People tell me that I dress rather sloppily. I’m not that guy with the crisply ironed trousers and perfectly knotted tie, and it was only when I started to study architecture that I realized why.
Nothing sets me quite on edge as much as things that aspire to be perfect but fall short. Crisp trousers? What about that microscopic fray at the bottom right corner of the left pant? And that tie? The little tail is sticking out just enough to make me want to take a pair of shears to it. The desire to attain perfection inevitably magnifies the ways in which the aspirant falls short, in a kind of asymptotic frustration.
This, for me, was the ultimate failing of modernism in architecture and design. An architecture of purity? Designing with purity in mind in a fundamentally impure world is idiotic. And whether this purity is in concept, form, or physical execution is irrelevant. The best architects understand that we live in a conceptually, formally, and physically messy world.
Architecture requires elasticity, in concept and particularly in materials. Rigidity and singular interpretation detract tremendously from the success of a project, which should be more experiential than psychic.
In his brilliant Mon Oncle (1958), Jacques Tati explores the difficulties in living in a Modernist world, where post-industrial manufacturing and reproduction lead to spaces (he primarily looks to the domestic) that are inhospitable to the charms and lifestyle of the traditional class. The main character, Tati’s signature Monsieur Hulot, is constantly trying to spend time with his nephew, whose upper-middle class, corporate parents are the guardians of a cartoonish Modernist kingdom.
While Hulot, who lives in an old stone building in a typical provincial town center, stumbles about, ever the antediluvian buffoon, it is his sister and her husband that perform the hysteria of partial disorder, running around trying to mediate and tame the increasingly out of control level of minimalism and malfunctioning technology they’ve surrounded themselves by.
The most touching moments of the film occur when their son and Tati are scolded for trying to live, rather than subjugate themselves to their environment. Those scenes remind me of Zaha Hadid’s response to the reception of her Z.Island, a kitchen so obviously meant for the “warm takeout in your spaceship microwave” set that even the designer herself told a roomful of fans and press that she wouldn’t know how functional it was as she doesn’t cook much. Classic. The kitchen itself could have been a prop of the film; in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if Mon Oncle was its inspiration.
Now more than ever, evidenced by designers like Hadid, contemporary designers more concerned with the Next Big Thing than with functionality are descendents of Modernists like Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Purity and concept trump usability, and innovation is only thought of in terms of complexity. I recently went to an exhibition of young architects showing new architectural materials that confirmed that this mentality has been unfortunately and effectively passed to the next generation of designers. The materials were slick, and were all derived from synthetic polymers with more syllables than are altogether reasonable. Tellingly, imagining them in terms of application was difficult and disappointing. Like the glass houses and urban plans from the mid-20th century Modernists, these materials would, metaphorically, crumble if they were to crumble. There is no ability to accommodate wear, and any mistakes in detailing are instantly noticeable and cringe-worthy.
Unfortunately, in addition to serving theory, many architects design more for photographers and magazines than the client. Pictures of buildings like Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House (pictured at right) or Philip Johnson’s Glass House, or any of the high-gloss enameled and plastic architecture of the present reveal that these buildings perform for the camera. Anyone who has visited any of these sites knows that what you get is quite different, and can be quite disillusioning.
Accepting a certain kind of disorder and natural decay are paramount to good design, particularly in architecture, and it is the concern of an ever-decreasing number of designers. It leads to the kind of buildings that age with grace and evolve with time—not those whose illusion is so easily shattered. It’s sad to see that such obvious and accurate criticisms such as Tati’s, articulated fifty years ago, have fallen on such deaf ears.