Tag Archives: Modernism

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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From Tiny Acorns

We live in a time of unadornment, and have for many years. New buildings are just boxes, with meager attempts at visual design, such as mirrored windows. For decades, stripped-down, modified Modernist-style has been king, and every industrial park, medical complex and suburban office aggregation is reminiscent – no, identical – to the one you passed just down the road: unfriendly to pedestrians, uncaring of environment, unaware of surroundings, unknowable because there is nothing there to know.

This is no new revelation: the lines of this battle and public assault were drawn long ago; it’s just amazing that the winds of fashion or time or human vagaries and fickleness haven’t blown sand over the old lines and led us to the making of new ones. Like many things now, this, too, is indicative of a slump. Controversial Postmodernism looked, for a while, as if it might enliven the cityscape – and the discussion – even if only in odd ways, but it soon was co-opted and subsumed, and now seems as just an eccentric interlude, a test-run of warped iconography and Chippendale toppings before its predestined use as the architecture of Las Vegas and Disney World.

Beyond the commercial building, the same one-note malaise infects the housing stock. Actually, here in our town, it’s two-note. Here, where the red-brick rowhouse is the lingua franca of house-building, there are, spreading like unimaginative but persistent bacteria, the three-story, bay-windowed, one-car-garaged, part stuccoed, part-bricked, part-stone-face, part-sided, lone dwarf-conifered structure that in the suburbs is called a townhome. In the city, where they are being built in profusion, three or four crammed into lots designed for one or two, the same blueprint used in ex-urban developments is being applied. They don’t fit, they don’t accommodate and they don’t age well. The term “cookie cutter” comes to mind; “boring,” too. Built fast, sold expensive, they are as much extruded as constructed, with lowest-grade materials slapped together by unlicensed, barely-skilled workers hired by fly-by-night, carpet-bagger, self-described “developers.” Exploitation aside, these organisms are – to all those who do not dwell inside them, admiring the granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances – characterless intruders.

The other form of new construction here is the modified Euro-style residential unit – informed by Bauhaus principles, sleek and rectilinear, with worker-housing lines and industrial materials, with a whiff of Scandinavian Utopian-community architecture about them. For a while, they were exciting additions to the neighborhoods: cool and stylish, imported and forward-looking. What wasn’t seen, looking forward, was how soon they would proliferate, and by the hands of fast-buck contractors looking to cash in on a trend, to the point where they have now become, if not ubiquitous, then monotonous, and without their original spark and surprise. What wasn’t seen, either – or what wasn’t cared about, even if seen – was that a mass of them, devised by recipe, would soon look like Soviet-era living spaces, or higher-aesthetic public housing – and which, like new cars rolling off dealers’ lots, look immediately dated, rapidly losing monetary and style-points value.

Odd that we tolerate sameness, save for color or flower-bed choice, with our homes, for it is not as if we are a creature with no interest in external adornment: we sculpt our hair, paint our faces, spend fortunes on clothing and jewelry, all to decorate ourselves, to define a more distinct, beautiful or striking or singular us. (Of course, this is a semi-fallacy, because we cut our hair in popular fashions, cosmeticize and accessorize ourselves to resemble the current hot luminary. We conform in our striving to show our difference, and those who are truly different are shunned or mocked.)

Still, we alter our outsides, even in rote ways – but, when it comes to our houses, all the adornment takes place behind the facades, in the rooms, where only residents can see them – unshared. Are we so estranged from our shelters that we do not see them as extensions of ourselves and, therefore, worthy of extended identity?

We were in New York City recently, and, with some time before our bus home, we strolled up and down the numbered streets, on the Upper East Side, in the 60s and 70s, crisscrossing the easternmost avenues. There are magnificent, real, venerable townhouses lining those streets, and while many are classic brownstones, they come in similar but varied styles and colors. And, every once in a while, we would encounter a house that had been modernized, or had been built new in recent decades where once an older house had been; they stood gleaming and brazen and out of context, attached yet detached – cool, flat statements of an architect. Still, among the houses of these streets, the adornments are primarily inside the homes, not out – you can spy the painting and mouldings, photos and weavings, through gaps in the curtained windows (except in the modernized homes, which have, for the most part, used metal or smoked glass to screen from view any errant peeping).

But what is missing, despite facade variations, despite the modernized materials, is personalization – the truly personal expression: a resonating link between the person inside the house and the house’s public face to the city, to the street, to the passerby, to the human-scale experience  – to the creation of placeness, a statement that is, intentionally or not, art.

So, soon, we nearly ceased to look at the places, each beginning to look like the next or, worse, feeling like the next, or the one across or up the street. And we ceased, too, to be stopped by or drawn to the newish kids on the block, each with a sameness in their often-strained difference.

It was just about then when we saw it. It was a grayish brownstone house, somewhat less regal or commanding or rich-looking than many of its neighbors. But it had a band of something, some design, stretched across its front, just above the first-floor entry door and windows. It seemed like something extra, but nothing special. We almost missed it. But we looked again and saw it: what that perhaps 18-inch-high strip of dark metal had punched out of it was a series of squirrel shapes – a long row of them, as if in a conga line. And, more, we then noticed that atop the newel posts flanking the front stoop were sculptures of, yes, squirrels.

Why? Who knows. But all of it was too expensive, too thought-out, too well-done an act to have been merely a whim. The metal band, the squirrel statues – these meant something to the people inside who designed them or paid for them to be designed and installed. Was it a tribute to the city’s second-most widespread wildlife form in the city? (Perhaps somewhere, maybe in Greenwich Village, there was a similar homage to the pigeon?) Was it a play on someone’s name? Or was it just a work of subtle, friendly, individualistic, idiosyncratic art, symbolic of something or nothing, fashioned to catch the eye of people walking by, and make them stop, and smile, and wonder? We don’t know. And, frankly, we don’t care. It broke up the monotony, it brightened our day, it personalized a city that can drub the spirit of anyone. It was, in its way, a buried acorn, happily discovered when needed.

And we were reminded of the sentiments at the end of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”; that is, if one person does such a thing, they might be considered odd, but if more did it, it could be seen as an organization, and even a movement. Think of it: a movement to break down the divide between dwelling and dweller, and between them and the public at large. A movement to take back design, or alter it, to truly personalize the little shelters we call home. To make the concept of placeness, or arslocii, an operating concept in all our lives. To find our inner squirrel.


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