08 March 2008

Modernism's leaky roof

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 8 March 2008

An adult buys a house and owns it, on paper anyway. But no one knows a home and owns it like a child. The child fits into nooks the adult cannot reach, hiding and retrieving things there. And as much as those small spaces within, the vast space without becomes his domain, a universe of first adventures. “Inside” and “outside”, private and public, have relatively little meaning to the child: “home” contains it all.

My brick ranch house in southeastern Wisconsin was pretty conventional from a design perspective but the universe in and around it was, nonetheless, an architectural wonderland. Past a row of similar dwellings on East Point View Drive, the children from the ranch house neighbourhood would escape over a barbed-wire fence. Taking care not to rip our clothes, we would climb over it and run into the trees beyond. What we sought on the other side was a glimpse of one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most ambitious residential creations, completed in 1939.

Wingspread, a strange and fantastic vision, was a pharaonic ornament cast in Cherokee red, Wright’s favourite colour, and transplanted on to the American Midwestern prairie. Or it was a fish. Or a space centre. Whatever it was, it was different – and when we looked at it we knew that difference came at a steep price.

Herbert “Hib” Johnson, owner of SC Johnson the household products company, had commissioned Wright to build Wingspread as a family home and loved the beauty of the 14,000 sq ft house he got in return: an octagon of brick towers and angled windows with wings shooting out in four directions. But while he adored its aesthetic, his complaints about technical faults there also became local legend. According to one well-worn tale, when rain leaked through the roof on to Johnson’s head during a dinner party, he made a show of phoning Wright to complain in front of his guests. “Well, Hib, why don’t you move your chair,” Wright is said to have retorted.

The lesson for grade-school trespassers in the neighbourhood was simple: build pharaonic ornaments with Lego bricks, not real ones. Lived in, they are follies. Ranch houses might be plain but their beauty is that they work. Johnson and his family moved out of Wingspread in 1959 and converted it into a conference centre. The folks in their ranch houses stayed put.

This lesson held true through the middle and late 20th century. Not just in Racine, Wisconsin, but around the world the sense of tension between the beauty of form and the beauty of function went limp.

Wright had been among the few aesthetically inclined modernists who dared to challenge the defining maxim of modern architecture preached by Louis Sullivan, the American who gave us skyscrapers, that “form ever follows function”. Wright and his allies lost that battle of ideas, which is why most modern housing looks as it does today.

The challenges in engineering a brave modern design were often too great. But, perversely, the winning side was accident-prone, too, in spite of its professed devotion to rationality.

“Wright was an outrageous bastard,” says Richard Murphy, the award-winning Scottish architect, recalling the late architect’s studied disinterest in engineering considerations. But Murphy is equally critical of the architects whose austere preferences guided mainstream design during the past century: Le Corbusier and Gerrit Rietveld, among others.

A prime symbol of the modernists’ impracticality is the flat roof, which virtually all of them initially embraced without finding a way to engineer properly. “Now we’ve solved the problem of flat roofs but it used to be a big problem,” Murphy says.

The scandal is that, like children, modern homeowners through the mid-to-late 20th century often found they had no choice but to do what their masters – the modern architects – told them. So, in the cities they lived in big boxes. In the suburbs they built little ones. When roofs leaked they moved their chairs.

But at some point we slipped into a postmodern age. People awoke to find that Sullivan’s “law” had been toyed with and deconstructed so thoroughly as to be meaningless.

Diana Martinez, a New York architect at the Temple Hoyne Buell Center, at Columbia University’s highly influential architecture faculty, says: “The rendered form-follows-function dyad has all but disappeared except as a trope used to formulate new equations; that is, form follows fiction, form follows fashion, form follows libido, form follows finance, form follows fiasco. In fact, the last four examples are all titles of books.”

Along the way, the form-function dualism at the cold heart of modern architecture has broken down. Yet it remains difficult to define clearly something called “postmodern architecture”, let alone what kind of beauty such architecture represents. It is neither the beauty of function nor the beauty of form but it might be some fusion of the two.

In 1981, long before the idea of postmodernity had any popular resonance, the author Tom Wolfe, whose aesthetic interests include architecture, wrote an anti-modern manifesto called From Bauhaus to Our House. The book remains highly readable and its closing points – essentially that the emerging “postmodernists” of the time were really modernists who lacked not just taste and decency but also the courage of their convictions – still make sense today.

One of the most notable outsider’s critiques in recent months takes a very similar approach to Wolfe’s. Published late last year, Architecture of the Absurd by John Silber, an ethicist and philosopher who formerly ran Boston University, takes aim at the “genius” architects who “disfigured a practical art”. His claim is that a new generation of indulgent egomaniacs, very much in the tradition established by their modernist forerunners, is blighting our physical landscape, erecting buildings that are both ugly and dysfunctional. In his view, the clients of these architects are footing the bill for “cultural degeneration”, much like the well-heeled backers of faddish postmodern art, theatre and music. Silber admires some modern architecture, so his argument differs from Wolfe’s, but both draw from a well of layman’s outrage.

Yet examine Silber’s arguments in detail and one sees that the populist critique has moved on in one critically important way: the houses are missing.

This is because, whereas the early modernists focused almost obsessively on houses and apartments as spaces in need of revolutionary redesign, today’s leading architects, working in what some have begun to regard as an “un-private” age, typically chase huge public and institutional contracts instead. Many have never seen a house through to construction. Those who do rarely draw fire from critics.

What has changed? On the engineering side, as Murphy notes, standard solutions have been found for staple features of modern design that once caused headaches. Not just new houses but also many older, architecturally groundbreaking houses that seemed doomed to dysfunction decades ago work perfectly well now, after second-wave and third-wave investments, often made by new owners.

Conscientious owners of houses designed by Wright even find themselves called “curators” by Wright aficionados, say Larry and Victoria Smith, recent owners of the Glore House in Lake Forest, Illinois. Clients who commission new houses from today’s top architects often bring that same sense of responsibility from the day they move in – and crucially, as Silber notes, they are wealthy enough not to worry about the bills. Another reason fewer faults are found might be that, as many leading architects turn away from the single family home as their preferred medium, new house designs are becoming simpler.

Only when structural and aesthetic boundaries are tested do controversies crop up. A prominent example is Turbulence House, a New Mexico residence designed by Steven Holl, one of the world’s most celebrated architects and a prime target in Silber’s book.

Its complex shape – it features a hole through its middle and highly curvaceous walls – posed unique engineering challenges. A New York Times reviewer, reverting to classic modernist form-versus-function dualism, made fun of this and noted related construction difficulties. But the review, which might have injured Holl in a past age, failed to engage with the more complex postmodern perspectives of the architect and his clients. Holl preaches “nonconformist openness” in contrast to “technocratic architecture”. The beauty of this evolving postmodern architecture is that it celebrates a marriage of form and function that makes neither aspect primary but lets each serve the other.

A characteristic example from Holl’s portfolio – which, like few equally prominent contemporaries’ portfolios, is bursting with private houses alongside his giant public and institutional works – is the Nail Collector’s House in Essex, New York. Given “pretty free reign” by his client, Alan Wardle, Holl squeezed a sharply angled, brass-coated tower on to a tight plot at the shore of Lake Champlain. Its unusual shape is ornamented with oddities, from the L-shaped front door that fits a corner of the house to its rubber roof and the literary references to Homer’s Odyssey that determined such details as the number of windows.

The dualistic notions we have inherited from modernism get all mixed up at the Nail Collector’s House. Form serves function in that Wardle, a writer, says the house’s shape and harmony within the surrounding environment place him perfectly at ease, and in that its peculiar features actually work very well.

Yet function also serves form, since the house’s shape – especially through the play of light through windows as the sun moves across the sky – is deliberately devised to affect the perceptions of its occupants.

Holl says his goal is to “spark a paradigm shift toward a new focus on architecture’s potential to shape experience, interrelating body, brain and world”.

Just add the word “soul” to such a mission statement, from such a man, and modernism’s leaky roof might just cave in once and for all.

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