Less Is More

Vancouver artist Paul de Guzman calls it his “little monastic place: a room with drafting table, bookshelves and a view into the garden.”

And what does he do there?

“I cut up books.” But only the best books: high-quality publications about art and architecture that he has studied carefully. He sets each one aside for months before he decides if it merits dissection. He cuts unhurriedly; a “deliberate ploy to work in a slow fashion… if you work too fast, ideas don’t coalesce.” He places the altered book in a custom-made plastic case and the off-cuts into another smaller one.

De Guzman’s work is about learning and creating by subtracting or “de-illumination,” the opposite of scribes adding colour to manuscripts. His early forays into this monastic pursuit sought to reveal links between language and structure as he cut away text and left printed words dangling in space. His current work creates architecture by excising text and images so viewers must “read between the lines.” The carved, white architectural space framed by the uncut portions of the book is the same white space as the “white cube of a gallery” where we might experience art and architecture.

In the book called Open City: Photographs from the 1950s the space carved is seamless. The patterns, voids, and inner shapes created by de Guzman look as if that’s how the building and streetscape were meant to look. The view changes as you are drawn into the building, because by subtracting from the book, de Guzman changes his cutting patterns as he enters more deeply into the architecture he is creating.

On a weekday lunch hour, I noticed two women looking thoughtfully at Open City in the de Guzman exhibit, Looking for Mies at Toronto’s Robert Birch Gallery. Finally the one with the red glasses spoke. I eavesdropped shamelessly.

“It reminds me of a city grid.”

“It’s like seeing how a building is made.”

“No, not how it’s made, more like how somebody thought of it.”

“Yeah, that’s it, how somebody thought it up.”

“Look at the shadows.”

It was as if they knew de Guzman had told me he is more interested in “how architectural possibilities emerge” than the architecture itself; that it is “not the end that matters, but the process.” The greatest compliment to his work is having someone start to think.

And what might de Guzman and his work say to architects? Clearly there is the importance of process, of “linking seemingly disparate ideas, fields and thoughts” and “taking time.” Architecture that works must be both technical and non-technical. “Just because you understand the technical doesn’t mean you understand everything,” he says.

Dr. Norman Ball is Director of the Centre for Society, Technology and Values at the University of Waterloo. He can be reached at nball@uwaterloo.ca.

Looking for Mies ran this Spring at the Robert Birch Gallery, located at 55 Mill St. in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto.