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Architecture vs. Building

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This post will deal only with Architecture and Building: Chapter VIII of “The International Style” by Hitch & Johnno. Back in 1932, people didn’t use the expression “vs.” other than to describe boxing matches. They should’ve, because H&J describe architecture and building as a type of confrontation that could go either way. You can sense this throughout the entire book but in this chapter in particular.

In 1932 America, the new, functional architecture that was coming from Europe, didn’t really require “introducing” for it had already been introduced in magazines such as Popular Mechanics. (I mentioned this two posts back, but Enrique Gualberto Ramirez can tell you more.) But Popular!? Mechanics!? Egad! What Hitchcock and Johnson did was repackage functionalism as a style, rebrand it as the International Style, and position it as something modern and progressive to aspire to. Today, we recognise these as the standard processes of marketing. Albert H. Barr gets in first, in the preface.

The section on functionalism should be, I feel, of especial interest to American architects and critics. Functionalism as a dominant principle reached its high water mark among the important modern European architects several years ago. As was to be expected, several American architects have only begun to take up the utility-and-nothing-more theory of design with ascetic zeal. They fail to realize that in spite of his slogan the house as a machine á habiter, Le Corbusier is even more concerned with style than with convenient planning or plumbing, and that the most luxurious of modern German architects, Mies van der Rohe, has for over a year been the head of the Bauhaus school, having supplanted Hannes Meyer, a fanatical functionalist. “Post-Functionalism” has even been suggested as a name for the new Style, at once more precise and genetically descriptive than “International”.

Barr is suggesting that architecture is more than ‘convenient planning and plumbing’ and that being stylish (Le C) and luxurious (Mies vd R) is more important than fanatical functionalism. Hannes Meyer’s name is never again mentioned. His is the unspeakable name of European functionalism. We never get to find out who the several naked-functionalist American architects are. Albert Khan? He seemed to have impressed Gropius in 1928. [Gropius was Bauhaus director until exactly 1928. Was he already shopping around for a job even though he didn’t leave Germany until 1934? I’ll have to check up on that.]

Albert Kahn ford factory 1924

Probable misfit Kahn designed, in 1917, the massive half-mile-long Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. The Rouge grew into the largest manufacturing complex in the U.S., with a force that peaked at 120,000 workers. According to the company website, “By 1938, Kahn’s firm was responsible for 20 percent of all architect-designed factories in the U.S.” [W]

Barr’s commenting on whether “Post-Functionalism” might have been a better name shows his naïvety regarding how important this styling of styles actually was. It suggests that Functionalism was once a serious contender as the new and valid way to build. The general tone of the book is to downplay functionality unless it can be used to justify some stylistic effect. Calling this new style “Post-Functionalist” would have made functionalism look old, but kept it alive forever. (If creating a pseudo-link with philosophy and literature hadn’t been more important, we would have had Post-International and not Post-Modern architecture.)  But let’s see now what Hitchcock has to say about architecture and building.

The wider the opportunity for the architect within the limitations of structure and function to make judgments determined by his taste and not merely by economics, the more fully architectural will be the resultant construction. There is no rigid classification, building, quite devoid of the possibility of æsthetic organization. Yet buildings built at minimal cost with practical considerations dominant throughout may be held to be less fully architectural than those on which the architect has more freedom of choice in the use of materials and the distribution of the parts. [Barr is incapable of imagining that a choice of materials or a distribution of parts might be determined by  building performance, or cost-benefit, or by anything in fact except how it looks. Or, to put it the other way around, beauty costs money. Corollary 1: If you can’t afford beauty, then you are poor. Corollary 2 (and this is where the marketing comes in): If you can afford the new beauty, then you are both rich and have taste.] 

Under whatever conditions buildings are built, they tend to be more architectural as they serve more complicated functions. The more specialized the combination of functions served by a building, the more opportunity there is for the architect to achieve a design controlled by æsthetic as well as practical considerations. The more simple and repetitious the functions of a building and the more it resembles in purpose other buildings, the less likely is the architect to reach a solution of his problems formed by his own taste. Building quite devoid of architectural character would be æsthetically neutral no matter how good it was merely as building. For in contrast to the general low level of building, the European functionalists usually reach the level of architecture, despite their refusal to aim consciously at achieving æsthetic value. [So what’s his problem then? Shouldn’t everybody be happy if this is indeed the case? There seems to be a contradiction with the next sentence “Architecture is seldom neutral aesthetically. It is good architecture or it is bad.” Let’s sort this out before moving on.

Building quite devoid of architectural character would be æsthetically neutral no matter how good it was merely as building.” From this it follows that “architectural character” is never  aesthetically neutral. However, if “Architecture is seldom merely neutral aesthetically” then Architecture has “architectural character”. Or, if it doesn’t have “architectural character”, then it is not Architecture.  This seems to be his position. 

Architecture is seldom merely neutral aesthetically. It is good architecture or it is bad. When it is bad, the extreme contentions of the functionalists appear an essential denial of the important spiritual function which all art serves. [Here we go! His strongest argument is that all buildings have some aesthetic content, but his dislike of functionalists seems to stem from their desire to have no part in selling snake oil.]

The functionalists, approaching architecture from the materialistic point of view of sociology, go behind the problems that are offered to the architect and refuse their sanction to those which demand a fully architectural solution. [You know? I can see how he would say this. He really doesn’t get what functionalists like Hannes Meyer were attempting to do. They were suggesting an alternate agenda for how to build by refusing to inflate their apparent value and real cost with dubious style or expensive materials. I can understand Hitchcock and Johnson disgust at that but I’m still amazed they felt so threatened that they try to undermine its moral basis over and over.] 

In their estimation, the modern world has neither the time nor the money required to raise building to the level of architecture.  [Unless of course, this raw material of functionalism is what is going to be rebranded and marketed as The International Style for rich people and rich companies – this is America, after all.]   

The question passes outside the field of architecture into the field of politics and economics. The arguments of the functionalists are not based on the actual situation in the contemporary world outside Russia. [Here, Hitchcock seems to be taking a lot of trouble to argue against somebody whose voice we never hear. Why is he bothering to even mention these people who nobody would otherwise have even known about? I’m sure there were plenty of people in 1930’s America who would have appreciated some inexpensive housing that does the job. My guess is that Hitchcock And Johnson are just poisoning the ground to make sure that the social aspects of functionalism fail to find critical acceptance. As I’ve remarked before, Charles Jencks was to do the same again, 50 years on. ]

Whether they ought to or not, many clients can still afford architecture in addition to building. [Here, I’m surprised at the “whether they ought to or not” because it gives the impression that this question is being debated. This might be a writerly trick to set up a false argument for the reader who then defers to the writer’s excellent judgment. If so, it worked.] 

The European functionalists who now disown Le Corbusier, and Oud, and Gropius and Miës van der Rohe first learned the science of building from them. [This is a rather sweeping statement and I can’t imagine who is being referred to. Hannes Meyer? Needs checking.] 

The most significant work of Gropius and Oud, among the leaders of modern architecture, has been in the field of inexpensive building, which they have raised to the level of real architecture. [They produce no examples of inexpensive building for Gropius, but four for Oud. Here’s what they have to say about them.] 

Does a continuous balcony carried around some curved shops underline [accentuate? contrast with? relieve?] a simple rhythm of some windows? You be the judge.

Oud 1

Do projecting balconies and the screens for vines separating the houses lighten the design? Are you appreciating the added interest? Or did you miss it?

Oud 2

There are other things about these houses that could have been mentioned – like how  the projecting balcony also gives some degree of shelter and identity to the front entrance but Hitchcock only sees it in how much “interest” it adds.  We have some more interest in this next image where a “curve continues a wall surface around a corner”. ! ! ! Henry Russell Hitchcock is known as a historian. This book, The International Style, is said to have been widely influential.

Oud 4

This one’s my favourite. The photograph above is on the right page and this next image is on the left. The shops in the photo above, are at the two pointy corners to the right of the image. But have a look at the plans. These houses presumably sleep six people because there are six dining chairs. The three bedrooms are 4.4m2, 7.2m2 and 7.5m2.  There is no bathroom. There is nothing to do upstairs except sleep. There is nothing to do downstairs except sit, and occasionally eat. This is Rotterdam, not Russia. Whoever lived here needed some housing and couldn’t pay that much for it. Hitchcock has nothing to say about this apart from the the unfortunate heaviness of the thick wooden window frame is minimised by the treatment of the windows as a continuous band.

Oud 5

It’s easy to imagine that whenever these people were not sleeping or eating, they were working. And that on the day or half-day they did have off, they went to church. Here’s what Hitchcock has to say about the ‘community building’.

Oud 6CONCLUSION: With “The International Style”, Hitchcock and Johnson have been accused of downplaying, neglecting or overlooking the social agenda of Functionalism. This is not true. They actively ripped its balls off and flushed them down the toilet.

POSTSCRIPT: If you googlearth Kiefhoek, you will get to here.

De Kiefhoek

In September 1990, the Sikkens Foundation supported the restoration of the Kiefhoek by J.J.P. Oud. The original houses were all opened up to comply with the modern requirements of hygiene and comfort. However, one house was restored to its original condition. The furnishing of this “museum house” was funded by the Sikkens Foundation and was accompanied by a publication. [More pics here.]