Monday, June 15, 2009

Loos, Wittgenstein & The Crisis of Modern Architecture

Which is the greatest of all the arts?  

Architects will usually answer "Architecture!"--and they're probably right.  Architecture combines all the other media--painting, music, literature, dance, sculpture, and applies the disciplines of mathematics and geometry and engineering to propose spatial demonstrations of human habitation, except for the things we do "outside"--though, even there, landscape architecture and biology and geology and astronomy all have something to tell us about the purposes and possibilities of our being and occupying space, in whatever setting.  

I have been fascinated by architecture all my life. My father was an architect. John Calef grew up in rural Wisconsin--New London--not very far from Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesen East in Spring Green, Wisconsin. He excelled in math and the sciences as a boy, and determined upon a career in design at an early age. The War intervened, but eventually he made his way into the profession, and practiced for approximately 25 years before taking a job with the National Park Service in Colorado. I didn't get to know him until I became an adult--I was raised by a Stepfather--but I naturally found my interest independently. Eventually, I  got a Master's degree in Landscape Architecture, which I ended up not using. But I've always had an intense interest in the historical and theoretical side of architectural design. 

Purely theoretical design would seem to be at odds with the practical function of living spaces for daily existence. Architects have been designing "imaginary" houses for thousands of years, houses (and spaces and rooms) which challenge the concepts of practical occupancy. A tent is architecture. So is a sandbox. A bee-hive is architecture, albeit for bees! A boat is architecture. A plane is architecture. Anything that people (or animals!) inhabit for any length of time is a built structure designed for convenience, or to fulfill a function. 

The debate between purity of conception, and utility, has been going on for thousands of years. It's possible to live in a lean-to, with a crude cot, a fire hole in the ground, or even in a cave. With the coming of "permanent" settlement--as opposed to nomadic hunting and gathering--mankind faced the question of what kind of structures he would occupy over time. The first question was materials: What kind of structures can you build from grass, from wood, from stone? How long should they last? How big should they be? Should they accommodate small groups, or larger masses of people? And how about domestic animals? 

As mankind developed knowledge based on forces and structure--i.e., mathematics and physics--it began to be preoccupied with the idea of purely synthetic formal designs. That is, structures whose purpose is the expression of some principle or conception beyond the quotidian. 

All questions derived from nature, or human use, are, by implication or direct adoption, aesthetic. Which is to say, even when the names we may give to these questions is necessity or accident, they are still meanings we give to them by choice or selection. 

Theoretical design is the application of one or more principles of structure or material or light, proposed in advance of the secondary priorities of use and function.  Load-bearing members were early on recognized as a firm requirement of all structures on earth. But the shape and the design of these members followed an historical development through time, which came to have aesthetic categories: The classical orders of Doric, Ionic, Corinthian. Such aesthetic distinctions revealed a "decorative" persuasion; Each was a pillar, free-standing and distinct. Obviously, though, there is no necessity for everyone to live in a stone structure supported by pillars of Ionic capitals! 

The difference between "naked structure" as opposed to "decorated structure" is a hotly debated topic in the 19th and 20th Centuries, and continues today. In the 20th Century, new revolutionary ideas about "ideal" structure were proposed by Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Wright, Gropius, and a host of others. In Austria, the representative pre-Modernist figure of consequence was Adolph Loos. Loos is a fascinating figure. Almost alone in the earliest years of the 20th Century, he suggested an architecture of pristine clarity and simplicity, stripping away the decorative gingerbread and classical filigree of traditional styles, common--in their various manifestations--since the time of Classical Greece. In "Ornament and Crime" written in 1908, he denounced the florid style of the Vienna Secession, the Austrian version of Art Nouveau. 

Despite this--and, in common with other Modernist advocates of "clean design" (which came to be called the International Style), Loos was a closet hedonist, who loved the elegant, stylish textures of granite, marble, polished hardwoods, sleek surfaces, and sophisticated refinement. In fact, if you look at the canonical projects of the major Modernist architects, you almost always discover a preference for expensive materials, richness, and tactile indulgence.                         

Loos's designs display the hallmark characteristics of high Modernism:  Flat roofs, understated trim, unadorned window sashes, boxy rectilinear volumes, sharp edges, open planning facilitated with thin steel supports and trusses, lightness, flat unelaborated surfaces. 

Loos - Steiner House [1910]

There are a thousand things to say about Loos--his life was in many ways a sturm und drang of ups and downs--as well as his projects. But the link I'm using here is to, somewhat improbably, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the fashionable philosopher of logical positivism, the master of ontology, epistemology, and language itself. I say fashionable because Wittgenstein has been the darling of the post-Modern world's writers and artists, just as Henri Bergson was the hero of the Modernist Age. Wittgenstein's novel approach to philosophical inquiry was the sequential notation, numbering his points like a series of mathematical postulates, building from first a priori principles to grander systems of deduction and synthesis. For Wittgenstein, reason reigned supreme, if only we could be certain what we might actually mean by reason. Suffice it to say that for Wittgenstein, the quest for certainty devolved from an examination of the cracks in the edifice of language itself. By systematically exposing, or "worrying", the categorical distinctions of the presumptions behind grammar, and words, and commonly held concepts of perception and nomenclature, he was able to reveal the enigmas and contradictions behind everyday illusion, the illusions by which we live! Wittgenstein was an eccentric. He tinkered with machines (inventions), and imagined "labor-saving" devices that might make things simpler, and less cluttered. 

The same tendency one sees in an artist like Loos, fascinated (or obsessed) by "honesty" in "naked" design (form), is expressed in the work of a thinker like Wittgenstein, who dreamed of an ideal life-style, without pretense, without superfluous accoutrements, without fuss or irrational contradiction.            

Wittgenstein House [1926-28]

Wittgenstein decided that he could--with a little help--design a house that might express in plastic space the ideas he had about a perfectly rational way of living. Given the context of the avant garde atmosphere of the time--as exemplified by Loos's elegantly simple commissions--it's no wonder that Wittgenstein's conceptions of the ideal urban villa for a serious artist-philosopher, bore a strikingly vivid resemblance to several of Loos's residential designs. 

Wittgenstein imagined a house in which every square inch of the space was based on a rational foundation of balance, simplicity, and clarity. Rationalistic concepts of design weren't new when Wittgenstein meditated his design. Palladio had designed a series of villas in Northern Italy in the 16th Century, based on the application of classical principles. Rather than adapting design to the "needs" and "preferences" of the occupants, the overall plan and execution was based on formal ideas about balance and proportion and visual impressions. The notion was that "timeless" ideas of pure beauty and mathematical precision were the best expression of human habitation--if you weren't "comfortable" in a Palladian Villa, then maybe you didn't belong there!

Not only are architects a bit pompous about their importance in the design landscape, they also tend to be jealous of their craft. Upstart clients believing they know how to design a house on their own!--what overweening cheek! But Wittgenstein was audacious, if nothing else. Like some people of genius, he believed that if you thought about something enough, you would begin to see relationships, and solve problems. Here is a long quotation from a review of an exhibition about the house at the Royal Academy of Art in London in 2002, which appeared in the Guardian:

"The Wittgenstein House was very Viennese - its absence of decoration came from a conviction that Austrian ornament had become as unhealthy as Viennese sachertorte cake. Fin de siècle Vienna was a city of aesthetic and moral decay and, at the same time, of creatively frenetic reaction against that decadence: Schoenberg's atonal music insisted that everything that could be expressed had been expressed by tonal music; Loos's architecture railed against decoration; Freud argued that unconscious forces seethed below a purportedly ordered and elegant society. Established values were being turned upside-down in Vienna. According to Karl Kraus, Vienna was a "research laboratory for world destruction".

The Wittgenstein House was a laboratory for living. For some, though, it was an experiment that didn't work. Wittgenstein's sister, Hermine, wrote: "Even though I admired the house very much, I always knew that I neither wanted to, nor could, live in it myself. It seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than for a small mortal like me, and at first I even had to overcome a faint inner opposition to this 'house embodied logic' as I called it, to this perfection and monumentality."

It was just as well, then, that Hermine didn't live there. But Wittgenstein's other sister, Gretl, did - both before and after the Nazi Anschluss - and apparently found it fitted her austere temperament perfectly. She and Viennese architect Paul Engelmann had invited Ludwig to collaborate with Engelmann on the design of her new house. Gretl did not issue the invitation lightly: she was no philistine and indeed, like the rest of the Wittgenstein family, was immersed in the world of arts (when she married in 1905, for instance, Gustav Klimt painted her portrait; Ravel wrote Concerto for the Left Hand for her brother Paul, a great pianist who lost an arm during the first world war).

At the time of the commission, Wittgenstein was at one of the many fraught transitional stages that pitted his life. He was fighting against depression and struggling to find a vocation worthy of his genius. He had abandoned philo-sophy in 1918, believing (wrongly) that he had solved all its problems with his Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus, whose ideas he had developed while serving as a soldier and later as a prisoner of war.

After the first world war, Wittgenstein had rid himself of his vast inherited fortune (his father had been a wealthy Viennese industrialist), sharing it among his brother and sisters. And, while philosophers around the world were realising that the Tractatus was the work of a genius, Wittgenstein became a primary school teacher in Trattenbach, in remote rural Austria. But after a classroom incident (the highly-strung Wittgenstein hit a pupil so hard the boy passed out), he quit. In despair, he contemplated becoming a monk - but instead took up gardening at a monastery.

But it couldn't last. There had to be some outlet for his visionary spirit. So the commission to work on his sister's house came at an opportune moment.

We can best understand Wittgenstein's architecture by seeing it as an extrapolation from the Tractatus. There Wittgenstein wrote that his philosophy was disposable: "My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognises them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder after he climbed up on it)...Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

For Wittgenstein, it was precisely the most important things - God, ethics, aesthetics - that could not be put into words. They could not be said, only shown. Wilson writes: "It was as if Wittgenstein's first attempt to deal with his predicament after the ladder had been thrown away was instinctively to make things (architecture, sculpture, photography) whose essence is that they cannot be 'said' but must be 'shown'."

The philosopher's work on the house focused on the design of windows, doors, window-locks and radiators. "This is not so marginal as it may at first appear, for it is precisely these details that lend what is otherwise a rather plain, even ugly house its distinctive beauty."

Wittgenstein spent much time on these details. He took a year to design the door handles, and another year to design the radiators. Instead of curtains, each window was shaded by metal screens each weighing about 150kg, but easily moved by a pulley system designed by Wittgenstein. Bernhard Leitner, author of The Architecture of Ludwig Wittgenstein, hailed this "aesthetic of weightlessness": "There is barely anything comparable in the history of interior design. It is as ingenious as it is expensive. A metal curtain that could be lowered into the floor."

When the house was nearly complete, he insisted that a ceiling be raised 30mm so that the proportions he wanted (3:1, 3:2, 2:1) were perfectly executed. "Tell me," asked a locksmith, "does a millimetre here or there really matter to you?" "Yes!" roared Wittgenstein."

The imposition of capricious principles of design--derived from mathematics, or philosophy, or biology, has become increasingly popular over the last 50 years. So-called "organic" theories of design, in which structures resemble octopi or snails, has a diligent following. Bucky Fuller had his dome. Philip Johnson his glass house. Robert Venturi posited a theory of architecture based on "complexity and contradiction"--seeing in asymmetry or disjunction evidence of higher syntheses of meaning than mere classical composure. Christopher Alexander, in a life-long quest for a field theory of universal application, eventually opted for an empirical enumeration of "patterns"--gathered together to make a sort of ultimate source-book of ideal forms. 

Wittgenstein's house is an austere box whose perfection is not related to any individual life or landscape. It exists, discrete and eternal, in the middle of the most architecturally "decadent" city on earth (Vienna). Like other "ideal" structures, it seems best suited as an illustration of a conceptually pure expression of an ordered life, from which distraction, vanity, human indulgence has been extracted. Elaborated into larger versions, it could serve as the basis for a prison, or a sterile hospital wing, as, indeed, has been done in countless instances throughout the latter two-thirds of the 20th Century. The reaction against the radical purity of the International Style was well underway by the 1960's. Somewhat improbably, this reaction actually took the form of an extension of the very ideas which had formed the basis of the movement almost a century before.             

Peter Eisenman - House VI [1972]

One of the chief voices among a wave of "rationalist" architects in the last 30 years has been Peter Eisenman. Labeled "deconstructivist" by some critics, under the influence of such European thinkers as Colin Rowe, Manfredo Tafuri, and Jacques Derrida, he has explored the limits of meaning in structural design, attempting to free architecture from the confinements of limited applicability (such as utility!). In fact, Eisenman has even admitted that his structures aren't intended to make people feel comfortable; indeed, why would anyone necessarily believe that the design of a structure should enhance their preconceived notions of the fitness of shape and appropriateness of relationships between masses and spaces, planes and edges? 

When we came to design our own house in 1991, I played with a number of these post-Modern design ideas, in working together with the firm which executed the plans. "Turning its back on the street" was one such idea; "ignoring the view" was another. The privilege to build a house--to one's own specifications--is an exercise which provides a unique insight into one's intellectual condition. 

When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the 1960's, a contemporary of mine who was majoring in architecture--a very idealistic fellow (a common affliction among young architecture students!)--declared that he couldn't imagine how anyone could design a building that would not, at least in the conceptual sense, not be intended to last forever. How could you design a building which you'd know would only exist for a year, or five years, only to be demolished, to make way for later developments? That was an expression of the principle of immortality, of timelessness. 

Structures may exist only in the mind, unexecuted, only imagined, never built. I've often thought that Oldenburg's ideas are wonderful, but I wish people wouldn't actually build them. Thinking about a giant wooden clothespin along a waterfront development is a funny idea, but actually to have such a giant model sitting there, fifty feet high, for decades--well, that's not such a funny idea at all.  

1 comment:

Kirby Olson said...

Loos also designed Tristan Tzara's hosue in Montparnasse when Tzara was briefly married to a Swedish heiress.