to call it organic.

WK It is organic. It is a numeric animation.

DG In the early ’60s, you started out with a chemical model—really prefiguring ideas of nanotechnology, talking about growing buildings through pre-programmed combinations of atoms. You were really ahead of the ball on that one. Who knows what this model will bring?

William Katavalos, Projected Interior Of A Liquid Villia, 2005.

Organic architecture
Fall 2006
The cover of BOMB 97