Thursday, February 2, 2012

Here Comes The Rain Again

Bernard Tschumi, Adverts for Architecture, 1975. 

Modern architecture can be seen in some senses as a refusal to give in to the elements. The stylistic origins of early modernism lay in the Mediterranean and its proselytisers attempted to export the sun-kissed balconies and white rendered forms of southern Europe to far less hospitable climates. The International Style abstracted architecture, removing it from the banal facts of bad weather and the traditional details that kept rain out. Copings, gutters, rainwater pipes, cornices and the whole armory of devices that architecture had developed to deal with the effects of weather became things to minimise and artfully disguise. 

Oddly, there was less squeamishness about such things on the inside where architects such as Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos both chose to put modern plumbing and sanitary ware on display. There is no external equivalent to the hand basin that Corbusier placed in the entrance hall of the Villa Savoye or the sink that welcomed visitors to Loos' Rufer House. While bodily functions played an important role in shaping the interiors of early modernism, reflective of an intense interest in functionalism, the exteriors represented a far more rhetorical version of mechanical precision. 

When modernism crossed the Atlantic it found its most natural home on the west coast where architects like Neutra and Schindler produced exquisite if paper thin hymns to Californian sunshine.  Schindler's buildings in particular were famously flimsy  and when I visited his beautiful King's Road house a few years ago I noticed that you could put your hand through some of the gaps between wall and window. You could get away with such things in LA I guess. In northern Europe, the supposed failings of modernism - all those leaking flat roofs and stained bits of concrete - were taken as proof that it was somehow impractical, a dream that could only become quickly tarnished. 

The reality of shitty weather always seems to lurk at the back of the English psyche, accounting perhaps for a lugubrious world view that assumes that everything will always turn out for the worse. Personally I have no problem with stained concrete, being rather fond of the damp moustache like stains that cling to the undersides of brutalist buildings. One of modernism's problems though - at least in popular perception - is that it doesn't age well. Ageing is seen in fact as a kind of failure in itself, a demonstration of prima donna-ish impracticality. Classical buildings are allowed to grow old. It's expected even. Worn stone and lichen are seen as evidence only of neglect and romanticised as the authentic marks of heritage. 

Modernism is allowed no such grace. In a way it is a victim of its own rhetoric. Its claim to represent the future is always hard to square with the prosaic reality of bits falling off or leaky gutters. As architects its hard to talk to clients about the effects of age on buildings. Sometimes they want to know that things won't ever change, as if such a thing were remotely possible. The problem lies perhaps in the fact that architects are as transfixed as the people they are trying to impress with the shiny, semi-translucent apparitions that appear in their renders. 

It's hard to think of any architects who have embraced the inevitability of weathering. The Smithsons in their later years at Bath perhaps where the deeply odd buildings they developed had grown enormous water shedding cornices and vast rainwater hoppers. Following them, Peter Salter's mostly un-built work addressed issues of ageing, decay and weathering. One of his few completed projects, the Mountain Pavilion in Japan, was designed to be completely covered by snow for part of the year. The AA's book on Salter's early work (with former colleague Chris McDonald) contained an enigmatic introductory essay by Peter Smithson in celebration of guttering and the poetic acceptance of the effects of weather.

Gavin Turk, Robert Morris Untitled 1965-72 (image taken from here)

While I was thinking of these things I was reminded of a sculpture by Gavin Turk and a description of it that I can't place now. Robert Morris Untitled 1965-72 is a riff on Morris' 1965 piece Mirrored Cubes, a series of four perfectly reflective boxes placed on the floor. Turk's version is like an Anglicised cousin, dog-eared and slightly rusty, as if the cubes had been left outside in the rain for seven years. Turk is of course free to propose not only a deliberately unkempt aesthetic but a melancholic and pessimistic take on the idea of perfection itself.

Architects are boosterists, involved in what Robin Evans once memorably described as "the appalling business of client sucking". We are in the business of persuading people to part with sums of money for new  buildings and it doesn't do in such a scenario to harp on about the pleasures of decay and the poetry of ruins. Architects attempt instead to render  buildings in some eternal moment of perfection and bright sunshine. The thin plane-like walls of modernism, unencumbered by banal coping stones or unsightly flashings, represents a desire to transcend time. Architects judge the success of their creations according to the degree that they have manage to hide away un-slightly reminders of corporeality and decay. 


Julius Jääskeläinen said...

Well written. Hooray for gutters, hooray for mold! And down with the anti-ageing complex!

rsiii said...

I never realised how shitty weather can be until I moved to the UK (and I'm from Chicago)!

First thought is Mostafive and Leatherbarrow's book On Weathering - The life of a building in time which starts off with 'Finishing ends construction, weathering constructs finishes'.

They punch a bit at Modernism as well...Le Corbusier...The life of the building is conceived as a subtraction from the ideal condition of the project realized before inhabitation and weathering.

And a finishing dilemmatic point... consideration of the time of weathering brings the project closer to a condition of actuality based on its potential transformations through time. This condition of actuality and potential for staining and fault complements the ideality of the project, making it both independent of the passage of time and caught up within it. Though of in this way, weathering brings the virtual future of a building into dialogue with its actual present, as both are entangled in its past.

James Petty said...

what about the Palace of Assembly in Chandigarh by Corbu?

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aml said...

ruskin's lamp of memory turns to modernism!