Tag Archives: Hannes Meyer

Architecture Misfit #10: Colin Lucas

colin anderson lucas

Colin Anderson Lucas (1906–84)

was an English architect and pioneer of reinforced-concrete construction. He formed a company to build concrete structures in the style of International Modernism, including Noah’s House at Spade Oak Reach, Bourne End, Bucks. (1930), and Hop Field House, St Mary’s Platt, Wrotham, Kent (1933—with Amyas Connell and Basil Ward (1902–76).

house in kent In 1933 he joined Connell and Ward to form Connell, Ward, & Lucas, and brought his expertise to the creation of a whole series of International Modernist houses such as High and Over Estate, Amersham, Buckinghamshire. (1929),

high_and_over_mvs210610_1

There’s more information and pics here. And here’s a short contemporary (1931) film about it, titled The House of a Dream.

There was also the Gunn House, The Ridgeway, Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol (1936),

Gunn House the Tarburn House, Temple Gardens, Moor Park, Herts. (1937–8), Walford House, 66 Frognal, Hampstead, London (1937)

frognal and Potcraft, Thomas House, Sutton, Surrey (1938) unparalleled elsewhere in the country. In short, until WWII he had quite a respectable career.

After the 1939–45 war he worked in the Architects’ Department of the London County Council, heading a team of young Modernists who designed, among much else, the Le Corbusier-inspired Alton Estate West at Roehampton, London (1951–78), where the slab-blocks are on a very small scale yet superficially modelled on Le Corbusier’s Unités d’Habitation.

History tells us nothing of why Lucas went to work in the Architects’ Department of the London County Council which, in the 1950s, was the largest architectural practice in the world. But he did.

It was a move away from one way of making buildings, and towards to another way of making  buildings. It was the change from making little architectural one-offs for the benefit of wealthy individuals and one’s own reputation, to using one’s skill as an architect to improve mass housing prototypes for the good of many, largely anonymously. 

There’s more to see and hear here about the London County Council but this next image shows part of the Alton West Estate.

alton estate westI’m not so sure the Alton West slab blocks are ‘superficially modelled’ on Le Corbusier’s Unités d’Habitation for in some ways they’re better. Here’s a plan of Ud’H 1.0 – Marseilles.

Unite Typical Floor Plan

  • Instead of a central corridor every third floor, Alton West has gallery access every second. These corridors will be cold, but bright. Horses for courses.

alton west corridor

  • The apartments at Alton West are double storey but have no double storey living room (like Apartment A at Ud’H) or no double storey master bedroom (like Apartment B at Ud’H) for that matter. At last, somebody’s redrawn the section!

CORBGRAPHIC

  • The kitchens at Alton West are separate and have windows (and larders!). This was a buildings regulations requirement. There is a hallway – building regs again – and bedrooms of usual (regulated) minimum width. All quite nice really.

alton-west-slab-fp-01

As well as adpating PJ’s prototype for British building regulations, the London County Council architects were trying to improve upon what PJ had proposed. The interlocking plan, central corridor and double-height living rooms were never an option. The double height living/bed room is a waste of enclosed volume that could be more responsibly provided with a floor and used to house more people. It is also a poor use of surface area if regulations require your kitchens and bathrooms to have windows.  

But all of this is to miss the most important difference. At Alton West there are five slab buildings, not one. There are almost twenty point blocks.

alton west

Let’s have a closer look at those point blocks.

point blocks at alton west

This is the sunny side.

3585226403_6a8317074d_z

These buildings are stair-rich, presumably because of stricter fire code back then.

alton-west-point-fp-01

  • All apartments are corner apartments, as you’d expect with four apartments and point access.
  • No two living rooms are horizontally adjacent.
  • Less space is used for circulation, even with the two stairwells.
  • Each apartment has a large hallway.
  • Whereas perhaps 80% of the apartments at Unité d’Habitations are double-sided and two storey, all Alton West Point apartments are single level and two-sided.
  • The service riser is beautiful.

During his time as an architect at the London County Council, Colin Lucas was also responsible for these two identical buildings.

Somerset Estate, Battersea

Somerset Estate, Battersea

Three floors of four two-bedroom apartments alternate with one floor of one-bedroom apartments. Apartments are arranged in a pinwheel arrangement, but split two to a side by the elevator lobby that has a single fire escape stair at one end, and a laundry drying room and garbage chute room at the other. This lobby is naturally ventilated and daylit. It develops the configuration of the point blocks at Alton West. Here’s a two-bed apartment plan.

A plan of a two-bedroom apartment.

And here’s what the kitchen looks like. The column from which everything below it in the plan above is cantilevered, is just out of the picture. Not shown in the plan above is the small window above the cooker, made possible by the pinwheel arrangement.

A refurbished kitchen with the separating partition removed.

These buildings are repeated across south London.

Twice more, as the Canada Estate in Rotherhithe,

Canada Estate, Rotherhithe

Two more times, as the Aylesbury Estate in Wandsworth.

Aylesbury Estate, Wandsworth

And six more times, as the Wyndham Estate in Camberwell.

Wyndham Estate, Camberwell

For about five years, I used to live on the 18th floor of Selworthy House in Battersea. I can testify to the solidity, liveability and humanity of these buildings.

Selworthy House

The view is also very nice, but that’s just an accident of history.

view of london from selworthy houseWhen these buildings were built, nobody valued views, especially those over Battersea, Rotherhithe, Wandwsorth or Camberwell.

rainbow over batterseaWhat impresses me most about the design of these buildings is how, by alternating three floors of two-bedroom apartments with one floor of one-bedroom apartments, Colin Lucas managed to make something special out of what must have been a very constraining brief. He did not have to do that.

These eleven buildings do not receive any mention in the history of post-war British architecture. They probably never will.

  • As part of the British government’s thirty-year war against its own people, the idea of social housing as a government obligation has been being erased from the consciousness of the people.
    1. Social housing has had its name changed to the less-loaded ‘affordable housing’. (The current mayor of London is at present attempting to redefine affordable housing as rents at 80% of market rent.)
    2. Whether past or present, highly-visible social housing is frowned upon. It is amusing to see how photographers contrive to omit the Somerset Estate towers from photographs of the (then) Richard Rogers Partnership’s Montevetro. Here’s a page of google images of Montevetro. This next image is from RSHY’s website.
      rogers stirk harbour young Here’s what looks like a planning application site elevation. Anything unpleasant is only shown in outline. One can almost hear the planners say “No higher than those hideous towers and you must respect the listed Church of St. Mary.” I have no respect for Richard Rogers or Montevetro.montevetro
  • Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Trellick Tower by Ernö Goldfinger is iconified as a Brutalist poster building by a famous architect in much the same way as PJ’s UdH is.Trellick-Tower
  • Robin Hood Gardens has people fighting its cause just as much for it being an important building by famous architects Alison and Peter Smithson as for any social significance it may once have have had. For the government, this is the rub – the very idea of highly-visible social housing is anathema.

ROBIN HOOD GARDENS

  • Part of this ongoing stealth campaign to discredit social housing is to encourage people to think of Brutalist architecture as nothing more than a dated stylistic choice.
    1. Any social worth (such as additional floor area) those construction choices may have generated is actively overlooked. Off-form concrete was honest about diverting money away from cladding and finishes and towards more useful parts of a building.
    2. It is easier to brand Brutalism a stylistic choice if it is associated with famous architects. We’re used to that as a concept.
    3. I suspect the Lucas towers are particularly reviled because that one extraneous design decision of the 3+1 repeat makes them very PROUD buildings. Once upon a time this conferred DIGNITY, but nowadays it seems to represent audacity.

* * *

somerset estate colin lucas

So then, Colin Lucas

You chose to work largely anonymously and in a large organisation,
improving upon useful prototypes you were not afraid to repeat.
You believed that people’s lives would be enhanced by doing that.  

It is for these reasons that

misfits salutes you!

colin anderson lucas

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2013 Misfits’ Midsummernights’ Quiz

Welcome to the 2013 Misfits’ Midsummernights’ Quiz! It’s being brought to you from London and so has a bit of a British theme. As is now usual, answers are at the bottom of the post – no cheating! To kick off, we’ll start with a question about out the 2013 winner of the WTF! Prize.

Q1: Name the inspiration for the central design feature on this building at Dubai Marina. 

Q2: Okay, so where’s this then?

caryatids Q3: The construction cost of the Millennium Dome was the largest of these four London buildings. Which of the others weighed in second? Was it City Hall? London Aquatics Centre? 30 St. Mary Axe?

££ Q4: Take a quick look at this next building. What does it remind you of?

st mary

Q5: Do you notice anything special about this set of drawings? 

villa savoye basement Q6: Who said “Money spent to build more than necessary is wasted money”?

  1. Hannes Meyer
  2. Diébédo Francis Kéré
  3. Karel Teige
  4. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

money

 

Q7: Who said “There will always be a place for exuberant architecture”?

  1. His Royal Highness Prince Charles
  2. Dame Zaha Hadid, DBE
  3. Baron Foster of Thames Bank
  4. Peter Zumthor

Exuberant architecture Q8: What do these four ladies have in common?

foour pic Q9: Who said “”It is fine to take from the same well – but not from the same bucket.”

  1. Mickey Mouse
  2. Dame Zaha Hadid, DBE
  3. The Mona Lisa
  4. Huckleberry Finn

huck

Q10: Let’s not talk about La Zaha anymore. Who are the people occupying the same space as La Zaha in these photos? 

A. zaha_smithson 1984

B:

554457_481799595210541_616754465_n

C:

zaha stella

D:

GD*3988226

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

ANSWER TO Q1: Yes, that’s right! It’s John Nash’s All Souls Church of 1824, where Regent’s Park Road meets Euston Road in London. (All Souls Church is now on Facebook btw!)

All_Souls_8014 Nash’s little church was not well liked at the time. One contemporary review went …

To our eye, the church itself, apart from the tower, (for such it almost is) is perhaps, one of the most miserable structures in the metropolis,—in its starved proportions more resembling a manufactory, or warehouse, than the impressive character of a church exterior; an effect to which the Londoner is not an entire stranger. Here, too, we are inclined to ascribe much of the ridicule, which the whole church has received, to its puny proportions and scantiness of decoration, which are far from being assisted by any stupendousness in their details, the first impression of which might probably have fixed the attention of the spectator. Indeed, the whole style of the tower and steeple appears peculiarly illadapted for so small a scale as has here been attempted.

Nash was lampooned in the contemporary press.

nasional taste

ANSWER TO Q2: Just a bit down the road. Yes, that’s right! This is St. Pancras New Church (1822), also on Euston Road, London. Only two years separate this church from All Souls Church. Both formed part of a defensive line of church building along Euston Road to counter the godlessness of anything north. This porch is not to be confused with the Erechtheion which is somewhere else.

ErechtheumOnAcropolis ANSWER TO Q3: London Olympic Swimming Pool came it at £269 mil. – or at least it did as far as the accounting can be trusted. This is only £3 mil. more than 30 St Mary’s Axe which used up £266 mil. of somebody’s money. With a lettable floor area of 516,100 sq.ft this works out at £515/sq.ft, considerably more than the £376/sq.ft for the 130,000 sq.ft lettable floor area of City Hall which cost a mere £49 mil. to build. The Millennium Dome cost £789 mil. – again, if the accounting is to be A) believed and B) has anything like a shared baseline. “According to the UK National Audit Office, the total cost of The Dome at the liquidation of the New Millennium Experience Company in 2002 was £789 million, of which £628 million was covered by National Lottery grants and £189 million through sales of tickets etc.” etc. etc.

ANSWER TO Q4: If your answer was something along the lines of anything in the next image, famously drawn by Rem Koolhaas’ other missus, then you are wrong. Sorry.

gherkin 'meanings'Full marks if it reminded you of Paul Laffoley’s 2003 proposal for the site that came to be occupied by Minoru Yamasaki’s World Trade Center.

It’s a reworking of the “Grand Hotel” that Gaudí designed for much the same site in 1908.

gaudi grand 2 (Muchas gracias por el link, loslugarestienenmemoria.) Laffoley wrote in 2001 

Now that Ground Zero is but a gaping wound on the body of New York City and in the soul of America, many have speculated as to what to do at the site of the violent laceration. I believe one thing is clear, that in order to begin the healing process, whatever is placed there must not proceed from the same living ego impulse that motivated Yamasaki.  That is why I feel Gaudí’s Grand Hotel would be the appropriate solution. Several facts support this idea: first, the Hotel was planned for the site in 1903; second, Gaudí has been dead for seventy-five years; third, the Hotel would function as a celebration of life, for which New York City is famous; fourth, it could act as a permanent memorial for all those who lost their lives in the disaster; and fifth, it would take the combined efforts of the entire artistic and architectural communities of New York City and other areas to bring the building into being.

At the time, I wrote,

“I’ve never thought the world needed another Gaudí building but I do now. His Grand Hotel proposal was an optimistic vision of a bright future in 1908 but is much more now. It reminds us that we still have to build one – and to do that we have to be able to imagine one first. It is already a memorial to what we have lost. This building is as much of a correction as we can hope for. Hats off to Paul Laffoley for proposing it.”

I still think so. My point was not whether the building is a facsimile or simulcrum of what the architect would have overseen, but whether the vision was still valid.  The physical manifestation of an architect’s oeuvre is not the question. It is whether the proposal (by the original architect or someone else) is a accurate reflection of the zeitgeist. I liked to think that Laffoley’s proposal (of Gaudí’s proposal) would have been, but what now stands there is. Sadly.

ANSWER TO Q5: First let’s have another look!

villa savoye basement Yes, the building has a basement that is not normally shown, presumably because it is totally devoid of any kind of architectural invention – apart from the stairs down, that is. Once in the basement, even the balustrade disappears. See Section B-B.

villa savoye chimney That should have been a clue. To the left of the stairs as you go up from the basement must be the boiler since there’s a chimney on all the floors above. That’s it by the radiator. Now that radiator would have been coal-fired. Since the basement is divided into two spaces, the one with the door is probably the coal store. I’d expect to see the opening of a coal delivery chute in the driveway outside the side door but this next photo shows how it could appear, except that what we see is one structural bay away from where a chute would discharge. It’s probably a trap for the bathroom drains. If there had been a coal chute, it was probably covered up in the 1985 renovations – the same ones in which the ground floor washbasin was relocated to the other side of the column. Who’d want to know about a boiler anyway?

villa_savoye_05But this summer, why not go visit and check out the basement? Rent the Monument for your events!‘ Someone’s gotta pay those bills – why not you?

rent-a-savoye

I found the drawing for this question on the Italian site archweb. There was also this which is worth a look as you don’t see very often, perhaps because the proportions are so awkward. Why did The Great Man put windows on the cantilevered bits when he didn’t on the mothership?? The extra window area wasn’t necessary there, and nor was it necessary here. It sort of leads one to conclude that LC was making it up as he went along.

ANSWER TO Q6: This was Diébédo Francis Kéré. Nowhere in any misfits’ post was this mentioned, but you should have guessed from this photograph. Tsk tsk.

Burkina Faso school ANSWER TO Q7: The full answer was Dame Zaha Hadid, DBE, in response replying to a question about the future of her company’s aesthetic in a time of economic downturn. I forget where. Trust me on this.

Zaha Hadid ANSWER TO Q8: They are all British National Treasures – in a manner of speaking. All have received birthday honours from the Queen and have the right to be called Dame. From top left, there is Dame Shirley Bassey who was made a Commander of the British Empire in 2000, Dame Barbara Windsor who received her CBE in 2000 also for her long career in entertainment (a.k.a. the the Carry On series of movies

Carry On Doctor One Sheet 1972 and Eastenders. You can catch up quickly on almost 30 years of episodes here.

EastEnders_Title The last image is of Professor Tina Lavender of the School of Nursing at the University of Manchester, who received hers for services to Midwifery. I think that’s right – the honours list is complicated. See here for the full 2012 list. Dame Zaha Hadid recieved her DBE in 2012 for services to architecture, but there’s no information on what exactly those services were.

ANSWER TO Q9A: The guy with the white hair is Peter Smithson who, along with his wife Alison, were known as The Smithsons. I’m not making this up! At the beginning, they were a bit Miesey,

Hunstanton-Photograph-522x400pxbut then got a bit brutal. Here’s their Robin Hood Gardens project from 1972 – an embarrassing reminder to every British government since, that housing (like education, healthcare and employment) used to once be part of the social contract between a government and its people.

Robin_Hood_Gardens_AP_Smithson The Smithsons didn’t really get the hang of the witty referencing thing. The ivy is doing its university best but wisteria might be better suited to that framey thing happening.

the-smithsons-garden-building-st-hildas-college-oxford-1967-1970_lThe home The Smithsons designed for the 1956 Ideal Sexist Home Exhibition is an enduring internet presence. 

smithsons ideal home ANSWER TO Q9B: That would have to be Remment Koolhaas. Both him and her went on to have  successful commercial architectural practices at the turn of the century.

ANSWER TO Q9C: Stella McCartney. We don’t know what it is they both found so interesting up there.

ANSWER TO Q9D:  Who else but Patrik Schumacher? He wrote a book called The Autopoiesis of Architecture. I haven’t read it yet. You probably haven’t either.

Cheerio!

Architecture Misfits #7: Lacaton & Vassal

When misfits finally gets around to writing the definitive history of sustainable architecture, it will bypass all the media-hogging and resource-wasting architecture of the twentieth century and instead feature many of the architects mentioned in this blog.

Irving Gill deserves a place for this following statement he made around 1915.

If the cost of unimportant ornamentation were put into construction, then we would have a more lasting and dignified house.

6a00d8341e064153ef00e54f484c1c8833-500wi

Dodge House, West Hollywood, CA, 1914-16 (demolished) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hannes Meyer will feature for doing his best to make that happen by choosing materials according to the suitability of their non-visual properties.

facultad

facultad (Photo credit: vladimix)

This site offers some insights (in German) into window sizing and illumination levels of his Peterschule project. I don’t know of anyone else who was concerned about this in 1926.

PetersschuleBasel6

Eileen Gray will have a place for her unpretentious approach to siting, climate and layout way back in 1924.

19-b

19-b (Photo credit: its_daniel)

George Fred Keck for, in 1934, thinking of

  1. the house as the servicer to its inhabitant, not vice versa
  2. the importance to one’s health of passive heating and the modulation of natural light
  3. the need to design within the boundaries of mass production
  4. an exterior prefabricated steel truss frame that allowed for a completely open interior plan
  5. panels and mullions of standardised sizes
  6. not designed to be different or tricky but to seriously attempt to find better ideas and designs for living

HB-09787C

The Futurists will have earned their place for showing the world it was okay to reject past ideas of beauty and to create new types more relevant to the modern world.  

Study for a 1927 Biennale pavilionby Fortunato Depero

Study for a 1927 Biennale pavilion
by Fortunato Depero

Superstudio will have a place for Natalini’s 1971 statement about architectural priorities.

All these people contributed in some way to the theoretical, philosophical and moral basis for the type of buildings misfits is about. In a nutshell, misfits believes in making the most of what we have or have left. Everybody agrees this is a good thing, but there’s still no consensus about what it is that needs to be made the most of. The flow of architectural history suggests that “making beauty for less” is a constant. Even if, like Corbusier, the work of Sanaa is evolutionary in redefining beauty downwards, the focus is still on beauty no matter how economical it may be to achieve (relative to and in decreasing order, The Pyramids, Chartres Cathedral, the Sydney Opera House …. etc). In the not-so-distant future, affordable will be the new luxury.

The introduction to this yet-unwritten book on the history of sustainability will need to have a brief note explaining that the word sustainable is used in the sense of cost-effective performance without regard for visual appearance for, in English, we seem to have lost the plot a bit. In French, the word for sustainable is “durable”. This sense of something remaining useful for longer has the obvious advantage of it not needing to be  replaced as often. Although renovating, refurbishing and reusing buildings is unquestionably virtuous and is rewarded as such by the various sustainability rating systems, the main focus of architecture is still on sexy new build projects.
Lacaton & Vassal are natural misfits in that their focus is on doing more with less. Their Latapie House features on the misfitsarchitecture home page header. This post however, will feature their retrofit of the La Tour Bois-le-Prêtre tower (in collaboration with Frédéric Druot). The plan and two photos below tell the story. There’s more description here and a slideshow here.

after copy plan after

“It depends how you ask the question,” Ms. Lacaton responded when asked whether the building ended up as she had hoped. Architects couldn’t fix the neighborhood or provide 24-hour security guards, she said. But they could make something pleasing whose appearance derived from the narrow range of material options available, within a tight budget.The aesthetics arose purely from the decisions about the quality of space,” Ms. Lacaton insisted. “We could have done something playful and fashionable on the outside, to look better, if we had put just a few balconies here and there. But our priority was improving the living conditions for everyone.” [New York Times]

Total cost: $15 million compared to $26 million to demolish and rebuild. No tenant relocation was necessary.

interior view

Lacaton & Vassal – misfits salutes you!

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The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Volume 1 Chapter 2.5 – The Necessity of Demarcation

THESIS 9: Any attempt to integrate architecture and art, or architecture and science/engineering, in a unified discourse (autopoiesis) is reactionary and bound to fail.

Even though Luhmann, the guy who put all these ideas in the author’s head, said that architecture existed within the great social system of art, in this sub-chapter (p148), the author says Luhlmann only implied that architecture exists within the art system. Either way, the author is having none of it.

This treatment of architecture has to be rejected today. It reflects the traditional classification of architecture among the arts.

Hardly a powerful argument. Another reason it is not true is because the theory says it isn’t.

It is one of the central, historical theses of the theory of architctural autopoiesis that this treatment of architecture under the umbrella concept of ‘the arts’ is long since an anachronism – at least since the refoundation of the discipline as Modern architecture during the 1920s.

And here’s some more “proof”.

A sure empirical indicator for the factual, operational separation of art and architecture is the total absence of double careers. While Michaelangelo and Raphael, and even Schinkel, could still count and convince as both artists and architects this possibility seems to be excluded today.  Examples such as Le Corbusier’s paintings and Hundertwasser’s buildings are no countexamples but only confirm this impossibility.

That’s a bit bitchy but, yes, Corbusier’s paintings weren’t that great.

LC, defacing Eileen Gray's E1027, 1939

LC, defacing Eileen Gray’s E1027, 1939

And, although some people love them, neither were Hundertwasser‘s buildings. You know them.

hundertwasser

hundertwasser (Photo credit: twicepix)

But I’ve always thought there’s something very dodgy about architects who pick up a paintbrush, especially if they say they use their “2D” work to “think ideas through”.

Will_Alsop_portrait_by_Jason_Alden

Will Alsop © image: Jason Alden

Zaha-Hadid-002

Zaha Hadid. Photograph: Alberto Heras

Karl Friedrich Schinkel - Schloß am Strom - Go...

Karl Friedrich Schinkel – Schloß am Strom – Google Art Project (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Schinkel actually comes out of this quite well. The author seems to be saying that architects are better at architecture than they are at painting, per se. However, it certainly doesn’t hurt an architect to have artistic pretensions. Most architects are content to just adopt the language and terminology of art  – “avant-garde” anyone? – especially when talking about “form” – and which is a lot of the time. But instead of being good at both architecture and art or even attempting to be good at both, some architects simply outsource their artistic pretensions to artists and achieve artistness by association.

7350177384_671408027e_zIt’s a two-way thing.

Herzog-de-Meuron-and-Ai-WeiweiBut going back to the text. Michaelangelo and Raphael were mentioned on page 146 and then I sort of blanked out for a while until they were mentioned again on page 148.

While during the Renaissance and Baroque figures like Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini and Borromini simultaneously worked in the domains of architecture, sculpture and painting, no such unifying careers exist today.

This is true on the surface, but we do have architects who go out of their way to make a name for themselves in designer goods. We’ve talked about this before. Designer goods are better than dumb sculpture and painting because they are reproducible. And if that somehow lessens their appeal then their price can be easily inflated by limited edition reproduction. It is true that not many architects go into art with the expectation of selling much, there are plenty who willingly attach their names to designer goods with the expectation of extending their brand and making a bit or a lot on the side. The author talks much about how architecture is different from “art” but similar to “design”. I see both art (then) and design (now) as opportunities for architects to extend their market reach. Would Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini and Borromini bother with art and painting when they could be designing tables, chairs, jewelry, shoes and silly things for Alessi?

za1

http://www.designboom.com/design/niche-by-zaha-hadid-for-alessi-at-macef-09/

This sub-chapter is all about defining boundaries but the discussion of differences with art takes up nine pages, differences with science take up four pages, and differences with engineering take up only three. The author is at his most amusing when he manages to convince himself.

Techniques like the construction of perspective were shared by architecture and painting, while marble was the material of choice for both architecture and sculpture. The increase of dynamic plasticity from Renaissance to Baroque is simultaneously observable across the domains of architecture, painting and sculpture. Today the defining distinctions, themes and problematics of each discipline have become incommensurable. Contemporary innovations in architecture (for example, the introduction of parametric modelling and scripting – comparable to the discovery of perspective in the Renaissance) have no counterpart (and therefore mean nothing) in the visual arts.

THEREFORE

Architecture and the visual arts have to be described as independent autopoietic systems.

I’m always a bit wary when words like “clearly” are used in sentences in which the logic isn’t clear at all.

While the statues on top of a triumphal arch function hand in hand with the arch itself (early 19th century), it is less clear what societal function the design of an Art Nouveau style department store shares with a Symbolist painting (late 19th century). There is clearly a gap opening up between art and architecture.

Anyway, the author’s strongest argument for the separation of architecture and art comes from an unlikely source. This blog has spoken much about Hannes Meyer, so here I will only include a quote from page 151 here.

The development of the Bauhaus during the 1920s was characterised by a progressive shift of focus away from artistic practice towards a functionalist focus on industrial design and architecture. Finally, at the end of the decade, the new director of the Bauhaus, Hannes Meyer, was calling for architecture to radically distance itself from art and artistic practice: ‘all things in this world are a product of the formula: (function times economy). All these things are, therefore, not works of art: all art is composition and, hence, is unsuited to achieve goals. All life is function and is therefore unartistic.

This is not an argument for separating architecture from art but an argument for eliminating art from architecture.  Another reason architecture is different from art is that

Art experiments in a space that is bracketed off from the immediate pragmatic concerns the other function systems have to face and cater for.

So what’s it going to be? Now architecture is concerned with pragmatic concerns, after all? This isn’t what I was reading in the previous two sub-chapters. All in all, this is a confusing sub-chapter as conclusions seem to come before their arguments. Sub-sub-chapter 2.5.2 is about the differentiation between architecture and science but there isn’t much more to say apart from repeat what was said on p 101.

Scientific claims are regulated by the binary code of true vs. false (code of truth). Design decisions are regulated by architecture’s double code of beauty and utility: functional vs. dysfunctional (code of beauty), and formally resolved vs. formally unresolved (code of utility).

I would love to unpick this word by word, but I’ll start with the second sentence, ignoring the Jenckspeak “double code”. Essentially, what we have is this – I think.

  1. Design decisions are regulated by beauty and utility.
  2. Beauty is what is dysfunctional, as opposed to what is functional.
  3. Utility is what is formally resolved, as opposed to what is formally unresolved.  

I’m taking special care here because the word “beauty” is getting tossed around and I won’t admit to accepting the author’s meaning until I know what he’s talking about. Basically, he’s arguing that architecture and science are different.

Science and architecture/design are subject to two rather different systems of codes. The incommensurability [grrrr] of these codifications implies the incommensurability between scientific communications and design communications. There is no way that the beauty of a design solution can attain the status of a verifiable (or falsifiable) truth-claim.  

I wondered about this. How about crap/not crap? Anyway,

A scientific claim cannot be supported by appealing to beauty or utility … In turn, no scientifically verified truth has any bearing upon aesthetic judgements that address the code of beauty.  Things are different with the code of utility. Although utility is distinct from truth, scientific observation can be utilised for the assessment of specific aspects of functionality.

Basically, this means that science can tell you how much energy your building is wasting but it can’t tell you if you are getting aesthetic value for your money. The differences between architecture and engineering get discussed, but there is not much of interest.

The key difference between architecture and design on the one hand and the various engineering disciplines on the other is that the engineering disciplines lack the concern for articulation, ie, the concern for the artefact’s outward appearance (as communication).

Frei Otto gets a mention, but Calatrava and Balmond and their over-concern for over-articulations don’t. Here’s two true sentences (p 162).

The engineering discipline that is closest to architectural concerns is structural engineering. The primary loadbearing structure is often a key factor in the basic constitution and phenomenology of any building.

But then the author goes and wrecks it …

As far as the structure has a phenomenonlogical presence in the buildling, it enters the domain and perogative of the architect.  The extensive discourse around the concept of tectonic form/order, aiming at the legible articulation of the structural and constructive logic of a building, belongs to architecture and has no place in modern engineering. 

All the architect can do is perhaps choose between the various solutions offered by the engineer, if more than one solution is indeed offered. The architect has no final control over the engineering solutions. He is positing its initial problems.

I think that says it all.

Skip 2.5.4 and head straight for 2.5.4 The Specificity of Architecture Within the Design Disciplines. (Footnote 140 – “The fact that the author is an architect accounts for the privileging of architecture among the design disciplines.”) These final four pages argue for the architect’s right to get paid for designing anything that has a shape. Page 167 uses the word “incommensurable” three times and the word “commensurable” once.

Although the object domains of the various design disciplines – despite the identified zones of overlap – are quite distinct, there is no doubt that the various variants of the design discourse are fully commensurable.

Remember what I wrote about art vs. designer goods?

The oeuvre [art word!] of Zaha Hadid Architects moves from urban masterplanning, via buildings and interiors to furniture, and includes alls osrts of products from cars to cutlery, as well as fashion items such as handbags, shoes and jewellery.

This seamless move across the boundaries that separate the various design disciplines is possible because they all follow the same lead-distinction of form versus function.

Who knows what Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini and Borromini would be designing for us if they had been alive today? We will have to wait until Section 3.4.1 to find out about more about The Lead-distinction within Architecture and the Design Disciplines. For now, just remember that architecture is special because

architectural design is concerned with a category of artefacts that are marked out by the fact that they are somehow enclosing, that they can be entered into, and that they introduce the difference between inside and outside.

* * *

Now, when I’m approximately 3/8ths through this book, I should mention that I’m reading the paperback version and the binding is falling apart. The now-loose pages are falling one by one from the front like a paperback on the beach. Equally annoying is the number of times the word “incommensurate” was used in this sub-chapter. But I will  continue. It’s somehow comforting to feel I’m not that crazy after all. I’m getting more and more glimpses of the intellectual world the author inhabits. I can see how it must all make sense to him.  But then, to another person, so does Klingon.

Untitled

Like any other language, the Klingon language has its own alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and rules of syntax. Internally, it’s no more or less logically consistent and/or inconsistent as many other languages. It’s possible to express thoughts in it and have conversations in it. It works – yes, but I can’t help thinking there’s something about it that’s fundamentally flawed.

Architecture vs. Building

This post will deal only with Architecture and Building: Chapter VIII of “The International Style” by Hitch & Johnno. Back in 1932, people didn’t use the expression “vs.” other than to describe boxing matches. They should’ve, because H&J describe architecture and building as a type of confrontation that could go either way. You can sense this throughout the entire book but in this chapter in particular.

In 1932 America, the new, functional architecture that was coming from Europe, didn’t really require “introducing” for it had already been introduced in magazines such as Popular Mechanics. (I mentioned this two posts back, but Enrique Gualberto Ramirez can tell you more.) But Popular!? Mechanics!? Egad! What Hitchcock and Johnson did was repackage functionalism as a style, rebrand it as the International Style, and position it as something modern and progressive to aspire to. Today, we recognise these as the standard processes of marketing. Albert H. Barr gets in first, in the preface.

The section on functionalism should be, I feel, of especial interest to American architects and critics. Functionalism as a dominant principle reached its high water mark among the important modern European architects several years ago. As was to be expected, several American architects have only begun to take up the utility-and-nothing-more theory of design with ascetic zeal. They fail to realize that in spite of his slogan the house as a machine á habiter, Le Corbusier is even more concerned with style than with convenient planning or plumbing, and that the most luxurious of modern German architects, Mies van der Rohe, has for over a year been the head of the Bauhaus school, having supplanted Hannes Meyer, a fanatical functionalist. “Post-Functionalism” has even been suggested as a name for the new Style, at once more precise and genetically descriptive than “International”.

Barr is suggesting that architecture is more than ‘convenient planning and plumbing’ and that being stylish (Le C) and luxurious (Mies vd R) is more important than fanatical functionalism. Hannes Meyer’s name is never again mentioned. His is the unspeakable name of European functionalism. We never get to find out who the several naked-functionalist American architects are. Albert Khan? He seemed to have impressed Gropius in 1928. [Gropius was Bauhaus director until exactly 1928. Was he already shopping around for a job even though he didn’t leave Germany until 1934? I’ll have to check up on that.]

Albert Kahn ford factory 1924

Probable misfit Kahn designed, in 1917, the massive half-mile-long Ford River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. The Rouge grew into the largest manufacturing complex in the U.S., with a force that peaked at 120,000 workers. According to the company website, “By 1938, Kahn’s firm was responsible for 20 percent of all architect-designed factories in the U.S.” [W]

Barr’s commenting on whether “Post-Functionalism” might have been a better name shows his naïvety regarding how important this styling of styles actually was. It suggests that Functionalism was once a serious contender as the new and valid way to build. The general tone of the book is to downplay functionality unless it can be used to justify some stylistic effect. Calling this new style “Post-Functionalist” would have made functionalism look old, but kept it alive forever. (If creating a pseudo-link with philosophy and literature hadn’t been more important, we would have had Post-International and not Post-Modern architecture.)  But let’s see now what Hitchcock has to say about architecture and building.

The wider the opportunity for the architect within the limitations of structure and function to make judgments determined by his taste and not merely by economics, the more fully architectural will be the resultant construction. There is no rigid classification, building, quite devoid of the possibility of æsthetic organization. Yet buildings built at minimal cost with practical considerations dominant throughout may be held to be less fully architectural than those on which the architect has more freedom of choice in the use of materials and the distribution of the parts. [Barr is incapable of imagining that a choice of materials or a distribution of parts might be determined by  building performance, or cost-benefit, or by anything in fact except how it looks. Or, to put it the other way around, beauty costs money. Corollary 1: If you can’t afford beauty, then you are poor. Corollary 2 (and this is where the marketing comes in): If you can afford the new beauty, then you are both rich and have taste.] 

Under whatever conditions buildings are built, they tend to be more architectural as they serve more complicated functions. The more specialized the combination of functions served by a building, the more opportunity there is for the architect to achieve a design controlled by æsthetic as well as practical considerations. The more simple and repetitious the functions of a building and the more it resembles in purpose other buildings, the less likely is the architect to reach a solution of his problems formed by his own taste. Building quite devoid of architectural character would be æsthetically neutral no matter how good it was merely as building. For in contrast to the general low level of building, the European functionalists usually reach the level of architecture, despite their refusal to aim consciously at achieving æsthetic value. [So what’s his problem then? Shouldn’t everybody be happy if this is indeed the case? There seems to be a contradiction with the next sentence “Architecture is seldom neutral aesthetically. It is good architecture or it is bad.” Let’s sort this out before moving on.

Building quite devoid of architectural character would be æsthetically neutral no matter how good it was merely as building.” From this it follows that “architectural character” is never  aesthetically neutral. However, if “Architecture is seldom merely neutral aesthetically” then Architecture has “architectural character”. Or, if it doesn’t have “architectural character”, then it is not Architecture.  This seems to be his position. 

Architecture is seldom merely neutral aesthetically. It is good architecture or it is bad. When it is bad, the extreme contentions of the functionalists appear an essential denial of the important spiritual function which all art serves. [Here we go! His strongest argument is that all buildings have some aesthetic content, but his dislike of functionalists seems to stem from their desire to have no part in selling snake oil.]

The functionalists, approaching architecture from the materialistic point of view of sociology, go behind the problems that are offered to the architect and refuse their sanction to those which demand a fully architectural solution. [You know? I can see how he would say this. He really doesn’t get what functionalists like Hannes Meyer were attempting to do. They were suggesting an alternate agenda for how to build by refusing to inflate their apparent value and real cost with dubious style or expensive materials. I can understand Hitchcock and Johnson disgust at that but I’m still amazed they felt so threatened that they try to undermine its moral basis over and over.] 

In their estimation, the modern world has neither the time nor the money required to raise building to the level of architecture.  [Unless of course, this raw material of functionalism is what is going to be rebranded and marketed as The International Style for rich people and rich companies – this is America, after all.]   

The question passes outside the field of architecture into the field of politics and economics. The arguments of the functionalists are not based on the actual situation in the contemporary world outside Russia. [Here, Hitchcock seems to be taking a lot of trouble to argue against somebody whose voice we never hear. Why is he bothering to even mention these people who nobody would otherwise have even known about? I’m sure there were plenty of people in 1930’s America who would have appreciated some inexpensive housing that does the job. My guess is that Hitchcock And Johnson are just poisoning the ground to make sure that the social aspects of functionalism fail to find critical acceptance. As I’ve remarked before, Charles Jencks was to do the same again, 50 years on. ]

Whether they ought to or not, many clients can still afford architecture in addition to building. [Here, I’m surprised at the “whether they ought to or not” because it gives the impression that this question is being debated. This might be a writerly trick to set up a false argument for the reader who then defers to the writer’s excellent judgment. If so, it worked.] 

The European functionalists who now disown Le Corbusier, and Oud, and Gropius and Miës van der Rohe first learned the science of building from them. [This is a rather sweeping statement and I can’t imagine who is being referred to. Hannes Meyer? Needs checking.] 

The most significant work of Gropius and Oud, among the leaders of modern architecture, has been in the field of inexpensive building, which they have raised to the level of real architecture. [They produce no examples of inexpensive building for Gropius, but four for Oud. Here’s what they have to say about them.] 

Does a continuous balcony carried around some curved shops underline [accentuate? contrast with? relieve?] a simple rhythm of some windows? You be the judge.

Oud 1

Do projecting balconies and the screens for vines separating the houses lighten the design? Are you appreciating the added interest? Or did you miss it?

Oud 2

There are other things about these houses that could have been mentioned – like how  the projecting balcony also gives some degree of shelter and identity to the front entrance but Hitchcock only sees it in how much “interest” it adds.  We have some more interest in this next image where a “curve continues a wall surface around a corner”. ! ! ! Henry Russell Hitchcock is known as a historian. This book, The International Style, is said to have been widely influential.

Oud 4

This one’s my favourite. The photograph above is on the right page and this next image is on the left. The shops in the photo above, are at the two pointy corners to the right of the image. But have a look at the plans. These houses presumably sleep six people because there are six dining chairs. The three bedrooms are 4.4m2, 7.2m2 and 7.5m2.  There is no bathroom. There is nothing to do upstairs except sleep. There is nothing to do downstairs except sit, and occasionally eat. This is Rotterdam, not Russia. Whoever lived here needed some housing and couldn’t pay that much for it. Hitchcock has nothing to say about this apart from the the unfortunate heaviness of the thick wooden window frame is minimised by the treatment of the windows as a continuous band.

Oud 5

It’s easy to imagine that whenever these people were not sleeping or eating, they were working. And that on the day or half-day they did have off, they went to church. Here’s what Hitchcock has to say about the ‘community building’.

Oud 6CONCLUSION: With “The International Style”, Hitchcock and Johnson have been accused of downplaying, neglecting or overlooking the social agenda of Functionalism. This is not true. They actively ripped its balls off and flushed them down the toilet.

POSTSCRIPT: If you googlearth Kiefhoek, you will get to here.

De Kiefhoek

In September 1990, the Sikkens Foundation supported the restoration of the Kiefhoek by J.J.P. Oud. The original houses were all opened up to comply with the modern requirements of hygiene and comfort. However, one house was restored to its original condition. The furnishing of this “museum house” was funded by the Sikkens Foundation and was accompanied by a publication. [More pics here.]

project_kiefhoek_1

The New Objectivity

Stamps_of_Germany_(DDR)_1980,_MiNr_2512

I don’t know if last week’s Princess Elisabeth Antarctica advances the cause of architecture, promotes the concept of architecture, or sustains the myth of architecture, and I don’t think I care. What is becoming increasingly irritating is that some people believe that buildings like this are mere technical exercises outside the scope of architecture.

Without a vision, architects become no more than technicians, and it is our ability to shape functional requirements to create a piece of “magic” where we can really flourish as a profession.
Jerry Tate (from an article “Why is Sustainability Boring?
BD Online 6 November 2012)

The role of aesthetics in sustainable buildings is not only about visual and psychological delight – it is also a powerful driver for change, when the expression is spectacular and when sustainable elements are clearly visible and working. It is a radical force in symbolically representing an alternative future.
Toby Horrocks (from an article “Doing Less is More”  architectureau) 12 March 2012)

But we cannot only be concerned with the objective side of architecture’s performance.
Patrik Schumacher (The Autopoeisis of Architecture, p38)

WHY IS THERE THIS SPLIT?
FROM WHEN DID IT HAPPEN?
AND WHY DOES IT PERSIST?

1927

Towards a New Architecture first printed in English
The Bauhaus school completed in Dessau
Competition for the League of Nations held in Geneva
The Weissenhoff Exhibition held in Stuttgart

If you remember, Towards a New Architecture began by saying how great engineers were and how they were making buildings that truly represented the age. This is not true. They were making things how they thought they ought to be made. It was LC who said that they represented the age as if this was a) a good thing and b) something that needed doing.

Now, the Bauhaus building was completed in Gropius’ architectural office, not the Bauhaus itself but, mainly due to Gropius promoting his legacy in the US, it is now believed to represent everything the Bauhaus stood for.

The Bauhaus Dessau architecture department fro...

The Bauhaus Dessau architecture department from 1925 by Walter Gropius (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, the ADGB Trade Union School is the first Bauhaus-designed building. Hannes Meyer received the commisssion shortly after his nomination as the new director of the Bauhaus at the end of April 1928. By this time, Gropius had left, along with his CV. Similarly, Meyer’s Houses at Dessau from 1928 originated in the Bauhaus. If anything, this is what Bauhaus architecture was. We should also remember it was Meyer who was responsible for architecture being taught at the Bauhaus anyway. (Before we leave, here’s a link to some photographs showing Meyer’s urban work in Russia post-1930.)

In the League of Nations competition (thanks Fergusonstudio),

Le Corbusier placed the emphasis of his design on the assembly hall, with a processional courtyard leading up to the main entry and the rear elevation prominently expressed on the lakeside.  The various bureaucratic functions of the complex were housed in linear blocks raised above the landscape, so that one could pass freely underneath the office buildings.  The overall effect was that of “a communal machine for enlightened, well-meaning functionaries whose life would be daily nourished through contact with nature,” Curtis [William, the historian] noted.


By contrast, Meyer sought a more Constructivist approach, with the emphasis placed on the secretariat in an open-framed tower that recalled some of the visions of the Russian avant-garde.  He used a highly repetitive ordering system throughout the complex with the only expressive element being a bulbous glass roof over the assembly hall.  Meyer intentionally played down hierarchical associations as he saw the complex as being “an entirely open, egalitarian forum.”

Corbusier’s was a nice “communal machine for enlightened, well-meaning functionaries whose life would be daily nourished through contact with nature” whilst Meyer’s was  Constructivist and “avant garde” despite being (almost totally) raised on columns for the same reasons and looking at the same water through the same trees.

By the time of the Weissenhoff Exhibition, it was already clear who was hot and who was not. There was a mixture of luxury houses (Corbusier) and social housing (Oud, Stam, everybody else) but the former is remembered more than the latter. By 1927, it was clear that modernism was splitting into the functionalist camp where the role of architecture was to satisfy functions, and the aesthetic camp where the role of architecture was to express functions. The former was to become associated with communism, and perhaps rightly so. Maybe so, but this does not make it bad.  (Thanks cilo329!)

In The Bauhaus and America, Margaret Kentgens-Craig writes about the years 1919-1936 when Groupius and Mies van der Rohe were seeking to advance their careers in America, where they were looking for work, how they were in competition for jobs,  how Hitchcock and Johnson did them a huge favour with their 1932 MOMA exhibition and its very influential catalogue, and how Gropius was to spend the rest of his life living off his Bauhaus CV whilst Mies van der Rohe moved on.

The Swiss architect Hannes Meyer succeeded Groupius as the director of the Bauhaus and held the position for some two years.  … His most extensive measure was to realize his predecessor’s plans for an independent department of architecture at the Bauhaus by introducing a systematic course of study in the discipline. Based upon his own strict functionalist philosophy, he dismissed the establishment of aesthetic standards pursued under Gropius as formalism and thus reduced the status of artists and their work at the Bauhaus considerably. … he modified the curriculum to emphasise the value of practical work, raising the workshops production and gearing it towards serving the needs of the people rather than luxury-oriented buyers.

This was all in 1928-1930.

After an initial period of neutral observation, during which Henry-Russell Hitchcock praised Meyer and his partner Hans Wittwer and their entry in the 1928 Geneva Palace of Nations competition in two separate publications and other authors merely described Meyer neutrally, an image was formed that led to his exclusion for many years from the circle of seriously received Bauhaus architects.

THE INTERNATIONAL STYLE: ARCHITECTURE SINCE 1922, by Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Jr., and Philip Johnson. W. W. Norton and Co. New York, 1932. $5.

I’ve ordered a new copy. Here’s an original hardcover for $9,500, with an inscription from PJ himself.

Meyer is the only architect called an “anti-aesthetic functionalist” in Hitchcock and Johnson’s book, and that the book’s preface by Alfred Barr defines functionalism as the “utility-and-nothing-more theory of design” and Meyer a “fanatical functionalist” [.] (Click here for a paper by Ute Poerschke of Pennsylvania State University, discussing Meyer’s work as combining poetics and ethics.)

More than 40 years [after the International Style exhibition], Philip Johnson admitted (in Cook and Klotz’s “Conversations with Architects” p38) “Hannes Meyer was a communist and was a damned good architect and the more I see of Hannes Meyer, the greater man I think he was. But I don’t like what he said. there has been much criticism even recently about his design for the League of nations Building, for instance and article in Architectural Design on how much better Corbusier’s proposal was. I’m not so sure, but Meyer presented it in the worst way he could, an isometric, a totally meaningless design. You see, in those days I hated Hannes Meyer because I thought that the shit of the Neue Sachlichkeit Weltanschauung [the new objectivity] had something to do with architecture. The only mistake I made was to they to think that somehow the political opinion had something to do with the architecture.

(from The Bauhaus in America, page 128)

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The Green Veneer

The title of a recent article in architectureau was “Doing less is more.” The gist was that

the drive to make every centimetre of a project sustainable can cause us to overlook the fact that the strategy of designing less can achieve more.

The article draws upon Venturi/Scott Brown’s celebrated Duck vs. Decorated Shed categorisation of buildings. A ‘duck’ basically, is any building where the structure is contrived to create a shape.

Pre-Modern? The mouth and nose of The Statue of Liberty – showing how structure has been contrived to create a shape

Predictably, Ducks are not good but neither are Decorated Sheds for these are just the built result of economic, pragmatic and sustainability decisions. (One hears this a lot, but never the converse: The irrational display of consumer surplus and waste is a good thing. This inconvenient truth can never be directly admitted because it is what sustains architects – as we shall see.)

If you follow the principles, the conventional (sustainable) building is almost a readymade. It might have a pitched roof because that gives better insulation performance. There will be sunshades to the north [Australia!], and the windows might not be floor-to-ceiling because that would cause additional heat loss in the winter. The building might be arranged on a regular grid, and produce less waste due to offcuts and being easier to deconstruct. Infill walls might be made from old car tyres because they were going to waste nearby and there was no new energy needed to produce them. The building will achieve a very high star rating. However, it might be ugly, and this is where architecture comes in.

The role of architecture, according to the author, is to counter the ‘ugliness’ that would naturally result if we were to build economically, pragmatically and sustainably. Now we know. Cheers.

Energy efficiency is largely seen as an engineering and auditing problem – R-values, orientation to the sun and local breezes, and low-embodied energy materials. It is nothing to do with expression. As architects, we are interested in art, aesthetics, sculpture, beauty, light and form. The question for architects is: How do we use our skills to create sustainable architecture?

The author admits it’s not realistic for the architect to synthesise all requirements into a unity of structure and ‘expression’ but not because nobody’s asking them to do it anyway, but because doing so requires enormous structural contrivance – which, regardless of the embodied energy, would be commercial suicide for most.

Why not let the sustainable (conventional) building do what it wants? The effects of the elements on buildings – rain, wind, corrosion – can be dealt with by using timeless vernacular models that have been developed over centuries to cope with them.

Agreed, but the author then goes and states that

the role of aesthetics in sustainable buildings is not only about visual and psychological delight – it is also a powerful driver for change, when the expression is spectacular and when sustainable elements are clearly visible and working. It is a radical force in symbolically representing an alternative future.

Personally, I thought we’d gotten past the stage of representing alternative futures and that now really ought to actually doing something about making continued human existence on this planet a bit more bearable than it’s probably going to be.

gratuitous image of gratuitous “greening”

It was never about making wind turbines or green roofs visible. Again, the author says the right thing for the wrong reasons.

We don’t want to become horticultural specialists, or arrangers of utilitarian carbuncles – architects have a greater spatial intelligence. The role of architecture in sustainability is untapped. Spatial and sculptural experiences are the things that define architecture. Aesthetics are important, but we don’t have to design everything. Let’s take a new leaf out of Venturi and Scott Brown’s book. In the 1970s their theory led to postmodernism, but it can also lead elsewhere.

“Our thesis is that most architects’ buildings today are ducks: buildings where an expressive aim has distorted the whole beyond the limits of economy and convenience, and that this, although an unadmitted one, is a kind of decoration, and a wrong and costly one at that. We’d rather see the need admitted and the decoration applied … This is an easier, cheaper, more direct, and basically more honest approach to the question of decoration; it permits us to get on with the task of making conventional buildings conventionally and to deal with their symbolic needs with a lighter, defter touch.”

Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi, “On Ducks and Decoration,” Architecture Canada, October 1968, 48–49

I don’t share the author’s enthusiasm for re-imagining Post Modernism, this time with architecture as a green veneer of symbolic content. We have that already. The history of architecture is full of turning points. If only it were a chronology of buildings illustrating the grand narrative supplied by technological and social progress!

Scott Brown and Venturi, Guild House, 1963

In the course of developing Guild House, an elderly housing project completed in 1963, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown proposed that the destiny of modern architecture was not to build heroic monuments but to produce ‘ugly and ordinary’ structures. Observing that clients, uninterested in aesthetics, would inevitably put ill-suited signs on buildings, the architects chose to strike preemptively and add their own sign to announc the structure’s name. Atop the building they mounted a non-functioning, gold anodized antenna to mark the building’s common room and to signify that old people like to watch a lot of TV. Seen by both critics and occupants as a cynical joke at the expense of the inhabitants, the antenna was later removed.

Thanks for that, audc. It seems V&SB’s touch was neither light nor deft. But while we’re here, can we just take a look at the rear of Guild House?

Guild House, Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, 1963

We’ve been here before, in 1929.

Hannes Meyer, Access Balcony Housing, 1929

And in 1954.

Post-modernism added symbolic content – aka ornament – to otherwise orthodox, conventional, economic, pragmatic buildings. It tarted them up, basically. It had nothing to say about the structure of buildings. It had nothing to say about the planning of buildings. It had nothing to say about how we use buildings.

The history of architecture is the history of avoiding economic and pragmatic inevitabilities. The name Modernism once meant freedom from the stylistic baggage of the past. At one stage, it could have been equally well associated to the economic and pragmatic buildings of Hannes Meyer, the arty elitism of Le Corbusier or the aspirational opulence of Mies van der Rohe. By 1927 and the Weissenhof Exhibition, this was no longer possible.

The idea of using a minimum amount of resources for the greatest good died in 1927, not 1972 as is wrongly claimed. If the philosophy of Hannes Meyer had become accepted as architecture back in 1930 then, come 1954, Pruitt Igoe would have been merely the best way to house people. It would have been the norm, not inferior or lacking in any way.

It would not have been necessary to invent anything to delay, disguise or deny our inevitable return to it.