Modern Mischief




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Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Jack Hartray was one of five “Mid-Century Modern” architects who spoke at the opening event of the Illinois Preservation Conference last week. Always an enjoyable speaker, Hartray mentioned that Gropius and the modernist masters of the Mid-20th-Century created a lot of “mischief” with a seemingly mischief-free command: make the building do what the client wants.

In a sense, this is the restatement of Louis Sullivan’s “Form Follows Function” and a central tenet of all modernist architectural thinking from the 1890s to the 1960s. But the “mischief” identified by Hartray was a classic failing in the hyper-aware three-dimensional art of modern architecture: the failure to appreciate the fourth dimension: Time. Even in the Time-Life Building.

Time is of course the dimension of historic preservation, which in its simplest sense is the proposition that previous architecture should be re-used rather than discarded. Hartray recognized that by designing a building very specifically for a client’s needs, you are trashing the concept that time will pass and needs will change and clients will change. He worked on Time-Life Building built precisely and exactly for a 1960s publishing giant but now used by others, including the Chicago Park District.

Le Corbusier was famous for this. He strived in the 1930s to develop the concept of “type-needs” that could identify all potential human uses so that buildings could be designed precisely and permanently. But time screwed him up: His “Modulor” of typical humanity actually changed over time – he lived long enough to see that time wounds all heels, and outstretched arms.

Preservation emerged together with Postmodernism in the mid-1960s, and one of Postmodernism’s cause celebrés and canards was the “decorated shed,” which denied the specificity and universality and unabashed might of modernism. A decorated shed is always useful as long as we need space protected from the weather. In preservation, there are no final uses, only (con)temporary uses. Like its running partner Preservation, Postmodernism recognized the fourth dimension, which brings all heroes to earth.

There are no eternal “programs” or “functions” so it might be better to design buildings that can grow, and learn. This is in fact one of the latest trends in architecture, that of interactive buildings and emergent technology: buildings that respond to your needs.

Take away the hubristic heroic blather and you might find a building like my house, which has responded to artists, dogs, infants, children and educators at various life stages in various activities and has seen studios become living rooms and bedrooms become studios and low-tech become high-tech not to mention the endless churn of fashionisms like granite countertops. It was built in about 1873, and lots of pieces have changed but not the floorplan.

Old hippie Stewart Brand recognized this in a lovely 1994 book called “How Buildings Learn”. The very title is emergent and interactive although it was written at the dawn of the web in a shipping container. He celebrated the unplanned evolution of buildings, recognizing loss in design but also recognizing that time is a key feature of buildings, more so than other arts. He said that “Preservationists have a sense of time and responsibility that includes the future.” Which is something the modernists thought they had, but that depended on their seeing the future with absolute clarity. Oops. The modernists had hubris in a bad way – the idea that you can solve problems with buildings is forever fugitive to the reality of identifying those problems. And hoping they stay still.

If you can’t see the future, you can’t build for forever.

Unless you recognize that fact. Then it’s easy.

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