thehuzzingsea

'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Month: July, 2016

Past dreamers of a better tomorrow

Dymaxion House

Dymaxion House

 

‘I’ve said goodbye to the overworked notion that architecture has to save the world,’ said Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, a Pritzker Prize winner and recipient of RIBA’s Gold Medal.

In one sense Zumthor was right: architecture is only as good as our intentions, only as good as the values we place on what we choose to build and what those buildings are for.

Did we overinflate architecture’s leverage to change the world? Could it really have created a human idyll where divisions of wealth and class were redundant? If we look at the house prices and urban development plans of the last decade, the short answer is no.

Yet it wasn’t always thus. Such pessimism did not always hang over our ideas of building better lives for all. A beautiful new book called The Tale of Tomorrow (Gestalten) shows the optimism of post-war architecture in all its glory, brimming with lofty ideals: how those involved believed what we built could overcome our divisions on a human level, while also allowing us a more harmonious relationship with nature.

Utopian architecture, the general sticker we would slap on this modernist movement, was intended to be universal, not just the preserve of the elite. The same houses would be built for rich and poor. This was a time when architects, designers and engineers – abetted by governments that believed in social justice – imagined they could construct a brave, better world where we would all reap the benefits of a more equitable and therefore spiritual society.

However, the utopian movement became an unfinished symphony, though a few buildings that period bestowed upon us still shine.

An easy choice, but one that cannot be overlooked, is Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille. Built as social housing, it is considered by many to be the idée fixe of a utopian building, completed in 1952 with capacity for 1,600 people.

Unité d’habitation was figured as a “vertical garden city”. A 17-storey concrete block set on pilotis, the ventilation stacks sticking out from the top of the building make it look like a cruise liner.

Each resident has a colour-co-ordinated balcony with unrestricted views, and the facilities are almost unthinkable for most modern city dwellers: on the seventh and eighth floors there are a bakery, butcher, chemist, greengrocer and off-licence.

The building also has a post office and barber’s, while there are a nursery and kindergarten on the top floor, where there are also a running track, swimming pool, rooftop garden, artists’ workspace and solarium. Thanks to the pilotis, there is plenty of parking for cars and bikes underneath the building. Communal, convenient, and self-contained, this is what social housing could and should strive towards.

Ruth Ford House

Ruth Ford House

In marked contrast to the two-hander of Le Corbusier’s modernism and brutalism, US architect Bruce Goff was a leading figure of the organic design vanguard. He built almost 150 commissions and none was more striking than the Ruth Ford House in 1948. The house cost less than $70,000 to build and had the honour of a spread dedicated to it in Life magazine.

The main unit is shaped like a large dome made from bright red prefabricated steel, which wasn’t filled in, so allowed a view inside the house from outdoors. Rising over three levels it resembles a bird cage or a pumpkin with its skin and core removed. The steel ribs realise a remarkable cathedral-like vault inside, while the bottom level of the house has a kitchen and dining room with built-in furniture and fireplace. The house is an enduring object of beauty, though beauty was not always in the eye of the beholder. Fellow citizens of Aurora, Illinois did not take kindly to the new building, so the Fords erected a sign reading: “We don’t like your house either.” Touché.

It would be remiss to make a selection of utopian architecture and exclude the legendary Buckminster Fuller.

Probably best known for his Montreal Biosphere, based on his seminal geodesic dome design, Fuller held more than 28 patents and 47 honorary degrees. One of his most celebrated ideas came to him during a period of severe adversity. After a business plan with his father-in-law failed, Fuller spent two years living as a recluse in the 1920s. During this time he came up with his design for the Dymaxion House (fully conceived in 1945).

If the Ruth Ford House was designed for the hip intelligentsia, Fuller’s was a universal housing solution. The house could be mass-produced, shipped in a single container and built in a matter of hours.

The layout could be easily adapted and was totally efficient with its own heating and cooling system built in. It was the epitome of Fuller’s philosophy of “doing more with less”.

The Dymaxion House led to spin-offs too: the Dymaxion Car and Dymaxion Bathroom, but the mass-production venture of each collapsed due to a conflict between Fuller and his business partners. Capitalism distrusted an idea of making products that were good yet cheap, easy to produce that cut down waste.

Like most utopian architecture, Fuller’s ideas remain unfulfilled, but are still part of the future, even as we look back on them.

St Louis Gateway Arch

St Louis Gateway Arch

Of course, utopian architecture did not always need a function: it could simply add something to the landscape. The St Louis Gateway Arch is a fine example. It doesn’t “do” anything on a functional level, but it does something magical to the city. This transformation is from the designs of Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen.

The arch is made of stainless steel and, at 192 metres, is the tallest manmade monument in the US. It was completed in 1965, the two legs being built simultaneously and then linked at the top by a keystone. It has a tram inside which carries the public to a lookout area at its highest point.

Saarinen’s design was part of a 1948 project to commemorate Thomas Jefferson and the settlers of the American West. The son of acclaimed art deco architect Eliel Saarinen, Eero survived him by just 11 years but still managed to complete many of his father’s projects, before flourishing with his own commissions; another is the TWA Terminal at JFK.

It is easy to fantasise about a Saarinen-style arch in Dublin; as a stooping sister to the Spire, perhaps. It could majestically sweep across the Liffey, joining north and south together. Utopian architecture in the Fair City: just imagine it.

The Tale of Tomorrow is published by Gestalten

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times
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Industrial relations – Hilla and Bernd Becher

Blast Furnaces, 1980-88

Blast Furnaces

When probed by critics to contextualise their vast collection of photographs of industrial architecture, Hilla and Bernd Becher stated that, “just as the medieval thought is manifest in a Gothic cathedral”, then “so too is the industrial age captured in the machinery once scattered across our lands”.

For more than 40 years the Bechers, husband and wife, documented a world made up of water towers, gas tanks, blast furnaces, grain elevators, collieries, and mine heads: a world of machinery that was no longer used, obsolete; a world that was being swiftly and ruthlessly dismantled.

The epoch of the Industrial Revolution was vanishing without trace, so the Bechers decided to watch, camera at hand, capturing its memento mori.

Hilla and Bernd met in 1957 while working at an advertising agency in Dusseldorf and discovered they had a mutual love of industrial architecture, especially that of the Ruhr region. Bernd had grown up in the area and initially planned to draw and paint these huge structures. But he soon realised that they were being demolished before he was finished with either pen or brush. Hilla, who was an experienced photographer by then, thought it more effective to use this medium instead, and instructed Bernd in technique and printing. A beautiful relationship was formed, and they married in 1961.

Pitheads 1974 by Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher 1931-2007, 1934-2015

Pitheads

 

During this decade the Bechers, with their son Max in tow, travelled around in a VW camper pulling an old caravan customised as a darkroom. Their itinerary included Germany, Holland and France, while in 1966 they embarked on a six-month journey through England and Wales taking pictures of the coal industry. A love of collieries also took them to North America in 1974, Pennsylvania, where they recorded the coal mine tipples.

The objects of their affection might seem cursory upon first impression, but the Bechers’ working methods were anything but. Hilla described their style as “direct, descriptive photography”. This usually meant using ladders and scaffolding to shoot on their large-format plate cameras, with overcast conditions to minimise shadows and allow a neutral backdrop. The same standard was applied to each photograph to give complete objectivity. Photos were published in gelatin silver prints, and no monolith was considered too humdrum to be reverently and painstakingly recorded by them as one of their “anonymous sculptures”.

What transformed the Bechers’ work from documentary to art (although critics remain divided on this categorisation) was their use of typologies, which saw structures being exhibited in grid formations made up of six to fifteen photographs. “By placing several cooling towers side by side something happened, something like tonal music”, Hilla said: “You don’t see what makes the objects different until you bring them together, so subtle are their differences”.

Individually the pictures are impressive, but collectively they take on a rippling power that pulses right out across the grids: a series of gas tanks that morph into displaced industrialised glitter balls; framework houses that variegate across the page like real-time mosaics; winding towers that could be desolate fun parks.

“When you look at something”, they explained, “you look at first one detail and then another until your memory builds up a complete picture. You never see anything in detail at once but the camera can”.

Contemporary critics found the Bechers’ exhibitions workaday, detached and indifferent: sets of stark black-and-white pictures of water towers and gas tanks will not engage everyone’s sensibility, understandably. But this did not deter them or their vision. The Bechers were awed by the ambition of design invested in objects that were functional tools of the industrial landscape; they were enraptured by the imagination and effort invested in composing the perfunctory.

Hilla and Bernd Becher also sensed the cultural value of the likes of the collieries in Wales, while other watched them fall. They understood how these structures were markers on the maps of our age, soon to be erased. “Someone who concerns himself with scorpions must love them to a certain extent. And photography is there precisely to portray what is, not to sort and reproduce only the good and the beautiful”, stated Hilla.

I often wonder what the Bechers would document of our digital age if they were alive: sadly Hilla passed away near the end of last year, Bern in 2007, aged 81 and 75 respectively.

An empty office space, sprinkled with sleek computers slumbering atop linear desks at the break of dawn maybe; scrubby Chinese warehouses stacked with smart devices, just off the production line and freshly boxed for shipping; or perhaps the tools fuelling our vast electrical appetites now: static wind turbines, enervated energy grids, or thundering power plants. All of them fixed, purposely static.Who knows. What is for certain though is that the Bechers marvelled where others might only have overlooked as mundane. With clarity and objectivity, they rendered beauty in places where it should have few expectations. And in the end, criticism of their work did not concern either of them – they were as detached in their reactions to commentary, as they were in their working methods. Their legacy is assured, and their influence lives on in the work of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Candida Hoffer. “The question if this is a work of art or not is not very important for us”, they said. “Probably it is situated in between the established categories. Anyway the audience which is interested in art would be the most open-minded and willing to think about it”.

  • Article first appeared in Village magazine
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