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Architecture Words 7: Modernity Unbound by Detlef Mertins

Mertins has interesting things to say on every theme he touches

The Architectural Association’s occasional series ‘Architecture Words’ is intended to challenge the dominance of the image in mainstream architectural publishing. Compact enough to fit into a jacket-pocket and with only a short set of plates at the end, the medium is emphatically part of the message.

The latest addition is a collection of essays by the Canadian architectural historian and critic Detlef Mertins that sympathetically re-examine central ideas of early Modernism from a historical perspective and in terms of their relevance to contemporary practice. Originally intended to make available an important but dispersed body of work, the book has sadly assumed the character of a memorial: born in 1954, Mertins died tragically young last January.

The earliest and shortest essay, ‘Glass Architecture’, exemplifies Mertins’ approach. ‘Is glass still glass?’ he asks rhetorically. After almost a century as the defining material of architectural modernity, the answer, he suggests, is ‘yes’. This is precisely because glass was ‘never just glass’, but the locus for a series of complex, often contradictory ideas.

At pains to challenge dialectically the familiar dualisms in whose terms so many architectural themes are discussed, Mertins shows how organic/biotechnic ideas generally associated with the German Expressionists were equally influential in forming the so-called ‘rational’ tradition. The biologists Ernst Haeckel and Raoul Francé, for example, proved to be a decisive influence upon such disparate figures as Kurt Schwitters and László Moholy-Nagy, Hannes Meyer and Mies van der Rohe. Flowing freely across the supposed divides constructed by many mainstream histories, their ideas were central to a widely shared vision in which glass was seen as a means for expressing the reintegration of humanity in nature. This vision is still relevant, argues Mertins, to the search for ‘ecologically benign technologies that enable buildings to perform increasingly as if they were alive’.

The next two essays are masterly re-examinations of the defining idea of glass architecture - transparency, and its links to Cubism - and offer a rigorous critique of the widely influential 1963 article ‘Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal’ by Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky. Revisiting the ideas of Adolf Behne, Theo van Doesburg, Moholy-Nagy and Sigfied Giedion, among many others, Mertins argues in richly allusive detail that the allegedly naive version of transparency championed by Giedion was anything but ‘literal’. Furthermore he suggests that the supposedly more sophisticated ‘phenomenal’ version that Rowe and Slutzky read into the work of Le Corbusier was narrowly formalist and rooted in outmoded, late 19th-century aesthetic categories and psychological ideas.

In rehabilitating the richness of thought in Giedion’s writings, now so often disparaged for the author’s rather ‘free’ use of history, Mertins cites a wonderful passage from an early book on the Bauhaus: ‘The efforts of the Bauhaus are concerned to eavesdrop on materials and to open up the hidden life of the amorphous. Dead things receive faces and liveliness. The absolute rhythm of things is awoken!’ This attitude, revived at length by György Kepes in his ‘Language of Vision’ series of the 1950 and ’60s is also, Mertins argues in a dazzling essay entitled ‘The Tectonic Unconscious’, manifest in Walter Benjamin’s argument that the most precise scientific technologies such as microscopy and photography could, by offering glimpses into new and unexpected correspondences between the human and non-human, re-invoke the lost sense of the magical and revive the mimetic capacity that, displaced by language, is largely lost after childhood.

In the more recent essays in the book, Mertins traces an interest in organically-inspired ‘self-generation’ from early Modernism to contemporary architects such as Foreign Office and Lars Spuybroek; explores the ‘Pervasive Plasticity’ made possible first by concrete and now by parametric methods of design; and offers a persuasive counterblast to the many critics of Mies’s Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Far from being a reductive denial of the practical requirements for displaying art, Mertins argues that the ‘extreme openness’ of its vast glass foyer offered an ‘event space’ that is calculated both to embody, and to challenge us to transcend, the ‘sense of homelessnees and nihilism’ that has been central to the lived experience of modernity.

Mertins has interesting things to say on every theme he touches and, like those of Giedion and others whose work he discusses, his writings stand in a long line of engaged historian-critics who have the capacity both to shed new light on the past and to provoke us to think of how it can become operative in the struggle for the new. I cannot recommend this collection too highly.

Architecture Words 7: Modernity Unbound

Author: Detlef Mertins 

Publisher: Architectural Association, 2011 

Price: £12

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