Tag Archives: Modernist

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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At Different Stages

We at arslocii have always been of a mind that performance makes a theater and not vice versa. We’ve felt that a stage play didn’t actually even need a stage – that the play was the thing and, if compelling enough, the thing could be played anywhere. We’ve seen plays and musical performances put on in the unlikeliest of spots – out in open fields, in church basements, in living rooms, in marketplaces – and by virtue of the performance, the location has been imbued with that quasi-sacred, holy-ground feel and aura that is a theater. And, even in – and perhaps especially in – latter-day theaters, with their thrust stages and unadorned halls, there is the sense of getting back to basics: stripped down to essences, they are like enclosed Modernist amphitheaters, flexible enough to play host to anything, from Rodgers & Hammerstein to “Godot” to “Oedipus.” They are, or can be, in a very Venturi/Scott Brown way, decorated sheds, but of the soul. And, sometimes, because the performances come out of this dark blank slate, without visual competition, and with a dreamlike presentational affect, they can be even more powerful, have greater impact. A theater need be nothing more than a focal point, a campfire in the night of the world.

And yet …

There we were, going to see a performance of “Burn the Floor,” a spirited ballroom-dancing revue starring some of our favorite hoofers from “So You Think You Can Dance.” The show was being put on in our town’s old orchestra hall, one of those 19th-century jewel boxes that, these days, spend less time with orchestras within their restored walls (our town’s orchestra has moved down the street to the new symphony space) and more time playing host to touring acts and troupes, and smaller-scale arts efforts.

They seem, on the face of them, fuddy-duddy and unnecessary ornate temples dedicated to the white Western world’s conception of culture. That being said, going there, being there, one could clearly feel something … special about it that the newer theaters just don’t have. There was a formal processional entry – from the sidewalk up a few steps to the set-back brick and gaslight-flickered façade; through large doors into a narrow decompression foyer, the first layer of leaving the real world behind; then on into a large, high-ceilinged lobby, with staircases shooting off and up, and, just ahead, ticket-takers for those lucky enough to have floor and lower box seats (and whom, tonight, would include us); then, beyond, a spacious hallway that semi-circles the row of entrance doors leading to the performance area – each ring of ingress drawing us into, even making us complicit with, the make-believe to come.

Then into the theater proper, all red velvet and gold filigree, bedecked tiers forming a wall of opulence, or, perhaps, obeisance: dressing up for a visit from the gods – an audience in both senses of the word. While seemingly stylistic and interior-decorating overkill for the task at hand (except where acoustical functionality was the driving force), there is, deeper, a sense of placeness that enunciates clearly that this is exactly what a space of this sort should be – in the same way that circus is best seen in a tent, or baseball in a human-scale stadium with grass on the field. And when the curtain rises – and, yes, there is a curtain, not merely a bank of lights turned on, as well as a massive proscenium that is happy to provide a fourth wall – we know that this is a place of art and wonder and imaginativeness.

Some places can be anything, and many new theaters are like that; other places are one thing, but perfectly so. Each has its role, and its magic, and even its contrapuntal possibilities: a full-costumed opera on a bare thrust stage, a Beckett play in a Victorian- or Edwardian-era hall – playing against type, and placeness, creating a new place with hybrid life.

There is not just one way of doing things, but there are ways that we, as participant-observers, know are just right, and tell us that we belong. Maybe anything called a theater does that. Maybe anything – whether black box or jewel box – that draws us to it, and draws our minds and hearts for us to see, has a placeness supreme.


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