What Is Modern 7: A focus on the human condition

For some reason, Modernism for many people equates to soullessness, a life devoid of meaning. However, the opposite is true, at least for good Modernism. Part of the reason for this sense may come from Le Corbusier’s “An Architecture” (bastardized into “A New Architecture” by the American publisher). In his early Modernist (and extremely influential) tome, Corbusier famously wrote in 1923 that “a house is a machine for living in”, subsequently (and unfortunately) shortened to “a house is a machine”. This unfortunate shortening is unfortunate because people then assumed, without reading the book, that Corbusier proposed we turn houses literally into machines (and all the unsavory thoughts and gears that come with that proposal). That was not Corbu’s point.

Corbu’s point was that new technology, dominated by engineers and unshackled by design precedents, focused not on how things had been done before, but instead focused on the purpose of what they were designing and then optimized it to that purpose. In almost all cases, the designs accommodated the people they were intended to serve. Corbu noted that cars are machines for driving, that boats are machines for traveling, that sofas are machines for sitting, and that, indeed, houses are machines for living.

Having established that, he then proceeded to identify what makes a house pleasant to live in, independent of how houses had been designed before. In this, Corbu includes a “Manual of the Dwelling” enumerating his thoughts on a home:

Demand a bathroom looking south, one of the largest rooms in the house or flat, the old drawing-room for instance. One wall to be entirely glazed, opening if possible on to a balcony for sun baths; the most up-to-date fittings with a shower-bath and gymnastic appliances.

An adjoining room to be a dressing-room in which you can dress and undress. Never undress in your bedroom. It is not a clean thing to do and makes the room horribly untidy. In this room demand fitments for your linen and clothing, not more than 5 feet in height, with drawers, hangers, etc.

Demand one really large living room instead of a number of small ones.

Demand bare walls in your bedroom, your living room and your dining-room. Built-in fittings to take the place of much of the furniture, which is expensive to buy, takes up too much room and needs looking after.

If you can, put the kitchen at the top of the house to avoid smells.

Demand concealed or diffused lighting.

Demand a vacuum cleaner.

Buy only practical furniture and never buy decorative “pieces.” If you want to see bad taste, go into the houses of the rich. Put only a few pictures on your walls, and none but good ones.

Keep your odds and ends in drawers or cabinets.

The gramaphone or the pianola or wireless will give you exact interpretations of first rate music, and you will avoid catching cold in the concert hall, and the frenzy of the virtuoso.

Demand ventilating panes to the windows in every room.

Teach your children that a house is only habitable when it is full of light and air, and when the walls and floors are clear. To keep your floors in order eliminate heavy furniture and thick carpets.

Demand a separate garage to your dwelling.

Take a flat which is one size smaller than what your parents accustomed you to. Bear in mind economy in your actions, your household management and in your thoughts.

Although Corbu’s flavor of Modern is described as cold, he was truly a humanist, bending his theories at the knees to bow before humanity.

Corbu goes on, somewhat poetically:

Every modern man has the mechanical sense. The feeling for mechanics exists and is justified by our daily activities. This feeling in regard to machinery is one of deep respect, gratitude, and esteem.

Machinery includes economy as an essential factor leading to minute selection. There is a moral sentiment in the feeling for mechanics.

The man who is intelligent, cold and calm has grown wings to himself [blogger’s note: This is stated on a page with photos of airplanes.]

Men--intelligent, cold and calm--are needed to build the house and lay out the town.

In essense, what The Corbu is saying is that the machine ethic, that ethic of the purposeful engineer to design in a practical and cost-effective manner, needs to be brought into the design of our homes and cities.

However, Corbu recognizes that architecture is not simply cold and practical design:

You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces; that is construction. Ingenuity is at work.

But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good, I am happy and I say: “This is beautiful.” That is Architecture. Art enters in.

My house is practical. I thank you, as I might thank Railway engineers or the telephone service. You have not touched my heart.

But suppose that walls rise towards heaven in such a way that I am moved. [...] That is Architecture.

Although practical design can accidentally lead to beauty (see grain silos), it’s best not to leave beauty to accident:

Architecture is the skilful, accurate and magnificent play of masses seen in light...

Corbu went on to note that the Modern age, the transfer of people from rural to urban areas, from working in a field with family to working in a factory with the faceless, threatens family fabric which in turn threatens civilization. He noted that architecture at a home or city scale can be used to offset these threats, maximizing family interaction and interaction with nature, basic needs of our species. And he further noted that if these basics needs are not met we risk social unrest and the ruin of civilization.

With the exception of certain neighborhoods in California, especially in Los Angeles, and in certain places across the country for a brief period after World War II, Modernism in home design never really took off in the United States, although certain elements of it, the non-style elements, did. However, big business heartily embraced Modernism through Mies van der Rohe’s glass boxes, probably more because of the efficiency of costs than in concern of the human condition (lack of ornamentation and flexible space = cost savings). Because of this adoption, many people associate Modern with business. Shortly before our house was finished, an elderly gentleman pulled up in his Ford LTD, rolled down his window, and asked: “When will you be open for appointments?” Excuse me? I responded. “I need to get my teeth cleaned. Wondering when you will be open for business.” (He was goofing on me, but this discussion really makes us laugh because there’s a Modern house in South Austin we call “The Dentist’s Office”.)

In short, Modern is extremely accommodating to meeting the needs of the occupants. Depending on the skill and assumptions of the architect (and the budget of the client), success at meeting this goal varies, but Modern is intensely focused on designing pleasant spaces to live and work in. We are not forced to live as they did in the 1600s or 1800s or 1950s, Modern is about living as as we live now.

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