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Divide & Conquer

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It’s not like people suddenly woke up in 1920 in a world with machines. For centuries, simple ones using wind or water had been powering grindstones in vernacular buildings called mills because that is what they did. These buildings were the factories of their time.

It was all part of the only system of production there was and many Western surnames are the names that used to identify who did what or made what. Miller. Baker. Brewer. Fisher. Farmer. Shepherd. Cartwright. Weaver. Smith. Shoemaker. Mason. Slater. Thatcher. Carpenter.

The period 1750-1850 had coal-powered external combustion engines powering ships, trains and simple factories such as mills, and the period 1850-1920 had internal combustion engines driving ships and trains as well as the now more complex manufacturing machinery of factories. During the Victorian era, industry became alert to the growing consumer market and began to produce all manner of household goods such as chairs, table lamps and bathtubs that previously would have been fabricated by hand.

It was also possible to mass-produce the plumbing to transport the water as well as the boiler to heat it.

Entire buildings still couldn’t be made by machines but it was possible to make whole buildings by using (dry) processes and assembling many smaller (metal and glass) pieces that were made by machines. This next house is the “Loren” Iron House. Its cast-iron columns and sheet metal cladding were manufactured in Britain and assembled in Melbourne (at 62 Curzon Street, North Melbourne) circa 1853-54.

It would never be possible to replicate the craftsmanship of certain artisan goods but for general things it didn’t matter if greater quantities could be made faster and inexpensively. Here, by the word craftsmanship, I don’t mean some narrow sense of intricacy or precision (that still survives today in advertisements for Swiss watches, for example) but the sense that, when using an object, somebody cared about how it was made. Machines would never be able to replicate this.

The only way around was to isolate design and have people think it represented the same care that craftspersons had previously imbued objects with. This pseudo-care could then be “added” at the design stage where it would not impede volume production. Given late 19th century English dithering over the question of machine production, I’m not surprised the solution of separating design and production came first from Germany, but someone somewhere would have invented a bauhaus sooner or later.

Gabriel Voisin may have designed and constructed a car for himself in 1899 but it was the first and last time he did. The first production Voisin, the C1 of 1918, resulted from Voisin purchasing the design and four prototypes developed for André Citroen by two engineers who used to work for another early French automobile company, Panhard.*

But what did all this mean for architecture in the 1910s?

1Industrialists become a new set of clients for buildings in general and, now that they had the money, architecture in particular.

New buildings having unobstructed spaces larger than had ever been known arose from the need to house larger and more complex machinery assisting a series of manufacturing processes. The assembly line was born. The new buildings obeyed the logic of large unobstructed spans and volume enclosed at maximum efficiency. Work tending machines was still work for the people that performed it, but automated manufacture of greater quantities of more things could now be overseen by a smaller and less-skilled labour force. This is the Ford automobile company’s River Rouge Plant designed in 1917 by Albert Kahn. Walter Gropius visited in 1928.

In the intervening years, the Bauhaus had completely changed from being an institution promoting artist-driven yet hand-produced art, into an institution promoting artists-as-craftspersons but where the design component was added prior to factory production. It formalised and institutionalised the divide between design and production.

Separating the act of design from the act of production meant design was free/d to be the carrier of the value-adding processes of art. It had to be this way since it was impossible for machines to replicate the craftsmanship of the craftsperson. We were to forget that craftsmanship ever existed in any form other than design value-added.

2There was still the problem how to fuse the value-adding process of art with the cost-reducing process of machine manufacture. Machines might have been the way forward for products but buildings were still being built by labour-intensive construction using organic materials and a series of wet processes.

Nevertheless, parts of buildings could be made in factories and assembled on site, especially if those parts were made from metal and glass. But prefabricated houses had been around since the 1850s. There was nothing new about them.

I don’t have a date or place for this next image [Can anyone help? **] but something about it makes me think it’s Dutch. This is a remarkable house for any time prior to 1930 but the fact we know so little about it makes me suspect it’s from around 1915-1923 for if it’s earlier than 1923, then Gropius’s revolutionary idea of designing for machines would seem less revolutionary, and if it’s earlier than 1920 then so would Le Corbusier’s “a house is a machine for living in”. What’s more, it looks like it has a garage. If we can have a prefabricated house shipped to Australia circa 1850 then anything’s possible.

** Thanks to David for telling me the house is known as The Chauffer’s House, was designed by Gerrit Rietveld and constructed 1927-28. Oranjeflamingo tells us “The building took only three weeks to build, as the main skeleton of the building consists of steel I-rods creating an almost De Stijl gridwork. Attached to the steel framework were pre-cast concrete panels speckled with enamel. All the building components were standard items purchased off-the-rack, so to speak. The plans and facade were based on a simple 1 x 1 meter module. Rietveld himself described the building as “an experiment in industrialized building”. It obviously was possible to construct a house using prefabricated parts and modular dimensions (and one that has weathered surprisingly well). The house is later than I imagined. If Rietveld himself said it was an experiment in industrialized building, then I’m curious to know if he thought it a success or a failure. Perhaps it was both? Obviously it was possible to design for mass production in factories but if people were more interested in representations of factory aesthetic then what’s the point?

3If buildings and machines weren’t going to have materials or industrialized production in common anytime soon, there was going to have to be a link of a different kind and design offered that, now that it was separated from production. About a hundred years ago now, people, not least of all the Le Corbusier-to-be, began to claim that machines and engineering structures had their own kind of beauty, seeing it in aeroplanes, ocean liners and automobiles (but, tellingly, not in trains as they’d already been around for a while). It was said to be the shape of the future and, in a way it was for, if all these things looked different, it was because they were designed to satisfy certain laws of physics and immune to the arbitrary aesthetic likings that were then shaping the decorative arts including architecture.

Even today, the shapes of aircraft wings continue to evolve in pursuit of preferred properties. Such are the continuous, incremental improvements of science that build upon the present to make something as good as it can be at any given time.

Aeroplanes, ocean liners and automobiles may have been representative of this new approach to design but the problem was that they were all machines designed to take people from one place to another – i.e. the opposite of buildings. There wasn’t much to link buildings with this new approach to design but automobiles at least stayed on land so automobiles it was.

The statement “A house is a machine for living in” is gloriously open to interpretation. My favourite is the slightly Dadaesque one invoking the philosophic concept of agency: viz. A book is a machine for reading. The general reading is the most literal but mine more so: A house is a machine designed to not take you from one place to another. Either way, the implication is that houses are to be designed objectively, like automobiles, planes and ocean liners, to satisfy certain immutable criteria. At the time, the most convincing immutable criteria for buildings were “functional” ones such as space requirements but even they turned out to be a moveable feast. It might not have been possible to manufacture a building in the same way it was possible to manufacture a machine, but it was possible for a similar logic to inform the design of each. Or rather, it was possible to create the impression that shared aesthetic, if not logic, informed the design of both.

By 1925 Le Corbusier had concluded that entire buildings were never going to be made in factories. The period 1925-1926 is when the Dessau Bauhaus building was constructed using conventional techniques so it’s safe to say Walter Gropius realised the same thing about the same time. This is the only image I was able to find of the Dessau building under construction. It shows the technical school on the left side of the bridge from the Bauhaus (university) on the other side of the approach road.

As Banham explains, the decision to have a bridge was not forced upon Gropius by any topographical conditions. On the right when approaching the bridge is the entrance to the Hochschule, the (Bauhaus) university, and on the left is the entrance to the Fachschule – the technical school of the city of Dessau. ” Classes at this technical school would have been similar to those Ludvig Kurz took at his school in Bozen. [I have only ever seen one photograph of a class in progress at this technical school attached to The Bauhaus. Students were sitting at rows of desks listening to an instructor and taking notes.]

The bridge contains administration offices shared through necessity but the clear message was that education for design is distinct from education for technical production. If Meyer (Adolf) did all the grunt work of drawing (as Curl implies), then this conception of a building as the embodiment of the split between education and production was pure Gropius. The Dessau building is his CV in built form.

Banham says Gropius is “almost suggesting [Almost? ALMOST!!?] that the ‘arrogant barrier of snobbery’ had once more been erected between artist and craftsman” and then continues to say “In spite of this – perhaps because of it – the Bauhaus remains a masterpiece of the new architecture.” I’m disturbed by that “perhaps because of it”, probably because I know it’s true. In fairness, Banham still places the craftsmen on the technical side of the building [c.f. The Notebooks of Ludwig Kurz] where they don’t get the benefit of the fab new wall of glass said to have been gifted by an industrialist. I smell a story.

In 1932 the Dessau Bauhaus was merely another building and Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock were impressed with its glass wall but not with the projection of the roof cap. Gropius was not to head Johnson’s alma mater until 1937.

p.156 The International Style, Johnston & Hitchcock, 1932

We’re taught to admire the Dessau building for its “formal composition” but even the term “formal composition” is Bauhaus legacy in isolating composition as an activity responsible only to itself. We’re taught to see the building as an inspired arrangement of spaces disposed in certain ways vaguely beneficial. We’re not encouraged to ask who was in the technical school or what were they learning, and we’re also not taught to care about what the Dessau building was constructed of or by whom. It may as well have been constructed by machines. Except it wasn’t of course, but it was never going to matter again for in 1926 the world was about to change. Even Banham doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge how the building gave architectural expression to and therefore validated splitting arts education into design education and technical education while professing to integrate them.

That architecture was to be later taught at The Bauhaus under Hannes Meyer is another story and another paradigm that was not going to be the one that dominated. By 1928 Gropius was en-route to a place where the message of the Dessau building had already been correctly received. Contemporary architectural culture continues to reinforce this split by its excessive interest in the activities, actions and pronouncements of those on the design side of the divide. The following table lists some of the legacies of that divide that shaped the architectural world as we know it today.

 Design Production
 Design Education Technical Education
 Architecture Engineering
 Architecture Building
 Design Construction
 Starchitects All other architects
 “Form-finding” Working drawings
 Buildings designed by starchitects Buildings designed by all other architects
 Design architect Architect of Record
 Perception Management Development gain
 Parametric design Algorithmic design
 “Scripting” BIM
 Renders of unbuilt projects Photographs of built projects
 Buildings that didn’t need to be built Buildings that needed to be built
 Practice driven by internal “research” agenda Practice driven by external (societal) needs

This is what the split between design and production (in this case in the form of perception management and development gain) begets at masterplanning level. Central “signature” [another legacy mindset] buildings contain leisure and retail amenities in place of the community or civic ones formerly provided by places of worship and town halls. Peripheral residents are cultivated.

These are just some phenomena that can be explained by the split between design and production. It was difficult to avoid emotive terms and negative connotations so some of the pairs I had to isolate below. For example, when does innovation become novelty? and vice-versa? Looking back, what we once thought was innovative often turns out to have been novelty after all. And as for the last one, architectural institutions such as Patrik Schumacher and the Pritzker Prize would have us believe society is best served by buildings that serve architecture whereas others could say that only buildings that serve society should qualify as architecture. At least the Design/Production divide provides a framework for these disagreements to take place.

 Media ImpactBest Practice
 Buildings that serve architectureBuildings that serve society

What place misfits?

While all this has been going on, there has also been the deliberate ignoring of those architects who span the divide by imbuing their work with some manifestation of a concern for people and the craft of building even if they aren’t to be the ones making them. These are the architects who are not taught in schools and certainly don’t feature in our shrunken history. This isn’t because they offer nothing of value, but because the value they add is of the wrong kind. Going by the misfit architects alone, there are many types of the wrong type of value but what they have in common is that they all add a value to buildings that machines cannot. Their ideas go against the flow. They show us many ways the divide between design and production can be bridged. Whether those ideas are manifested through design, planning, materials or construction, individually and collectively they amount to what I shall call The Human Touch.

 Design with a sensitivity for the craft of production and/or the end user
 The Sole Practitioner [c.f. Architecture Misfits #34: The Sole Practitioner]
 The Misfit Architects, in general, and in their respective ways
 Other unremembered and untaught architects (such as, for example, Edwin Lutyens)

I don’t know why the misfit architects should be so ignored for spanning the design-production divide because there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing so any more than there is in separating design and production processes. After all, this is what happens with machine-made machines and we think nothing of it. But we call it industrial design or aerospace, not art or architecture. I suspect the offence of the misfit architects is that their ways have nothing to do with the architect as artist or architecture as Art.

For non-misfit architects removed from the concerns of buildings, the problem is how The Human Touch can be conveyed across the design-production divide and into the finished product. The most successful way to date is to present oneself as an artist and insist one’s art is there in the finished product. [This is exactly the same process that gives us designer tableware, designer jeans, designer sunglasses …] Keeping this notion alive brings us a stream of increasingly baroque methodologies attempting to update and continue the notion of a creative “architectural” design process creatively independent from the manufacturing process of the moment.

Prefabrication has had a lot of time to change the world if ever it was going to. It’s odd that machine made windows and cladding panels (and furniture) are fine but industrialized buildings are “soulless” and lack “individuality” i.e. “the human touch”. MUJI have got closest. [c.f. The MUJI House]

Post-Modernism was an attempt to leap the design-production divide by designing mass-produced goods to appeal to our emotions so we would relate to them and, if I may be cynical, buy them.

Parametricism (as well as BIM and other algorithmic design processes) accelerate certain types of design production processes and facilitate the transfer of information between the design and production sides. If any of The Human Touch was present to begin with, little survives the process of translation.

Digital Technologies are a catch-all term for all manner of methodologies involving computers. Much like Parametricism, we hear a lot about them because they glorify a design production process independent of a construction process. In recent history we had the Bilbao Guggenheim, a building that could easily have been executed in masonry “given ten years and a mason with a good eye” I once wrote, much to Charles Jencks’ annoyance.

Post-Digital is the name being given to “an attitude that is more concerned with being human, than with being digital”. Given the above short history of attempts to give mass production the human touch, I have multiple issues, not least of which is the implied parallel with Post-Modernism. If post-digital is or becomes an actual thing, then I expect it to be different but still the same, and in much the same way.


  • Graham you are most welcome. On what level did it fail? “Although the constructive system chosen by Rietveld posed no problems, the execution defects produced a disastrous effect” (Google translation); more on this web page: (note also the middle photo on that web page showing a car exiting from the right-side sliding garage door).

    • says:

      David! I found this detail of the construction of The Chauffer’s House. I’m no construction expert but this looks a bit iffy. Steel plates look like they’ve been bolted on to create the appearance of modular integrity à la Mondrian. These days we know a lot more about thermal bridging and heat transfer. I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been serious condensation problems in the cavity. I’m curious now and I’m also surprised that I don’t know and also that I never even thought to ask the question. How is Rietveldt’s earlier Schroeder House constructed? Despite its “formal” (i.e. to do with nothing) inventiveness, is it all timber frame construction with sensible vernacular details? I guess this all goes to show that designing for industrially produced parts involving metal (which is what industry did best) was not just about shapes.


      dubious detail

      • Graham! RE: The CHAUFFEUR’S HOUSE. For unknown reasons, the text has now been deleted from the web page link I had provided in a previous reply. But that text includes some interesting verbal construction details, and I’d be glad to send you a copy of the paper copy I printed last week while it was still online. Just tell me where to fax it or postal mail it.
        That’s in interesting detail sketch you found — I wonder where it occurs and whether it’s a plan view of a steel column, or a section of a steel beam.
        (BTW the owner nicknamed this house “the colander” due to its continuous leaks).
        Also, since you mentioned thermal bridging and heat transfer, you might like to contrast that Rietveld sketch with a wall designed by Joseph Lstiburek [sic] here via Google: “The Perfect Wall / Building Science Corporation”.
        RE: THE SCHRODER HOUSE. You asked how this house was constructed. I’m no construction expert either, but according to one online article: “Rietveld was unconcerned with the materials used — he was more concerned with cost”.
        That article also says the main structural materials Reitveld used to construct this house included reinforced concrete for the foundation and balcony; steel I-beams for the columns and lintels; Dutch brick covered with white plaster for the walls; and wooden joists for the floors and roof. Plus, a number of other materials were used for non-structural components such as sliding partitions. David!

      • says:

        David, The Perfect Wall is a great site. I’ll recommend it to my students. In the meantime, you might like to check this out. It’s probably where that image I sent comes from. I think Mr. Laurent-Emmanuelle Beaudouin shares the same interest. And thanks for the offer but don’t worry about the paper copy just for now. I have a hunch I’ll come across it again. Graham.

  • For info about that house, Google this: The Chauffeur’s House That Rietveld Built.

    • says:

      David thanks so much for that – I’d been wondering for years and should have followed my hunch. It’s a little later than I expected but still remarkable and still in good shape. I’m surprised not more is known about the owner as not too many people would have had a chauffeur in 1927. I’m interested in the history of prefabricated housing now. If Rietveld said this house was an experiment, then I wonder on what level it failed? I’ll try to find out. In the meantime David, thanks again.