Modernism in situ: House und site

It might seem a contradiction to speak of Modernist theory and its resulting architecture  in an arslocii way; that is, when it concerns the relationship of house with site. After all, the idea of Modernist thinking was to relate to nothing except pure function and formalism, rationalism uber alles: a utopian visionary truth-finding in the creation of intellectual rules derived from knowledge and mastery of nature, resulting in the building of a perfect machine – not a perfect machine on a perfect site. Anything other than the concept and form was extraneous, beautiful setting be damned. The reality, though, is often different from the ideology.

We have visited a number of great Modernist houses in the United States and what we have learned is that despite the theory, despite the intent, what we have been presented with are amazing buildings in wondrous settings, the two working in tandem, improving each other in immeasurable ways. Yes, the structures can be interesting, although I wonder if they would be as exciting in an asphalt parking lot or sitting right up against an interstate highway. My humble opinion is that Modernist buildings are not alone, after all. The context is just as important as the structure. Think about Brasilia.

The prime example of this success is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, where the house and its environment are completely integrated, one having equal status with the other. It is a pairing that is inseparable, impossible to imagine unpaired. Another, and an unanticipated surprise, was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, which resides in a geometric swath of denuded watershed along the Fox River in Plano, Illinois. As the house hovers above the landscape, almost as if it were somehow in a final landing phase, its form is repeated and complemented in the geometry of the cleared site, the remaining natural woodland becoming a more solid-walled structure surrounding the glass-walled house. The two in a perfect rapport.

Racing down a country road, completely by accident we happened to spy the Gropius House, in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Screech! It is an iconic object built by the icon himself (of the Bauhaus School). And it does attract, with its simplicity of design and materials as well as its diminutive size. The real revelation was how it interacted with its site, the setting acting as a transition, really, from geometric stone walls that pick up the lines and shapes of the house but then let go, as the natural contours spill over and out of their minimal boundaries: the nearby controlled landscape connecting the functionally manmade with the naturalistic. Just as the house is spare, so are the grounds, one echoing the other, simplicity with large effect. The two interact with each other and, aside from the potential of this large white block of a structure resembling a ship cutting through polar ice, there was plenty of design that went into its site to make the two a harmonious whole.

And then there was Field Farm – in Williamstown, Massachusetts, designed by Edwin Goodell for the Bloedel family – an International Style series of boxes, clustered as if trying to mimic, in a modern way, the Taconic Range behind it. The setting is a valley of meadows and fields, 300 acres of land that had been farmed since the mid-1700s. Like the Gropius House, this one sits on a terraced, walled plateau that is formal in design surrounding the house. But just beyond the wall the landscape takes over and becomes meadows, wetlands and, finally, woodlands; the house and its pedestal being just one small element in the vast natural environment.

Yes, we have seen Modernist houses in wooded glens, at rivers’ edge, in sites where one might want to imagine many kinds of houses, not just those mentioned. But a Modernist house on rural farmland is a unique concept. Farms are usually organized systems of land management, often geometricized, divided and delineated, altered by humans, structured and reduced to the ideal of a perfect machine – for food production. In that sense, a functional house fits very well with such a cultivated landscape. Although the furrows are no longer visible, the sense of industry and land use still are apparent at Field Farm. Going into this, I would have said: Huh? Now that I have experienced this combination, I say arslocii.

The thing is, all these houses and others that we have “experienced” are not, no matter what Modernist thinking proscribes, independent islands unto themselves. They are influenced and affected by their sites, often enhanced by them. Their raison d’etre may be dogma but their reality is contextual. You can’t divorce one from the other. The combinations may not always be spectacular, but they are pairings nonetheless. To think that a building can be a totality is naive. A perfect machine still has to exist somewhere; and when it does, it has to have a dialogue with its environment. Whether the architect wants it or not, the two together can achieve placeness, something that goes far beyond just the solidification of theory.

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Filed under Art & Architecture, Culture, Musings, Nature/Nurture

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