Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Architects are Delusional

Last week the L.A. Times had an article about the house Charles and Ray Eames built for themselves in 1949, the occasion for the article being a celebration of the house on what would have been Charles's 100th birthday. The house is Modernist with a capital M, a rectangular box built out of steel and glass. I've never seen it in person, but it looks pretty cool, with a big atrium in the living room, a great setting in Pacific Palisades, outer walls that look like Mondrian paintings, etc. And the Eameses certainly deserve major props for their influential office designs, Powers of Ten, the Mathematica exhibit, etc. I have no problem with celebrating the house or the Eameses.

But the article isn't just a celebration of the house, it has a thesis statement:
Their 1949 house is the blueprint for 21st century L.A. living.
Charles and Ray Eames' 1949 Pacific Palisades home... has profoundly influenced how Southern Californians nest, even to this day.
Right, because so many people in Southern California live in houses that look like this:
Uh, no, not really. OK, the high-ceilinged living room, that I can buy. Aside from that, though, the article --- and pretty much any architecture book you pick up and read --- ignores the fact that most members of the public looked at Modern architecture and said, "no thanks." You can trace the lineage of, say, the office buildings, museums, and prefab warehouses being built today to Modernism, but for living spaces, the general public has consistently looked back to traditional forms --- pitched roofs, articulated forms, ornament, surfaces that at least look like traditional building materials, etc. --- for decades now.

The dogma of Modernism, though, taught us that all that stuff was bad and that the wave of the future was going to be "efficient" geometric steel and glass forms. Adolf Loos proclaimed in 1930:
From a thirty year struggle I have emerged as victor: I have liberated humanity from superflous ornament. . . 'Ornament' was once an epithet for 'beautiful.' Today it is, thanks to my life's work, an epithet for 'inferior.'
How's that struggle going, Adolf?That's a shot I took of a new single-family house in Hemet while I was doing a land-use survey there a couple years ago. It's very typical of what gets built in Southern California these days. In terms of style, it reaches back to the Mission Revival of the 1920s exemplified in downtown Santa Barbara, which itself reached back to, of course, the missions and ranchos of the 1770s - 1860s or so. Of course, that house wasn't built with adobe and it doesn't have a courtyard; in terms of function and construction, you can draw a straight line from the early industrial towns of the mid-1800s to the kit homes popular at the turn of the 20th century to the postwar Levittown subdivisions, and then add 60 years of technological changes and consumer preferences.

Getting back to my first paragraph, I like Modernism, to a certain extent. I admire how the Modernists attempted to rewrite the rules of aesthetics. I think it's pretty remarkable that they managed to create beautiful buildings (as the Eames House is) under the new rules, especially considering that the old rules went back a couple of millenia. And in the broader sense, of course, there are many great Modernist paintings, novels, orchestral works, etc. But while I might admire some grand modernist steel-and-glass structure when I go downtown to visit a museum or need an airport terminal, by and large when people come home they want something welcoming, and ornament and a pitched roof is no sin.

As a side note, I remember several years ago my friend Mike Radford made a good observation. He noted that Modernist buildings may look good when they are new, but they don't weather well. It's true. Bare walls and geometric shapes are based on a stark, minimalist aesthetic. But when subjected to years of rain, dirt, sun damage, and other wear, the sharp corners and monochrome panels aren't sustained. A building made of wood or stone, though, isn't based on an aesthetic of "perfect" forms and blends in well with natural weathering.


At Wednesday, July 4, 2007 at 7:59:00 AM PDT, Blogger hagus said...

If you every watch HGTV, you'll see that most people living in super-modernist cube-type dwellings are also living in a hipster/artsy-fartsy/wealthier-than-thou bubble. Or they're simply nuts.

At Wednesday, July 4, 2007 at 12:15:00 PM PDT, Blogger Adam Villani said...

Yeah, to the architecture critic who wrote the article, what matters are the maybe five houses built in the Modernist style over the past decade in Southern California, because those are the houses that "matter." The vernacular houses, those that look like the one in Hemet, are simply outside the critics' field of study, despite the fact that there are probably 4 or 5 orders of magnitude more of them being built.

It's kind of like the old problem of learning history from a book that tells you only about what the kings and queens were doing and who won which war; there are some history books that never stop to ponder the question of how any of that affected the 99.9999% of the population that wasn't a king.

The thing is, though, that architecture buffs (self included) do still go gaga over vernacular forms from the early 20th century. Maybe if they showed the slightest bit of interest in the vernacular forms built after WWII, there might be some sort of feedback leading to better design.

At Wednesday, July 4, 2007 at 1:20:00 PM PDT, Anonymous doafy said...

My name is Nuni!


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