Wednesday, April 29, 2009

[Pair]ing Down

Many modern buildings are a monologue. They do not respond to their context, environment, client, or even use. An outstanding example of this is Farnsworth House. It is inefficient in its environment, it is too exposed to serve a function as a house, and thus, along with other issues found within this structure, it does not please its client. There is no commodity and little delight to be found. Good architecture and design, that which fulfills commodity, firmness, and delight, is a dialogue with many factors, the most important of which is its context.

Mies van der Rohe believed one single form could transcend use and environment. “Virtually all of the buildings Mies van der Rohe designed after coming to the United States were prototypes, a few models adaptable to a wide range of uses. In essence, his buildings from this point onward were either tall vertical shafts of stacked levels or single horizontal boxes, most often containing a single universal space” (Roth 2007). These structures juxtaposed not only all before them and all around them, but also many functions a building should serve.

These buildings took a look at what a structure should be in the very literal sense. It was there only to function (though they did not always do this properly) and have form, not to be dressed up with the heavy surface decoration often seen before them. They had “connotations of egalitarianism, dynamism and technological expertise” (Massey 2001). They were machines for living within.

Near the end of his career, Le Corbusier abandoned much of his previous doctrine and returned to architecture having more of an abstraction of its use—therefore a concept related to its site more strongly seen by the visitor. The cathedral at Ronchamp, France, was a place of meditation, yet with its sweeping curves and colored glass also gives an air of celebration. Much of religion is both celebration and meditation, and this building captures that essence. For Corbusier, “Ronchamp was a symbol of the sacral element of life and not a specific creed” (Roth 2007) Here, light and shadow play a tremendous role, as “the brilliant whiteness of the rough stucco exterior is in the sharpest contrast to the dark interior” (Roth 2007). Here also, the duality of compression and release is used, as “When seen from outside, the curves seem to open out toward the landscape, but when experienced from within, they give a sense of compression and containment” (Roth 2007).

Modern architects at the time were concerned with the link between inside and outside. This is seen in the amount of glass utilized. “Philip Johnson… designed his own house… labeled the ‘Glass House’, as simple cube with four glass curtain-walls. The integration of inside and outside is complete” (Massey 2001). Le Corbusier found the outdoors to be important in the design of the cathedral at Ronchamp, as he “spent several days on the site in the ruins of the old chapel, sketching the profile of the surrounding forested hills” (Roth 2007), and in the design integrated “an outdoor chancel that faces a hillside sanctuary where large crowds can gather for worship” (Roth 2007).

Opposites often work together instead of against one another, as is assumed at first glance. They often enhance one another, and make the other better understood. They can coexist. Why cannot something be about both celebration and meditation at the same time—is not meditation, in some sense, celebrating the self? Is not a monologue a part of a dialogue? Without light there can be no shadow. So many times things are found to be literally abstract. It is when we look at these pairs of opposites as systems instead of forces against one another that they become important and fully understood.

Massey, A (2001). Interior Design of the 20th Century. London: Thames & Hudson.

Roth, Leland, M. (2007). Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Action Verbs

Every design movement is energized by something to become a movement. There must be a catalyst to expand its concept wide enough to be seen as a movement. For Art Deco, this catalyst was not only the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes from which its name is derived, but also, especially in the United States, Hollywood. Massey states, “The sleek surfaces of the Moderne and Streamlining were fully exploited by the American motion picture industry, for the Moderne style matched the buoyantly confident mood of inter-war Hollywood” (Massey 2001).

The lines, shapes, and motifs of the Art Deco were often shaped by the energized notion of machinery. Machinery also shaped the modern, “Inspired by a new machine aesthetic, the Modern Movement stripped away unnecessary ornament from the interior” (Massey 2001). The movement also embraced machinery shaping their products, hoping “to change society for the better… design for all” (Massey 2001).


Many modern pieces, thus, rejected the notion put forth by the Arts and Crafts movement—instead embracing the machine, which would allow what the Arts and Crafts had failed—good design reaching the masses. Interiors were composed of furniture composed by a machine. Also, the compositions of art pieces from different artistic movements had enormous impact upon architectural movements and ideas. One example is that of the De Stijl movement, which’s “emphasis on horizontals and verticals and the restricted color-scheme give visual unity to the exterior and interior of the house” (Massey 2001); “Rietveld’s Red/Blue chair of 1918 was one of the first expressions of this new aesthetic” (Massey 2001).


However, what is modern? To some degree, this can only be speculated. Is modern found in the technology of the building, or is it found in the aesthetics? Must it be a mixture of these? Is it really up to the individual viewing it, or the people utilizing it, or the architect designing it, or the builder building it? There are two moderns. There is the modern in the general sense and Modern as a distinct movement. Weston clears up the confusion well, stating, “Being modern means being up to date but being a Modernist is an affirmation of faith in the tradition of the new, which emerged as the creative credo of progressive artists in the early years of the twentieth century” (Weston).


Modern, in both senses, stretches over many styles and disciplines, Modernism being “the umbrella name for a bewildering array of movements—Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, Dadaism, Serialism, Surrealism—and ideas—abstraction, functionalism, atonality, free verse…. It affected all the arts and blossomed in different fields” (Weston).

quotes from Modernism by Richard Weston
Massey, A (2001). Interior Design of the 20th Century. London: Thames & Hudson.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reflections | Unit Summary

Every change that occurs, politically or technologically, reflects upon architecture and design. As things were rapidly changing, what is good design became an important question. A revolution meant a shift in the Roman style to the Greek. New technologies, specifically machines, allowed products to be quickly mass-produced. This also contributed to a mass immigration into cities from the surrounding rural areas.

Revolution yields revolution. When there are political changes, design also changes. This can be seen after the American Revolution, when our young country began changing the style of architecture and furniture. This was due to a desire to be different from England in every way possible and make a new mark on the world. Because the classical style still reigned, there was a shift from the Roman style adopted by England to Greek style buildings and furniture- going as far as to duplicate the furniture from images and pottery. One interesting thing that began to occur was that sacred-style buildings were used for secular purposes- including the mundane. A water treatment facility took the shape of a Greek temple complex. The classical style was manifesting itself everywhere, yet new technologies meant it was time for a change.

The development of iron changed things dramatically for architecture. Suddenly, structures could be built quickly. They also could be built with larger open expanses than ever before. New buildings types apart from the classical began to show up. These included conservatories, meant as another party place for the very wealthy to show off their goods; arcades, which provided the growing middle class with entertainment; and other structures such as train sheds. The development of trains and other information technology meant information and goods traveling much faster than they ever had in the past. As this revolution occurred, new exotic products were imported, and once again a revolution changes design. Most of the products were not, however, what the people of that nation or region would have, but would be Westernized. Eventually the question would arise whether or not it was right to place surface decoration from any culture but your own onto furniture and other goods. What was, then, good design?

Some people, such as William Morris, believed that good design constituted that projects should be handmade by skilled craftsmen, and that their products should be available to everyone. However, the products could not be made quickly and this mass-produced, meaning the price was high enough that only the wealthy could afford them. Thus, the Arts and Crafts movement in its true form never made its way to the common people—the ones for whom it was intended.

As technology evolved, the classical style structures no longer were appropriate—they neither reflected the technologies, nor could they contain them. While glass and iron helped with this, there was a need for a new style altogether—something not seen in the past. The burning of Chicago allowed a chance for this to happen. As the city was rebuilt, structures that looked unlike anything before arose—definitely apart from the classical structures found in New York. Between these two cities, there arose a race for height with the skyscraper, which was definitely different from anything found in architecture before.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


The main focus of this post will be on the trip to Monticello and Fallingwater, which was informational, inspiring, and loads of fun—just what a road trip should be.

monticello back

Both Monticello and Fallingwater were based on strong concepts, as good designs are. The concepts at Fallingwater were clear—there was a strong sense of compression and release, which supports the concept of public and private space by making a visitor not want to travel through the dark hallways with their low ceilings; it was a house for relaxation, thus the low ceilings were appropriate; and the focus was to be on the outdoors, not the inside. As a matter of fact, perhaps the overarching concept was to make the house one with its natural surroundings, if not improve upon them. The interior of the house has a great amount of stone, some of which, such as that around the fireplace, is actually a part of what was there when the house was built on the site. This also creates a sort of breaking of the boundary between inside and outside, since not only does most of the house have windows, which open to the outdoors, but also incorporates it into the interior carefully and distinctly. The concept of Monticello was to create a place of learning, relaxation, and entertainment. The concept of the architecture itself was to create a classical, Palladian structure.

fallingwater mossy rocks

The concepts for both structures tie into their roots. The root of Fallingwater is the landscape into which it is intently placed. For Monticello, clearly “a fine example of Roman neoclassicism” (Monticello), the roots are in classical European architecture and design, with American touches carefully throughout. American artifacts became a large part of the design, especially in the entrance hall. Also, Monticello was built from what was available on site as much as possible, making it seem more rooted into the place. Both Monticello and Fallingwater are placed firmly on their respective landscapes. Fallingwater interestingly seems both more and less to be so, since it is so well integrated into the landscape, yet juts out from it so daringly, and doesn’t even appear to stand on solid ground, but instead stretches out over a 30’ waterfall” (Fallingwater).

frames on the wall color

As has already been mentioned, compression and release were a major part of Fallingwater. This has its roots in Roman house structure. Monticello also roots itself in Roman house structure, having “a symmetrical floor plan where possible” (Roth 2007).

Fallingwater exhibits a specific congruence with its context. Also, its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, was careful to insure there was congruence in design throughout the structure, designing not only the building, but also all furniture inside. Congruence is obtained from an acute attention to detail, which is true not only of Fallingwater, but also of Monticello, where there is a feeling that everything has a place, no matter how many things there are.

jeffersons bed

The materiality of these structures, as with any structure, is what makes them what they are, both literally and figuratively. Monticello was built from it surroundings and by the people there as much as possible. The website for the house states, “The bricks were made at Monticello, as were the nails for the remodeled house. Most of the structural timber came from Jefferson's own land, while most of the window sashes were made in Philadelphia of imported mahogany. The window glass came from Europe. Stone for the cellars and the East Front columns, and limestone for making mortar, were quarried on Jefferson's land.” (Monticello). (Interestingly, today we are trying to make a return to this approach with a movement toward sustainability). Fallingwater also utilized the natural materials of its surroundings, specifically stone, and added to this concrete, glass, and metal. The use of glass and metal together to create open spaces had created a great impact on architecture.

In regard to the reading for this week and what was learned in class, the architecture and design of the 19th century showed little congruence in comparison to the past. There was a search going on to try to find what was right and what was new. New technologies that allowed information and goods to travel faster over greater expanses of space meant a bombardment of “new” ideas into, out of, and around the Western world. In the words of Eugene-Emanuel Violeet-le-Duc in Entertains sur l’architecture (2863-1872), “Must the nineteenth century, then, come to a close without ever possessing an architecgture of its own? Is this epoch, so fertile in discoveries, so abounding in vital force, to transmit to posterity nothing better in art than imitations, hybrid words without character and impossible to classify?” (Roth 2007).

Retrieved April 15, 2009, from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello Web site:

(2008). Retrieved April 15, 2009, from Fallingwater Web site:

Roth, Leland, M. (2007). Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

between silence + light

Out of the 19th and 20th centuries came many new technologies, leading to new techniques in building. New technologies mean new techniques. Among the most important developments is iron, which allows for grander, larger, more expansive buildings to be built. These structures could also be built more quickly. An example of this is London’s Crystal Palace, which was built quickly and later taken down, since the materials allowed for this. These buildings showcased and were inspired by new information, traveling quickly with goods and people on trains. In addition, “Items of household decoration, such as wallpaper, textiles and carpets were now being mass produced and purchased for the first time by a bourgeoisie who emulated their superiors with the furnishing of the formal drawing room” (Massey 2001).

Out of the growing industrialism and thus mass production of goods rose the question of craft. Many of these quickly mass produced products had a cheap look and feel to them, often making a space seem garish. Soon, the “aesthetic standard of the interior disturbed contemporary critics” (Massey 2001), and architects/ designers such as Ruskin and Morris developed a strong “rejection of mass produced furniture” (Massey 2001). Out of their desire for a return to hand-crafted goods came the Arts and Crafts, “The most important reform movement to affect the interior in the nineteenth century” (Massey 2001).

However, Arts and Crafts in its truest form was a language that could not translate to the masses. It was not because they did not wish to have the pieces, but simply that “good design… produced by men and women working creatively with their hands” (Massey 2001) was too expensive for anyone outside of the very wealthy. Therefore, well-made products were not for the general public, but instead kept relatively private in the homes of those who could afford them.

There are also the languages of the different design styles during this time. While some attempted to find a new way of saying things, others returned to the relative safety of Classicism, Roman and Greek Revival, as well as Gothic Revival. They were sometimes translated into the new materials and techniques available to suit new technologies, however, it was eventually found that old building types were often ill-suited to new technologies. In the various revival styles, the buildings were often copied and plopped into a new landscape, creating a somewhat virtual copy of an actual historical building.

There was also a growing separation between public and private. For those working in the new factories in the quickly growing cities, privacy in the slums they often lived in was scarce. For the wealthy, privacy became more integrated.

In regard to the trip taken this past weekend and the homes visited, the craft on both was of the highest degree, especially the time period of each taken into account. Fallingwater is stunningly crafted into its landscape, becoming part of it and perhaps improving up on it. Monticello took advantage of new crafts and inventions, including a crafty double door that closes both doors simotaneously. Also at Monticello, the building technique was that as much of the house be built from what was immediately available from the surrounding landscape as was possible. Fallingwater uses the technology of concrete reinforced with steel, creating daunting cantilevers. At Monticello, virtuality was achieved by the utilization of mirrors, skylights, and windows to achieve space and light. An outstanding example of a virtual effect from Fallingwater was the mirror effect in the guest house. At Monticello, there was on one level a very specific separation of public and private when it came to slaves and visitors, however, for the most part, privacy was a relatively new concept, though Jefferson took something like 1/3 of the house for himself. Fallingwater clearly divides public and private with dark hallways, as well as by having a guest house and by being so far from the city of Pittsburgh. Both structures use the vocabulary of their locale, speaking its language and adding some words to its dictionary. More on all of this next week!

Massey, A (2001). Interior Design of the 20th Century. London: Thames & Hudson.

PA | Summary

The National Gallery of Art is located in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capitol. Thus, it sits amongst many historical buildings, many of which are in a Classical Revival style. While the main building of the National Gallery of Art fits in well with the surroundings, while the East Building of the National Gallery of Art sits in stark contrast to the buildings around it, and perhaps has more to do with the way the land is structured around it.

As a gallery, it must not only hold artwork, but also meet certain needs for the artwork held within it, as well as hold people who come to view the artwork. The gallery rooms are quite dim, not allowing light damage to the pieces held within them. In contrast, the central atrium of the building is filled with light, due to its skylights and windows. This atrium also allows for a less crowded feeling when the building is at high capacity.

However, this building does not only hold art, but can be seen as a piece of art in itself. It utilizes triangles at every opportunity, from minute detail to large scale, as the building itself is a triangle. Even the panes of glass for the skylights are triangular. The triangle shape is used as portions of the façade jut inward, yet the exterior seems to remain relatively flat. The building is clear and straightforward, yet more intricate than it at first seems, building off of a solid concept.

As portions of the building jut inward, darker spaces appear on the otherwise clearly sunlit façade. This contrast of light versus dark is used strongly throughout the building. With this light and dark, there is a certain amount of compression and release that occurs. The visitor goes from the expansive outdoors into the entrance, which closes comfortably upon the visitor. Once inside, the building seems relatively dark, yet beyond this is the atrium, through which light pours from windows and skylights. Looking up, the lightness is broken by pedestrian bridges crossing the span, as well as a piece of artwork, which also utilizes the triangular form. As the visitor ventures to the galleries, a compression happens again. The darkness that occurs in the gallery rooms is to keep the pieces from light damage and to increase focus on the pieces by creating a more dramatic effect. As the visitor moves in and out from gallery room to the next, the well-lit, stone atrium acts as a sort of palette cleanser.

I.M. Pei’s East Building of the National Gallery of Art fulfills its purpose well. It stands out from its surroundings, just as the pieces it holds stand out from other works. It is special and intricate, yet plain, putting an emphasis on the artwork inside; and yet the complex simplicity of the structure is what makes it a work of art in and of itself. The building still looks contemporary (since not all buildings from the 1970’s do). But will it stand the test of time as the classical style buildings surrounding it have? Only hundreds of years will tell.