The Persistence of Beauty
Much of the housing in Europe in the early 20th century was rather nasty. Here’s a 1930 project for municipal housing by Josef Polášek that aimed to improve things.
The plans below show that a typical floor has six apartments off of a landing, and that the landing is much larger. All of the intermediate floors have a communal balcony. Instead of a balcony, the ground floor has the building entrance whilst the top floor has a terrace on the other side for laundry drying. The building entrance is not made into a major architectural feature. It is just an external door opening into a landing.
At first you might think that there was no scope for any kind of ornamental beauty in this supposedly functionalist building. But no.
1) The use of a different material for the semi-basement creates a plinth for the ground floor. This different material may be used close to the ground because it’s more durable or less expensive but it still contains the idea, if not the forgotten function, of the classical architectural feature of rustication.
2) On the intermediate floors, it isn’t necessary to have two doors to access the shared balcony from the landing. This has been done purely for reasons of symmetry – apart from on the ground floor of course, where there’s no balcony to access. Instead, a regular window is symmetrical with the entrance door. (A building doesn’t need two entrances, after all.)
3) But why is there a shared balcony anyway? Sure, it may be better to have one than to not have one for amenity reasons, or perhaps for construction reasons, but that balcony is also filling in some space in the plan – which is not a very functionalist thing to do. The balconies do however, make the street facade look ‘nicer’ or at least more ‘interesting’ than the rear (which reminds me of Robert Venturi’s Guild House of 1964).
Back in Brno, the top floor does not have a balcony – maybe because there’s only one apartment there, or maybe because there’s the laundry drying terrace on the other side anyway. These are both ‘functional’ reasons, but the absence of the uppermost balcony also has the happy effect of ‘balancing’ the larger opening at ground level.
4) The resulting void also means that the bathroom window of that top-floor apartment can open onto the void instead of a balcony, despite having the same floor plan as the apartments below. The top floor of the street facade is now ‘free’ to have a ‘crowning freize’ of three windows, and which is mirrored for the laundry on the other side.
All in all, nicely done. It’s using very little unnecessary stuff to recreate the familiar base, shaft and capital relationships of classical architecture – if that’s what you look for in a building. Louis Sullivan would have approved.
Way back in the day, misfits suggested that if architects want to add ornamental stuff to their buildings, then they should pass the misfits challenge.
THE MISFITS’ CHALLENGE!
People wishing to “add beauty” should be made to prove that what they are adding
(1) Does not compromise the performance of the building,
(2) Can be achieved without the use of additional resources, and
(3) Actually is beautiful.
These buildings by Polášek come close to meeting that challenge!
We will never know Polášek’s rationale for the balconies. (Perhaps they are there for beating rugs? Maybe having more doors meant energy wasted carrying rugs could be diverted to beating rugs more thoroughly or more frequently?) We will never know if three smaller windows were more expensive than two large ones.
Making even conventional beauty from next to nothing might be a useful thing to explore now and in the future.
It’s just an idea, but probably an idea whose time has come. Again.
• • •
Although these buildings by Josef Polášek in Brno were completed in 1930, they were not mentioned in Hitchcock & Johnson’s 1932 fame vehicle, The International Style. If you read what little of substance H&J had to say about these two similar projects, Josef Polášek was lucky to be overlooked. Eighty years on, it’s easier to see what he was getting at, and how well he accomplished it.