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This tour-de-force of postmodern pastiche stands on a conventional, midblock lot in a medium-density residential section of Columbia. Built at a time when conceptual art and experimental architecture often overlapped, the structure functions as a dwelling but its creator also gave it a title, thus presenting it as an artwork. Engraved on a plate attached to a curbside lamppost is the title that George Randall Inabinet (1940–1994) bestowed upon the residence that he built: Self Portrait of an Architectural History and Design Instructor.
Because Inabinet finished the house at a time when he was succumbing to prostate cancer, this self-portrait took on the value of a death-mask, preserving in its own lines the trace of its creator’s ultimate stage of architectural exploration. In its salient materials—brick, vinyl, plastic; organic and inorganic—the Inabinet House sets up a dialectic between buildings that fade away and architecture that somehow endures. Its design thus evokes a parallel contrast between human fragility and artistic immortality.
Inabinet designed his residence over a number of years, from about 1982 to 1986. Its subsequent construction phase was also drawn out over some eight years from the time ground was broken, with Inabinet apparently continuing to refine his design as construction proceeded. Involved in the construction were many of his students and colleagues from Midlands Technical College. Upon its completion, the Inabinet Residence was published in the local newspaper, The State, and critic Joseph Giovanni explained the basis of its design as a philosophy only recently imported from France: deconstruction.
Inabinet graduated with an architecture degree from Clemson University in 1966 and went on to become the South Carolina architect perhaps best informed of contemporary developments in architectural theory. In stark contrast to the latter-day rationalized constructivism inculcated at Clemson University in the 1960s, deconstruction offered Inabinet a possible means of advancing architecture by exploiting the interference of a projected building with the project’s own spatial, temporal, and formal contexts. Hence, Inabinet located his house in a physical position that would invite or even demand a critical assessment of the notions of the suburban house and the suburban streetscape. The architect fully intended his design to interfere with complacent public attitudes. He used materials, including yellow vinyl siding, which called into question the ways the surrounding suburban houses were built. By choosing these casual materials, a poker-faced Inabinet poked fun at the pretense to permanence characteristically claimed by serious architecture. By exploding the mass of his residence into three separate parts— a main dwelling, a carport, and a storage structure—each of which he then broke up visually using a compositional strategy akin to collage, the architect forced consideration of architecture’s historical commitment to the notion of unity. Finally, by engaging the literary concept of intertextuality, Inabinet’s design shook up the whole idea of architecture as either a plastic or constructive art.
When Inabinet had begun designing what was to become his last earthly residence, he had envisioned siting it in North, South Carolina, a small town whose curious name scented the architect’s ambitions with a cosmic perfume. In an early scheme, published in the 1982–1983 volume of the SCAIA Review of Architecture, the house already appeared divided into three physically separated structures. Surrounded by a vast expanse of open space, the main dwelling, carport, and storage structure each expressed an individual autonomy and suggested no deliberate interrelationship with its mates. The SCAIA Review intimated an inspiration not from an expected site arrangement—antebellum Southern plantation complexes—but instead from “Greek temple architecture and groupings.” That unexpected reference, together with the design itself, suggests that Inabinet was familiar with Constantinos Doxiadis’s Architectural Space in Ancient Greece (1972). Forcing a diagonal approach to monumental structures, which Doxiadis had identified as characteristic of the layout of ancient Hellenic temple precincts, was a strategy Inabinet exploited in his 1982 scheme and preserved in his revised design, after its site had been transferred to Columbia.
In the revised design, published in the 1984–1985 volume of the SCAIA Review, Inabinet rearranged the three parts of his composition so as to make the carport fulfill the function not only of a garage but also of an entrance pavilion. It thus took on exactly the functions, both practical and spatial, of the Propylaea on the Athenian Acropolis. Inabinet saved this transposition from absurdity by imbuing it with irony and by giving the carport a shape completely different from that of its Mnesiclean counterpart. In its final form, Inabinet’s carport lifts its bowed roof up on Corinthianesque columns, rendered as brick piers.
To the northwest of the carport, Inabinet’s storage shed presents itself as a diminutive Egyptian pyramid, hence a mausoleum, with all of its funereal connotations intact but once again replete with irony. At its apex sits a skylight of red plastic, a material popularly regarded as ephemeral and throw-away but one that, from an ecological point of view, is perhaps even more durable than the stones of Giza. Inabinet’s house, set almost on the northern edge of the lot to maximize the length of the diagonal approach between the carport and the door, has its long facade treated as a kind of Cubist picture. Quite in the manner demonstrated by Bernhard Hoesli in his 1968 analysis of a Le Corbusier still-life ( Nature morte à la pile d'assiette et au livre, 1920), it collapses space and volume into an image designed to be seen strictly from the front. Yet Inabinet withdrew his own invitation to a frontal view by placing his carport and storage shed so as to allow passersby only fragmentary and raking views of the house facade. Again, the result is ironic, and the whole artistic procedure involved intentionally frustrates any attempt to apprehend the entire composition in a single moment of rational perception.
Indeed, the Inabinet Residence can hardly be appreciated at all except by a shifting eye connected to a mind equipped to concoct a stable image out of myriad unstable percepts. Inabinet collapsed historical time into simultaneity through the juxtaposition across his facade of images belonging to several disparate periods and loci of architectural history. A medieval castle thus appears crowded against a contemporary solar house. Then both are subsumed within a tripartite Palladian villa and surmounted by a pediment that, in a nod to the earliest manifestation of postmodernism in American architecture, contains a window much like the balcony window of the Vanna Venturi House in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. Only art could have transported it to Columbia and found for it a new position.
Access to the house is via a ramp that may owe its practical existence to the likelihood that the ailing owner-architect could all too easily have imagined his own need for a wheelchair. By problematizing a dweller’s increasingly infirm body, the ramp played with ideas of present versus future needs. In doing so, it called into question a most essential tenet of the functionalist doctrine that modernism had made the very basis of architectural design. At the same time, Inabinet’s ramp served an overarching formal purpose of disrupting the frontal view of his composition. Inabinet’s use of the ramp guarantees his composition cannot be easily seen, even at close range, but only experienced in a sequence of views. The ramp’s appearance thus subverts the characteristics of collage even as it becomes part of a collage. The ramp also subverts architectural didacticism by presenting, as might an oft-projected slide of the Villa Savoye in an architectural history course, one of the cliché motifs of High Modernism out of High Modernist context. Once again, therefore, Inabinet is found juggling history in one hand and design in the other. Even after death, in his self-portrait on Blossom Street (in whose very name there is a promise of survival beyond the present life) he is still found playing with historical ironies and designing an illusion that invites deep interrogation of what works of architecture, and indeed all buildings, mean and of how their meaning emerges phenomenally out of their relations to each other.
Flanders, Danny C. “A House Out of Order.” The State, June 26, 1994.
“Private Residence.” SCAIA Review of Architecture(September 1982–1983): 24.
“Residence, Columbia, South Carolina.” SCAIA Review of Architecture(1984–1985): 21.
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