Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mullet Architecture Part II: Glass and Privacy

Tugendhat House Frosted Glass Entrance Stair: MVDR

Mullet architecture emerged in the twentieth century for other reasons besides the necessity of hiding architectural flights of fancy from an intolerant and conservative public (For more information on this topic refer to the previous post on Mullet Architecture). Before Modernism, buildings tended to be very bulky and made of masonry. Windows were intermittent and mostly minor interruptions in an opaque facade. This allowed for optimum privacy, especially in private dwellings. As the 20th Century progressed, glass, concrete and steel replaced masonry as the major materials for building. This increased use of glass allowed for buildings to have a closer connection with the outside world. The downside to this liberal use of glass, especially in residential architecture, was the lack of privacy it garnered. The solution that many modern architects developed was a kind of mullet architecture, where the building was suppressed, guarded and uninteresting on the public side (business) while the backside was an open and free glass facade that engaged a private view (party).

Many architects embraced this hermetic sequestered front facade approach when using increased glass. It is almost a complete reversal of the rules of architecture in the past, wherein a buildings main aesthetic delights were relegated to the front public facade. Here the roles are reversed. The individual’s comfort and privacy take precedence over showing off to the public and creating a status symbol.

MVDR: Court House Projects. Sketch and plans.

The early court house (houses with courtyards, not places to go for traffic violations) projects by Mies Van Der Rohe were an interesting early example of mitigating increased glass use and a desire for privacy. The exterior walls of the houses are floor to ceiling glass. These glass houses are surrounded by spacious gardens that terminate in high opaque masonry walls. These “extension” walls create the privacy from neighbors. Indeed the only thing a person would see on the sidewalk is a tall bland brick wall. These bounding walls also help with the blurred illusion of inside and out that Mies and most modernists were interested in. So the delight and the interesting architecture are hidden from public view. Business in front, party in back indeed.

Tugendhat House: MVDR. Party in the back, business in the front!

Of Mies’s early built works, the Tugendhat House also uses the concept of privacy driven Mullet Architecture. The house itself is on a hill. The front side is on the high end so the house only appears to be one story. The front is mostly white plaster with high clerestory windows and frosted glass. These elements in the front keep it very private, almost unwelcoming. The backside is a different story. The facade is floor to ceiling glass that actually, and ingeniously, is mechanically devised to slide into a hidden pocket and completely disappear. The connection between inside and out is dissolved! This open facade is a vast difference from the opaque front. At about the same time in Los Angeles Richard Neutra was employing the same Mullet Architecture effects to the Lovell Health House of 1929.

Richard Neutra: Lovell Health House

FLLW: Herbert Jacobs House

About the same time Frank Lloyd Wright was also increasing his usage of glass, which in turn required a heightened need for privacy. The development of the Usonian House was realized with the prototypical Herbert Jacobs House (in my opinion the best example of a Usonian House). This house is an L-Plan that opens up to a private high fenced garden in the back. The back facade in the living area is composed mostly of floor to ceiling glass doors that can be opened, thus destroying the barrier between inside and out. The front facade, containing an inconspicuous entrance, a carport, and the utility core is a very hermetic facade, the only windows being high clerestories. The old way of creating a beautiful street facade as a status symbol is gone. The modern dwelling is interested only in the privacy and enjoyment of its tenants. Showmanship no longer is a priority. A further distilled Mullet House can be seen in the second Herbert Jacobs house. This so called “Solar Hemicycle” is an arch shaped wedge that derives its shapes according to the movement of the sun. The south, and private, concave facade is all glass and the north convex facade is brutal stonework that resembles a medieval castle. Nowhere is privacy driven Mullet Architecture more clearly articulated. The duality of domestic architecture is found in the need for freedom and privacy.

Herbert Jacobs House II: The bermed and uninviting back.

Ando: Azuma House

Glass is still a common material used in domestic architecture, so in heavy urban areas the need for a private front and an open back is the norm. There are countless examples of this new paradigm of architectural approach. The houses of Tadao Ando are a perfect example of privacy derived Mullet Architecture. Ando uses his characteristic dimpled concrete as an imposing privacy screen. The back facades are often huge uninterrupted expanses of glass. (Although I guess one could argue that Ando’s dwellings obsess to an exaggerated degree the notion of privacy) The juxtaposition of pure glass and pure concrete in his work is perhaps the mot distilled example yet of the duality of architecture in terms of privacy and freedom.

Final Note: The Farnsworth by Mies Van Der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s glass house clearly do not fit into the category of Mullet Architecture. Privacy in these buildings is created by the fact that the houses are situated in secluded and gated areas. They are surrounded by trees and set far back from the road. So one could make an interesting argument about the extension of architecture reaching to the front gate of a property. The front gate then, in these examples, would be the sober and private business yin to the glass freedom party yang of the houses. Architecture is just like the layers of an onion. One could go as deep into the core as arguing that skin is architecture, just as one could go as far as arguing that our atmosphere is architecture. But, I am getting ahead of myself here.

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