Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Misdiagnosis? Updated February 26, 2018

http://www.citylab.com; January 25, 2018


Hello Everyone:

Here is a breaking development in the Rob Porter scandal Yours Truly reported yesterday: It seems that  the White House did know about domestic violence accusations made by Mr. Porter's ex-wives the past summer and chose not to do anything about it.  In testimony today, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray contradicted the White House timeline, telling members of Congress that that his agency did complete a full background check, necessary for security clearance, and submitted its written report in July of last year.  The report was submitted to the White House, who opted to ignore it.  Blogger guesses that it ended up in the circular file.  Shocking.  Even more shocking, Mr. Porter was in recent discussions about a promotion just before these allegations came to light.  Maybe shocking would not be the right word; more like typical for this administration.  Truthfully, at this point it would take federal marshals descending on the White House and marching its occupants out in shackles for Blogger to be shocked by anything related to this administration.  Alright, enough about that and on to Modernism and mental disorders.


"You are where you live" and where you live affects the way you filter the world (citylab.com; July 14, 2017: date accessed Feb. 13, 2018).  For example, a prison is specifically designed to create a psychological impact as much as a brightly lit pre-school or a serene hospital.  In essence psychology as played a key role in the making of architecture.

Darren Anderson asks this question in his CityLab article "The Perils of Diagnosing Modernists," " Might we discover then that form follows dysfunction?"  This is what Ann Sussman (commonedge.com; Nov. 27, 2017; date accessed Feb.13, 2018) and Katie Chen (Ibid; Aug. 22, 2017) in their essay for Common Edge, "The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture."  The co-authors focused on two giants of Modernism: Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, suggesting that the "minimalist ahistorical buildings originated in part from autism (in the case of Le Corbusier) and post-traumatic stress disorder (Walter Gropius)."  They imply that "Modernism,..., was a path emerging from neurosis and one that never should have been followed."  Blogger knows you are scratching your collective heads, wondering "huh?"  Let us continue.

Mr. Anderson concedes, "At first glance, they might have a point."  Le Corbusier was emotionally distant and his austere aesthetic appeared to reflect his sense of remove.  He writes, "His desire to reduce buildings into geometric components could be seen as monomania [an exaggerated or obsessive enthusiasm for one thing], as evidenced by his own rhetoric, having once said,

I am possessed of the color white, the cube, the sphere, the cylinder and the pyramid... Take the whip to those who dissent.

Le Cobusier's Ville Contemporaine (1922) and Ville Radieuse (1930) suggested replacing historic streets with anonymous tower blocks.  From any other architect or urban planner, such a proposition would be considered heresy, but can be excused if Le Corbusier saw the world differently.

As tempting as it is to write off Le Corbusier as austistic, it is just as easy to dismiss Walter Gropius as permenantly scarred by his battlefield experiences during World War I.  Walter Gropius's experience, even by the grim wartime standards, was amazingly disruptive.  Mr. Anderson writes, "He survived a plane crash with a dead pilot at the controls.  He spent two days and nights buried alive with corpses after a shell blast, surviving because a chimney provided him with air.  He was shot at repeatedly finding numerous bullet holes in his clothes."  In 1915, he earned a rest from the battlefield due to insomnia caused by nervous tension, but returned to the trenches.  No doubt, Walter Gropius lived with those harrowing experiences for the rest of his life.

Putting aside the legitimate question of "how much of an influence these two figures had on the actual contemporary buildings we live in, whether modern architecture can be modern architecture can be regarded as a singular movement and not a vast complex and nuanced plurality of individuals, styles, and forms--or whether seeing the world differently is intrinsically bad thing--the evidence that modern architecture  is founded on 'disorders' is highly questionable."

Le Corbusier's self-sufficiency was hardly out of character for a middle class Nietzche-reading Calvinist from Switzerland.  He was also quite self-aware of his introverted character; "sending a postcard to his parents in 1909 with a self-portrait as a condor on mountain top."  However, his aloofness was balanced by his desire to connect, once stating,

I felt [on a visit to Italy] an authentic human aspiration was gratified here; silence, solitude, but also daily contact with mortals.

More comfortable being reserved, he repeatedly stressed the utmost emphasis on enjoying the life-giving force of love and friendship.

In his private life, Le Corbusier lived the life of an ascetic, admiring the monks of Mount Athos--evident in the monk cell-like characteristic of his designs.  However, they were not stark prison cells, rather, more like attempts to create a haven amid the chaos of modern life.  He wrote in his seminal book Toward a New Architecture (1923), Where order reigns,...,well-being follows.  He dreamt of a life with obstacles, distraction, and clutter (Blogger's kind of life).  He recognized that for all the benefits of community, people still craved privacy.  Therefore, "It could also be argued that, far from autism, his attraction to minimalistic order originated from his vision."  Interestingly, Le Corbusier began his career as an engraver with a Art Nouveau inclination but gave it up for architecture, suffering from chronic eye problems, ending in a detached retina and near blindness.

Le Corbusier's infamous line, A house is a machine for living, is frequently used to demonstrate something was off with him.  Regardless whether it supports a diagnosis of autism or a dismissal of an architect as a cold insensitive technocrat, it is not the full quote.  When this sentence is placed in context to the full quote, a more humanistic side, 

A house is a machine for living in.  Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion.  An armchair is a machine for sitting in and so on.

Ever the master of self-promotion, Le Corbusier knew that this concept would controversial, quoted in Simon Richard's Le Corbusier and the Concept of Self (2003):

A long time ago, I jumped in where angels feared to tread... a thousand utterance have bee produced to bat me for having dared that utterance.  But when I say 'living' I am not talking of mere material requirement only.  I admit certain important extensions which must crown the edifice of man's daily needs.  To be able to think, or meditate, after the day's work is essential.  But in order to become a center of creative thought, the home must take on an absolutely new character.

Darren Anderson writes, "What would characterize this new character is suggested by words that recur often through his writing--love, poetry, spirituality, and art."  This makes sense because Le Corbusier was a lifelong painter and sculptor.  The need for clarity was equalled by his desire that space be useful.  Presciently, in the face of housing shortages and slums, he offered a vision of sun, space, trees; that is all what all cities need, adding landscape, protective zoning, swimming pools, childcare, and retail arcades.  Rather at odds with the image of a person who could not relate to people.

Then there is the case of the "solitary and traumatized Walter Gropius."  If Walter Gropius was as horrifically emotionally damaged as portrayed, it certainly did not stop him from leading the Bauhaus, perhaps the most influential design school of the previous century, or becoming, in exile, the most influential professor of architecture at Harvard.

As head of the Bauhaus, he assembled an exceptional, albeit unconventional, faculty that included Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.  Throughout his storied career, he collaborated extensively out resourcefulness and camaraderie, rather then an extension of his military career.  Mr. Anderson writes, "It can be said that collaboration was at the very heart of Gropius's vision for the Bauhaus; a realm where the barriers between disciplines could be broken down in the name of better living through design."

Walter Gropius's architecture was "sober, stylish, and considered, especially in comparison to his wild Expressionist comrades at the war's end."  Mr. Anderson describes Walter Gropius as "...by most accounts, highly intelligent, professional, loyal, and charming."  American architect and former student Paul Rudolph called Walter Gropius, the most dynamic man I've ever come into contact with.  The National Socialist party newspaper Volkischer condemned him not as a "neurotic degenerate or inhuman control-freak but as that elegant salon Bolshevist."

Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that if Walter Gropius suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, he hid it amazingly well from his students, collaborators, and buildings.  In his will, he wrote,

It would be beautiful if all my friends of the present and of the past world would together in a little while for a fiesta--a la Bauhaus--drinking, laughing, loving.

Walter Gropius may have been scarred by his wartime experiences but he was not imprisoned by them.

Darren Anderson writes that in their article, "The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture" by Ann Sussman and Katie Chen "make grand claims as to Le Corbusier's 'hyperarousal' and his inability, rather than simple unwillingness, to maintain social relationships.  Similarly, they make unsubstantiated inspirations that Gropius's brain had shrank due to repeated near-death experiences."  In short, post-mortem speculation is pointless.  Mr. Anderson continues, "What is demonstrably untrue is that's Modernism was instrincally a dysfunctional byproduct of the Firs World War."  Well, yes.  Nothing happens in a vacuum.  Modern architecture had been germinating for thirty years prior to World War I, partly inspired by Japenese architecture following the formal end of the its isolation era; partly as a reaction of the decorative excess of the Art Nouveau and the rigid adherence to academic period styles.  The former was acknowledged by Walter Gropius in his book collaboration with Kenzo Tange and Yaushiro Ishimoto, Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture.  The famous architecture aphorism "Form follows Function," was coined not by a Modernist but by the 19th century master of ornate skyscrapers Louis Sullivan.

In Europe, the move towards minimal architecture had been going on long enough to create a generational divide, backlashes, and synthesises.  By the end of the 19th century, there were already architectural gems built in this new minimalist manner including Maison du Peuple (1896-99; hiddenarchitecture.net; date accessed Feb 20, 2018) by Victor Horta; Sanatorium Purkersdorf (1904-05; en.wikipedia.org; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018) and Stoclet Palace (begun 1905; whc.unesco.org; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018) both by Josef Hoffman and Steiner House (1910; greatbuildings.com; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018).  More fanciful architects such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Otto Wagner were designing proto-Modernit buildings that skewed toward geometric forms; the former's Glasgow School of Art (1897-1909; gsa.ac.uk; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018) and the unbuilt Concert Hall (1898; date mackintosh-architecture.gla.ac.uk; accessed Feb. 20, 2018), the latter's Austrian Postal Savings Bank (1903; ottowagner.com; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018) and the steel and concrete Villas (1886-1913).  As we can see from these stellar pre World War I examples, Modernism did not spring forth as a reaction to the horrors of war.  Rather, "The Modernists sped up this process in an accelerated evolution rather than revolution."

You can also make the case that the need to create order out of chaos was a response to the Industrial Revolution and attempts to implement new technology to mitigate the ill effects.  Once again, this began before Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius made their mark.  For example, Tony Garnier's well-known modernist Cite Industrielle (1904-17; utopies.skynetblogs.be; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018) was inspired by Ebenezer Howard's Garden City (1898).  Far from being a tabla rasa for the sake of it, "clean and rationalized space was tied to health and efficiency."  Jan Duiker's Zonnestral (1925-31; whc.unesco.org; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018) and Finnish architect Alvar Aalto's Paimio Sanatorium (1933; architectural-review.com; Nov. 17, 2016; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018) are examples of Modernism 's focus on treating the maladies not a representation of them.  Margarete Schutte-Lihotzky's Frankfurt Kitchen (1926; moma.org; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018) became the model for more efficient kitchen design.  Modernism even had a soul, Darren Anderson calls this period "...a new golden age of church building,..." that began with Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark concrete and glass Unity Temple (1905-08; flwright.org; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018), intended to let the room be the architecture outside. Concrete was already being used before the war in such buildings as Auguste Perret's Rue Franklin Apartments (1902-04; hidden architecture.net; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018), Garage Ponthieu (1907; artandarchitecture.org.uk; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018); the Packard Automotive Plant by Albert Kahn (1905; packardplantproject.org ; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018) and Robert Maillart's Giesshubel (1910; engineering-timelines.com; date accessed Feb. 20, 2018)

If these examples were the manifestations of compulsive behavior, then by coincidence, the new buildings methods were increasingly cost efficient, easier to put up, and safer for the occupants.  Further, if we give take into consideration Ann Sussman and Katie Chen's claim of concrete as an example of abnormal fixation, you have to wonder if the the anonymous architect of oneof the Roman Empire's greatest monuments-the dome of the Pantheon (125 CE)-was emotionally scarred by Trajan's wars with the Parthians.

The aversion to ornament and the trend towards more clear and undecorated architecture was already well-established before Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius's period of significance.  Austrian architect Adolf Loos rowed against the slavery of decoration bound to centuries of privilege.  His famous essay Ornament and Crime (1910) trumpeted,

Soon the streets of the town will glisten like white walls.  Like Zion, the holy city, the metropolis of heaven.  Then we shall have fulfillment.

Mr. Anderson writes, "There was a certain logic to his messianic proclamations; he recognized that times were changing fast and architecture needed to adapt.  It made little sense to spend time and effort carving details into on building whose function would soon change."  Carving ornament into stone seem neurotic on its own, writing, he modern or mentalist is a straggler, or pathological case.  He rejects even his own products within three years.  Italian Futureist Antonio Sant'Elia seconded that thought in his 1914 manifesto, declaring,

The decorative must be abolished...the importance of the facade must be diminished; issues of toast must be transplanted from the field of fussy molding [...] Let us make an end of monumental, funereal and commemorative architecture.

Modern architecture was about the show, not tell.  Frank Lloyd Wright even encouraged this concept in  An Autobiography (1943), writing, Let us abolish in the art and craft of architecture, literature in any symbolic form whatsoever.

Darren Anderson observes, "It seemed particularly anachronistic to keep carving caryatids and gargoyles in a developing world's of steel and glass, electricity, cinema, and modern signage."  Indeed, it seem ridiculously out-of-date to keep carving caryatids and gargoyles for buildings that were more dynamic and streamlined, a reference automobile design.  Streamline Moderne was inspired by ship design.  Le Corbusier showed an affinity for cars by writing a book dedicated to them and co-designing a car.  By contrast, Walter Gropius preferred rail cars.  Both architects brought these lessons into their own work.  Mr. Anderson writes, "The spirit was one of inspiration rather than alienation."  Le Corubsier announced,

We claim in the name of the steamship, of the airplane, and of the motor car,..., the right to health, to logic, daring, harmony, perfection.

Although architects are not immune from egotism, Le Corbusier exhibits an element of humility in this state.  Walter Gropius's Total Theater (1927; theatre-architecture.eu; date accessed Feb. 26, 2018) was intended as a modular building "where the vision of the architect would not impeded the set designer or audience, a building

...so impersonal that it never restrains him from giving full play to his vision and imagination, a building whose spatial treatment stimulates and refreshes the human spirit.

The Fagus Factory (1911-13; archdaily.com; March 28, 2015; date accessed Feb. 26, 2018) in Alfeld, Germany is the best example, according to Mr. Anderson, of all these developments.  The Fagus Factory, designed by Walter Gropius and Adolf Meyer, brought Modernism out of its long incubation period.  Mr. Anderson writes, "Gropius did so not through transparency.  By constructing a glass curtain wall, a relatively recent technological innovation, he offered factory workers access to natural light."  This innovation allowed Walter Gropius to fulfill his dream of an architect who, as he boldly declared  at the Folkwang Museum in 1911,

...will attend not only to light, air, and cleanliness in the design of his buildings and work spaces, but will also take cognizance of those basic sentiments of beauty that even uneducated workers possess.

It is pretty easy to forget that earlier buildings were unsafe, dark, dank, inefficient edifices.  He followed up the Fagus Factory with his Factory and Office Building (1914) for "the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne with it glass spiral staircase offering access to work spaces as well as dance floors and a restaurant."  Mr. Anderson observes, "It is astonishing that these fragments of the future were con structured in the age of the Kaiser.  And it is evident that Walter Gropius's form of Modernims was already fully formed before he fired a single shot in combat."

There is no denying the fact that the First World War had an enormous impact on architecture, as well as every element of Western life.  Our contemporary understanding of pre-war societies may have been filtered through a Downton Abby prism, "but there was little enthusiasm or money to begin building palaces or carving heraldic symbols for regimes that had sent millions of young meant to be multilateral int eh trenches."  

Darren Anderson finds part fault with the architects touting Year Zero credentials, it is pretty easy to make the case that Modernism has no need for tradition.  Once the Modernists bluster settled down, they had to concede that yes, Modernism had use for tradition.  Le Corbuiser acknowledged,

Today I am accused of being a revolutionary,.., yet I confess to having had only one master: the past: and only one discipline: the study of the past.

When he looked for clarity and grandeur, he focused on the Parthenon.  His declaration that a new age has begun  was qualified by the addition of a new Middle Age.  He continued,

 I chose the most zealous fighters for a cause, those to whom, we, we of the 20th century, are now ready to become the equals: the early Medieval architects... logic, truth, honesty.

Walter Gropius also sought a historical model and name for the design school he founded.  For this purpose, he recalled the medieval guilds where the different crafts would collaborate and integrate their talents, using Lionel Feininger's gothic cathedral woodblock print for the cover of his Bauhaus Manifesto (1919).

It is very useful especially to examine and question the places that we inhabit and the people who make them.  It is also important to continue to question the places and their makers even after we arrive at a tidy answer.  Ann Sussman and Katie Chen's  essay for Common Edge "The Mental Disorders that Gave Us Modern Architecture" offers all too pat reason why Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier designed the way they did.  Dismissing Le Corbusier's uncluttered aesthetic to autism and Walter Gropius's monolithic buildings as a byproduct of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder does a real dis-services to these very real mental illnesses and disregards the decades Modernism spent gestating before springing forth in the early 20th century.  Attributing Modernism to mental illness also ignores Le Corbuiser's interest in polychromy and Walter Gropius's use of the vernacular.  

Darren Anderson writes, "At the age of 3, Louis Kahn was horrifically burned and scarred for life, having red hot coals into his apron.  His buildings and teachings are awe-inspiring and meditative."  Frank Lloyd Wright had a long and fruitful career following the tragic death of his lover, her children, and colleagues after they were murdered by a hatchet-wielding "crazy guy" who burned down Taliesin.  Frank Lloyd Wright carried that burden yet, as he continued and got, he drew inspiration from around the globe.  Trauma is everywhere but how an individuals chooses to deal with is idiosyncratic.  Free will aside, there are so many components that factor into design and decisions that should make us question any and all encompassing reason.

Ann Sussman and Katie Chen's article provide with thought provoking and useful questions and tools but we should be cautious about mistaking one element for the whole puzzle.  We, the consumers of architecture and design, are part of the connection between architecture and psychology.  Assigning modern and traditona to simplified binaries is also a dis-service by failing to recognize that "beauty and utility exist in all styles and ages, e limit ourselves when we can ill afford to."