Meta-Aesthetics

This second installment of misfits’ prehistory builds upon some of the ideas in last week’s Property, Time & Architecture from 1999. I remastered the file from an InDesign package created February 2010. The original was probably made in Quark XPress a decade earlier because all images were .tif files. Bold headings summarize the text. Blockquotes are diversions and expansions.

In this essay, I use the word aesthetics in the usual sense and the term an aesthetic to denote a set of architectural devices united by an underlying philosophy and purpose. I only mention this because since this essay was written, the term has been largely supplanted by the word style even though (or, more likely, because) it makes us expect neither.

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Aesthetics is the study of notions of beauty.
These notions change over time.
This essay is about architecture in general and architectural beauty in particular.
It identifies what successive notions of architectural beauty have had in common.
It identifies why certain aesthetics fall into and out of favour.
It provides a framework for understanding how aesthetics operate over time.
It is a meta-aesthetics.

• • •

Aesthetics give shape to our values and aspirations. This is not necessarily a good thing.

By 1850 in Britain, property and people had been divided into three classes. The upper class (still) had property in the country. The middle class had property subdivided in the form of townhouses and, later, as suburban houses. The working class had property stacked, as tenements. The middle classes overlooked communal property in the form of the squares or parks recreating country estates, and the more fortunate of the lower classes had communal property in the form of basic facilities provided by humanitarian industrialists.

 

The success or failure of any aesthetic is an expression of the values generating it.

19th and early 20th notions of an Ideal City separating the functions of the city also served to separate the classes for the two were the same. Over the course of the Industrial Revolution, the upper classes built townhouses but anchored themselves on their land. The middle classes were to build their townhouses in locations such as Belgravia, Paddington and Kensington, separating themselves and their new wealth from the docks, mills and railways that were the sources of it, as well as from where the workers lived. In a consistent expression of this attitude, convicts were separated as far away as Australia. The style of the 19th century urban townhouse was the Classicism of the country house and the square or park recreated the impression of property outside one’s window, even if it was communal.

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The style was successively simplified for houses of the lower classes. Within the larger townhouses, there was a similar separation of function/class, with servants having their own working spaces, stairs and living quarters, within which, location and quantity of space established a similar separation amongst servant classes. The use of servants also enabled the functions within the building to be separated. Whereas the lower class could only bathe in a tub in front of the fire, servants duplicated the roles of pipes and conduits, transporting hot and cold water throughout the building, maintaining and lighting the lamps, and carrying away waste.

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Servants also isolated the household as a class unit within society since they performed necessary tasks such as shopping by either going to the markets or dealing with cart vendors for milk, bread, vegetables, meat and fish. The physical and social separation of classes inside the house replicated the physical and social separation of the house from other classes in the city. Separation by function was separation by function in society. Status of the owners was denoted by the location and size of the house, the design of its facade, and the number and decoration of its major rooms.

Buildings require money and land to build. The history of architectural aesthetics is the history of articulating the ownership of wealth and property.

The use of decorative ornament in the 19th century indicated the rich man’s surplus and the poor man’s lack of it. In the 20th century, the architectural aesthetic of Modernism was to shun decorative ornament as bourgeois and attempt to generate form from the separation of physical functions. In patterns of living however, it maintained the class values inherent in the forms it replaced. The Georgian square miniaturized the pleasure of overlooking property. Although many of those townhouses were subdivided into flats in the 1920s and even today remain prime properties because it still possible to overlook the property of the square as if it were one’s own.

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In 1922, Le Corbusier arrived at an identical form in his Immeuble Villa unit for the élite in his Ville Contemporaine, planned, ‘as a capitalist city of administration and control, with garden cities for the workers being sited, along with industry, beyond the ‘security zone’ of the green belt encompassing the city.’ Le Corbusier also designed 19th century notions of social segregation into both his urban plans and his private houses such as the Villa Stein (1926-7) and Villa Savoye (1928-9), two buildings commonly regarded as seminal works of the Modern movement.

An aesthetic loses its usefulness when its connotations of status are lost, and any process of refinement stops

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitations of 1947-53 was never going to be a realistic prototype for low-cost, high density living. Needing to be surrounded by sufficient Nature/property, it was self-defeating in the city and absurd in the country. Despite its claimed advantages, shop space was not let immediately and few shop-owners were keen to relocate there. The fact that what was once the outskirts of Marseilles is now a popular address indicates that property prices in central Marseilles have risen in the meantime, and that a view of the ocean from there is better than none at all. It also means that instead of being located in “Nature” it is now located in a thriving suburb with sufficient population density to make stores within the building viable. If such buildings have large sites, then the cost-effectiveness of site use is less compromised by siting such buildings alongside virtual property such as public parks or bodies of water, but these sites are usually occupied by premium high-rise dwellings or hotels.

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Having one’s own estate in the country downscaled to communally-owned squares in the city or smaller properties of the suburbs, with the virtual property of converted flats remaining preferable to that of purpose-built flats. Public property such as parks or bodies of water became virtual country estates, and views of one’s neighbours did not rank. Modernism presented light, space and a view of Nature as universal rights, but in reality, continued to treat them as commodities of status, their absence signalling poverty. Another problem had to do with materials. While concrete and prefabrication feature largely in the technical history of Modern architecture, it was not until Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul of 1954 that concrete slabs were combined with bare load-bearing brick walls and presented as an aesthetic.

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Despite Stirling’s use of this in the 1955~8 Ham Common flats and the attempts of the Brutalists to develop it, the sheer applicability of concrete slabs and load-bearing brick had sent them straight to low-cost housing worldwide, making Modernism the aesthetic of the poor. This fact did not pass unnoticed by the poor. Pruitt-Igoe. Built 1958. Dynamited 1972. The providers of public housing formed the last remaining market for Modernism. Any product becomes unmarketable when the market becomes disenchanted with the brand.

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An aesthetic must continue to adapt in order to maintain status …

Internationalism was to escape being condemned along with Modernism because in the hands of Mies van der Rohe, it combined metal and other materials with a status-inducing Classicism such as in the German Pavilion at the Barcelona World Exhibition (1929) or the Tugendhat House (1930).

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Purged of any ideological content it may have had in Europe, Modernism in the United States became the preferred institutional and corporate style. Curtain walls became a lattice of structure and window, effectively creating a visual barrier. Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (1946-50) and Johnson’s Glass House (1949) were excellent solutions to this problem and restored the status of privately-owned Nature to the aesthetic.  Concern for privacy was for people with neighbours. Mies’ went for overkill, using expensive materials and methods. The steps, terrace and floor were faced in travertine, and welding joins were ground away before the steel was painted. Whereas the Farnsworth house stepped over Nature, Johnson’s house, the more spartan of the two, was the more decadent in that it sat on its lawn and indicated possession.

The near absence of house emphasized where the real status lay. The adjacent guest house had no windows for even visually possessing the estate at any time was the owner’s right alone. Modernist derivatives (Meier, Eisenman, Graves, etc.) restored status through similar means, but all have in common the necessity for big property.

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… or another will quickly replace it.

If Modernism combined the human factor in terms of plan, with the built factor in terms of structural logic, then Post-Modernism combined the human factor of a populist vocabulary of building terms, and the built factor as a grammar of their usage. The result was something akin to a toff swearing in order to be popular at the pub – patronizing. From the start, the aesthetic was defined by generating and sustaining two aesthetics which, times being the times, were called levels of meaning. Its goal was never to bridge them for then it would cease to exist. Maintaining this aesthetic double standard was both its means and its end in public. In private however, the familiar indicators of status and wealth were to reassert themselves and by 1985, intoxicated with its imagined popularity, the aesthetic of Post-Modernism spoke only in double-entendres to itself. One of which was to take a material formerly regarded as unworthy for use in buildings of all but the most temporary and lowly nature, and to use it ‘out-of-context’ in a sophisticated manner, thus making a point about duality of meaning. Without exception, it was the materials such as concrete or Formica carrying the low and form the high. This led to High-Touch and Creative Salvage aesthetics of the late 80s, which found their beauty in the visual and tactile qualities present in any materials. The result was self-consciously designed, expensive one-off objects. This new materialism turned out to be not so new. Chicken wire, exposed 2 x 4s, and gypsum board have found little appeal, but polished concrete, terrazzo and Formica are being invested with status once again by finding their way into commercial interiors such as shops and restaurants en route to private residences.

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Once connotations of negative status are lost or forgotten, a new value-adding aesthetic can be applied and marketed.

Property pressures and availability led to interior space making do for property in the 60s, and neglected building types being converted as a means of attaining more space than provided by contemporary building types. Former prejudice was disregarded and mews buildings, coach houses and warehouses were given a new lease of life as premium dwellings.

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Being only a pre-existing building providing space, juxtaposed with a human factor of use, such buildings remained outside the realm of architecture. However, once possession and use began to carry notions of status such as more space and enlightened freedom from the tyranny of plan, it became possible to subdivide any large building and market it for more than a comparably sized flat. Interior partition walls then become a separately marketable commodity, as they had already become in office buildings.

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Whilst an aesthetic of space and light is essentially one of property, aesthetics can also add value by how they enclose space.

Gideon saw modern architecture as an increasing perception of space as a quantity in itself. Whilst this is not untrue, it ignores the fact that that space must belong to somebody. In other words, it ignores the political dimension of space and property. Space, the stuff between the walls, and the space outside them as well, is a commodity of status because space is merely enclosed property. As the amount of property people can have has decreased, ways of creating the impression of having more have developed from closed plan to free plan, free plan to open plan, and finally open plan to no plan. A blurring of the distinction between inside and outside assumes that there is an outside of one’s own to blur. Large areas of glazing indicate no neighbours nearby.

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Light is an indirect commodity of status because of its connection with property and density of land utilization but the conversion of warehouses has shown that people are prepared to sacrifice light and location for space. A building envelope enclosing a physically and visually finite space and with no plan would seem to be resistant to notions of status, but as long as there is an enclosing structure, an aesthetic can still operate through the use of materials and methods in new value-adding ways to indicate status.

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High-tech is aesthetic which has little social mobility, thereby allowing it to remain an aesthetic of status.

The aesthetic of High-tech finds its purest expression in the spanning of large areas without internal supports, making it a horizontal Gothic exploting the tensile limits of steel.

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This makes it inherently suitable for buildings that are only perimeter walls within which either culture or machines set the spatial agenda.

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When relatively mundane spaces for human activity are required to be housed, it resorts to vertical Gothic with full-height atrium spaces displaying engineering prowess being justified on the grounds of providing light.

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The high levels of accuracy and craftsmanship involved render high-tech inapplicable to the relatively modest spatial and structural requirements of living. High-tech also has a large research and development component tailored to individual projects in the same way as in civil engineering structures. Its lavish and visible use of resources to achieve large, dubiously justified spaces, maintains its status as an aesthetic and consequently ensures its inapplicability to anything other than prestige projects.

Minimalism is another.

The Minimalist aesthetic is that of an en-closure creating the sensation of infinite space, a concept the Japanese found attractive even when both space and Nature were abundant. But feudalism in the past and overcrowding in the present have led to owning any space, let along property, being an object of status, and if space is a commodity, then appearing to have infinitely more is better even if it isn’t real.

minimal

In Minimalist buildings, windows overlook a courtyard or whatever property remains, and infinite property (“space”) is ‘seen’ in the walls. Light enters through slits to exaggerate its value. If it doesn’t use exquisitely executed concrete, the building process is denied through the expensive and contrived elimination or concealment of joins and lines.

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Minimalism is much money being used to create the impression of having little except a sense of infinite space, a trompe l’oeil of nothing. It is an expensive aesthetic of denial of both the envelope and use, and an apparent denial of possession when linked to the concept of voluntary poverty. It is not an aesthetic for the actual poor.   

Successive aesthetics use progressively less expensive means to indicate wealth and property, but status-laden materials and processes then work to make them less accessible.

Before the Industrial Revolution, the buildings of the upper classes took the style sanctioned by the church or state while buildings of the lower classes were the result of the expedient use of available materials, techniques and labour. With middle-class country estates in the later 19th century, architects such as Shaw, Webb, Lutyens, Voysey and Wright were to use vernacular materials combined with their respective Post-Classic aesthetics to indicate wealth and property, thus furnishing the new suburbs with motifs.

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Modernism took functional industrial forms and structures and used them to indicate wealth and property. Post-Modernism took its visual techniques from roadside cafés and other structures not in the realm of ‘high’ architecture, and did the same. As soon as the Case Study houses made a cheaper aesthetic available through the use of ready-made ‘industrial’ materials, Internationalism used expensive materials and the restoration of a Classical relationship to property to distance itself again. High-tech did the same through refined materials and technology. Its applicability to spanning large spaces assumes a large space to span. Minimalism takes the very idea of looking and one’s walls and living with very little and makes it into an aesthetic of wealth and property. Loft living takes a former worker’s reality and makes it into an aesthetic of space, but being ‘fitted to the highest standard’ maintains status. The attraction of each new aesthetic is that it uses a progressively less expensive means of indicating wealth and property, or the aspiration to it. This makes them inherently vulnerable to marketing in less expensive and accessible forms. As an aesthetic cascades through society in this way, status and corresponding aspiration are artificially maintained in a carrot-on-a-stick fashion by increasingly mannerist use of expensive materials, finishes and processes.

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20th century aesthetics are irrelevant to future housing and even current housing problems.

The alleged virtues of Modernism disappeared when it was applied to less bourgeois housing problems in general, and to less property in particular. Its legacy was structural rationality and lack of decorative ornament, and (due to property pressures) a view of activities taking place in spaces rather than rooms.

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Post-Modernism largely treated social identification at the public level rather than the individual. The Taller Bofill “Let them eat cake!” approach refers beyond even the public aspirations of the individual. Aesthetics as a palliative. Post Modernism’s twin legacies were to alter certain pre-conceptions about what buildings could look like and to pave the way for a re-evaluation of the fundmental properties of materials (once the status/historical meanings had been stripped away). Its major socially applicable benefit was a re-evaluation of materials which sooner or later would have occurred anyway (due to decreasing availability or affordability).

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Metabolism correctly identified buildings as organisms in the city, but was content with expressing it at the metaphorical level. Brutalism supposedly made ordinary materials into an aesthetic which allowed materials and construction to be appreciated for what they were. This made it inherently inapplicable when lesser standards of materials and labour were used. Minimalism took the status aspects of appearing to have more space and owning less but relied for its effect on expensive materials contrasted with expensive effects achieved via contrived construction processes and finishes. In effect, it was a metaphor for the elleged virtues of historical examples of simplicity. High-tech isolated functions and satisfied them using expensive materials and processes and became in effect, a metaphor for the economies that mass-produced industrial components could theoretically offer.

It is necessary to have a way of seeing beauty which, for once, does not derive from wealth and property.

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Consider Le Corbusier’s inspiration for the machine aesthetic – the ocean liner and the the grain silo. Both have in common a certain technical and functional sophistication, but they also have in common a necessary relationship with large amounts of open space. Although the visual implications were revolutionary for architecture, the relationship between those built objects to the spacesurrounding them continued to link beauty with the ownership of property. There is nothing inherently wrong with technical analogies since housing is the result of a production process.

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Whereas ocean liners and grain silos taught us about function and form, other inherent (and these days, more useful) factors such as construction process, sourcing and design optimisation were ignored. Unsurprisingly, aesthetics derived from the display of the wealth or property associated with private houses on private land, prove inapplicable to low-cost housing using public money on public land.

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Those 20th century aesthetics which have been applied to mass housing have had their deficiencies highlighted. This is not a problem of aesthetics per-se. It is a problem of where they come from and the criteria by which beauty is defined. The marketability of an aesthetic is related to the desirability of its product, which has changed very little. This means that low-cost housing, being neither an indicator of wealth or property, can never benefit from aesthetics. Ever.

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However, if successive aesthetics are evolving from criteria which are less and less expensive to achieve, it ought to be possible to shortcut this process and determine a way of seeing beauty by concentrating attention and techniques on other articulating the possession of wealth or property,and thereby arrive more quickly at a modern vernacular aesthetic towards which we are moving anyway. This would be an aesthetic applicable to everyone, not just the providers and occupants of low-cost housing. Warehouse conversions have indicated that people are willing to sacrifice light and location for space. It is only a matter of time before other qualities that have been essential considerations in private housing so far will also come to be devalued. Location, quantities, materials, processes and contents will always remain indicators of whatever level of status people can afford to display or aspire to.

An architectural aesthetics independent of wealth and property will mean traditional displays of status will for once be explicit, not mistaken for beauty, and the aspiration to them will be less attractive to those who can ill afford to.

• • •

This essay will conclude next week with Part II, Modern Vernacular.

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