Since the time creatures began walking on two legs instead of four, these fearless leaders have been trying to find order in the world around them. And if they cannot find the natural order, they impose order. In the history of humans building things, it was decided at some point that architecture, as one of the higher artistic and progressive ideals of Man, should rival and dominate nature.
Consider the story of the Tower of Babel from Christian and Jewish tradition, where the peoples of the Earth decide to make a name for themselves by building a city and erecting a structure whose apex would touch the heavens.
They began to build the tower from brick and mortar (I’m guessing it was the idea of the ruling class; slaves did the actual construction). This act of hubris annoyed God so much that he made everyone speak different languages, and the project was abandoned. If you have ever been on a modern-day construction site, you can still feel the shockwaves.
The Industrial Revolution changed the face of the world. Before modern manufacturing, designers created great soaring structures with custom details that travelers venture thousands of miles to visit to this day. A home was a reflection of its occupants’ refined tastes. Unfortunately, the enjoyment of fine architecture was the province of the Elite; the peasants just built it.
With mass manufacturing, the finer things in life were available to more people at a discounted rate. Never mind that these things were more standardized and lower quality. Aesthetic thinkers who worried about stuff began to bite their nails as they gazed into their crystal balls, predicting a bleak future for artistic design.
Movements began to pop up that rejected uniform standardization. Art nouveau spread like a virus, infecting art and architecture with leafy swirls and whimsical curlicues. The Art Deco movement brought lavish design and exotic materials back en vogue. Animal skins and rare wood decorated homes and theaters throughout Western Europe and the U.S., contributing to the conservation issues we know today (depletion of old growth forests, lion-killing, and all). The Arts and Crafts movement brought craftsmanship back to pottery, metalwork, textiles, and furniture.
But it was the Bauhaus school of art and design that had the biggest impact on the public and private architectural forms we know today. That minimalist chair you are wiggling in at the company meeting, the intimidating conference table the chair is parked under, and the modified cubist structure that contains you, the chair, and the table … all have roots in the German school’s design concept.
Wassily Chairs by Marcel Breuer
The school was founded by architect Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919. The Bauhaus was an attempt to reconcile art and functionality. Students took a crash course in design theory, after which they were relegated to one of the craft workshops, which included metalworking, cabinetmaking, weaving, pottery, typography, and wall painting.
In 1923, Gropius repositioned the ideals of the school with a focus on industrial design and mass production. When the school relocated to Dessau in 1925, Gropius designed the new building using steel-frame construction, an asymmetrical pinwheel plan, and other key elements that maximized space and efficiency, resulting in an iconic modernist structure that created a template for contemporary design.
Gropius’s successors Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe increased the school’s focus on architecture until the school closed in 1933 due to political tension. Many of the school’s most influential people fled to the U.S. during World War II. Gropius taught at Harvard; Marcel Breur and Joseph Albers taught at Yale. Moholy-Nagy, a former director of the metalworking studio, founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago.
Elsewhere in Europe, French architect Le Corbusier was forming his own contribution to modern architecture. His dedication to purism and functionalism are evident in his 1923 work Toward A New Architecture, which stated ” a house is a machine for living in” .
Le Corbusier had visions of mass-produced prefabricated houses, roof terraces, an open floor plan, and strips of functional horizontal windows lining the unembellished faces of buildings. With an almost fascist feverishness, Le Corbusier dreamed of “purging and cleaning” Stockholm with steel, plate glass, and reinforced concrete. Le Corbusier proposed plans to completely remake Algiers and Buenos Aires. The governments weren’t having it. Still, Le Corbusier’s vision lives on in urban structures and private homes.
Even luxury homes and hotels display qualities of openness, economy, and functionalism. It is nearly impossible, at least in the U.S., to find a piece of luxury real estate that doesn’t abide by the standards of functional modernism.
So what does Frank Lloyd Wright have to do with all this?
Maybe it is because his signature style is labeled “organic”. The residences and public buildings Wright designed early in his career used only local materials and raw wood in his designs, thus the organic. His single-story “Prairie Style” ranch homes were adopted so completely as the first true American style that one cannot go to a city in the U.S. and escape neighborhoods filled with hundreds of identical mid-century ranch style houses.
After dropping out of engineering school, Wright apprenticed with “The Father of Skyscrapers”, Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. Sullivan held to a motto of “form follows function”, rejecting the decorative ornamentation of European architectural styles. Sound familiar?
There is no doubt that “Fallingwater”, Wright’s 1930s terraced masterpiece built on top of a waterfall, is an American legend.
I just wish his technique was not meant to mimic the geometric forms found in nature. Or anyone’s technique, if they make this claim. I look outside and see twisted, gnarly branches, jungle dripping with vine, and curving waterways. Where I grew up, nature looked like serrated cliffs with teeth and rough, wild valleys. In the desert, I saw uneven hills of rolling dust, clumps of sagebrush like untamed hair. Everything asymmetrical, with no horizontal straight edges to be found.
Why must those who design our urban areas and contemporary mansions claim to embrace nature, especially with the recent declarations of fusing the in- and outside?
Why was copy after copy of the ranch house made until it was done to death? Now, copy after copy of suburban brick and wood frame sprouts up in new developments almost overnight. Ah, yes. Mass production. Unless you have a pile of money stacked up or venture far into the wilderness, it is almost impossible to find a home with true character, and forget our landscape of shopping plazas and office buildings! In a way, modernist functional design killed the art in architecture, paving the way for square houses where mechanized people get dressed and drive to square buildings and schools with square cubicles.
I don’t hate cities, or even skyscrapers. Only the rows of brown faceless buildings and dreary suburban tracts of houses all the same. Contemporary designers are finally bringing back some of the uniqueness to the urban landscape, little by little.
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