Tag Archives: Why aren’t good architects better remembered than the bad ones?

Death of an Architect

I’m glad I’m not a journalist expected to, at a moment’s notice, rush out an obituary summarizing and making sense of an architect and his/her career while often simultaneously introducing them to the general public. The architectural historians and bloggers of yesterday weren’t without their biases but the only responsibility of contemporary architectural journalism is to place some content in a framework in which it can be readily comprehended. At least that’s how I regard this dreadful headline and lead that, to be fair, are probably a sub-editor’s summary of what they thought the main thrust of the article was. Perhaps it was.

Oliver Wainright in The Guardian, Friday 14th January

Just consider. If Bofill had died before his La Muralla Roja (Red Wall) in Calpe, Spain as chosen to “influence the aesthetic of Monument Valley video game and the cult TV show Squid Game, then this 850-word obituary would have been 213 words or almost exactly 25% shorter. If he’d died before his Espaces d’Abraxas was featured in the 1985 film Brazil or even before The Hunger Games, then it’d be another 84 words (10%) shorter. We live in a world where the importance of architects is judged by their number of popular culture retweets. Pad the rest out with equal parts biographical detail and architect quotes and job done.

Things I liked:

“Bofill initially shunned the architectural canon and turned instead to studying vernacular buildings on his travels around the Mediterranean and north Africa. “I’ve never liked architectural theory,” he told me. “So, from the beginning, I’ve always looked at traditional and vernacular buildings.”

“When I was 35, I was the most fashionable architect in the world,” he told me, … but I was always an outsider, never fitting in with architectural culture.”

Turns of phrase I didn’t

“A self-styled outsider”

Being an outsider architect is not a look. Rather, it’s the insiders who are self-styled or, to put it more precisely, respond to external forces to style their lives for architectural fame.

“Looking like a Stalinist Disneyland, his Espaces d’Abraxas project…”“neoclassicism on steroids”

Bofill’s proposal for a Neo-Palladian prefabricated villa is a gem that could only be thought of by someone who undePost-modernism neoclassicism and prefabrication were made forrsw each other. Arc du Lac and some of the office building projects also show his mastery of both.

“the excesses of puffed-up postmodernism”

I can think of a few architects more deserving of this accusation. There are no Bofill projects in Orlando, FL, for example.

“his projects wouldn’t always turn out as he hoped”

Bofill was not the first or last architect to experience this, but saying it makes him sound like like he was.

Words that aren’t untrue:

“as fashions changed his expressive work fell out of favour”

he developed a style that was very much his own”

ArchDaily, January 14th 2022, Nicolás Valencia

It had to be done, even though I’m not due to look at ArchDaily again until this coming June. I’ll quote it in full. ArchDaily were quick off the mark with these 125 words but, as far as I can search, I haven’t been able to find any follow-up piece.

“Ricardo Bofill, the Spanish architect founder of Taller de Arquitectura (RBTA), designer of the iconic Walden 7 and more than 1,000 projects in forty countries, has passed away at 82 in Barcelona on Friday, January 14, as officially announced by his own firm through a statement.

“The firm praised Bofill’s ability to “question the mainstream thinking in architecture. [His works] ranges a style expression, connected to the context, featuring a strong dose of innovation and risk.” Moreover, RBTA has confirmed that his two sons, Ricardo Emilio and Pablo, will continue leading the firm founded in 1963.

“His office has announced a public act to be held next January 26 and 27 at the headquarters in Barcelona for those who want to pay homage to Bofill. 

At the end of the article is an invitation to “Explore some of Ricardo Bofill’ most iconic architecture projects” on ArchDaily. Too much time has passed to even debate what the word “iconic” means anymore but I’m guessing it now means something like “backdrop”.

The New York Times, January 19, 2022, Fred A. Bernstein

Over at the New York Times, Fred Bernstein files 1,242 words, beginning with some facts.

“Ricardo Bofill, a Spanish architect behind some of the world’s most startling buildings, died on Friday at a hospital in Barcelona. He was 82. The cause was Covid-19, his son Pablo said.”

It’s a fine article and a fitting obituary, interspersing biography and history with descriptions of projects and their often mixed reactions such as

“Among Mr. Bofill’s best known works were public housing projects, most of them built in France in the 1980s, with vastly overscale classical elements, which were both derided as kitsch and hailed by critics as the long-awaited middle ground between historicism and modernity.”

Things I agreed with:

His goal, his son Pablo said in an interview, was “to demonstrate that at a modest cost you can build social housing where every floor is different, where people don’t have to walk down endless corridors, and where different populations can be part of one community.”

Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic of The New York Times at the time, wrote in 1985 that it was Mr. Bofill’s gift “to be able to unite the French instinct toward monumentality, which has lain dormant since the days when the Beaux-Arts ruled French architecture, with the country’s more current leanings toward populism.”

Things that aren’t untrue:
I was surprised to learn Bofill told Vladimir Belogolovsky in a 2016 interview for the website ArchDaily. “When Post-Modernism became accepted and popular in the United States and worldwide, it also became a style,” “And with time it became ironic and even vulgar. I was no longer interested.” I’d always seen Boffil’s Post Modernism as a style suited to the prefabrication of concrete components, much as Classicism was suited to carved stone ones. In both, the monumentality of the elements disguises the joins. Styles are never about the arbitrary whims of fashion, although many would have us believe otherwise.

This article is also not immune from mentioning that the jarring juxtapositions [of his Les Espaces d’Abraxas] made it seem dystopian — and it served as the perfect backdrop for Terry Gilliam’s 1985 movie, “Brazil,” and the last of the “Hunger Games” movies. Again, the notion is reinforced that being referenced in popular culture as an Instagram backdrop or a set for a TV series is the only indicator of architectural success we have.

“In an unexpected twist, Mr. Bofill’s older buildings found new fans in the 21st century. “Westworld,” the HBO sci-fi series, was shot in part at La Fábrica, and “Squid Game,” the Korean TV juggernaut, featured sets that closely resembled La Muralla Roja.

Upon re-reading that, I think it’s a bit odd to discuss an architect’s career as if it were a movie plot with “an unexpected twist”. I don’t suppose I should be surprised, if we talk about architects as if they’re movie stars then why shouldn’t their careers have “plot twists”? Mr. Manuel Clavel Rojo is not helping. He’s either expressing the will of the epoch or simply going with the flow.

Those Bofill buildings and others became familiar Instagram backdrops — or in the words of Manuel Clavel Rojo, a Spanish architect and educator, “His buildings became pop icons at the very end of his career.”

The process had begun well prior to Bofill’s death.

Creative Bloq, October 16, 2021 , Joseph Foley

Creative Bloq posed the question below, before helpfully informing us that apartments in La Muralla Roja are available to rent on Airbnb. 458 words.

(Image credit: Sebastian Weiss / Netflix)

There’s also this Martin Solveig music video from 2016. [Thanks V!] – https://youtu.be/wQRV5omnBBU

Niall Patrick Walsh on Archinect, Friday, January 14th 2022

This article mentions how “in the 21st century, the scale, complexity and unapologetic optimism unique to Ricardo Bofill’s work has made it an ideal backdrop for contemporary culture, be it photography, cinema, music, or fashion.” This may be true but at least it’s not suggesting that’s the sole worth of the buildings and career.

The remainder of the article is functional, providing biography and history but also mentioning that Bofill “embraced vernacular details from Catalan architecture” and a “bold experimentation with modular geometries”, using Walden 7 to illustrate.

Walden 7 by Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura

It’s a polite article and with sufficient images and links for the reader who would like to know more. The end of the article has links to similar articles I might be interested in. It’s a bit weird, but such is the way of algorithms and keywords.

Suspicious of some ingrained prejudice, I wondered how Richard Rogers’s death fared on ArchDaily. His life and career were summed up in 214 words which, although not many, is 89 more (41%) than Bofill. I don’t think these mini-obituaries indicate anything more than ArchDaily’s meanness in paying for original content when people supply it for nothing. Over at The Guardian however, Oliver Wainwright managed 2,600 words for Richard Rogers which is 1,750 (200%) more than he did Bofill. We can only speculate what might have happened to the careers of both if Bofill’s plan for Les Halles had been completed, instead of Rogers+Piano’s Beaubourg.

The history of architecture has always been an arbitrary construct, continually reshaped according to what we think we value from the past. These obituaries are examples of new history being laid down. They don’t encourage us to remember buildings for what they meant at the time, or architects for what they did or aspired to do, or if those aspirations might still be valid. The past 60 years saw architectural history mined for references to be used in architectural objects but there was still a sense of worth attached to them. Our immediate future looks like being the same, except the only metric of worth will be the number of instances something can be used as a reference for anything. It’s happening now, but we should’ve seen it coming.

The https://ricardobofill.com/ website is one of the most generous and informative architectural websites you will ever find. It is a true resource that also says a lot about the man and his regard for what he did.

• • •

Mon. 7th Feb., 2022: This obituary in Curbed does the man and his work more justice. https://www.curbed.com/2022/01/ricardo-bofill-obituary-social-housing.html?regwall-newsletter-signup=true

Art Vacuum

In the 1980s when video was beginning to become popular, there was a Korean American video artist called Nam June Paik. He was one of the first to see artistic potential in this new medium that wasn’t film. Once, when asked about the difference between film and video, he was quoted as saying “Film is like the moon. It only reflects light. Video is like The Sun. It gives light.” I remember thinking this made sense but, on reflection, it’s a load of crap. It’s true a film screen uses reflected light to show images and it’s true a video monitor emits light to show them but equating those two characteristics of The Sun and The Moon to make inferences about size, centrality and importance is what’s known as Inductive Fallacy. There’s also the niggle of implying this alleged difference is more significant than any content. The new art genre of video art required video artists to make video art and accordingly, they spent much time expressing things film could not express and that video as a medium could. In reality, this often meant multiple monitors strewn around galleries, emitting nothing but audio and visual static.

Tangential I know, but there’s also the cultural niggle of implying Sun worshippers are superior to Moon worshippers. Cultures with Sun-derived religions may be more likely to have been settled farmers sensitive to the cycles of the Sun while cultures with Moon worshipping religions may be more likely to have been nomadic herders sensitive to the cycles of the Moon because they needed to keep track of their animals at all hours. This observation makes a certain kind of sense too and is probably as true as anything else but it doesn’t say rice is better than goat or wheat superior to camel.

In fairness, it was the 1980s and Paik’s response was typical for a world where the medium was being said to be the message. This championing of the medium was of course the death of content, instantly negating everything Truffaut, Antonioni, Kuraowawa, etc. had done for film since the invention of projection. It also heralded the death of narrative in the sense of telling stories. Having said that, there’s a kind of sweetness to these early examples of video art and I was surprised to find myself pleased to see them again. This is Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, from 1995,

Mostly, television sets were used in unconventional ways to show some kind of videotaped or perhaps live content as part of a sculptural installation or performance. It’s just how I see it, but the real things we see are juxtaposed with video (i.e. onscreen) content and some sort of new meaning is meant to come from that.

It’s easy to see why Paik’s best known work is his series of Buddhas contemplating themselves onscreen. The Buddha doesn’t move and neither does the image onscreen but it’s still a live video feed of (reflected light) being converted into electrical impulses and emitted onscreen to enter the eye of the virtual contemplator, whose image is being videod, etc. Film never had this recursiveness. The point of the Buddha’s is for our relationship to video being questioned, subverted, and so on as is the way of art and artists. It didn’t change how we think about our relationship to screens and live video feed. And nor does it matter because the world and technology have moved on since. In a Skype video call, the screen was only refreshed for those parts of the screen for which movement is detected. Paik’s Buddhas would make not make the same sense on Skype video feed that has only the potential for refreshing. I was curious to see what Paik did after. These are from circa 1993.

If Skype is now beginning to seem a little old fashioned, then these video monitors are quaint relics of a distant age. The idea of watching any kind of image on a cathode-ray tube powered by transistors simply never developed a cult following like listening to music on vinyl did. Is anybody still making video art? Or is it now in some late-Mannerist stage where all it can do is parody itself in the name of art?

In the 1980s video art may have been shocking because, until then, our relationship with screens was a passive one, consuming news and entertainment. We looked at printed things called television programs to find out what each channel would broadcast the following week. Until the advent of cable networks we weren’t even aware we were watching “terrestrial” television. Cable networks offered old movie channels, DIY channels, shopping channels and specialist channels such as Discovery and MTV. Most of this content could still be consumed in the same way as terrestrial content had been, but shopping channels brought a new level of interactivity and compulsiveness to the act of shopping. Shopping was presented and consumed as entertainment long before Rem Koolhaas tried to persuade us it needed buildings to be so.

Some of us would program mostly VHS but occasionally Betamax video recorders to record programs or movies we were now able to not be home to watch. This was the birth of on-demand entertainment. We could fast-forward through advertisements. Rental video stores meant we could binge watch movies all weekend. Our screen content was much the same, but there was suddenly more of it, and we would watch it at any time.

Computing changed our relationship to screens once again when office and all manner of work-related tasks began to be conducted on screens. Spreadsheets replaced ledgers and, at first, dedicated word processors replaced typewriters and, as soon as anything could be done on a personal computer with the appropriate software package, Internet access meant we could watch the news, write a few personal emails, book holidays and generally goof off anytime. Social media was to take the science of distraction to a whole new level.

Cellphones are now indisputably the screen we look at the most. My daily and weekly averages are down from last week, but then I do spend a lot of time on my laptop.

Since the mid-1970s we’ve had all these screens enter our lives but I’ve yet to see any cellphone art beyond a wallpaper or decorated protective cover. We use our cellphones to draw things, and people like David Hockney can produce wonderful iPad “paintings” but the cellphone has no identity as a new medium as video once did. It might just be that we’re so busy using our phones to purchase things and keep ourselves amused or informed of whatever we think we need to know, that we’ve simply no time for art that isn’t an image, video or music – the only three formats that, other than text, a cellphone screen can reproduce with any degree of fidelity. In other words, our preferences are being shaped by the limitations of technology. And we are being led by those limitations.

The only time art gets a mention of late is with respect to NFTs. This type of art is generally some kind of digital content that can be viewed onscreen. Anyone can visually consume it but the satisfaction that comes from being identified as the owner of it belongs to (and, in a sense, consumed by) the person who paid to have that satisfaction. This has always been the essence of the artistic economy. The aesthetics of the product matter little. The only downside is that the products to which this value is attached and traded tend to be resolutely two-dimensional.

You may have seen this in Architectural Digest in March last year. It’s a virtual house for Mars – of course it is. Video artist Krista Kim declares “Everyone should install an LED wall in their house for NFT art,” says the artist. “This is the future, and Mars House demonstrates the beauty of that possibility.” 

It’s a future. Questions of ownership aside, these digital representations of alternate pseudo-architectural realities do, on some level, allow us to project ourselves into that space and imagine ourselves in it, but no more than we’d do by looking at a photograph or fly-through or some interactive click-through on some estate agents’ website.

The single room in Black Mirror S01E02 “15 Million Credits” at least exists in three dimensions even if the space it implies is a virtual one. A room like this could have its uses in the same way a sauna is a specialized room with only one main function. Also, and again much like a sauna, it’s possible for two people to be in this space and have a conversation, for example. The implied spatial experience isn’t the sole reason for human existence.

This of course, brings us to the Zuckerverse. If we’re all going to be wearing VR headsets then it’s not going to be necessary to have a real space in order to magic up a pseudo-reality like in the image above. With headsets, any opportunity for social interaction not via VR headset is eliminated. Preventing people from getting together and talking amongst themselves is an idea loved by oppressors throughout history. Who stands to gain what from an environment where all human interaction is monitored? What do we get in return and will it ever be worth it?

The idea of virtual architectural spaces isn’t new but the idea of a virtual representation of an architectural space being an end in itself is. They already exist in computer games so it’s not such a big leap. It will all develop in its own way and in line with what can be monetized. This won’t necessarily be in line with what we want or might like. I don’t see this ending well for architecture. An increased online presence might reduce our spatial footprint in the here and now and this might have know-on benefits for resource allocation. It hasn’t happened yet. After all, it never took that much space to read a book and be transported to a different time and place but, as anyone who reads books knows, they do take up a lot of space.

• • • 

Today, I was saddened to learn of Ricardo Bofill’s death. When I remember how Bofill was never included in the past 40 or 50 years of architectural chatter, it’s infuriating to read some of the things that have been written about him so far, and to imagine those that will be. For now though, this post from July 2019 still stands as a tribute to a wonderful life in architecture, and to some wonderfully humane architecture.

Architecture Misfit #35: Edwin Lutyens

Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869 – 1944) was, for most of his architectural life, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 – 1959) and Le Corbusier (1887 – 1965). Like Frank Lloyd Wright, he built most of his important houses before the First World War and like Le Corbusier there was a major project for the Indian government. Le Corbusier, not usually given to praising other architects, said of Lutyens,   

[the Viceroy’s House at New Delhi] “was built by Lutyens over thirty years ago with extreme care, with great talent, with true success. The critics may rant as much as they like, but to have done such a thing demands respect (at least it demands my respect).”

[originally in] W. Boesiger, ed., Le Corbusier: Œuvre Complète 1952-1957, p50

After Lutyens’ death in 1944, in a review of the then recently published Lutyens Memorial volumes, Frank Lloyd Wright wrote he was pleased to

… voice admiration of the love, loyalty and art with which this cultured architecs, in love with Architecture, shaped his buildings. To him the English chimney, the Gable, the Gatepost monumentalised in good brickwork and cut-stone were motifs to be dramatised with great skill. He was able to idealise them with a success unequalled. Nor can I think of anyone able to so characteristically and quietly dramatise the old old English feeling for dignity and comfort in an interior, however or wherever that interior might be in England.

[originally in] Building XXVI July 1951, pp 260-2

Le Corbusier refers only to the project in India but the Frank Lloyd Wright quote shows a wider admiration that is easier to understand because he and Lutyens were both Edwardian architects thinking through and solving similar problems in different styles but often similar ways. Lutyens’s project in New Delhi provided a way of understanding Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, drawing our attention to statement urbanism giving way to buildings and the spaces between them, and then the spaces and how they connect inside those buildings. The question is: If Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier thought Edwin Lutyens an architect of worth, then why don’t we today? Here’s some possible reasons.

Lutyens found early fame, apparently effortlessly. This goes against the grain in a culture in which architects are supposed to mature only after forty and keep going until they drop. Lutyens did all that too. Frank Lloyd Wright used to advise young architects to build their first one far out of town. Lutyens was 19 when he designed Crooksbury and set up practice when the house was completed in 1890. Crooksbury is nothing to be ashamed of.

Because of Crooksbury, Lutyens met the landscape designer Gertrude Jekyll who had been wanting to build a house for many years and had been planting its gardens since 1883 in anticipation. Lutyens designed Munstead Wood for her and when it was published in Country Life in 1897, it was already surrounded by mature gardens that it seemed to have been designed for. Because it was. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership.

This is the house today. It has its own website.

Lutyens was popular as well as famous. And without any help from architectural media such as the fledgling Architectural Review or from architectural historians such as Henry-Russell Hitchcock who did publish a history of Lutyens in 1929, but almost thirty years after the magazine Country Life had published Munstead Wood. Country Life was probably the world’s first lifestyle magazine, aimed at the newly rich who could afford to live in the country but within commuting distance of London. It was the world of Room with a View, and Howard’s End.

The fictional house of the Honeychurch family in Room with a View is the 1883 Foxwold House by Sir Alexander Stenning for Horace Noble Pym. It’s a Lutyens precursor in drawing from Shaw and Webb, but is too easy to label as mock-Tudor.

Country Life‘s owner was Lutyens’ greatest patron, commissioning Lutyens for the company offices and two houses including The Deanery which was one of Lutyens’ first and Castle Drogo which was one of his last. Unlike Architectural Review, Country Life has gone from strength to strength. Below right is the cover of the current issue. [Have you got the right daffodils?]

The book Lutyens Country Houses “from the archives of Country Life” by Gavin Stamp and published by Monacelli in 2001 is easily found in libraries and bookshops.

It’s been said the houses were the wrong size. Although they were significantly smaller than Victorian mansions they were still too large to be run without servants yet not large enough or old enough to be thought worthy of protection as historic monuments. There may be an element of academic snobbery at work here. Clients for the grand Victorian mansions were initially landed gentry and only in the second half to the 19th century came to include those who made their fortunes through industry. The typical Lutyens client was engaged in newly-important occupations and were bankers, stockbrokers, industrialists and businessmen. [btw Edgar Kaufman Snr. was a retailer, Mon. Savoye was an insurance man.] After World War I, Victorian mansions were considered part of history rather than relics of a bygone era.

Lutyens didn’t keep sketchbooks. Many of the anecdotal stories in this post come from Elizabeth Wilhide’s 2000 book Sir Edwin Lutyens: Designing in the English Tradition. She writes that Lutyens was a sickly child and largely self-taught.

“Rather than sketch on paper, he used a small sheet of glass, drawing the view he framed using a sliver of sharpened soap. The result was a quick appreciation of perspective and how different planes of buildings related to each other and to a particular setting. A means of looking, rather than a means of recording, his glass pane, rinsed clear for every outing, served to develop his prodigious visual memory. Throughout his life, Lutyens frowned on the common practice of keeping a sketchbook as a repository for ideas that could later be assimilated into buildings. Buildings, he believed, should emerge from their local context and not comprise disparate elements and design ideas borrowed from radically different locations.” p17

Lutyens was to remain a prolific sketcher and drawer throughout his life. After his death, some 80,000 drawings were recovered from his office, about 70% for buildings never built. Over say, a 50-year career, 80,000 is between four and five per day. Here’s the first five I found.

Lutyens had a sensitivity for vernacular and craft that went deeper than Arts & Crafts.

But Lutyens’s delight in the picturesque was not solely an aesthetic preference. The pragmatic side of his character … expressed itself in a deep curiosity about how such buildings were made… . [Edwin] became a frequent visitor to building sites, carpenters’ shops and builders’ yards in the quest for knowledge about the variety of craft and construction techniques that had been employed for centuries to create such ‘architecture without architects’. At this time, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, there was still much traditional craft and lore to be learned; skills that would all but vanish over the next half century. In Edwin Lutyens: A Memoir, Mary Lutyens writes about her father: “From old Tickner [the village carpenter] he learned the ways of wood and how to recognize when the oak was ready for felling by the taste of the acorn.’ ” p17

The houses had the wrong kind of outside, outside. Lutyens’ houses were on sites far smaller than Victorian mansions but their grounds were fundamentally different as they did not have to support game or livestock or produce vegetables. They were gardens. The Edwardians did not see gardens as extensions of the interior but as destinations in themselves.

The view from a window could be enjoyed anytime, and often was. These are the windows at Marshcourt. It was possible at the time to manufacture larger plans of glass but Lutyens’ preference was for smaller ones that didn’t produce a wall of glare.

Still, the thinking was that if one wanted to be outside then one went outside and enjoyed being outside. This is a very sensible attitude. (It is not like one is on a ship with only an ocean to look out at.) The connection to the garden was important and the ideal country house was not only in the country but part of it. The house was the entry to the garden. The Edwardian garden was a refuge from the greater world but it was also a pleasant place to be, full of experiences and sensations. There were places to walk, places to view, places to sit and Lutyens’ architectural sense of spatial drama combined well with Gertrude Jeckyll’s approach to plant selection and planting that was more naturalistic and less showy than some of its modern restorations suggest.

Insufficient interpenetration of inside and outside. The Edwardian taste may have been for indoors being indoors and outdoors being a garden but the two were by no means conceptually or architecturally separate. Many Lutyens houses have an entry courtyard on one side of an H-shaped plan so that the building shelters arriving carriages from wind. At Daneshill House, of which I shall write more, this entry court is an outdoor room created by a thick yew hedge. A more astonishing example is the staircase court at the Viceroy’s House in new Delhi where the carriages arrive in a room that would be indoors were it not for the absent ceiling. Both are examples of transitional spaces used for climate amelioration.

Lutyens designed houses that seemed bigger than they were. This is no crime, for not many people want a house that seems smaller than it actually is. I’ve mentioned the houses weren’t that small to start with and, though our definition of what constitutes small may have changed, getting more for one’s money never goes out of fashion. One main way of accomplishing this is through circulation routes that are not straightforward or capable of being understood in their entirety from a single position. Many drawings have been produced with dashed lines tracking paths through Lutyens’ houses’ ground floor plans. All major rooms on the ground floor can usually be entered and exited in at least two ways. This is consistent with the then existing practice of the owners of large English country houses treating visitors to a guided tour. The owners, for their part, no doubt took no small pride in showing (off) their house. One of the conceits of the guided tour was to never leave a room the way it was entered and, after a series of architectural events, to arrive back at the place the tour began, the success of the tour and the building being indicated by how surprised the visitors were upon realising that. Lutyens’ country houses are Victorian mansions downscaled for the new late-19th austerity but the patterns of movement through them are typical of the high-Victorian dinosaur mansions. [c.f. The Maximum Dwelling] More to the point, the idea of the promenade architectural is not a new one.

The plans of these and other houses all make sense in terms of a guided tour. Moreover, most of the plans are topologically similar in having the following connections but are allowed to be complicated by site-specific factors.

He designed houses that seemed older than they were. This is a Victorian hangover from designing for the newly monied, and probably has equivalents today. Lutyens’s houses may all seem old to us today but at the time they were said to seem neither new nor old, and without the affectation of wanting to be either. [c.f. The Maximum Dwelling: Respect] Whatever they were, they appealed to clients wanting to convey the impression of security and timelessness. One way Lutyens suggested the passage of time was to combine different architectural styles in the detailing. A classical fireplace or one in, say, the modern style of Wren was one way he suggested the modification of an older building.

Lutyens only built for rich people. Not so. Well, yes and no. This is Grosvenor Court, completed in 1928-1930 for the 6th Duke of Westminster, a rich person admittedly but, in 1937, the Duke’s trustees leased them (for a peppercorn rent of 1 shilling) to London’s Westminster Council on a 999-year lease with the proviso that they be used only as “dwellings for the working classes… and no other purpose.”

In 1990 the Council argued that the term “working class” was now meaningless and that the stipulation should be overturned, allowing them to sell the leaseholds of the flats to anyone, against the Duke’s wishes.[5][7][8] The Duke maintained that the properties should remain available as low-rent accommodation for those who could not afford to purchase long leaseholds. His freehold interest means the Duke can charge for extensions and structural alterations.[9] If a majority of a block becomes privately owned that majority can pay for and cease his future such rights: via collective enfranchisement.[10] The case was dubbed Westminster v Westminster by the media.[11]

This all goes to show that architects can design workable social housing when there is the political will for them to do so. Grosvenor Court still functions as social housing, despite Westminster Council. When it comes to social housing, realities that work are preferable to visions that remain unbuilt.

Lutyens is too picturesque. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is a modern house in that the landscape is there to be admired from within the house. The house is the destination and not an entry point to its surroundings. To this day, we continue to appreciate and understand Fallingwater as picturesque composition, and even then mostly from that one position. Lutyens’s didn’t invent picturesque composition any more than Wright did, but Lutyens’s houses have more sides to them. With Lutyens’s houses, picturesque composition is generally limited to the close relationship with the garden design. This doesn’t happen so much anymore, and is perhaps why the houses seem dated. It’s our loss.

Lindisfarane Castle (1906-1912) is an example of Lutyens creating a picturesque composition with a landscape feature.

Lutyens is insufficiently serious. Allan Greenburg uses the word paradox in his 2007 book Lutyens And The Modern Movement, itself a reprint of a 1964 essay that was responsible for a momentary resurgence of interest in Lutyens. Paradox is the setting up of rules and then breaking them. We don’t know if Lutyens did or even would have used to the word paradox but we understand the concept because the idea of paradox was to resurface later in the 20th century as contradiction.

  • A symmetrical house volume contains an asymmetrical circulation pattern.
  • There is a solid element such as a fireplace precisely where two major axes cross.
  • A house is symmetrical and “formal” on one side yet asymmetrical and “informal” on the other.

Lutyens’ use of paradox is, as claimed by Greenburg and also by Stamp, what prevents his houses from being “bombastic”, apparently. Along with the seemingly illogical pattern of movement, this quality of paradox is also responsible for generating the “informality” that Muthesius mistook for modernity. It was to be another six or eight decades before paradox was properly identified and accepted as a modern architectural device and even then only after Venturi had traced its pedigree back to Italian Baroque. Venturi equates paradox and contradiction so I think we can agree we’re talking about the same thing.

Lutyens was insufficiently international. It’s odd that Henry-Russell Hitchock was writing about Lutyens in 1929 and, less than two years later, about everyone else but Lutyens. It seems we can’t trust historians to show us the bigger picture. It is true that Lutyens, much like his houses, were rooted in their place but Lutyens did have commissions in other countries and, as an extension of his belief that a building should be have roots in its location, he adapted his allowed local conditions and motifs to influence the design. It is an international approach and not a style as such. Le Bois Des Moutiers from 1924 is, as you imagine, in France and less English than the other houses, so much so that even Country Life wasn’t to publish it or the other French houses until 1981.

The layout of the Viceroy’s House in New Dehli is generally regarded as being climatically responsive, the domes and sharp cornices as providing dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, in its layout, and the architectural devices suggesting what classical architecture could have been had it developed in India from Hindu and Mughal traditions.

There’s also the palace of El Guadalperal (1915-1934), designed for the eighteenth Duke of Peñaranda as a country house on his estate in south west Spain. It does the same thing for classicism in Spain.

There’s also the British Embassy in Washington. An embassy building is a kind of ambassador, yet one that’s familiar with the local culture. Whether this building is British or American, both or none I can’t say.

Over-reliance on local materials. I’ve already mentioned how Lutyens believed that buildings , should emerge from their local context and not comprise disparate elements and design ideas borrowed from radically different locations. He believed one would never get the colour of a building wrong as long as one used local materials. If there was granite nearby then the building was made of granite. If there was chalk then chalk it was. Local stone of lesser quality could still be incorporated into garden walls and pergolas.

Gertrude Jekyll said there was something nice about knowing the forest where the oak trees were felled [25 years or so prior!!] to make the beams in one’s house. She said she chose the bedroom at the end of the gallery at Munstead Wood so she could have the pleasure of walking along it every day.

Using local materials used to be best practice because it was economically expedient. Much of Georgian London as built by Cubbitt was constructed from bricks made from clay excavated from what were to be basements. The 1903 Daneshill House was built from bricks specially made from the local clay of Basingstoke.

“Lutyens and [the client] Walter Hoare visited the ruins of Basing House, destroyed during the Civil War, where Lutyens admired the colour and quality of the Elizabethan bricks from which the ruined house had been constructed and whose slighting had provided bricks to rebuild the village of Old Basing. Lutyens said that he would build Hoare a house if clay could be found of the same quality. They found a local source and a brickworks was set up employing 12 workman who produced particularly beautiful narrow bricks about 10” x 5” x 11⁄2”. Lutyens then encouraged Hoare to set up a company and The Daneshill Brick and Tile Company was formed.

The former offices of the Daneshill Brick and Tile Company still exist in what is remains an industrial area. This is the building and one of its fireplaces.

Daneshill House I know well because it was converted into a business centre that housed the practice where I first worked as an assistant architect [with my desk against the wall but not quite in front of the leftmost dormer]. The south side of the building looked across the Gertrude Jekyll garden with a series of lavender-terraced lawns overlooking the countryside.

The downstairs reception rooms had Lutyens’ circuitous circulation and illustrate the house as entry to the garden. Fireplaces showcase the local brick.

There was simply too much attention to craftmanship! Edwin Lutyens did not design for machines. He never did, he never wanted to and he did not pretend to want to. In that vein, Lutyens had no thoughts on how architecture should be taught. He was too occupied and preoccupied doing it. He never went to a university. He was not interested in teaching. He began his career as he intended to go on, using local materials worked by local tradespeople and craftspersons and the results could not be any more locality specific or any less anonymous, or any less “international” as we’ve come to understand the term. Designing for craftspersons is different from designing for machine production because machines don’t talk back or have conversations from which both parties can learn how to design and collaborate better.

Lutyens had a way with staircases and iron balustrades and fireplaces and window reveals but he had a way with everything. In the door of the centre image below, the door furniture is handmade and the hinges are recessed into the door. The carved blocks at the top vent what looks like a closet. There is no need for them them be carved. The chalk walls at Marshcourt do not have to have blocks of flints interspersed and, even if they did, there is no special need to order those flints into rows.

If, at Marshcourt for example, chalk was found locally, then it would have been quite likely there was somebody local and skilled at carving it. That someone might not have had the idea of designing the local flowers into classical swags carved into a decorative cornice. These were some of Lutyens’ s 80,000 drawings.

Still at Marshcourt, we have panels of handmade emerald green tiles and marble, with quoins defining virtual columns defining the space. That, along with underfloor heating, heated towel rails, and light streaming in through the windows and you have my definition of perfection in a bathroom. It’s exquisite and unattainable and, needless to say, because the 20th century went the way it did, as inconceivable to us now as all of the rest if it has become.

I’ve reached the end and not even begun to do justice to this wonderful architect. Every three decades or so, upon some anniversary, there’s a resurgence of interest in Lutyens and then he’s forgotten again. Upon the occasion of Gavin Stamp’s death, a January 2018 Architecture Review article reprinted Stamp’s 1981 article on Lutyens. Not much has changed. It’s still appropriate to finish a re-introduction to the work of Edwin Lutyens with the words that Greenburg used to finish his in 1969.

In 1967 Alan Colquhoun wrote: “It would seem that we ought to try to establish a value system which takes account of the forms and solutions of the past, if we are to gain control over concepts which will intrude themselves into the creative process, whether we like it or not.” Architecture springs from the and and the mind, combining the ability to manipulate forms in space and to relate them to the world of ideas. As sculptors of architectural form, Le Corbusier and Lutyens are probably without contemporary rivals. Their work is related by a mutual love of geometry and proportion, and by roots buried deep in the history of architecture. It is part of a continuing dialogue with and commentary on the past. It is ironic but also fitting that these two men, one of whom was for so long the undisputed leader of the modern movement while the other was a prime symbol of reaction, should share this great common legacy. That confluence underlines our desperate need for a more comprehensive frame of reference to relate the architecture of the past to the architecture of the present. Architectural history, working as it does with existing or recorded artefacts, cannot afford to ignore an entire segment of experience.

To this I can only add that architecture, working as it does with present and future artefacts, can’t really afford to either.

• • • 

Sir Edwin Lutyens!

for being very very good at what you did

misfits’ salutes you!

• • • 


Architecture Misfit #33: Josef Frank

Josef Frank
July 15, 1885 – January 8, 1967

Josef Frank was there at the first CIAM and was invited by Mies van der Rohe to exhibit at the Weissenhof Exhibition in Stuttgart so, in 1927, he was up there with the best of them. A quick scan of the following quotes shows why he’s not taught or remembered now.

“Contrary to most other architects of the interwar period in Vienna, he took the idea of settlement and not the creation of so-called super blocks in municipal housing.” [1] 

“Josef Frank, the Austrian-born Swedish architect and designer, never believed that a house was a machine for living.” [3]

“Frank sought to create homes which were warm, informal, free from the existing conventions of modernism, yet oriented towards modern living.” [2]

“[Frank] envisioned and practiced a type of modernism which was livable, popular, and defined the Viennese modern home during the early years of the 20th century. It was not the utopian modernism of the Bauhaus, but one which embodied a relaxed, everyday lifestyle, with a touch of historicism and ornamentation, a language which avoided the rigid geometry and abstraction for the favor of familiarity.” [2]

“Though not a star like Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe, Frank thrilled with his furniture, lighting, and textiles …” [3]

“In addition to his architectural work he created numerous designs for furniture, furnishings, fabrics, wallpaper and carpet.” [1]

Frank was too interested in how people lived in houses and this was not how the wind was blowing mid-twenties in the alpha-male world of architecture. To have an excessive interest in colour, pattern and texture, especially when in connection with interiors, was never going to go down well. This is supported by the opening essay in this book [8] that accompanied the first exhibition of Frank’s work in 1996 at The Bard Graduate Centrer in New York. I found a copy at Book Bazaar run by Perth’s Spine and Limb Foundation.

It’s a very generous book with the catalogue preceded by ten essays providing different angles on the one life and work. Much of what you’ll read about Frank is written as a chronology which means the early housing projects before presenting the fabrics and furniture as his lasting legacy. It also means Frank’s thoughts on Modernism in the 1920s are framed in terms of how they differed from those of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and thus buried in time.

  • Frank believed that to be Modern was to be free and not in thrall to the newest dogma.
  • He objected to the codification of Modernism into a few simplistic rules It’s easy to imagine Frank had Le Corbusier’s “Five Points” in mind. 
  • He believed in freedom of the individual and the individual’s right to live freely in terms of furniture and furnishings.
  • He saw these as an extension of people and not of architecture.

This was his message and over the next forty years he never stopped spreading it or finding new ways to articulate it.

“The room in which you can live and think freeely is neither beautiful nor harmonic. It has come about by coincidence, it will never be completed and it can in itself absorb anything whatsoever to satisfy the changing demands of the owner.”

“Mix old and new, colours and forms. Things that you like will all the same melt into a quiet unity. The home does not have to be planned in detail, just linked together by parts that its occupants enjoy and love.”

• • •

Frank’s first fabric design is from 1909 and his first interior commission to furnish his sister’s apartment in Vienna was in 1910.

The Early Work

1910: Tedesco Apartment 

No two items have obvious similarities. The shape and pattern of each item is suited to what it is and how it is used but if this is functionalism then it includes an emotional component. Each thing is how we expect it to be. The chairs in the foreground are Frank’s redesign of the Biedermeier chair. The cushions have a printed design. The ceramic heater is almost vernacular. The vitrine against the wall is of no known style. Importantly, the position of all the things inside the room is arbitrary apart from the writing desk close to the window for daylight. This is the first and last time Frank used a wall covering to mediate between the space and the things in it. From now on, all internal walls would be white and the things inside the space would supply the interest.

Like many others at the turn of the century, Frank admired the English Arts & Crafts movement and his early furniture shows a unity of construction and decoration. Some have likened the richness of Frank’s fabric designs with the wallpaper designs of William Morris but Frank never designed wallpaper. His fabrics were extensions of the occupants and not additions to the architecture. Frank had no sympathy for Secessionists such as Olbrich and Hoffmann who were trying to contrive yet another new style but we was in full alignment with Adolf Loos’ objections to the house as Gesamtkunstwerk – a total work of art. In 1910 Frank was 25 but already on a collision course with what Modernism was to become. In Italy, The Futurists were alling for the wholesale rejection of history but Frank never thought that necessary. He didn’t mind redesigning a Biedermeir chair, or a Windsor chair, or a ladderback chair and saw no reason why everything had to be completely new. The Futurists’ legacy was to legitimize the rejection of history. It is true that some things such as the provision of housing required some new thinking as the old models were no longer working but the Futurists encouraged a degenerate kind of Modernism of newness for the sake of it. Before that had even come to pass, Frank was trying to find the good in the past and bring it into the present. This does not make him a pre-modern post-modernist.

1913: Summer House for Hugo Bunzl, Ortmann, Austria

In Frank’s houses over the next decade and a half, living rooms are always on the ground floor and connected to the garden and bedrooms are on the floor above and open onto terraces and balconies.

“It was my intention to link the living rooms of the garden by means of large glass doors, and to open the bedrooms on the upper floor to all sides with added on balconies.” “The few furnishings are placed independently of the space.”

1914: Haus Scholl, Wilbrandtgasse 12, Vienna (with Oskar Wlach and Oskar Strand)

Frank also admired the informal planning of the English house and preferred rambling plans without symmetries and axes. Because they lacked a controlling geometry, his rooms were open to having furniture arranged in them in arbitrary ways.

1919–25: Taught at Vienna School of Arts and Crafts
1921: Workers’ Housing 

Frank thought a living room pretentious in worker housing of this size and so provided kitchen/sitting room in line with the Austrian vernacular tradition of the Wohnküche.

1925: Opened the store Haus & Garten (with Oskar Wlach) 

The store promoted a vision of the home for the “common man” and the anti-aesthetic it promoted placed it in opposition to notions of the machine and the championing of machine-produced objects. This is some furniture on display at the store in 1926.

Municipal Housing

1921–24: Hoffingergass Municipal Housing in Altmannsdorf, Vienna (with Erich Faber)
1924-5: Wiedenhoferhof Municipal Housing Vienna

Frank’s plans allowed for the maximum number of dual aspect apartments with their advantages for daylighting and ventilation (and their benefits for the prevention of tuberculosis, though this is forgotten). Rooms generally lead off the central living space in an arrangement that allowed apartments of many different sizes to be configured.

1925: Winarsky-Hof Vienna (with Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann, Peter Behrens, Oskar Strnad, Oskar Wlach and Karl Dirnhuber)

By Priwo – photo taken by de:Benutzer

This was a large housing project to which the architects worked separately on the various apartment buildings and communal facilities. The entrance is by Oskar Strnad.

1928–9: Sebastian-Kelch-Gasse Apartments Vienna

1931–32: Leopoldine-Glöckel-yard Municipal Housing

1931–32: Simmeringer Municipal Housing Hauptstraße 142–150, Vienna (with Oskar Wlach)

For Frank, Modernism continued to have the moral imperative of housing people. These apartment and the next ones had larger rooms and larger courtyards than the 1924-5 Wiedenhoferhof Municipal Housing, as well as having a lower site coverage. Frank did not think apartment size was the dominant criteria in housing. Frank saw the apartment block as a compromise and never gave up on the house.

“The best living space does not consist of the number of size of the rooms but the quality of life that they enable.” 

The Houses

1927: Weißenhofsiedlung Duplex (House #12) Stuttgart

Here’s Frank’s building. Of the original twenty-one buildings, it’s one of eleven remaining [1]. Again there is the tidy ground floor plan with minimal circulation leading to various corners for activities, the living room has direct access to the garden, and the bedrooms to the roof terrace. Theo van Doesburg criticized Frank for his “femininely appointed” interiors. Another critic likened them to a brothel. Clearly, the new Modern movement didn’t like pattern and had no time for sentimentality, or even personality. The “femininization” of textiles seems to have come from Gropius (who was dismayed by the prominence at van de Velde’s Weimar and, at the Bauhaus, made the textile course obligatory for all women students).

“the modern person who is increasingly more exhausted by his job requires a domicile cozier and more comfortable than those of the past. He has to obtain relaxation in more concentrated ways in a much shorter time. Therefore rthe domicile has to be the absolute opposite of the workplace. This applies not only to the … sitting and resding areas but to every visible object …; ornament and variety create peace and eliminate the pathos of the purely functional.” 

Frank had a different conception of what it was to be modern.

1929–30: Villa Beer (with Oskar Wlach)

His Villa Beer is modernist on the outside and could be mistaken for a building by André Lurçat another misfit architect and exhibitor at the Werkbundsiedlung exhibition. While it manifests itself in different ways, Frank’s attitude towards the interior is very similar to Eileen Gray’s at E1027 in that it is relaxed and haptic, perhaps sensual. The space with the circular window in Villa Beer is not a room. It has no name. It’s just a corner off the first floor landing and is a pleasant place to be. That’s it at the top on the top left in this plan.

The entrance hall is a complex arrangement of levels, open stairs, galleries and spaces.

In a 1930 speech to members of the German Werkbund, Frank questioned the “radical” modernist’s drive towards stylization, arguing that it was not singularity but diversity that defined modern culture. When he said the new architecture should be allowed to grow from pluralism and not from rigid principles, I suspect he was referring to Le Corbusier’s Five Points because the main living areas of Villa Beer are at ground level (as they are in all his houses). The sitting area projecting into the garden is no summer conservatory. Radiators beneath the seats show Frank intended this as a place to enjoy the outdoors and the garden whatever the season.

Frank said “Modernism is what gives us complete freedom” and this is not some conceptual middle ground between principles and utility but a different way of thinking about what being modern is meant to be, not what it could be represented by. The Miesian “blurring of inside and outside” and the Corbusian rooftop unconnected to the garden both make spaces neither totally inside nor totally outside. If someone really wants to enjoy being out in the garden then they take a chair and go sit there. If it’s too cold, then this seating area at Villa Beer is the next best place. Inside is inside and outside is outside. People have the freedom to choose and do not have some homogenous space forced upon them. I think this is what Frank meant.

1932: Werkbundsiedlung Exhibition House #12

Housing exhbitions are a good idea. I don’t know why we don’t have them anymore. We hear a lot about the twenty one houses in 1927 Weissenhof Exhibition in Stuttgart but little of the 70 houses in the 1932 Werkbundsiedlung Exhibition in Vienna. [4] Frank’s house was #12. The house is divided into three functional zones, each split down the middle by circulation. The dual-aspect living room therefore has cross ventilation in one direction and cross traffic in the other, forming two defined yet connected zones for dining and sitting.

“A well organised house should be planned like a town – with streets and paths leading to places free of traffic, where relaxation is possible”.

All furniture and furnishings and the matching fabric for curtains and day-bed were by the company Haus & Garten Frank and Oskar Wlach had founded in 1925.

By now, Frank’s interest in how people are going to live in the house was fully developed along with his proposal of a bright and relaxed comfort in which soft furnishings were important. Curtains and upholstery fabric were important not because they were “art for the people” as the Constructivists had maintained, but simply because they made living more pleasant.

To argue for an architecture based in pluralism and not in rigid principles was revolutionary at the time and it is revolutionary now. Had his call for a conceptual middle ground been heeded in 1930 we might have been spared the violent conceptual lurch from the extremitites of a supposed Modernism and, after thirty years, to a supposed Post Modernism. [5] Frank viewed the Bauhaus with suspicion and questioned if it was even functional to have a design aesthetic concerned more with principles than utility. [7]

1927–36: Five villas (Haus Seth, Haus Claëson, Haus Carlsten, Haus Wejtje) in Falsterbo, southern Sweden

Frank’s wife was Swedish and they spent much time in Sweden in the late 1920s. Of the five villas Frank designed there, Haus Claëson is the best documented. All feature assymetrical living rooms at ground level with bedrooms and terraces above.

There are at least two unbuilt house proposals for Salzburg, at least a dozen for Vienna, and one each for Munich, Tel Aviv and Los Angeles. Here’s one of the three versions of the Los Angeles one.

1933: The year after the Werkbundsiedlung exhibition, Frank was to emigrate to Sweden (as he was Jewish). He had a job waiting for him designing furniture and textiles for the Svenskt Tenn company. Since 1921, owner Estrid Ericson had followed Frank’s work through journals. She promoted the company’s designs in national and international exhibitions and obtained influential commissions such for Swedish embassies. Around the world, Frank’s work came to be understood as the important new style Swedish Modern.

Although Frank continued to design houses and schemes until at least the mid-1950s, there’s no built work after the 1930s. This is partially due to there being few opputunites to build during the war years in Sweden, and also because he and his wife were to again relocate, this time to the US for the period 1939-1947 where he could continue to do what he was now best known for.

Textiles & Furniture

Frank’s fabric patterns were always free – “The freer the pattern, the better,” he said – and often dense with colorful flowers, fruits, birds, mountains, and waterways but not always. Some such as Koralle appear more early 1950s than early 1930s.

1939: Furniture and furnishings for the Swedish Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair

On the left is an image of the interior of the Swedish Pavilion and already apparent is the looseness and lightness that was to become part of Scandinavian style in the 1950s. The room in the other image contains Franks “Brazil” sofa from 1930 and his “881” cabinet from 1952. This was to become how we live.

It didn’t go well for Frank in the country that had recently accepted Mies van der Rohe and Gropius’ versions of Modernism. On the left below is a New York slum clearance proposal from 1942 and on the right is a 1950 proposal for a town for 2,000 families. Sometime between these two projects, Frank must have realized he was fighting a losing game. Even though his rebellion against austere stylistic interpretations of Modernism didn’t continue in built form, he maintained his conviction Modernism had the moral purpose to promote human comfort.

His late watercolours were not so much proposals but statements showing that joy and being modern were not incompatible. The houses below are mostly from either the 1950 series of Thirteen House Designs for Dagmar Grill or the 1953 series of Six House Designs for Dagmar Grill. Complete designs with plans etc, they are all attempts to solve the problem of the sterility of post-war modern architecture.