Sigmund Freud is generally regarded as the father of psychoanalysis, that revolutionary circa 1900 idea that aimed to externalize and give expression to people’s innermost feelings in order to gain an understanding of them and, if not a happier life, at least a life less torn by anxieties and insecurities.
The Expressionism of the late 19th and early 20th century was all about the expression of realities formerly hidden beneath the surface. It was a heady time to be Alma Schindler/Mahler/Gropius/Werfel (1879-1964) and regarded as the most beautiful woman in Vienna.
Her first kiss was from artist Gustav Klimt but we don’t know exactly when or even why we know this. A citation is lacking but Klimt didn’t tell and, befitting an independent and. progressive lady, Alma’s diaries are famously unreliable. We do however know that Klimt was still painting kisses in 1906 some years after the event.
Alma’s first lover was Alexander von Zemlinksy, the man who taught her music composition. She would’ve married him but her family (apparently) said he wasn’t sufficiently famous so instead, when she was 23 in 1903, she married Gustav Mahler who was 20 years older but already famous for his powerful symphonies with their sudden and dramatic changes of emotion. Mahler didn’t encourage Alma to continue with her compositions but Freud suggested that maybe he should. Mahler followed the great psychoanalyst’s advice but, by that time, Alma had had an affair with some young man called Walter Gropius. Alma would later write, “He was obviously in love with me, and expecting me to love him back.” Mahler found out about the affair and demanded Alma choose between them. She chose Mahler, but Gropius would soon go off to WWI, Mahler would shortly die and Alma would move back in with her parents.
One day, her well meaning father introduced her to a talented young artist who would paint her portrait. She and the artist Oscar Kokoshka became lovers almost immediately. Kokoshka was to paint more than one portrait of Alma but Alma’s diaries paint Kokoshka as too possessive or controlling and so, for one reason or another, Alma’s attention turned back to Gropius who was now becoming famous after having completed along with Adolf Meyer, buildings such as the Fagus Works in 1913 and the Model Factory for the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne. Alma and Walter married in 1915.
They had a child or, more correctly, Alma had the child of Expressionist author and poet Franz Werfel. This seems to have been common knowledge in Vienna at the time so the Gropiuses divorced and Alma married Werfel and they relocated to the US and had further adventures, as did Walter Gropius and new wife Ise, but none of this matters.
What matters for this post is that Alma wrote she was only attracted to – I paraphrase – “creative geniuses who can change the world”, and there was no shortage of them in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Her lovers and husbands were all Expressionists in their various fields. von Zemlinsky was an emotive late-Romantic composer something like Mahler but in the style of Schoenberg, if you can imagine that. Mahler was an emotive late-Romantic composter too, but in the style of Mahler. Klimt was all emotion. Werfel was an Expressionist writer not dissimilar to Kafka, and Walter Gropius was revealing things like staircases hitherto hidden behind masonry at the corners of buildings.
Later, Gropius and Adolf Meyer would go on to design the Dessau campus of The Bauhaus with its internal organization expressed on the outside with separate volumes for the teachers’ accommodation, the technical school teaching rooms, the Bauhaus studios and the admin offices. Articulated, we like to say.
When something to do with the inside of a building is expressed on the outside of a building it’s not trying to represent some inner human state. It just so happens that buildings also have an inside and an outside. They have an external appearance they present to the world and internal realities that govern how they function in that world. These realities are intrinsic to buildings. Buildings wouldn’t be buildings if they had only an outside.
I’m still not sure if something with only an inside is a building. It could be a false question because, for a person inside this house, the outside still exists as an idea. Or, equally conceptually, in this case it could be that everything not a void is the outside. Either way, no internal realities are getting expressed.
Expressing internal realities on the outside of a building isn’t representation, zoomorphism or personification. It’s just formalism and, as with psychoanalysis, the question isn’t what can be expressed but what helps us to make sense of the world. The Dessau Bauhaus building tells us something about its internal organization while The Mauritius Commercial Bank expresses nothing directly, although its mute organization and facade imply both solidity and security.
By the same logic, we might think Sou Fujimoto’s House NA or Philip Johnson’s Glass House express too much of their inner lives but revealing is not the same as expressing.
If we think of structure as a internal skeleton that’s normally hidden then we will think of skeleton-like structures on the outside of a building as “expressed” even though we don’t look at load bearing walls and think of them as exoskeletons as we would for a lobster. The structure of a building is something that can be on the inside of a building or the outside or on both. This is just structure being structure and nothing to do with expression. Expression for the sake of expression isn’t formalism but a mannerism or possibly a new Baroque.
Circa 1850, the servants in an upper-class London townhouse carried coal up to the fireplaces and ash back down. They carried hot water for baths, emptied chamber pots, refilled lamps and replaced candles. The servants and the servants’ stairs at the back of the house were the equivalent of plumbing, ducts and conduits. These inner workings of buildings were largely concealed until Hi-Tech made them (along with exposed structure) part of the external expression of the building. Again, one person’s natural expression was another person’s contrived mannerism.
Function can be also expressed in non Bauhausian ways. Frank Gehry’s Work Residence and Winton Guest House both express the idea of an internal functional diversity on the outside of the building even if we don’t know what the particular functions are.
The structure, services, organization and function of a building never go away but the choice to make them visible and express some truth about the building can go out of fashion and, usually as a result, out of sight. We can say the same for materials and construction. All buildings are the result of their materials and the processes of their construction. Some buildings are no more or less than this, while the point of some other buildings is to deny this reality.
We’re currently in a period where it’s unfashionable for buildings to look as if they’re constructed out of things called materials, or as if they’ve been organized according to what happens inside them. For a while now, the skin-deep, visible qualities of shape and complexion have been all that’s left. We can’t completely blame post-modernism for this. The internal organization of this next building is expressed to more or less the same degree as Dessau Bauhaus or the two Gehry projects above.
Kazu Shinohara’s 1983 House in Yokohama and his 1987 Tokyo Tech Centennial Hall were two examples of his new machine style with their assemblages of different parts where we don’t know what the parts mean or even what the parts are. It expresses something. We just don’t know what.
Still, the inside is the spatial negative of the shape we see on the outside and, were we inside the building, we’d make a correspondence between the spaces we are in, and what we remember of the outside. This isn’t saying much. Many buildings do do the same thing but with more conventional parts.
Appearances can be deceptive. Some buildings have extraordinary external appearances at odds with their mundane internal realities. This is where the metaphor of psychoanalytic expression of thoughts and feelings and the external architectural expression of internal realities breaks down. One way of keeping the metaphor alive is to understand this deceptive impression as a kind of repression, but this implies it might be as unhealthy and undesirable in buildings as it is in people.
Any building envelope has a correspondence between inside and outside. As with Shinohara’s House in Yokohama, we understand Frederick Keisler’s 1958 Endless House as a house with various spaces of sizes we associate with rooms and what we imagine happens in them. It’s still a house and its spaces are reassuringly domestic in size if not shape.
Large shell structures still have a correspondence between inside and outside but the problem is that it means nothing. All that remains is two sides of a dehumanized shell lacking indicators of materials, construction, function and scale (as in human). Such shells are said to be expressive but of what, other than the wealth of their clients and the eagerness of predatory practices to access some of it?
There’s probably not much that can be done about. An envelope lacking indicators of materials, construction, function and scale on the outside lacks even a notional interior to express. People are conceptually removed and, even when they’re admitted, are made to feel insignificant and irrelevant to the requirements of architectural expression. The architecture of neoliberalism operates exactly as expected.