Monday, January 18, 2010

Alvar Aalto: The Functionalist Aesthete

Aalto:Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, 1967. Ratonal and aesthetic collision.

“The only possible factors and motives with which one can replace the old criteria are scientific studies of what people and society unconditionally need in order to remain, or better yet, to develop into a healthy organism.” Alvar Aalto

“In order to achieve practical goals and valid aesthetic forms in connection with architecture, one cannot always start from a rational and technical standpoint- perhaps even never.” Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto embraced many nuanced dualities throughout his career. He did not try to suppress the dual nature of the architect (the disparity between rationalism and the spiritual will). Instead he found a way to create spaces that served people on a very sensual scale, all the while being purely aesthetic about it.

Paimo Sanatorium 1929. Rational and playful elements on the facade of the patients wing. Plan showing separation of program.

An early example of this embraced duality can be found at the Paimo Sanatorium of 1929. The functionalist aspects manifest themselves in the shape of the building, which is splayed by function into very distinct entities where the main connecting element between the wings is the entrance lobby and the main vertical circulation. (This dissected building was no doubt influenced by Duiker’s Sanatorium) The locations of these separated functions of the building are arranged according to solar considerations as well as creating adjacencies meant to be programmatically logical as well as noise reductive. Exterior aesthetic functionalism is expressed in the banishment of ornament and the use of clean white walls. On a more human scale, the patient’s rooms are rigorously designed with an obsession for comfort and well-being. The windows and the placement of the patient’s bed were designed with strict solar consideration. The ceilings are painted in tranquil colors, and the light fixtures are designed for no glare. The list continues with; noiseless sinks, easy to open door handles and unfortunately, wardrobe cabinets that looked like coffins! Conversely, all of these designed elements, while achieving comfort, were ultimately dictated by aesthetics (I’m sure the coffin thing was a case of hindsight saying “what the hell was I thinking with that one?”). Aalto did what many master architects do, and that is design with the total union of aesthetics and function in mind. The more aesthetically functional elements of the Sanatorium include, multi-colored canopies, a sinuous front desk, a trademark kidney shaped entrance canopy etc. These elements weave through the building and prevent it from being a cold and truly functionalist space.

Villa Mairea. 1938.

As Aalto’s works progressed, the duality between aesthetic and function began to become clearer. In the Villa Mairea we see a logical orthogonal plan treated with elements of pure aesthetic delight. The plan is completely liberated at the swimming pond, which has the kidney shape again. This playful element, contrasted with more linear form, also carried a symbolic reference about the nature of the architect. The pond is meant to be the primordial element; early mankind dominated by nature. As the house leans to more functional/orthogonal realms the progression of man’s history in regard to his ability to control nature is manifested aesthetically. Aalto also used the idea of the egg and the full-grown being when talking about this metaphor. The interesting and consistent thing about Aalto’s buildings in his later work, is this clear contrast of an element that seems to be free and naturalistic (the head) set against and element of rigid rationality (the tail). My personal favorite example of this is the Seinajoki Library where the reading room is an undulating wave that plays fantastic games with light. This collides with the rational and more practical other functions of the library, which are housed in a rectilinear portion. Here, it also seems that a less practically demanding space, such as a reading room, is allowed more freedom and irreverence as compared to the more rigid demands of administrative offices and bathrooms.

Seinajoki Library Plan. 1963.

Aalto is a complicated architect and a difficult one to read. He seemed to belong to neither the camp of the modernists or to the camp of the spiritualists. He was not a Modernist because it seems the demands of abstraction did not interest him. He was not a Spiritualist or a “Biological” architect because his forms were not mastered by that metaphor either. He was a little bit of both, but his tendencies in the end always were dictated by aesthetics, which is only as arbitrary as particular individual taste. This is something that I don’t like about Aalto, this arbitrary element, although to his favor it seems that he acknowledged this, framed as a general problem of the architect, by inducing violent contrasts between freedom and restraint in his work and separating these differing elements like oil and water. Perhaps this is a more appropriate approach to the duality of the architect than the exaggerations of both the Rationalists and the Spiritualists. The dual demands expected of a master architect are clearly and symbolically seen in his work.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Rendering in Squint

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Epiphany of Mimetic Abstraction

FLLW:Johnson Wax Research Tower, 1944

“I believe in God, only I spell it Nature” Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright advanced an entirely new and revolutionary direction in the eternal concept of mimesis (the imitation of nature). Before Wright, mimesis generally took the form of ornamentation. Since the ancients, buildings have been clad in frozen homages to plant and animal life. The capitals of columns in Egypt imitated the lotus plant, just as the Corinthian column of ancient Rome imitated acanthus leaves. However, these buildings did not imitate nature in their basic form or construction. The use of masonry molded into an architrave, an arch, or a groin vault were evolutions in structure mostly unrelated from mimesis; they were merely a result of human ingenuity. Frank Lloyd Wright was the first to have large mimetic breakthroughs in regards to planning, form and structure. (One could argue for Antoni Gaudi and Viollet Le Duc, but their forms, while organic, were less mimetic and more alien.)

In the Ward Willits house of 1901, one sees an early example of Wright’s flowing pinwheel plan. The hearth stakes its place in the center of the house as the various rooms such as living, dining and kitchen protrude from it. The plan itself evokes a tree; the hearth being the trunk and the rooms being the branches. This is mimesis that goes beyond mere applied ornamentation. It is an intrinsic mimesis that uses the idea of the tree as an ordering device. Structurally, the use of the cantilever suggests a branch protruding from a trunk. The low hipped roof and the leading horizontal lines on the exterior contain a more abstract mimesis, evoking with their lines the uninterrupted and romantic vistas of the prairie. The prairie and the tree seem to be Wrights most imitated forms.

FLLW:Early Guggenheim Proposal

Structural and form-driven mimesis (almost unprecedented before Wright) shows up in further potent examples. Wright uses the shape of the lily pad for the dramatically slender interior columns in the Johnson Wax Building. The Hanna House utilizes the hexagon as a unit of design, effectively creating a beehive inspired residence. The Morris Gift Shop and early proposals for the Guggenheim suggest a nautilus shell. And perhaps most dramatically, the unbuilt proposal for the mile-high skyscraper in Chicago is designed structurally to be completely like a tree. The central core was to be the only supporting element, as the floor plates would protrude from it just like the branches off of a tree trunk. This trunk-core system sounds insane but was effectively utilized in the Johnson Wax Tower as well as Wrights only real built skyscraper, the Price Tower.

Sullivan: Van Allen Bldg. (Clinton, IOWA!) and FLLW: Willits Glass 1901.

So, Frank Lloyd Wright innovated on an entirely new level the way that architecture could imitate nature. Paradoxically, Wright was also one of the first architects to abstract himself from nature (as opposed to expressly imitating it). This can clearly be seen in his early stained glass work. Louis Sullivan created an entirely original and new form of decoration on the facades of his buildings, however for the most part they were still literal evocations of actual natural plant life. Frank Lloyd Wright’s early ornamentation was indebted to Sullivan’s, which can be seen in his terra cotta work at the Winslow House. As Wright develops his prairie style this direct mimesis of nature in the ornamentation begins to break down into distilled forms. FLLW abstracted nature for perhaps the first time in his early stained glass. The Willits House was the first important example of this stained glass work and is made up entirely of geometric forms completely abstracted from the true natural form that inspired them. This breakthrough was no doubt helped by Wright’s gift for pure geometric form, which he learned as a child with Froebel Blocks. One wonders to what degree this early abstraction of nature influenced the modern art movement particularly in Picasso’s discovery of cubism and Mondrian’s reductive distillations of the visible universe. Abstraction of nature found in Wright’s work goes beyond ornamentation by using aesthetic devices such as low horizontal lines and shallow hipped roofs to evoke the prairie in distilled form. Structurally, the metaphor of the lily pad and the tree with branches is also a highly abstracted concept and in no way aesthetically evokes the natural forms that inspired them. Which brings us back full circle: FLLW managed to evolve mimesis to a whole new level, while at the same time completely abstracting it. This is a true and interesting paradox found in Wright’s work. His contributions to mimesis, as well as mimetic abstraction, were paramount in influencing the modern age. Subsequent early Modernists would abstract themselves from nature to such a high degree their buildings no longer appeared to have anything to do with nature. This abstraction of nature combined with the mimesis of the machine heralded the bold forms of Modernism in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Left:FLLW: Coonley Playhouse Glass 1912.

Right: Mondrian: Trafalgar Square. 1939.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Tethered Magic Carpets: Frank Lloyd Wright and the Flotation/ Grounding Duality

Heurtley House by Frank LLoyd Wright. 1902 (Photo:Argitect)

“Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.” Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright was a master architect because he embraced the duality of architecture in two key ways (among many others). First he embraced the opposing concept of flotation/grounding in his buildings. Second, his buildings were directly inspired by nature, yet at the same time they projected a large degree of mimetic abstraction. In the history of architecture up to his time, Wright came closest and furthest from the concept of mimesis (imitation of nature).

Frank Lloyd Wright’s dual relationship with gravity can be seen clearly in the Heurtley House of 1902. Looking at the front exterior facade one can clearly see the roof and upper stories have a quality of flotation, achieved by the close repetitive banding of windows, the horizontal leading lines in the brickwork, and the low sloped overhanging roof. The separation of the lower part of the facade from the roof via the windows creates the illusion that the roof plane is hovering over the building. Wright uses these tricks of aesthetics to relieve us from the effects of oppressive gravity. Yet on the opposite spectrum, the ground floor uses aesthetic tricks in such a way to create an illusion of heaviness. Somehow, at the top of the building the banding of the brickwork helps reinforce the floating nature of the roof, but as one gets closer to the ground, the banding seems to visually settle into sedimentary layers until it gets to the stone base. The stone base is of a huge proportion, almost a foot tall, and truncated inwards, to create a feeling of heaviness and firm attachment to the earth. The overly large arched entrance exaggerates the weight that the arch is carrying above it. The tricks are quite effective in making one feel the building is firmly placed. This tension between heaviness and lightness is what makes Wrights facades so effective aesthetically, and psychologically. A person living in this house would simultaneously feel the stability and comfort of a grounded building, but not be overburdened by the effects of gravity. The one thing pinning the top of the house in place, at least visually, is the large fireplace poking through the top and center of the hipped roof. The hearth is the literal and figurative anchor of the home. The concept of mimesis can be inferred by relating the house to that of a tree. The trunk (hearth and base) grounds the tree and keeps it firmly in the soil, while the filigree of branches and their leaves (the floating roof) reach toward the sky in need of nourishment. The tree has the duality of grounding and flotation, and it is the most fundamental example of mimesis found in all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. These dual properties also carried a moral rhetoric. The trunk (hearth) embraces the values of hard work, tradition and discipline, while the branches and leaves (floating roof) speak of freedom, democracy, and progress.

Fallingwater by FLLW. 1935.

Another potent, and further distilled, example of this flotation/grounding tension can be found at Fallingwater. Here, Frank Lloyd Wright uses dramatic cantilevers that sprout from the center of the building and soar defiantly in the air above a small waterfall. The length of these cantilevers is where the drama really comes from. Almost the entire living room projects out unsupported over the creek. The floating elements of the building have a materiality of reinforced concrete clad in soft colored stucco with thin rounded corners. This gives them a dreamlike and abstract quality. The windows have leading lines in red, very streamlined, and from what I’ve heard, are Wrights response to the International Style. The opposing forces to the floating elements at Fallingwater are the grounding elements that firmly anchor the building to the earth. The grounding elements are exclusively made of roughly stacked Pottsville sandstone. The texture and color of the grounding elements are in direct opposition to the smooth floating elements. The rough-hewn sandstone appears as an ambiguous outcropping of the boulders it is built on. This ambiguity between what is architecture and what is nature is reinforced in the living room, where pieces of the boulder that the structure is built on pops up out the floor! The central core of the grounding element in the house is the hearth, which is the vertical stake that keeps the building in place. An interesting element of the hearth is the cauldron that is used for cooking. This cauldron has a swiveled hinge and rests in a niche carved right into the fireplace stone. This furthers the rhetoric that the grounding elements seem to be carved from surrounding nature as opposed to transcending them.

The effectiveness of the floating/grounding duality at Fallingwater is due to the extreme distillation of these two elements. To recap, the flotation elements are almost uniformly; horizontal, tan colored, smooth textured, and cantilevered. The grounding elements are almost uniformly: vertical, similarly colored to the surrounding rocks, rough textured, and densely supportive. The mimetic impetus for Fallingwater came from the local rhododendron plant which has leaves that project out horizontally, in direct contrast to its vertical stalk.

It was unrealistic of me to think that I could cover two major dualities found in Wright’s architecture in one single post, so I have decided to analyze Wright’s concepts of mimetic abstraction in the next essay. As for this essay, the grounding/flotation criteria can be applied when analyzing almost every single Frank Lloyd Wright building. This tension is what makes his buildings such an effective experience when one sees them in person. Photographs cannot pretend to do justice to an FLLW building in person. They have their own magnetic force.

It seems unfashionable this day and age to study Wright as seriously as the other major master architects, but he IS the most important architect in recent history, finding an incredible synthesis between the myriad dualities found in architecture. He is the harbinger of the aesthetic vocabulary of the modern age, and one must remember he was 15 to 20 years ahead of his time. Unfortunately, although he was influential, his aesthetic vocabulary was insular, and unique to just himself. Any other architect using his vocabulary would subsequently be accused of unoriginality (Bruce Goff), something that strangely does not happen as generally with other major modern figures such as Le Corbusier, Kahn, Gropius, and Mies Van Der Rohe. His buildings seem to suggest an alternate universe of architectural possibility.