Saturday, February 27, 2010

Protection and Connection Part 1: Architecture's Dual Relationship with Nature

Richard Neutra: Chuey House

Since the beginning, protection from the elements was the initial motivation for the invention of Architecture. In the past this has been accomplished rather well with walls and sloped roofs. The walls of pre-modern structures were almost always load-bearing. This required them to have a certain thickness. This thickness also allowed the walls to serve as great insulators from temperature fluxes. Small windows allowed a glancing connection to nature. This need for connection as well as protection has been a vital duality in architecture since it’s beginnings. The use of small windows and light-filled courtyards allowed the benefits of nature to inhabit the dwellings while leaving the discomforting elements out.

In the Modern Era it’s evident that the desire for a closer connection to nature took root. The increased use of glass combined with the separation of structure from facade (Le Corbusier’s Domino frame) allowed this development to occur. For mainly spiritual reasons, the modern movement sought to blur the lines between inside and out. They sought to allow buildings to breath from under the weight of gravity. Architecture must protect, but beyond that the Modern Architects devised a number of tricks to give the illusion of free exchange between inside and outside. In this world of connection the wall disappears and the roof stands out as the main symbol of protection.

Connection Devices:

- Horizontal Thrust: The horizontal line is the line that goes along with nature. The vertical line declares its independence from nature. The emphasis of the horizontal can most clearly be seen in the early development of the Prairie Style by Frank Lloyd Wright. These early houses seek a connection with nature by blending into the horizontal countryside they inhabit. The house becomes less intrusive, less about being clearly man made, and more a part of their environment. From inside the low horizontal lines seen in railings and overhangs compliment the distant line on the horizon and include it as part of the aesthetic experience of the house. Naturally this would work best in the actual countryside where the horizon is uninterrupted. Prairie Houses in urban areas tend to lose this effect.

Mies Van Der Rohe: Farnsworth House demonstrating floor to ceiling glass and homogenous materiality.

-Floor to ceiling glass: The use of floor to ceiling glass is the most obvious and effective way to establish a visual connection between inside and out by foiling any obstructions of view. The perfect example of this is at the Farnsworth House. The true effectiveness of the glass must be experienced in person to understand just how open and connected the house is with nature. The only cues that there is any disconnect from the outside is in the perception of wind. One can see the wind whipping the tree, but one can’t feel or hear it. Well-cleaned glass goes a long way in establishing a kinship with nature in domestic houses to a degree unimagined even a hundred years prior.

-Homogenous use of inside and outside materials: When using large expanses of glass, the use of the same materials on the same plane in the exterior and the interior is very effective at creating the illusion of connection to the outside. There are many examples of this. The Farnsworth house, once again, uses travertine on the outside porch as well as in the inside living space. The rustic stone floor in the living room at Fallingwater seamlessly pours out onto the terraces.

MVDR: Project for a brick country house. The extension of walls.

-The extension of walls: Where an opaque wall abuts a large amount of glass, the extension of the wall to the outside creates an illusion of continuation from outside to inside. No built project can convey this idea better than the floor plan Mies Van Der Rohe drew for the Brick Country House. The plan is intentionally abstract to read, and the inside is difficult to distinguish from the outside. This is accomplished because the walls do not enclose space, they envelop around it, creating incidental room-like areas. These walls extend beyond their necessary edges and reach out into the landscape. They leave the impression of continuation into infinity. This is similar to what happens in Mondrian’s paintings: the lines slide past each other and beyond the painting implying a snapshot of an infinite condition. This outreach into nature is an embrace that invites nature to connect with the interior spaces.

Neutra: Kaufmann House showing the overhang of roof and disappearing glass.

-The overhang of roof: Similar to the extension of walls, the extension of roof into the outside can blur the boundary between inside and out. This technique is only truly effective when the overhang is flush with the interior ceiling. Richard Neutra’s houses are really good with the connective overhang. His most famous example of this roof projection can be found in his residence for Edgar J. Kaufmann (yes the same guy that commissioned Fallingwater). The floor to ceiling glass in the living room reveals an overhang that extends far beyond the glass wall. This effectively confuses the in/out boundary. Neutra’s use of beams on the roof that extend from inside to outside is also very effective in helping this illusion. Sometimes the beams continue beyond the roof and rest on thin columns. The columns are usually the same as the ones on the inside. All of these elements collaborate to create an embracing connection with nature.

Shigeru Ban: Curtain Wall House: Disappearing glass.

-Disappearing glass: Glass walls that can be slid away on tracks or sunken or raised like garage doors also quite literally break the connection between inside and out. As I’ve mentioned in the previous post, the Tugendhat House by Mies Van Der Rohe had glass that could roll into the floor below and completely disappear. Neutra’s Kaufmann House has giant floor to ceiling glass planes that can slide away from the edges, completely opening them up. To dramatic effect the literally titled Curtain Wall House by Shigeru Ban is a completely open house that has large curtains on the perimeter. These curtains can be opened so that the house is a complete exterior space with railings around the edges. The desire by architects to destroy the barrier between inside and out cannot be accomplished more effectively than simply doing away with walls completely!

FLLW: Second Jacobs House. The pool is the circle on the left of the glass side.

-The pool: Many modern architects have used a wading pool that is half indoors and half outdoors to reinforce the idea of connection with nature. The Second Herbert Jacobs House of 1944 by Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the earlier examples I am aware of. Here, a circular pool is situated on the facade so that one half is indoors and the other is outdoors. Lily pads and swimming fish contribute to the effect of connecting pools. The Nesbitt House by Richard Neutra actually predates the Second Jacobs House by two years and also incorporates a half-in half-out wading pool in the entryway. The single large pane of glass above the pool is effective in blurring the exterior division of this pool.

These are just a few of the many aesthetic devices used to connect architecture with nature. The protective element will not be discussed in as much detail as the connective elements because the Modernists were trying to deemphasize this. Protection is found primarily in the roof, which became abstracted and flattened into its essential nature: the boundary between sky and house. Architecture will always need to protect its inhabitants from the rain and the wind and whatever else Mother Nature decides to throw at us. Because of this I do not believe that the spiritual desire for the connection will ever completely conquer the pragmatic need for protection. Next post, I will explore how all of these techniques are incorporated in the work of Albert Frey. Until then, faithful readers.....

Friday, February 26, 2010

Country House Ad Infinitum

Mies Van Der Rohe's Project for a Brick C0untry House reimagined in infinte space. Image by Argitect.

Extend things beyond the necessary edge. This implies infinity. This implies the transient nature of being.

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.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Mullet Architecture: FLLW and Hans Scharoun.

FLLW:Winslow House Plan. 1894. Business in the front, party in the back.
Throughout history Architects have given clients the most bang for their buck by putting all the “architecture” on the street facade. This is done to show off to the public. The utilitarian needs of the building behind the main facade are clad functionally and without elaboration. Renaissance and Baroque Churches have grandiose front facades, many times larger than they need to be to project a massive building. The false front covers up an ordinary church behind it. This was also utilized in old west buildings, where simple gabled wood construction buildings had large, oversized fronts decorated and bejeweled in various ways. Even today this can be seen in any upper middle class suburb. The front of the house is clad in a brick veneer while the sides and back are covered in cheaper vinyl siding. This is what I call reverse mullet architecture. It is party in the front and business in the back. The duality of the building (that being the aesthetic thrust versus the utilitarian thrust) is distilled between front of the house delight to back of the house commodity. Only during the emergence of modernism did this duality shift. This antipode I deem Mullet Architecture. In this instance, however, it is not about delight and commodity, it is a reaction to the conservative eye of the time.

Winslow House: Top; Front Facade. Bottom; Back Facade

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Winslow House of 1894 is an early and potent example of Mullet Architecture. Wright designed the front facade of the house in a more conservative manner giving it symmetry and weight. The front entrance is clearly inspired by certain mausoleums Sullivan was working on at the time. The ornamentation as well is very much in the vein of Sullivan. So even though this is conservative by our standards of Wright, it was still deemed highly modern at the time. Even so, Wright’s truly revolutionary ideas about domestic architecture are subdued in the front of this house. Only in the back does one start to get an idea of where Wright was really headed. The back of the house, in marked contrast to the front, is asymmetrical in plan and elevation. The dining nook thrusts out into the backyard in a semicircle while the stair tower rises above the roof plain, like a castle turret, in the shape of a half octagon. These extruded basic geometries evoke the Froebel block teachings of Wright as a boy, but they also suggest the asymmetrical massing of Henry Hobson Richardson, another of Wright’s influences. In order to “blend” more clearly with the surrounding neighborhood, Wright played all of his fun games with architecture on the back facade of the house while keeping the front relatively subdued and orderly. It was strictly business in the front, while the party stayed in the back! This is building as duality, where sobriety and order dominate the front, playfulness and asymmetry dominate the back. It was just a matter of a couple years before Wright would abandon this conciliatory gesture towards the neighbors and really start on his revolutionary prairie style. Here the party would be all around in a pinwheel of asymmetrical projections.

Hans Scharoun :Schminke House. 1930. Before the Nazi's ruined everythihng.

A much more grim circumstance of Mullet Architecture can be found in the World War II era domestic work of Hans Scharoun. Unlike Gropius, Neutra and Mies, Scharoun stayed in Germany while the gauntlet of artistic freedom, especially of the Modernist idiom, was systematically and disturbingly dismantled by the Nazi regime. The Bauhaus was closed and book-burning campaigns tried to eradicate all things unpatriotic to the German Motherland. Modern Art and Architecture and its aim for a universal message were deemed un-German. A new era of nationalism steered the arts and architecture into the direction of traditional vernacular forms. Hans Scharoun had made many interesting Modernist designs before the Nazi rise to power, including a dwelling at the Weissenhofsiedlung, and, most notably, the Schminke house of 1930.

Scharoun: Front and interior view of the Mohrmann House. 1939.

Once the Nazi hammer came down, in the form of strict building codes, Scharoun was forced to make markedly more conservative designs for fear of being in trouble with the powers that be. On top of this, the war effort needed steel, so Scharoun was required to build with more traditional masonry. It must have been a terrifying time for the architect. The artist in him found ways to subvert these stringent aesthetic requirements. The Mohrmann house of 1939 has a gabled front facade that looks like a quaint little cottage. It is business in the front. In the back however, we see the irreverent freedom Scharoun found on the private facades of his houses. The back of the house is clearly asymmetrical. The walls are at all kinds of strange angles. Even in section, the house is split up in many different levels. The flooring in the front part of the house is traditional hardwood, while the living portion in the back is floored in various sized shards of stone pieced together like a broken plate. Scharoun justified these seemingly arbitrary planning effects as being influenced towards maximizing the land and the views of the specific location. More interestingly though is the contrast that these wild angles have with the front facade. The front gives no indication of what’s happening in the back.

Scharoun: Baensch House. 1935. Front Facade. Floor Plan. (entry in orange)

My favorite example of this Mullet Architecture by Scharoun is the Baensch house of 1935. Here again the front is very conservative and meant to look like a traditional vernacular German cottage. In the back the building positively explodes in myriad angle, and curved surfaces. Another interesting thing to point out is his use of glass. The front of the house consists of the traditional windows punched into thick stucco, while the back opens up floor to ceiling glass views out to the private garden. In the living room, a convex built in couch thrusts one out into nature. Scharoun also seems to deconstruct the building itself as it meanders towards the garden side. The ordered brick walls terminate on the garden side into crumbling serrated edges. This suggests the building going from order to chaos, as well as an attempt to integrate the building with nature via an aesthetic transition. It is also disturbing in imagining that Scharoun probably had experience with bombed fallout cities during WWI. These buildings show practical, and scary, reasons for creating architecture with a duality about it. The Mullet architecture was essential for Scharoun to keep practicing during the Nazi era. After the war Scharoun abandoned his false facades and went further in his direction of organic building, with seemingly chaotic angles that suggested a strictly programmatic agenda. His buildings went where they wanted to now that they were free from the Nazi stranglehold.

Baensch House. Deconstructed Walls.

Mullet architecture was the reversal of the traditional way of making buildings. Buildings today are increasingly more driven to fit into the contexts in which they inhabit, in such a way that Mullet architecture may still have justification in certain locations. Some building codes in America, in the name of “beautification” sound almost as stringent as those laid out by the Nazis. I sure hope somewhere, in the sea of McMansions, a quaint Mullet building sits with an unassuming conservative front and a party in the back!