Tag Archives: architecture

Kevin Lynch: The Image of the City

Kevin Lynch -- The Image of the CityKevin Lynch — he’s been on my list of folks to read forever on architecture and cities and space, and with reason as The Image of the City is rather brilliant. He writes:

Looking at cities can give a special pleasure, however commonplace the sight may be. Like a piece of architecture, the city is a construction in space, but one of vast scale, a thing perceived only in the course of long spans of time. City design is therefore a temporal art… At every instant, there is more than the eye can see, more than the ear can hear, a setting or a view waiting to be explored. Nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surrounding, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences. (1)

I love this nod to the overwhelming — and mostly pleasurable — nature of the city, the ways it works in both space and time, and like Lofland, Whyte, Cullen, Gehl and others, he is clearly writing as someone with an appreciation for city life. It is a life that is in many ways collectively constructed:

Not only is the city an object which is perceived (and perhaps enjoyed) by millions of people of widely diverse class and character, but it is the product of many builders who are consonantly modifying the structure for reasons of their own… No wonder, then, that the art of shaping cities is an art quite separate from architecture or music or literature. (2)

In The Image of the City, Lynch’s focus is primarily looking at what he calls the ‘legibility’ of the cityscape — how we read cities and how understanding that can help us (re)build better cities. Why is legibility key?

A good environmental image gives its possessor an important sense of emotional security. He can establish an harmonious relationships between himself and the outside world…(4)

I love this quote even more…

a distinctive and legible environment not only offers security but also heightens the potential depth and intensity of human experience. Although life is far from impossible in the visual chaos of the modern city, the same daily action could take on new meaning if carried out in a more vivid setting. (5)

This is not to go against the many authors who write about the unknown, Lynch emphasises that this not to deny the value of labyrinth or surprise, but under two larger conditions — where there is no danger of losing basic

orientation, of never coming out. The surprise must occur in an over-all framework; the confusions must be small regions in a visible whole…. Complete chaos without hint of connection is never pleasurable. (6)

Another important qualification, the power of human beings to shape the urban environment:

The observer himself should play an active role in perceiving the world and have a creative part in developing his image. He should have the power to change that image to fit changing needs… what we seek is not a final but an open-ended order, capable of continuous further development. (6)

So to understand how this all works, he book tries to get at the ways people understand and read cities, the

‘public images,’ the common mental pictures carried around by large numbers of a city’s inhabitants… (7)

I love maps, and so found this a fascinating way to examine people’s relationships to the urban form, splitting it into useful divisions to be examined:

The mental maps that are shared of streets and landmarks. These are analyzed in terms of identity (its recognition as a separable entity), structure (the spatial or pattern relation of the object to the observer and other objects) and meaning (for the observer, whether practical or emotional). (8)

Above all in understanding legibility is this:

imageability: that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer. It is that shape, color, or arrangement which facilitates the making of vividly identified, powerfully structured, highly useful mental images of the environment. (9)

A highly imageable (apparent, legible, or visible) city in this peculiar sense would seem well formed, distinct, remarkable; it would invite the eye and the ear to greater attention and participation. The sensuous grasp upon such surroundings would not merely be simplified, but also extended and deepened. Such a city would be one that could be apprehended over time as a pattern of high continuity with many distinctive parts clearly interconnected. The perceptive and familiar observer could absorb new sensuous impacts without disruption in his basic image, and each new impact would touch upon many previous elements. He would be well oriented, and he could move easily. He would be highly aware of his environment. The city of Venice might be an example of such a highly imageable environment. (10)

Venice again, but I think this is definitely how a city works best, and this imageablity is the center of his study of Boston, LA and Jersey City. What follows is a really interesting way of mapping out perceptions of the city through surveys and interviews. The maps are brilliant:

Kevin Lynch - Boston

Particularly interesting is the look at problems, as in the ‘Problems of the Boston image’ (p 24 — though you won’t be surprised to find that Boston has fewer problems than the other two):

Kevin Lynch Problem of the Boston image

 

This marks what Kevin Lynch describes as the

confusions, floating points, weak boundaries, isolations, breaks in continuity, ambiguities, branchings, lacks of character or differentiation. (25)

Of course it beats both Jersey City and Los Angeles hands down as a memorable, enjoyably walkable and legible city. I do myself have a great soft spot for Boston. I thought I’d go into more detail on LA in a second post, as it is my own city after all. It also highlights Lynch’s limitations, but there is much to be mined from the book.

First, what development has done to the US city centre:

There is the same piling-up of blank office structures, the same ubiquity of traffic ways and parking lots (34).

This has made them almost indistinguishable from one another, Lynch notes Jersey City as the least distinguishable of all — funny that what people most loved about it was the view of New York’s skyline on their horizon.

Common themes between the cities:

…people adjust to their surroundings and extract structure and identity out of the material at hand. The types of elements used in the city image, and the qualities that make them strong or weak, seem quite comparable between the three…

In terms of broad themes, the key favourite aspects of all cities were  space and views:

Among other things, the tests made clear the significance of space and breadth of view (43) … there was an emotional delight arising from a broad view, which was referred to many times. …

Natural landscapes:

The landscape features of the city: the vegetation or the water, were often noted with care and pleasure. (44)

Also a deep sense of the spatialities of class (race is not discussed at all, except in an oblique way, a truly blindingly un-scholarly way which the post on LA will deal with more)

Quite as apparent is the constant reference to socio-economic class: the avoidance of “lower class” Broadway in Los Angeles, the recognition of the “upper class” Bergen Section in Jersey City, or the unmistakable division of Boston’s Beacon Hill into two distinct sides.

Space and time:

… the way in which the physical scene symbolizes the passage of time… (45)

So in broad strokes, there is a lot to think about here… the next post gets into the nitty gritty of design elements and physical space.

[Lynch, Kevin (1960) The Image of the City. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press]

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Camillo Sitte: The Art of Building Cities

Camillo Sitte - PlazasCamillo Sitte’s The Art of Building Cities is one of the acknowledged cornerstones of the whole edifice of books I really love about architecture and public space. This translation is from 1945, but the book itself was originally published in Vienna in 1889. Fin de siecle Vienna in the middle of its drive towards modernity, this is a curiously ambivalent book that looks to the past in order to reimagine an urban future. But it does try to look forward, and though not everyone reads it that way, this is from  Eliel Saarinen prefatory note:

Simultaneously with this understanding of such organic town pattern, and subsequently to a great extent as a logical consequence of it … there became laid an equally strong groundwork for such an understanding of architecture that even the architectural style-form must express contemporary conditions, and no other conditions. (iii)

This is essentially a look at what works about older cities, and it connects patterns in architecture and planning with patterns of social life. So it has half the equation I think is needed. The other half is how architecture and planning in turn shapes social life in the dialectic that Henri Lefebvre would explore among others. Sitte argues that the changes in the city reflect the changes in social life —  in medieval times much of life led on the street, because interiors cold, damp, uncomfortable. From the introduction by Ralph Walker:

The growing number of comforts within the modern shelter had, one by one, eliminated the desire for pageantry in the space outside. The underlying idea of the forum and the plaza, through out the ages the focal points of classical and medieval cities, took on less social and political meaning. (vii)

camillo-sitteBut on to Camillo Sitte himself. In the introduction he quotes Artistotle’s summary: ‘A city should be built to give its inhabitants security and happiness.’ Sitte continues

The science of the technician will not suffice to accomplish this. We need, in addition, the talent of the artist. (1)

From his words you would know the world has already entered the time of professional planners, architects, what Sitte calls hygienists. He doesn’t argue that they are not needed, but rather that they need to rethink their approach and incorporate, as he says, the artist.

Perhaps this study will permit us to find the means of satisfying the three principal requirements of practical city building: to rid the modern systems of blocks and regularly aligned houses; to save as much as possible of that which remains from ancient cities; and in our creation to approach more closely the ideal of the ancient models. (2)

Difference between then and now, I wish, as I say he had thought through more of the corollary.

Public squares, or plazas, were then of prime necessity, for they were theaters for the principal scenes of public life, which today take place in closed halls. (2)

But I like playing with this very different understanding of space that he sees existing in past and present:

In brief, the place of the forum in cities corresponds to that of the principal room of a house. It is to the city, so to speak, the principal hall… (5)

This is just lovely.

The interior temples and monuments are the stone myths of the greek people. The highest poetry and thought are embodied in them. (7)

The bulk of the book, however, focuses on the details of public spaces, groupings of building and streets that work. In many ways the chapter headings summarise very nicely Sitte’s arguments.

I: The relationship Between Buildings, Monuments and Public Squares

This highlights again the importance of the public square in community life, and contrasts the squares that work well from the past with those that don’t from his present:

The fundamental difference between the procedures of former times and those of today rests in the fact that we constantly seek the largest space for each little statue. Thus we diminish the effect … instead of augmenting it … (11-12)

II: Open Centers of Public Places

This explores the many examples of monuments and fountains that sit not at the centre of the square, or in way of its foot traffic, but off to one side. This also applies  to churches — which I confess I find quite odd as I am so used to them sitting in open space in the US and UK. Like Gordon Cullen, though not nearly as explicitly, he is always thinking how people move through space, how they encounter buildings and the public places that surround them. He looks at both stone and emptiness and the way one relates to the other.

Buildings built in this way ‘acquire a double worth’. even without being surrounding by a void they offer up different views and compositions. (18)

Being written in 1889, this already feels as though it is part of the past, but this is the period when our present is forming — this critique is all too familiar:

This rage for isolating everything is truly a modern sickness. R. Baumeister in his manual on city building even raises this to the status of a working principle. He writes, ‘Old buildings ought to be preserved, but we must, so to speak, peel them and preserve them.” The object of this, then, is that by the transformation of surroundings the old buildings should be led to the midst of public places and in the axes of streets. This procedure is used everywhere and with special satisfaction in treating ancient city portals. it is indeed a fine thing to have an isolated city gateway around which we may stroll instead of passing under its arches! (19)

Peel them and preserve them — no better way to describe what has been done to too much architecture that should instead be living and peacefully subsiding.

III: The Enclosed Character of the Public Square

Such a simple rule, one so ignored so often in modern building.

‘The old plazas produce a collective harmonious effect because they are uniformly enclosed…In fact, the public square owes its name to this characteristic in an expanse at the center if a city. (20)

He looks at how it is enclosed, how street enter into it:

Careful study shows that there are many advantages to an arrangement of street openings in the form of turbine arms. (21)

It looks clear in the drawing, I think of the great wonderful squares of Prague or Krakow and agree with him on avoiding busy cross sections at each corner.

IV: The Form and Expanse of Public Squares

He looks at two forms of square — those that are deep and those wide. They set off different building types, deep plazas are better facing a church of slender form, city halls require broader, more expansive ones.

… The height of the principal building, measured from the ground to the cornice, should be in proportion to the dimension of the public square measured perpendicularly in the direction of the principal facade. (27)

I love this, can’t wait to wander some of the cities he describes in this way:

It is truly a delight for the sensitive observer to analyze such a plan and to find the explanation for its wonderful effect, Like all true works of art it continually reveals new beauties and further reason for admiring the methods and resourcefulness of the ancient city builders. (26)

V: The Irregularity of Ancient Public Squares

The opposite to today’s grids, but Sitte hardly needs to point that out, nor that this is due to their gradual historical development, but this is an important point:

Everyone knows from personal experience that these disruptions in symmetry are not unsightly. On the contrary, they arouse our interest as much as they appear natural, and preserve a picturesque character. Few people, however, understand why irregularity can avoid giving an unpleasant appearance. We must study a map to understand it. (30)

Always we turn to Italy — Padua, Verona, Florence, Palermo. To give you a taste of the many maps that fill the book:

sitte-piazzas

VI: Groups of Public Squares

The groupings of squares! To an American this is a wonderful extravagance indeed, also wonderful to move from one enclosed, irregular square to another as my European wanderings can attest.

On Venice:

There is such an expanse of beauty here that no painter has ever conceived an architectural background more perfect than its setting. No theater ever created a more sublime tableau than the spectacle to be enjoyed at Venice. It is truly the seat of a great power, a power of spirit, of art, and of industry which has gathered the treasures of the world upon its vessels… (37)

VII: Arrangement of Public Squares in Northern Europe

The difference he notes, which I had noted already, was that in Northern Europe churches tend to sit more separately — usually because they have been surrounded by graveyards. (Where was everyone buried in this Italian cities of stone I wonder?) Yet these small churches that form the fabric of the city or town are still generally not fully centered in a square, rather they often set to one side.  There is, however, often a large plaza in front to set off the facade. Still, they are approached in various ways that creates interest, surprise, wonder.

30006047876_fdc6c6948e_k-2

Sitte doesn’t simply look to the ancient, he likes too the Baroque arrangement of squares, the way that

… art came to control vistas of the great three-sided plazas, churches, palaces, formal gardens, sumptuous approaches to important buildings, as well as nature’s masterpieces. (50)

This would include the Plaza of the Palazzo Pitti at Florence, that of the Capitol at Rome. Thus:

The development of Baroque style differs from the history of earlier styles in that it did not evolve gradually. On the contrary, like modern styles, it came full panoplied from the drawing board as an invention. We cannot, therefore, attribute the banality of modern planning to the fact that it has precisely the same kind of origin. We insist, simply, that the straight line and geometrical patterns should not be made the aims of our planning. (51)

The Baroque is the idea of a theatre-type perspective…he gives the example of Würzburg Residence:

30006045486_609df0d6b7_k-2

He writes:

Every modern university or group of public buildings laid out around large and small open spaces generally follows some variant of the Würzburg Residence plan — a large court or yard at the center with smaller courts at either side. (51)

Looking at the picture I though god damn, it’s so true.

VIII: The Artless and Prosaic Character of Modern City Planning

Ha.

Open space that should serve everyone actually belongs to the engineer and hygienist. All of the art forms in town building have disappeared one by one so that we have scarcely a memory of them left. (53)

IX: Modern Systems

Ah, the grid. He writes here at the beginning of the grid. It’s funny looking back, that actually it got much worse than the grid, comparing New York for example, to the suburbs.

These systems accomplish nothing except a standardization of street patterns. They are purely mechanical in conception. They reduce the street system to a mere traffic utility, never serving the purposes of art. They make no appeal to the sense of perception, for we can see their features only on a map. (59)

He looks at street patterns and traffic — traffic! Ah, 1889, this was just the beginning, but this kind of diagram is also very familiar.

fig82-83

X: Modern Limitations on Art in City Planning

What I like most is that actually this is not just a nostalgic looking backwards, though I wouldn’t fault that too much given the delight that these old city spaces bring and the importance of thinking through just why. Sitte writes:

Many of the old structural forms are simply out of the question for modern builders. While that may disturb the sentimental, it should not plunge them into a sterile nostalgia. Decorative construction without vital function is but temporary and of questionable value. Time makes inexorable changes in community life, and these changes alter the original significance of architectural forms. (69)

But now more and more, we see how architectural forms result from community life…

Great population increases in our modern capitals, more than anything else, have shattered the old forms. With the growth of a city its streets widen and its buildings grow taller and bulkier.

Written before the first skyscraper mind.

Intense human concentration has meant intense increase in land value, and neither the individual nor the city government can escape the consequences. Subdivision and street opening have proceeded apace, Street after street has been cut through old districts, giving birth to more and more city blocks. (69)

This economic understanding of development was unexpected, I’m not sure why though. Still, it is almost uncanny to see the way that Sitte foresaw the architectural and planning future.

High land costs encourage greater intensity of land use, and this, in turn, supports certain structural forms. Modern lot plotting tends to exalt the cube motif in architecture. (70)

XI: Improved Modern Systems

So looking to his future, our present which is one Sitte did his best to prevent and I appreciate that, he writes:

Our study has already indicated the obvious need for innovations to overcome the effects of the ill-famed rectangular system. (74)

I’m almost glad he didn’t know there would be worse. He didn’t see bureaucratic and state planning as the answer — though private planning wasn’t the answer either.

Personal ambition, artistic individuality, and enthusiasm for work of one’s own responsibility are factors that do not fit into public administration. In fact, they are incompatible with official discipline. (82)

Sitte foresaw the great wind corridors of our modern times as well:

While it is possible for a pedestrian to stroll without discomfort in the old inner city, he is immediately enveloped in clouds of dust when he steps into a modern part of the City. Open plazas, where street openings draw in wind from every direction (like the new City Hall Plaza of Vienna) feature beautiful wind spirals throughout the year… (87)

I haven’t yet been to Budapest and Vienna, but Sitte upholds the first, describing Budapest:

where stand the finest and most greatly admired urban areas along the Danube, where the river is made a magnificent feature of the City itself. Sooner or later, the Danube can have an equally fine effect on Vienna. … Should, then, a gradual slum development be permitted in the meantime? Should not the senseless and immensely costly rectangular system be abandoned? (85)

He really hates rectangles.

XII: Artistic Principles in City Planning — An Illustration

Again Vienna, always back to Vienna, it was his city after all. But there is much to think on for all cities.

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For love of brutalist concrete conservatories

Concrete conservatories are amazing. I have long had an architectural love affair with conservatories of metal and glass, and these elements are not missing from Krakow’s Botanical Garden of the Jagiellonian University. Founded in 1783, it still serves as a teaching garden, and has a most wonderful collection of orchids and other tropical plants, many from the collection of botanist Joseph Warszewicz (1812–1866). The first greenhouse was built here in 1787, but they have been extended, reconstructed, and added to over the years and are entirely wonderful.

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

Krakow Botanical Garden

The plants were beautiful too, and here you can find many of the medicinal plants collected in jars upon jars at the Museum of Pharmacy, botany just another form of the dual aspiration to explore the wonders of the world and to better understand the various healing powers of plants. Until, of course, you bring Empire and the desire for profit extraction into it, I am curious how countries like Poland were part of that dynamic. But mostly I just love plants and conservatories.

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Zbigniew Herbert: Architecture

herbertArchitecture

Over a light arch–
a brow of stone

on a wall’s
untroubled forehead

in the windows joyous and open
with faces instead of geraniums

where there are perfect squares
next to a dreaming perspective

where an ornament wakes a stream
in a tranquil field of level surfaces

motion with stillness a line with a cry
resembling uncertainty simply clarity

there you are
architecture
art of fancy and stone

there you dwell beauty
over an arch light
as a sigh

on a wall
pale with its height

in a window
with tears of glass

I the exile of self-evident forms
proclaim your motionless dance

Time’s Anvil: seeds, saints, fascism and labour

Time's Anvil -- Richard MorrisRichard Morris packed Time’s Anvil full of so much fascinating things, that I wanted a second post to collect them all up (first post is here). First, this hilarious quote from Nikolaus Pevsner on England:

This is a very modest country, satisfied with very little. All morning one can see one’s breath indoors… To look at it positively, I suppose people are closer to nature… (1)

This reminds me of evenings spent huddled next to relative’s radiators exuding a very faint warmth.

On seeds

I did love the aside on seed saving and diversity, a key battle now in view of corporations like Monsanto and a reminder how this has long formed part of our culture. One late Saxon charm for the improvement of land directs that

seed from elsewhere be taken from beggars in exchange for twice as much…

A good strategy of improved stock and distribution, and incorporates the most poor into key agricultural systems in a way that could be respectful, though it hardly mitigates the suffering of such a life.

There is another fascinating quotes from John Letts, ‘Living Under a Medieval Field’ on old planting systems:

every plant in a land race is slightly different from its neighbour, and medieval cereals were consequently very uneven in straw height, ripening time, grain yield and other agronomic traits. This diversity ensured that a portion of the crop almost always set seed irrespective of the many environmental stresses that can destroy a crop such as drought, waterlogging, frost or crop disease.

Such diversity is a key component of permaculture and organic farming systems, and another part of our past that farmers are trying to relearn and bring into practice.

On saints

The early role of the church in shaping the physical and mental maps of the land is also so interesting. There is some discussion of the changing nature of the church, the tendency of early Anglo-Saxon bishops to be treated as saints, and therefore this:

A map of their resting places is a diagram of power. (261)

There are proofs of how this became part of everyday life in places like Wells cathedral — one of my very favourite cathedrals, so I was surprised to learn that long ago the skulls of its Anglo-Saxon bishops sat on display there as relics. Some of them show patches of high polish caused by the touch of multiple hands, others have had perfect circles bored out from their backs, probably for amulets or shrines.

It never occurred to me that people might describe the incorporation of older buildings into newer as a sign of laziness or lack of vision or skill, but apparently so it has been said. Morris here reclaims the idea that incorporating older churches into the design of expanded churches incorporated their holiness and power. Interesting that my own reactions to much of the book underline Morris’s argument that much of what we understand of the past is conditioned by our present. Seems that two hundred years of archeological history are quite an indictment of power structures in society, though there is very little unpacking of how age, gender, race, national origin, class and etc impact our readings of things.

I quite love thinking more about this, though:

In traditional religion, community embraced the living and the dead, each supporting the other in a fellowship that extended across history. When Reform snuffed out that coloured world of saints, lights, signs, gestures and seasons it shrank the boundaries of community, dimmed collective memory and diminished time. (267)

The ties between fascism and planning & conservation

I learned a little more about the Third Reich here as well — apparently Heinrich Himmler

held sway over functions that included the SS, the police, the consolidation of German national identity, and settlement of the East.

The settlement of the East alongside consolidation of identity? That combination at first seemed so odd to me, and then I thought about it and it made a perfect chilling sense. There has always been a terrible dark side to our connection to land and how we live upon it. Himmler and his friend (he had friends…) Hanns Johst toured upper Silesia in 1940, Morris writes:

The two men reflected on how the German settlers would soon change the appearance of the land. Trees and hedges would be planted. Shrubs would grow…All of this was a great work of culture undertaken in awe of nature. They speculated on how these changes would ‘create protection from the wind, increase dew, and stimulate formation of clouds, force rain and thus push a more economically viable climate further toward the East. (329)

It heads to megalomania there, which is unsurprising, but also it appears they imagined a fairly comprehensive plan for living well upon the earth. Crikes.

I discovered Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, also had claims to fame as a Nazi sympathizer. So on the one hand you have the left Atlee government establishing parks and protecting buildings and wildlife for the working classes due, but also alongside concerns about ‘spoiling’ of the countryside and development. Morris quotes Engels’ descriptions of Manchester (which I too have quoted extensively) and poverty, writes:

It was partly in reaction to such squalor and moral degradation that conservation in Britain originated. That is not only why conservatism had its heart in the countryside — where despite a century of urbanism the heart of England’s identity still lay — but why historically it was anti-urban. the National Trust was founded to protect land ‘against development and industrialization.’ (331)

Their efforts allied in this with people of the far right, who saw nature as separate from human beings, and in need of protection from the masses.

Too often quite fascist protection. There are still clear affinities in some of the rhetoric today, and more than ever this is something we have to understand and root out.

I wish there was a little symbol I could use so that when I make a pun I could laugh to myself self-deprecatingly.

On the beauty of labour

Part of the lure of the past and the wilderness can also be seen in the writings of William Morris and Ruskin —

buildings and monuments of earlier ages evoke melancholy, an emotion then held to be purer and deeper than joy and to be a stimulant to imaginative consciousness.

A gothic emotion — I liked the evocation of the gothic and the uncanny. I found it interesting he doesn’t go into, or even mention, William Morris’ deeper beliefs and Socialist foundations, I think this love of medieval building is more about craftmanship and the beauty of certain kinds of labour, but there you are. There is, however, a quoted fragment from D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Things Men Have Made’:

Things we have made with wakened hands, and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go on glowing for long years.
And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still, with the glowing life of forgotten men who made them. (47)

It seems to encapsulate the worth and beauty of things granted them by the labour involved in making them. Morris derides the idea of industrial production as revolution or as something that just broke out, which is an interesting idea to follow:

…another result of the lumpish way in which we cut up time — a tendency which previous chapters have shown can encourage fixation with difference at the expense of affinity, put change before flow and predispose us to simple determinism. (345)

if the industrial revolution had a defining moment it was the point at which large sections of the workforce switched from selling things they made in to selling their labour. (348)

There was another section on Birmingham, and just how much was manufactured there through industrialistion based upon this selling of labour. Johanna Schopenhauer writes in 1803:

that there is not a village in civilized Europe, perhaps not a house, where there cannot be found some industrial product made in that city, if only a button, a needle, or a pencil. (344)

By 1875, workers made over ten thousand billion nails a year.

I can’t quite get my head around the scale of that, but like how again it speaks to widespread connections through materials and labour, though I have read plenty of the desperate poverty and horrible working conditions underlying it.

A few last things, happier things, like the Lunar Society! The Lunatics met in each other’s homes the  Monday evening closest to the full moon: Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestly, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood. I also wanted to remember to find George Peele’s ‘The Voice From the Well’ and read it, and set a reminder to self to walk the Icknield way… The name so old that not even the Anglo-Saxons remembered where it came from.

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‘Rich is Right’ – Bertrand Goldberg

Betrand Goldberg with Detroit Park City
Betrand Goldberg with Detroit Park City

America is rich, America is right. Rich is right. Architects have always worked for the rich. We are now also working for the right. And that hasn’t always been the case during the last hundred years. We had better find out who we are working for and what we are trying to say.

The second speech/essay from Bertrand Goldberg to be found in Dans La Ville, and more provocative I think, than even the ‘Critical Mass of Urbanism‘ because it really digs down into the whole point of architecture.

Because it names the reality that for millenia ‘architecture’ — not the everyday homes and settlements and lovely little towns and villages and farms that have grown up over those same millenia, but ‘architecture’ — has been for the rich.

The traditions and history of architecture have been bound together with the ruling societies of their time. Whether the Mayans or the Shakers, architects designed the buildings that spoke for decision-makers. From one period to another, the architect looked not to his colleagues for his kudos , but rather to his clients. For a new plan, a new technology, for a different and sometimes new society, the architect wanted approval from the priest, the banker, or the corporation.

Because it names the hope of architects and planners who are not radical, that the rich will seek what is right through architecture. What is just, what is fair, what will create a better world. We may not share that belief exactly, but I do think that architecture can help to do that.

I like thinking about this potential connection between people and buildings, though it is more dialectical I am sure:

Even in the most usual buildings, architecture is the public
art that shows people what they’ve been thinking. And when architecture creates an unusual building with new technology, it even can nudge social change forward.

But what are we doing instead? I gather Goldberg doesn’t really like post-modernist architecture too much:

Today we find our post-modern buildings are silly and confused. More than a symptom, they are an infection of our times, our people, our economy – a witless, de-humanizing caprice purveyed in the name of historical conscience and stylistic freedom.

There is no question that such trendy garbage relates to the strange, disastrous goings-on in our daily life. Post-modern buildings for the rich who can afford them have the same nonsense quality, the same immaturity, that we presently find in our governments, our economy, and our behavior. Architects are no more confused by this new style than by the many art and architecture critics it inspires; but buildings have more social influence than the critics they give voice
to. In some strange way buildings even reinforce moral majorities and goofy governments. (199)

Damn.

So what should we be building instead? He looks at how much memory has been lost of what came before Bauhaus, and he pulls out some visionary things that are truly awesome:

1784. the French architect Ledoux proposed a rather more than literal functionalism in this design tor a water inspector's house at the source of the River Loire. The river was allowed to run through the house. which was vaulted across the flow of the water.
1784. the French architect Ledoux proposed a rather more than literal functionalism in this design tor a water inspector’s house at the source of the River Loire. The river was allowed to run through the house. which was vaulted across the flow of the water.
Ledoux designed in 1800 a theatre at Besanion, literally as reflected in the eye of the beholder.
Ledoux designed in 1800 a theatre at Besancon, literally as reflected in the eye of the beholder.

But that connection between wealth and architecture sent developments in different directions.

This is how Goldberg explains the rise of postmodern architecture, the social currents it is channeling, its connection to new technologies and means of production:

The artist – the architect – designed for the newly developed rich and shared their change of values. The abstraction of management in governments and business was matched by the abstraction in the arts and architecture. The building artisan was replaced by the factory. The artistic pictorial was replaced by the pattern. Light and shade were replaced by the plane and the line. At the beginning of the 20th century Taut, Loos, Oud, and Gropius shared in the belief of Le Corbusier that “the right angle is the most perfect of all forms because with it we can measure all things.” By the end of World War I, the box was recognized as the perfect shape to package a right-angled society. The design of the perfect box kept pace with mechanization of all types of production : with factory-made clothes, with steel rolling mills, with automobiles, radios, and packaged food…. What started as democracy in government, industrialization in our economy, structuralization in our aesthetics – as three startling promises for individual freedom in the early 19th century – by the first half of the 20th century had produced a controlled, managed, measured, and confused mass society packed in boxes. (202-204)

So arguably they got some things right, started to some extent in the right direction, but:

They forgot that all men are created equal and different.

And what precisely was the need such architecture came to fulfill? Money.

The multinational corporation, like the late 19th century scientists had been seeking a formula for a universal face – a faceless face that would say money, but not whose, without identity as to how it was made, without accountability as to how it was spent. For them, the universality of the International Style served very well.

The governments of the world have been managing people quite the same way that corporations have been managing money. Governments strengthened by social revolution have developed an unconcern with persons, with individuals, and their problems. Our governments, however idealistic in purpose, are organized to orchestrate masses of the electorate. For this kind of government, the design of the buildings according to the International Style has been perfect. These could be designed like business buildings ; official buildings only had to add a facade of columns. (205)

It is a damning indictment of corporations, government AND architecture, and this juncture in which the failings of all three can be seen built into  permanent and concrete form.

Where does he see hope lying?

In the past five years we have seen these changes focus as three events: We have changed our expectations about government ; We have said it should become minimal. Give us room. Go away. Leave me be. Second, we have rejected the mechanization which we imposed upon ourselves in our development of industrial society. Architectural verities associated with the box and the right angle are being expunged as part of this larger wave of rejection. Third, we have revived individual ethics, as represented by the Moral Majority. (206)

Minimal government, it sheds a bit more light on the privatised nature of Marina City, and its methods of self-taxation he talks about a little in ‘The Critical Mass of Urbanism’ — a key question for the buildings and community that architecture facilitates.

To return to the built form, though, in a way this is a critique of Bauhaus as a kind of forerunner to postmodernism, despite his categorical refutation of Tom Wolfe’s rather different critique of Bauhaus:

As a Bauhaus student in 1932 and 1933, I can state that almost nothing he described about the Bauhaus is true.

For Goldberg it is this — the failure of living up to the hopes and ideals they themselves professed:

What the idealistic governments of the 19th century became for people, the Bauhaus became for architecture. Abstract, mechanized, industrialized, without concern for humanism, nevertheless they both had a concern for society. Both in a sense have failed to change our values. The serious consequence of that failure we haven ‘t yet recognized: the original targets, the original idealistic goals, the original concerns of the early 19th century remain an incomplete process with an urgent need for development. We have not fulfilled our promise to ourselves for democracy, for humanism, for using mechanization to give us a better life. These main changes in the human condition are still in progress. (207)

Bertrand Goldberg isn’t one in these essays to criticise capitalism, to face squarely the rise of real estate capital, the pressures and drivers of segregation and suburbanisation. I wish he had been younger when Harvey wrote Limits of Capital, or had felt able to identify and call out these larger forces. I always get a sense of subdued desperation from such figures as Goldberg, visionary and imaginative and able to see more than most about how form and function and community come together, while also genuine in their desire to improve the world. Yet not quite able to see what is distorting every vision — or perhaps feeling unable to express it out loud. Perhaps there was nothing else he could write or say having come through McCarthyism and the continuing red baiting of American society.

Goldberg here seems to me to be writing in desperate hope, as though by writing this he could make it true that rich is right. As though by selling a vision, building a single complex, he could show the way and change everything.

I just wish more people built such fabulous buildings, put such time put into making them perfectly suited to the uses for which they were meant:

When Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical on Human Work, says that the dignity of work “practically does away with the very basis of its ancient differentiation of people into classes according to the kind of work done,” he is continuing the 19th century battle for a classless society. When in the same document he says, “The right to private property is subordinated to the right to common use, to the fact that goods are meant for everyone,” he is continuing the 19th century battle for redefinition of capitalism. Pope John Paul reminds us that the struggle for change Americans launched politically in 1776 is still alive.

The art of architecture is part of that change. Architecture needs a face that can be recognized as committed to that change – a face to show that architecture is a social art in an industrial age, but above all concerned with the individual. Architecture is not frozen music, as Goethe suggested; it is the body of humanism. Let us protect it.

View of the complexe comprising the obstetrical and gynecological departments and the Institute of Psychiatry of the Medical Faculty of North Western University. The concept of a bed-tower rising above a base building housing the support services has been used in many of Bertrand Goldberg's hospital projects. The Prentice Hospital has solved the structural conflict between bed-tower and base columnar patterns by an engineering breakthrough : the first fully cantilevered high-rise shell. The base building rests on traditional concrete columns.
View of the complexe comprising the obstetrical and gynecological departments and the Institute of Psychiatry of the Medical Faculty of North Western University. The concept of a bed-tower rising above a base building housing the support services has been
used in many of Bertrand Goldberg’s hospital projects. The Prentice Hospital has solved the structural conflict between bed-tower and base columnar patterns by an engineering breakthrough : the first fully cantilevered high-rise shell. The base building rests on traditional concrete columns.

‘The Critical Mass of Urbanism’ – Bertrand Goldberg

There was no visit to Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City for me this Christmas… Chicago was amazing in terms of spending time with family and getting acquainted with my baby nephew Eli for the first time. He is pretty awesome. Plans to get on a train and into the city went nowhere though, between holidays and stomach flu — so I read and read some more.

Rare time with family more than made up for missing the splendid corn cobs. Still, I have a bit more to say about Bertrand Goldberg, looking at his own words and reflections on what his architecture meant and hoped to achieve. There were two provocative essays of his in Dans la Ville, and I rather thought I would do a post on each.

In ‘The Critical Mass of Urbanism’, a speech first given before the Union Internationale des Architects in April of 1983, Goldberg reflects on Marina City, which he began building in 1959 for Chicago’s Janitorial union as an affordable housing complex:

Twenty-five years ago I designed Marina City in Chicago. At 588 feet (65 stories),these apartment towers were the highest concrete buildings in the world and also the highest apartment buildings. At $10 per square foot, they were the most economical in the United States. They were the first American mixed-use urban complex to include housing and possibly the first in the western world since the 14th century. They were a technological advance that was designed for a world which believed its urban problems could be solved with technology and facts.

Bertrand Goldberg - Marina City
A view of the office building supported above its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling its base structure. The base floor of the office building contains a recreational bowling alley and commercial retail space. The roof of the base is a recreational terrace for the office employees. The ten floors of office space are supported on a transfer system created by the columns.

It is interesting that he zeroes in here on the fundamental shift in power at different scales and the amount of power accruing to city governments in the U.S., so discussed in urban planning and geography. By the 1980s this was a hot topic, though I don’t think it was quite the same when Marina City was built:

The struggle between fact and faith in architecture has been most important in the world cities of the 20th century. Major cities have become city states, much as they were in the 14th century before the development of nation-states. Cities throughout the world again have assumed every power of government except the right to coin money and declare war, and the control of urban power has been under the political groups: bureaucracies and the rich who form the decision-making groups.

I quite love this analysis of all that has gone wrong with this — the distance between cities as they are lived, and professional knowledge and the demands of capitalism.

While government programs for urban development are quantitative and “factual, ” they are not facts as our cities know them through daily living. The conflict between the political rhetoric of government and the capitalistic realism of the private sector has been illustrated in the failures of architectural planning during the past 100 years of effort to “save the city.” (192)

This has meant the city has not been saved. It has meant the hollowing out of the urban core. Goldberg sets out most liberally to try and reverse this trend, to understand how cities are lived, how they improve lives, what practically can be done. This is the best that could have been done, perhaps, without a deeper challenge to capitalism and racism as they are made concrete in the city’s form.

We now must ask a question of our architects: can our almost deliberate urban deterioration be turned? Is there a realistic way toward urban rejuvenation which can shape us, our governments, and our human condition? Amidst the failure of our planners, does the architect know how to make a plan for the possible city, to give us a community we can pay for? A plan which can house both our density and humanism at the same time? I believe yes.

We also must ask a question of our governments about the spiritual destiny of cities: can we, through government action, stop the decay of humanistic values in our cities? Can we self-consciously restore the city as a center of community and the mystery of human warmth and spirit? I believe yes, but not yet. There will be a long delay. These values can be restored only when governments believe in humanism and believe that the city can be its shelter. Perhaps the architects first must believe, as Vitruvius warned, that they must know more about government than the king. Perhaps then the architects can teach the king. (193)

This puts Goldberg squarely into that group of architects and writers who see immense value in the city, who see it as ‘a center of community’ and a holder and catalyst for ‘human spirit and warmth’. So it fascinates me that he is building along the lines of the monumental and the towering and the concrete and Le Corbusier but leaning towards the equally monumental socialist vision of Krutikov, rather than the more patchworked, crooked, intimate and small-scale interventions described by say Alexander or  Gordon Cullen.

What Were Our Cities For?
Our cities, especially our failed cities, were planned in the early 19th century, and urban housing was shaped by the Industrial Revolution. These physical plans, now more than 100 years old, were conceived for a society different from the social change we are promising for the year 2000. Early American cities and their housing were not intended for attractive living, but rather for storing people on their upward trip to riches. In Europe, cities served to trap and store a service population for the elite. Today, within our inheritance of this deteriorated housing, we continue to hope to deliver our social promise for the 21st century. But deliverance is more likely to come from a totally new environment structured for a new society, and it is the shape of a new urban environment that we must now examine. (193)

So what is this new environment, what should it look like? With Marina City, Goldberg sought to create ‘A new form for Urban regeneration’, to imagine and build way of stopping white flight to the suburbs and preserving the necessary density in the city for a feeling of community. In this period when all the literature was promoting the suburban ideal and dispersal of families and homes and zoning to separate residential from commercial, Goldberg was instead promoting their concentration in the name of humanism. He lists the issues created by suburbanisation and lack of density — separating housing from work from culture from activities and entertainment, problems of sprawl and high transport costs.

It is clear that our concept of necessary population density must change to match our needs. But what do we need ? What must our city provide? Briefly, three urgently needed changes must be provided: (1) restore the city ‘s middle income population; (2) reduce the cost of housing in urban centers; (3) provide housing and living environment for new family types. These combined points must be enhanced with the magic element of concern for life that we call humanism.

On the relationship between architecture and density and community, he writes:

More recently we have come to understand density in the same way as the physicist understands the quantities of elements which create fission or fusion in molecular structure. Density is that number of people which creates the human fission or fusion we call communication, which in turn establishes community.

When the sociologist talks about community, does he also include the concept of humanism. Perhaps even faith? Faith in human spirit seldom comes without being reflected from another person. Community gives us that reflection of ourselves which we seem to need for survival. The poetry of our life is in community, and the city in its best form has sheltered and celebrated community.

Can the architect who designs for the facts or urbanism also design for the making of community? I do not believe these questions can be answered by architecture alone. Not until the people and governments training our architects believe in the need for community – believe that urban community is as important as urban economics – can architects once again design cities as the centers of our civilization. When the design of a community is as important as the design of a column, the architect will be able to form these new communities.

‘The poetry of our life is in community, and the city in its best form has sheltered and celebrated community.’ How beautiful that is.

I don’t think it is community exactly that is designed, but rather spaces that foster community. Marina City was Bertrand Goldberg’s attempt to build community through design, and built to cluster housing, employment, culture and entertainment all together:

MarinaCitymodel - Bertrand Goldberg
In addition to the two famous towers, the Marina City ­complex includes ­apartments, offices, restaurants, banks, a hotel, ­a theater, a boat marina, and even a ­bowling alley.

Marina City was the first modern complex in which the combined tenants provided 24-hour use of the facilities, seven days a week, on an urban site. It was the first to reduce the cost of modern living by providing broader use of its services throughout both commercial and domestic living patterns. Marina City also exercised an internal taxation system, and for the first time in America it privately absorbed the cost of supplying some of the social amenities normally provided by the municipal government. Recreation, health care, low cost housing, and access to jobs were supplied within the rent for apartments. (194)

It is also clearly a response to the lure of the suburbs with their lower taxes, their homeowner associations and increasingly privatised nature allowing middle-class people more amenities and better control over them. Goldberg is right that there is much more to this than any architect can control, and could any one person do better to build a utopian project in partnership with a union? What is more depressing, is how this perhaps fed into the increasingly privatised nature of development, the rise of gated communities, the increasing levels of segregation by class and race. As interesting is the question of how the residents interact with and feel part of the city around them if everything they need can be found without ever going outside, catching a train, interacting with many people who are not their neighbours.

But despite the quote from Churchill, I agree with this analysis of city and architect, making it all the more important to juxtapose the ideal with the reality created in terms of community.

The nature of the city is to be densely populated – it is the work of the architect to make it beautiful by making it possible to create community. Churchill said it best : ” We shape our buildings and our buildings shape us.” (197)

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Krutikov’s Flying City

25102847There is not really much in the way of a regular biography here, but a look at Krutikov’s early architectural imaginings. It is also an introduction, more a hint of the amazing story of the Vkhutemas (acronym for the Higher Artistic and Technical Studios — architectural studios), two competing schools of the 1920s avant-garde. Aleksandr Vesnin led the Constructivist school, and Nikolai Lavovskii led the Rationalist. Krutikov was one of Lavovskii’s students, and his diploma project that of designing ‘The New Cities’.

The magic of challenging students to imagine the new cities coming to life under socialism…we saw some of Krutikov’s extraordinary images at the Cosmonaut’s exhibition at the Science Museum on the Soviet space program, shown as part of the inspiration for humanity’s leaving the earth for the stars. How could I not investigate further?

in the course if its evolution, humanity has increased the speed at which it is able to move, and that these different forms of transportation have influenced architecture, particularly housing. Krutikov argued that the most recent forms of transport should be regarded as mobile architecture and, as such, they suggested a different way of approaching the problem of the relationship between architecture and the environment. They raised the question: would it ever become possible to detach housing and other buildings from the land? Would it be possible to  free the large amount of land on which buildings now stood? For Krutikov, land was vital to human beings, above all, because it enabled them to create favourable conditions for people on Earth. Was it absolutely necessary, therefore, to cover it with buildings? The dispersal of human settlements throughout the world limited man’s potential to use the land effectively in the interests of society as a whole. (12)

Born in Voronezh to a family of teachers, his main interests from a very early age were painting and space travel. The intensity of intellectual endeavour seems particularly Russian to me, I don’t know anywhere else the following sentence could be possible:

Judging from his drawings for The World, in 1912, the twelve-year-old was not familiar with ‘avant-guard’ painting. (17)

By 15, however, he was attracted by it. Also fascinated by aeronautics and airships. And fascinated by certain types of housing — he published ‘Circular or Semi-Circular Housing’ as a student at the architectural faculty in 1927, and designed this student housing:

IMG_3935

One of the buildings he looks at is the first circular house in Germany by Bruno Taut — designer of the glass house dreamed of by Paul Scheerbart, and it seems to me both must have been influences. Another is the Villa Tournasol (Sunflower House), a rotating house that turns to catch the sun, designed by Lecuyer and Jubault.

I love these years in European architecture, when everything seems possible.

For Krutikov’s final project, his flying city, he submitted a series of 16 boards as the analytical component. They are awesome and reproduced in full in the book. The titles alone are incredibly evocative:

No. 1 – The Visual Distortion of Moving Forms
No. 2 – The Composition of Moving Structures
No. 3 – The Formation of the Dynamic Element
No. 4 – The Evolution of the Forms of Cars and Railway Trains
No. 5 – The Evolution of the Forms of Ships, Airships, and Aeroplanes
No. 6 – Modes of Transportation for Sea, Earth and AirNo. 7 – Rudimentary Mobile Residences (Mobile Country Homes of the West)
No. 8 – Living Conditions in Contemporary Mobile Structures
No. 9 – Portability of Mobile Structures (The Lightness of Material and Construction)
No. 10 – The Evolution of Energetics
No. 11 – Physical Culture and the Future Man (This includes men playing tennis on the wings of an aeroplane)
No. 12 – The Evolution of Buildings (from Wooden Huts to Skyscrapers)
No. 13 – Man’s aspirations to Extend his Horizons
No. 14 – The Conquest of New Spaces and New Horizons
No. 15 – The Conquest of New Spaces and New Horizons (2)

IMG_3931
No. 16 – Dreams — Fantasies — First Experiments — Caricatures — Achievements

IMG_3932

What a time that was! The Russian avant-garde in architecture is heart-stopping in its awesomeness, there is so much more to investigate. Like a casual reference to Anton Lavinskii’s City on Springs.

Here, the flying city (these pictures with the spirals and someone else’s hands, they’re from this site about the book):

krutikov

More the floating city than the flying city, rings of residential and entertainment complexes hovering immobile above an industrial base. Communication between the two is through ‘the universal travel capsule’, imagined as able to move through air and water, with a flexible outer structure able to shift with its occupant, to accommodate their standing or lying down:

kkrutikov

Each of the rings a residential and entertainment complex, designed for ultimate flexibility and movement between privacy and communal living:

krutikovkrutikov

 

For visitors, another type of static residence in the form of a hotel:

krutikov

From his theses:

The fight for the architecture of the future is the fight of today.

I. THE SOCIAL ASPECTS

The international nature of the mobile capsule. Expanding horizons. The disappearance of the state. Community society.

A higher level of spatial organisation, corresponding to a higher level of social organisation.

Instead of linear chaos on the chaotic surface of the Earth there is a graceful organisation in the freedom of three-dimensional space. Linear chaos and the perfection of the circle as spatial contrasts, corresponding respectively to: firstly — the anarchistic and individualistic world of capitalism and secondly to socialism. (85)

***

The principle of flexible planning (planning that can adjust to changes in the way that the living social organism inhabits the city).

The expansion of the architect’s outlook beyond the limits of a narrow class context. The broad connection between architectural questions and all problems stimulating scientific thought. (87)

***

II. THE ARCHITECTURAL ASPECTS

The introduction of the dynamic element into architecture, the fourth coordinate of space (time). The particular perception of moving form. The architecture of mobile structures. The architectural expression of moving form. (87)

There follows more of his work — his ideas on the importance of flexible planning, our inability to predict people’s needs and to continually adjust. His designs for temporary exhibits, monuments and focus on theaters and how architecture can respond to and facilitate new kinds of theatre. His designs for a new Town-Commune of Avtostroi to house factory workers, which outwardly share  much in common with Le Corbusier (there are no servants quarters, though, let’s not forget Le Corbusier couldn’t even fucking imagine a future without the tiresome shenanigans of servants) — large buildings, great open spaces between them.

IMG_3930sm

This is so much more exciting in the air than on the ground.  I like that the main components, however, focus on space for ‘individual relaxation and group (team) interaction…extensive collective social contact…a springboard for mass events’ (100). Also interesting is how he separates sleeping residences from communal residences — reminds me a bit of Alexander’s A Pattern Language with spaces for privacy and sleep but much more focus on collective living and shared spaces for most of our daily activities. He also pays a lot of attention in the designs to the raising of children, how much is done collectively, how integrated it is into the full life of everyone (but not completely). It shows a rare attention, I think, to issues of the family. But this could be more due to the still revolutionary socialist context, where women fought hard, and somewhat successfully, in these early years to raise such issues to greater attention.

And then it is done. There is the onset of the Stalinist Empire style, an initially slightly playful (and probably disdainful) incorporation and reworking of classical architecture as demanded by the party, but that soon ends and the grim period begins…

Fucking Stalin, ruining everything.

For more on architecture and utopia…

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Paul Scheerbart and his Glass Utopia

Paul ScheerbartImpossible to summarise Paul Scheerbart, I cannot help but wonder what he was like in person. If he went on and on about glass architecture, perpetual motion. If he only spoke in phrases of satiric certainty. As a tone, it works brilliantly in Glass Architecture, where outrageous claims become more than possible.

The key idea is this one, nice of him to put it out in front. But as I read this amazing Christmas present sitting on my brother’s couch in Chicago in lieu of braving the weather and my stomach flu to see any real glass architecture, I forgot it just a few theses in and only now am I giving it the proper consideration it deserves:

1
Environment and its influence on the development of culture

We live for the most part in closed rooms. These form the environment from which our culture grows. Our culture is to a certain extent the product of our architecture. If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we are obliged, for better or for worse, to change our architecture. And this only becomes possible if we take away the closed character from the rooms in which we live. We can only do that by introducing glass architecture, which lets in the lights of the sun, the moon, and the stars, nor merely through a few windows, but through every possible wall, which will be made entirely of glass–of coloured glass. The new environment, which we thus create, must bring us a new culture.  (26)

scheerbartMany have argued similar things — that we are products of our architecture, or at least our environment. It is a fairly mad brilliant step to seek to open up our closed rooms, to open everything up to the light (even if not quite to full visibility — I love the use of nacre to shield our most private moments, how beautiful that is).

18
The beauty of the Earth, when glass architecture is everywhere

The face of the earth would be much altered if brick architecture were ousted everywhere by glass architecture. It would be as if the earth were adorned with sparkling jewels and enamels. Such glory is unimaginable. All over the world it would be as splendid as in the gardens of the Arabian Nights. We should then have a paradise on earth, and no need to watch in longing expectation for the paradise in heaven. (38)

Almost I am convinced. I forget when we stopped desiring to establish a paradise on this earth.

Glass architecture is unthinkable without Gothic.  (38)

I love the gothic, the dream of soaring spaces full of light. Perhaps Scheerbart is right, and if they could have constructed in glass rather than being technologically limited to stone, perhaps they would have done so.

I am finding in myself as much nostalgia for this time of infinite architectural possibility as for the revolutionaries of the 1960s who believed the world was theirs to change…I am sad I will never be able to believe in a revolution around the corner, a technology so new, a progress assured and manageable. Not that Scheerbart believes it entirely. But I think he wants to believe, is perhaps challenging himself to believe  — and a part of him does believe in a way impossible now, however tongue and cheek his work is.

Cities in their present form are not yet fifty years old. They can vanish as quickly as they came. Even the permanent way of the steam railway is not immortal. (43)

I liked this:

I am convinced that every constructive idea will appear in many heads at the same time and quite irrationally; one should therefore not speak carelessly about the seemingly confused and crazy; it generally contains the germ of reason. (48)

And this also:

The vacuum-cleaner will naturally be needed as an insect-exterminator. It is absolutely horrifying that today it is still not used for this purpose. That the vacuum-cleaner has already been employed for getting rid of street dust, I take to be a known fact. (50)

This betrays the downside of a city of glass — no dirt. No nature. No insects. Not even dust on city streets. A curious, fastidious kind of utopia and I shudder at the cleaning of it. But I adore this passage on vacuum-cleaners.

I also love his fascination, any fascination, with aeronautics.

37
Direction-finding for aeronautics

Aeronautics will undoubtedly be determined to conquer the night. All towers must therefore become towers of light. (52)

and later

It is generally known that the aeronauts would like to take over the night. that they have not so far done so is easily explained: on the earth the night is not yet light enough. But when, thanks to glass architecture, it has become light down below, it will also be light up in the air…The crucial factor in this is undoubtedly reinforced concrete. (65)

This is not short on technical details as you can see, even though I am leaving them out of this blog. Today some of this insistence on height and light seems almost old-fashioned given the towering skyscrapers that fill London, Chicago, Dubai — but he is prescient really in discussions of building vertically, using iron and metal frames upon which glass is hung, he inserts long discussions of concrete, stone and mosaics, enamels.

Number 58 needs no words, it is pure happiness:

58
Floating architecture

We can talk in all seriousness of floating architecture…The buildings can obviously be juxtaposed or moved apart in ever changing patterns, so that every floating town could look different each day. The floating town could swim around in regions of large lakes–perhaps in the sea too. It sounds most fantastic and utopian, but it is far from being so, if reinforced concrete, shaped to the form of an indestructible vessel, carries the architecture. (64)

And to conclude we come back to how glass architecture will change us, improve us, help us move into our better future.

…our hope is that glass architecture will also improve mankind in ethical respects. It seems to me that this is a principle merit of lustrous, colourful, mystical and noble glass walls. this quality appears to me not just an illusion, but something very real; the man who sees the splendours of glass every day cannot have ignoble hands. (71)

And not just any light, but

We must not strive to increase the intensity of light–today it is already too strong and no longer endurable. But a gentler light is worth striving for. Not more light!–‘more coloured light!’ must be the watchword. (88)

Some of his ideas were put into actual form — by architect Bruno Taut with his Glass House created for the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition in 1914. Here Scheerbart stands inside of it (far left):

Paul Scheerbart in the Glass Pavilion 1914

Around the house can be read Scheerbart’s words (from a collection of adorably bad aphorisms on glass and life written for this purpose):

Coloured glass destroys all hatred at last.

From Bruno Taut:

The Glass House has no purpose other than to be beautiful. It is intended purely as a structure for exhibition and should be a beautiful source of ideas for “lasting” architecture but is not itself intended as such. According to the poet Paul Scheerbart, to whom it is dedicated, the Glass House should inspire the dissolution of current architecture’s far-too-restricted understanding of space and should introduce the effects and possibilities of glass into the world of architecture. May it, in its own way, help to foster a transformation of building toward the light and grace that it currently sorely lacks. (101)

Bruno Taut glass housebruno taut glass housebruno taut glass house

Bruno Taut also designed a set of glass building blocks, useful for imagining the future.

bruno taut dandanehDandanah — The Fairy Palace. They are beautiful, and probably the same colour palette he used for the Glass House.

I want them.

Scheerbart wrote fiction as well, some of which I have to hunt down in Mark’s boxes, but in this volume he writes a glass adventure or two for the Baron Munchausen to relate, though even the Baron himself lacks words to describe the wonder of the Chinese exhibition of glass he visits over a period of days.

Next I saw the Tiffany glass hall.
I looked back out.
Moonlight again!
And the stars are mirrored in the mirrors.
One almost begins to understand infinity. (202)

Paul ScheerbartI think my favourite piece in this book was Perpetual Motion: The Story of Invention (1910). A journal of invention, continual exaggerated hopes for the world’s transformation and a just as continual failure in making this contraption of wheels obtain perpetual motion through gravity.

The exaggerations come in imagining to what uses such energy generated could be put to…

13 January 1908
Building canals in the Sahara could make the whole desert futile.
And in general, if one could instruct all the rivers on Earth to adopt advantageous new courses, a tremendous increase in terrestrial fecundity could be achieved.
In other words: Desert culture on a grand scale.
Compared to this, the Panama Canal is a bagatelle.
***
There’s something dilettantish about always needing to see everything brought to fruition in reality.

and then

14 January 1908
Once–in former days–people used to move house.
Now–people can move mountains.

Paul ScheerbartThere is no limits to what the Perpets can do. The Martians clearly have them, as evidenced by the canals visible on their planet. Perpets can light up the earth for aeronauts (a foreshadowing of the dreams of glass houses). They can build the architecture park necessary for imagining the future using the Harz mountain range in its entirety. People will be able to go traveling carrying their gardens and livestock with them, and thus:

In the early phases, accordingly, we’ll have to reckon with the dissolution of our various fatherlands.

Things will also take a curious turn where languages are concerned. But I certainly hope that the culturally most significant languages can be preserved.

The German language must be saved in any case, otherwise my books will become utterly incomprehensible. And that would drive me stark raving mad. (215)

Then Scheerbart goes on to wonder if given a life of complete ease and plenty, people will become imbeciles…he hopes instead they will turn to astronomy, and plans observatories the size of cathedrals. There are pages of worry over the inevitable negative impacts on literature and theatre when suffering is erased.

After all, the Age of Satire has not yet come to an end. (217)

He is obsessed with motion:

11 February 1908
A garden with rearrangeable parts.
Transportable hedges.
Transportable terraces.

The economy will crash as labour becomes unnecessary and money becomes worthless.

Financial institutions are institutions with which, strictly speaking, I am utterly unfamiliar. If, however, my wheel works, I shall make their acquaintance. But–this acquaintance will not not be a pleasant one. (235)

Pride in work will have to disappear with work itself, and so will the Social Democrats. Belief in God will also disappear, to be replaced with religious awe. The earth itself might seek to follow its heart’s desire, escape its orbit and go off into the universe (the subject of one of the short stories).

Brilliant.

But wait, I think perhaps what I actually loved most of all was the ‘Gallery of the Beyond.’

As is generally known, it is only in the twentieth century, according to our accounting of time, that microscopic study of the photographic plates provided by the great astronomical observatories has begun to yield some results…This much is already certain: the plates taken in the region of the heavens near Neptune, an area characterized by a remarkable brightness, present new views of our world that are nothing less than exhilarating–that these are cosmic images can no longer be doubted. (283)

These views show amazing component creatures, with their cometlike limbs. I think this particular creature was my favourite, I am jealous of someone able to hang it on their wall.

Paul ScheerbartHere is another:

Paul Scheerbart

No, I cannot choose a favourite. I can’t at all.

I quite love Scheerbart. I didn’t get as much from the many essays of scholars and artists sprinkled liberally throughout this volume, but Scheerbart is enough, is he not?

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