Stewardship as Architectural Aesthetic

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Recent Architectural Movements and Aesthetics

Adolf Loos and Modern Architecture

The recent death of Pierre Koenig represents the passing of the last of the significant modernists who truly believed that the beauty and the elegance of architecture came from the simplest and cleanest response to the constraints of a problem—a rationalistic and scientific view of aesthetics. There is no doubt that their buildings held a certain austere beauty, especially Koenig’s. He had a chance to pursue his work through a consistent evolution into the 21st Century by incorporating new materials and responding to the increasingly complex demands of energy conscious and environmentally responsible design.

Adolf Loos was arguably the opening spokesman for modern movement. He heralded the shift away from ornamental architecture, which had dominated for several centuries. He writes, “Ornament is not merely produced by criminals, it commits a crime itself by damaging national economy and therefore its cultural development “8

From such a view came architects such as Walter Gropius and Mies Vander Rohe. Austere usage of materials became an elegant aesthetic, but behind the aesthetic was the fundamental expectation that the mass production of good architecture could make the life of the common man much better. It was a translation of the Bell, Burroughs, and Sullivan notion that art could elevate, only this time it was translated into a scientific determinism that truly thought that if we made safe, clean, open buildings, the stress on people’s lives would be reduced. They would be happier and many societal ills would become obsolete. This is arguably the last real aesthetic of architecture. It resulted in a style that, unfortunately, could be copied without understanding; but it also resulted in a new ideal of beauty, which had social overtones. This is the prototype after which an aesthetic of sustainability must be modeled.

Le Corbusier

Pierre Jeanneret (Le Corbusier) wrote of the way that modern architecture would enrich people’s lives in La Ville Radieuse. But Corbusier also translated his ideas into a formal language and states clearly what the language was about. He says,

Architecture is the masterly correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage.9

Furthermore, he “invented” the brise-soleil, which cut off the sun at certain times and seasons. He employed the scissors cross section, which allowed occupants of apartment buildings to have cross ventilation and views in opposing directions. He detached the vision portion of the window from the ventilation portion, which simplified production. He celebrated rainfall and drainage with scuppers and inverse fountains (where the concentrated rainfall is the water spray). All of these modernist environmental ideas became forms and elements. It was not always as pure as he originally stated. The cathedral at Ronchamps is reminiscent of a nun’s hat and is a swooping combination of forms cast in concrete and painted white. (Similarly, Aalto used simple, but more organic and curved, sensuous forms in his buildings, revealing a love affair with the gradations of light.)

Let it also be noted that Corbusier had a questionable intellectual understanding of both technology and aesthetics. He overstated the case for simple objects, given that they are often made of very complex pieces at the scale of buildings. He claimed to understand light and yet states, “Gothic architecture is not, fundamentally, based on spheres, cones and cylinders. Only the nave is an expression of a simple form, but of a complex geometry of the second order (interesting arches). It is for that reason that a cathedral is not very beautiful …”10

It is clear that most people think cathedrals are beautiful, even if somewhat dated. One could argue that they are sustainable by default. The interior temperatures remain relatively constant due to the mass of the material of the building. They consume little or no energy and require minimal maintenance, compared to similar modern buildings of the same scale. Yet that is what needs to be taken into account in the new aesthetic. Corbusier’s ideas and elements must be adopted and adapted, without his blanket antagonism to forms used in the past.

Peter Eisenman

Over time, post modernism and deconstructivism have made a serious cultural impact, and the modernist viewpoint has been largely left behind. At the popular level, the sterility of modernist architecture left most occupants and observers with an unhappy (and unaesthetic!) experience. This may have occurred precisely because too many architects were too lazy about responding to the real constraints, and opted instead for the easiest and least interesting solution by tacking on some stylistic modern imagery. Or they disregarded human comfort, emotion, and typical lifestyles, hoping to bring about some pure and elevated lifestyle by forcing building occupants into a less cluttered behavior. This is the danger of a simplified application of an aesthetic.

But we will leave that until some new modernist (a la Glenn Murcutt, Renzo Piano, Nicholas Grimshaw, or Jean Nouvel) shows the way. The real goal is to divert these new modernists into an aesthetic of sustainability.

Robert Venturi

In the late 20th Century, Robert Venturi elaborates on the ethnic domain theme raised earlier by Langer: buildings must make a cultural reference, and they must have symbols that allow the observer to relate to the purpose, context, or history of the building type.11 This attitude gave rise to postmodernism in architecture, which is composed almost entirely of rebellion against modernism. Postmodernism enriched architecture in that it allowed for cultural symbols, and fed into the zeitgeist of an abrogation of any deterministic or absolute standard by which behavior or form might be judged. Venturi himself recognizes the inherent danger of this influence and writes, “In frequent cases, orgies of complex and contradictory articulations produce dramatic expression that becomes expressionism in architecture. Ironically, the exclusion of applied ornament distorts the whole building into an ornament.”12 Yet again, when we define a sustainable imagery, we create a new signage and cultural context which can be referenced, but we may retain a postmodernist viewpoint in allowing multiple rationales for the aesthetic.