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The Big Rethink Part 6: Learning from Four Modern Masters

The architecture of the past and other cultures represents a vast resource to study and learn from, now made widely available by modern scholarship, publications and audio-visual media − a great legacy of modernity

Last month’s essay initiated this exercise by looking briefly at some aspects of vernacular, historic architecture and modern architecture. This month’s Campaign looks at a select few masters of Modernist architecture whose work still compels because both modern and yet also in antithesis to the reductive modern paradigm. A future essay will examine a few major contemporary architects.

Last month’s essay suggested that modern architecture might prove not the fresh start it was assumed to be but more of a discarding of the outworn, a purifying purge and explosion of experiment, after which a much more broadly founded regeneration would be possible. The narrow reductionism of modern architecture might have proved disastrously destructive of communities, cities and ecosystems. But its innovations and explorations have left a rich legacy, much of it too soon forgotten, to be reappraised and integrated into a more complete architecture. And some of its core features, such as the development of the free plan that is sensitively attentive to the activities it hosts, are breakthroughs of lasting value to be carried forward into any future architecture.

Besides, as April’s essay argued, a handful of great masters of Modernist architecture transcended the reductionist modern paradigm to do work of real substance, complexity and depth. Their concerns were not limited primarily to the right quadrants of Integral theory’s All Quadrant All Level (AQAL) diagram, to such objective matters as function and construction. They were equally interested in the left quadrants, with subjective experience and psychological impact (Upper Left concerns) and meaning (Lower Left) - and many of them with some form of the spiritual (higher levels of the Upper Left). But reflecting roots in Romanticism, they tended to conflate spirit with nature. Integral theory sees even this as a form of modern reductionism, collapsing the many levels of the left quadrants into lower levels of the right. But for us today it also means most of these architects could be seen as proto-green, even though this is largely in terms of sensibility rather than actual performance, as is stressed today and largely made possible with the computer, both in predictive modelling and the monitoring of performance.


The All Quadrant All Level (AQAL) Diagram by Ken Wilber, a key to Integral theory

Despite reservations at conflating spirit and nature, and in contrast to most modern architects, these masters are instructive for attempting to recover a Four Quadrant approach to architecture and so were as much anti-modern as modern. They belong to that third wave of anti-modernity, between Romanticism and Idealism, the first two such waves, and the fourth and current wave known as Postmodernism. Limited space permits the selection of only four modern masters for brief discussion, and even then the focus is primarily on a very small aspect of their work. The architects are chosen for the intrinsic quality of their work and because that of each is so different. This, together with the contrasting aspects focused on, proves the breadth of their concerns and approaches, thus making them so fruitful to study. None were narrow functionalists and though their characteristic formal vocabularies might seem abstract, they are instead often richly allusive, their abstraction facilitating a denser layering of references than if these were explicit. Hence, in contrast to typical modern buildings, these architects work is richly communicative at many levels: they convey meaning, yet do so without recourse to traditional rhetorical motifs and iconography. This may yet prove a valuable precedent to any attempt to recover the cultural dimension of architecture.

The four architects are: Frank Lloyd Wright, and mainly on the spatial strategies of his domestic work; Le Corbusier, looking mainly at how he drew on and transformed lessons from history; Alvar Aalto and how his work draws us on and enhances the sense of occasion; and Louis Kahn who drew on history in a manner very different to Le Corbusier. To learn from and deeply admire an architect does not imply being oblivious to his or her flaws − far from it; a critical attitude best unearths what is valuable as well as what is problematic. With some of the selected architects, or some of their works, the flaws (or limits to their relevance) are considerable, particularly with their urban ideas and inability to make satisfactory urban fabric.

But although Le Corbusier’s urban ideas, in particular, were as pernicious as they were influential - including his proposals for La Ville Contemporaine and La Ville Radieuse, and the widely adopted edicts of the Athens Charter − the urban shortcomings of the others are mostly merely typical of their time and its dominant modes of thought. So the approach to examining the work of these architects is not that of a historian or critic but rather of a designer looking for positive lessons to deepen understanding and enrich his or her repertoire. (If only this dimension were added to the way history and theory are taught in most architectural schools.)

The promenade architecturale is a theme mainly discussed in relation to Le Corbusier’s architecture. But all the selected architects exploit it masterfully, Wright in the sometimes convoluted approach route to his buildings (particularly some of the Prairie Houses), Aalto in the way his buildings draw you through them, and Kahn in buildings such as the Kimbell Museum of Art. What all these architects understood is that architecture is an art of manipulating not only space but also time. The choreographed promenade separates and structures the sequence in which spaces and their activities are encountered in time too, so building anticipation, the sense of the sacred or whatever. Le Corbusier, in particular, manipulated time in many more ways than there is space to discuss, particularly in devices to slow our perception of it and so intensify our experiences.

‘Architecture is an art of manipulating not only space but also time’

Yet with these architects much more than their approach to design is instructive. So too is the scale of their ambitions − Wright and Le Corbusier sought to shape whole new ways of living - and how they created the conditions for their success. Particularly with Wright and Le Corbusier, these included shaping the persona they presented to the world and the personal myths they had to live up to, so intensifying the impetus to excel. The most successful architects recognise that skills in design and construction are insufficient to ensure success and that they must also design and shape their careers. Such things are not taught at architectural school, not least because the reason some are professors not successful architects lies in not realising or lacking the faith to design and follow their dream.

The quest for sustainability now makes it urgent that architectural education be designed to also develop the student psychologically and culturally. Architecture might then lift itself out of the egocentric shaping of icons, the competitive elaboration of obfuscatory theory and all other such trivia. Instead it can focus on the larger and now urgent concerns that are best understood and solved by designers who have evolved both psychologically and intellectually to reach a world- or biosphere-centric level of cultural and personal development. This crucial issue will be discussed in future essays that will in part draw upon so far unmentioned areas of Integral theory. For now it is worth remembering that even such grand egotists as Wright and Le Corbusier were concerned with far larger and more important issues than simply becoming famous, their ambitions driven by the intention to serve the larger world along with their clients. This was true too of Buckminster Fuller, a widely-influential thinker and designer who explored many topical themes, such as resource depletion and creating a world that worked for all. But his approach now also seems too narrow in its lack of interest in culture and misunderstanding of aspects of efficiency (such as the consequences of total life-cycle costing), some of the reasons he is excluded here.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Despite his obvious greatness as an architect and extraordinarily prolific fecundity, Frank Lloyd Wright is still sometimes dismissed with jibes like ‘the greatest architect of the 19th century’ or as ‘a Romantic’, implying irrelevance to our times. Certainly he was an architect associated mainly with suburban and rural buildings. But he still has much to teach us. Novice architects, for instance, struggling with small domestic extensions, can bring to them a sense of spaciousness and fluid ease by plundering his spatial ideas, especially as exemplified by the Usonian houses. Even when only partially and crudely executed, these spatial devices can work wonders.

In most buildings, rooms are box-like spaces that open into each other and to the outside through openings in the middle of their walls, so leaving the corners intact and asserting a certain stasis by constraining the flow between spaces. By contrast, Wright knocked out the corner, often with the middle of the wall left for support, so that spaces slid fluidly into each other on the diagonal. Besides imparting an easy dynamism, the elongated diagonal views between rooms, and even onwards to the outdoors, dramatically increase the apparent size of the spaces, which is why so many modern architects adopted this device.


Diagrams showing how solid corners of traditional rooms restrict the flow of space, contrasted with Wright’s opening of the corners so space flowed freely along diagonals that introduced elongated views and a sense of spaciousness

Of course, there was much more to Wright’s domestic planning than this. The fluid flow of these diagonally connected spaces would be anchored by being centred on a solidly substantial masonry core containing the hearth, symbolic heart of the home. And here and there, blocking the spatial flow outwards from the hearth would be masonry corners adding more moments of rooted stasis. In a great Usonian plan, what is striking is the tension and balance between contrasts: between the explosive dispersal of elements, such as the masonry loadbearing walls and the disciplining grid that holds them in place; and between the centrifugal outward flow of space and views and the contrasting centripetal inward focus, so the spaces are both dynamically extrovert and serenely introverted. Aided by devices such as broad overhanging eaves and an outward extension of the floor slab, space also flows outside and is tied back to the house, so interlocking the interior with the garden or landscape.

Moreover, the spaces are precisely judged also in functional aptness and domestic character: the dimensions, degree of enclosure and views between and out from spaces are all exactly right for the activities they house and these are brought into equally exactly judged relationship with each other. Natural lighting too, brought into the centre of the house by clerestories, matches the activities accommodated and there is a careful balance of fixed built-in and moveable furniture. These are rooms that are comfortable to sit alone in, quietly reading a book, yet which can equally easily host large gatherings. Yet no matter how crowded the rooms may temporarily be, there is always a strong sense of domesticity, the house centred on the visually dominant hearth, with the dining table for family meals nearby, so sacralising the home and nuclear family.


Living and dining room of the Pope-Leighey House, a Usonian dwelling. Space flows on the diagonal past the hearth with celestory bringing light into the middle of the house

Wright was creating a new architecture for an expansive new land and a new way of living on it, in due reverence to nature. Unlike most modern architecture, his buildings nestled into and interlocked with their natural settings and intensified the sense of place. As he said of his home, Taliesin East: ‘it is not on the hill but of the hill’. The fluid and extroverted spaces might match the endless prairies, but the centripetal focus on the hearth provided a stable and comforting refuge within the vastness of the American continent.

Despite his fecundity, Wright knew better than to always start each design as if from scratch. Instead he was a composer-architect, playing variations on well devised themes. Yet the results were never formulaic but well matched to client, site and budget, Wright excelling at low-budget houses as well as extravagant ones. To judge his success, it is instructive to compare the richly nuanced, emotionally succouring, warm liveability of a Usonian house, which celebrates setting and family, with the life-denying frigidity of so many minimalist-inspired houses now illustrated in architectural publications.


Zimmer House, example of a Usonian house showing the interplay between the diagonal flow of space and the stabilising masonry hearth, piers and corners

These have been designed to be looked at, for the immediate impression given, rather than to be lived in. Wright reworked the same approach over and again, and his works are mostly instantly recognisable as by him. Yet it is also instructive to ponder how much more convincing his designs are than those of today’s starchitects who adopt a brand-style to secure their position in the global marketplace.

Le Corbusier

Although it is irrelevant to their respective greatness as architects, Wright’s designs are arguably easier to get to grips with than some of Le Corbusier’s. How Wright’s designs were generated and disciplined is relatively easy to detect and there are several excellent studies that illuminate this.1 There are many equally excellent studies on Le Corbusier too. But although these illuminate his life, ideas and theories, and many aspects of his work, few do real justice to his extraordinary powers of synthesis as a designer, to his attention to the nuances of function (despite lapses too) and how his buildings suggest these, and to the multiple layers of allusion to be found in seemingly abstract works. In part this lack of understanding − and controversies about, say, how much his architecture was shaped by his interest in astrology, alchemy and religious heresies − is because, although he was a prolific author, there was much he chose not write about. These matters he felt should remain esoteric, intended only to be noticed and understood by initiates - and the deserving, those who had cultivated their perceptions. But even to the majority unaware of such matters, the compelling qualities of his work that so many respond to arise from the many levels at which he engaged architecture and from how much of himself he invested in his explorations (much of it in the privacy of his painting studio) and equally important patient distillation and synthesis.

The name Le Corbusier was self-created, and even this has multiple esoteric allusions, such as to Corbeau, the crow or raven, alchemy’s avis hermetis that transforms matter into spirit, and Corvus, the celestial constellation closest to his own sun sign of Libra, as well as featuring in numerology. Created initially as a nom de plume for articles he had written whose ideals he had not yet lived up to, it was a fictitious persona into which he grew as an architect as well as a constant incitement to excel. Tellingly, it was only some years after he had adopted the name as an architect that he felt his paintings were worthy of the same signature. This is just one example, an extreme one, of the many ways great architects have designed aspects of themselves, their careers, work methods and conditions, to contribute to their success. Wright too, as have been and are many architects, was something of a self-mythologist and Carl Jung once said that in retrospect real life for him had started only when asked himself what myth he was living.

‘The name Le Corbusier was self-created, and even this has multiple esoteric allusions, such as to Corbeau, the crow or raven, alchemy’s avis hermetis’

Although we admired and learnt from many other architects, for my generation Le Corbusier was the touchstone. The volumes of the Oeuvre Complète were the bible, the drawings and photographs rather than the text, although often you would only fully grasp a key lesson once you had made a similar breakthrough in your own work. It would take a thick book to elucidate everything that might be learned from him, or even to provide a detailed exegesis of a single major building. But Le Corbusier’s own writings were often simplistic propagandising and usually help little in fully understanding the buildings. Nevertheless, many of his devices are still regularly exploited, such as the introduction of the double volume to provide some of the sense of spatial release, such as Wright provided with his diagonal flows between rooms.


Monks processing to church from atrium

One of the ways Le Corbusier achieved flexibility and a sense of spaciousness in even tightly planned residential units remains instructive: those elements that are unmovable (those with plumbing and large bits of furniture) are fixed in place and the rest of the space is left as fluid as possible to be subdivided as required. The series of apartments of differing sizes illustrated in La Ville Radieuse, each of 13 square metres in area per inhabitant, are inspiringly instructive, although acoustics would have been a problem. The approach has similarities to Wright’s deployment of built-in and mobile furniture in his living areas. But in his houses the furniture was too heavy to be easily moved while Le Corbusier used light furniture that could be readily rearranged. But in contrast to Wright’s concern with cosy domesticity for the nuclear family, Le Corbusier Purist machines à habiter were ideally for rational technocrats and avant-garde art lovers for whom cosiness would be cloying. Yet from Le Corbusier’s example came an ideal for some mid-20th century architects of combining built-in and easily movable elements to design homes that could quickly change in function and mood through the day and seasons: a sunny children’s playroom during the day; a restful refuge for the parents in the evenings; a party space for large gatherings; and a winter garden when plants are brought in during cold weather. This is a dimension to residential design now sadly lost, but worth recovering.


Plan of five-person apartment from La Ville Radieuse

Among Le Corbusier’s greatest works is La Tourette,2 a commission particularly suited to his monastic temperament. Along with the Ronchamp chapel, it is also his most densely allusive work, so much so that to unpack the many rich narratives encoded in the building, particularly the more esoteric ones, is far beyond the scope of any brief essay. But La Tourette is also a good example of how Le Corbusier drew on the past, not copying historic precedent but radically adapting its forms or organising principles to suit very different programmes, times, materials and construction methods. Space here allows only a tiny insight into a few instances of this process.

When commissioned to build La Tourette, Le Thoronet was suggested as embodying the spirit sought. But Le Thoronet is a Cistercian monastery, where monks slept in a single dormitory, tucked in remote seclusion in the countryside. La Tourette was built as a seminary, an educational centre, for the Dominicans,3 an urban order with monks in individual cells. And although built out of town, it is readily approached by car and set in what is now a benign countryside very different to what would have been the wilds around the medieval monastery. This difference explains something that baffles many about La Tourette: are the enclosed covered ways across the central court a dud substitute for a cloister ambulatory? No, there is no cloister as today a contemplative stroll in the countryside is more apt than circumnavigating a cloister ambulatory within the defensive enclosure of a monastery.


Section through La Tourette

Built on a steeper slope than Le Thoronet - and floating above it rather than partially sunk into it, as is the older building − La Tourette follows the traditional monastery parti of being wrapped around a central court with the church taking up one side. But the ease of approach to the seminary and the secular nature of the teaching rooms on the entrance (middle) level presented a major problem: how to achieve an appropriate sense of sacred contemplation within the cells and church? At Le Thoronet, once reached only by protracted arduous travel, the whole monastery is sacred.

But to invest some sense of the sacred in the church and cells, Le Corbusier had to build into the compactness at La Tourette some such sense of distance, in physical and temporal terms, from the secular level sandwiched into its middle. With the cells, this is achieved by ranging them on long corridors deliberately designed, with rough plaster walls and no outlook, to discourage lingering and socialising. With the church this is achieved by gathering the novices under the sloping roof of the so-called atrium adjacent to the refectory, to then process together into the church.

Yet, and this illustrates how Le Corbusier learned from and adapted the lessons of history, there is something equivalent at Le Thoronet, not found in other Cistercian monasteries. There the ambulatory outside the church is raised several steps above its other arms and lined with a stone bench where monks would gather before entering the church. Le Corbusier has taken this distancing device and intensified it, but all in a stark Corbusian vocabulary. The church is just a long and tall concrete box lit by horizontal slots that throw light on the Bibles and hymn books of the monks aligned along its sides. Derived from the megaron, the early Greek sacred building form that when surrounded by columns would become the cella of the Classical temple, it is startlingly stark and direct in its simplicity yet powerfully sacred in ambience. But the monks’ cells are also each mini megarons, the visual and semantic pun between cella and cell making clear the sacred nature and interdependence of these spaces set so far apart, one for communal worship and the other for individual contemplation and prayer.


Plan of refectory and church level

But the most distant and sacred space is the crypt, with its individual altars for solitary worship, reached by descending beside the nave to pass under it, so that the crypt seems semi-subterranean and very distant. As at Le Thoronet, the floor steps down with the slope of the hill, and to focus attention on the altars, each is individually lit by the large coloured, truncated cone of a rooflight, while the outer wall leans in as if further pressing attention on them. Here the formal and associative interplay is with an element even more distant than the cells, the little group of parloirs for meeting with visitors outside the entrance. These take the form of a Neolithic burial chamber shaped like the Great Earth Mother − an archetype from which Mary Magdalene, to whom the church is dedicated, is perhaps a more recent incarnation − but now unearthed, exposed and minus the head, which is replaced by a viewing balcony: another complex dig at the Dominicans who massacred Le Corbusier’s forebears.

Alvar Aalto

If Le Corbusier was the greater architect of the two, more prodigiously inventive and producing deeper and more thematically complex works, then Aalto was the better one. For a client, Aalto was a considerably safer bet, his building much more likely to be functionally unproblematic, to weather well and last without undue maintenance. For lesser architects, Aalto was also the safer to emulate: bad Corbusian-type buildings can be disastrous while even a poor Aalto copy is relatively benign. And unlike so many modern architects, whose buildings are at their best when just completed and pristine for photography, Aalto built for the long term, claiming his buildings would be best judged after some decades.

Like Wright and Le Corbusier, Aalto revered and sought lessons from nature, while his roots in Romanticism were inflected through the example of the National Romanticism of the generation ahead of him, represented in architecture by figures like Eliel Saarinen. If Wright declared himself an Organic architect, Aalto was seen by some as one too, but of a very different type. For Wright, Organic implied wholeness, an interwoven integrity in which all parts came together without compromise to their individual identity or the resulting, geometrically disciplined whole. Aalto was considered Organic, in part because his flowing interiors were like an inward extension of the natural landscape. But there tends to be less obvious geometric rigour, the presence of structure is often suppressed and sometimes sections show much poché. All of this was anathema to Wright and many other modern architects. Like Wright, he was profoundly influenced by Japan, one source of Wright’s gridded geometric discipline, ceiling treatment, eaves extending to interlock inside and out, and so on. But while Aalto borrowed details from Japanese architecture, it was his fascination with ikebana, Japanese flower arranging, that influenced his formal sensibility, reflected in the interplay of straight and wriggly lines, of balanced asymmetry and so on.


The auditorium with midnight blue walls and seats and slat motif of wind-bent trees

For many, the resulting architecture is enigmatically quirky, arbitrary and irrational, no matter how much they also admire and enjoy it. Yet if designing a building of similar size and programme to one by Aalto, you often discover his precedent to be surprisingly pragmatic, compact and efficient, the distorted spaces tailored to function as well as fluidly flowing into each other, either minimising or making the most of major circulation routes, with long diagonals increasing the apparent size of spaces, and the whole enveloped in a compact exterior volume. Such a building is the posthumous Opera House in Essen, Germany. Here a prolonged and virtuovso processional entrance sequence up to and through the tall foyer, the auditorium and full fly tower, and extensive backstage and ancillary facilities, are all simply enclosed under two interlocking, sloping roofs and wrapped around with a rippling stone cladding.


The foyer with stair leading up from below, jittery windows overlooking the park and crag-like balconies to the right

Like the Rovaniemi library described last month, it is a building that seems to unfold almost inevitably before you as it entices you forward, almost as a participant in its design, with tactile detail (door handles, ceramic tile column facings, leather-wound handrails) falling to hand as if exactly anticipating your touch. Entering a low-ceilinged ground floor, you pass wavy cloakroom counters that seem to propel you forward, as if by peristaltic action, towards an inviting broad stair that cascades towards you as it entices you forward to climb up into the light. The stair then doubles back on itself to lead you into a lofty foyer, off which is entered the auditorium stalls, the tapering plan form of the space reflecting the diminishing number of people passing through it. Above are balconies, which give access to the upper tiers of auditorium seating, shaped to recall crags lining a steep-sided valley as they close towards a distant stair that tumbles, almost waterfall like, down to the foyer floor from these balconies.

Opposite these balconies, tall windows form a jittery rhythm as they look west over the park outside. For much of the year the low evening sun enters through these to animate the foyer floor and balcony fronts with patterns of light and shade and recall the evening Nordic sun shining through pine forests. Then entering the auditorium, the natural metaphors become more explicit as you pass into night, some of the wooden slats lining the walls curving to evoke forest trees bending in the wind and all painted a dark, almost midnight, blue. Above, the white painted fronts of the upper tiers resemble clouds in the night sky while the bright-lit stage is like a forest glade in which magic of the performance is enacted. So, in this seemingly abstract building, a night at the opera is enhanced by subtly evoked resonances with ancient rituals in primeval settings.

Louis Kahn

If Aalto built to last, Louis Kahn (some of whose buildings should prove equally robust) was interested in a very different form of timelessness. And if Aalto was critical of a too arid and utilitarian modern architecture, and so humanised and naturalised it, Kahn’s designs more obviously react against such buildings. Although doing better than decent work, mainly housing, for some time before, Kahn only emerges as a major architect relatively late in life when various forms of backlash against conventional modern architecture were already under way. These ranged from the Scandinavian softening of it with warm, ‘natural’ materials, to Festival of Britain-type prettification with patterning, to creating something more forceful in form and presence − rough, tough and muscular − in aggressively raw concrete and rough brick.

Kahn too sought a potent presence in his architecture, but a still and ennobling one. By evoking rather than copying the forms of ancient architectures he achieved what seems an abstracted condensation of them, thus giving his work the archaic spirit so many refer to. He sought to return dignity to what had become the merely functional, using architecture to re-elevate important facilities into civic institutions. He was also keen to recapture the germinal origins of architecture. He talked about school starting with a teacher under a tree and the need to recapture and preserve that spirit. He pursued the ordering, dignifying spirit of rigorous geometric configuration. He sought to use materials in a way that was true to their nature and the most natural way of agglomerating components or conjoining materials. He explored ways of manipulating light, making it yet more magical as it revealed itself and the building it illuminated. Always he asked, what does this building want to be, in terms of its animating spirit, structural logic, the handling of materials? This was not empty rhetoric but a way of sidestepping the ego, to more deeply engage with and bring out the spirit of the building, to achieve a timeless grandeur that both transcended and yet seemed rooted in history.


Interior of the National Assembly Building, Dhaka by Louis Kahn

Kahn’s influence was various and can be detected in very different architectures, including what became known as the Philadelphia School, from which the influence rippled out further. His example also certainly helped to precipitate Postmodernism in architecture - if only any of it was of remotely comparable quality. His idea of differentiating served and servant spaces

(the latter housing vertical circulation, lavatories and ducts) has become standard practice and his sensitive use of materials is widely emulated. He was, for instance, a master of both precast and in-situ concrete, even designing in detail the shuttering for the concrete at the Salk Institute to achieve effects that are still copied by many.

In his greatest works Kahn achieved a timeless and monumental quality unmatched by any contemporary. This is seen even in a building like the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, which from most sides seems to be only single storeyed − as well as blank walled and somewhat inscrutable. Yet the museum beautifully exemplifies Kahn’s notion of institution, not as unduly imposing or exclusionary, but as conferring common meaning and values by dignifying our deepest impulses to share what is most important to us. It also achieves another of Kahn’s ideals whereby structure and light work together to shape space and bestow upon it its essential character and identity, the structure ‘making’ (admitting and modulating) the light that in turn shows off the structure. The long repetitive concrete vaults, and the silvery light bounced onto them from the metal reflectors below the glazed slits along their tops, and the rhythmic modulation of the space by the vaults and flat ceilings in slight shadow between them are, along with the seeming simplicity of the cunning plan, what give the museum its mysterious spatial magic.


Plan of the Kimbell Art Museum by Louis Kahn

Although presently mostly entered from behind and through what is a basement, the museum was intended to be approached from either side and along the front that faces a small park − or did until Renzo Piano started building an extension. From whichever side you approach, steps first slow you before entering the lofty embrace of a vaulted porch, where benches, park view and the sound of water cascading into a pool below all slow time and elicit an appropriately contemplative mood. Between the porches is the central entrance court, its diminutive, close-spaced trees suggesting a sacred grove, so signalling the reverential attitude in which to enter art’s sanctum.


View from park with vaulted porch leading to entrance court and grove

Then more steps up under another vaulted porch that sweeps attention to either side to further slow your approach. Finally, passing through the entrance doors, you inevitably pause while time stands momentarily still as the building at last reveals some sense of its entirety and what it has to offer. Ahead, the entrance hall opens into the museum shop under the next vault, while the vault overhead again draws the eye to each side, to the galleries visible to the right below their alternating vaulted and flat ceilings, and to bright-lit courtyard to the left with the café visible to one side and the entrance to more galleries on the other. This moment of arrival, the gesture of welcome and invitation to explore as the building gives itself to you, is one of the great architectural experiences offered by 20th-century American architecture, conferring a generosity of spirit and connection to the long march of history in which the museums contents were created.


Briefly touched upon above are only a few examples of the many lessons that can be learnt from just four of the great Modernist architects, emphasising in particular the left quadrants of experience, meaning and the multiple forms of relationship the buildings establish with their users − all areas in which much modern architecture is weak. The intention is merely to suggest that this is a topical exercise worth pursuing in more depth and detail. With these architects, this is easily done as each has spawned a mini industry of scholarship. And the specific buildings discussed were chosen because I have written elsewhere about them in more depth, should anyone want to explore them further.4

Click here to read Part 7.


1. In particular see the excellent essays Robert McCarter (ed), On and By Frank Lloyd Wright, Phaidon, 2005.

2. Somehow the preposterous notion has gained credence that Iannis Xenakis was a co-designer of La Tourette, Le Corbusier’s most autobiographical work. In part this arose from a BBC programme that credited Xenakis as a co-designer, although it also made it obvious he had no understanding of the building. This was confirmed in a discussion I had with Xenakis who could not explain even the simplest and most obvious design moves and who dismissed as coincidence the long sequence of paintings by Le Corbusier, originating in the 1930s, in which he developed formal themes found in La Tourette. I later spoke to architects who had worked in Le Corbusier’s atelier at the time, particularly with Georges Candilis, and they all refuted Xenakis’s claims. He made some early sketches in the Le Corbusier archive, with themes not in the final building, he helped with the engineering and making a model, and undertook site supervision. He later designed some villas in Greece that are awful.

3. The Dominicans were formed expressly to counter the Cathar heresy and led the crusade that massacred the Cathars, from whom Le Corbusier claimed to be descended. This accounts for many of the esoteric allusions, particularly in the church, most explicitly in what looks like a red cascade of blood.

4. Peter Buchanan, ‘La Tourette and Le Thoronet’, AR Jan 1987. This was intended as the first of several articles gradually probing deeper into La Tourette, but although delivered as lectures they were never published. Buchanan, Peter, ‘Aalto Opera House, Essen’, AR June 1989. Further description of the Kimbell can be found in Peter Buchanan, ‘On Respect and Inevitability’, in Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Complete Works, Volume Five, Phaidon.

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  • I’m not an architect but as I think architecture can affect us all, I’m following the Big Rethink of AR with great interest. A trip I’ve made from Vienna to Bratislava in 1990 came to me as an unforgettable experience that reminded me of how important is for anyone the quality of space surrounding us and consequently how important is architecture to our lives. Leaving Vienna with all its buildings – some very modern, others dating from the Austro-Hungarian Empire old times, but all very well interfused with green spaces and gardens – I couldn’t imagine what expected me some kilometers eastward. The border between the countries of Austria and Czechoslovakia (later divided into Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic) still had, in 1990, some signals of a divided political territory which consequences I hadn’t preview to be so well evidenced also at an architectural level. But they were. Although Bratislava had its historic old buildings giving the place some sense of time and space, the buildings that were constructed during the communist period for residential purposes, consisted of a series of grey building «boxes», without any balconies and ‘monotony’ was the only word I found to describe them. Street after street, corner after corner, they were all equal, and I soon realized that they were surely able to make their inhabitants unhappy. Equally unhappy I guessed. Since that trip I never dismissed architecture’s role in our lives, and this belief is being strengthened by reading the enriching articles published here at the AR Big Rethink. In my opinion, monotony may symbolize a lack of independence in designing. Independence is therefore crucial to avoid monotony. And here comes another concept – Interdependence- which at first glance may seem incompatible with the former, although they both fulfill important roles in an architectural context. Independence could be simply viewed as «what makes us free from other(s) perspective(s)/ways of thinking/perceiving» and Interdependence as simply viewed as «what turns us connected with other(s) main shared values/principles». Independence would allow Liberty in designing. Interdependence(s) would remind us of the Responsibility of interfering with the existing landscape. Independence links to Interdependence as Liberty links to Responsibility. An optimal equilibrium of both may seem essential to any good architectural intervention which won’t result neither in ‘monotony’ (when Independence is fully absent) nor in a ‘mess’ (when Interdependence is fully absent). In a ‘monotony scenario’ creativity was discarded and in a ‘messy scenario’ all historic, social and cultural heritage was forgotten. To promote good design in harmony with the surrounding milieu requires both Independence and Interdependence. In a course about Architecture Photography I’ve attended, I become aware of J. Shulman work and biography and I found very interesting the way he cited the need to promote good design in harmony with the environment as a «war on community ugliness». I think this war needs Good Architecture. Nowadays there are big narratives about ‘sustainable architecture’; and ‘green architecture’. Concerning all these ‘green’ issues it is interesting to remind Souto de Moura (Portuguese Architect winner of the 2011 Pritzker Architecture Prize) perspective revealing us that «there is not such a thing as sustainable architecture, there is only Good Architecture». As a biologist I’m unable to define which ‘ingredients’ we need to a Good Architecture but I share here with AR readers a brief modest draft model on which I thought this ‘Good Architecture’ could evolve from. It is a similar model to the double-helix model of DNA with an appearance of a twisted ladder or spiral staircase, where the concepts of Interdependence and Independence could be the two rails of the ladder and from where appeared the ladder rungs which would be composed of half-rungs that attached each other complementary (as it happens with DNA bases: A-T; G-C). These rungs would include all main traits that form the essential core of architectural knowledge, which could be paired according to their mutual complementary. For instance, ‘artistic forms’ could be paired with ‘functionality’; ‘creativity’ could be paired with ‘heritage traits’, and so on… This ‘double-helix model for Good Architecture’ would be in a constant evolution being fulfilled with updated concepts considered as relevant, in order to grant that the «war on community ugliness» would be a ‘winning war’, as it is my desire, as a citizen that is not an architect but is aware that architecture affect us all.

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