Old Ideas for New Architectures
This part of a two-part post will quickly revisit some ideas used to lend credence to some of last century’s new architectures – in preparation for part two to follow. Radical Functionalism.
- The idea of a building being configured according to certain useful criteria relating to buildings and their occupants’ needs didn’t last very long.
- Functionalism had an essential humanism at its core but this fact never made it across the Atlantic.
- Functionalist buildings took into account the construction of buildings and the spatial, illumination and ventilation needs of their occupants.
- It was accused of failing to respond to their aesthetic needs.
- Architect Sant’Elia is poster boy but would’ve been overlooked had it not been a slow decade for architectural history.
- Sant’Elia advocated the sensible use of modern materials to adapt to mobility and change. His interests were in sync with those of his artist colleagues rather than being derived from them.
- Futurism/Sant’Elia and Functionalism share the view that materials and methods of construction might be important for buildings.
- Instead, architects latched onto the Futurist ART notion it was best to create everything new and unlike anything that had ever existed. Thus …
A New Architecture.
- The Futurist notion of “New is good” had architectural staying power but the idea of buildings doing useful things was corrupted almost immediately.
- The New Architecture’s ostensibly functional inspirations were the luxury transatlantic ocean liners to which Le Big C was no étranger, and American grain elevators.
- Le Corbusier saw all the right things yet still managed to not see anything but geometric primitives casting shadows.
- His architectural genius and his architectural crime was to appropriate things that were fit-for-purpose and reappropriate them as a metaphor for functionality in things that weren’t. Buildings do more than block the sun in picturesque ways.
- Corbusier even claimed functional justification for his paintings, saying they were what the eye really wanted to see. Never trust an architect who paints.
- Resource shortages in Post-WWII US saw developments in solar and low-energy houses. These developments will feature in some future history of energy-aware design but, for now, are forgotten.
- However, oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in 1938 and, by 1950, exported so we could build the energy-dependent architecture of International Modernism.
- This is the style of corporate America post WWII, the style of offices, hotels, airports and other symbols of dollar capitalism. These buildings represented progress and modernity.
- It was international because it represented the aspirations of clients and client nations worldwide to the symbols of modernity and progress whereas it was really a vehicle for the projection of American corporate might and political influence worldwide.
- These days we call this globalisation. We accept that sequences of similar buildings will appear in diverse countries having nothing in common except rich clients with a desire to impress.
- Discussion of International Modernism fussed with aesthetic trivia such as curtain walling proportions, and spandrel and mullion minutiae as if they mattered.
- Internationalism is understood in terms of rational structure and lack of ornament etc. but its core driver was Globalism inasmuch as the commercial and political are ever separate.
- The International Style represented a truth still playing itself out.
- Danish Modernism is an outlier, but only it that it doesn’t fit Charles Jenck’s Modernism-bad-Post-Modernism-necessary thesis. It’s pointless arguing about it now. The damage is done.
- Danish Modernism integrated construction, function, economy of means, fundamental passive design, natural materials and a humanistic approach to living into an architecture of rare beauty.
- Its development stopped when the Danish government discontinued the practice of granting loans for the construction of houses of less than a certain area.
- The only architectural movement that didn’t originate west of “The Orient”.
- Metabolism championed large megastructures organised as if by a process of organic growth. It was architecturalised nature, 3D Art Nouveau writ large, “organic” architecture reprised.
- Easier theorised than done, its ambitions reached further than its cantilevers.
- Its unbuildability was proof of its visionaries’ visionairiness.
- Lack of theory should have made it travel better than it did. Metabolism’s notions of adaptive urbanisation enjoyed vicarious favour when seen to be emanating from London’s Architectural Association.
- Its unbuildability was proof of its visionaries’ visionairiness.
- An idea-free architecture for the times. In place of actual principles was a mood board inviting us to take whatever we thought was good about Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre, ArchiGram and the Case Study Houses.
- What all these had in common was the use of stock industrial or prefabricated components as metaphors for speed, economy and change – in much the same way as Roy Lichtenstein’s or Andy Warhol’s art were metaphors for mass production and consumption rather than – God forbid! – actually being mass produced or mass consumed.
- In a classic demonstration of how architecture subverts what is good in the world, Hi-Tech prefabrication became the new bespoke, limited to single projects with new ways to make them expensive one-offs. CNC was used to explain how the cost would have been far more had all those pieces been fabricated by hand.
- Richard Rogers has a few Warhols in his living room.
- High-tech’s celebration of large spans was attractive to clients for airports and other big sheds.
- Post Modernism co-existed with High-Tech, mopping up the Artist (or was it the Intellectual?) end of the market.
- PM was a late 20th century architectural movement based on opportunistic analogies with Post-modern Literature. The blurring of “high” and “low” culture was the one architects took and ran with.
- Buildings were re-evaluated as things that carry messages and signs That Mean Things. Architects started reading Roland Barthes.
- Post Modernism was crap. We’re still cleaning up after it.
- A niche movement, Minimalism borrowed ideas from Minimalist Art of which Donald Judd is representative. The main idea is to strive for an essential objectness that emphasises some ‘fundamental’ relationship between it and a viewer.
The most notable critique of minimalism was produced by Michael Fried, a formalist critic, who objected to the work on the basis of its “theatricality”. In Art and Objecthood (published in Artforum in June 1967) he declared that the minimal work of art, particularly minimal sculpture, was based on an engagement with the physicality of the spectator. He argued that work like Robert Morris‘s transformed the act of viewing into a type of spectacle, in which the artifice of the act of observation and the viewer’s participation in the work were unveiled. Fried saw this displacement of the viewer’s experience from an aesthetic engagement within, to an event outside of the artwork as a failure of minimal art.
- Minimalist architecture is also open to this criticism.
- Minimalist architects endeavour to reduce architecture to its essential qualities which, for some reason, are always “space” and “light”.
- The label Minimalism can be applied to whatever anyone thinks the essentials of architecture are.
- Also significant is the amount of money it takes to contrive construction details to make a building appear as if only made of space and light.
- Minimalism was a new way to make buildings more expensive.
- Like Post Modernism, Deconstructivism selected it’s inspirations from a literary movement – Deconstruction. Deconstructivist buildings are built representations of one or more of its ideas.
- Those ideas actually have little to do with Deconstruction. Any name containing the word “construction” obviously has something to do with buildings. If only.
- The most abused idea was the one saying a complete “text” could be understood from a fragment of it. This led to buildings looking as if they were in the process of becoming something or, depending on how you look at it, of unbecoming something.
- As an idea to kickstart some new way for buildings to look, it was sufficient.
- Like Post modernism, DeCon was pretty tricksy.
- D-con was another way of making buildings pretentious and expensive.
- As with Post Modernism, it didn’t matter what it was telling us.
- As with Internationalism, it didn’t matter where a building was. This was to be the link with …
- Parametricism’s endgame is to cover the planet with grey goo.
- Patrick Schumacher, its irrepressible populist, has described Parametricism in terms of Niklas Lurmann’s social theories of communications. Despite his efforts, people still respond to Parametricism without the burden of theory. Zipless architecture.
- Ostensibly an offshoot of angular deconstructivism, this new Internationalism is perfect for global power players to whom the old signifiers weren’t signifying anything. The local and culture-specific meanings of Post Modernism were too external and angular D-con too aggressively challenging. Never a good message for your average globalist.
- What these dudes wanted was a style that could represent their new shared global economic and political agenda – motion without progress, a directionless dynamism with neither beginning nor end.
- And lo, this style came to pass.
• • •
Ideas come and go, one after another. It’s convenient for some new and more attractive idea to come along before we tire of one or before its failings become obvious. Nothing ever gets improved. This has parallels with the world of fashion. It actually doesn’t really matter what the inspiration for the next one is if it’s only ever going to be about surface form.
Of all the ideas listed above, Radical Functionalism was the only architecture whose principles didn’t imply a specific visual articulation. It was a philosophy of building rather than some new reason to make buildings look different. This was its strength but, as it turned out, the reason for its failure.
The next post will take some ideas from Philosophy and use them as the basis for an architecture that includes EVERYTHING MISFITS’ LIKES and excludes EVERYTHING ELSE.
• • •
Doing this will convert misfits’ manifesto into a theory. This theory will identify buildings that are actual manifestations (rather than analogies) of its ideas. It will be – more easily transferable to buildings than anything we’ve seen in the past – simpler to understand and easier to implement than anything currently on offer, and – more honest than anything we can expect to be offered in the future. It’s time. It’s time we had something like this.