Tag Archives: rewriting history

Featurism

This introduction follows on last week’s post and segues into this one because I continued to think about why that particular treatment of old buildings so disturbed me.

If you remember, I preferred the treatment given to these buildings.

I think it has something to do with setting rather than context even though both can mean pretty much whatever you want them to mean. In the above four examples, the unique setting of the building still allows a sense of what the building still is whereas, with the two buildings above, there’s only a sense of facades and no sense of there even being a building anymore. This sense is stronger with the first example because its uppermost floor doesn’t have the limited three-dimensionality of the second. Both facades are features within the features of the greater facade.

In his 1960 book The Australian Ugliness, architect and writer Robin Boyd defined what he called Featurism as a national obsession with architectural features, more features, and features within features. He saw it as the root cause of the Australian ugliness. I had to read the book in first year architecture school and remembered the gist but not the details. It’s pointless reviewing a book after sixty years old but, in some future post titled “Re-reading The Australian Ugliness”, I’ll write in detail about how prescient the book was, how well it has aged, and what sense it makes to me now.

At the beginning of the book when Boyd is setting out his stall, is an anecdote about Boyd and some colleague/compatriot in Barcelona marvelling at all that urban vitality and beauty of humanity that seemed to be effortlessly everywhere but totally absent in Australia. Upon hearing that, someone, presumably their guide) said “Hah, come with me tomorrow and let me show the outskirts of Barcelona!” By Boyd’s account, it had more in common with Australia than central Barcelona. This only highlights the dangers of comparing an apple with a different kind of apple.

Boyd then goes on to identify the biggest feature of this Australian ugliness as features. He does so without irony because, in 1960, irony had yet to be invented. Boyd’s features were just features pure and simple. They weren’t the knowing features of “If some problem can’t be solved, then just make a feature out of it”, a notion that’s still with us even if it’s now interpreted as seeing a disadvantage as an opportunity. This may sound more honest and virtuous but it’s still about opportunities to show how clever one is. I digress.

I took this photo in the West Australian country town of Busselton last week. It reminded me of what Boyd was writing about but it also made me think of Las Vegas. For Boyd, every sign was an unnecessary feature. Boyd saw them all as not having any meaning whereas, within twelve years, Venturi was to see basically the same things and make us see them in a new way.

Boyd didn’t attempt to find any good in Australian featurism. He saw it as springing from an attitude akin to “If something’s going to exist, then it may as well be a feature. This could be a very positive way to look at life but, if we take paving as an example, it leads to crazy paving. Here’s an example of crazy on the cover of the February 1960 issue of Home Beautiful, PACE-SETTER FOR AUSTRALIAN HOMEMAKERS.

Crazy paving was a 1950s style of patio and footpath paving where irregularly shaped paving stones were cemented into position. This cover photo shows the ideal effect with paving stones of different colours, intended to convey the sense of relaxed informality that Australians of the time liked to see in themselves. However, the same intent could be shown with paving stones of irregular shape but regular colour by painting the cement on each side of the stone a different primary colour. This kind of crazy paving did not appear on the covers of national magazines.

Boyd mentions Venetian blinds where five or six muted 1950s colours repeated every fifth or sixth slat. I don’t remember these but can easily imagine it. I don’t need to imagine automobile tyres vertically half-buried to indicate the edge of a lawn to stop people parking there. Each of the tyres making up this barrier may not have been painted different colours but they would have been painted. I seem to remember white being first choice, and multiple colours second. You don’t see this anymore. Its sources and references won’t be written about. Let’s just say it was territorial demarcation meets recycling and the Dunlop bridge at Le Mans. This image shows the principle but everything else is wrong.

  • The historic tyres were buried to exactly half of their height.
  • They didn’t touch like these ones do but were spaced by a tyre-width. [This variation of The Renaissance Corner Problem could lead to a weak corner if the spacing was kept full, or a strong Alberti corner if they almost touched. Either way, they were never butted together like these.
  • The colour of these ones is more fizzy sherbet than jellybean.
  • The look was either all white or all primary.
  • The border wouldn’t be for a flower bed but for lawns and demarcating the property line, especially on corner blocks.

Boyd’s greater theme was that Australian cities hadn’t yet developed a visual identity. He wasn’t talking about capital city skylines that mostly remain postcard picturesque, but about attitudes towards individual buildings. I finished re-reading the book and concluded that nobody read it or, if they did, never learned anything from it. My preliminary conclusion is that the features have changed but featurism still rules but without a name.

Around 1970, a typical Australian suburban house would have been single story double-brick cavity wall construction with a tile roof. The front entrance would have been recessed in some articulation and next to it would have been a feature panel containing many types of feature stone. This next example with a feature lamp on the stonework feature (with each stone with a different colour, pattern, shape, size and coursing) next to entrance feature is typical of the features embedded in features described by Boyd. The panel itself was referred to as a “freestone” panel, referring to no particular stone, rock or ore.

Other features are often nearby.

So far so seventies. Next is a contemporary house that has features upon features within some facade feature. [As in any other place or time, the entrance is the default feature of many a facade.] Features lose their individual meaning when everything is intended to be a feature but we don’t have a name for what results. However, if I took a selection of architectural motifs from across the past five hundred years of architectural history and applied them to a building facade, it would probably be called post-modern classicism or some such despite there being no great difference with contemporary featurism.

These examples are not as pure. Both has feature of differing masonry cladding that are functional in the sense that the different colours, materials and textures are there to highlight arbitrary articulations and so make the maxxed-out footprints look more three-dimensional, less ruthless.

Or consider this next example. We know it’s been purpose designed for the corner block because the long side of the plot doesn’t have the row of bedroom windows that occur when a typical long existing plan has been fitted onto a corner plot.

We also know this is the front of the house because that’s where the features are concentrated. The rear has none. Instead, and as per regulations, its length of more than nine metres is set back one meter from the boundary and the upper floor set back more to lessen overshadowing, with only high-level windows to lessen overlooking.

Now you have a sense of the sides and corners, let’s look at that front facade. The upper floor corners have become features with feature supports and feature railings top come, but the main action is in the middle. What’s most likely the stairwell window is set in a wall of exposed brick framed by columns supporting a differently colored and textured gable and rendered a different colour. This facade acknowledges no known architectural motifs and obeys no rules other than the unwritten ones of the feature. It does look a bit strange but there’s a sense that some rules have been consistently if not consciously applied. We just don’t know or care to know what they are.

This is my final example of Featurism. I won’t call it the New Featurism because it’s been around for at least the past sixty years. This concrete block wall has been a feature from the day it was built. The corner features alluding to quoins are nothing new but the polychromatic concrete blockwork is-ish. I like this wall. It’s an example of what I called The Misfits Challenge many posts ago.

As for 1), nothing’s changed as far as the thermal and acoustic performance performance of this wall goes.

As for 2), there are the two colours of the same type of concrete block and (assuming they are the same price) the only additional expenditure is the bricklayer picking up a block of one colour instead of another.

As for 3) and whether this feature wall is beautiful, I think it is. However, Boyd would have dismissed it as Featurist while many a contemporary architect would think of it as postmodern. This suggests the existence of an aesthetic approach that’s not as naïve as Featurism but also not as over-aware as Post-modernism.

When I was searching for an image of the cover of the first edition, I saw that a book of essays titled “After: The Australian Ugliness”* had been published. I bought the book but finished this post before opening it because I’d seen on the back cover some words of praise from Denise Scott Brown. I’m obviously not the first person to have made some sort of connection between the thoughts of Robin Boyd and those of Robert Venturi over and above them both happening at roughly the same time. In this post I’ve only mentioned my first thoughts.

Denise Scott Brown may just have been being diplomatic. I don’t remember Boyd writing in any part of “The Australian Ugliness” that the use of architectural or decorative motifs with (shall we say?) “popular meaning” was a good thing.

“It may be possible to imagine that some future Utopia could produce a race so cultivated and rich in creative talent that all of its buildings could be designed at leisure by fine artists, but there is no practical lesson for the twentieth century in this dream.” [p131, 2012 edition]

In Boyd’s perfect world, responsibility for the built environment was split between Artists for premium buildings and Functionalists for everything else. In The Australian Ugliness, Boyd observed the built environment created by those who were neither and didn’t like it. Now in 2023, I think Boyd was ahead of the curve in identifying Featurism but, from the beginning saw only what he didn’t like. Maybe he should have tried a bit harder to find some beauty in it.

  • After: The Australian Ugliness”, by Naomi Stead, Tom Lee, Ewan McEoin, Megan Patty; Thames & Hudson; 30th March 2021, ISBN: 9781760761899

• • •

Contempt for History

Buildings come and go. Some overstay their welcome and some only appreciated when they’re gone. This post is about those buildings whose departure is protracted yet partial. All my examples are from the city of Perth, Western Australia but this post isn’t about Perth because every city will have its examples. Instead, it’s about history and its malleable meaning.

This building at the western end of St. George’s Terrace was built 1863-1866 to house the Enrolled Pensioner Force [!?] and was simply known as “The Barracks”. In 1904, the state government’s Parliament House was completed to its west but, with one war and another and a depression in-between, its eastern extension facing the city down St. George’s Terrace was only completed in 1964.

As early as 1961, the Barracks Defence Council was formed to oppose plans to demolish The Barracks and make way for the northern extension of The Freeway. The government was pro-demolition as it would allow the newly completed Parliament House to be seen from along Perth CBD’s main street. A messy and heated dispute ensued and the compromise was to retain only what is now known as The Barracks Arch on a sliver of land that also had no commercial value.

In 1970, some fountains were added to the east side of Parliament House to make people look at it and, in the evenings, people driving by would make a point of looking before 11:00 PM when the fountains and lights were turned off. In 1980, there was a proposal to make Parliament House more impressive by adding a land bridge providing a direct physical connection to the city as well as a considerable amount of additional accommodation. It didn’t progress but structural issues caused the fountains to be decommissioned in 2005, freeing up the space below for additional accommodation.

There was never any question of the freeway not going through. The only question was how much, if any, of The Barracks would remain. It was a completely emotional Progress vs. History argument with the government on one side and everyone else on the other. A little piece of history remains but it’s the history of the government’s desire for symbolic and physical dominance over the city and everyone else wanting to prevent that. Why the arch remains is the most interesting thing about it. I’ve no special love for the building or its distant history but I’m glad it’s there. Because of how the city and its road pattern developed, the setting of the original building and its remnant have been preserved and so The Arch still makes sense as a thing at the end of a street.

Not too far down St. George’s Terrace at No. 200 is another piece of history known as The Cloisters, built in 1858 as Perth’s first secondary school and for boys only. Apparently, [Wikipedia] “the Tudor embellishments tied the structure to the history of the English monarchy and signified the power and authority of England, while the gothic features signified the moral and temporal authority of the Church.” These virtuous ornamentations were powerless to prevent a 1960 plan for its demolition and redevelopment. At the time, the compromise of retaining and restoring the original building in exchange for being able to build a large building behind was seen as the best possible outcome.

The development was completed in 1971 and both The Cloisters building and the large Port Jackson Fig tree (to the right of the building) were listed in 1995. Unlike the story of The Barracks Arch, the story of The Cloisters is one of commercial interest vs. historic value. Or is it commercial value vs. historic interest? It doesn’t really matter for either way one corner of town is more interesting and richer than it might easily have been. The Cloisters is surrounded on three sides by buildings at a distance and so we can say that a setting has been preserved and the building left with its dignity intact. However, its interior was gutted to create more office space and so history or, in other words, what it is we like about old buildings has been reduced to a building shell and facades with historic references. There’s not much left to like, but facade+historic references was all that buildings both new and old had become anyway. The year was 1971.

In front of Perth Central Railway Station is a fairly recently pedestrianized street called Forrest Place. On its east side, buildings came and went but Perth Central Post Office was completed on the west side in 1923. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia building opened to the north of it in 19331. On the other (south) side of the GPO stood the Central Hotel which was converted from a hostel in 1901, traded until 1953, and was demolished in 1988 to make way for Albert Facey House.

From left to right below are the Commonwealth Bank building, the GPO building and Albert Facey House as they appear today. We can see a bit of lining through happening with floor levels and various cornices. On Albert Facey House we can see columns that aren’t Ionic, paired or as beefy but have approximately the same height and spacing. We can even see a modern take on dentils – or rather, a postmodern take on dentils. The year was 1988.

This corner view better shows what’s going on. Hollein’s Haas House in Vienna wasn’t to open until two years later in 1990.

What we have is a building trying to reconcile development gain and perception management by deploying a set of historic references – a strategy known as postmodernism and applied to the periphery of a building to a depth rarely exceeding one metre.

It’s not as if the commercial buildings of the 1920s were any different. All their ornamentations are applied to the outer one metre of what would have been a ruthlessly commercial building for the time.

Central Hotel can’t have been sufficiently pretentious. And nor was the very real and neighbouring historic building around the corner on Wellington Street. It wasn’t worth acknowledging.

I’m only mentioning Albert Facey House as a built example of postmodernism’s core selling point of allusions to other people’s historic buildings being preferable to preserving or reusing ones already there. Postmodernism as a style may be history now but this attitude towards history is still with us. The Barracks Arch, The Cloisters and Albert Facey House are all different ways of acknowledging history but the approach taken at The Cloisters would probably not happen today. Instead, the facade would be retained or, if doing so would make it structurally unsound, then it would be demolished and rebuilt. Either way, the effect would be something like this next building at the corner of Wellington Street and King Street, two blocks from Forrest Place. It’s not horrible. I read somewhere that the tower is student accommodation so, being kind, we can say there’s a continuity of sorts with its former life as backpackers’ hostel. More details here.

This architectural strategy of retaining the facade of a old building in order to win some development gain is also deployed by architects not generally regarded as postmodernist champions of representations of history. It is what Foster+Partners did with their 2006 Hearst Tower in Manhattan and, more egregiously, what BIG did with their King Toronto project set to complete this Year of the Rabbit. I have increasing respect for Mario Botta borrowing from and building on history with his 2010 Galleria Campari in Milan.

The ground floor coffee shop of the student accommodation building has exposed ductwork and conduits, recycled bricks. There is cement render on the newly inserted columns. All of this is meant to represent a sense of authenticity and of things being what they are.

The facade of the building has had work done. It’s difficult to tell if it was kept or rebuilt but it may have been kept, given that the outer rows of columns are about three metres from the site boundary.

Like I said, I don’t hate it. I can see something similar happening to the building on the corner of King Street and Wellington Street one block to the west.

A few blocks over to the west is an example of how not to do it. It’s already difficult enough trying to reconcile perception management and development gain and think about the difficult whole at the same time. It’s still early days. Going for the appearance of hovering seems likely to produce better results but perhaps that’s just me.

Back in the centre of town and one block to the east of Albert Facey House is the Royal Hotel, built in 1882 on the corner of William Street and Wellington Street and renovated in 1906 to basically what we see today. I was thinking it might be another contender for a similar vertical stack development and that it’d be a shame to lose those sheet metal mansards with their filigree cast iron decoration.

Others must have thought so too because a closer look shows the parts of the building along the street corner (and beneath those mansards) have been kept in their entirety, and everything else demolished to enable the Raine Square development to the rear and sides on both William Street and Wellington Street. In other words, The Royal in the corner L of the site was retained as a sweetener. Below left is a view five metres from the footpath. The part of the building seen from the street is a “deep facade” about as wide as a bar. In November 2019, The Royal pub, reopened in what was left of the building. That new steel framework looks like a response to some changed structural condition.

The Wentworth Hotel on the other corner of the block was retained in what looks like its entirety.

However, the buildings either side of The Royal weren’t as charming or fortunately sited. All that remains are their facades and even those look slightly plastic – as if they’ve been over-zealously restored or, most probably, demolished and rebuilt. This is what’s left of Glyde Chambers (b. 1905) along Wellington Street.

And this is what’s left of Commercial Buildings (b. 1894) along William Street. There’s been no attempt to retain a setting. The historic fragment now looks as tawdry and arbitrary as what surrounds it. I don’t think any of these fragments will survive the next redevelopment in 30 or 40 years.

I was wondering about all those other buildings that didn’t make it were like but these next photos are all I found. Anything could have happened between 1925 (for William Street; left), and circa. 1960 (for Wellington Street: right).

It’s never good to get too upset over what happens in cities. Main Street was never almost all-right and it’s less all-right now. Messy vitality was supposed to look better. If this is how historic facades are going to be preserved then it’s not worth the effort. What was once a building with purpose has been reduced to a length of incongruous cladding. The most poisonous legacy of postmodernism’s reducing history to representations of history is that actual historic buildings were dragged down with it, their worth as historic buildings reduced to the ornamental worth of their facades.

Here’s a more benign example of˜postmodern acknowledgement –circa. 1990 if I had to guess. The building on the right seems stuck in some sort of property appreciation limbo, as if waiting for the CBD or the office or the student housing market to expand westwards a few blocks more. But who’s to know what will happen? Next time I visit perhaps both will fronting some future mega development?

I’ll give it ten years.

  1. https://www.museumofperth.com.au/forrest-place

• • • 

Aesthetic Fitness

Think of the number of practices that pride themselves on being “research-led”? And how much they let us know about it? One could be forgiven for thinking the point of in architecture is to produce theories designed to suit the technologies of the time having the greatest potential for mass rollout at minimum cost – and then leave the application to others. And that the sole driver is to display an awareness of which side whose bread is buttered. This is one way of understanding the continual supply of proposals to further automate the design and construction process. Even if unsuccessful, the notion that this is how things should be is kept in our minds. [c.f. The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chap. 3.7 – Styles as Research Programmes, The Autopoiesis of Architecture: Vol.1 Chapter 2.4 – Architectural Research, The Massively Big Autopoiesis of Architecture Post, The Autopoiesis of Architecture Vol. I]

Contemporary Techniques in Architecture is part of the AD series put out by Wiley-Academy at the turn of the century and is one of four recently given to me. The other three are New Babylonians, Reflexive Architecture, and Emergence: Morphogenic Design Strategies. Stamped inside the cover of the book is the name Garry Emery Design Pty Ltd. This may be the same Garry Emery regarded as Australia’s top graphic designer, whose achievements have been acknowledged by an honorary doctorate from RMIT University and an honorary Bachelor of Arts from the Sydney Graphics College, who’s an Adjunct Professor at RMIT University and Deakin University and whose contribution to architecture and urbanism has earned him the President’s Award from the Royal Australian Institute of Architects? If it is, I can understand why these books ended up in a secondhand bookstore. I hope they work the same magic for me.

The books were published 2000–2002 and now form a historic record of sorts, of who was thinking what and when. It’s all history now, so it’s time to look at them and ask just how prescient they were. Did the highlighted techniques change the world? From just one glance outside my window, I think not. Twenty years ought to be sufficient to determine if something was the zeit-iest geist, the avant to any garde.

It’s been a hundred years now since craftspersons ceased to have a meaningful role in the production of buildings. They were slow and there weren’t enough of them anyway. In his Making Dystopia, James Stevens Curl notes that by 1935 Modernism was accepted not only in Germany but in Czechoslovakia, The Netherlands, Austria, The Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland, Belgium, Brazil, Scandinavia, France and the United States of America. Contrary to what Curl would have us believe in the early chapters of his book, it’s not as if everyone was swooning over Gropius’ factory-lite aesthetic or Le Corbusier’s FIVE POINTS. People called clients wanted buildings built and saw a quicker and cheaper way of getting the job done. It’s that old Cost-Time-Quality triangular chestnut and, when a way of building offering cost and time advantages comes along, well… something’s going to get compromised. To see the spread of Modernism as some sort of stylistic victory, and history as some flow of styles, is to serially avoid seeing the elephant. It is fact that a sea change in the way of building occurred over about the ten years 1925-1935. [c.f. The Persistence of Beauty]

It may have been 100 years since craftsmanship was shafted, but it’s only been fifty years since how buildings are constructed ceased to be a major determinant of building design. It’s been about twenty since architecture hasn’t even required a built reality and, as these books now prove, we’ve had two decades of contemporary techniques but no comparable sea change to show for it. Why then the hype? What function does it serve? Is it just to tell us that design is on the case? And working to make the world better for us? That’s nice. Unless it’s not.

Contemporary techniques will always excite publishing houses and, regardless of any potential benefit to architecture, construction or humanity, will serve to reinforce the by now well-established division between design and production. None of this media churn works towards perfecting prototypes of actual buildings that might do us for a century or three. We have low expectations anyway, if any, and this leaves us in a continual state of imperfection reinforcing the position of designers in a system where there are no people in the middle. Next on the list out of architecture after craftsmanship and construction come materials and materiality. Consider the following examples – remembering that we haven’t even got past the introduction to the first book yet.

From left to right, they show 1) how modulations in a single surface can produce differences in spatial configuration and internal lighting, 2) and 3) how different porosities can produce “aesthetic effects” of various transparencies and lighting variation in one surface and 4) how differences in the gradient of a component can produce different lighting levels. All four “contemporary” techniques are working towards eliminating the difference between walls and windows, while the first works towards eliminating the difference between walls, floors, ceilings and windows. This is all necessary groundwork if someday we are to accept 3D printed buildings and the new improved grey goo. Research likes Funding.

But before we ponder the societal implications of an architecture that functions as media content reinforcing the architect’s titular role as head of a system of production, we need to come to grips with the language. The following words head the first essay titled Deleuze and the Use of the Genetic Algorithm in Architecture. The namecheck doesn’t make me anticipate a new Formalism. [c.f. A New Formalism]

Said organisational processes seem to want to be understood as mimicking the organisational processes of Nature to create things intensely producible using the organisational processes of Industry. It’s the design vs. production divide reappearing yet again, and trying not to look like the Form vs. Function divide, or the Architecture vs. Building divide or, going back still further, the Art vs. Science divide. [c.f. Divide & Conquer] Extrapolating, the endgame seems to be a naturalistic architecture 100% made by machines.

Genetic algorithms save the designer some brainwork by computing millions of possibilities [but, and who’s to know that’s not what designers intuitively did anyway?] and presenting them for possible selection according to their aesthetic fitness. Despite the evolutionary terminology and analogies, this is not how Nature works. Or rather, Nature only operates according to (visual) aesthetic fitness if it offers some evolutionary advantage. Nature at least admits the existence of other types of fitness. [c.f. The Snail is Not Trying to Look Beautiful, Architectural Myths #8: Learning from Nature]

Genetic algorithms require that the solution space for a required building first be defined in terms of virtual genes for manipulation. This alone is many design decisions in one but “The architect should add points at which spontaneous mutations may occur” is another. Moreover, “unless one brings to a CAD model the intensive elements of structural engineering, a virtual building will not evolve as a building.” The author frets a bit about this, but not for long.

The gist is that the automated process must be designed to produce the right outcomes – i.e. those that delight. This requires setting the parameters for the desired solution space so one doesn’t get a jellyfish when one wants a giraffe, but a bird might be okay even if a bird-fish was what we wanted all along. It all seems like a lowering of expectations for surprise has no meaning if one has pre-set the terms for what counts as it. The bigger question is why should shock or surprise continue to be a determining characteristic of architectural production at all? In this sense, these contemporary techniques don’t really replace any old ones but merely offer a new way of achieving something known and questionable. “All potential configurations” turns out to be a very narrow set.

Bookending the book is an article calling for the “crash testing” of buildings. In the case of vehicles, crash testing can now be simulated with a high degree of precision as long as all known variables are considered. There’s that phrase again – all known variables. The author suggests that this technique can create ‘an instrumental technique for the discipline’ capable of producing highly performative effects that can validate the effectiveness of their generative techniques.

So at the front of the book we have architects wanting to be more like God, setting up the conditions for populations to run wild, and at the other end we have architects wanting to be more like Industry, fine-tuning the manufacture of the product and the reactions to the product but without ever questioning the need for the product. Since structural and envelope performance can already be simulated to a high level of precision, the beneficial effects of crash testing must be ones users don’t know about yet, assuming of course that users haven’t already gone the way of craftspersons, construction and materiality.

Between the beginning and the end is Emergent Structural Morphology that develops theoretical frameworks and computational environments to relate computational thinking to the design process. Again the same stance. The more the design process can be framed in terms of a set of parameters that an anticipated production process is comfortable with then, I’ll wager, the more efficient/profitable it will be. Again, the user and any possible benefit they might receive is not mentioned. I’m not sure what the illustration heading the article illustrates.

This next description reminds me of a mid-eighties machine translation one struggles to make sense of despite all the nouns being present and connected by a familiar grammar.

In MoSS (Morphogenic Surface Structures) the designer specifies the grammar and guides surface growth by defining shaping forces and boundary conditions. Again this seems like what designers did anyway. The MoSS programme did produce a free-form honeycomb truss in which vertices of generated surfaces are joined to form an adaptive three-dimensional cellular structure. The structures may be produced with sheet materials or as a matrix to be filled with structural foam. That was 2002 or prior. I couldn’t find any recent examples of applications of free-form honeycomb truss but the field of inquiry still exists at various universities.

GENR8 is a user friendly interface for evolutionary algorithms. Users can interrupt, intervene and resume the business of form breeding but grammatical evolution automates the [now grunt, rote, distasteful, unsatisfying, uncreative] work of constructing grammars. GENR8 has one mapping process that maps a genome to a grammar, and another – a phenotype – that interprets the grammar and constructs a surface. Again, one could argue that this is what designers did anyway. Again, there is that same concern for the continuing role of the designer.

Twenty years on, Carbon Tower Prototype maintains a strong internet presence due to a virtual demonstration prototype of a 40-60 storey building. Compressive loads are carried by an array of vertical columns and cores and the structural skeleton is a composite mesh formed of continuous pultruded sections is hung from it and (along with Kevlar cables) supports the floor slabs.

Here’s what it looks like.

Here’s the only part I have a problem with.

The physical and technical demands placed on building materials are nothing compared with those faced by materials in the aerospace and defence industries, two industries that happen to be the world’s most evolved and budgeted – just saying. [Research likes Funding.] I’m all for using materials so their inherent characteristics are utilised to the fullest but I fail to see the sense in contriving a building to make that specific point, unless it’s to show the military-industrial complex that one is open for business, a bit like the Dymaxion Houses designed to keep the share price of aluminium up and the aircraft manufacturing industry ticking over.

By 1949 the world was not housed in elegant boxes of travertine and onyx but in simple shells constructed roughly and quickly from sand, lime and aggregate stuccoed over. We’re fast approaching The Two-Decade Test for Carbon Tower Prototype. I’ll wager that in 2022 we won’t be living or even working in buildings constructed anything like it. One of those inherent design requirements was probably cost. Using aerospace materials will only be worthwhile if those materials have no properties that aren’t being fully utilised. Aerospace materials will always be lightweight or, if they aren’t, will justify their weight through thinness or availability. Building materials simply aren’t subject to the same constraints. To be fair, aircraft aren’t made of concrete and tanks aren’t made of GRP. I’m all for performativity in buildings but we need to judge by appropriate criteria. Drawing our architectural design aspirations from the natural world and drawing our architectural production aspirations from the world of industry aren’t helping. What peacocks and architecture have in common is an ornamental aesthetics that merely signifies fitness for reproduction for its own sake and no greater purpose. We overestimate evolution.

• • • 

The plan had been to have one post per book but I see it’s going to take more time. I’ve only mentioned three of the fourteen articles in the first book and have yet to find out what Interactive Opportunities are or were, what a Vigorous Environment is or was, what Potential Performative Effects could possibly mean or have meant, what Lumping is or was, and what Cecil Balmond had to say twenty years ago about The Digital and the Material although, given that as the title, I expect it will be on-theme.

[cite]

Media Studies

The architectural media likes an anniversary and 2019 is the year we’re meant to be grateful for The Bauhaus and all it did for us. Last week I suggested the real legacy of The Bauhaus lay in legitimizing the idea of design as a standalone activity isolated from manufacture because once design could be valued for its own sake, manufacture could then be performed at low cost and high value-added by faceless people in any factory in any industrial city at the time or, now, in any “industrializing” country. The idea of separating design and production was like adding a spark to a mix of fuel and oxygen. 

Manufacturing was never the problem as that’s what factories were for. And nor was the problem one of design as people tend to buy what they’re told. The problem was that there weren’t enough people wanting enough stuff to achieve the “economies of scale” [a.k.a. profits] machine manufacture promised. The industrial world knew it wanted to separate design from production and for us to accept it. All that was missing was people to design things and to tell us we needed them. And we’ve been being told ever since.

We’re also being told to be grateful. One could always visit bauhaus100.com I suppose. Or go to Harvard Magazine for the article ominously titled What A Human Should Be. [Thanks Curtis!] The title refers to the last sentence of this next paragraph that is eighteen words of reported criticism in a 2,900-word piece. 0.62%. Never say you’re not getting both sides of the story.

You’ll be seeing a lot of this image this year. It seems to function in today’s media as a representation of unbridled creativity the likes of which the world had never seen. If machine production meant there was less place for craftspersons anymore, then I don’t think we should be so blindly accepting of performers being reduced to anonymous bodies going through silent and robotic motions. Superficial individuality is the smiley face of impersonality and interchangeability.

Look what we have here!

The following is most of the text of the article Bauhaus at 100: what it means to me [by Norman Foster, Margaret Howell and others]. In the spirit of the 0.62%, I’ve appended my thoughts.

The powerful notion that design and production can and should be separate activities was applicable across the entire spectrum of craftsman production. Such separation already existed for machines as their designers do not involve themselves in their production. The innovation of the Bauhaus was to transfer the separation of design and production across those aspects of design and production that until then had been performed by artists and craftspersons. One hundred years on, it’s fair to say that design didn’t save the world and that production is killing it. We are in no doubt that the impact of this single powerful idea is global. The Bauhaus paired with Industrialisation, The International Style with Globalization, and Postmodernism (and all its variants since) with Neoliberalism. All have the same relationship between design and production, morphing with the times.

Craig-Martin sees The Bauhaus’s influence across the entire spectrum of design as proof of the universality of its artistic/stylistic ideas. This is partially true because if something – anything whether a chair or a lamp or a tea service – could be designed and made by a craftsperson then it could now be designed by a designer and made by a machine. This was universal. The idea of separation was vital. It mattered little that The Bauhaus couldn’t produce what they designed. Facilitating the production and supply of inexpensive consumer necessities doesn’t seem to have been a priority.

Craig-Martin says, “[Albers thought] the most important relationship was between the artists and their work”. This shows a wilful ignorance of craftspeople as an existing system of production. The notion of an artist having a relationship with their work was not invented by The Bauhaus. This notion still survives in our current conception of the artist (whether YBA or not).

Bauhaus chairs may have been designed for machine manufacture but they weren’t designed for minimal transportation and warehouse volume that incur other costs. Apart from the Mart Stam chair (later made more expensive by Breuer), I can’t think of any Bauhaus designed product that actually hit that sweet spot, spawning many variants and interpretations. The first chair I remember is a kitchen chair like the one on the left, below but instead of the upholstered surfaces it had Formica on plywood. The first school chairs I remember were like those on the right.

Bruer’s 1925 Wassily Chair was destined for a life of limited licensed production and value of a different kind. Craig-Martin is right however in seeing Ikea as a contemporary embodiment of what we like to think the Bauhaus was about. Ikea designers are not as anonymous as they used to be but what hasn’t changed is the essential split between design and production. Craft is as absent as ever, unless one counts the self-assembly and even then a service exists to dissuade people from potentially gaining any satisfaction from putting it together themselves.

Perhaps more today than in the immediate past, there’s a conjunction between ideas in architecture, furniture design, art – the boundaries between different disciplines have softened a great deal. The things that the Bauhaus hit on and developed through the years went right to the heart of the design of things, the nature of things. They got it so accurately that it has never been truly displaced.

I would simplify this as “The thing the Bauhaus hit on and developed went right to the heart of the production of things. They got it so accurately that it has never been truly displaced.” I can’t see it happening in the future either.

Foster comes closest to admitting there might be a link between design and production and is first to mention the production of buildings. I wasn’t aware Gropius envisioned a time when buildings would be mass produced in factories. Buildings have proven very resistant to factory production but we do have a situation where many component parts are prefabricated and assembled on site by increasingly unskilled labour. Modular housing is still being designed but the conceit is for the production to be modular and the design not to look it. This goes against what machine production is supposed to be or have been. The enthusiasm with which we are expected to embrace the 3-D printing of buildings suggests that even those workers might be out of a job soon.

Foster gushes about Gropius’ house in Lincoln, MA. Here’s a refresher.

I agree with Foster saying the lasting influence of The Bauhaus is not stylistic, but the attitude of mind it cultivated. I don’t see this as a good thing. [Whether High-Tech was ever really a thing or just another example of fashion over substance is a topic for another time.] However, to say that Bauhaus at its best was a revolution in the relationship between arts and crafts, aesthetics and functions, conceiving and making is not a lie. I’m just unsure who gained what.

While attempting to find out where Margaret Howell’s Minimalist clothing line is manufactured I found this web page detailing the company’s tax strategy, its governance in relation to UK taxation, its risk management strategies, its attitude towards tax planning and level of risk, its attitude towards tax planning and level of risk and, finally, its relationship with HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs).

Howell says much the same thing as tax exile Foster. The coming together of different disciplines and the practice of combining design with manufacturing was inspirational, imaginative, experimental and, above all, a break with the past – which is all fine, apart from the fact it was none of those. Every discipline has its method of production and, it’s safe to say, The Bauhaus ideology destroyed them all. It was not the first time any designer ever thought about how things were made.

Some artists still have a one-to-one relationship with what they create and so do some architects known as sole practitioners that take pride not only in the design but also in its realisation in terms of materials, details and processes. If we don’t hear so much about sole practitioners these days then we have The Bauhaus to blame. [c.f. Architecture Misfits #34: The Sole Practitioner]

All this does is make me recall that symbols are substitutes for the real thing.

It’s telling Barnbrook says everybody should learn the theories of the Bauhaus before they are allowed to touch … a computer! But I do agree that Ikea probably is the most prominent expression we have of the professed ideals of The Bauhaus – or at least what Gropius suddenly claimed them to be in 1923, five years before his exit and after having claimed the opposite since 1919. This is Ikea’s Melltorp table, designed by Lisa Norinder for IKEA’s 2011 catalogue. You may remember it from this 2011 post. Apart from Stam’s tube chairs, it’s superior to anything designed by the Bauhaus. They didn’t do tables.

Lisa Nrinder for IKEA: MELLTORP, 2011 catalogue

It has a total of 41 parts, all of which are necessary. In Step 1, the circular spacers aren’t there to create a shadow gap. Instead, they increase the distance between the table surface (the top flange) and the lower part of the long beam (the lower flange) to make a web beam which is stronger than the long beam would be otherwise. The short beams don’t support anything. Their role is to provide the other other anchor for the corner bracket in Step 3. In Step 4, these hidden corner brackets secure the legs to the long beams and the short beams and it is this final step, that makes the table perfectly rigid and stable. The table top is covered with melamine, a moisture- and scratch-resistant finish that is easy to clean. $69.99.

It’s brilliant construction design for flatpack transportation and on-site assembly. Although “the table top is covered with melamine, a moisture- and scratch resistant finish that is easy to clean”, I wouldn’t mind purchasing and assembling a deluxe edition in oak, mahogany, teak or jarrah.

This is the first time we hear of the physical realities of buildings as well as their political symbolism. Regardless of style, fitted kitchens and communal areas, the building of buildings still indicates a claim to land, as ever.

“The Bauhaus’s focus on multifaceted ideation and execution carved out a new dialogue across design theory and aesthetics that became the blueprint for my generation’s newfound freedom.” I can’t unpack this sentence. It may be one of those machine-made sentences Elon Musk was talking about last week. The Bauhaus’s reach across time is truly remarkable.

Not much here, apart from art still being made by artists. I wasn’t familiar with the Pirelli Tire Building in New Haven, but I must have seen the Ziggy stardust costumes at some time.

Yep.

Hans Obrist attempts to bring some perspective to the proceedings but falls short. Much has never been remembered, let alone forgotten. I’m not sure we need any more remembering of Johannes Itten. Hannes Meyer I’ve tried. Lotte Stam-Beese I knew nothing of. I’m wary of parallels between political intensity and artistic intensity. Industrialisation knew no borders or factions. Promoting design for machine manufacture could be done just as well in the US as in Germany. Even better, it turned out.

Not much happening here. Sure, The Bauhaus may have dealt with issues of housing, affordability and global aesthetics but not on Gropius’ watch. Hannes Meyer would have objected to the term “global aesthetics”. I doubt renewed interest in The Bauhaus will accomplish anything. Much like the legacy of Le Corbusier, it can be reformatted into anything the times demand and, as the above shows, just about anything can be made to make a point about something.

As we’re approaching the end, and as a kind of summary, the separation of the act of design from the act of production was something that could be applied to all of the decorative arts. Anything that was previously designed and crafted by hand was fair game. This is not in the spirit of inclusiveness.

As I wrote last week, arty-crafty William Morris didn’t particularly care who or what manufactured the objects he designed. Taha’s final statement about following through and developing ideas is something that has been taught at all schools for quite some time now and all it has bequeathed us is a system where design has been elevated so high it can now exist without any manufactured or constructed reality to validate it. Meanwhile, somewhere in the world, unknown people are busy tending machines or making things by hand for us. All this might have happened anyway had The Bauhaus never existed but Gropius and Co. decamping to the US and spreading the word certainly hastened the process in what was then the world’s most influential economy.

• • • 

All told, the above recollections and musings didn’t have much to say about architectural education, apart from Libeskind, Foster and i Gilabert seeing themselves as the living embodiment of the Bauhaus’s teachings. In a sense, they are.

We never learned much in the way of specifics and I suspect this is because, contrary to the mythology, Walter Gropius, the Dessau Bauhaus and architectural education never existed in the same place at the same time. Walter Gropius and the Dessau Bauhaus overlapped for three years 1925-28. The Dessau Bauhaus and architectural education overlapped for two years 1928-30 under Hannes Meyer and two more 1930-32 under Mies. Architectural education and Walter Gropius overlapped in the US from 1937 but forever since in our minds, as the assorted thoughts above testify. Given that The Bauhaus was run out of Weimar because of the number of communists (not to mention Expressionists!) on the payroll, for someone who could supposedly read the writing on the wall, Gropius’s appointment of communist Hannes Meyer as his successor in 1928 seems like a deliberate act of sabotage.

Party on.

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I can’t help thinking that any architectural education worth having is the one that one makes for oneself, that exists outside of formal education, and that starts well before. As a welcome antidote to all the above, I received this which I’ve added to the Architecture of Innocence post of a few weeks back. Thanks Josh.

Joshua, (Australian; aged 10 – now 26)

This is a photo of a drawing I did of a farmhouse, a windmill and some power lines. I was maybe 10. Almost immediately my mum had it framed and it’s been hanging in the lounge room of the family house ever since. I remember trying to make a small scale model, complete with power lines. It’s an imaginary scene of a colonial-style rural dwelling often found in Jindong in Western Australia where, two years ago, I designed a farmhouse and managed its construction. Next month I sit my registration exams.

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Bauhaus Fatigue

I can’t say Ludwig Kurz was representative of all craftsmen any more than I can claim Anton Hofer represents The Bauhaus but this post is not about individuals – it is about two different approaches to education, design and production that coexisted once. Ludwig’s Kurz’s formal education took place over the three winters of 1922-23, 1923-24 and 1924-25, a period corresponding to the final three years of Weimar Bauhaus.

As I wrote last week, I was pleased Ludwig Kurz and Anton Hofer found a shared interest in recording culturally-important buildings threatened by war but I was also slightly puzzled because their alliance contradicted two things I’d always thought true about design, education and production in the twentieth century. One is that the approach of the craftsperson was not the way forward and the other is that the approach of The Bauhaus was.

What constitutes “the way forward”of course depends upon for what and for whom. What might be the way forward for some is not necessarily the way forward for others or the way forward for all.

By 1850 in Britain the growing middle classes had money to spare on the decorative arts and the production of household goods such as fabrics and rugs was already mechanised. Some observers began to identify a dysfunction between the quality and cost of a machine-produced item and how it looked. This below, for example, is a cast iron umbrella stand from circa 1850. Cast iron could be made to look like a lot of things and those same some people began to think designers of cast iron umbrella stands didn’t know what a cast iron umbrella stand wanted to look like. [The next century would encounter a similar problem with plastic, and the one after with 3-D printing.]

There would have been few umbrella stand designers in 1850 familiar with the properties of cast iron and its casting techniques, and cast iron might not have been the ideal material from which to make stands for dripping umbrellas anyway but these were matters of no consequence to persons having the raw materials and the facilities to make them as long as there were people to buy them. This problem of the relationship between design and production was to fester throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, centering around these new things called machines.

AGAINST: “Ruskin had argued that the separation of the intellectual act of design from the manual act of physical creation was both socially and aesthetically damaging. [“W“]

FOR: “Morris and his followers believed the division of labour on which modern industry depended was undesirable, but the extent to which every design should be carried out by the designer was a matter for debate and disagreement. Although Morris was famous for getting hands-on experience of many crafts (including weaving, dying, printing, calligraphy and embroidery), he did not regard the separation of designer and executant in his factory as problematic.” [

This is interesting because Morris is speaking of “design” as if it were a craft in itself. We don’t know if he was fence-sitting or merely had a sense for cashflow but he does seem nonchalant about who or what was going to be doing the making. Morris’ innovation was to have people regard the act of designing as a craft, thus making it possible for something to be crafted in its design and machine-made in its production. Once that conceptual leap is made, it’s a win for designers and a win for manufacturers but death for craftspersons as there is no longer any need for their skills nor indeed any conceptual space to apply them.

AGAINST: “Walter Crane, a close political associate of Morris’s, took an unsympathetic view of the division of labour on both moral and artistic grounds, and strongly advocated that designing and making should come from the same hand. [

FOR: Lewis Foreman Day, a friend and contemporary of Crane’s, … disagreed strongly. He thought that the separation of design and execution was not only inevitable in the modern world, but also that only that sort of specialisation allowed the best in design and the best in making.” [

Day advocated a clear split between design and manufacture and design did become a standalone activity and manufacture was delegated to others, at first to those in one’s proximity and under one’s supervision but soon to factories in remote towns [and, in later centuries, to countries increasingly remote]. At the time, there was a growing sense that the form and ornamentation of an object should take its manufacture into account and this notion arrived at the Deutsche Werkbund via Day, his friend Lethaby, and his connection Muthesius. The problem of what mass-produced goods were to look like had now been debated in Britain for over half a century and in 1907 Germany decided to do something about it.

FOR: “The Werkbund was less an artistic movement than a state-sponsored effort to integrate traditional crafts and industrial mass production techniques, to put Germany on a competitive footing with England and the United States.”[

So far so Wikipedia but, even in this statement, we can see the results of the crafted object being valued yet the contribution of the craftsperson to that crafted object being ignored. Most of us never appreciated, let alone even knew, what the approach of a craftsman was anyway. Until a few weeks ago I was one of those people.

The above Wikipedia statement recognises there was something good about traditional craft objects but it sees the fact they can’t be mass produced as a negative – as if the only fault of the crafted object is that it can’t be mass produced. This contradiction can be efficaciously resolved by ignoring the input of the craftsperson to the finished (i.e. the produced) object. Although many of the things craftspersons made were inessential, most weren’t. Craftspeople were not the creators of high-value art objects – they were how things were once made. They were a method of production. This was inconvenient for the new arrangement in which the design component was entrusted to designers and production assigned to machines. In this system there was no place for craftspersons integrating design and production as they always had. There was nothing wrong with integrated design and manufacture. It was the production that was the bottleneck to getting more stuff on the market.


Turning now to Chapter 5 (p69) of Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age we find Muthesius (p69) in 1907 founding The Werkbund at the same time as the AEG company hired Peter Behrens to spruce up their image. Industry was quicker than designers to understand the implications of Muthesius’ message of value-adding design. (p70)

At the 1911 Werkbund Congress attended by Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius & Bruno Taut, Muthesius’ address delivered an economic imperative as an aesthetic one. By this time the still then Charles Edouard Jeanneret was no longer working for Peter Behrens and still in Germany. Banham finds echoes of Muthesius’ words in Le Corbusier’s early writings, probably referring to this quote that makes it clear that designers are open for business. Le Corbusier doesn’t mention the c-word but he makes it clear his world has artists that design and machines that make.

Between 1911 and 1920 design and production became standalone activities divorced from craft.

Banham relates all this engagingly but, all the same, his venerated book is not called Theory, Design and Production in the First Machine Age. It discusses the history of machines as sources of design inspiration rather than as devices for making objects having the value-added design component industry demanded. To his credit though, on page 199 he observes that, in the 1920s it was “general practice to ignore the actions that generate history and to [instead] make history the generator of the actions.” Viewed in this light, this sudden interest in designing for machine manufacture is not so much a case of prescient designers alerting manufacturers to the design possibilities of new methods of production (for they were already alert), but a case of designers designing the things manufacturers wanted to make because they were able to make and sell them. In other words, designers now did the bidding of manufacturers. To paraphrase Banham, industry was the dog wagging the tail rather than designers being the tail wagging the dog.

One early example of dog wagging tail was Mart Stam’s tubular steel chair from 1924. “The design won immediate acceptance [presumably by manufacturers at first and the market later] and the proliferation of such integrated designs for steel tube chairs was so rapid and universal that it soon appeared an autnomous, automatic creation of the zeitgeist.” Handmade Tiffany lamps with over a thousand pieces were on the way out, and objects that could be manufactured easily and inexpensively by machines were3 the future. All that remained was for them to be inexpensive and, to a lesser extent, modern and/or beautiful. Modernism as a smokescreen style is a separate story.

Gabriel Voisin was an interesting character. He didn’t invent the automobile but he built one for himself when he was 19. He also designed and built the first aeroplane capable of self-powered heavier-than-air flight in Europe.

Voisin Avions manufactured the first ever fighter plane for use in WWI though others can’t have been that far behind if it was involved in the first ever aerial dogfight.

When the war ended Gabriel Voisin decided to keep his factory busy by manufacturing houses and Maison Voisin was the result.

The panels had an exterior skin of steel over plywood, plywood interior faces, and cork insulation between. It was offered in 3 floorplans of 400, 700 and 1,000 square feet, the smallest of which could be shipped anywhere in France on the back of a single truck. The modular house was not only far less expensive than traditional stick-built houses, but could be erected in just three days by the purchaser, rather than needing to hire a contractor. Voisin built a demonstration model of each size and put together a catalog with diagrams and photographs. 

This threat to the monopoly of the construction industry so alarmed its representatives at the trade show where Voisin was displaying maquettes and photos, that they publicly declared such a house to be “impossible”, and accused Voisin of trying to defraud gullible home buyers. 

[This account comes from the blog post “Wings, wheels and the impossible house”, an account of the life of Gabriel Voisin.]

Banham finds it odd (p221) the gable truss spans the length of the building rather than its depth, saying this is “presumably derived from some aircraft practice” yet uncurious about what. His desire for a mechanistic explanation blinds him to the building practice of hangars for aircraft that are usually wider than they are long.

Spanning the length means one truss size could be used for the three different house widths, and also provide a cantilevered roof for the “hangar” at the end. Banham writes (p222) that “Le Corbusier himself will not admit to any part in their design, but his description of them (in L’Esprit Nouveau, No., 2, p11) shows that they lay very close to his own ideas.”  Or at least what they might have been in 1920.

As we’re already urgently being told, 1919 was the beginning of The Bauhaus at Weimar even though the official birthday won’t be until April 1. From the bauhaus.de website and many other places we know that

“In the text of the [founding] Manifesto, Gropius does not demand a new style or a new form of art, but much more fundamentally a reform of artistic work. Artistic work is to return to its foundations and first premises, which he sees as lying in craft work – regarded as the treatment of the material – as the foundation of all the arts. The relevance of the social purpose of craft work for art is also noted; it is now given a role in the social context of labour. Since only craft work, rather than art, is capable of being taught, the Bauhaus theory is to be based on craft training in workshops. The ideal of a working community of all the arts corresponds to the idea of the unified art work, the reuniting of all the arts and crafts disciplines – sculpture, painting, applied arts and crafts – to establish a new art of architecture.”

This echoes Banham’s description. There’s an emphasis on craft, but only as long as it is craft taught by artists at The Bauhaus and not the craft as practised by craftspersons. Gropius is claiming there will no longer be a “professional art” but that all would be united as craftspeople under the direction of the architect.

Banham goes on to say this emphasis on craft was what was unique about the The Bauhaus “method” of education, forgetting to remember that “learning by doing” was already well established in the apprenticeship system that existed at the same time.

The Vorkurs is known by different names in architecture schools around the world but is essentially a set of exercises intended to teach students some supposed basic principles of design. The other essential part of the Vorkurs was to clear students’ minds of “preconceptions”.

The Weimar years didn’t end well. This summary is from the bauhaus website.

1920: In Weimar, the Bauhaus encounters public hostility. The attacks are ideologically motivated, but are also triggered by artistic issues. The conflicts are conducted in political meetings, in the press and pamphlets, and finally in state parliament. As the Bauhaus is a state-owned college dependent on parliamentary approval of grants, its existence is constantly threatened by these quarrels and by changes in the political majority in the state parliament.

1921: In the summer, Johannes Itten visits the Mazdaznan Conference in Leipzig. Through him and Muche, this eastern-oriented, mystical religious teaching gains considerable influence on some of the students – while also exacerbating internal conflicts at the college.

Theo van Doesburg, a member of the Dutch art group De Stijl, stays in Weimar from April 1921 to November 1922, with a few breaks. In the lectures and courses he gives, which are also attended by Bauhaus students, he opposes the Bauhaus’s Expressionist and craft-oriented approach. He advocates his own new concept of constructivist design that takes a positive view of technology. Although van Doesburg represents an opposite pole to the Bauhaus in Weimar, he influences the college’s turn towards industrial design in 1922 and provides inspiration for its formal language up to 1924.

1922: From the beginning of the year, Walter Gropius starts to reassess his ideas about the Bauhaus’s aims. An engagement with industry and its implications for design move into the foreground. During the summer, disputes over this arise with Johannes Itten, the central figure in the early Bauhaus, who rejects it and gradually withdraws.

1923: Walter Gropius formulates a new approach under the motto ‘art and technology – a new unity’, recognizing industry as the defining force of the age. An engagement with industry and machine production becomes a prerequisite for all the rest of the Bauhaus’s work and defines the way it is understood down to the present day.

James Stevens Curl’s Making Dystopia gives an account (pp92-109) of The Bauhaus’ Weimar years and Gropius’ shift from the Morris-Ruskin ideal of the place of craft to the Muthesian one of designing for machine production. The unspoken reprimand is that The Bauhaus had to start paying its way and providing something of value in return for its government subsidies.

Marianne Brandt’s 1924 Tea and Coffee Service is one of the first fruit of Gropius’ new direction of designing machine-made instead of handcrafted artefacts for relatively well-off clients. Reproductions are available in silver plated brass and black lacquered wood, or sterling silver and ebony.

The same year brought us Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s Coffee and Tea Service in brass with mercury silvered interiors and ebony fixtures. Designing for premium materials made it easy to to add value to simple geometric forms devoid of ornament.

1925: Walter Gropius announces a new programme in which the importance of industry and science become predominant for design. He declares that the task for the Bauhaus is a ‘contemporary development for housing’ that is to range from ‘simple domestic equipment to a complete residence’. Gropius requires ‘systematic experimental work in theory and practice – in the formal, technological and economic fields’. The workshops are described as ‘laboratories’ for manufacturing models for industry. 

Oscar Schlemmer had noticed as early as 1921 that not much architecture went on at The Bauhaus. Georg Muche was initiator and designer of the 1923 Haus am Horn.

By 1925 at the latest Le Corbusier would have realised buildings weren’t going to be machine-made anytime soon. His association with Gabriel Voisin would have taught him the world did not need inexpensive quality products undercutting existing systems of production. He didn’t need Gropius to tell him designing buildings was one activity and their production another.

By 1927 Gropius was gone and headed for a new career in architectural education despite having no experience of it. He didn’t take with him much of a portfolio, apart from The Bauhaus buildings at Dessau [though Curl is keen to attribute the lion’s share of the work to Adolf Meyer]. Gropius’ selling point seems to have been in promoting the notion that designing buildings is a craft and how they are built does not matter. This has had many poisonous consequences for architecture, architectural education and the built environment. I expect I’ll keep adding to and refining this list.

  • Unless design is redefined as industrial design it is impossible to resolve the contradiction of value-adding design with the cost-reducing process of mass production.
  • The separation of architectural design and architectural production perpetrates the architecture vs. building argument that has existed for almost a century now. Building design existing separate from building production is unresolvable but this is the situation we have.
    • It explains why we have architects famous for not building anything.
    • It explains why we have architects famous for not designing anything that can be built cheaply and for the benefit of many. Or even interested in.
    • It explains why we have architects famous for courting the clients of architecture and not its users.
    • It explains why we have architects designing what client businesses, client cities and client countries want designed. “Most highly evolved are the starchitects keen to deliver the architecture wanted by the economic system that rewards them, while dutifully avoiding addressing any problems created by that economic system.”
    • A polarised system of design and manufacture only equates to not only the architecture vs. building (a.k.a. production) divide, but also to the development (a.k.a. production) gain and perception management pairing.
  • Despite the many problems of the world for which a building might be part of a solution, we have an architectural culture more interested in design than production when and where it matters. This only reinforces what is already entrenched.
    • It explains why we have an architectural culture (and an architectural media culture) that values anything of no relevance to the real world, real needs and anything to do with the production of buildings. The greater the inapplicability, the greater the interest and subsequent reward.
    • It explains the contemporary fascination with digital architectures, virtual architectures, data architectures, etc. “Everything is architecture.”
  • We have a system of architectural education that is as valued as it is ubiquitous for perpetrating this split between design and production. Somewhat surprisingly, “machine-style”, “Modernism” as a style, and styles in general have little to do with anything.

All but the last point can be expressed as designers doing their own thing and clients and contractors doing theirs. This is where Morris’ separation of design and production as promoted by Gropius for times no longer industrial but corporate took us. Now we are heading into times beyond the corporate and the separation of design and manufacture seems more fit for purpose than ever. So no, I won’t be lighting any birthday candles come April 1.

As a kind of corollary, we now have a way of understanding why the misfit architects don’t fit into this system. They each cared to bring back into architecture some solitary aspect of the craft that was surplus to requirements and for this they have been, by and large, ignored.

• • • 

The Walter Gropius Tea Service for Rosenthal, 1969

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Pilotis

An important step in Le Corbusier’s career as an architect was the 1912 house he designed for his parents – he charged them a fee. The house was too expensive to maintain so they sold it in 1919. By then, Charles-Édouard had already decamped to Paris, bigger fish to fry. Little wonder his mother always preferred his brother Albert.

corbu-Maison_blanche_01

In 1920, the not-yet Le Corbusier and new best friend Amédée Ozenfant collaborated on the art journal L’Esprit Nouveau. We might understand it today as an aggregator of ornamentiscrime.org and vandevelde.biz.*

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In 1920 Paris, the 6FF per copy of L’Esprit Nouveau could buy 6kg of bread.* It’s difficult to know how many people forsook bread to read ideas that were to eventually gel into the Five Points. It’s also difficult for us to appreciate how novel those five points must have been at the time. Students are routinely asked to name them but neither examiners nor examinees for the life of them know why. Me, I’m all for a general knowledge of history but only if it’s continually examined and re-examined for relevance.

What we do know is that The Five Points shot around the architectural world in an instant – as much as an instant was possible at the time. There was definitely something special about them, but what?  

The columns in LC’s Dom-ino House of 1914-15 had used the principle of the 1907 Dom-ino House but just held up the building without making a show of it. Their presence could maybe be inferred from the windows that were more horizontal than vertical.

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There were growies on the roof in 1914 but the plantless rooftop space of the 1920 Citrohan House was labelled a solarium.

With the 1922 Citrohan House  MKII, LC used a grid of reinforced concrete columns to jack up the Citrohan House he’d made earlier. In patent offices, this is called an ‘inventive step’. The inventive step was to transform an economical house into a wasteful villa.

A grid of reinforced concrete columns is an inexpensive means of producing the potential to enclose space but, unless you enclose that space, all you’ve done is use a structure to display that potential. You’ve ‘defined’ a space for no reason other than to show it’s yours and that you’ve no practical need for it. It other words, it is beautiful.

The Fondation Le Corbusier claims the 1923 Maison La Roche was the first manifestation of The Five Points.

Maison La Roche is a double house, the other half designed for already-mentioned brother Albert. The two houses were once known as Two Houses at Auteuil but these days are known separately as Maison La Roche and Maison Jeanneret. Monsieur Raoul La Roche bankrolled the publication of L’Esprit Nouveau and thus features in the beginning and endgames of the Le Corbusier industry for ‘Maison Jeanneret’ is the current home of Fondation Le Corbusier that exists for the conservation, knowledge and dissemination of Le Corbusier’s workAlbert is written out of history in plain view. Revenge by proxy.

Whether divided or as a whole, the building suffers from insufficient program to fill a ground floor and force the main living levels into that neoclassic affectation, a piano nobile.  Even poor Albert gets a large hallway, staff quarters and a garage that in 1923 was almost certainly for show. Monseiur La Roche has all that plus a gallery-sized void. It seems to be crying out to be filled by cars but has only ever been indicated as landscaping. The only thing occupying this space is the idea of getting a building up in the air, at any cost.

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As in 1914, there is again a roof garden and again, the plan is very much determined by the position of structural walls and so, for that matter, is the facade. The horizontal windows aren’t independent of the structure but they’re now trying to appear as if they are. Let’s work our way down from that horizontal window lighting the gallery.

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The roof is supported by two columns painted dark to appear as mullions of the long horizontal window. These columns extend down into the curved wall that might have acted as a beam if it hadn’t been detached at one end by a door and balcony. The load at its middle is transferred to the ground floor column, the contrived displacement of which, I suspect, requires a rectangular web of concrete to transfer that load. I suspect this because of the effort that’s been made to conceal it. A piece of polished metal [or mirror?] is angled on the radius of the stair to create the impression none of this exists. Nasty.

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What the columns are doing is clearer here in this 1928 garden shed. They not only hold up the building but, more importantly, are telling everyone they do. Contrivedly detached from that structure, the ground floor walls define a garden shed with covered porch and axial entrance not visible from the driveway. The route the gardener takes to park his wheelbarrow is not clear.

The problem is that columns look puny when it comes to expressing wealth by enclosing unused or unusable space or by unnecessarily duplicating structural elements because, as with beams, they’re generally the size they’re meant to be. Pushing new boundaries of architectural poetry and innovation requires more massive and massively contrived elements enclosing larger spaces and for less purpose. LC tested this principle in the 1932 Pavilion Suisse.

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It worked, but this doesn’t explain their attraction to the commissioners of social housing in Marseilles in 1949.

It was probably a combination of poor accounting and poor accountability that was responsible. We’re told the structure was originally intended to be steel but that ‘post-war shortages of steel dictated the use of concrete’. Seriously, what kind of visionary would not see that coming?

The superstructure would have lent itself to steel framing and a cladding re-think but I can’t believe steel pilotis and transfer beams were ever on the cards. It would have amounted to building a bridge first and then putting a building on top. We’d be looking at steels larger than this.

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Of the Five Points, pilotis were the greatest of Le Corbusier’s architectural inventions.

Presenting the display of wealth as aesthetic statement is what makes architecture different from building.

It’s clear now that the big difference between pilotis and columns is that pilotis are a more expensive way of doing the same thing. Pilotis force the client to pay for an expensive transfer slab to replicate the function of inexpensive ground. Pure genius!

Pilotis are thus more architectural than columns.

Horizontal windows provide a more evenly distributed illumination but the structural cost is lengthy lintels. Horizontal windows thus don’t feature in vernacular architectures and it is from this that their modernity derives. But if horizontal windows were merely modern, the idea of expensively delineating space that wasn’t going to be used was revolutionary – it was a new type of architectural beauty. The idea of pilotis found immediate and multiple expression throughout the architectural world in the late twenties and early thirties. Here’s a 1928 house in Brno by Jan Víšek.

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This is the ground floor of Moisei Ginzburg and Ignatii Milinis’ 1928 Narkomfin building in Moscow.

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Here’s a 1931 proposal by William Lescaze for New York’s first slab block housing on Chrystie-Forsyth street. [Remember, this is before America was supposed to know about this stuff.]

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The Casa al Villaggio dei Giornalisti in Milan by Luigi Figini. 1934.

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Meanwhile, back in Moscow, LC’s Tsentrosoyuz (1928-1933) was getting off the ground.

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Le Corbusier, Tsentrosoyuz building, Moscow (completed 1933)

Non-architects were unimpressed. They didn’t understand why a building needed to be raised, float or look as if it was not properly supported or permanent.

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It is claimed that pilotis(/open column grids) return useful land at ground level so it can be used again but that land was never put to great use either then,

or for some time after.