How to avoid the mistakes of Modern architecture

4 August, 2011

I’ve been thinking about architecture, prompted by watching Grand Designs and reading this thread.

I don’t want to go into a long rant, so I’ll just state some basic principles which underlie my tastes:

Architecture is not sculpture. We’ve been sold a bill of goods as far as “human”, “playful” postmodern architecture is concerned. A provocative sculpture is not the same as a good building. I call these things “gimmick buildings”; they are amusing in the short term but banal and annoying in the long term – and the long term is what architects should be thinking of. In fact, in practical experience, these are generally bad buildings. You can’t make a comfortable home out of a concept, however “visionary” that concept may be. (Nor can you redeem a Modernist box by pasting a sneering caricature of a past style over the facade.)

Modernism was wrong. Critics and defenders alike of Modernist trends usually overlook that Modernism was an intellectual trend imposed across society, not confined to any one area of life. The Modernist impetus to wipe out the “redundant” past, and create superior new forms from nothing except abstract ideology, is visible in Communism (and, disguised, in Fascism), architecture, music, writing, education, etc., etc. A few worthy creations labelled Modernist do not justify the eradication and derision of all the old ways; we see that the best of culture usually arises from organic development, and not by reinventing the wheel.

Flat roofs are stupid. Unless you are building in a place with NO precipitation (and with no massive duststorms), flat roofs are impractical, expensive to keep up, and more liable to fail disastrously. (They also often are eaveless, so that modern “pure” box buildings are streaked with grime from the run-off, and in hot countries the lack of eaves means you use more energy keeping the interior cool.)

Doors are for closing. Sure, you may feel, in some hippyish way, that living without the artificial barriers of doors and walls will lead to some sort of freeing of consciousness, spiritually and politically and environmentally. But do you really want your kids to hear you fucking (or you to hear them) from the other side of your open-plan communal dwelling? Do you want to smell someone frying garlic while you are having a shit (or, God forbid, vice versa)? Do you want to try figuring out the household finances while listening to the kids playing on the X-Box and the spouse watching a movie? The invention of the door was one of the major events of civilisation, because it was a revolutionary machine for keeping bad air (and predators) out, maintaining a comfortable temperature, and getting silence and privacy in which to think for yourself. Don’t throw that gift away.

Windows have consequences. Just in the last year or two, a new building went up at Sydney University which is basically a glass box suspended in the air. It will cost a FORTUNE to keep cool in summer, and warm in winter. The advantage of this design? Well… I suppose it’s cheaper to build a giant greenhouse than to drop a billion dollars worth of gold bricks into the ocean. There is that. Oh, and, of course, it has a flat roof.
The opposite approach is also used – great concrete bunkers (often university libraries) with tiny slits for windows that are practically useless, and make the occupants feel like prisoners.
This is also the place to mention that great hypocrite Mies van der Rohe, who berated his clients for installing curtains or blinds in their windows, which should have been kept pure and bare, and meanwhile, in his own home, Mies was surrounded by bourgeois chintz.
Nowadays, many commissioners of domestic fish tanks architecture have drunk the Kool-aid, and, like self-flagellating monks, willingly expose themselves to the glare of the sun and the gaze of their neighbours, all in the cause of Modernism. As with open-planning (see “Doors are for closing”, above), it seems that Modernists regard the desire for privacy as something shameful. Like Victorians trying to prevent masturbation, Modernists are horrified at the thought of a person going about their business without the constant supervision of their family or co-workers or neighbours or random passers-by. What have you got to hide?!? Take all the doors off their hinges, confiscate all blinds and curtains. Be Healthy and Clean and constantly visible to all. I suspect all this enforced openness has a deleterious effect on the psyche.

Apart from the above approaches to avoid, here are some positive suggestions:

Subtle ornament. All the great buildings of the past use elegant, repeated motifs to make them seem organic and alive. However, please note the word “subtle”. Giant flashing lights installed at one metre intervals across a bare concrete plane are not subtle.

Regularity, but softened. The human eye loves symmetry and regularity, but this should not be overdone. Patterns of regular repeating features should be occasionally broken up with an element that complements, not contrasts, the overall scheme.

Human scale. Low ceilings and narrow corridors are oppressive, because the person feels confined and restricted; towering ceilings and huge doorways are also oppressive, because the person feels dominated and lost. If you are a human being, you will know what the happy medium looks like. Apply that to your buildings. Remember that the ratio of height to width determines scale, but the amount of light in a space is also an important factor.

Sun and shade in 3:2 proportion. This is a rough ratio for designing outdoor spaces, so that people can shelter from the elements (and not feel exposed like ants on a rock) without being mired in gloom. For indoor design, I’d suggest reversing the ratio – certainly not exceeding it, because a degree of shadedness makes people feel safe, and this shouldn’t be sacrificed to an abstract notion of “openness” (see also the above section “Doors are for closing”).

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