The architectural imagination (2): enter technology

Second post (first) on the edX MOOC from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where Walter Gropius chaired the architecture department from 1937-52. GSD offered a course on the legacy of the Bauhaus in 2015 and delivers an annual WG lecture. Its digital Bauhaus archive (story | tour) looks fabulous.

According to edX 25K people engaged with the course in week 1, 80% from outside the US (23% from Brazil), with over 100K enrolled. An earlier blog post stresses the intention of encouraging students to “consider architecture as a form of cultural expression as well as a technical achievement…architecture is one of the most complexly negotiated cultural practices there is…helps articulate history itself”, although the course starts by introducing “models, theories, and systems about how to think about architecture systems that transcend historical context and apply to architecture generally” before going on to “look at specific examples about how architecture produces these theories through buildings and projects in particular times and places”.

The lectures are filmed in the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, the only building in North America designed by Le Corbusier. So there.

Notes from weeks 5-7 below, although much more in to be reused IDC. All quotes edited.

This part of the course addresses technology as a component of architecture’s realization and understanding. Architecture is embedded in contexts where technologies and materials of construction – glass and steel, reinforced concrete – are crucial agents of change. But a society’s technology does not determine its architectural forms.

You will discover ways that innovative technology can enable and promote new aesthetic experiences, or disrupt age-old traditions. You will witness architecture’s ways of converting brute technical means into meaningful perceptions and textures of daily life. The interactions of architecture and modern technologies changed not only what could be built, but also what kinds of constructions could even be thought of as architecture.

In our first set of modules we discussed some of the primary examples of what we might think of as the techniques of the architectural imagination. We discussed typology, which allows for comparison of the formal properties of architectural projects. We talked about the system of perspective understood as a formal construction that links subject to object. And we saw how these formal constructs can be used, both by the historian as analytical tools and by the designer as ways of rationalising architectural decisions.

We then discussed how these formal constructs must always be understood as arising in history, as both enabled and constrained by history. But they’re not exhausted by those historical constraints. Architecture is deeply historical, but it also exceeds its formative origins. It produces memories, but it also produces possible futures.

In the next three modules we’ll be shifting our focus, somewhat, to how architecture has a fundamental relationship to materiality. We’ll look at how modern architecture used technical advances in materials – mainly iron, steel, and glass, but also reinforced concrete – and we’ll look at the modern development of industrial building components. But we don’t leave form behind. We will see how architecture uses these new materials, and new construction techniques, to advance its own expressive possibilities. We’ll discuss how technology gets mediated by the compositional and typological intentions and operations
of the architectural imagination.

Module 5: The Crystal Palace: infrastructure and detail

In module 5 you will begin to explore the core question of part 2: architecture’s fundamental relation to materiality. We first turn to a pivotal moment in the history of glass and steel construction techniques. As Professor Picon states, “Few buildings have marked as important a moment in the history of architecture as the Crystal Palace. Not only was the building emblematic of a new way to build, using iron at a scale unprecedented, it was also a major turning point in terms of its use, since it hosted the first world fair and introduced a whole new spatial experience“.

From the reading, Space, time and architecture (1941; 47 pages? sorry): Sigfried Giedion makes the argument that a “gap…opened in the course of the 19th century between science and its techniques on the one hand and the arts on the other, and hence between architecture and construction”).

Evidence for this idea of a schism between science and art can be found in eg the separate existence of the École des Beaux-Arts and the École Polytechnique, and for the modernist solution to the schism in eg:

  • unpretentious 19th century buildings for public markets, whose designers are not ‘great’ architects
  • the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (1868)
  • quotation by Lothar Bucher (1851): “in contemplating the first great building which was not of solid masonry construction spectators were not slow to realise that here the standards by which architecture had hitherto been judged no longer held good”
  • quotation in L’Esprit nouveau (1924): “The century of the machine awakened the architect. New tasks and new possibilities produced him. He is at work now everywhere.”

While Giedion understands the development of certain industrial construction techniques and materials as necessary technological precursors to modern architecture, he does not consider them ‘proper architecture’ as such…in contrast, Professor Picon suggests that certain properly architectural effects do indeed derive from constructional innovations and new materials.

All very exciting, and rather more accessible for non-architecture students. I even watched the videos, taking notes using the estimable Maybe I’ll revisit Kant and Hegel IDC.

Module 6: The dialectics of glass and steel

Giedion emphasised the difficulties in coming to terms with the architectural potentialities of the new materials and construction technologies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, out of which the Crystal Palace produced unprecedented architectural experiences and almost unintentional architectural effects. Next, we’ll pursue examples of the refinement of the aesthetic intention and the very willful expression of the representational power of the new architecture of metal and glass.

We will study examples of architects who, with more explicit intention, sought to expand architecture’s expressive capacity. The perceptual effects of the new materials of metal and glass – including thinness and tautness of wall planes, and the transparency and reflectivity of enclosing wrappers – had to be gauged, and their potentials developed. New spatial freedoms were found in the ability of metal to span large spaces. Load-bearing walls could be eliminated in favour of column grids. At the same time, fundamental questions of the relation of column to wall remained, and architects sought for certainties in theoretical models of spatial organisations.

From stone to steel…architecture, from its very beginning, has been made of stone, and when it hasn’t been made of stone, it’s been made to look like it has. Windows may have glass in them, but windows in a stone wall are simply openings. The glass itself is not important.

The development of technologies that allowed the production of large sheets of glass and materials with tensile strength, like steel, had the power to enormously change the way buildings are made. But how would that necessarily affect architecture? How would that change architecture’s representational function? How would that change architecture as the art of building?

The advances in modern technology and the invention of new materials were not an inevitable helpful contributor to the goals of architecture culture. How can one apply an already existing symbolic architectural language developed over thousands of years as an expression of the heavy compressive forces in masonry, to lightweight and thin structures of metal and glass? How does one achieve the requisite monumentality and profundity with such flimsy materials? This was the primary problem for the architects of the 20th century.

In the lecture you will learn how four architects interpreted Gottfried Semper’s model of the primitive hut and appropriated it as an example of a ‘universal’ organising type to one of their buildings (I have notes):

The four fundamental architectural elements of the hut:

  • hearth and fire, associated with the industrial crafts of ceramics and metal (fire is the beginning of society itself, and it needs the help of architecture to lift it off the earth)
  • base, associated with masonry (the base elevates the hearth, and the material associated with this is masonry, with its inherent attachment to the earth)
  • roof and support (tectonic frame), associated with carpentry (deviating from the classical understanding of a trabeated system, Semper theorised a kind of tectonic assembly that would rise from the masonry base, where the walls and the roof together formed a tectonic system)
  • enclosure, associated with weaving (Semper didn’t imagine the enclosing membrane would be the same as the stereotomic system of masonry; rather, he imagined that the enclosing membrane was a cloth or a tapestry or some sort of woven material)

Example of transposing Semper’s architectural elements to Behrens’s factory, describing the constructional technique or material associated with the element:

The AEG base is concrete, so it is a slight transformation from Semper’s brick base. But, in contrast to brick, which is laid or stacked, concrete is poured and cast, involving formwork and processing.

Your starter for 10…

You have now become familiar with the dominant forms of architectural representation and have learned how to read plans, sections, elevations, and perspective drawings. Now synthesise your knowledge and produce a reading of a building as a whole in an expository essay of 750 words (or about 5 paragraphs).

In an expository essay, the writer explains an idea, theme, or issue using personal opinion and specific evidence in the form of examples, definitions, comparison, and contrast. As with other forms of representation that we’ve explored, writing contains a point of view. Make an argument for how Mies’s use of materials operates to suture what Sigfried Giedion called the ‘schism’ between architecture and technology.

Module 7: Technology tamed: Le Corbusier’s machines for living

In the last module we focused on examples of how modern architects brought the new materials of metal and glass, and the new programmatic demands of industrial and commercial building, into the corpus of the great architecture of the past, while at the same time producing unprecedented expressive effects.

Now we will learn of another modern architect’s extraordinarily inventive of use of new materials and construction systems. For Le Corbusier the inherent properties of reinforced concrete were crucial for the development of his architectural ideas, most notably as expressed in his domestic buildings.

When you consider Corb’s ‘machines for living’ don’t think just of how machines look (the so-called ‘machine aesthetic’). Instead, think of a machine as an organized assemblage of parts that connect and perform in different ways. You may also be prompted to recall Alberti’s use of geometry and proportional systems to organize diverse building parts, or Palladio’s logic of the villa type. Corb brings similar compositional techniques into his habitation-machines.

You will explore in detail three of Corb’s villas and learn how his Five points formed a theoretical model for the possibilities of reinforced concrete – a material which provided an opportunity to break free from the constraints of load-bearing masonry walls.

Both Behrens and Mies, in different ways, maintain deep connections to the ongoing classical tradition in their new architecture of steel and glass. They use classicism to tame technology in order to give representation to the new corporations that arose from technical and economic advances.

But there are other ways of exercising aesthetic control over standardisation and mass production and of producing architectural effects with new technical means. We next look at a powerful example of how new techniques of concrete construction supported the pictorial and spatial elaborations of what Le Corbusier, called his ‘machines for living’.

The Dom-ino house is an open floor plan structure designed by Corb in 1914. A combination of the Latin word domus and innovation, the house is more of diagram than a building, a ‘chassis’ onto which any number of variations of houses can be outfitted. A kind of primitive hut of the modern, it was a prototype of potential of the new technology of reinforced concrete, glass and steel, an objet-type, an example of the materialisation of pure form, refined over time to become more perfect (see the 1922 Ozenfant House).

The three villas (I have notes): Villa La Roche (1925), Villa Garches (1927), Villa Savoye (1931).

Corb developed his five points of a new architecture (1921) as a result of putting the Dom-ino system into practice:

  • the pilotis – a grid of columns that lifts the floor slab above the earth; a reversal of the classical podium, which anchors the building to the earth, and a rejection of the traditional domestic basement, which Corb regarded as dank and unhealthy, leaving ground level open for recreation, circulation, transportation etc
  • the roof garden/terrace – for exercise or leisure; replaces the pitched roof and the attic with an open air room recalling pre-industrial life lived more outside, a regenerative inspiring and hygienic force
  • the free plan – created by freeing the columnar structure from interior partitions; allows a much more open arrangement allowing an interpenetration of spaces one into the other, often including ramps and stairs that guide the body through a spatial ‘narrative’
  • the ribbon window – a corollary of the free facade, a window that can be cut into a wall as the wall is not load-bearing; negates the idea of a framing window which is about one individual positioning himself in a vertical rectangle; instead one long horizontal window producing a panorama, a cinematic rather than a painterly version of a window
  • the free facade – a thinner wrapper that encloses the building and emphasises its volumetric qualities over static compression; establishes the compositional pictorial availability of the wall, allowing the window to be extended without interruption and other kinds of opening, more varied and composed geometrically and visually rather than determined constructionally or structurally

How did reinforced concrete determine each of the five points?

All this came together in an architectural promenade (Quora | THES & Flora Samuel)  as demonstrated in the Villa Savoye, the synthesis of the genre begun with the Dom-ino diagram.

On concrete (Stanislaus Von Moos):

Concrete, it might seem, is less likely to determine architectural form than any other building material. Its early use in 19th century building had little impact upon style; it merely supplied architects and the building industry with a universally applicable means of crystalising and multiplying existing formal vocabularies. Being malleable, it provided carte blanche for any sort of eclecticism.

Yet, parallel to the use of concrete as tectonically neutral ‘plastic’ mass, the 19th century discovered other possibilities inherent in the new material. Once applied under the conditions of strict economy, reinforced concrete proved capable of producing better structural results with less material bulk than any previously known material with the exception of the steel frame. Only in combination with economy, that is, the principle of achieving maximum results with a minimum of work, could concrete become the starting point for an architectural renewal. This is what happened in the works of the French pioneers of concrete building, and it was from here that Le Corbusier and some of his contemporaries proceeded in their attempts at translating the possibilities of concrete construction into a new architectural vocabulary.

The task this week was to design your own villa in the manner of Le Corbusier, well beyond me, but we have a couple of tweets:

And a vid from the GSD team (there’s no sound, folks):

The control of movement and view in the work of Le Corbusier produces an almost cinematic concept of representation. It is this dynamic spatiality that in some way supersedes the perspectival mathematical stability of Brunelleschi and Alberti. The account of Le Corbusier, then, recapitulates some of the early principles of the course and is a good transition to the final set of modules.


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