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The Big Rethink Part 5: Transcend And include The Past

Major regenerative change provoked by crisis involves both a leap forward and a reappraisal and integration of the best of the past − a process known in Integral theory as ‘transcend and include

Although the best modern architects drew inspiration from the architecture of the past – particularly, but not only, vernacular – much of their justificatory rhetoric was about such things as shedding the irrelevant legacy of history and starting afresh from first principles. In the circumstances that pertained then, this was perfectly understandable – and not only because of the new materials and techniques now available and the new functions to be accommodated. Rampant eclecticism had eroded the meaning of historic motifs that were sometimes piled on one another in a frenzy of exuberant excess that matched interiors so overwhelmingly cluttered they inhibited spontaneity and freedom of movement.

In the aftermath of the First World War, deference to status and the symbols conferring it was also waning. Even prior to that, those returning from time in the colonies had learned the pleasures of a more unbuttoned lifestyle, much of it lived in that realm between inside and out, the verandah. And as agricultural workers moved into the factories, sun and fresh air became essential to health and outdoor pursuits gained in popular appeal – confirming Marshall McLuhan’s edict that we see life in the rear-view mirror and only fully appreciate our previous environment. Visiting a house as built and furnished from shortly before the advent of modern architecture, it is difficult not to feel a strong urge to purge the interior of its clutter and open up the walls to admit light, sun, views and direct access to the garden.

Liberation from the cluttering and constraining conventions of the past allowed modern architecture to make significant innovations in pursuit of functionality, flexibility and various forms of freedom. But although many of these innovations were a leap forward for architecture, they brought downsides, some of which have been discussed in previous essays, such as buildings to which people could not relate and that did not relate to other buildings. Many, particularly non-architects, now focus only on these negative aspects while some architects cling doggedly and dogmatically to the ideals of modern architecture.

Yet it would seem obvious that any relevant and adequate future architecture should reappraise and draw from all past architectures, selectively integrating the lessons and achievements of modern architecture, as well as those of the architectures of earlier epochs and of cultures in other parts of the world. This is consistent with a key idea in Integral theory, as exemplified in the holarchical organisation of the levels within each quadrant, which is that evolutionary development involves not only change or forward progression but also the selective integration of the best and most healthy characteristics of earlier phases of development. Only through this process of ’transcend and include’ is the result to move vertically up a level (transformational development) rather than instead move horizontally (mere change).

A cluttered and gloomy 19th-century interior of the sort to which modern architecture was a more or less inevitable purgative reaction

A cluttered and gloomy 19th-century interior of the sort to which modern architecture was a more or less inevitable purgative reaction

Architecture is such a broad discipline, integrating so many fields of concern, that it is widely recognised that it takes a long time before architects enter what in retrospect is seen as the mature phase of their careers – Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, who were both fine architects in their youth, were in their late sixties when they respectively built Falling Water and Ronchamp. Learning to appreciate and learn from the past is a similar life-long endeavour to which sincere and serious architects are committed.  So any brief survey of some of these lessons, such as this essay, is of necessity very cursory: it is intended more as a prompt for those not yet committed to reappraising the past to do so, and a reminder of only some of the many important lessons that might be learnt. The purpose, as always with these essays, is to aid us in our pursuit of an architecture that is more complete in its range of concerns than is the norm today, in which we can feel more at home and can live a life that brings deep satisfactions through the choice and quality of experiences made possible.

A Pattern Language

A key precedent and resource in any such exercise in learning from the past is A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander et al, a book that although mentioned periodically in architectural conversation and student crits has not yet had the impact it should have had – indeed, it is more likely to be found on the bookshelves of the general public than of architects. Patterns are physical devices or spatial arrangements, most of which add another dimension to how the built environment may be used; and in the book these are arranged in a specific sequence to ensure their appropriate relationship to each other. Although some patterns, particularly those relating to construction, might not convince, the book is crammed with wise insights and is a compendium of design devices and their relationships that have long proved their worth. The knowledge is mostly derived from close observation of places bequeathed from the past that not only function well but are also full of life, both in hosting human activity and in an elusive quality imbued in the physical fabric and forms of the environment – a quality recognisable in the feeling evoked, in the way the heart or soul is touched. (This experiential quality belongs to the Upper Left quadrant of the AQAL diagram.)

A typical spread from Christopher Alexander's 'A Pattern Language'

A typical spread from Christopher Alexander’s ‘A Pattern Language’

Moreover, the pattern language, with its 253 patterns that can each be shaped in a myriad ways, constitutes a vision of an environment that is extraordinarily rich in many sorts of potential experiences – the very antithesis of so much modern and contemporary architecture and urbanism. The environment envisioned encourages living a very full and satisfying life, from childhood to old age, in a setting that makes you feel fully at home (again a UL quadrant quality).

It is this usually unremarked upon dimension of the pattern language that makes it so thoroughly subversive and forward looking rather than regressive, as so many misunderstand it to be. Even architects not immune to the charms of the places depicted, are loath to pursue the folksy aesthetic they see as implied and do not want to engage with such primitive construction – although the systemic collapse now unfolding may force that upon them. The daunting challenge for architects then, if such a thing is even possible to realise, would be to recreate in a more contemporary idiom both the richness and quality of experience suggested by the pattern language. 

Appeal of vernacular

Many of the patterns and the photographs of them in A Pattern Language come from vernacular or ‘anonymous’ architecture. Modern architects admired such buildings and environments long before Bernard Rudofsky celebrated them in the exhibition and book Architecture without Architects. Among other things they admired the very direct response to need and available materials, which seems so uncontrived and unaffected compared with architect-designed pre-modern architecture. This seemingly spontaneous rightness was arrived at almost unconsciously, yet was also the distilled wisdom of centuries of slow trial-and-error improvements.

Not designed on paper, vernacular buildings are a direct, first-hand response to what pre-exists – other buildings, the landscape and the microclimate – all of them subject to intimate first-hand knowledge by the builders. Structure and construction are simply revealed so that you easily understand and relate to the buildings. The results are often very moving to visit, or merely look at in photographs, where lifestyle and habitat fit hand in glove , giving a sense of being at home in and in harmony with both the manmade and natural world. Historian Jacquetta Hawkes has written to the effect that English villages enfolded in the landscape represent the highest form of lovemaking between mankind and nature – a lovely ideal to keep in mind when designing.

A typical longhouse of the English vernacular, as drawn by RW Brunskill from his book 'Houses and Cottages of Britain', combines house and cow byre separated by a walkthrough passage

A typical longhouse of the English vernacular, as drawn by RW Brunskill from his book ‘Houses and Cottages of Britain’, combines house and cow byre separated by a walkthrough passage

But the deep appeal of vernacular architecture – aesthetically and in the heart-touching emotions elicited (UL quadrant qualities) – should not blind us to the fact (easily overlooked now that so many vernacular buildings have been converted into delightful holiday accommodation) that it often sheltered lives of great hardship, devoid of opportunity so that inhabitants merely accepted their lot in life and remained ignorant of anything beyond the local. This is a reminder that so far our use of Integral theory has been largely limited to using the quadrants to guide discussion and we have so far neglected how the levels within the quadrants pertain to socio-cultural and personal development. This is a major part of Integral theory that we will turn to in a later essay as bits of it are introduced and applied only gradually.

Aranya low-cost housing in Indore, India by Balkrishna Doshi, reworks the forms and climatic control devices of vernacular construction

Aranya low-cost housing in Indore, India by Balkrishna Doshi, reworks the forms and climatic control devices of vernacular construction

Lessons for sustainability

The urgent quest for sustainability has given new relevance to the study of vernacular buildings, both local and distant. They show how to best use local materials and ensure their longevity, thereby reducing energy-consuming transport in the initial construction and preserving the energy now embodied in the buildings. As explained in an earlier essay, total life-cycle costing has changed our ideas of efficiency. Concern with the lightness and performance of a component in place, doing ‘more with less’, has been shown to be a pernicious irrelevance.

Instead what is critical is an assessment of the full impacts of using a material or component – from the extraction of materials through their transportation and processing, then during the construction and life of the building, to the eventual recycling of the materials or their return to earth. In such terms even heavyweight local materials will always be more efficient than lightweight high-tech ones. (Some argue that as we pass Peak Oil, only local materials will be left to build with – along with some scavenged and recycled ones.) Yet it is also likely that no matter how much centuries of local experience have to teach in the use and crafting of local materials, contemporary computerised forms of analysis and shaping of materials, structural solutions and overall building form could also bring improvements and new efficiencies. 

The use of local materials also brings aesthetic benefits that contribute to sustainability in encouraging us to treasure and conserve our built environment. They help embed the buildings in the land, from which these materials are derived, so that the buildings seem to belong there and do not disrupt the sense of organic wholeness. And unlike highly processed or synthetic materials – such as stainless steel, plastics and composites – these materials have a sense of life: the grain of wood and stone shows how they slowly grew or were deposited in layers, and their weathering and wear records the passage of time and use, helping us to engage with them and establish an increasingly familiar relationship.

Noumea, New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean.

Noumea, New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean. In the foreground is a traditional Kanak hut that is periodically rethatched by the whole community, regenerating it as well as its habitat. Behind is Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s JM Tjibaou Cultural Centre

Vernacular buildings have much else to teach, such as the best ways of responding to local climate and microclimates: how to open up to, and provide seasonal shade from, the sun; how to channel cooling breezes through the building and deflect cold winds over it; how to use thermal inertia to stabilise temperature variations in temperate climates – or minimise thermal inertia in tropical climates so buildings retain and radiate little heat and cool quickly after sunset; how to capture and store precious rainwater. Now it is not only the local vernacular we can study profitably: the vernaculars in similar biomes in other parts of the world have often developed solutions that can be adapted to similar conditions elsewhere. Generations of experiment and refinement are now replaced by sophisticated computer modelling to best adapt an adopted design device to the new locale.

Vernacular construction is instructive too about siting, in terms of exploiting microclimatic conditions, availability of water and best orientation to sun and wind, and also in avoiding the unnecessary destruction of arable land. Settlements were often built on rocky or scrubby slopes leaving farmland untouched – in contrast to today’s continuing destruction of a precious, fast dwindling resource. Striking also is how sensitively vernacular buildings might be placed visually, such as a small structure sitting alone on a sloping shoulder of land that is a precisely positioned optical pivot bringing new coherence to a majestic landscape.

‘Architects seem to have become bored with submissively serving the welfare state and wanted to be more creative and expressive, starting with Brutalism and other forms of muscularly macho posturing that would furthr decline into the icons and Parametricism and other anti-urban forms of our time’

Differing times and places during the 20th century saw attempts at a modern vernacular – buildings of relatively modest means, suited to local culture and conditions and using local materials and craftsmanship so as to slot fairly unobtrusively into place. Such ambitions are especially admirable in comparison with today’s over-emphasis on individual creativity and personal style, or marketplace brand, so that to peruse publications on contemporary architecture is to visit a freak show of gesturing icons and spurious sculptural excess. Much northern European housing of the late ’40s and ’50s was of this sort, built of local brick, following the existing street configuration and merely updating traditional forms and layouts while respecting their massing.

Following Scandinavian example, this was typically built of local brick with timber – a humanised Modernism as a modern vernacular. This was arguably the last period of consistently decent architecture. But unfortunately architects seem to have become bored with submissively serving the welfare state and wanted to be more ‘creative’ and expressive, starting with Brutalism and other forms of muscularly macho posturing that would further decline into the icons and Parametricism and other anti-urban forms of our time. In contrast to these even Neo-Vernacular (or vernacular disease) – a generic rather than local style of faux rural/traditional forms concealing contemporary construction with imported bricks, gang-nail trusses supporting concrete tile roofs and ubiquitous coach lamps – or its current manifestation in New Urbanism, are almost palatable.

Meaning and place in history

The differences between vernacular buildings and historic architecture might sometimes be blurred and difficult to distinguish, but even if somewhat arbitrary the distinction is useful for the different lessons they offer. Although this is not strictly true, the vernacular could be seen as a rural and small-town building form while historic architecture is generally more urban and is often derived from a pattern book, or even architect designed. While vernacular is local in form, details and materials used, and slow evolving, historic architecture more typically follows styles generated elsewhere and might be subject to quite abrupt changes in style. It is thus much easier to date with some precision. It is also much more varied in its functional types and the sizes and degrees of status conferred by its buildings – or maybe it is only the richer people and more prestigious institutions that were accommodated in architecture rather than vernacular buildings. In short, historic architecture reflects progressive social differentiation and accelerating cultural change.

The Grand-Place, Brussels, lined by buildings that are each distinct beings in themselves, holding attention and the space before them

The Grand-Place, Brussels, lined by buildings that are each distinct beings in themselves, holding attention and the space before them

Among the most significant differences is that historic architecture has a representational or rhetorical dimension missing from the vernacular. Its characteristic language – particularly as applied to sacred buildings and others of civic importance – is often derived from representing in more permanent materials earlier and more ephemeral forms of construction. Thus the columns of ancient Egyptian architecture have been argued to have derived from those of bundled papyrus reeds, classical Greek architecture from wooden precedent and some ancient brick buildings in middle Asia are seen as mimicking earlier structures of woven reeds. In such buildings decorative elements might be permanent representations of what was once only temporary decoration, such as floral swags, again emphasising the importance of the building as decorum demands.

Also, the parts of many historic buildings were shaped to evoke resonances with and represent the human body, the Classical column with its entasis a surrogate for the human body straining under the load it bears and the vertical window suggestive of the human body that might be framed by it. What is important to us here is that in contrast to modern buildings, historic architecture conveyed meaning in a multitude of ways and also, in various ways, elicited relationships with us as well as with other buildings. The historic city is also a contiguous network of places – streets and squares, parks and gardens – of differing character; together these add to the range of civic experiences available and provide the appropriate locations and settings for all these differing kinds of institutions and their buildings.

In the historic city all the diverse institutions that contributed to the rich complexity of city life are clearly distinguishable, if not by their larger size and significant location, certainly by their architectural language and the messages this conveyed. Even a first-time visitor can read and understand the city, can quickly gauge its cultural wealth and its range and kinds of civic institutions. There is something hugely satisfying in this and it contributes to the deep appeal of historic cities. By contrast, the modern city has fallen apart and lost its meanings, made up of unrelated mute buildings that communicate little and to whose abstract forms and sleek thin materials we cannot relate. Many civic institutions, from law courts to major museums, are in anonymous glass boxes, or now in spuriously sculptural extravaganzas.

A collage of a chaos of skyscraper icons that cannot relate to each other or the space around them

A collage of a chaos of skyscraper icons that cannot relate to each other or the space around them

The recovery of meaning is part of the regeneration of culture, one of the huge collective challenges of our time – an exciting but dauntingly difficult one as indicated by how postmodern architecture’s attempts to communicate have resulted in glib games (recognise the quote) and scenographic kitsch. Of course, the argument could be made that now that most can read, the rhetorical dimension of architecture can be replaced by big signs and that the medium in which daily life is conducted is not that of the physical fabric of architecture and the city but of the electronic webs of the mobile phone networks, the internet and GPS (Global Positioning Systems). But the counter argument is equally or more convincing: that the more time we spend engaged in such intangible worlds, the more we long for physical presence in face to face contacts and an experientially rich and tangible urban and architectural setting.

Similarly, as Newton’s clockwork universe gives way to a vision of a live and creatively evolving one, there is a great longing for meaning and reconnection with others and the world around, and for our fragmented world to heal and connect up again. What sort of architecture does that imply and can we create an architecture that will engage our attention enough to create a strong sense of place without some representational dimensions? The issues of rhetorical form and symbolism and the meanings they might convey (LL quadrant) are too complex and problematic to pursue further now. Instead we can fleetingly raise a few issues about an architecture to which we can relate and that conveys a sense of place (UL quadrant). This too is a topic that will be discussed in more depth in a later essay.

Historic architecture adds to much human activity a ritualistic dimension that intensifies experience and elevates or dignifies its social meanings, reminding us that the creation and maintenance of community requires a degree of ceremony. A simple example is the process of entering a typical historic English townhouse. You climb a few steps that bridge the sunken ‘area’ to reach a broad, panelled front door set below a somewhat ornate fanlight and sheltered by a projecting roof supported on a pair of stout columns.

The whole process of entry is prolonged and dignified, with greetings and goodbyes elevated into semi-public acts enshrined in a mini-tempietto, a static place in itself that interlocks the public realm outside and the private inside. Compare this with the abrupt and unelaborated entry into many modern houses, or even worse with the long unpleasant walk along an exposed access gallery or dingy corridor to reach the front door in a typical modern housing block.  Compare too a modern staircase tightly tucked in its shaft with a historic one gracefully descending in space to prolong and dignify, even glamorise, the now conspicuous process of ‘making an entrance’. All these processes extend time and intensify experience, heightening awareness of where you are and what is happening.

Street in South Kensington, London, where entrance porticoes interlock public and private realms and elevate greetings and goodbyes into a public ritual

Street in South Kensington, London, where entrance porticoes interlock public and private realms and elevate greetings and goodbyes into a public ritual

Possibly most important is the role of the facade in historic architecture. Although keen that their elevations be elegantly proportioned, modern architects dismissed other compositional concerns as cosmetic facadism, arguing that elevations should simply reflect construction (frame and infill, solid loadbearing or whatever) and the functions behind. They simply ignored, and many still do, the obvious fact that the facade not only encloses the interior (their primary concern) but also frames the public realm outside that it should articulate and animate – and thereby help endow with a sense of place.

A crucial difference between a modern and a historic building is the way the latter ‘holds’ the space in front of it. This comes not only from the interlocking achieved by smaller places between inside and out – arcades, porticoed entrances, aedicular windows and so on – but also from how symmetry projects forward a stabilising axis and the physiognomic pattern of a historic facade. The role of symmetry, another anathema to strict Modernist dogma, is easily understood. Think of how the central axis of a chateau draws its grounds into relationship with it, or even how a small farmhouse with an axial drive up to it can hold its own in even a mountainous setting, or of how the cross axes of formal frontages facing an urban square help pin it into place.

The role of physiognomic pattern is more subtle. Although this ceased to be true as the 19th century progressed, historic facades when analysed typically form a stable and irreducible pattern in contrast with modern and later historic facades which are mere repetitive extrusions. So while a modern elevation is simply a slice of a sausage across which the eye slides as if it were a train going by, a row of historic buildings is like a line of beings each commanding and holding attention. This and the sense of life the facades are endowed with, by further compositional characteristics we will return to, are yet more ways by which these buildings create a sense of place.  

‘The more time we spend engaged in intangible worlds, the more we long for physical presence in face to face contacts and an experimentially rich and tangible urban and architectural setting’

Among the greatest lessons vernacular and historic architecture have to impart is in the effortless achievement of harmony, both among buildings and between architecture and landscape. The key to this is the repetition of a limited number of typologies. Typically, the fabric of village or town is made up of only a single, or perhaps two, basic typologies from which a few monuments such as church and castle stand out.

Think of beautiful Italian hill towns, or those on lake or seaside slopes, built up of simple rectangular blocks of similar fenestration, shutters, roof slopes and materials. Or recall the canal-side palazzi of Venice with their open central loggias, a repeated type that brings harmony despite the variation in size and style – both Gothic and Renaissance. Or a village of white-painted fishermen’s cottages arranged along the contour around a bay and resembling white-capped rollers that have come inshore – creating a harmonious whole of land, sea and buildings. Contrast all these with today’s upmarket suburbs or seaside resorts where each architect-designed house strives for novelty and uniqueness, desecrating once lovely landscapes and turning them into eyesores of conflicting forms and materials. Little wonder that some call for stringent design guidelines in such places. The alternative, an aesthetic control committee, often fails because, made up of architects, it judges each proposal on its own ‘merits’ or ‘design quality’ with insufficient attention given to the impact on the whole.

The Grand Canal, Venice, flanked by buildings of different eras but a common typology

The Grand Canal, Venice, flanked by buildings of different eras but a common typology

Modernism and the free plan

For all the opprobrium now heaped upon it, modern architecture more or less had to come into being, not least because it so exactly reflects the modern mind set in ways explored in earlier essays. In retrospect it might prove to have been a key transitional phase, a shedding of excess and now irrelevant rhetorical baggage, a purging and purification before real regeneration could begin, as befits the epoch emerging to succeed four or five centuries of modernity. Its gift to future architectures is in being attentive to, or even initiating, contemporary patterns of living and working, accommodating a vastly expanded range of activities, many pursued in a very different manner to ways we behaved in the past.

Modern architecture also was and is much less homogeneous than some characterise it, flowing through many quite different streams, with independent sources, that sometimes conjoin and later branch apart again. Common to all these is a concern with function, although the approaches to function, and the flexibility of function, might differ markedly. Actually, functionalism, the shaping of buildings around the strict analysis of function and how to serve it, started long before modern architecture, in the late 18th-century design of prisons (Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon) and hospitals.

If prisons were designed around the easy supervision of inmates, hospitals were designed around the admission of fresh air and the venting of contaminated stale air and, later on, on the segregation of clean and dirty circulation and so on. This is, appropriately for these programmes, a highly prescriptive approach to function that dictates how things should be done and offers little flexibility.  Modern architecture, and particularly the variants of the free plan that constitutes one of its core concepts (along with, to a lesser degree, the free section), could be seen as a reaction against such an over-prescriptive approach to function so as to also bring choice and flexibility of use.

Another concern and instigator of the free plan was a concern with the relationship of means and ends, the economy of means actually enhancing the ends. This noble concern was to become abused to justify the alienatingly arid and utilitarian minimalism of housing estates and office complexes that now constitute the unloved areas of the contemporary city.

Now, though, the pendulum has sometimes swung to the equally problematic opposite extreme as starchitects spend vast sums on buildings of great formal complexity that work no better, if as well as, more modest construction. These buildings are argued to be an extension of modern architecture’s ideals, but are in fact a betrayal of them. When compared with the great designs of earlier phases of modern architecture, it seems the free plan is also in danger of becoming a lost art. It is not unusual in student crits, and even in architectural competitions or submissions for awards, to see no really good plan (as this was once understood) among dozens of schemes.

‘Modern architecture, in retrospect, might prove to have been a key transitional phase, a shedding of excess and now irrelevant rhetorical baggage, a purging and purification before real regeneration could begin’

The aim of the free plan is to both achieve the most appropriate deployment of functions in space and allow some flexibility in how those functions are performed. Different architects adopted differing approaches to flexibility and offered it in varying degrees. These range from the gridded ‘universal’ space of Mies van der Rohe that supposedly allow maximum rearrangement, as widely applied in office design, to  the tightly tailored residential plans of Hans Scharoun where the position of each piece of furniture is precisely fixed. Another approach is the differentiation of ‘served’ and ‘servant’ spaces (the latter containing vertical circulation, lavatories and ductwork) developed by Louis Kahn for the Richards Medical Research and Salk Institute laboratories. This was adopted and taken further in a series of seminal projects, such as the Birmingham University Chemistry Laboratories and Loughborough University, by Arup Associates. And yet another approach was developed by Herman Hertzberger in which he uses overlapping spaces and forms that provoke you to discover potential uses rather than define them.

The classic free plan can be thought of as having two stages of conception, which typically would have developed together in the iterative process of design: first, the appropriate deployment of functions in space; second, the minimal architectural definition and separation of these uses. The functions or activities are deployed so as to come into the most appropriate relationship to each other and the circulation routes, as well as to the outdoors with its views, sun and air. This involves more than finding the appropriate functional linkages, as the relationships and distances between activities, as well as the sequence in which they are encountered, enhance and even determine their character and to some degree give meaning to them.  

The architectural articulation would then further define the character of the spaces, giving privacy, framing views, determining light levels and so on, and suggest its uses – for instance, with a gesturing curve – with due attention to material and formal economy and separating functions only as and when required. The latter point is important because one of the properties sought by the free plan is the fluid interaction (what Rem Koolhaas has aptly referred to as catalytic interaction) between what would previously have been segregated functions, so sparking new functions as well as flexibility in their performance. And the art of the great practitioners of the free plan, which does not include Koolhaas, is in finding that exact balance where sparingly deployed forms or devices suggest and minimally separate activities, bringing them to life without over determining them. In these terms most of later Mies – although not the Tugendhat house and some of the court house proposals – does much too little, and Scharoun far too much.

A great example of the free plan is that of the elevated main floor of Oscar Niemeyer’s unbuilt yacht club for Rio de Janeiro. Here, a predefined rectangular space below a gently curved roof is minimally articulated to host a range of activities in perfectly judged sequence and relationship to each other, and several of the elements are curved to add dynamism to the space and elicit a relationship with the people whom they guide and propel. Arriving at the head of the ramp and entering, the sea is visible straight ahead and moving forward brings a downward view of the moored yachts through a slot in the floor. To the right is a lounge with more intimate areas on and below a gallery. Turning left, you are greeted by a curved wall and guided between people at the bar and those at tables overlooking the bay to then be presented with a conspicuous and choreographed flourish (tah dah!) into the middle of the restaurant-nightclub.

Raised floor plan of an unbuilt project for a yacht club in Rio de Janeiro by Oscar Niemeyer. Exemplifying an 'emancipatory' functionalism, this is a plan of great economy and precision

Raised floor plan of an unbuilt project for a yacht club in Rio de Janeiro by Oscar Niemeyer. Exemplifying an ‘emancipatory’ functionalism, this is a plan of great economy and precision

An instructive contrast is a very different modern plan, that of Alvar Aalto’s Rovaniemi Library. It too is designed with equally impressive precision around a beautifully choreographed and diagonally inflected processional route. But apt to its function, activities are less flexibly defined and, as the climate requires, the building is more enclosed and lit by generous clerestories rather than, as at the yacht club, from sides left largely open to the breezes.

Instead of loosely partitioning a given volume, the enclosing, embracing exterior of the library is generated by the movement and activities within and the sculpting of the light from the large clerestories. From the wind lobby, you bear right across a clattery tile floor to be hushed as you step onto the library carpet. Like the control desk, the fan shape of the library distorts in recognition of the oblique entry. Indeed, the back wall seems pushed outwards in response to your momentum and by the pressure of your gaze as you move into the room, much as a soap bubble distends with the direction of the breath, while the indents between the bays assert a countervailing pull inwards to shorten the spans of the main beams.

Plan of library at Rovaniemi by Alvar Aalto, which is an equally precise but more prescriptive example of 'participatory' functionalism that elicits a very intimate relationship with its users

Plan of library at Rovaniemi by Alvar Aalto, which is an equally precise but more prescriptive example of ‘participatory’ functionalism that elicits a very intimate relationship with its users

Although the curved elements of the yacht club propel the movement of space and people, the building also hangs back somewhat. By contrast, the engagement elicited by the library is much more intimate. This goes beyond leaning on the continuous countertops, including those that form reading desks capping the bookshelves around the sunken reading areas. As the forms of the building lead you through it, with tactile elements falling to hand just where you reach for them, it is almost as if you were breathing the building into form with your movement and gaze, your exhalations pushing the reading bays outwards and your inhalations prompted by the constricting indents.

The illusion of intimate participation in the formation of the building creates an extraordinary sense of identification with it. So if the yacht club represents an ‘emancipatory’ functionalism, in which use is set free and only partially defined, the library represents a ‘participatory’ functionalism, in which it seems that it is your very presence that is shaping it. These are just two of several approaches to serving function and evoking a relationship with the user found in modern architecture, many now largely forgotten and ripe for reassessing, as we will continue to do in the next essay.

As implied by limiting the discussion of modern architecture mostly to the plan, its strengths lay in its internal organisation. But exterior space, which was often merely undefined and residual, and the lack of articulation and animation of it by the massing and elevation of the buildings, was and remains its great weakness. This, and the devastation wrought on our cities and landscapes, led to the inevitable backlash against modern architecture, and the pleas for greater concern with context and conservation, that were some of the factors that led to Postmodernism. But the architecture that reacted against reductionist modern architecture and so contributed to the lead up to Postmodernism, as well as the Late Modern architecture influenced by Postmodernism, tended to be more interesting and instructive than that of Postmodernism. Next month we look in more detail at some of this architecture as well as that of some of the great masters of modern architecture.

Readers' comments (1)

  • LEARNING TO LIVE WITH CRAP
    Surely the adjacency of the absolutely contradictory articles ‘Campaign – Transcend and Include’ and ‘Technology’ in the May 2012 edition was deliberate. The brilliant result is that readers of the sequenced articles are forced to decide – to make up their own minds instead of being fed a doctrine.
    This is an arrangement admirable for being neutral, catholic, open minded and democratic; for encouraging us all to stand on our own (intellectual) feet. Once we do so we may be faced with a certain shallowness and invalidity in the options presented. This is also good as the reader doesn’t have a choice; he is forced to write his own story.
    It is possible to lean toward the ‘Campaign’ but only if it is recognized as a rehashing of all the tenets of Modernism: another attempt to meld Corbu, Mies and Wright and make better sense of their pure philosophies than they and most others have been able to in the real world to date. It is ridiculous and desperate to try and persuade the readership that this is about a whole new architectural movement; rather it is the reinterpretation of an evolving idea in a changing world with changing emphasizes and priorities.
    It is not possible to accept the naïve and adolescent, Sex in the City version of tomorrow set out in the following, opposing ‘Technology’ segment. This gives a version of the extremely distorted and dangerous vision of the World through the eyes of Zuckerburg and Tom Cruise.
    What does it mean to say to the 99.998 or 99.999 percent of us who don’t own a Manhattan penthouse or at least a terrace brown-stone that…
    ‘[e]verything in our evolving architecture – from a speculative detail to a construction component, a laser-guided beam to a server card – is addressed and located within the deep spatio-temporal universe of digital dimensions that exist alongside and within, not opposite or beyond, the physical spaces we all know.’
    The conclusive scene in the recent film Surrogate comes to mind where ‘we’ are all forced to wake up and live as ‘our’ surrogates, living ‘our’ surrogate lives are simultaneously ended/destroyed. The first thing that sprung to mind as cars crashed into surrogates and each other was: what becomes of the all the hundreds of planes in the air at that moment? Do some of them come down on towns where real people are waking from their surrogate existence? If so what’s the body count at the end of the disaster?
    My second thought (or maybe my primary thought) was whether the children of Indian, African, South American (and Arkansas) slums also have surrogates and are waking, as everyone in Manhattan (presumably even the homeless) has theirs (and are only virtually suffering).
    Surely now, at the beginning of the end of western capitalism as we know it, we are reluctantly coming to realize that a website called Facebook cannot be worth 100 billion dollars while an entire nation and all its people (and a semi-European country at that) like Greece is worth less than nothing; surely now we can assign the adolescent utopian fantasies of the ‘Technology’ article to an environmentally safe landfill and begin to deal with the inconvenient truth that we can’t crap in our i-phones and thereby make it (the crap) disappear.
    Michael L. St. Hill
    Architect,
    Saint Lucia 24 May 2012

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