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The furniturisation of architecture: from St Jerome in his study to built-in cupboards and summer pavilions

Architecture is increasingly disconnected from context, and its traditional boundaries blurred in favour of the temporary and the mobile

Serious architecture talks and essays (usually by older continental intellectuals) tended, when I was a student, to begin with an image of St Jerome in his study. It might have been an engraving by Dürer, but was more likely to be Antonello da Messina’s work from the National Gallery (c1475). It depicts the saint at his desk seen through a stone portal. The image seems to have absolutely everything about the Renaissance inscribed in it: the recently discovered art of perspective, the moment of transition from Gothic to Classical in the actual framing, the cloister and the suggestion of an Edenic landscape looking a little like Tuscany. It is centred on the individual and the intellectual. But the reason it seems to seduce architects is the curious combination of architecture and furniture, the way in which the saint sits on a raised platform, itself part of a miniature, self-contained interior with bookshelves, seat, lectern, coat-hanger and storage-chest/bench.

It is raised – Jerome sits on a plinth like an exhibit, three steps lead up to it (his slippers are left at the bottom, a little sign of a position raised from mere domesticity) – and there are even three curious vaulted arches topped with potted plants and a curiously ghostly cat (the lion, with its sore paw raised, is lurking in the shadows). It is a very theatrical picture, framed, layered, receding, playing with light and shadow and devices to emphasise perspective, from the grid of green floor tiles to the vanishing point that coincides with the book, the Word. It revels in perspective. It also says something about the way we inhabit architecture and the way in which furniture can become a reduced kind of architecture (Jerome’s carrel even incorporates an arch through to the subsequent space, which itself has a pair of built-in window seats further blurring the lines between architecture and furniture).

Antonello da messina   st jerome in his study   national gallery london

St Jerome in his study by Antonello da Messina

St Jerome in his Study, painted by Antonello da Messina in 1474-75, depicts St Jerome reading in an elaborate piece of architectural furniture

‘But the reason it seems to seduce architects is the curious combination of architecture and furniture, the way in which the saint sits on a raised platform, itself part of a miniature’

But is this painting the basis for a fundamental misconception of what furniture is? It is an artifice, everything in the frame is displayed to express the skill of the painter, the sanctity of the saint and the complexity of the space, to create a densely layered and intriguing composition. It might in fact be better to look at Dürer’s version, from a few years later, in which the saint is at a more recognisable table, at a chair with his belongings and memento mori scattered about the cushions on the window seats. His workspace is in the light that streams through the leaded panes, unlike da Messina’s saint who would be in the dark, in the centre of the deep room, but seems (appropriately perhaps) miraculously illuminated.

Dürer’s Jerome too is raised, on steps but set in an interior landscape of more recognisable domesticity, the shelves on the wall, the cushions on the seats, even a rather modern wall strap holding notes and scissors. In French, furniture is meubles, ‘movables’, property is immeubles, ‘unmovables’. No confusion. Think of a Georgian sash window with a lightweight chair set beside it, its sitter slowly adjusting the position of the chair to follow the path of the fading sun in the evening, perhaps to better see the pages of a book. Or think of a medieval court in which the king needed to roam his kingdom to both keep an eye on his lands and to become a physical presence in their lives. The dark, cavernous, draughty halls of castles were empty except when the entourage arrived and filled them with furniture, tapestries, tables, benches, chests and beds.

Dürer hieronymus im gehäus

St Jerome in his study by Albrech Dürer

Da Messina’s elaborate piece of architectural furniture is neglected in Albrecht Dürer’s engraving dating from 1514

Or think of Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s Barcelona chairs in his pavilion or in a corporate lobby – they impart a sense of corporal scale to the otherwise rather abstract interior while still allowing a continuity of space, they do not block the light or the air. That’s the Modernist ideal. Furniture is seen as a necessity but also, perhaps, as something that gets in the way of the flow of the space. But there is an alternative tradition, an almost obsessive desire to build into the depth of the walls, to create fireplaces and inglenooks, window and hall seats, conversation pits and podiums. From the Arts & Crafts, through Frank Lloyd Wright and Adolf Loos, there is another tradition of furniture as intrinsic to the architecture, one more in tune with da Messina’s sets. Even Minimalism, which seems to disdain the idea of furniture in favour of the cult of unclutter, creates weaselly built-in cupboards behind shiftily flush surfaces.

‘Even Minimalism, which seems to disdain the idea of furniture in favour of the cult of unclutter, creates weaselly built-in cupboards behind shiftily flush surfaces’

The two approaches often seem to co-exist in time, from the complex mezzanines and alcoves of Loos’s Raumplan and the open flow of Miesian space (influenced by Wright’s intense but free plans), the spindly legged mid-century moment with its catalogue cookie-cutter ranch plans. By the conversation pits and Hobbity concrete walls of bunkers and Brutalism, or the clean lines of Minimalism and the obsessive building-in of shelves, jib doors and furniture dressed up as miniature Classical buildings characteristic of High PoMo (think of John Pawson’s and Charles Jencks’s London houses within a short distance and time of each other, yet radically different).

Charles jencks postmodernist living room london

Charles Jencks’s Postmodernist living room

Source: Andreas von Einsiedel / Alamy

Charles Jencks’ Postmodernist living room – the Spring room – in his west London townhouse was a collaboration with Terry Farrell, embracing ‘cosmic law’ and kitsch. The monumental fireplace was designed by Michael Graves

John pawson rosmead house

John Pawson’s Rosmead house

John Pawson’s Rosmead House, also in west London and of the same period as Jencks’, reacts against an excess of furniture and ‘stuff’, even concealing door handles and light fittings

The relationship between furniture and architecture in recent years, however, has become a little strange. If the history of the architectural interior is characterised, at least in part, by the desire for flow and openness, and a more intense carving out of volumes, the current moment seems instead preoccupied with what Reyner Banham christened ‘furniturisation’. In a 1967 essay for New Society, he described, ‘how previously unselfconscious and virtually invisible domestic items suddenly become great, monumental objects which demand attention, dusting and illustration in colour supplements’. 

‘The area worst blighted by furniturisation’, Banham wrote ‘lies under the human arse. Check the area under yours at this moment.’ Despite the sneering tone, Banham was himself clearly seduced by an idea of the furniturisation of architecture itself. The era in which he coined the term was the pinnacle of a new conception of architecture, which has captivated it ever since – the notion of an autonomous architecture as bubble or capsule. Archigram’s Cushicle and Suitaloon, Coop Himmelb(l)au’s Cloud, and dozens of others, created a class of architecture conceived as mobile furniture, not so much defining a space as allowing itself to be transported – the architecture is wherever you are. That same era spawned the fetishisation of modularisation, a long-standing techno-utopian fantasy, the (very) gradual adoption of which is beginning to blur the lines between meubles and immeubles. If factory-made architecture is the future, then why wouldn’t it have its furniture built in just as it has its bathroom and kitchen modules set up and ready to go? The future, however – it seems to me at least – is more likely to resemble a trailer park or cramped caravan than the Nakagin Capsule Tower.

‘Architecture is now transported, as the furniture of the royal courts once was, across the landscape’

The furniturisation of architecture is everywhere, buildings conceived as mobile units to kit out a space – from the pop-up garden sheds on car-park roofs and food-truck-and-tattoo oases, the fetish of the container and the box park, to the incessant and seemingly unstoppable rise of the pavilion as the architectural vehicle du jour. Architecture is now transported, as the furniture of the royal courts once was, across the landscape.

Donald judd furniture plywood chairs

Donald Judd’s series of plywood chairs

The artist Donald Judd’s furniture designs include this range of 10 plywood chairs with integrated shelves from 1991. Judd distinguished between his art and furniture design, explaining ‘if a chair or a building is not functional, if it appears to be only art, it is ridiculous’

There is a strange confluence of cultural and technological directions and developments driving this change. One is the inevitable industrialisation of architecture. Mass house builders haven’t embraced off-site manufacture and modularisation yet, because they are managing to make insane profits without investing in expensive technology, tooling or training; labour is still cheap and relatively plentiful. But they will. The emergence of engineered timber has been a factor, it is an ideal material to carve spaces into and out of, so that Swiss Alpine cabins are now becoming exercises in Raumplan within the depth of the material, all window seats and dining and sleeping alcoves. Technology is beginning to play a part too. If surfaces can become chargers or hobs or even screens, then built-in furniture can become something else; every ledge, every surface and sill has the potential to become white goods, a phone charger or a telly. The architecture itself becomes the furniture. 

Then there is the emergence of the self-build school of architecture. This significant shift has seen professors and practitioners move towards a model in which the architect takes control of the entire process, acting as conceiver, commissioner and contractor. This imparts phenomenal agency to students and young practices who are able to bypass the structures of power and planning to build physical, full-size structures. You only need look at the remarkable floating structure for Lake Zurich by Studio Tom Emerson at ETH Zurich, Assemble’s Cineroleum, Raumlabor’s Gothenburg Sauna or Practice Architecture’s Frank’s Café atop a multi-storey car park in Peckham, south London, to get an idea of the excitement and buzz these structures can generate. At the same time, the emergence of what we could call the pavilionisation of architecture – in which temporary structures are erected to impart an experience of real space rather than exhibited models and drawings – has had a huge effect on architecture. It kicked off at the Serpentine, but now the M+ Pavilions (a Serpentine franchise in China), the Dulwich Pavilion, the RA’s Sensing Spaces, and the Architecture Foundation’s tongue-in-cheek Antepavilions, have created a curious culture of easy headlines combined with a serious discussion of form in places you would never have previously expected it.

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Serpentine Pavilions in Hyde Park, London

Now in its 19th edition, the Serpentine Pavilions represent a shift in architecture from the immovable to the movable. Erected in London’s Hyde Park for just three months, many are sold and transported to a new home at the end of each summer. This year’s pavilion (bottom right) was designed by the Mexican architect, Frida Escobedo

Together with the exponential growth of biennales and architecture festivals, there is a growing clamour for temporary structures, which is blurring the boundaries between architecture and furniture, seeing a migration of young talent to the valorisation of the temporary and the mobile. All those industrial spaces, parks, cavernous and fast-gentrifying former industrial sites and blank biennale galleries, have to be filled and they are being filled increasingly with representations of architecture that are not quite architecture. They have no function except to be looked at and, perhaps, to lounge around on. Architecture has become a series of extremely elaborate furniture. In a way, we’ve come full circle. Those representations of St Jerome in his study, sitting in that strange carrel, show an architecture of extreme permanence as shell and, within, a microcosm of ideas about architecture that make the larger, more representative space inhabitable. 

‘Architecture has become a series of extremely elaborate furniture’

Modernism emerged in part as a reaction to the extreme clutter of Victorian space, the horror vacui that saw every surface overlaid with antimacassars and doilies, and every table top and shelf adorned with taxidermied animals, busts and aspidistras. Modernist architecture was, in its way, a reaction against an excess of furniture (which is why Japan, with its modular tatami mats and not much else, was always such a big inspiration).

It was a cleaning out of the corners and opening of the windows to let air and light in, and banish Freudian fears about dusty corners and attics. The furniture it left us was deliberately skeletal and mechanical, echoing the language of bicycles or tractor seats, factory furniture or draughting tables. Those faux mass-manufactured pieces have in turn been replaced by Ikea’s ubiquitous and poorly made self-assemblies and the current reaction is against precisely that language of global consumption and mass-market Moderne.

Charles ray eames dining chair metal furniture exhibitino design

Charles and Ray Eames’s Dining Chair Metal

Source: Ken Lubas / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Charles and Ray Eames turned their hands to furniture and exhibition design as well as architecture, from the DCM (Dining Chair Metal) – the frames of which are pictured above – to their 1964 pavilion for IBM at the New York World’s Fair

There has long been a conflict about the nature of furniture, whether it should be left to designers or executed by architects (who are always – yes, always – more prone to consider the aesthetics than the use). This generation of architects might be beginning to redress that anomaly by building in to existing spaces a landscape of living. Furniture is not architecture and architecture should not be furniture. But recent designs have seen architecture increasingly encompass the former functions of furniture, to absorb the surfaces and planes of everyday life into a more complex structure. From Zaha’s snaking contours that conceived architecture as a landscape rather than an interior (just as Claude Parent’s had done in the 1960s), to the Serpentine Pavilions as street furniture for a park, architecture has succumbed to Banham’s furniturisation. 

But while he was criticising the valorisation of furniture as design object, today it can seem that the building itself has become fetishised as furniture. Architecture is increasingly conceived as a product divorced from the particularities of place and as transferable as a chair. If it has resisted commodification so far it is because each building has been, effectively, a prototype, something contingent on the condition of its site, economics and the culture in which it is being built. That is changing. The area worst blighted by furniturisation might no longer be under your arse: it will be at your fingertips, on a screen, under your feet and all around you.

This piece is featured in the AR’s July/August 2018 on AR House + Furniture – click here to get a copy.