Friday, August 8, 2008

Why Do Architects Design Uncomfortable Houses?

When architect’s design houses, they don’t just design houses. They ask questions about the
nature of houses. They re-evaluate the typology of house. They challenge our common understanding of what a house is. They don’t generally, for instance, think: “Let’s make it nice and comfy”.

When Robert Venturi designed a house for his mother in Philadelphia he upset a number of apple carts, not least through his use of traditional domestic imagery. Tellingly, in perhaps the most famous photograph of the house, his mother herself appears, sitting on a chair by the front door. It’s rare for architects to include people in the photographs of their buildings at all; Le Corbusier tended to include his car, most prefer to leave the interiors strangely blank. The house is normally shown as an empty sculpture, unoccupied and sparsely furnished. So, the inclusion of Venturi’s mother, perhaps the embodiment of homely domesticity, strikes an unusual note in the history of 20th century architecture.

Homely domesticity runs pretty much contrary to the pre-occupations of the architectural avant garde. The ‘project’ of the avant-garde remains an assault on the familiar, the cosy and the comfortable. The history of the Modernist house (as written by architects) is a history of experimentation: formal, technological, and programmatic. This raises an interesting question in relation to the design of domestic architecture, where, presumably, some degree of comfort might be desired. A basic antagonism exists therefore between the aspirations of a progressive architectural culture and it’s likely patrons.

(Photo: Phillippe Ruault from Adolf Loos: Works and Projects by Ralf Bock)

Adolf Loos, wrestling with this issue at the beginning of the twentieth century, came to the conclusion that only two areas of architecture belonged to the realm of art: the tomb and the monument. “The work of art is revolutionary. The house is conservative,” he wrote. Everything else was inevitably compromised and part of the everyday. His houses, therefore, explored a strange compromise. The exteriors pursued formal issues of abstraction and modernity, while the interiors contained the trappings of comfort: familiar room types, chintzy furniture luxurious materials. The ironic fissure between the two was pursued, as others have pointed out, more subtly within the interiors too, so that his houses became elegant commentaries upon, or representations of, domesticity.

(Photo: Phillippe Ruault)

Such an antagonism might be seen to reach an apogee of intentional absurdism in Peter Eisenman’s series of houses from the 1970’s. Each of these houses is numbered according to the architect’s sequence, rather than named after the owner. By doing this, Eisenman effectively takes ownership of the house away from the client so that, like a painting or sculpture, it becomes the property of the artist and his/her oeuvre.

The autonomy of the houses is further reinforced through the manner in which they disregard the social niceties of domestic arrangement. Eisenman’s House 10, for instance, is constructed according to a series of abstract formal rules which produces an object that cannot easily be occupied in a straightforward manner. Columns come down where chairs should be, stairs hang upside down and the marital bed is cut in half. Put simply, the house is probably a nightmare to live in. Despite the artifice of such a conceit, it is probably the purest attack on the relationship between architecture’s artistic autonomy and the accepted requirements of a family house. And, of course, it depends on the benevolent patronisation of owners happy to be challenged on a daily basis by the extreme impracticality of their house. As most jobbing architects know, this is not usually the case.

If architecture is not trying to challenge our preconceptions then it is trying to improve us as people. The rhetoric of early modernism and housing was one of self-improvement through design. Take the drawing below, from Le Corbusier's Towards A New Architecture. Whilst the woman cleans the sheets the man is engaged in vigorous exercise. Similarly, the sink in the entrance hall of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoire is more a provocation than a useful item. It’s surreality is arresting but it anticipates a quick splash of cold water on the face before a jog up the ramp to the sun terrace. Le Corbusier’s love of sanitary goods followed from Loos’. Both were obsessed with a notion of cleanliness, of mind as much as body.

The co-opting of this version of architecture by the welfare state meant that its more psychologically complex elements became overridden by a pragmatic sense of health, space and improved sanitation. This, undoubtedly a beneficial thing in the sense of the enormous and progressive provision of homes by the state in post war Europe, also chimed with a certain puritanical hairshirt quality to British modernism. At its most extreme it contains a barely concealed contempt for the tastes and aspirations of homeowners that don't subscribe to the architects vision. Here the antagonism is not between that of a challenging architect and their wealthy patron but between those doing the improving and those who need to be improved.

Comfort in architecture has a troubled lineage. The function of houses and housing seems either to have been ignored by the avant garde or assumed an overly mechanistic form at the expense of pschological, emotional or symbolic need.


Addictive Picasso said...

great post.

Maybe the second installment of your series could be "Why do Graphic Designers design text that can't be read?"

...a social service...not a blog...

owen hatherley said...

Don't want to carp, as this is a fine post, but there seems to be something ever so slightly upside down about the last bit.

The 'hair-shirt tendency' in British Modernism (name names, go on!) seems to have very little to do with the denial of comfort as such. Even in the most drab and uninspiring of council blocks you have inside spacious, Parker Morris flats which are often decorated according to the aesthetic tastes and prejudices of the tenant. There's no denial of comfort in the interiors at all, no built-in Reitveld chairs or Eisenman-esque epater les clients strategies. The obnoxiousness is entirely at the level of the symbolic - how the exterior looks, how it relates to the area around and so on - and that doesn't seem to have much to do with comfort, aside perhaps from an aesthetic idea of warmth (rather than actual warmth - the last council flat I lived in had underfloor heating, a wonderful thing, albeit with a tendency to warp vinyl).

owen hatherley said...

The exteriors pursued formal issues of abstraction and modernity, while the interiors contained the trappings of comfort

...of course this is as old as Lord Burlington - the severe exterior with all manner of opulence, luxury and strangeness going on inside, cf Chiswick House, Syon etc etc. The interesting point is how this particular bit of 18th century aristocratic taste doesn't quite transfer to proletarian taste, for all manner of reasons, one of which surely being the crapness of many of aforementioned severe exteriors. (also perhaps old chestnut of the rich and/or old money finding the idea of signifying their riches faintly vulgar, and the poor and/or new money displaying every bit of tat they've got)

Charles Holland said...

A.P. Yes, if I knew anything about graphic design I would! But I take your point and it links to the idea of function - the role or the definition of function in arts that have for want of a better term a practical aspect.

O.H. I think you are probably right although you could equally say the picturesque and to some extent Arts and Crafts styles were about disguising wealth and modernity behind rustic variation and had far more hierarchical interiors (servant circulation, formal entertaining rooms) within. The opposite of the tendency you mention. Loos' houses though are interesting because although he follows the formal exterior/homely interior split, his interiors are far from straightforwardly comforting or even eccentric. And, of course, he proposed a lot (and built some) non-aristocratic housing. More of that to come though....

Murphy said...

Pedantry alert: The Eisenman house with the upside down staircase and the split bed was House VI, not House X. House VI deservedly receives a lot of criticism, basically because of the cliched critique it makes of domesticity - the diagonal axis of symmetry 'deconstructing' the figure-ground relationship, the split bed representing the fractured nature of contemporary society and the family unit (see Eisenman's professed conservatism, possibly a joke), and the column that interrupts the dining table. Eisenman notoriously had the house specifically furnished for the press photography, and then left the academic family who commissioned it alone to make it watertight and habitable (and not likely to kill their young child).

The unbuilt House X, on the other hand, is a very interesting essay in formalism, where every formal maneuver in a linear sequence of composition is also decomposed, leaving no formal 'storyline' as it were that could be followed properly from a simple diagram, while enclosing what was actually a fairly useful and comfortable (although we'll never know) series of programmatic spaces. It's perhaps the closest Eisenman ever got to 'deconstruction' philosophically, without getting involved in the cheap intellectual gimmicks that are his stock in trade (post-humanism and all that guff). Effectively, what House X did was enclose a perfectly comfortable american bourgeois domestic arrangement (swimming pool, garage, etc...) in architecture that 'said' nothing of domesticity whatsoever, which is actually quite interesting.

Charles Holland said...

Ah, apologies for the error. I will have to go back to my Eisenman books and look at the real House X. There is a book on House VI (to give it the correct number) which is written by the clients and is quite interesting in relation to their continued tolerance for Eisenman's design.

I've always liked House VI's 'narrative' moments but then I am a literal sort of fella. The attempt to empty architecture of itself and its own history seems somewhat doomed and that's why I liked it when he seemed to give up and re-load it back up with the symbolism of the cut in half bed etc. But I shall look at the project you mention with renewed interest now. Thanks for your comment.