Tuesday, November 2, 2010

the story of the villa müller

(Image: The marble hall of the Villa Müller in 1987. Taken from Villa Müller A Work of Adolf Loos)

"Only a very small part of architecture belongs to art: the tomb and the monument. Everything else that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art". Adolf Loos.

This is a post about architecture and change and about how antithetical they are to each other. While artworks are protected from change, preserved in a state of constant newness and displayed as their author intended, architecture is usually offered no such protection. Its fate lies in the hands of those who own and use it who are generally under no particular obligation to preserve buildings in aspic. You might say that this is the key difference between art and architecture and that architects should therefore stop considering their designs as art. Perhaps they should, in fact, follow Adolf Loos' dictum that architecture is rarely an art and when it is, it is usually because it is uninhabited. But, inevitably, things are more complicated than that, even for Adolf Loos.

Consider the story of the Villa Müller. Designed by Loos in 1930 for a wealthy industrialist and his family the villa has been used at various times as a family home, a repository of the Applied Arts Museum of Prague, the office of a state publishing company and the headquarters of the Marxist Leninist Institute of Czechoslovakia before its current incarnation as a museum. If you read the architectural history of the Villa, the narrative suggests strongly that after being neglected and mistreated for many decades, the building has been now been 'saved' and will be preserved for posterity. Saved from what though? Saved from being the headquarters of the Marxist Leninist Institute or from being  a family house? Either way, the suggestion is that these various forms of occupation were somehow a threat to the building.

On the face of it this seems reasonable. Historic photographs (see the image at the top of this post) reveal that the Marxist Leninist Institute didn't care too much for the artistic credentials of the building and were happy to place a fridge in front of one of the most famous walls in architectural history. Buildings can be badly or carefully maintained, although in the Villa's case it seems to have been pretty well preserved. But there is a deeper assumption here which is that buildings need to be emptied of inhabitants in order to survive the 'problem' of occupation. In the Villa Muller's case it has been turned into a museum with the result that it now forms both the vitrine and the exhibit. Roped off from sticky fingered children and faithfully restored to its original condition, the house is finally free from danger.

Many of the iconic buildings of the early twentieth century have gone this way. Originally designed as family houses, their importance as Architecture has now exceeded their use as Buildings. They have in effect been requisitioned, withdrawn from the everyday world of messy occupation and preserved exactly in the manner of artworks. I've visited many of them and I'm grateful that they're there and open to members of the public in a way that they wouldn't be of course if they were still lived in, but it still strikes me as strange.

A few months ago I wrote about Konstantin Melnikov's own house in Moscow, a building currently occupied by his grandaughter. The house isn't in great condition but it still serves as a family house.  There are, inevitably, plans to 'rescue' it though and to turn it into a Melnikov Museum. The house, we are told, is in danger, and must be rescued from occupation. Implicit in the proposal is an assumption that the present occupier, despite being directly related to the architect and having therefore a fairly decent claim to ownership, is not looking after the house sufficiently well.

Architecture attempts to resist change at every level. You could even say that buildings only really become architecture when they perform a function that removes them from everyday life. They are usually photographed when newly completed, before people arrive and begin irrevocably to change the building and its spaces. They are rarely photographed again, at least not by architects who are happy to use the same set of photographs of their projects decades after the project has been completed. To be considered successful architecture must somehow remain faithful to its moment of completion.

Sometimes if it is deemed sufficiently important it might be saved from occupation and preserved forever in this original state. The ultimate dream of architecture is to be left free of the burdens of use and occupation, and to become a kind of tomb, or a monument to itself.


p said...

thanks for an interesting post (as anything starting with a quote from Adolf Loos really ought to be).

this idea of Architecture trying to resist cange ties in with an issue I've been contemplating after recently having spent a bit too much time reading history books on the Modern movement: the fact that architectural history isn't about history of the buildings but about history of the idea of buildings as documented in drawings and photographs. something which still seems quite weird to me. I guess this would be all well and fine if not for the fact that getting something built involves enough compromises and factors out of the architect's control to actually remove the buildings from the realm of ideas.

architectural history is basically the history of flawed ideas, sometimes rectified by retouching and creative editing of oeuvre completes.

Charles Holland said...

Retouching of photographs and, more subtly, their use in framing architecture is something I've wanted to write about for a while. Beatriz Colomina writes about it very well, which is probably what's put me off! She also talks about your other issue, which is to do with the architect's control and, as you rightly point out, photography and theory are a way for the architect to regain control over the vagaries of construction....

p said...

oh, it seems it's time to brush up on my Colomina. too bad I just put all my books into storage.

I noticed a fairly interesting case of framing -in that it also extends to the extent of the models etc.- when travelling around Ireland: O'Donnell + Tuomey's Letterfrack college is situated right across the road from a petrol station and just by the village while in all published photographs it seems to be virtually on its own in the middle of the fantastic Connemara wilderness.

as I've recently been updating my personal portfolio and have been using the same tricks I can hardly blame them, though.

Anonymous said...

This post reminds me of a building nearby to me. The Werdmuller Centre by Roelof Uytenbogaardt. It is a beautiful building! I've only ever known it in a sad state which added to its allure. The company which owns it is allowing it to fall apart,so that eventually they have the right to knock it down. Security doesn't allow photographs either, which again adds to the fun.

Either way heres a link.http://www.gaelen.co.za/werdmuller/

Anonymous said...

I'm with you, of course, and not quite sure I believe what I'm about to write, but...

...could "being saved" be interpreted not as being uninhabited, but as being open to the public, rather than privately owned? The examples you proffer suggest so, but it would be good to find examples that disprove this (can't think of any myself off the top of my head). Not necessarily just modern architecture, but think of the huge amount of country houses in National Trust care, for example.

Charles Holland said...

anonymous, thanks for the link....an amazing building and a small tragedy if it is demolished.

Steve, well there is the issue of buildings that are collected like paintings or cars. I'm thinking of Peter Palumbo specifically who owns (or owned) the Farnsworth House, a Frank Lloyd Wright house and the Maison Jaoul. At least two of these are open to the public at least some of the time but the crucial thing is they are no longer proper residences in any conventional sense.

Of course some houses are built without serious occupation in mind, or at least with the sense that they are too precious to mess around with from the word go. One thinks of Peter Eisenman's houses which are too challngning on a functional level to ever be occupied (and thus altered).

Being open to the public normally means being uninhabited in the proper, everyday sense of that term. A far greater measure of protection and moth-balling is granted to such places over and above a 'normal' house.

David Knight said...

"They are rarely photographed again, at least not by architects."

What's interesting is that they are constantly photographed again. I wonder how many family photos are backgrounded by the Melnikov house? Many more surely than its architectural representation?

Maybe by being able to take on this background role houses can happily escape the 'domain of art'?

Charles Holland said...

yes, you're right, it's only architects who aren't interested in what happens later. An exhibition of family photos where famous houses are featured incidentally would be great...

David said...

One hell of a research task, but it would be great. #leonkrier