In the middle of last winter the editors of the Russian version of Interni approached us with a mini-questionnaire on modernism and rationalism. Our answers would be combined with the responses of a few other firms to make a kind of history of modernism from the eyes of contemporary practitioners. We sent off our answers and in December the issues was published. We haven’t got our copy yet, but thanks to the magic of flickr and the internet we were able to get a glimpse, which i am sharing here.
Unfortunately, we don’t read Russian but love the look of the magazine, and we are delighted to be included in it again.
While it would be difficult to say with a straight face that we actually improved the content in any way, below is an abbreviated version of their questions and our answers, in English. The intent of the editors was to make a picture book of sorts and so we were asked to sprinkle references to built projects as touchstone to our text. This gives the text an unusual flavor, but was awesome to finally confirm all those history courses in school would actually be put to use someday!
Interni – How would you explain rationalism (modernism) to your children, co-workers, or clients? What building would you consider the best and earliest manifestations of its principles?
Us – The way we were taught the subject Rationalism in architecture began as an theory where the starting point was function – everything designed, and everything built, was supposed to be useful. In hindsight it is pretty clear that when it comes down to it the actual measuring and value-ing of function is next to impossible with any subject that requires human participation as much as architecture deos. Let’s face it, it is a nearly impossible task, unless the definition of usefulness is made artificially narrow. Which is probably why modernism took on a fetishistic air in the end, and persists today mostly as that highest art of fetish delight, namely with minimalism.
At its best functionalism transformed engineering into art, converting necessity into beautiful form, like the tubular steel chairs of Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand (for example the B306 Chaise Longue, 1926). At its worst it treated human experience – the need to touch materials and to experience architecture as inhabited space – as irrelevant. In the case of the latter, architecture was simplistically reduced to the plan, and repeated ad infinitum, with powerful negative costs to society.
However, for us the movement, as a historical precedent only became interesting when it shed its overt ties with classicism and accepted the possibility that the idealism of symmetry and hierarchy were neither rational nor functional, even not particularly necessary. The most obvious example of this approach can be seen in Gropius’ Bauhaus in Dessau (1925). (1925). For us a favorite example is also seen in the work of Mart Stam, for instance at the Weissenhofsiedlung (1926), and the Van Nelle Factory (1927), and Mies van der Rohe’s early work, such as the Tugendhat House in Brno (1930).
Interni- About a hundred years have passed since the idea of rationalism was conceived. Is it still an issue today, when technology makes every thing possible and common taste does not seem to reside in mere decoration anymore?
Us – Early Modernists/Rationalists wrote about design in a scientific way, treating it as though it were merely the process of responding to a correctly formed question. The job of the architect was to pose the right questions – and the answer, in the form of a design, would then be automatically “correct”.
That aspect of rationalism is still part of architectural practice today, though it has clearly evolved. The role of function in particular is now more easily understood as part of a narrative, rather than as an explicit goal. In fact, in its current incarnation rationalism separates function and form entirely. This means that FORM DOESN’T FOLLOW FUNCTION and the argument for the correctness of a design is no longer attached to what it looks like, but is instead entirely grounded in what it DOES.
Some of the clearest examples of this approach are on display in the work of hyper-rationalists Rem Koolhaas/OMA and MVRDV, as well as the Japanese architects Ryue Nishizawa and Kazuyo Sejima. In particular OMA’s Seattle Library, MVRDV’s PIG CITY, and SANAA’s 21st Century Museum of Art come to mind. In each of these works the aesthetic is powerful but entirely separated from each building’s argument for organization (either in plan or section). As such they are perhaps the ultimate evolution of the modernist project.
Ironically, while Rationalism became possible in the last century because of the new capacity for mass production, today’s technology offers the opportunity to be irrational without being inefficient. Because of computer aided technology standardization is no longer a pre-requisite for efficiency. In that sense the future of Rationalism may look entirely whimsical, as in the structure for Foreign Office Architect’s Ferry Terminal in Yokohama (1995-2002), Diller and Scofidio’s Eyebeam gallery (2001) or MVRDV’s Hannover pavilion (2000) and still be perfectly logical. Architecture has become incredibly interesting in the last few decades because while we all tend to focus on what buildings look like, such concerns are finally almost irrelevant.
Interni – Rationalism lead to new types of buildings – factories, clubs (especially in Russia) and skyscrapers. What new types of building appeared in the last century?
Us – The ultimate icon of the last century may very well be the shopping mall. Clothed in comfortable aesthetic wrapping it is nonetheless a new form of uncompromising rationality. As a building type it has taken on ever more power, becoming not only a receptacle for shops, but now also the locus for urban revitalization. Examples include Almere’s city center master-plan by OMA ( 1999 – 2007), and Birmingham Selfridges store by Future Systems (1999).
Interni – New ideas often led not only to a new round of progress, but also to some new disasters. Did the rationalism in architecture cause any wrong, harmful after-effects? What examples illustrate these effects?
Us – The ubiquitous reductive housing blocks, built all over the world, from the 1950s to 1980s is the obvious example that comes to mind. While there is nothing inherently wrong or inhuman about this kind of housing typology, exemplified with places such as Pruitt-Igoe in the USA (Yamasaki, 1951), the possibility for failure seems to increase when rationality is substituted for creativity in architecture. This is especially true when the definition of usefulness does not include human comfort, nor delight. The place of humanity is at the center of architecture, and the worst of “Rational architecture” ignores this, or assumes it is simply not so.
And here is a glimpse of how they put it all together.