The Beginning and The End: Looking at the 19th Century

“There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of London.
At the top of the hole sit the privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lower zoo
turning beauty to filth and greed…”

–          No Place Like London, Sweeny Todd

A strange thing happened towards the end of the 18th century. Actually, to say a strange thing happened is a bit of an understatement. In truth, the end of the 18th century was a period of utter turmoil. Everything was changing. New political identities were surfacing, as Germany and Italy emerged as states. Not only that, but a sense of enlightenment swept the people, and society was suddenly no longer dependent on God to understand things. People stopped waiting for the church to give them all their answers, and looked towards science, reasoning and logic to help them distinguish the truth.

It was also a time when London was probably one of the most hated places on earth. Sweeny Todd wasn’t kidding when he compared it to a great black pit; London was a great black pit. It was filthy; there was pollution and smog everywhere, and the high population density made it an incredibly undesirable city. People were unhappy, and with all the gloom and grit in the air, the architects thought something needed to change. At the time, Neo-classism had been the dominant style of architecture, and many began to believe that it was time London had a new style, to purge the city of all its dirt and negativity.

It just so happened that during this period of time, when many were beginning to ponder the idea of building a ‘New London’, the Parliament building burnt down. It needed to be rebuilt, and suddenly London experienced an identity crisis. It was one of those moments where too many things were happening at the same time, and suddenly architecture seemed to have lost its way. It was as if it had been running hyperactively for such a long time, that it had suddenly forgotten where it was going in the first place. Architects began to question what they wanted London to be, and what to choose for the new style. There were too many options, and it became difficult to pinpoint exactly which direction was best for the city to head in. Should London continue to push forwards, keeping abreast of technological developments, and implement modernism? Or is it time to take a break from all things modern, and look back at Gothic architecture? Or is it best to just stick to what it had been using all along, and continue using Neoclassic?

Ultimately, an agreement was made that one must take small steps back in order to make big steps forward. A Gothic revival occurred, and many considered it the best style to fix all of London’s problems. Part of London’s problems was the fact that many of the buildings were industrialized and reproduced. Gothic architecture solved this problem by preventing such buildings from being built, as Gothic buildings cannot be constantly reproduced. There is a sense of uniqueness to each of them; they required effort and careful thought.

While many agreed that Gothic was the way to go, there were architects who disagreed, and insisted on moving towards other directions. The World Expo loomed, and people began to panic. There was no longer a proper way to maintain order in design. While you could say that London’s main style is Gothic architecture, it was impossible to control what people liked, and people liked a lot of things. There was no longer any way to govern the people, or to figure out what the correct style was.

Architect Owen Jones tried to fix the problem by combining all the different styles together. He took the different directions people were taking, and tried to merge them into one direction through the use of colours and materials. Jones attempted to search for a common language, and tried to create underlying rules that could apply to every single style. He came to the conclusion that everyone in London could create whatever style they wanted, but the style had to follow certain rules. These rules generally encompassed decisions on colour and abstraction (there was to be no representation of materials). Nature – something many felt was severely lacking in the city life – became one of the main constraints of architecture. It provided a basic guiding principle on distinguishing between all the varying styles. Nature became the language of British architecture.

Jones wrote a book to document all his explorations on figuring out London’s style. The book was huge, and consisted of a series of paintings that showed people dressed in medieval clothes. The subjects of the paintings mostly gazed away; an intentional decision made to portray the way many modern citizens were constantly yearning for escape. Due to the fact that the book was so large compared to all other books, it required its own podium, and people had to stand around it and read together. It’s rather similar to the dictionary in my downtown library, except you don’t see many people crowding around to read that. Jones’s book managed to accomplish something that architecture had failed to do for the past few years in London; it managed to spark unity. People came together to appreciate handcraft, a phenomenon that was extremely rare in a world where everything was machine-made.

From there, architecture makes a turn back to Louis Sullivan, and his motto “form follows function”. It has, in a way, come a full circle. Yet the circle will never be complete, because it will keep on growing.

Distorting the Pearl

Fun fact of the day: the term ‘Baroque’ in Baroque Architecture is derived from the Latin word Baroco, which means “distorted pearl”. The phrase describes the Baroque style in a nutshell; an architecture that takes the beauty of the Renaissance and twists it until it becomes distorted to the point that the deformities are even more breathtaking that the original.

To say that Baroque Architecture is excessive is an understatement. The style was full of extremities and overflowing with grandeur; a cake with too much icing, if you will. In order to understand the architecture, with all its majestic complexities, one must first understand the reason that sparked the style. Baroque Architecture emerged during a period when the Catholic Church was standing on shaky grounds. While the Catholic Church was once a dominant source of authority among society, it was experiencing numerous problems. The restrictions imposed by the church began to receive negative responses, and it isn’t hard to see why. Under the rules set by the Catholic Church, ordinary citizens were not allowed to read the bible on their own, nor were they allowed to think independently. Their duty was to listen to the Priest, and live under full governance of the church. On top of the strict regulations, the church began a system called ‘indulgences’, in which people could pay a sum of money to wash away their past sins. Naturally, such a system garnered a large amount of hate, and people began to rebel against the church. These rebellions were referred to as the ‘Protestant Reformation’, and were mostly led by Martin Luther, who accused the Catholic Church of being too rich, and for favouring the rich over the poor, which missed the point of the religion. Luther considered the Catholic Church too extravagant, and was particularly against the idea of indulgences, thinking of them as ways for people to buy their way out of hell.

Faced with such criticisms, the Catholic Church had two options; they could either mellow down, or face the protestant reformation head-on. They chose to respond by continuing to do what they had been doing, but exaggerated. The Catholic Church went to further extremes, making their buildings even grander than before. They used architecture to build an identity associated with luxury and wealth, to show that they were the real church, and that they were not to be messed with. Fortunately for the Catholic Church, architecture had been on the verge of change, in particular due to Michelangelo’s work. Architecture had been transitioning from one that was bounded by logic and reasoning, into one dominated by emotions. The Catholic Church took advantage of this, and gave that extra push that toppled architecture off the plane of civilized thinking, and back into barbarism. There was no longer any need for deep thinking nor educated opinions, which was what the Catholic Church wanted. People no longer needed to think; they merely needed to feel.

An example of the values behind Baroque Architecture can be seen in the work of Bernini. To compare Baroque Architecture with the style of the Renaissance, one can compare the statues of David created by Bernini and Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s David is classy and cool. He stares straight ahead, his weapon slung over his shoulder, waiting calmly for his beast to give itself up for the kill. This David is in a position of power; he does not need to fret or worry, for he knows he will win.

Bernini’s David on the other hand, is fully in motion. The body is twisted back to the extreme, almost like a sling pulled to its very limit, ready to snap back at any minute. This David is ready to kill, and all throughout the sculptured body, you can see the muscles bulging in tension. Herein is the main difference between the two styles. Baroque Architecture is about the body. It is about the emotions, the feelings and the passion. It is not about knowing, nor is it about knowledge. It is about instinct, about what makes us human at our very core.

While it seems that this occurrence where architecture transforms from something intelligent and philosophical, into something based off of raw emotions and passion seems to be unique to Baroque Architecture, it is in fact a pattern of development that can be found in nearly every style. Many architectural styles begin with an attempt to bring logic into design. They try to put boundaries around art, and limit it with reasoning, lest it run out of control. Yet, these attempts often end up failing, and one can observe that as the styles progress, slowly these walls built out of logic begin chipping away, until all that’s left is expression; an uncontainable force full of seduction. This is because architecture in itself can never be controlled. Art has always been, like nature, a wild and untameable force; one that weaves and twists this way and that, always taking us by surprise. We can’t hope to control it, so why bother?

Thoughts on Humanism and the Renaissance: We Run The World

Whenever I mention that I am currently studying Architecture, a lot of my non-architecture-student friends often have this common misconception that I’m studying an incredibly artsy (if not rather hipster) subject; a subject more in tune with my inner creative spirit than it is with the real world. While I can see where the stereotype stems from, I must say I disagree. The longer I spend studying in this faculty, the more I realize how intrinsically linked architecture is to our current society. Buildings are built by people after all, and although it may be easy to look at a towering skyscraper and think of it as cold and faraway, if we were to take a step back and look at the way architecture has transformed over time, it isn’t difficult to see how the thoughts and behaviours of humankind have influenced the world around us. If we were to take a step back and view the cityscape as a whole, as opposed to a single skyscraper, we would most likely see ourselves.

The way our beliefs form the identity of a particular period of architecture can be witnessed in the birth of Renaissance Architecture. The style of architecture was introduced during a time of transition; when society was moving from one totally controlled by God and the church, into one that learned to value the existence of humanity in itself. With the boom of capitalism, not only were people trading goods, but ideas were also exchanged. Theories and texts from philosophers were passed around, sparking interest in concepts such as philosophy and democracy. People began to reason that since humans were created by God and receive power from God, it only makes sense for them to be perfect and important.

Society began to favour anthropocentrism, which lead to the birth of ‘humanism’ – the idea of humans being the centre of the universe – a concept that became the major driving force of Early Renaissance architecture. The beliefs society cherished made a large impact on the way buildings were designed. Previously, buildings were made in the style of Gothic Architecture, a style that prioritized God above all and viewed humans as mere derivatives; nothing but petty creatures God created during his spare time. Gothic style buildings were massive and had nothing to do with human scale. They were gigantic, intimidating structures purposefully built to make us feel tiny and insignificant in comparison. However, as society morphed into one that valued humanity, everything became based on human proportions. Architecture changed from one dominated by religion into one dominated by logic and sacred geometries. Perfect squares and circles dominated facades, as they were considered perfect forms that could create beauty.\

While I personally appreciate the realization that human beings are more than trivial toys created by God, and while I do feel a lot more comfortable walking around in buildings that have been designed to fit with human proportions, I must say there is a certain level of ecstasy you get when standing in a building so much bigger than yourself. Last week I visited a Thai temple, and it was absolutely massive. There were sculptures of the Lord Buddha that were so big I could only reach the knees, and he was meditating in the lotus position. Although I can see how such large sculptures could be considered intimidating, I personally was blown away by the collasal nature of the entire temple. It was truly a thrilling experience, to realize how small I was in the grand scheme of things.

We have now moved a long way from the times of Renaissance Architecture, and yet some may argue that we haven’t really moved that far at all. There are also many that express displeasure at the state of our current buildings, complaining that they are all too similar, that mass-production takes away the artistic aspect of architecture. Yet those people like to forget that we are the ones who made our architecture that way. We often complain about society, but we forget that the society is made up of us; we are the society. In order to change the world, we must first start by changing ourselves

Architecture: The Dutch Way

I’m the type of person who takes forever when it comes to deciding which clothes to buy. There are just so many different styles, and when it comes to fashion there is no right or wrong answer. Sure, you could go out and buy one of those magazines that claim to contain the “secrets to being fashionable”, but that’s all lies. Fashion isn’t math. There is no exact formula or method to becoming fashionable and attractive, because the concept of trendiness itself is such a relative one. It all depends on your personal preferences and sense of style. This is why I often find it strange when people talk about the “latest trend”; because fashion isn’t a timeline that only goes one way. It is a constantly fluctuating flow of styles, with ideas that come forward and fade away, and even cases where “old” styles recur and become new trends once more.

Architecture is very similar in this aspect. People often say things like “I like modern architecture”, but what is modern architecture? There is no fixed answer, because modern architecture can be split into many different styles; some of which are distinctly different, and others that overlap.

The phrase “modern architecture” tends to bring up images related to the modernist period and International Style, where world-famous architects such as Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier tried to create a world of machines and honesty. While I wouldn’t dare question the success and influence of both Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier (as well as modernists in general, really) it does no harm to remember that there were other architects who created what can also be considered modern architecture.

A good example would be Dutch architects. These architects were from the revolutions during 1968, and played a fundamental role in defining post-modernism. They manipulated modernism, shifting the emphasis so that architecture was no longer just about truth and simplicity, but rather focused on complexity. The Dutch architects loved complexity. They didn’t want a world made up of only black and white, but rather envisioned a world with countless shades of grey (mind you, I never mentioned Fifty). Their ideals were well received by the populace, because people wanted complexity. Society was changing, coming up with radically different views, and the world of form follows function no longer exists.

In a nutshell, Dutch architects were interested in people. Unlike the International Style modernist architects – who busied themselves with creating buildings that reflected truth and machinery – Dutch architects tried to understand urban density and the complexity that comes with city life. They looked at the way humans could change a building by simply inhabiting it. According to them, rooms are not designed for specific and fixed functions; rather, such functions are created and made possible by the way we interact with and inhabit the space. Dutch architects placed importance on the clients and people using their buildings; they gave us power, because in their world, our behaviour can redefine architecture itself.

Personally I like the idea that we, as people who use these designed spaces, have the power to manipulate and change its feel just by our interactions. In my opinion, architecture should not be about the architect alone, but rather a combination of both architect and user. While examples of this can be seen everywhere, an example I like to point out is ‘Parkour’, if only because I find it incredibly cool. If there are any of you out there that don’t know about Parkour or free-running, be sure to check out this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihBoqdOsQOo. You won’t regret it!

Those who practice Parkour and free running are not only unquestionably, irrevocably, and extremely cool (sorry, fangirl moment) but they also completely change the way a space works. Balcony railings turn to bridges, rooftops become stepping stones, and lights turn into diving boards. None of those things are used the way the architect intended them to be. I imagine free-runners would completely annoy modernists, but post-modernists would love them.

A building example that embodies the ideals of post-modernism is the VPRO by MVRDV (I know, I know, that’s like the entire alphabet right there, but trust me those are actual names). The building was designed for a media company, and the spaces are all based on interaction and connectivity. The building, in essence, is an extension of the city. It has small piazzas, which function as spaces within which different forms of interaction between inhabitants can occur. It is these small instances of exchange and interaction that shape the building.

Another example is the Prada Flagship store, by OMA. This flagship store doesn’t actually sell any Prada items; rather, it sells Prada’s creative identity. The building itself is extremely cool. It literally transforms; the building can flip on all sides, and this flipping is performed by a gigantic crate (“The Claw”, anyone?) that actually picks the entire building up and drops it back down in a different position.

Personally, I think the OMA Prada store embodies what a flagship store (and buildings in general, I suppose) should be. While I appreciate the determination and thoroughness applied by the International Style architects in the quest for exposing structure and showing God through the details, I find myself swaying towards the post-modernist perspective that focuses on urban complexity and the importance of people within spaces.

Humans are, after all, incredibly complex creatures. We are more than just words on a page, more than a combination of bolts and screws. And such complexity cannot be contained in a world full of machines.

The Duck vs. The Decorated Shed

There are many ways to analyse a building. You can look at its function, the architectural period it was from, who designed it; the list goes on. Or, you can pick a simpler method and do what Robert Venturi did, which was group them into two categories: the duck and the decorated shed.

Now, I know what you’re thinking; duck? Decorated shed? That doesn’t sound very architectural. And you’re partly right – those don’t sound like valid architectural concepts, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. The words are so common it’s almost laughable, and yet Venuri’s ideals do in fact reflect existing issues within architecture.

So, what is a “duck”, you may ask.

This is a duck.

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The building depicted – as one would expect – sells something to do with ducks. In this case, the buildings’ function has influenced its structure to the point where the building has become the sign. According to Robert Venturi, when this occurs, a building becomes a “duck”. With ducks, what you see is what you expect. The buildings’ actual design is a literal translation of the function it was designed for. You want a duck store, make a duck shaped building. Want to build Disneyland, recreate the palaces in the cartoons.

According to this logic, the modern International Style buildings were all ducks. Duck buildings are essentially buildings where the form follows function perfectly, and they were buildings Robert Venturi disapproved of. Venturi believed that duck buildings were ordinary and ugly buildings that pretended to be beautiful and extraordinary. He was ultimately against the International Style in general, and came up with a counter-slogan against Mies’s popular adage of “less is more”: “less is bore”.

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What Robert Venturi proposed instead was the decorated shed, whereby the building itself is a simple shed decorated with signs, and it is through these signs that we are made aware of the building’s function. Decorated sheds are fully functional buildings; they are essentially sheds. However, to differentiate between all the sheds, and in order to help us better understand them, we simply have to adorn these sheds with signs – which Venturi believed were the basic unit of communication within a society – that point at their function. Decorated sheds cannot function without their signs; they would be like teachers trying to educate students who speak a different language. They aren’t symbols but pure forms, dependent on ornamentation in order to convey what they are.

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As some of you may already be aware, for my Design studio this semester I am working on designing a flagship store for Facebook. My flagship store is a duck. To come to my final form, I took the newsfeed from Facebook and used it as a building elevation, whereby I extruded different segments depending on how recent and important they are.

While I accept Robert Venturi’s viewpoint that signs are indeed our basic unit of communication, I do not like the idea that my building would be one dependent on decoration. I don’t want to design a painted box; I want to design a building that is able to speak to itself, a building where everything – from the structural systems to the façade and form – conveys a certain message to the viewer.

Maybe we are a society dominated by signs, and maybe decorated sheds are fully functional and more efficient. But in this case, I’m happy being a duck.

Looking at the “Le” in Le Corbusier

“A great epoch has begun.

There exists a new spirit.”

– Le Corbusier

When talking about Le Corbusier’s ideals and artistic values, we often look at his most renowned works, raising examples of widely acclaimed architecture such as his Villa Savoye, Unité d’Habitation or his buildings in Chandigarh. Yet the perfect embodiment of his ideals is arguably Le Corbusier himself. While all of his designs do indeed have strong identities and push forward his beliefs as an artist, what I find highly interesting is the way he managed to take his ideas, and manifest them through himself, creating an identity that matched his ideas.

Originally Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, he adopted the unique (if not elegantly artsy) name of Le Corbusier. While to teenagers like myself, the word “Le” is fancy and often used mockingly (rage comic memes, anyone?), to Le Corbusier, using it in his own name signifies an intent to objectify his own identity. Following his strong belief in mass-produced houses, he has made himself the perfect mass-produced man. He is ‘THE’ Corbusier, and through something as simple as assuming a pseudonym, he turned himself into a model, or a modular man.

In his book, ‘From Bauhaus to Our House’, Tom Wolfe describes Le Corbusier as “a thin, sallow, near-sighted man who went about on a white bicycle, wearing a close-fitting black suit, a white shirt, a black tie, round black owl-eye glasses, and a black bowler hat.” Le Corbusier was the type of man who always wore the same outfit. As Wolfe went on to explain, Le Corbusier’s signature bobble glasses (which for reasons unbeknownst have recently made a comeback in current trends) and tweed suits served to help him appear “as neat and precise and anonymous as possible, to be the perfect mass-produced wire figure for the Machine Ages.”

Even the way he wrote was modular. One only needs to read his book ‘Towards a New Architecture’, to see that his use of language was highly non-ornamental; composed of short, clear sentences that went straight to the point. As for the book itself, it does not force us to follow Le Corbuier’s ideals. It was not a piece of writing intended to pressure the people to build mass-produced houses. Rather, it is a book that attempts to open our minds; through his writing, Le Corbusier teaches us to have a spirit needed in order to build and appreciate such modern houses. It is a book that serves not as an advertisement for mass-production, but rather a book that helps us move “towards” a new architecture.

Le Corbusier believed that we have a new style, but many are unable to see and appreciate it. He firmly believed that as humans, we are organisms that gain pleasure from basic elements, as our bodies enjoy basic shapes. He believed that instead of dogmatically sticking to old models of neoclassism, we now have a new model: the car. We should be trying to learn new concepts by understanding the car and translating it into our architecture. These ideals can be seen in many of his work, such as his Citroen House. Named after the Citroen car company, the house itself is very much like a car. It has horizontal windows that, like car windows, are serviceable. The house itself also has a free plan, along with a usable roof. It applies a free façade with non-loadbearing walls. The house itself is elevated using pilotis so that cars can drive underneath.

Another notable architect with an equally strong identity is Eero Saarinen. To talk about Saarinen, one must come to terms with the concept of ‘apostles’ in the architecture world. During a time where architecture was dominated by Bauhaus and International Style, the apostles created what they considered to be modern architecture, except it did not follow the International Style. Rather, apostles were loud and exuberant. They were the type of architects who would design magnificent opera houses draped in gold. They didn’t want to design buildings solely to express structure; they designed buildings to express expressionism. These apostles were shunned and hated by other design institutions, and especially scorned by International Style modernists.

Eero Saarinen was a modernist architect who became apostle. His work wasn’t just about minimalism, nor did he stick rigidly to the “less is more” adage. Rather, his buildings had a sense of liveliness and energy to them. One of his most notable works is probably the TWA flight centre. The structure’s façade looks like a gigantic bird about to take flight; a choice that is both aesthetically astounding and indicates the building’s function. Eero Saarinen took speed to the next level; within the building, everyone moves fast. Saarinen invented the concept of outside check-in. He also created the conveyer belt that is so widely used in airports of our time; an idea inspired by factory assembly lines. The walkway towards the actual plane is covered with a red carpet; a far cry from the grey floors we get here in Thailand.

Here we have two architects, striving to create a ‘new’ form of architecture. Despite their shared goals, each has his own way of achieving a modern world. However, it is undeniable that both were great and influential architects. The source of such greatness does not stem from pure talent, but rather a sense of strong identity. In order to be a great artist, one must be able to establish their own identity, and stay true to it till the end.

The Seagram Building, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Here’s a tiny confession: when I first saw Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, I thought it was the most boring thing ever. Not that the building itself was horrible or anything; it’s just, frankly, it looked like every other skyscraper you can find in the city. If that building were magically teleported to Bangkok, I could totally imagine myself walking right past it without so much as a backwards glance on my way to Siam Paragon. It’s just that common. Another tall glowing rectangle among a forest of even taller glowing rectangles.

Here’s another confession: I was wrong.

See, my – admittedly rather ignorant – reaction to the Seagram Building is part of what makes it such a success. The fact that its minimalist style has now become commonplace is proof of just how brilliant and influential the Seagram Building (and obviously Mies Van der Rohe himself) has been to modern architecture.

Although huge, towering high-rises and minimalistic skyscrapers like Seagram Building have become rather cliché, things were completely different back in 1958, when the building had just been constructed. As discussed in my previous post, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe went by the maxims “Less is more” and “God is in the details”. While such words have become wildly popular, back when Mies Van der Rohe first said them (and when Modernism and the Bauhaus were both relatively new), people found it difficult to accept such bold statements. Mies Van der Rohe was faced with a lot of cynicism, and many questioned his principles. After all, they thought, how could less be more when less is so much closer to nothing?

Refusing to be bogged down by all the negativity, Mies Van der Rohe decided to show America what “less is more” was all about. He made an avant-garde statement through his elegant and towering Seagram Building, using it to show the world that “less is more” and “God is in the details” are indeed adage’s that could most definitely make a big statement in the ever changing world of architecture

Located in the heart of The Big Apple, the Seagram Building exemplifies Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe’s tenets, and is the epitome of modernism. It’s sleek; it’s graceful; it’s modern. With 38 stories soaring 515 feet into the skies, the building is a monumental sea of bronze and dark glass. It completely omits all signs of weighty bricks and stones so often found in the ornamental facades of decades past, choosing instead to flaunt its light, sophisticated use of metals and glass. Through this, Mies Van der Rohe made a bold, radical and revolutionary statement, helping to bring about a whole new era composed of honest and simply skyscrapers – an era where buildings proudly exhibited their minimalist structures, instead of needlessly concealing them with superfluous ornament and unnecessary details.

One innovative part of the Seagram Building design was Mies Van der Rohe’s decision to set the building 100 feet back from the street edge, as a way to distance it from the chaos of New York City. This created a highly active open plaza, which acted as a transitory space between the interior and exterior of the building, providing a threshold that linked the skyscraper with the rest of the city. This space continues into the building, and cuts into the lobby, which further exemplifies Mies van der Rohe’s style of blurring the lines between interior spaces and exterior spaces. A white ceiling covers the lobby, and also stretches out beyond the entrance doors, which further hazes the boundaries between the inside and the outside.

Above the lobby, the offices are lit through luminous ceiling panels. Each floor has free floor plans and also receives maximum natural lighting from the sun, due to floor to ceiling windows that were made possible by grew topaz glass planes used on the exterior. The tinted glass was not only used to match the gold-bronze building elements, but also as a way to protect the building’s interior from unwanted direct sunlight and heat-radiation. Here we see the beginnings of energy-efficient buildings; where the elements of a building could be designed in such a way that they maximize internal comfort and minimize waste (e.g. overuse of air-conditioning).

Not only was a lot of thought put into designing the Seagram Building’s interior, but the exterior was also specifically designed by Mies van der Rohe to create a desired expression of the structure. The building is wrapped in what appears to be a metal bronze skin, which in fact is a layer of bronze I-beams that serve to highlight the concept of functionality. There has been quite a bit of controversy over these I-beams, as in truth they are nonstructural, and as they don’t serve any particular purpose (the actual structure supporting the building is beneath this façade) many consider them “decorative” and “ornamental”, which goes against Mies van der Rohe’s ideals. However, that is not entirely true. While the bronze façade does not serve any structural purpose, they were designed such that they would express and show the structural elements underneath. Mies van der Rohe was all about showing the truth in buildings, and he used these I-beams to bring the structure onto the exterior, and expose it.

So here we have it; the building that changed America. The Seagram Building was the most expensive skyscraper of its time, but it was also an icon of the architectural community; it astounded people with its elegance and simplicity. It was literally a major break through. To be honest, what amazes me so much about Seagram Building is the fact that even now – half a century after its completion, in a world where buildings like it are pumped out every day – it is still vastly admired by numerous Architects all around the globe, and still sets an example of the International Style skyscraper. For my current Design Studio project, I’m working on designing a flagship store, and I really hope that my final design achieves what Seagram Building did.  Seagram Building is known today not only by Architects, but even Architecture students like myself. It has managed to surpass the brand name for which it was designed (I don’t even know what the brand Seagram is). That’s the kind of design I hope to achieve for my flagship store. The kind that isn’t dependent on the products it showcases, but can stand on its on as an individual work of art.

Flappy Bird and Modernism

So for those who aren’t quite in the loop and have no idea what’s going on, this is what’s happening:

Flappy Bird. It’s the world’s latest craze. Everyone’s playing it – myself included – and to be honest with you, I have no idea why. The game itself is actually ridiculously simple; you basically tap your screen to make a fat bird fly, and the objective is to keep this bird (which, might I add, is far too obese to maintain flight) in the air without bumping into any obstacles. That’s literally it. No other cool tricks, power-ups or whatever. The graphics themselves aren’t even that fancy. It’s just you, this REALLY FAT bird, and a bunch of random pipes that you’re supposed to avoid. There’s nothing to think about – you just have to tap. The game doesn’t have any narrative; it’s literally just this fat bird trying to fly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by some weird machinery. Yet it’s a huge sensation. This is the game everyone’s playing when classes get boring, this is the reason why your friend is too preoccupied to reply to your line messages. I even saw this YouTube video of a girl who whacked her boyfriend with a chair because he stopped her from getting a high score (kids, don’t try this at home).

Game applications are weird like that. Before Flappy Bird, the popular game was Candy Crush (which was basically a cuter version of bejewelled, but whatever). Candy Crush was also pretty simple – though not nearly as simple as Flappy Bird – and at one point it was a pretty big hit too, but now it’s pretty much forgotten. This phenomenon of overtaking happens all the time – in business, politics, etc. Since I’m an architecture student, I’ll pick an example closer to my field of study:

Modernism. Even those who don’t study History of Architecture would probably have come across these two names: Bauhaus and Frank Lloyd Wright. They’re basically the big names concerning modernism; the names architects like to refer to as inspiration, and professors often mention during lectures. In a way, Frank Lloyd Wright was like the Candy Crush of modernism, and the Bauhaus was Flappy Bird. Both were equally intriguing in their own ways, both were based on the idea of simplicity, and yet despite their similarities, both were inherently different competitors on a rather strange playing field.

Anyway, subtly moving away from Flappy Birds and all that nonsense…

I suppose the key difference between Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus was their motives. The Bauhaus School – founded by none other than Walter Gropius, The Silver Prince himself – focused mainly on creating a new architecture, with the concept of “starting from zero”, and aim of creating art that was “non-bourgeois”. They later developed into the ‘International Style’, which had three main principles:

  1. The expression of architecture through volumes, and not masses. (This was demonstrated in their work, through the use of steel skeletal structures as opposed to the traditional load-bearing walls).
  2. The emphasis on balance in architecture, rather than symmetry.
  3. The expulsion of unnecessary ornamentation (this was actually one of the most important principles, and many architects following the Bauhaus or International Style came up with manifestos to prove why ornamentation must be banished).

One of the best examples of the Bauhaus style can be found within Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s work. Mies van der Rohe went by the maxim of “less is more” (an adage that has become incredibly well known – I even have a t-shirt with the words printed across it in bold letters, which I wear to bed every night, but I digress) and made it his goal to discover the simplest forms of architecture; from the structure, to the details and proportions of his work.

Pavilion of Barcelona, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Pavilion of Barcelona, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

In his ‘Pavilion in Barcelona’, his passion for minimalism is exemplified. Here we see only what’s necessary. There are slim piers to hold up the flat roof slab (another characteristic of the Bauhaus style – flat roofs), as well as large slabs of glass that function as walls or partitions.

While the Bauhaus was battling against all things bourgeois and trying to eliminate ornaments from the world, Frank Lloyd Wright was busy with his own ideas. Frank Lloyd Wright created his own philosophy of architecture, which he dubbed as “Organic Architecture”. He believed that good architecture was one that was able to exist in harmony with nature, and he sought after such harmony in his work. According to him, building’s should be a part of nature, not interfere with or disturb it, and the ground was “more important than anything man would make out of it or put upon it”.

He is arguably most well known for his Prairie Style houses, which were characterised by distinct straight lines. They were houses dominated by horizontality; so flat and long that they seemed to stretch towards infinity. Another distinguishing trait of his work was the fact that you could never really tell exactly where the interior and exterior spaces were; the architecture blended with the surrounding nature in such a way that it was impossible to completely differentiate one from the other.

Fallingwater, by Frank Lloyd Wright

Fallingwater, by Frank Lloyd Wright

One of the best examples of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work is ‘Fallingwater’. It is considered one of his greatest masterpieces, and even one of the greatest American designs of all time. I read once that it’s ranked somewhere as one of the 50 places you have to visit before you die. It’s dynamic and perfectly integrated with the nature that surrounds it. It’s basically a manifesto of Frank Lloyd Wright’s ideals; you can see the Japanese influence in his style, as well as the blend between interior and exterior spaces, and most importantly the harmonization between house and nature.

Robie House, by Frank Lloyd Wright

Another example of one of his well-known prairie houses is the ‘Robie House’. Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t the sort of architect who left things unfinished; he took his designs all the way to the end, not only designing the house itself but also the furnishings on the inside. In the ‘Robie House’, you can clearly see the horizontality that marked his work. It’s visible in the cantilevered roof eaves that extend past the house itself, the horizontal windows, and he even went so far as to use really long bricks (or Roman bricks, to be precise). The house structure is also elongated, and built close to the ground. The house’s interior is made up of rooms (or spaces, if you will) that seem to flow into one another, emphasising his idea of openness.

Like Candy Crush, Frank Lloyd Wright gradually faded away when the Bauhaus moved to America. He was even dubbed as “half modern”, which was a rather harsh remark to make. However, he is now more relevant than ever in the world of architecture.

What I love about Frank Lloyd Wright’s work is the fact that they just seem to belong where they were built. My family often enjoys taking mini vacations to the suburbs, and all too often I’d see buildings that are so out of place, it’s cringe-worthy. I’d go to the beach, and there’d be all these hotels awkwardly sticking out everywhere; signs of people too blinded by the prospect of wealth to realise that they’re ruining everything. There is no such awkwardness in Wright’s architecture, because he didn’t just plop his work wherever he could; he designed them in such a way that they blended perfectly with the surrounding landscape. There is nothing glaringly outlandish about them; they harmonized wholly with nature, as if they’d been planted just like the neighbouring trees.

Although his architecture is indeed amazing, what intrigues me most about Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t his work, but rather Frank Lloyd Wright himself. His designs were larger than life, and so was he. He took his ideas and maxims so seriously that they shone through not only in his designs, but also in his individual identity and persona. I find that absolutely fascinating. The fact that he could take his visions, and realise them to the point where he could change his own image is something I deeply admire. As he began to experiment and take risks in his work, his fashion style began to change. He wore hats with broad brims, and even donned red-rimmed capes and held a cane, as if he were the superman of American architecture. He’d go to the bank immaculately dressed, but with bare feet.

Not only did his clothes change, but Wright’s life was tailored towards his beliefs. In 1932, he had a group of students (referred to as the ‘Fellowship’) live in his household and study Wright’s approach to design by living his everyday routine. I say “students”, but the Fellowship was really more of a cult. His lifestyle was indeed unique. His was self sustaining – there were fields around his house where he’d grow his own crops – and he often performed renditions of Beethoven and Baroque. There were times when his students would hear him singing to himself, “I am the greatest”. In other words, Frank Lloyd Wright was arrogant, unconventional, devoid of consideration, and vain to a whole other level. But he was also remarkable; a man full of passionate zeal. Despite his flaws, he was brimming with life and energy, and such was his vigour that he was able to shape and influence those around him.

Is Ornament A Crime?

Here’s a fun fact: my fingerprints aren’t the same as yours.  It’s a truth worth marvelling at – to think that nature made the effort to create billions of unique patterns, just so we’d all have different thumbs. Even computers aren’t capable of such random creativity. Yet there’s a reason why something as trivial as the swirls that adorn our fingers made it through natural selection. Although fingerprints seem to serve no true purpose (though I did manage to find a rather amusing article online arguing that fingerprints help us grip stuff), they are important simply because they make it possible for us distinguish ourselves from one another. And therein lays the crux of my belief: ornamentation is important because it provides a method of differentiating people, and ultimately aids the creation of unique identities. I don’t see anything immoral about that.

Adolf Loos didn’t herald the same opinions in his essay ‘Ornament and Crime’. Rather, he associated the idea of ornamentation with the degenerate, claiming – rather aggressively, I might add – that decorations hinder society’s progress. At the risk of contradicting myself, I concur that there are aspects of his essay I admire, and even certain Modernist values I uphold. For instance, Loos provides rather fascinating insights into the notion of art, writing that “all art is erotic”, and that succumbing to ornamentation means surrendering to our perverse desires. Likewise, I appreciate the original concept that led to the birth of Modernism; I fully agree with the need to create an architecture that is available to all, regardless of social status and wealth. I also realise that during the emergence of Modernism, society was in the midst of great turmoil (wars tend to have that sort of aftermath), and a change in style was needed to pull people out of that chaotic pit. Back then, “starting from zero” was necessary in order to move on, but now that we are no longer recovering from war, the over-simplification of design is no longer helping us develop, but has become a glass ceiling that we must try to overcome.

The original intentions behind Modernism were indeed admirable, which is why it’s such a pity really, that those intentions never really made it to the end. My biggest problem with Modernism was that it was brimming with unfulfilled potential. The Modernist compounds became so obsessed with their laws, wasted so much time debating what was considered “non-bourgeois”, that they forgot what they were aiming for in the first place, which was a universal art that would better the lives of society. Modernism was supposed to be about making art accessible; not forbidding the beautiful.

Adolf Loos argues that ornaments are unnecessary, but so what if they are? Does that mean humanity is no longer allowed to indulge in anything aesthetically pleasing, unless it serves some inherent function? He writes about educating the less civilised into appreciating the correct beauty, but who is he to dictate what is beautiful and what isn’t? I believe beauty is a relative ideal, so how can you possibly educate people about something so subjective? For instance, I personally love the city – it brings me great joy to walk along the bustling streets, staring at all the pretty colours, and marvel at the sheer essence of life that surrounds me – and I shudder to think of my favourite buildings replaced by the boring, unadorned blocks Adolf Loos is so eager to promote. He would probably find it beautiful, while I would feel imprisoned.

I am also the sort of person who loves accessories. I buy a lot of jewellery, and I’m always seen wearing rings, bracelets or necklaces (I also collect hats, but that’s another story). Even during lectures I have at least two rings on. They don’t help me study any better, but they make me happy. It’s childishly simple really; pretty things make me happy, and so I wear them. I couldn’t care less if Loos thinks that art is erotic and that I’m just being perverse. Nor do I care about how functional my accessories are. In my opinion, it’s never wrong to indulge in things that make you happy (unless you’re causing pain to another person, but I hardly think my rings are harming anyone) so I don’t see why ornaments should be considered a crime. As ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ so aptly put it, “Fashion is not about utility. An accessory is merely an iconography, used to express individual identity”.

A point Loos makes that’s a tad less prejudiced and quite close to being a logical argument, is his point about ornaments being a waste of manpower. He writes that “ornament is wasted labor and hence wasted health”. He tackles points made regarding the ornaments role in encouraging consumerism by derisively stating that he knows the perfect solution; “set fire to a town, set fire to the empire, and everyone will be swimming in prosperity again.” While I agree with his statements, I find it difficult to see why they are negative consequences. True, ornaments take more effort to create, and their market value is rather unpredictable. However, I find that the meticulous effort put into creating decoration adds to its beauty. In a period dominated by speed and technology, the value of items that take time to make increases, and handmade artefacts are preferred over things churned out by machines. True, simplification is efficient and fast, but efficiency is so calculating. In my opinion, there is no beauty in rigid calculation; no grace in a mind fixed upon finishing the fastest. Furthermore, the idea of ornamentation encouraging purchasing does not seem overly harmful to me either. I feel that this constant yearning for something better is actually beneficial to society in general. Whilst Loos berates the fact that humanity is never satisfied, and seeks to replace things that are still fully functional, I find this strive for improvement a quality that we should nurture. It is because as people we are always looking for more, that we are able to maintain our status as an innovative race. How could we possibly move forward as a people, if we tell ourselves to be content with what we have, and use all our possessions until they finally fail us?

To conclude, I disagree with Adolf Loos. I find ornaments an essential part of design, as they are the key to creating individual identity. The accessories we wear, and the ornaments that surround our designs reflect our personal decisions, and it is these decisions that reflect who we are. Whilst Modernism has its perks, the Modernists ended up creating an architecture trapped in logic and fear of décor, and without realising it; they built a prison around themselves.