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100 IDEAS

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I can’t help but pick up and open books like Richard Weston’s 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. Below I’ve listed the eponymous hundred ideas. You may also be wondering if, for example, Wall (3) is really a thing rather than an idea, or an idea of a thing. You’ll notice the order of the hundred is basically chronological, suggesting a development of sorts, or at least some kind of adaption to changing circumstances. Let’s leave evolution and/or ideas of evolution out of it. You might also notice the Middle Ages and The Orient are under-represented, suggesting Western architecture is the only architecture of consequence and ideas that changed it the only ones of consequence. What say we change this paradigm? Now there’s an idea!

1. Fireplace51. Art of Building
2. Floor52. Tectonic Form
3. Wall53. Polychromy
4. Column and Beam54. Conservation
5. Door55. Empathy
6. Window56. Air Conditioning
7. Brick57. Form Follows Function
8. Staircase58. Zeitgeist
9. Classical Order59. Space
10. Arch60. Modernity
11. Vault61. In The Nature of Materials
12. Dome62. Cladding
13. Arcade63. Organic Architecture
14. Courtyard64. Ornament is Crime
15. Atrium65. Free Plan
16. Platform66. Architectural Promenade
17. Basilica67. Five Points For A New Architecture
18. Humanism68. Abstraction
19. Proportion69. Transparency
20. Form70. Axonometric Projection
21. Ornament71. Collage
22. Ideal72. Layering
23. Module73. International Style
24. Grid74. Less is More
25. Symmetry75. Regionalism
26. Commodity, Firmness and Delight76. Flexibility
27. Particularity77. Beton Brut
28. Architect78. Morphology
29. Orthographic Projection79. Additive Composition
30. Perspective Projection80. Servant and Served Spaces
31. Composition81. Postmodernism
32. Utopia82. Complexity and Contradiction
33. Style83. Shed
34. Palladianism84. Type
35. Corridor85. Context
36. Primitive Hut86. Place
37. Genius Loci87. Phenomenology
38. Scenography88. Skin
39. Picturesque89. Computer-Aided Design
40. Gothic Revival90. Rainscreen Cladding
41. Beaux-Arts91. Community Architecture
42. Iron92. Universal Design
43. Steel93. Design And Build
44. Glass94. Passive Design
45. Roof Lighting95. Sustainability
46. Structural Frame96. Deconstruction
47. Central Heating97. Bigness
48. Electric Lighting98. Fold
49. The Lift99. Parametric Design
50. Reinforced Concrete100. Everyday

We’re used to pondering lists such as these for maybe the time it takes to read them for, in December each year, we have tens of Top Ten Whatever lists to go through once and forget. I’m grateful the author didn’t try to rank these 100 Ideas That Changed Architecture. There are some glaring omissions. The first that springs to mind is Roof which I think a more fundamental concept than Fireplace (1), Floor, (2) or even Wall (3). In the case of an A-frame hut what we have is a roof, not walls. Below is a modern reconstruction. You get the idea. On page 57 when talking about Symmetry (25) the author writes “Rather than being an idea that changed architecture, symmetry … might be better described as an idea that defined it in the first place … . I feel like that about Roof.

http://www.jarvisdooney.com/artists/james-tylor-a-frame-hut

I’d certainly prioritise Roof and the shelter function of buildings over a fire that merely marks a place. I’ll also admit to having trouble conceiving of an architecture that doesn’t have a floor, suggesting that use by gravity-bound humans is hard-wired into our concept of it. Or at least mine. The idea of Roof doesn’t appear until Vault (11), Dome (12) and Arcade (13), all of which represent quite a leap forward and begs the question whatever did we do without them? In this list, Roof doesn’t exist for Architecture until the idea of Roof exists. The presence of Primitive Hut (36) confirms this priority and suggests that the architecture-changing worth of an idea rests not in its utility but the degree to which it can be loaded with aesthetic pretensions. To be fair, and compared with the containment of fire circa one million years ago, loading a simple object with aesthetic pretensions is a relatively modern thing to do and it’s easy to think that’s what architecture is all about. [c.f. The Primitive Hut]

Genius Loci (37) is another new idea laden with pretension. [c.f. Architecture Myths #16: Genius Loci] but we’ve skipped past Humanism (18), Ideal (22) and Utopia (32), all of which are nice ideas that had no lasting change on architecture. Numbers 42 thru 52 concentrate on building materials and construction elements with Steel (43), Glass (44), The Lift (46) and Structural Frame (49) bringing us up to the Chicago School and what I would call The Emerging Architecture of Capitalism. We just know that Form Follows Function (57), Space (59), and Organic Architecture (63) are not going to be too far away.

These hundred ideas didn’t all exist in isolation. All that steel and glass and structural frames made the idea of organic architecture the inevitable sugar coating and the antidote to the restlessness of Futurism that only gets an oblique mention as Modernity (60) despite the Futurists being the first to plant the idea of discarding the past and being modern for the sake of it. We’ve never really gotten over this, as evidenced by our compulsive need to know what’s new. [c.f. Neo-Futurism]

As you’d expect, the middle of the 20th century where most architecture seems to have happened brings a rash of ideas attributed to Le Corbusier. Free Plan (65), Architectural Promenade (66) and Five Points for a New Architecture (67) are three in a row, or four in a row if you see “A house is a machine for living in” as Abstraction (68).

“White abstracted modernity contrasted with Nature” [photo by kyle johnson, caption mine]

As we pass through the Modernist portion of this list, I can’t help thinking I’d prefer to see Transparency (69) listed next to Weightlessness and Naturalness as three qualities impossible for buildings to have, but still empower designers and clients to display the vast quantities of resources they used to create the impression of them. To an existentialist, these are all aspects of the idea of Bad Faith or Inauthenticity.

Hilton Hotel, Teheran, 1965

The contradiction of International Style (73) and Regionalism (74) being so close together is soon reconciled by Post-Modernism (81) and, as it’s all fairly recent, we can anticipate how the remaining 19 are going to pan out. The only one I wasn’t familiar with was Everyday (100) but it turned out to be the renewed interest in the forms and materials of everyday culture (as opposed to “popular” culture which is an abstracted idea of the everyday). The aim was to create buildings that are un-monumental and anti-heroic, and grounded in the familiar routines and environments of daily life. It all sounds very un-architectural but Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1955 Sugden House is given as an example. It’s an intriguing house but this notion of the everyday didn’t change much until it was parodied by Venturi.

Indeed, the above photograph of Sugden House makes me think of Vanna Venturi House. The image of the front elevation below is inexpensively enlivened by various “Is it symmetrical or is it not symmetrical?” games being played out, as Asnago Vender were doing at the same time in Milan and Venturi soon was to. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #26: Asnago Vender]

In the introduction, author Richard Weston notes the difficulties involved in selecting one hundred ideas and admits to biases and omissions. He divides his hundred into the following five categories.

  • elements of construction – wall, column, beam, vault, etc. and architectural refinements of those
  • social ideas and innovations – ranging from the idea of the architects as an independent desire to such recent developments as community architecture and universal design
  • spatial types and means of organisation – such as the Roman basilica and the corridor
  • design/drawing techniques – including practical ones such as orthographic projection and computer aided techniques, as well as conceptual ones such as abstraction and layering
  • the more idea-like ideas that have guided, explicitly or implicitly, the development of architecture – such as Humanism, the building as organism, form follows function, less is more, etc .

It’s as good a set as any other. If everybody made their own list, each would be different and contain different biases and omissions. Mine would definitely have a sharper distinction between things that changed architecture and ideas that changed architecture. I would also introduce some value judgements to make it more contentious by splitting those two broad categories into those that changed architecture for the better and those that changed architecture for the worse.

Here’s my list of things and ideas that changed architecture for the better – or would have were it not for the far more numerous countering ideas that changed it for the worse.

Art of building (51)
In the nature of materials (61)
Shed (83)
Sustainability (95)
Regionalism (75)
Passive Design (94)

And here’s my list of those other.

Organic architecture (63) – not just Wright’s conception of it but every iteration since. It’s definitely an idea that changed architecture even though I think it’s a stupid idea to make objects as artificial as buildings appear as if they literally grew out of the ground, much like unexceptional plants do. [c.f. Existential Architecture]
Style (33) – enough has been said already; closely linked to Zeitgeist.
Zeitgeist (58) – a convenient justification for change for the sake of change, even if nothing else differentiates the present from the immediate past
Façade (unlisted) – architecture only where it matters most, when there’s no enough to go around
Five points for a new architecture (57) – they shot around the world in a flash, along with the unspoken idea of Plasticitity, which turned out to be the denial of In the nature of materials (61) and later Construction (unplaced)
Internationalism, Globalism, Neoliberalism (all unplaced) – see Zeitgeist
Plasticity (unplaced) – it holds that form exists independently of the materials from which it is constructed. Like Weightlessness, Transparency and Organic, it is a powerful idea for architecture because it is impossible to achieve in reality.
Servant and served spaces (80) – the architectural manifestation of archaic notions of class subservience; the idea was attributed to Louis Kahn before the British reclaimed it
Perception management (unplaced)
Art of Design (unplaced) – as something separate from Art of Building; see The Bauhaus (unplaced)
Deconstruction (96) – a concept borrowed from literature but inevitably destined for architectural analogy
Beauty (unplaced) – simply for all the unresolved grief this concept has caused, I think it deserves a mention
Architect (as artist-hero) (28) – This is a long quote from p63. I learned I could have referred to Karl Marx in my Bauhaus bashing a few posts back.

The romantic idea of the architect as an embattled artist-hero struggling to create civilisation’s greatest achievements originated with writers such as Goethe, who was in awe of the beauty of Gothic cathedrals, and was adopted by architects such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. The latest reinvention of this role is the ‘starchitect’ able to put cities and clients ‘on the map’ and a recognisable marketing tool: the architect of modern advertising dresses in black, wears spectacles and a bow tie, and carries a roll of drawings – and has been used to sell watches and shows, fashion and furniture.

The reality of modern practice, for most architects, is very different. Some work as architect-entrepreneurs, a role previously banned by many professional codes of conduct …, some as community advocates, and many more in large corporate firms and design and built contractors, where increasingly the process of design is broken down into specialised tasks. This trajectory recalls Karl Marx’s analysis of factory work, that it divides the holistic tasks previously undertaken by skilled craftsmen into specialised partial skills – a long way from the master builder or artist-hero of popular mythology. [c.f. Divide and Conquer]

This book raised as many questions as it answered – as any good book should. I learned some new things and confirmed some of my pet suspicions. At the beginning I wondered what exactly is this Architecture these hundred ideas changed? And what is Architecture’s relationship with change anyway? Perhaps Architecture is something we only notice when there is change? If so, we must ask if an architecture dependent upon change is a good thing.

No less a person than Patrik Schumacher has claimed that Architecture began with Leon Battista Alberti, who was the world’s first proper architect responsible for coding it as a thing. Or is it the idea of Architecture? On p13, I learn something I didn’t about Alberti’s 1450 Palazzo Rucellai.

Its basic expression was almost certainly derived from The Coliseum, with flat pilasters in the Tuscan and Corinthian orders above and below an order of Alberti’s own invention, and the masonry is elaborated by clearly expressed joints, with heavily incised rustication art the ground floor to suggest strength. By no means all the joints we see, however, are ‘real’ joints between stones in the actual masonry: what Alberti presents is a representation of an ideal wall, not simply a physical construction.

This doesn’t make it okay. All it means is that the idea of giving priority to representing an idea over the thing itself is the one idea that, rather than changing Architecture, defined it. [c.f. Architecture Myths #23: Architecture]

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